Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot have a big lift in front of them. The Falcons roster is far from bereft of talent, but in the coming years the need to bolster or rebuild almost every position is still evident. In 2021, they’ll be forced to some extent to rely on guys already on the roster, which is probably not ideal from their perspective given how players outside of Atlanta’s stars have fared.
Still, there are capable reserves or possible starters on this roster who don’t rise to the level of the Matt Ryans, Julio Joneses, and Grady Jarretts that are guaranteed roles in 2021 and perhaps well beyond. These players have an opportunity to impress the new coaching staff and prove they belong here over the long haul, organizational changes be damned.
Here’s a look at guys on both sides of the ball who have real opportunities to take small-to-decent-sized roles and convince a new regime to keep them around beyond 2021.
RB Ito Smith
Ito’s headed for free agency in 2022, which makes this a critical season for him regardless. If he shines in 2021, though, it could be a good opportunity for him to prove he’s the long-term #2 back in Atlanta.
In Tennessee, Arthur Smith had the luxury of a back who could take on the majority of the touches out of the backfield, which left lightly-used backups like Dion Lewis and Darrynton Evans behind Derrick Henry. He won’t have that same luxury in Atlanta, at least initially, and so having a versatile and experienced backup option or two figures to be critically important. Ito showed in 2020 that he could have some success even with an absolutely miserable gameplan, given his physicality and ability to make a cut and leave defenders behind, and he’s proven again and again that he can be an asset in the passing game.
With a coaching staff that will hopefully be more capable of utilizing his talents and a depth chart that needs a lot of work, Ito will be in line for a significant number of touches, and can eithere make himself some money in 2022 elsewhere or position himself as a valued piece of the backfield in Atlanta for the long haul.
WR Olamide Zaccheaus
There were flashes of brilliance last year for Zaccheaus and some ugly moments to go with them. Regardless of the ups and downs, what we do know about Zaccheaus is that his speed can make him lethal if he can get a favorable matchup.
That should leave him with a role in this offense, likely one similar to speedster Kalif Raymond. The 5’8”, 182 pound Raymond caught 18 balls over the last two seasons in Arthur Smith’s Tennessee offense and put up 357 yards on those catches, averaging nearly 20 yards per grab. If this offense is firing on all cylinders—and with the receiving options on hand, it should be—springing Zaccheaus 10-15 times per year for massive gains should be something that interests Smith and company. If Zaccheaus thrives in that limited role, he can be a long-term reserve in this receiving corps.
TE Jaeden Graham
Several things are working in Graham’s favor. The Falcons have only one tight end under contract, Graham is going to be dirt cheap as an exclusive rights free agent, and assistant offensive line coach Chandler Henley was his tight ends coach at Yale and should be able to offer a glowing recommendation for his skills.
Graham is unlikely to be better than the third tight end on the depth chart this year—Smith’s love affair with tight ends means this team will sign or draft at least one—but he’s a good athlete, a capable receiver and a solid blocker, and Hayden Hurst may or may not be back beyond 2021. Like Ito, he’ll have a role in this offense if he shows well this summer, and he could parlay that into a long-term reserve gig in Atlanta with a coach who can maximize his talents.
OL Matt Gono
My appreciation for Gono is no great secret. When he’s been pressed into a starting role at guard he’s been fine, and when he’s had to fill in at tackle he’s looked downright good. Gono should be back as a restricted free agent with versatility on a line that needs significant help, and there are a variety of ways he can prove he belongs in Atlanta over the long haul.
The first is winning the battle for the left guard job, which could be a patchwork affair if Atlanta can’t snag someone like Nick Easton affordably in free agency. The second would be to win the swing tackle job, which would seem to be an easy task for a player who has shown himself to be quite capable as a tackle. The third would be simply being a capable backup at multiple positions for a line with some unsettled spots. There’s value in all those roles, and Gono can set himself up nicely for a starting job or long-term reserve role by simply
DE Jacob Tuioti-Mariner
One of the best stories of that miserable 2020 season was JTM, a player who developed over the course of multiple seasons on the Falcons practice squad and then seized a real role in the defensive line rotation. In a reserve role, Tuioti-Mariner managed 15 pressures and a sack while playing quality run defense. As an exclusive rights free agent on a decimated defensive line, his youth, affordability and well-rounded skillset should serve him well in carving out a role.
That role is unlikely to be major over the long haul, but in the short term the Falcons are going to be hurting for help, and this team has been starved for quality depth for a long time. Tuioti-Mariner showed he can provide that in 2020, and now just needs to build on that.
DT John Cominsky
It’s tempting to throw Deadrin Senat in here as well, but I’m not going to for the same reason I didn’t add Qadree Ollison: They were both buried by the last regime to the extent that I think expectations have to be low, even if I’m rooting for them.
Cominsky has a much clearer path to relevance. Pees will be looking for players who can play both defensive end and defensive tackle credibly, and Cominsky came into the league as a defensive end and spent time in the Dan Quinn defense playing on the interior. He was a consistently solid player as a run stopper and pass rusher, and has an opportunity at an expanded role with such a depleted line and a new staff that might find more to love about his game. Cominsky is one of the few players on this list that could carve out a starting-type role in Atlanta, though he’ll have to really impress to get there.
CBs Kendall Sheffield & Isaiah Oliver
The other players who can carve out starting roles and should be in line for something like that this year are these two. Sheffield was a player the last coaching staff liked a lot, but his play rarely lived up to his promise. Pees and company might look at his athleticism and untapped potential and find a player who is ready to blossom, though, and at minimum Sheffield will make a big push to stick around as a reserve.
Things are more complicated for Oliver. He has extensive starting experience at this point and has consistently shown to be a terrific tackler and even a credible pass rusher, but he mixes stretches of excellent coverage with missteps and a lack of ball skills. His physicality and improvement in a slightly different role down the stretch under Raheem Morris suggests he can be useful for this defense, and if the Falcons don’t make major alterations to the roster, he’s probably in line for a starting job. The question is whether he’ll be able to turn this year into an opportunity to start for Atlanta over the long haul, as he’ll be a free agent after this year.
S Jaylinn Hawkins
Poor Hawkins is probably tired of people like me writing that the Falcons are bereft of options at safety. The second-year player didn’t get a ton of chances to make an impression last year, but is under contract at an affordable price for the next three seasons and brings the kind of hard-nosed play the defensive staff might appreciate at safety. If they don’t make major additions at the position—and I can’t stress how unlikely that is—he could push for a starting role. If nothing else, though, he should have the opportunity to prove he can be a key reserve and special teams cog for an Atlanta team that will need both.