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A trial by fire should benefit young Falcons in the long run

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The young Falcons are going to get something from this playing time, even if the team isn’t.

Cincinnati Bengals v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons are in very bad shape right now on defense. Deadrin Senat is going to get starter’s snaps for Grady Jarrett, Duke Riley is filling in at middle linebacker for Deion Jones, Isaiah Oliver is getting busy learning on the job at cornerback, and safety is Damontae Kazee and whatever unholy combination of Brian Poole and Jordan Richards the Falcons can cook up. Some of those guys play well every week, but not all of them, and even the high-end starters on this team are stumbling right now.

Part of that is due to the historic run of offense we’re seeing right now, as NFL offenses are on pace to score more points in 2018 than any other year in league history. That’s exacerbating the team’s woes, but they are also playing horrendous football, with the first half of the Bengals game representing the nadir.

There is one positive that’s coming out of this, though it’s hard to call it much of a positive when the Falcons are losing. None of those guys are over 28 years old, and every single one of them is going to benefit from the increased playing time, which sets the Falcons up to either have improved depth later this year and into 2019 and beyond. They’ll also figure out which of these guys aren’t worth having around, if it comes to that.

Right now, they’re getting burnt

The problem is that the team isn’t benefitting from that in the short term. While Kazee’s getting there and Oliver still has loads of upside, the best Falcons young player on defense thus far by a wide margin has been Deadrin Senat. Poole has struggled in coverage at corner and safety, Oliver made a big mistake on the final play of the Bengals game, and Riley has been mostly just passable at middle linebacker. With the rest of the defense largely scuffling alongside them, these young players aren’t exactly helping the Falcons overcome their significant losses.

For a team with a 1-3 record and two good offenses coming up, that’s a major problem. The Falcons came into the year with Super Bowl aspirations and are surely aware that a season that falls well short of that is going to be a problem for them, no matter how many injuries they face. With Tevin Coleman potentially leaving next year, Matt Ryan another year older, and the opportunity to play a storybook Super Bowl in Atlanta having passed, the very real possibility that this is going to be a lost season is a painful one both inside and outside of the building.

But the future could be brighter

One suspects that the main reason the Falcons haven’t gone out and tried to make a desperation move—aside from the fact that they’re not loaded with cap space and it goes against Dan Quinn’s philosophy—is because they do genuinely believe in their young talent. There aren’t a lot of alternatives to that belief, but Quinn and company also see a bunch of mid-to-late rounders they like thrust into major roles, and there is an opportunity for growth there.

If Senat’s snaps give him the confidence and experience necessary to step into a true starting role in 2019, that’s a good thing. If Isaiah Oliver’s bumps and bruises in coverage wind up fast-tracking his development, it’ll greatly benefit the Falcons next year, when they won’t need to rely so heavily on Brian Poole in coverage. And if any of Poole, Richards or Kazee prove competent at safety, the Falcons have a contingency plan in place if Ricardo Allen or Keanu Neal struggle to hit the ground running as they recover from injury next year. And hell, if Duke Riley and Foye Oluokun continue to improve, the team might have actual depth at linebacker going forward, instead of just young players with some promise.

That’s small consolation now, of course, unless these players miraculously become good-to-great in short order. But if we’re already looking ahead—and many of us are—it’s a cheery note to strike.