In no particular order of importance, here are the Falcons who need either to keep playing a lot or get increased opportunities over these last two weeks, where little is at stake except growth, development, and figuring out who might be a contributor to a 2019 team we fervently hope is much better than this one.
WR Russell Gage
Marvin Hall is a bit of a known quantity at this point, in that he can be a situationally useful deep threat but does occasionally struggle with his hands. He’s a free agent after this season. After years in this system, we know Justin Hardy blocks well, occasionally comes up big in the red zone, and otherwise is sort of an option of last resort in this passing game. He’ll be a free agent after this season, as well.
With Mohamed Sanu carrying a sizeable cap charge next season and Hall and Hardy not necessarily looking like locks to return, the development of Gage becomes something of great interest. He’s got to be more disciplined, as he’s earned multiple flags on offense and special teams, but he’s also shown off terrific wheels and good hands in very limited opportunities, including two grabs for 33 yards against the Cardinals. The rookie is the de facto sixth receiver, but the Falcons gave him 20 snaps on Sunday and have been gradually ramping him up as they try to figure out what they have.
If Gage is up to the task, he could effectively take over Hall’s snaps at the fourth or fifth receiver in this offense next season. That’s not a vital role, but I’d like to see him get more playing time and try to gauge (sorry) whether he might be up to the task heading into next year.
TE Eric Saubert
Kind of a no-brainer, and the Falcons have now given him more snaps two weeks in a row. Saubert hasn’t proven to be a very exciting option as a receiver to this point despite quality athleticism, but the Falcons haven’t employed a high-end receiving option as their #2 in a long time anyways. Saubert should at least be useful in that regard.
Where he’s been impressive of late is blocking. Logan Paulsen is a fine and useful blocker in his own right, but Saubert has sprung Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith multiple times with timely, physical blocking, and if he’s capable of doing that on a regular basis there should be no need for a veteran stopgap as Austin Hooper’s backup going forward. If the Falcons can try to get him a bit more involved in the passing game and see how he fares, they’ll have a better idea of just how valuable Saubert might be in 2019, a year when Alex Gray might be ready to step in as the third tight end after two seasons marinating on the practice squad.
RT Ty Sambrailo
I’d rather get a closer look at Matt Gono at tackle or Sean Harlow at guard, just because they’re young and unproven and I’d like to know how they might contribute going forward. But failing that—and the Falcons have given no indication they’re even considering it—we might as well continue to get a closer look at Sambrailo.
A 2019 free agent, Sambrailo has unquestionably done better work in run blocking than Ryan Schraeder, but has been fairly shaky in pass protection as always. Getting four full games of tape on Sambrailo will help the Falcons as they try to figure out whether to keep Schraeder around given his cap charge and lousy 2018, because Sambrailo might compete with a rookie or at least return as the swing tackle again in 2019. If he continues to put decent games on film, I suspect Atlanta will look to bring him back.
DE/DT Steven Means
Means was one of those in-season acquisitions who was curiously sidelined again and again as the Falcons flailed around along the defensive line, but he’s finally stepping into significant snaps. While he hasn’t necessarily been a standout, he’s been making some notably fine run stops and picked up his first sack against the Cardinals while working inside. Means is a sturdy, physical play the Falcons can see playing defensive end and defensive tackle, making him a cost-effective replacement for Derrick Shelby, who hasn’t come close to living up to his contract and is now parked on injured reserve heading into free agency.
For a Falcons team that could legitimately move on from Brooks Reed, Means and even Vic Beasley, useful rotational players are a must. Means should be one of those guys, and I’d like to see more of him.
DT Deadrin Senat
Another no-brainer. Senat is the de facto third defensive tackle heading into 2019, with Grady Jarrett and Jack Crawford locked in as the leads with their strong performances in 2018. With Terrell McClain heading to free agency and some intriguing flashes as a run defender, Senat deserves a much longer look over the final couple of weeks.
LB Duke Riley
I know, I know. The Falcons are already playing Foye Oluokun plenty, and owe it to themselves to see if Riley’s earlier experience plus his time as a special teamer and bench warmer has translated into any improvement. Riley’s not going to get another real shot at starting unless injuries pile up in 2019, but the Falcons need to get their depth chart settled and could use one last look at Riley before an offseason of decisions.
CB Isaiah Oliver
While the Falcons have made real efforts to get more young players involved, I’ve been surprised Oliver hasn’t gotten more playing time. Perhaps it’s because it is coming at the expense of Robert Alford, who is no lock to lose his job next year and has been a valuable contributor for years, but Oliver simply isn’t get the plurality of snaps his draft status and solid play in recent weeks would indicate he should get. Perhaps that changes over the final two weeks, because Oliver’s likely to be one of the team’s top three corners in 2019 and could really use the work.
RB Brian Hill
Ito Smith was just placed on injured reserve or else he would definitely be the top player we need to see more of. Brian Hill hasn’t shown much outside of a few big plays with the Cincinnati Bengals, but he could be paired with Smith and Devonta Freeman next year if he shows well in the next two games. He’s only battling Jeremy Langford for snaps behind Tevin Coleman meaning this is his best chance to get his career back on track.
Who else would you like to see the Falcons taking a longer look at?