The Falcons happily have more than a handful of young players who have real potential to contribute in 2019 and beyond, and while not all of them are going to pan out exactly the way we’d like, they shouldn’t lack for opportunities this coming season. Here are a few worth considering.
RB Ito Smith
Easy call for Ito, who eased into a role with Devonta Freeman hurt but should face no obstacles for the #2 job in 2019 besides his own health. With Tevin Coleman likely headed elsewhere in free agency, Smith just has to beat out Brian Hill and/or a late round draft choice, and he showed more than enough in limited 2018 action to make his case for him.
There’s no question that with Freeman suffering a rash of injuries and nothing proven around him, Smith’s going to have an opportunity to step into a major role. If injury hits Freeman again, god forbid, Ito’s gonna be the next man up.
WR Russell Gage
Gage’s role will be small, because the opportunities afforded to fourth or fifth receivers are quite small with these Falcons. But he will have a role, I expect, because of the team’s keen interest in seeing him play late in the year. And because of the speed.
Gage was drafted primarily to contribute on special teams, but in between that and some unfortunate penalties, he flashed genuine promise as a receiver. That’s no small thing for a team that has struggled to find consistent, useful receiving options beyond their top three, and with Justin Hardy as a free agent and plenty of money sunk into the position between Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, having a young player like Gage emerge would make a big difference. With Dirk Koetter coming on board with his fondness for a vertical passing attack, there may well be room for Gage (or Marvin Hall, for that matter) to make a mark.
TE Eric Saubert
This is the final year in which I’ll predict bigger things ahead for Saubert, as I’ll be forced to admit defeat if the rhetoric around him doesn’t match the playing time. This past offseason in particular, the Falcons had a lot of good things to say about Saubert, but it didn’t translate into any meaningful playing time until very late in the year. Considering his scouting report coming out of college, which highlighted his athleticism and the mismatch his size and speed could afford, it’s been surprising to see him used more as a blocker (where he’s been useful) than as a receiver (where he hasn’t done much).
This year ought to be an opportunity for that to change, even with Austin Hooper dominating targets at the top of the depth chart. Logan Paulsen is a free agent, the team doesn’t have any options currently on the roster that should be able to surpass Saubert, and they have a lot of needs more pressing than tight end to address in the draft. The sands are ever-shifting in Atlanta, of course, but Saubert should have his first real opportunity to head into a season as the #2 tight end, and he still has the talent to be useful in that role.
DT Deadrin Senat
Senat’s rookie season was limited by Dan Quinn making some weird calls—including making Senat an inactive one week for no discernible reason—and getting less playing time throughout much of the year than Terrell McClain, who played like the very definition of a replacement-level defensive tackle. With a year under his belt, some quietly impressive run stopping and flashes as a pass rusher, and McClain likely out the door, Senat’s role should absolutely grow heading into 2019.
The limiting factor here would be the Falcons going with someone like Ed Oliver in the first round, which would make it even harder for him to crack the rotation at the position. But it’s worth remembering that this is Jack Crawford’s final contract year with Atlanta, and that Senat is young, capable and affordable for the next three seasons. He’ll find his way into playing time.
LB Foye Oluokun
We heard rumblings throughout the spring that the Falcons would draft Foye Oluokun, and they did. Then we heard rumblings that Duke Riley would only have a few weeks to prove himself before the team decided to start Foye Oluokun, and then they did. For a sixth round rookie, his ascendance to playing time and his competence once he got it was frankly remarkable.
That’s why it’s easy to see Oluokun as a player who hasn’t begun to scratch the surface of what he can do in the NFL, and that’s why it’s easy to see the Falcons giving him plenty of playing time to determine if he can be their long-term third linebacker or even the eventual replacement for De’Vondre Campbell. He’s physical, athletic and showed some genuinely impressive coverage instincts at times in 2018, and there’s no reason to think he can’t push for a starting job in name if not in snaps for the season ahead.
CB/S Damontae Kazee
On one hand, it would be difficult for Kazee’s role to actually grow, given that he proved to be a capable full-time starter as the team’s free safety in 2018. On the other hand, the Falcons have to find a way to get him on the field even with Ricardo Allen back and healthy (we hope), and that’s an imperative in 2019.
To that end, Kazee is likely to find his way into playing time across the secondary. When the team needs a third safety, Kazee’s an obvious fit for that. When the team needs physicality at cornerback, they can trot Kazee out there. There’s even a chance that Kazee could beat out Brian Poole for nickel cornerback duties, given his superior upside in coverage if not bone-jarring sideline hits. Any way you slice it, though, he didn’t turn in the 2018 season with all its huge interceptions and encouraging strides in coverage to sit on the bench in 2019.
Who else belongs on this list?