AP photo by Michael Conroy / Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot, shown during the NFL combine last month in Indianapolis, needs help at quarterback, receiver and edge rusher during the draft, which starts Thursday night in Las Vegas.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The talent of the quarterbacks who might be available to the Atlanta Falcons in 2023 could have an impact on decisions by general manager Terry Fontenot with the No. 8 overall pick in the NFL draft that starts Thursday night in Las Vegas.

Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett and Liberty's Malik Willis are the top-rated quarterback prospects this year. Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith must find a new plan at quarterback after trading longtime starter Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts last month.

The Falcons' leadership could be weighing their grades of Pickett and Willis against the more highly regarded 2023 class that includes Alabama's Bryce Young and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud. With veteran Marcus Mariota signed as the probable starting quarterback for 2022, Fontenot doesn't have to rush his search for a long-term solution at the position.

"If we feel great about a quarterback at whatever pick, then we're going to take a quarterback, and if we don't, we're not going to reach and do something that we're not excited about," Fontenot said last month.

Fontenot described the quarterbacks in this year's draft as "an exciting class. They're different flavors."

Most evaluators consider next year's quarterback class more exciting. That's important for Atlanta to consider, because one year from now it could be in position to select Young or Stroud.

Limited by the $62 million hit in dead money that came with the Ryan trade, it could be challenging for the Falcons to end their streak of four consecutive losing seasons or even match last season's 7-10 finish.

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, now a draft analyst for SiriusXM, said the decision facing Fontenot is "very tricky." Dominik said other teams hoping to select Pickett or Willis could provide Fontenot with attractive trade options if the GM is open to moving down in the first round — perhaps with an eye on the 2023 draft.

"Truthfully, next year's class is going to be stronger, and you've got to be honest with yourself and say, 'Am I pushing a guy because I need one or do I really like everything about this guy?'" Dominik said, adding that he believes trading down is "Atlanta's best move" if Fontenot and Smith aren't sold on Pickett or Willis.

The Falcons were on location for the pro day workouts for Willis, Pickett, Matt Corral of Ole Miss and Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder. A quarterback could be available with Atlanta's second-round pick, No. 43 overall.

Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell and Willis were teammates at Atlanta's Westlake High School before Willis transferred to nearby Roswell. Asked this past week about the possibility of the Falcons drafting Willis, Terrell said "I wish."

Is that wish based on his friendship or what he believes Willis could bring to the Falcons?

"Definitely relationship, knowing who he is and what type of player he is," Terrell said.

Feleipe Franks is the only quarterback behind Mariota on Atlanta's depth chart, and Fontenot said help at the position is coming through the draft, free agency or a trade.

But this roster needs help at many positions, including edge rusher and wide receiver.

The Falcons released outside linebacker Dante Fowler, who had 4 1/2 sacks in 2021 to lead a defense that ranked last with 18 sacks — 11 fewer than any other NFL team. It wouldn't be a surprise if Atlanta uses more than one draft pick on players who could help generate backfield pressure.

Wide receiver is another glaring need after the NFL's suspension of Calvin Ridley for the 2022 season as punishment for betting on games last season, much of which he missed after stepping away to address his mental health. Russell Gage signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent, leaving Olamide Zaccheaus as Atlanta's top returning wide receiver with 31 catches last season.

Ohio State's Garrett Wilson, viewed by some as the top receiver in the draft, could be a good fit for Atlanta in the first round. It is considered to be a deep draft for the position, so Fontenot could also find talent in the last two days.

Fontenot and Smith won't embrace the term "rebuilding," but the GM acknowledged the team is "taking it on the chin this year" in order to build a more stable financial foundation for 2023. Smith insisted no one is giving up on winning in 2022, and left tackle Jake Matthews, bolstered by a $55 million, three-year extension, has bought in.

"I'm really optimistic about what's going on and the thing we're building," Matthews said. "We have high expectations for ourselves this year. There's no doubt we don't look at it as a rebuilding year or anything like that."


First pick: No. 8

Last season: The Falcons were outscored 459-313, making their seven wins in 17 games something of an accomplishment under first-year head coach Arthur Smith. Highlights included the play of rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, who led the team with 68 catches for 1,026 yards, and versatile Cordarrelle Patterson, who scored a combined 11 touchdowns while leading the team in rushing and finishing third in receptions. Salary cap woes contributed to the decision to trade 14-year starting quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts after the season, as well as the inability to re-sign top wide receiver Russell Gage and leading tackler Foye Oluokun. After playing only five games while stepping away in late October to address his mental health, wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended by the NFL after the season for 2022 for betting on games.

Free agency/trades: Traded Ryan to Indianapolis. Released OLB Dante Fowler, OT Matt Gono, DL Tyeler Davison, WR Marvin Hall, QB Matt Barkley. Lost Gage, Oluokun, TE Hayden Hurst, QB A.J. McCarron, SS Duron Harmon, CB Fabian Moreau, LS Josh Harris, WR Tajae Sharpe, OT Jason Spriggs, P Thomas Morstead, OLB Brandon Copeland, DE Jonathan Bullard. Signed K Younghoe Koo, OL Jake Matthews to extensions. Signed CB Casey Hayward, RB Damien Williams, OLB Lorenzo Carter, WR KhaDarel Hodge, QB Marcus Mariota, WR Auden Tate, DB Dean Marlowe, LS Beau Brinkley, WR Damiere Byrd, LB Rashaan Evans, OL Germain Ifedi, CB Mike Ford, TE Anthony Firkser, DT Vincent Taylor. Re-signed CB Isaiah Oliver, RB Cordarrelle Patterson, S Erik Harris, RB Qadree Ollison, WR Olamide Zaccheaus.

They need: Edge rusher, WR, QB, RB, OT, DT.

They don’t need: PK, TE, FB, CB.

Possible first pick: Ohio State receiver Garrett Wilson, Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, Florida State edge rusher Jermaine Johnson II.

Outlook: The Falcons signed Mariota as their probable 2022 starting quarterback after trading Ryan. They still need depth at the position for this year — and a long-term starter. If the Falcons are convinced Willis can be the future behind center, they can use the No. 8 overall pick on the dual-threat QB who has the potential to excite the fan base. If not, general manager Terry Fontenot could trade down in the first round. Wilson would provide important talent to a position group in desperate need of help after Ridley’s suspension. No matter the first-round decision, wide receiver and edge rusher should be addressed during the draft.