One of the most crushing blows the Falcons have been deal this season have been in the form of injuries to Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, and the short-term ailment for Grady Jarrett, whose absence was keenly felt.
The only upside, if you can call it that, has been the opportunity afforded to young defenders in the wake of those injuries. Duke Riley hasn’t exactly thrived—he has been better in more limited snaps the last two weeks than he was as a full-time starter—but we’ve seen Foye Oluokun show some promise in a more expanded role. Damontae Kazee has been solid-to-excellent depending on the game in his new role as the team’s full-time free safety, while Deadrin Senat has been extremely solid in the opportunities he’s received.
That’s no small thing for a Falcons team that has some tough decisions coming up. The Falcons will bring back Grady Jarrett but still are searching for a nominal full-time starter next to him, especially after 2019 when Jack Crawford’s contract is up. They’ll be bringing back Ricardo Allen slowly and could use all the impact players they can find in the secondary, to put it mildly. And they aren’t locks to bring back De’Vondre Campbell and look quite thin at linebacker if that happens.
What kind of roles can they reasonably expect when everyone’s healthy next year, though?
Deadrin Senat: Rotational defensive tackle
Senat’s a relatively easy projection. The Falcons already like his run-stopping acumen, and Terrell McClain won’t be in Atlanta in 2019 to get in his way. Jack Crawford is likely to remain as the team’s best pass rushing option, leaving Senat with an early down role in his second season unless he takes a big step forward in terms of chasing after quarterbacks. He should have no competition for that role, though, as the Falcons are much more likely to promote Justin Zimmer or bring in a late round draft choice than to sign a nominal third defensive tackle.
Foye Oluokun: Starting weakside linebacker
Atlanta uses three linebackers pretty sparingly, and if De’Vondre Campbell returns or the team invests a high draft pick in 2018, Oluokun isn’t going to have a ton of playing time. But I have little doubt he’ll go into the year as the team’s nominal starter at the position, given that the coaching staff has been in love with him since he was drafted and he’s outplaying Duke Riley in an expanded role at the moment. The team has too many holes to plug to draft more competition on the weakside, methinks.
There’s a small chance Oluokun could be in play on the strong side as Campbell’s replacement, but that’ll depend on how far he comes and whether Riley can show the team more the rest of the way. Once Deion Jones returns, he’s in for reduced playing time this year, so he’ll need to keep making his case over the next couple of weeks.
Damontae Kazee: Starting free safety, then third safety
The chances of Ricardo Allen coming back completely healthy and ready to assume his starting role in Week 1 seems a little slim at the moment, and I’m projecting Kazee will start the year as the team’s, well, starter.
He’s certainly done enough to merit a long look there, though I anticipate he’ll go back to being the team’s third safety once Allen is totally healthy. His physicality and playmaking ability should ensure that he finds his way on the field regardless, as Dan Quinn intended before the injury train hit the Falcons full force.
While we’re going to have to endure more growing pains the rest of the way for all three players, it’s very possible that they’ll prove to be a major part of the future on defense here in Atlanta. We’ve suggested time and time again that the Falcons cannot hope to be a contender for very long if they don’t continue to hit on draft choices, and getting three starting-caliber players out of a third rounder, fifth rounder and sixth rounder would go a long way toward keeping this team relevant in the years to come.