I know, I know, it’s only eight games into the year. The bye week still provides us with an excellent time to take a deep breath and consider what’s really ahead and at stake before eight more games wash over us.
We’re months away from knowing what the Falcons are going to do with this group, but again, it’s worth considering what they might do given the profound implications for the 2020 season. It may be a rebuilding year, but it’s unlikely to be a complete teardown.
Here’s an early look at who the Falcons must re-sign, who they probably should re-sign if they have the cash, and who they’ll probably let walk. We’ll hit the defense and special teams units in the coming days.
TE Austin Hooper
The Falcons have made it clear that Hooper will be a priority, and justly so. Fans and many analysts alike have a weird habit of wanting their NFL teams to get rid of skill position players and just trot out whatever with a great offensive line and quarterback, but the truth is you don’t get elite passing games without elite pass catching options. Hooper is fast becoming one.
Hooper is already fourth on the franchise’s tight end list for receiving yards, receptions, and touchdown grabs, and he’s in the midst of what will probably go down as by far the most impressive season of his young career. He won’t be 25 until next November, is a fine blocker when called upon, and has grown by leaps and bounds as a route runner and receiver. With Mohamed Sanu moving on and Russell Gage potentially replacing him as the third receiver, the Falcons need a fast and physical option for third downs now more than ever, and Hooper more than fits the bill.
It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be cheap, in all likelihood, but the Falcons will do everything in their power to keep Hooper around.
QB Matt Schaub
The Falcons will quit Matt Schaub when they damn well feel like it, and seeing how they have a reasonably cheap $2 million option on him for 2020, it may not be that year. The Falcons will likely see what Kurt Benkert looks like following his return from injury and may mix in Danny Etling (assuming he’s headed back to the practice squad) in the spring and summer. If they don’t love what they see—and if they don’t use one of their late picks on a developmental option—Schaub may well be back. His strong performance against the Seahawks probably helped his case.
RB Brian Hill
Hill is a restricted free agent and can probably be kept for the original round tender, though some enterprising team starved for a running back could make it interesting. Hill’s done nothing in his limited opportunities but show real skill as a runner, and with Ito Smith’s concussions piling up, Qadree Ollison a total unknown, and Devonta Freeman’s contract looking like one the team might try to re-do or escape in the next year or two, Hill is a guy they should probably try to keep around.
That said, if Free’s here, Ito’s healthy, and the team still likes Ollison under the next regime, he’s probably not a strictly necessary player.
WR Justin Hardy
Hardy’s role on offense has remained small but steady. Russell Gage is pushing for the third receiver gig and Christian Blake and Olamide Zaccheaus may have roles in the near future, but Hardy’s blocking in particular and sure hands to a lesser extent still give him a real in whatever version of this Falcons offense is yet to come. Add in his role on special teams and it’s fair to argue that Hardy is exactly the kind of versatile, affordable player the Falcons need to lean on down the depth chart in 2020.
G Wes Schweitzer
The Falcons have made it clear, over and over again, that Wes Schweitzer is not their first option. That hasn’t stopped him from starting a lot of games.
He started 16 games in 2017, and when the team attempted to replace him in 2018, injuries forced him to start another 13 games. The Falcons literally drafted a guard with the 14th overall pick and signed two guards to hefty free agents deals and Schweitzer has started two games again and has played in all eight in some capacity. Schweitzer is not a spectacular player by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s not a liability either, and his ability to fill in at both guard spots and center makes him valuable.
He’s not going to be as cheap heading into 2020, and linemen-starved teams will probably take a hard look at him if he makes it to free agency at age 27. It’d be nice if the Falcons could retain him with Lindstrom coming off injury, Jamon Brown and/or James Carpenter dinged up, and Alex Mack getting older, but I sense he won’t be a priority yet again.
RB Kenjon Barner
Barner’s been a useful enough player, as he’s handled some light touches on offense and returns when healthy, but none of that work has been truly superlative, and that’s probably what it will take for Barner to return in 2020.
FB Keith Smith
Smith has been fine, but the Falcons have barely run the ball, Smith is lightly used at best in this offense, and new offensive coordinators tend to bring with them new fullback preferences. I don’t think Smith will be back.
G John Wetzel
John Wetzel’s Excellent Roster Adventure will probably end in 2020. Poor guy