ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons have their highest pick in the NFL draft since they selected Matt Ryan out of Boston College at No. 3 in 2008.
Will they follow the same path by choosing a potential franchise quarterback Thursday night?
Coming off a dismal 4-12 season and now led by a new coach (Arthur Smith) and a new general manager (Terry Fontenot), the Falcons are one of the most intriguing teams in the draft with the fourth overall spot.
A dazzling class of quarterbacks, led by projected No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence, has left Atlanta with a decision that could affect the direction of the franchise for the next decade or longer.
Do they pick the 35-year-old Ryan's eventual successor — likely Trey Lance or Justin Fields — even though that player is probably going to spend at least a season or two on the bench? Do they pick someone who can help right away, such as tight end Kyle Pitts? Do they trade down to acquire extra picks that can be used to rebuild a roster ravaged by the salary cap?
Former scout Daniel Jeremiah, now a draft analyst for the NFL Network, projects the Falcons will select Lance — a tantalizing prospect from Football Championship Subdivision power North Dakota State — if they don't make a trade.
"I don't know that that roster is ready to win a Super Bowl right now," Jeremiah said. "If I'm looking at the long term for the organization, what's the best decision, for my money it would be to take Trey Lance or Justin Fields and have that next guy."
It's not quite that simple, though.
Ryan is still highly productive (he threw for 4,581 yards and 26 touchdowns last season), extremely durable (he has missed only three games in 13 seasons) and doesn't appear close to retirement — especially in a league where 43-year-old Tom Brady just led the formerly dismal Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl championship.
On the other hand, the Falcons currently have no backup for Ryan and would be hard pressed to take a pass on a potentially stellar draft class that could have as many as five quarterbacks picked in the top 10.
Lawrence is expected to be the top overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, but BYU's Zach Wilson, Alabama's Mac Jones, Ohio State's Fields and Lance are likely to go soon after.
"It's a unique draft with all the quarterbacks potentially going in the top 10," Jeremiah said.
The Falcons haven't taken a player from an in-state college since 2011, when Georgia linebacker Akeem Dent was selected in the second round. Fields would certainly add some local flare — and perhaps sell a few tickets — even though he finished his college career with the Buckeyes. A native of suburban Atlanta, Fields signed with Georgia but transferred after a freshman season in which he played a backup role for the Bulldogs.
Outside of the quarterbacks, the best player in the draft might be Pitts, who starred at Florida and could give Atlanta's offense an immediate boost.
But the past few years — the Falcons haven't posted a winning record since the 2017 season — have shown dynamic playmakers such as Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley aren't nearly enough to overcome holes at a bunch of other positions.
Lance started only 17 games in college, opting out this school year after the FCS schedule was pushed back to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Jeremiah and others believe he can be a franchise quarterback once he works out a few mechanical problems.
"He might not get on the field much for two years with Matt Ryan," Jeremiah said, "and I'm sure Matt would be frustrated about bringing in another quarterback."
While the new regime doesn't seem eager to move away from Ryan, Smith and Fontenot have acknowledged any moves they make are with the franchise's long-term success in mind.
Given the plethora of players they let go or lost because of the salary cap — and the limited moves they were able to make in free agency — it seems clear the Falcons are in a rebuilding mode.
"If you're making the decision for the future of the franchise, which extends beyond a decade, to me I think the smart thing to do would be able to get that next quarterback and have him in the pipeline and ready to go," Jeremiah said.
The Falcons have nine picks for the seven-round draft, which starts at 8 p.m. Thursday in Cleveland and continues at 7 p.m. Friday and noon Saturday, and they could acquire even more if they give up the No. 4 spot in a trade. That's an intriguing prospect for a team that has far more immediate concern than who will eventually take Ryan's place.
The Falcons especially need help at running back, in the secondary and on both lines.
"I'm sure they'll have opportunities to get out of (the No. 4 pick) if they'd like," Jeremiah said, pointing to all the teams that have shown interest in Pitts.
In addition, after ranking near the bottom of the league in sacks for three straight years, the Falcons will be looking for ways to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
They haven't had much success finding quality pass rushers in the draft. Vic Beasley Jr., their top pick in 2015, had one dynamic season but never did much beyond that. Takk McKinley, a first-round choice in 2017, was cut by the Falcons last November after publicly requesting a trade.