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Which Falcons have the most to prove over the final four games of the season?

These players are vying for larger roles next year or just a roster spot with the Falcons.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

If you look hard enough, there’s always something to be learned from Falcons fans. Not all of it even needs to be negative!

Today, I wanted to look at a group of players who have something to prove in these final four games. They may need to prove they deserve a roster spot in 2020, that they deserved an expanded role next season, or that their already expanded role is one they deserve to keep, but any way you slice it there’s a lot they can do for themselves by playing well in the final four games.

Who won’t be on this list? Chiefly guys who will have major roles no matter what—hello, Matt Ryan—and players who I don’t think have a realistic chance to prove anything, like Deadrin Senat and Matt Gono. There’s no reason that Dan Quinn, who has buried those players all year long, is suddenly going to have a change of heart as he fights to save his job.

Those clarifications out of the way, let’s jump in.

RB Brian Hill

Hill is the obvious name on the running back depth chart for a couple of reasons.

  1. Ito Smith can’t prove himself because he’s on injured reserve;
  2. Devonta Freeman’s contract is onerous and the next coach has more than enough to look at to make a decision on said contract;
  3. Qadree Ollison can’t get many touches with Freeman, Hill, and Kenjon Barner in his way

That leaves Hill as the man with something to prove. He came into this year with some hype and a strong summer and got his shot when Freeman got hurt, but has largely struggled to build on his strong finish to the 2018 season. A lot of that can be chalked up to the same line Freeman and Ollison are struggling to run behind, yes, but Hill probably needs to knock someone’s socks off to be here next year.

With Freeman soaking up a plurality of the snaps, that’s going to mean some big plays, whether they come as a blocker, a pass catcher, or (less likely) a runner. The next head coach will have Smith and Ollison under contract and can either choose to retain Freeman or have the front office draft yet another back, which leaves Hill an his impending free agency on the outside looking in.

WR Russell Gage

Gage has already proven plenty. He’s proven to be a terrific short-to-intermediate option, he’s proven to be a much better route runner than I would’ve expected, and he’s proven to be someone Matt Ryan clearly trusts. All that’s left is to keep building his case to be the team’s #3 wide receiver in 2020, but the likely changing of the guard on the coaching staff makes bolstering that case pretty urgent.

The second-year pro is averaging seven targets, five catches, and 44 yards per game since Mohamed Sanu departed for New England, doing everything the team has asked over him over that time. If he can continue to show improvement—and especially if he gets a chance to use that speed to reel in a couple of deep catches and show off different dimensions of his game—it should be enough to convince Atlanta not to spend big money or a high round draft pick to supplant him. It helps that he’s only 23 years old, too.

The guards

Every single one of them, frankly, with the exception of Matt Gono (more of a tackle, can’t get playing time) and Sean Harlow (practice squad).

Chris Lindstrom needs to prove he’s healthy, even if it’s just for a game, and that he’ll be ready to step into a starting job next year. James Carpenter needs to prove he can be better than a mediocre starting guard to keep his job next year, given that it’s relatively easy to escape his contract. Jamon Brown needs to prove he’s not a penalty and error machine given that the Falcons could move on from him, too, even if it’s a little more difficult financially. And Wes Schweitzer needs to prove that he’s capable of better play than he’s managed in recent weeks, either to stay around as the team’s top guard reserve or to land a quality job elsewhere.

Dirk Koetter’s offense has been ruinously bad for basically every offensive lineman, and I don’t believe all of these guards are quite as bad as they’ve seemed. That’s not going to stop the next coaching staff from clearing out everyone except Lindstrom and the best of the trio, whoever that may be. Brown and Carpenter in particular can help themselves out a lot by playing reasonably well the rest of the way.

DE Takk McKinley

Takk’s an interesting case. He’s on pace to meet or exceed his tackle for loss and quarterback hit totals for 2018, when he had seven sacks, and he’s boasted one of the league’s better pass rush win rates for most of the year. He’s the winner of the Jonathan Babineaux Memorial Close But Not Quite Award this year, something I think the coaching staff recognizes.

But the fact of the matter is that McKinley has just 1.5 sacks on the year, and the team is going to be mulling whether they want to pick up his fifth year option this offseason. Takk’s effort is not in question and he’s played in all but one game in his three seasons in the NFL, but that sack total is going to give the next regime in Atlanta some pause.

He could help himself out a great deal by going on a tear in the final four games, and his season to this point suggests he could go on that tear at any moment. If he doesn’t, I don’t know if I like his chances of getting that option picked up.

CB Kendall Sheffield

Like Gage, Sheffield is guaranteed a role in 2020. He’s played exceptionally well for a fourth round rookie cornerback, displaying great speed, better-than-expected instincts in coverage, and good physicality. The only question remaining is what his role is going to look like next season.

That’s somewhat of an urgent question given that the Falcons might have a new coaching staff who will be tempted to add talent at the position, especially if they do not keep Desmond Trufant around. Sheffield has shown he deserves to be one of the team’s starting three corners, but continuing to improve over the final four games will make that decision more of a slam dunk for the next staff.

K Younghoe Koo

This one’s relatively straightforward. Koo has two ugly misses to his name, but has mostly been effective as the team’s new kicker. His excellence on onside kicks, generally solid performance on field goal tries, and good kickoffs make him a strong bet to at least be involved in the competition for 2020, but the team’s unwillingness to give him long tries and the specter of a new coaching staff means he’s unlikely to going into the year as the undisputed choice.

If he continues to kick well down the stretch—and especially if he can get the Falcons a couple more onside kick recoveries—he may well still be the favorite. We’ll see how he fares.

P Matt Bosher

Bosher is back in action and badly needs four good games. Koo is going to continue to handle kickoffs, limiting Bosher’s role to just punts for the first time in many, many years. Atlanta’s going to be looking to save a buck this offseason and may be tempted to shave $1-$1.5 million off their punter costs by letting Bosher go in free agency.

The best thing he can do for himself is show that he’s healthy and still capable of booming punts, whether he’s returning to Atlanta or grabbing a new job elsewhere.

Who else would you add to this list?