The nature of the NFL dictates that you turn over a certain percentage of your roster every year, due to player costs, disappointing performances, and the rise of useful young players. That will certainly be the case for the Falcons next year at a handful of key positions,
It’s worth noting that the Falcons did a nice job of turning things over already this year, with rookies (Keanu Neal at strong safety, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell at linebacker, Austin Hooper’s involvement at tight end, Brian Poole’s emergence at cornerback) and second year players (Tevin Coleman at running back is a notable highlight) taking on major roles. For a team that still has one of the older rosters in the NFL, and a team with a lot of expiring contracts looming, it’s going to continue to be important to cycle out veterans and find quality, young, cost-controlled players to take their place.
Here’s a look at how the Falcons might hand the baton over at several key positions on the roster, assuming they don’t make them draft priorities.
Transitioning Out: Taylor Gabriel, Aldrick Robinson
Transitioning In: Justin Hardy
We’ve all had questions about Hardy’s usage thus far in 2016. Both Robinson and Gabriel has surpassed him as an option in the passing game, and even Hardy’s strong blocking work isn’t getting him on the field all that often. He is a legitimate special teams asset and is sure-handed enough that the Falcons trusted him on a goal line shovel pass over the middle a couple of weeks ago, and I still feel like it’s only a matter of time before he carves out a larger role.
We can’t be sure the Falcons will jettison both Gabriel and Robinson—for all we know, the Falcons might bring both back—but Hardy should be in line for a larger role in his third season, regardless. My expectation is that only Gabriel will return in 2016, leaving he and Hardy to fight for snaps. It’ll be a pivotal year for Hardy.
Transitioning out: Jacob Tamme, Levine Toilolo
Transitioning in: Austin Hooper, Joshua Perkins
Again, the Falcons might bring back Tamme or Toilolo, but the future’s already on the roster. Hooper should be an option as a full-time starter as early as 2017 given his surprisingly strong blocking skills, speed, and sure-to-improve route running ability. Perkins has managed to stay on the roster for four weeks despite the team’s very real need to make room for new signings, which is a strong indication that he’s a part of this team’s future plans. Hooper and Perkins could be working as the team’s top two options next year.
If they don’t feel both are ready, Tamme could be back, while Toilolo is obviously an option based on the strength of his work in the run game alone. This is one of the positions on the roster that has a clear succession plan, even so.
Transitioning out: Chris Chester, Andy Levitre (?)
Transitioning in: Wes Schweitzer, Ben Garland
This will almost certainly be Chester’s last year in Atlanta as a starter. He’s once again done a fine job of holding down the starting job, minus some very real struggles in pass protection against quality defensive tackles, but he’ll be 34 years old next year and the Falcons drafted his successor in sixth round rookie Wes Schweitzer. Ben Garland or another rookie could also be in the mix at the spot, but in my mind, the job will be Schweitzer’s to lose.
If Levitre’s contract makes him an untenable starter, you could be looking at two changes, with Ben Garland a potential option. I feel like that’s a little unlikely after Levitre’s enjoyed a resurgent year, however.
Transitioning out: Robert Alford
Transitioning in: Jalen Collins, Brian Poole
This one might be a little controversial. On balance, Alford has been a very good player for Atlanta, delivering some huge plays and offering strong coverage, and based on those merits alone he should be re-signed. When you consider Desmond Trufant’s huge upcoming contract, Brian Poole’s early, impressive returns, and the fact that the Falcons drafted Jalen Collins a year ago with an eye on him becoming a major contributor, Alford’s spot seems significantly less secure.
Some of this will depend on how Collins fares the rest of the year, but in my mind, Poole’s quality play through four games means he’ll likely be a big part of the team’s plans going forward. With C.J. Goodwin developing and Akeem King back a year ago, the Falcons could have five good (or at least promising) cornerbacks available to them.
Ultimately, the Falcons just can’t afford to sign everyone, and Alford remains the likeliest player to chase (and receive) a nice contract elsewhere. Hopefully not in the NFC South.