The playoff dream is dead, for all intents and purposes. Atlanta could win out and sneak in to the postseason with odds so slim you couldn’t see them if they turned sideways, but we’re not going to expend any energy talking about that unless it happens.
The Falcons won’t lack for motivation—these are professionals, and professional athletes and coaches have plenty to play for and coach for—but with three games left to go and the playoff fires having died down it’s still worth talking about what this team can reasonably get out of the final three games.
Last night I chatted with Aaron Freeman on the the Locked On Falcons podcast and he asked me, in essence, what was left to play for now that this team is all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. My response was that this really is evaluation time in a season that really ought to be all about evaluation, given that this team desperately needs to figure out who is going to be here next year as they approach a pivotal offseason, and that’s the big takeaway.
Here are a few things the Falcons will be and should be taking a harder look at these final three games, regardless of results.
One final look at young players
Given everything we know about Dean Pees, I don’t think he’s suddenly going to give Richie Grant 50 snaps a game over the final three weeks, even if I wish he would. I don’t think Frank Darby is suddenly going to get 30 a game on offense, either.
Those two are the players I’d most like to see getting an extended look, because Grant needs to be a productive starter for this defense in 2022 and Darby could at least be a valuable reserve. But it’s also critical for this staff to continue to look at the rest of this draft class, given that every single player in it needs to be a contributor of some kind if this team is going to make real progress in 2022. That means being able to spend an offseason working with Kyle Pitts to take better advantage of his limitless potential, a spring and summer for Jalen Mayfield to spend time on the uh handful of issues he’s had this year in pass protection, and get Adetokunbo Ogundeji on a plan to build on an encouraging rookie season by working on his pass rushing toolkit. And so on.
The Falcons had to toss some of their rookies into the fire in 2021 when they may not have wanted to. The playing time afforded to every rookie outside of Darby—and even he’s getting some special teams run these days—should be something the Falcons can use to figure out how to get this absolutely critical draft class improved for next season.
Who is going to be in Atlanta in 2022
You’d fully expect all the rookies to return. What about some of the veterans on one year deals?
You’d expect Atlanta to want at least a few of these players back. Cordarrelle Patterson went from Pro Bowl-caliber kick returner to one of the league’s most dangerous offensive weapons with the Falcons, and it’s almost assured the team will try to get him back. Things are less certain for the likes of Fabian Moreau, Duron Harmon, Colby Gossett, Jason Spriggs, Steven Means, and Thomas Morstead, just to name a handful of players who have played roles both large and small in 2021. As I wrote earlier this season, the Falcons have truck-sized roster holes at receiver and tight end on offense heading into next year and very little on defense outside of an interesting young group in the secondary and Grady Jarrett.
Ideally, the Falcons would be able to affordably bring back players like Erik Harris (who is unfortunately on injured reserve), Moreau, Morstead and Gossett back, given that Harris would be extremely useful depth at worst, Moreau is a credible starter, this team needs quality interior offensive line depth badly, and Morstead has been a terrific punter since arriving in Atlanta. Determining whether that’s the right course of action for a roster that will be retooling without a ton of cap space for the second straight year is imperative, and the final three games offer an opportunity to mull that further.
Identifying where outside help is needed
If you have a pretty good feel for which free agents you want to bring back and where your young players slot in to the roster next year—barring a summer of evaluation, obviously—then you have an idea of where you need to add help. I think in an unguarded moment Terry Fontenot might admit to you that this team’s list of needs is enormous, but the final three games may help lend clarity to just how significant the need is at some key positions.
Receiver is a great example. Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus are both impending free agents, but they’re also players the coaching staff is now familiar with. With zero certainty about whether Calvin Ridley is coming back, receiver could be a position the team chooses to essentially blow up and start over with. In recent weeks, though, Gage has come on extremely strong and has been a productive receiver despite having to carry the mantle of the #1 guy in the passing game, which may make the team inclined to bring him back to function as a #2 or #3 in a rebuilt corps. Similarly, Zaccheaus appears to have done enough as a receiver and special teamer after a slow start to the year to return, and he can help his case for that further against Detroit, Buffalo and New Orleans as the team’s #3 receiver of the moment.
The Falcons are going to have to get creative to fill all the holes on their roster in 2022. If they feel better about what they’ve got or who they might credibly re-sign in part based on the final three games, that’d be swell.
Figuring out opportunities for coaching staff improvements
We’ve seen this coaching staff bristle at criticism at times in 2022, with Dean Pees taking umbrage to questions about playing time for young players and terming a game “an ugly win,” and Arthur Smith looking pretty surly post-Buccaneers game. I understand that to an extent int he face of criticism, but obviously that can’t translate into the coaching staff being unwilling to learn from or even acknowledge their mistakes.
The roster getting significant upgrades is going to be pivotal for this team’s 2022 success, as we’d all acknowledge. This coaching staff is going to spend months looking at tape and self-evaluating, though, and the hope is that they’ll find and correct as many flaws in things like red zone play calling as possible. If they’re able to find some fixes in the here and now for a messy passing game and defense prone to letting quarterbacks pick them apart underneath, so much the better.
I’m less concerned with this exercise from Marquice Williams, who I think has done a tremendous job with special teams, but there are surely opportunities there as well.
What else will you be looking at from the outside over the final three games?