The final seven games are going to mean a lot to a lot of people in the Falcons organization. There are coaches aiming for jobs, foremost among them interim head coach Raheem Morris, and there are players looking for new contracts or just to survive what promises to be a lively offseason with a new general manager in charge. It’s no exaggeration to say that falling flat against this tough slate is going to be costly for many, if it comes to that.
With that in mind, I want to take a closer look at the roster and see who really stands to benefit from a strong finish. Here are a few Falcons on offense who can really help themselves by playing well over Atlanta’s final seven games, especially as they audition for what seems likely to be a new coaching staff in 2021.
RB Brian Hill
Todd Gurley seems unlikely to return next year, to put it mildly. Gurley’s having a solid year all told but it’s hard to imagine the team sinking $5 million into running back next year with
Hill, meanwhile, will be a free agent next year, but should be a more affordable one. He’s been productive as Gurley’s unquestioned backup this year, with about 350 combined yards on 67 touches, and has only 165 NFL regular season carries since arriving in the league. The next regime will almost certainly want to draft their featured back, but Hill can make a strong case for sticking around as a top backup or even early season starter with a quality finish to the year. Much will depend on the offensive coordinator, but Hill’s at least shown value as a runner, receiver, and blocker to this point.
WR Russell Gage
Gage, more than anyone, needs a strong finish to the season. The team’s unquestioned #3 receiver heading into the year had 160 yards and a touchdown on 15 receptions in the season’s first two weeks, but in seven games since he’s had just 19 grabs for 219 yards and and zero scores, with about half that production coming in two weeks. Olamide Zaccheaus has outproduced him more than once this year.
That matters because again, the next regime isn’t going to have ties to many (if any) players on the roster, which means Gage is not guaranteed to walk into the third receiver role for the second straight season. His ability to make tough catches in traffic and especially his value as a blocker should not be underrated, but a new coaching staff might be intrigued by Zaccheaus’s speed or might wish to dip into the draft to snag their own high-upside third option, especially with no long-term guarantees that Julio Jones will be here past 2021.
Stats aren’t going to be the primary driver for the next regime when it comes to deciding Gage’s role, but I do think turning on the jets in the final seven games would help his case.
TE Hayden Hurst
Hurst is sort of the opposite of Gage. He got off to a relatively slow start, with three solid-to-big weeks paired with three quiet efforts, but he’s been rolling for the past four weeks, with over 250 of his 411 yards coming in that span. Hurst’s speed makes him dangerous but Koetter has been using him a lot more on short routes, especially to the sideline, and letting him make catches in traffic and/or try to pick up additional yards, which might not be the ideal use case for the next offensive staff.
Like Gage, though, Hurst could use a strong final stretch. Luke Stocker and Jaeden Graham may well be gone next year, leaving Hurst as the only option on the roster, so it’s not like he’s going anywhere. He can still fend off any challengers and angle for a long-term deal with a nice year next year, and he can line himself up for that unquestioned role by continuing to play well down the stretch.
G James Carpenter
Carpenter is an interesting case, and I didn’t expect him to be. The veteran guard was abysmal last year before he got hurt, with Pro Football Focus grading him out as maybe the worst offensive lineman on the team. This year, he hasn’t been great but has been healthy and mostly pretty solid, especially as a run blocker.
The Falcons have a looming decision to make with his contract, as they can save just over $4 million in 2021 and about $5 million in 2022 by cutting ties with him in the offseason. I think that’s the likeliest course of action for any number of reasons, but Carpenter’s at least made his case to stick around to this point, and can make that case even more strongly by keeping Matt Ryan clean and opening holes for Todd Gurley and company the rest of the way.
C Matt Hennessy
Hennessy also has plenty to prove, but it’s going to be difficult for him to get much of a chance to show anything because all five starters on the offensive line are healthy and entrenched.
If there was continuity with the offense, Hennessy would step into the starting job at center next year to replace Alex Mack, who is probably playing his final season in Atlanta. If Morris doesn’t return as the head coach, the Falcons will have an entirely new coaching staff, one that might hail from an offensive background and be looking for something very different philosophically. That leaves it as an open question whether Hennessy will be handed a chance to start at left guard, at center, or whether he’ll be fighting for a gig against a raft of incoming players who are preferred choices for the next coaching staff. Any playing time he can get in the coming weeks—especially if he plays well—figures to make a difference for him.