As we round the bend into the dog days of summer, take a moment to ponder what could be what makes the Falcons special in 2018.
Y’know, it seems like every one of those Super Bowl teams as of late has had something that’s made them...well, special. Last year? Philly’s roster and coaching clicked in explosive fashion after a mediocre 2016. The Patriots have a goat farm. The Broncos and Seahawks had arguably the decade’s two best defenses. The Ravens...well...we really aren’t sure how that one happened.
If the Falcons are to finally seal the deal this season and get that stupid Lombardi where it belongs, they’re going to need to have something special happen to them. They’re going to need to be great at something. That seems to be the blueprint. It’s okay to not be perfect, but it’s vital to be great at, y’know, something.
Both the Falcons offense and defense have potential to be great. The defense seems more ready to pounce, with the offense’s play calling and offensive line potential liabilities holding them back from being, y’know, great.
But, there’s a pot that’s cooking right now that’s beginning to smell quite good, and it could be a pot that makes that defense (and, actually, that offense, too, in a way) something stellar next season.
The two most recent draft classes seem poised to strike.
2018’s class has been well-documented, and has garnered plenty of boasting. New receiver Calvin Ridley has everyone foaming at the mouth with his professionalism and quick development. CB Isaiah Oliver is a first-round talent that could already be the NFL’s best dime corner. DT Deadrin Senat will be nice depth and has time to grow behind Grady Jarrett, Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford. RB Ito Smith could give the team affordable insurance for Tevin Coleman’s eventual departure in 2019, and stands now to be crazy depth at a position of strength. LB Foye Oluokun could rise fast on the linebacker depth chart, and WR/CB Russell Gage will be a gunner on special teams early.
It’s a draft class you can already see at work. Ridley will be a day-one fixture in the offense, Oliver could get early reps on the outside, Senat figures to take some snaps this season, Smith might not be active much this season, but will have time to grow, Oluokun and Gage figure to play on special teams right away. These are roles the team needed, and this could be an early difference maker for the Falcons as they try to assert themselves in the NFC.
But, what about that 2017 class?
The 2017 Falcons draft class is not something we talk about a lot, primarily because there’s not much to talk about outside of young sensation DE Takk McKinley. McKinley ascended steadily throughout the 2017 season, becoming a playoff play maker who has a lot of folks excited for his continued development. Saying he will be a 10-sack player this season doesn’t seem so outrageous when you recall what he did in Year One. The prospects for him are tantalizing as he continues to grow into his role.
But, what about the rest of that class?
The team drafted LB Duke Riley, G Sean Harlow, FS Damontae Kazee, TE Eric Saubert and RB Brian Hill to round out their selections. Hill was a victim of the in-season numbers game, swiftly claimed on waivers by the Bengals last fall.
Riley took serious lumps in the season in his starting role at weakside linebacker, and misses most all of last November with a knee injury. His run defense and tackling were lacking. You could see the diagnosis and speed, but he could never put it all together to finish a play. It was not a great debut for the third round pick out of LSU, but reports indicate that Riley has had a strong offseason, even getting some plaudits from Dan Quinn at the close of June minicamp.
If Riley can put forth more consistent play, that’s huge for the defense. Right now, he’s the weak link in the starting roster, but if he can become a strength, even a minor strength, that’s going to set this defense up for some cool things in 2018.
Harlow is the mystery man, because no one knows, well, anything about him. The line has been mostly quiet since his selection; all we knew was that he was in the team’s development program, and that there was hope for more down the road. We’re further down the road; where is Harlow? I recall a report from earlier in the month where someone in the organization mentioned how he was coming along just fine (I wish I could recall who).
He really doesn’t need to be anything this season, as Ben Garland is Andy Levitre’s main backup, and Wes Schweitzer will stick around as a reserve. Harlow could be on the roster bubble; he could also be in line for a starting gig in 2019 if his development is further along than anyone knows. He remains a grand illusion. Are we waiting for a tough cut, or a shocking promotion, in the time ahead?
Kazee? Well, Kazee could finally give Quinn that three-safety set he’s been murmured to want to run in Atlanta. He could also be Ricardo Allen’s heir apparent. He made some key special teams plays down the stretch last season, and could be a fun wrinkle to put into the defense next season. The real point of intrigue is if Kazee gets into the mix at nickel. They reportedly wanted to play him there, so again, another fascinating potential plus we don’t even have a sample of quite yet.
Saubert rounds out the potential. He did nothing in his first year, but has been turning heads in camp with some purty catches. Here’s the kicker — Riley finally making it all work would be huge to the defense. Harlow could be the surprise of 2019. Kazee could be the nice luxury to an already-loaded secondary. But Saubert? He’s the guy that could solve the team’s glaring weakness.
The Austin Hopper hype train seems to be getting into gear for this season, but he’s going to need a second fiddle. If Saubert can take Levine Toilolo’s snaps, and develop into a potential option in the red zone, hoo boy. That’s the reality you want. We all knew about Saubert’s potential, but if he can start tapping into that now...you’ve got a complete offense.
The 2017 and 2018 classes could be what make this team special in 2018. They could fill in all the gaps, and make the obvious strengths on this team stronger. If this all pans out like it could, we could all be in for something big.