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Developing young players could pay dividends for Arthur Smith’s Falcons

The Falcons stuck with players like Jalen Mayfield and Cameron Nizialek after poor starts to the season, and both showed significant improvement in Week 3. Arthur Smith’s commitment to developing young players could pay big dividends in future years.

Atlanta Falcons v New York Giants Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons got off to a very shaky start over the first two games of the 2021 NFL season. They were blown off the turf in the second half by the Philadelphia Eagles, eventually losing 32-6 after the offense could barely function due to the play of the offense line. In Week 2, Atlanta put together a game effort against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, pulling within 3 points late in the third quarter. An offensive collapse in the fourth quarter—including two pick-sixes—wound up giving the Bucs a 23-point win, 48-25.

Heading into Week 3 against the New York Giants, it’s safe to say expectations were low for this Falcons team. While Atlanta didn’t have a great outing, the team did just enough to come away with the win. The offense continued to struggle mightily, with a lot of question marks concerning the usage of Kyle Pitts and the extremely conservative passing game. But the defense delivered, holding the Giants in check throughout the game and making the key stop in the final minutes that allowed Atlanta’s game-winning field goal.

Integral to this win was the play of the offensive line, which went from downright putrid in Week 1 to solid in Week 3. The biggest concern after the loss to the Eagles was rookie left guard Jalen Mayfield, who registered an unbelievable 1.8 pass blocking grade according to PFF. He was also PFF’s lowest-graded offensive lineman over the first two games, which naturally led to a lot of concern. I even wrote a piece attempting to figure out what Atlanta should do with the left guard position going forward.

In that piece, I came to the conclusion that the best answer—at least in the short-term—was to give Mayfield until at least Week 3 to see if he could show improvement. The reasons for this were pretty simple: 1) the Falcons don’t have any better options on the roster to replace him, 2) their cap space is limited and so are the options on the free agent market, and 3) they’ve shown a huge reluctance to trade away future draft assets to supplement this year’s roster.

It’s also obvious that the Falcons want Mayfield to succeed and become their left guard of the future. That’s why he was drafted in the third round. But I think we can all agree that the circumstances leading up to his start in Week 1 were awful. For starters, guard is a completely new position for him—Mayfield played right tackle in college. So it was a position change and a side of the line change. Both of those transitions are not easy or simple. He also barely got any reps at left guard in training camp and preseason due to injuries at tackle, and when he did get reps, most of them were behind presumptive starter Josh Andrews.

Taking all that into consideration, it’s not hard to see why Mayfield struggled to such an extent. He had to go up against one of the best defensive lines in football in his first-ever NFL action, and he predictably got abused. But Arthur Smith stuck with him, throwing him up against an equally-daunting opponent in Week 2. While Mayfield certainly wasn’t good against the Buccaneers, he was...serviceable. Considering where he was in Week 1, it was a significant improvement.

In Week 3, Mayfield made another significant leap. His performance against the Giants—who featured another dominant interior duo with Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams—wasn’t just serviceable, it was good. Mayfield wound up finishing the game with a 73.2 overall PFF grade, a massive jump from his previous grades in the 20s.

After two weeks as arguably the worst guard in football, Mayfield leapt up to around the top-10 guards in the league. Whether this was simply a positive blip on the radar or a sign of consistent growth is still TBD, and we’ve got a lot of football left this year. But it’s a very encouraging sign for a player who got absolutely abused over his first two games in the league. The mental toughness is clearly there with Jalen Mayfield—and it seems that Arthur Smith was right to place his trust in the development of the rookie.

Another player worth mentioning is punter Cameron Nizialek. After a solid Week 1, Nizialek struggled mightily in Week 2 against the Bucs. A series of shanked punts contributed in a big way to the Bucs surge late in the game, and it was clear that Smith and the coaching staff were upset with the young punter. A report even surfaced—which was later walked back—that the team was considering waiving Nizialek outright for his performance.

While the team did have several punters in for a visit and ended up signing veteran Dustin Colquitt to the practice squad, the decision was made to give Nizialek another shot in Week 3. With a chance to redeem himself, Nizialek delivered against the Giants: 3 punts inside the 20, with an excellent kick downed at the 3-yard line. He was regularly booming the ball for 55+ yards, although two of the punts were neutralized by strong returns from Jabrill Peppers.

While it would’ve been easier to hand the reins to a veteran like Dustin Colquitt, who has been punting in the NFL since 2005, the team took a chance to let the young player develop. That decision could have long-term benefits for this team, as Nizialek is just 26 years old and has an existing relationship with kicker Younghoe Koo. Colquitt, on the other hand, is 39 years old and is not likely to provide much outside of the 2021 season.

These are just two examples of this coaching staff’s commitment to developing young players, and perhaps actually finding some success in doing so. Going this route is certainly cheaper than looking for solutions in free agency, particularly when you’re as cash-strapped as Atlanta. Despite the insistence that the Falcons planned to be competitive this year—whatever that means—2021 is largely going to be about evaluating this roster for the future and determining which pieces to keep, and which to replace.

Getting multiple offensive line starters settled in Jalen Mayfield and Matt Hennessy would be huge going into 2022, allowing the team to focus draft resources elsewhere. Finding a young, low-cost punter like Nizialek would also be a nice surprise. While we haven’t seen a ton from the draft class yet, the hope has to be that we can make a starter out of Richie Grant and at least rotational players out of Ogundeji, Darren Hall, and TaQuon Graham.

Seeing this early commitment to playing and developing rookies and young players is very encouraging, and it could wind up paying big dividends for the Falcons and Arthur Smith over the course of 2021 and beyond.