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Which Falcons are under the most pressure to perform well this season?

There are five key players who must play at a higher level and stay on the field in 2019.

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NFL: New York Giants at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

After countless injuries and numerous close defeats led to a disappointing 2018 season, the Atlanta Falcons know how much pressure is on them. The front office is aware of the high expectations. The revamped coaching staff knows they need to get their team back to the playoffs. The roster recognizes how much pressure is on them to play at a championship-caliber level. It’s all understood.

For all the new additions and draft picks expected to play prominent roles, there are several players on the roster coming off disappointing seasons. It mostly comes from injury, poor performance, or an inability to evolve as a player. There are five players who fit these criteria and must elevate their game and stay healthy in order for the Falcons to be a legitimate contender again. Dan Quinn has expressed confidence in all five, but it will be on them to prove they can consistently play at a high level.

Vic Beasley

It’s easy to pinpoint which player on the roster is under the most pressure. Following a memorable 2016 season, everyone expected Beasley to develop into one of the most terrifying edge rushers in the league. His blistering first step, exceptional athleticism, and change of direction ability gave several tackles fits. His lack of signature moves and strength didn’t prevent him from becoming the NFL sack king. Although his production wasn’t necessarily sustainable, the hope was for Beasley to generate more pressure and not be reliant on coverage sacks and hustle plays.

That hasn’t come to fruition over the past two seasons. The former first round pick isn’t showing any signs of evolving as an edge rusher. His lethargic approach and predictable speed rush fail to give opposing tackles many issues. How Beasley hasn’t converted his remarkable traits into consistent production must be mind-boggling for the coaching staff.

However, not many edge rushers possess the speed and agility that Beasley has coming off the edge. For him to not develop a spin move or another counter move yet in his career is greatly concerning. Quinn will be taking a more “hands-on” approach going into this season. It’s not a surprising stance for him to take, when you consider Beasley was the first draft pick during his tenure. He must do everything possible to get Beasley back into being the difference maker he was in 2016, and Beasley will hope to make a splash heading into free agency in 2020.

Devonta Freeman

Freeman is the lone player on this list whose ability can’t be questioned. It’s his durability that raises concern going into 2019.

The dynamic running back has struggled to stay healthy over the past two seasons. Before ultimately missing the entire 2018 season, Freeman suffered multiple concussions and played through PCL, MCL sprains in 2017. It’s been a difficult two years for a player who was starting to be regarded as one of the best running backs in the league. There aren’t many players who can do what Freeman does, from finding creases on broken down plays to making defenders miss in the open field.

Another injury-plagued season will raise major doubts about Freeman’s future. As talented as he is, no organization can afford to pay such a massive salary to a player who can’t stay healthy. Freeman clearly deserved the huge contract he received in 2017. What he did in 2015 and 2016 was extremely impressive. It also can’t be forgotten that Freeman played an integral role in their playoff push two seasons ago. Without his impressive performances in Atlanta’s victories over New Orleans and Tampa Bay, it’s hard to see how they make the playoffs.

Freeman is still one of the most valuable players on the roster. They will need his vision, shiftiness, toughness, and versatility to help get the offense back where it should be at the top of the league. Based on Quinn’s comments during minicamp, there is reason to be encouraged about Freeman’s recovery heading into training camp.

Takkarist McKinley

High expectations were placed on McKinley following an impressive rookie season. In the final nine games of the 2017 season, McKinley produced seven sacks and developed into Atlanta’s most consistent pass rusher. His rise to prominence includes multiple drive-killing sacks against Los Angeles and Philadelphia in the playoffs. Between his absurd raw power and phenomenal relentless motor, there was plenty of buzz surrounding the charismatic edge rusher going into last season.

Despite improving on his sack total in 2018, four-and-half of his seven sacks came in his first five games of the season. The lack of consistency and development in his game became apparent. McKinley entered the league as a raw pass rusher. His physical attributes, explosive traits, and work ethic propelled him into being a first-round caliber talent. Under Quinn’s tutelage, many expected him to push for ten sacks in 2018. He wasn’t far off from reaching that total, yet there were large portions of the season where McKinley was anonymous.

By not making any major free agent signings or drafting any edge rushers in the early rounds, the coaching staff remains confident in McKinley as one of their main edge rushers. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about his growth. McKinley is a notably hard worker, who has improved his ability to bend and use his hands. Developing a few moves will be vital for his development into becoming a true force. He can no longer be reliant on bull rushing tackles out of the way. For all his lack of moves, McKinley deserves credit for generating pressure 15.6% of the time on pass rushing snaps per Next Gen Stats. It’s time for the former first round pick to convert his high amount of pressure into more sacks, and this should be the year he does it.

De’Vondre Campbell

Although the versatile linebacker has shown a considerable amount of improvement since his rookie season, there is a decent chance the Falcons won’t re-sign him in 2020. Campbell is entering the final year on his rookie deal. After taking a leap in his second season back in 2017, Campbell failed to take another step forward in 2018. It can be argued that too much responsibility was placed on him following Deion Jones’ serious foot injury.

Despite wanting to take on a bigger role, Campbell is still acclimating to being a three-down linebacker. He didn’t handle those responsibilities in college nor his rookie season. Asking a relatively raw player to play every down as a linebacker can be a difficult transition. That may have been a reason behind the lack of memorable plays, even if he’s been consistently solid. With Jones healthy and Foye Olukoun emerging as a real talent, Campbell will likely revert back to rotating between the weak side and strong side. Quinn enjoys utilizing him in both areas because of his power, long arms, and ability to cause havoc on blitzes and jam tight ends near the line of scrimmage.

Campbell can be effective in multiple areas, and not being asked to play every down could benefit him in the long haul. That will allow the former fourth round pick to be used in a more creative manner rather than playing as a traditional three-down linebacker, especially as a pass rusher. Regardless of his specific role, it’s imperative Campbell gets back to making big plays and getting off blocks more consistently against the run.

Desmond Trufant

Considering how high Trufant set the bar from 2014 to 2017, it’s understandable why his play was criticized last season. Some will claim he hasn’t played at a high level since tearing his pectoral in 2016. Others will claim the former Pro Bowler isn’t anywhere near the lockdown corner he once was. Both are valid critiques, albeit slightly harsh assessments.

The biggest concern about Trufant’s play last season was his lack of aggression. Whether it came from missing an open field tackle or not fulfilling his coverage assignment, he definitely allowed several big plays. A player of Trufant’s caliber was caught out of position far too many times last season. Despite drawing criticism for his underwhelming play throughout the year, Trufant still performed relatively well later in the season. . According to Pro Football Focus, he broke up 12 passes last season. That’s a decent amount for someone who was under major scrutiny during the Falcons’ early-season losing streak.

The pressure on Trufant simply comes down to being able to play at a near-elite level. Can he return to the form that made him a top-five corner in 2014 and 2015? Will he provide stability at a position that was once locked down in Atlanta? By reducing the careless penalties and capitalizing on a few errant throws, Trufant can erase any notion of him declining as a player.