Although it is only Week 6 of the NFL season and it feels like the action has just begun, the Falcons have reached their bye week. That means 12 more games await this team, and it provides the coaching staff an opportunity to really self-scout and make adjustments to the way they are deploying their players.
Partially out of necessity, Atlanta has been forced to rely on its young players so far. That should pay dividends down the road as the players continue to adjust to NFL competition, but, Arthur Smith is also aware of just how long this season can be for a young player.
“So, pleased with the rookies,” Smith said of the contribution from the first-years. “The trick is, you know, now some of them got their feet wet, and they realize how [long] the season is. I mean, we come back, we’ve got 12 games. That’s a whole college regular season right now in front of them so. We got to handle the bye well. We’ll come back and make sure these guys continue to trend in the right direction.”
That seemingly indicates the Falcons are going to be smart with the burden they ask their young players to carry over the remainder of the fall, but the rookies will undoubtedly have a say in that as well. So, while the team dives into their personnel over the bye week why don’t we take a closer look at the rookies?
TE Kyle Pitts – First round, No. 4 overall
With the first of what should be many dominant performances over the course of his career, Kyle Pitts delivered when the Falcons needed him most. Although he didn’t get off to a blistering start, Pitts has already made a habit of timely catches, which may be an even better sign for his long-term outlook. The very first catch of his NFL career helped Atlanta convert on fourth down; he made the play to set up the game-winning kick against New York, and he proved he could be a No. 1 option in a winning effort.
That checks a lot of the boxes in what you’d like to see from a highly drafted offensive weapon. Due to Calvin Ridley missing the last game, Pitts now leads the Falcons with 308 receiving yards. That yardage has come on 24 receptions, an average of 12.8 yards per catch, and Pitts has one touchdown thus far in 2020. Pitts has been used all over the formation in Arthur Smith’s offense, and while he may not have had the start some expected, his arrow is pointed straight up.
S Richie Grant – Second round, No. 40 overall
There was no chance that any rookie would cause more excitement coming out of the draft than Kyle Pitts, but I know a lot of people who in their next breath said they couldn’t wait to see Richie Grant play. Well, the waiting is still sort of happening.
Due to injuries, Grant saw the most action of the season against the New York Jets, playing 28 defensive snaps in addition to his role on special teams. It was the first time since Week 1 that Grant saw the field on defense, which speaks to how the coaching staff is approaching his development. This quote from Arthur Smith came after a question about Mykal Walker’s playing time, but it speaks to the team’s attitude towards its young guys earning reps.
“A lot of stuff on special teams can carry over to defense so, like a lot of our guys, they’ve got to earn the right and the trust of the staff and their teammates,” Smith said. “He’s got to continue to work. Like I said, if he starts to make plays on special teams and improves in practice, he’ll get more reps.”
Grant’s focus so far has been special teams, where he leads all Falcons with 103 snaps. Through five games, he’s fared well in that role, ranking sixth on the team with a PFF grade of 68.1. Given Atlanta’s depth at safety, the team can afford to take things slow with Grant. If he keeps performing on special teams, though, we will see the Falcons get him in the mix a bit more.
OL Jalen Mayfield – Third round, No. 68 overall
An argument can be made that Jalen Mayfield has been in the spotlight more than any other rookie this season, even Kyle Pitts. That hasn’t always been a good thing, either. His first game was extremely rough, to put it nicely, but Mayfield deserves credit for bouncing back as well as he can.
According to PFF, Mayfield has been responsible for four sacks and 20 pressures – both team highs – but the rookie wasn’t expected to be put into this position so early, and he is showing some good stuff in fits and starts. We will get an idea of how far along the team actually thinks Mayfield is when Josh Andrews is ready to come off of IR.
CB Darren Hall – Fourth round, No. 108 overall
Darren Hall saw his first defensive action of the season in Sunday’s win against the New York Jets with Isaiah Oliver and fellow rookie Avery Williams down with injuries. Hall played 17 snaps in the slot and handled himself fairly well.
As is the case with Grant, the coaching staff is taking things slowly with Hall. Recent injuries will likely mean Atlanta will need more out of Hall, and the bye week is a good time to get him prepared.
OL Drew Dalman – Fourth round, No. 115 overall
The only nine offensive snaps of Drew Dalman’s career thus far came in the midst of Mayfield’s nightmare game one. Dalman graded well in those nine snaps, earning a 69.4 from PFF from his performance, but that’s hardly a trustworthy sample size.
The Falcons seem willing to let Mayfield learn on the fly at left guard, and with Matt Hennessy looking serviceable in his first year of action, Dalman hasn’t been needed. He has, however, been part of the field-goal unit for what that’s worth.
DT Ta’Quon Graham – Fifth round, No. 149 overall
The Falcons have been a little more willing to let their rookie defensive linemen get into the mix, and Graham has played nearly an average of 20 snaps per game. It’s been a mixed bag for Graham, as it has for every rookie outside of Pitts, and he’s been trending in the wrong direction.
Graham has five tackles so far this year, but any continued involvement from the fifth-rounder should help his development and help him continue to earn a larger role.
Edge Ade Ogundeji – Fifth round, No. 182 overall
One of the early standouts throughout training camp, Ogundeji has played more snaps than any defensive rookie for the Falcons so far this season. That’s not a bad start for a fifth-round pick, and he notched his first sack against the Jets to build some momentum heading into the bye.
Ogundeji has been fairly consistent throughout his rookie campaign thus far, and he figures to continue to be a part of the rotation. While it remains to be seen how dynamic of a rusher Ogundeji will become, he does have seven pressures through five games and should only grow into his role.
CB Avery Williams – Fifth round, No. 183 overall
Avery Williams was drafted largely because of his special teams prowess, and he at least grabbed a share of the return duties coming out of training camp even if he hasn’t excelled in that role so far. Williams has nine punt returns for 52 yards so far, and he returned four kickoffs for 59 yards in Week 2 against Tampa Bay.
On top of that, Williams has been a key figure on a number of special teams units, and he’s seen action on defense as well due to injuries. Most notably, Williams was the first to fill in for Isaiah Oliver after he went down with an injury early against Washington. In that game, Williams played 50 snaps on defense and earned a respectable 52.2 grade from PFF. Williams is dealing with his own injury now, but he should be able to return sometime after the bye week.
WR Frank Darby – Sixth round, No. 187 overall
A lot of the fan base was very intrigued by Frank Darby when the Falcons drafted him. That could be attributed to the nature of his position, the production he had in limited action at Arizona State or his overflowing personality. Whatever the case, Darby has barely seen the field this season. A large reason for that was a nagging injury that Darby dealt with through much of the first four games, but he did see his first action of the year on special teams against the Jets. Hopefully, the New York game was just the start of Darby’s run on the field in 2021.