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Falcons can find value in a lost 2018 season

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Despite the Falcons being all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, there is plenty to gain from a lost 2018 season. Atlanta can evaluate their young players through the final five games, and will have an opportunity to reload with high draft picks in 2019.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

It’s Week 13, and the Atlanta Falcons are sitting at a rather depressing 4-7. Unless a bloodbath among the Wild Card contenders ensues and the Falcons somehow manage to win out over their last five games, Atlanta will end the 2018 season without a postseason berth. That’s deflating, considering the high hopes we all had for this team going into the season. Unfortunately, the Falcons were hit by the great equalizer of the NFL: injuries.

Losing both starting safeties, arguably the best MLB in the NFL, a starting RB, and both starting guards within the opening games of the season—plus notable absences from your two best defensive linemen in Grady Jarrett and Takk McKinley—were simply too much to overcome for this team. They may have been too much for any team to overcome, considering the unprecedented volume of season-ending injuries in such a short period of time.

Couple that with questionable coaching and personnel decisions and good old fashioned bad luck at the end of a few games—the Falcons were tantalizingly close to being 4-1 instead of 1-4, after all—and you have a recipe for a poor season. I still expect the Falcons to pull off some wins and finish the season at a somewhat respectable 7-9, but it’s a far cry from my expectations of a Super Bowl berth in our home stadium.

Instead of cynicism, however, let’s have a piece about optimism. The truth is, there’s still plenty of value to be derived from a lost 2018 season for the Falcons. A 7-9 record probably puts the Falcons on the cusp of a top-10 draft pick, which would give the team an opportunity to add a blue-chip player to an already stacked roster. Atlanta still has five games remaining that they can use to evaluate the rest of their roster and give young guys plenty of snaps. If utilized properly, this season could be a stepping stone to a truly memorable 2019 and 2020 run.

The value of a high draft pick

Let’s be honest: the Falcons, when healthy, have absolutely no business picking anywhere close to the top-10. But if things break the way I expect, they’ll likely end up somewhere in the 10-13 range. If things are “worse”, they could even end up in the top-5. The thing about this 2019 class, however, is that there are at least 5-6 “blue chip” quality defensive linemen.

You all know my feelings on Houston DT Ed Oliver—who I think is a genuinely special talent—but guys like EDGE Clelin Ferrell, DT Quinnen Williams, DT Raekwon Davis, DT Jeffery Simmons, and EDGE Rashan Gary are also very talented options. If the Falcons are anywhere in that 5-13 range, they are virtually guaranteed to walk away with one of those players. That would go a long way in helping bolster a Falcons’ pass rush that has been downright anemic in 2018.

Don’t forget that a top-15 pick translates to a top-15 pick in every round. That means Atlanta will get a crack at players on the early end of the round, as opposed to the back end. While it’s a difference of only 15 or so picks compared to where the Falcons have been picking since 2017, it can make a big difference—especially early in the draft.

Atlanta currently has all seven of their 2019 draft picks, but they’re also in line to receive a handful of compensatory draft picks based on free agent losses this season. These calculations tend to adjust somewhat over the course of the season, but Over The Cap currently has the Falcons projected to receive two compensatory picks: one 4th rounder, and one 5th rounder. That seems to be an improvement from an earlier projection, which had them with a 4th and 6th rounder.

That means that the Falcons will enter the 2019 draft with a top-15 pick in each round, as well as two compensatory picks (which fall near the end of each round)—for a grand total of nine. Looked at another way, the Falcons have seven picks in the first five rounds—with one each in the 6th and 7th. Knowing Dimitroff’s propensity for trades, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him move up at some point—I’m not sure there are nine open spots on this roster, even with free agent departures.

All this means that the Falcons have a real shot at reloading in 2019. If they get anything close to a 2016 return from their 2019 class, that’s a recipe for another Super Bowl-contending squad at worst.

It’s time to evaluate the young players

With five games remaining in 2018, there’s still plenty of time to evaluate the young talent in Atlanta. Game experience can’t be replicated in practice, and the Falcons have a number of promising rookies that should be given as many snaps as they can handle going forward.

CB Isaiah Oliver, the Falcons’ 2nd-round draft selection in 2018, has looked promising filling in for injured players in the secondary. It’s time to give Oliver a starting job on the outside and push Alford to the nickel. Alford’s play has fallen off this season, but perhaps he’ll have better luck in the slot. These final five games give the team an opportunity to test out this lineup to see if more changes are needed heading into 2019.

LB Foyesade Oluokun, one of the Falcons’ 6th-round draft selections in 2018, was forced into action early in the season after LB Deion Jones went on IR. It became clear after a few games that Oluokun had passed up sophomore LB Duke Riley on the depth chart, and he’s continued to be a solid piece at LB. With Deion Jones returning at MLB, it’s time to give Oluokun the starting WLB role. The last games of 2018 will give the team a chance to test out the Jones-Oluokun pairing, and will give De’Vondre Campbell more opportunities at SLB.

DT Deadrin Senat, the Falcons’ 3rd-round draft pick in 2018, has looked very good throughout his rookie season in a rotational role. Then, Quinn mysteriously benched Senat in favor of Terrell McClain—who has been merely average—for the all-important Saints game. Forget that going forward: it’s time to give Senat as many snaps as he can handle over the final five games. The Falcons need to know what they have in Senat heading into 2019—how he performs could very well influence Atlanta’s first round draft decision.

There are plenty of other players that should receive more snaps in 2018: WR Russell Gage, WR Marvin Hall, TE Eric Saubert, T Matt Gono, and RB Ito Smith are examples of guys who should be worked into the offensive gameplan going forward. These final five games will determine if draft picks are needed to bolster the depth chart. If Gage and Hall, for example, both look competent, then the Falcons may not need to invest more draft resources in a WR to replace Justin Hardy.

As you can see, there’s plenty of value to be found in a lost season to a shrewd coaching staff. Let’s hope that Dan Quinn and Co. still fit that definition, and this 2018 nightmare was just a blip due to injuries.

What are your thoughts on the 2018 season? Do you think there’s anything left to be gained this year? Who are some players you’d like to see get more snaps over the final five games?