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Will Falcons avoid complacency by making roster changes?

Solving the blocking problems soon can show the Falcons hired the right people.

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NFL: Player Headshots 2021 Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

This week offers another golden opportunity to learn more about the Atlanta Falcons’ new regime spearheaded by head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot.

I’m sure many of you have already noticed the running theme of my last two columns, framing each week as learning opportunities about the new Falcons decision-makers. That is going to continue, given that we don’t have too many positive results on the field to focus on, plus the fact that it’s been several years since we had new decision-makers in Atlanta.

What makes these guys tick and what makes them potentially better than their predecessors that have all failed to bring sustained success and a championship to Atlanta? That will remain an intriguing question for me on a week-to-week basis. And for obvious reasons, I’m hopeful those that continue to read these weekly pieces share that sentiment.

This week’s learning opportunity revolves around roster management, with the Falcons kicking the tires of wide receiver John Brown, adding a new punter to their practice squad, as well as learning more about this regime based on how they handle their ongoing blocking issues.

Each of these issues has shown or will show how Smith and Fontenot can distinguish themselves from the previous regime helmed by former head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

Hunting for roster help

In the case of Brown, he brings positive value as a vertical threat that is sorely missing in the Falcons offense.

Per Pro Football Focus, Matt Ryan has just attempted three passes beyond 20 or more yards, with Jimmy Garoppolo being the only other starter that has made fewer downfield throws. Yet Ryan is the only starter that has yet to complete even one of those throws.

While Brown was not signed on Tuesday, it at least tells us that the team on some level understands that they’re missing something, and is hopefully an indicator that they’ll continue looking in an attempt to rectify that deficiency.

Punter Cam Nizialek has underperformed these first two weeks with multiple shanked punts that have contributed directly to favorable field position and points for opposing offenses. In addition, his kickoffs have been underwhelming, with just 29 percent being touchbacks. That’s a much lower mark than the standards set by Younghoe Koo (42 percent) and Sterling Hofrichter (73 percent) a year ago.

Adding a veteran punter like Dustin Colquitt gives the Falcons an insurance policy that could lead to Nizialek getting the hook at their earliest convenience.

Yet the interior offensive line may not have an immediate fix.

The line remains offensive

The Falcons having troubles upfront is nothing new. We’ve seen bad left guards before and bad centers too. But never before have we seen both at the same time, and that combination is clearly hamstringing the offense.

Swapping out centers is unlikely to fix things, given that the two main problems with current starter Matt Hennessy are that he’s undersized and inexperienced, the latter leading to frequent breakdowns in the team’s protections against blitzes. Given that his backup and potential replacement in Drew Dalman is a 300-pound rookie, it seems unlikely to solve those two specific issues.

Left guard Jalen Mayfield, while showing modest improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, still remains a liability thanks to being the lowest-graded guard per PFF in the league both weeks. This week’s matchup against the New York Giants and defensive tackle Leonard Williams might potentially be the last opportunity for Mayfield to showcase he belongs in the starting lineup.

Unlike the situation with the center, the Falcons are not as compelled to stick with Mayfield moving forward. Veteran Josh Andrews could return from the injured reserve next week, and the team also has Colby Gossett waiting in the wings on the bench.

The main complication involving Mayfield is that they used a third-round selection on him this past spring. Clearly, the team has a vested interest in developing him. But one hopes that Mayfield’s draft status won’t commandeer their decision-making, as it often did with the team under Quinn and Dimitroff’s management.

There are a million ways we can criticize Dimitroff’s tenure as general manager. One major one is the front office’s ardent loyalty to premium draft picks.

The most egregious example is 2015 first-round pick Vic Beasley, who the team decided to extend a nearly $13 million fifth-year option in 2019, despite multiple seasons of underwhelming production as a pass-rusher.

Yet hopefully now it will be a different story now that Fontenot is calling the shots. Notably, he mentioned former Baltimore Ravens GM, Ozzie Newsome, as someone he idolized in his opening press conference back in January. The Ravens experienced a lot of success under Newsome’s supervision, which can be attributed to a multitude of reasons.

The gold standard of general management

One thing that helped the Ravens get an edge was their ability to game the system, by hacking the compensatory pick formula, to gain extra draft selections on a yearly basis.

What Newsome understood that Dimitroff consistently did not was that the key to good drafting was getting more bites at the apple, since as you’ve heard a thousand times before, the NFL Draft is a crapshoot. Another way the Ravens got ahead was because they recognized their mistakes early and did a good job correcting those mistakes.

A great example is when the Ravens selected everybody’s favorite 300-pound former Falcon linebacker, Courtney Upshaw, with their top selection in the 2012 draft.

But after a lackluster rookie season, the Ravens quickly realized that Upshaw was not poised to provide the caliber of pass rush they needed to tag-team with Terrell Suggs and quickly added veteran pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil in free agency the following year.

Nor were the Ravens so committed to saving face with the Upshaw selection that they didn’t recognize later-round draft picks Pernell McPhee and Za’Darius Smith as superior pass-rush options in subsequent years, playing them ahead of Upshaw as often as possible.

The Ravens never gave up completely on Upshaw, as he continued to be a starter and rotational player for them. But they didn’t hamstring their defense trying to prove to the world that Upshaw was a worthwhile draft pick.

Unlike the Falcons with Beasley, the Ravens never doubled down on Upshaw. And Smith and Fontenot have an opportunity in front of them to follow the Ravens and Newsome’s example by not doing the same with Mayfield.

Salvaging the Mayfield Experiment

Of course, many will suggest that I’m being too impatient in regards to Mayfield given that he’s only a few games into his NFL career.

But in studying his college tape, many of his current flaws were readily apparent, thus making his initial selection a head-scratcher, to say the least. Mayfield represents a multi-year project and the thought of him taking his lumps (along with the quarterback) for the next few seasons doesn’t help him nor the team.

Yet perhaps I am being a tad impetuous and Mayfield will wind up performing like a capable NFL starter. The next three weeks going up against Leonard Williams, Jonathan Allen and Quinnen Williams would be a perfect time to start.

Once again Beasley comes to mind, who did in fact improve in 2019 thanks to Quinn taking a hands-on approach. But that was too little, too late. Why did we have to wait until Beasley’s fifth season before he learned to use basic counter moves?

If the current Falcons coaching staff under Smith can get Mayfield performing like a competent starting guard within a few months by the end of his first year rather than fifth, it will certainly show that they can fast-track development to a degree that trounces Quinn’s staff.

Ultimately the Falcons will choose either to stick with Mayfield at left guard or not. If they stick with him and he improves, that’s a great sign. If they don’t stick with him and get better play from his replacement, that’s also a positive outcome. Even if they don’t stick with Mayfield and alternate options aren’t better, that still is beneficial because it shows that this new regime won’t be complacent.

But should they stick with Mayfield and he shows minimal or no growth, that’s the worst outcome. And ultimately that choice may also inform us on whether this team is truly in “win now” mode or their goals are more in line with that of a long-term rebuild.

Either way, we’re going to discern a lot about this new regime based on the outcome of the left guard position and other potential roster changes.

Do you think the Falcons should pull the plug on Jalen Mayfield or stick it out? What about other problem spots on the roster? Should the new regime borrow from the Ravens’ handbook or forge its own path?