Even though we’re still firmly planted in the now of 2018, ESPN’s football genius Bill Barnwell looked at the Falcons at a distance and guess who might be here and there.
For Barnwell, the players of Falcons’ future look something like this.
Virtual locks: QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones, T Jake Matthews, DE Takkarist McKinley, S Keanu Neal, LB Deion Jones, CB Isaiah Oliver, DT Deadrin Senat, WR Calvin Ridley
All the agents for Deion Jones and Neal have to do to point out their clients’ value is show tape of the 2018 Falcons’ defense after they went on injured reserve. Ridley has nearly as many touchdowns in a half-season (six) as the three top-10 wideouts of the 2017 class have over their first year and a half combined (seven).
Of course, that makes a ton of sense. Ryan is still in his prime, as is Julio Jones. Matthews is putting together his best season as a pro, and McKinley, Neal, Deion Jones, Oliver and Senat are defensive pillars for the future of the franchise. Ridley is a legitimate Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate and another huge draft hit for the Falcons. It’s easy to see all these guys sticking around for years to come.
Where things get interesting (and up for debate) are with Barnwell’s guesses for the bubble names and unlikely folks to stay too much longer.
On the bubble: DE Vic Beasley, C Alex Mack, CB Robert Alford, T Ryan Schraeder, CB Desmond Trufant, S Ricardo Allen, RB Tevin Coleman, DT Grady Jarrett, LB De’Vondre Campbell, RB Ito Smith, CB Brian Poole, TE Austin Hooper, LB Duke Riley
Atlanta’s defensive collapse might call its cornerbacks into question, with Alford standing out as a frequently burned problem. The Falcons will have to work out new deals for Jarrett after 2018 and Beasley after 2019; given Beasley’s lack of production since leading the league in sacks in 2016, the Falcons should lean toward renewing Jarrett and letting Beasley test the market.
Let me say right away that Jarrett will be a roster lock. He’s on an expiring deal, but unless the team just so happens to brain fart right when free agency opens, they’re going to get a deal worked out with Jarrett. He’s another pillar of this defense, and the chances of him leaving are incredibly small. Hooper’s strong season makes me think he’s a definite lock to stay, too, since this might be who he will be for the future.
Beasley and Coleman are fair guesses, primarily because we don’t know how Beasley will finish the year out and what the team wants to do at the running back position. Devonta Freeman’s health, Coleman’s quite-good-but-not-elite time as the starter and the emergence of Ito Smith makes that a spot to watch, as does the team’s potential to revamp the edge group for 2019 and beyond.
Mack will probably play through his deal, as he’s still a quality center, but Schraeder could be a candidate for a release down the road if his play tapers off in a bad way. Allen is on an extension, though the rise of Damontae Kazee for sure makes that spot a bit more interesting. Campbell might be the guy who walks from that amazing 2016 class.
Seeing Trufant and Alford on here is worth mentioning, as Trufant has stabilized as a top-10 corner prone to an off day here and there, Alford a top-20 with the same issue. One would think the team would be hesitant to let either go anytime soon, though Oliver’s presence absolutely makes it possible. We’ll see in 2020 where the corner group stands. Poole feels like someone who could be elsewhere by then.
Who’s to say on Riley. It still feels like he’s just scratching the surface of what he can be.
And, here are the guys Barnwell thinks will be goners in the next few years.
Unlikely notables: WR Mohamed Sanu, RB Devonta Freeman, G Andy Levitre, G Brandon Fusco, K Matt Bryant
Freeman has missed time in both 2017 and 2018 since signing a five-year, $41.3 million extension before the 2017 campaign; the Falcons can get out of his deal with $6 million in dead money before 2020 and might be better off using the savings elsewhere.
Sanu might be the odd man out one day as Ridley assumes that WR2 role full-time, and Fusco’s deal would be expiring around then. Levitre is a free agent in March and could hypothetically retire, as could Money Matt one of these days, though he’d be on contract in the spring.
Freeman is the tough one to discuss, simply because he’s an elite player who has struggled with injuries as of late at a spot that’s never been too kind with that. When he’s healthy, he’s a game-changing player and a franchise face. But with 2017’s concussions and 2018’s litany of knee, foot and groin problems, one wonders what the future is there. Though, having a season off could really help out preserving his career. He might’ve just needed to give his body a break before the second phase of his career.
Of course, nothing is set in stone, and Barnwell and myself are just speculating. Who knows what the Falcons have in mind for the future, but it’s fun to think about, regardless.