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The Falcons should try to keep one eye on the future for Week 17

The Buccaneers aren’t resting their starters. Should the Falcons still prioritize young players?

Atlanta Falcons v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Falcons have plenty to play for, as we’ve indicated before, because there are jobs on the line across the coaching staff and roster. They’re not going to walk into a Week 17 matchup against the Buccaneers expecting or desiring to lose just to get the year over with.

With the Bucs electing to play starters, there’s even less incentive for the Falcons to take their foot off the gas, especially since beating Brady in this one would mean they (sadly) will have beaten him for the first time in his time in the league. But that doesn’t mean the Falcons can or should pass up the opportunity to give chances to younger players who may well be major players on next year’s squad, as futile as it might be to stump for that.

With just one game left, here’s what I’m hoping to see Sunday. There’s nothing overly dramatic here, just ways to get a handful of young players a real opportunity.

Flex Kurt Benkert to the roster

The Falcons may well draft a quarterback early in the upcoming draft. If they don’t because the new regime is confident in Matt Ryan, at least for the moment, chances are good they won’t be bringing Matt Schaub back either way.

A quick look at Benkert if this one gets out of hand—or hell, just late in the game when the Bucs may be phasing out some of their own starters—would be welcome both for Benkert and this team. They may well need him in 2021.

Matt Gono and Matt Hennessy starting again

Justin McCray and James Carpenter are very likely to be playing elsewhere in 2021, and so is Alex Mack. Carpenter and Mack may or may not be able to suit up Sunday, but I’d still like to see Gono and Hennessy out there.

Gono was not great at guard on Sunday and seems to have a brighter future at tackle, but there’s an opening at the guard position and he’s a logical contender for it if he can show more in this matchup. At the very least, you’d have to expect the next regime to be interested in Gono as a top reserve, given his positional flexibility and fine work in two starts at right tackle this season, so a longer look at a player likely to be part of the team’s plans just makes sense.

Hennessy, meanwhile, just needs the experience. He’s the odds-on favorite to replace Mack at center next season and hasn’t gotten to play much this year with Mack healthy (until recently) and James Carpenter staying healthy and playing decently (again, until recently). The Falcons would very much like to know how he’ll fare when he’s not tasked with dealing with Chris Jones for a full game, and this would be a nice opportunity to see that in action.

Chris Rowland at returner again

Rowland was the preferred returner option for many Falcons fans this summer, but he’s spent the year on the practice squad without an opportunity. On Sunday against the Chiefs, the Falcons flexed him to the roster and he got...zero returns. Unfortunate.

It’d be nice for Rowland to get one more chance to show his value there before the next regime comes in with their own priorities, especially because his potential is so significant. The Falcons haven’t had a great return option since Devin Hester and Rowland at least looks like he could get there. Sunady would be an opportunity to show that, assuming he ever gets the ball.

As much Jacob Tuioti-Mariner as possible

Tuioti-Mariner is one of the very few defensive ends the Falcons can bring back next year. Allen Bailey and Dante Fowler Jr. are the only two under contract, but both have been relatively disappointing given their cap charges and could be gone. Tuioti-Mariner, meanwhile, is an exclusive rights free agent this year and restricted free agent the year after that, making him extremely affordable to bring back to Atlanta.

Given that, he’s likely to have a real role in 2021 out of necessity. He’s pretty consistently done good things in the snaps he has had in 2020, but I’d like to see him get one more extended opportunity to show his worth before this year wraps up.

What else would you like to see?