Falcons' collection of former first-rounders could make for historic offense

play
Falcons sign 4 first-round draft picks in free agency (1:04)

Vaughn McClure details the Falcons' moves in free agency, in which they "loaded up" on former first-round draft picks including Todd Gurley II. McClure then spins it forward and looks to what Atlanta might do in the draft. (1:04)

A change of scenery was destined to happen. Hayden Hurst knew it.

The tight end and former first-round draft pick of the Ravens fully understood his time in Baltimore was coming to a close. A stress fracture in his foot he suffered as a rookie had Hurst playing catchup almost from the start. He couldn't get his rhythm with former training camp roommate Lamar Jackson. He had fallen behind Mark Andrews on the depth chart.

Rumors started to swirl before last year's trade deadline about a possible deal to Jacksonville, his hometown. And Hurst let it be known that a chance to be in the starting lineup elsewhere was what he desired.

Then on March 9, he got the call.

"I was actually sleeping at home in Jacksonville," Hurst said. "I looked at my phone and saw it was [Ravens GM] Eric DeCosta that I missed. I figured something had gone through."

It did.

Hurst was traded to the Atlanta Falcons along with a 2020 fourth-round draft pick (143rd) in exchange for 2020 second- and fifth-round picks (55th, 157th). He is one of four former first-round picks the team has acquired this offseason -- Todd Gurley II, Dante Fowler Jr. and Laquon Treadwell are the others -- and all of them have something to prove.

And if Treadwell starts as a No. 3 wide receiver -- and other current starting projections hold up -- the Falcons could have a starting offense that fields a historic 11 former first-round draft picks. No team has started 10 offensive players who were selected in the first round during the common draft era since 1967, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau.

Hurst would love to play a major factor in an offense potentially stacked with first-rounders.

"To put a team of 11 first-round picks [out there] would be wild," Hurst said. "The offense is almost like an SEC all-star team, but the talent on that team is remarkable. To be in that conversation is pretty cool."

Word of his being traded didn't even circulate for a week until March 16, so the tight end started dissecting film of Dirk Koetter's offense well before the NFL world knew he was going to join Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.

"I did my research," Hurst said. "Obviously I know how good Matt Ryan is. Coach Koetter, and how he uses the tight end, I knew my skill set kind of fits perfectly in that offense, in my opinion. Everyone knows the Ravens are run-heavy and that everything revolves around Lamar, being the athlete that he is. In the Atlanta offense, it's more pass-heavy. It goes through Matt's arm. They run the play-action stuff really well."

The Falcons needed an immediate replacement for two-time Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper, a free agent they were willing to sign at $8.5 million per year. Instead, Hooper got $10.5 million per year to join the Cleveland Browns. And now Hurst, with at least two years and $3.5 million remaining on his contract along with the possibility of an added fifth-year option, has the opportunity to show why he was the 25th overall pick in 2018.

"Do I come in with a chip on my shoulder? Sure, I guess you can say that," Hurst said. "I think for me, I know what I'm capable of. I guess I didn't necessarily get to fully prove that in Baltimore like I wanted to. Now that I have this opportunity in front of me, I'm not even looking back."

Gurley, a three-time Pro Bowl running back, is the most celebrated of the former first-rounders the Falcons acquired. He was the 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft by the Rams and a player who boasts almost 7,500 career yards from scrimmage along with 70 career touchdowns.

There are concerns about the health of Gurley’s left knee, which would explain why the Rams eventually released him and why the Falcons added him on just a one-year deal. As a former University of Georgia star, Gurley is sure to create a continuous buzz among Falcons' fans who anticipate him to have a resurgent year.

"Could he rush for 1,000 yards if you gave him the ball a lot? Probably," said one coach who has been around Gurley in recent years. "But if you're counting on him being the same guy, he's not. He doesn't have that stick one foot in the ground and cut ability anymore. But he can be productive in the right offense, of course."

Fowler, the third overall pick in 2015 by the Jaguars, will be on his third team in the past three seasons. The defensive end brings unquestioned speed and athleticism off the edge for a team in desperate need of an impact pass-rusher.

"When you run stunts with Dante, with him coming inside off the defensive tackle, he's a b---- to stop," one coach said. "He's really good at those. And he's really good off the edge. He looks like he never gets tired."

Fowler's outgoing personality should go over well in the locker room, too. But several executives and coaches said the biggest cause for concern with Fowler is what he does away from the field with what they say is his tendency to indulge in the nightlife.

Then there's Treadwell, a touted wide receiver who was 23rd overall pick in 2016, But he fell out of favor with the Minnesota Vikings, who cut the underperforming Treadwell last August only to bring him back four weeks later due to injuries at the position. Treadwell said he worked out for the Bills and Lions before coming back to the Vikings and accepting a lesser role, with only one start in 13 games last season.

"My reaction when [the Vikings] released me was it was kind of a bittersweet feeling," Treadwell said. "Obviously I didn't want to be released. In the back of my head, I was thinking maybe a fresh start would help. In Minnesota, I just felt like there was something higher than me. I never stopped working hard. I never changed the way I went about the game. I watched film. I did everything I possibly could to get opportunities and make plays and be a target on Sundays.

"So I don't really know what went wrong. I always stayed talking to my teammates. I was always seeking advice, talking to player personnel. I just think it was a learning experience for me. It helped me grow as a person. It helped me grow as a man, as a father, as a husband, and as a player. I stayed in good relationships with all my teammates. I just think it was something higher than me that I don't have the say-so to speak on."

Treadwell said his "mental game is strong" now, which could allow him to take advantage of the one-year contract the Falcons gave him. He is known as a strong receiver who can win with his body despite not possessing great speed. He might be able to compete with Russell Gage for a role as the third receiver. Plus, Treadwell should benefit from being mentored by one of the best in Julio Jones.

What does Treadwell think of potentially being part of an offense that fields a historic 11 former first-round draft picks?

"It will be a story to tell if we get clicking and firing on the right page," Treadwell said. "It will definitely make history in the NFL. Talent is one thing, but the connection and having that bond, that brotherhood to play for each other, is what really wins games. It doesn't say we have the best offense. It doesn't say we're winning this many games. It says we have the capability of doing something special."

From the Falcons' viewpoint, it would be even cooler if this collection of talent helps them get back in the playoffs after a two-year hiatus.