We’re three weeks into the season, and that’s enough time to have some idea of roles and performance for the rookie class, if not enough for us to make any sweeping statements about their worth or futures with the team.
Let’s take a closer look at how the rookies are faring, and what we might expect from them in the weeks and months ahead.
TE Kyle Pitts: Starter
Pitts is not throwing down thunderbolts and making one-handed touchdown grabs with impunity, so it’s not quite the start to the season we may have dreamt of. He’s still showing flashes of greatness, playing a full-time role as the clear-cut top tight end on the team, and has been better than anticipated as a blocker. Of course, what we’re hoping for is more of the 20-plus yard catches that Pitts has been tantalizing us with so far, as well as more red zone opportunities.
He’s on pace for something like 50 receptions and 600 yards in the early going, but it feels like he’s being under-utilized in this offense and I expect those numbers to go up as he, Matt Ryan and Arthur Smith get more comfortable. Pitts is only going to get better at winning his one-on-one matchups and a passing attack that isn’t predicated entirely on passes that travel four yards through the air will help open up further opportunities for him.
The sky’s the limit here, and I know we’ll see better weeks from Pitts ahead. He’ll continue to be a starter, either way.
S Richie Grant: Reserve
This is the most frustrating note on this list. The Falcons have two starters on this list and several contributors, which is not necessarily ideal but is solid. The problem is that one of the players you would’ve expected to start has been parked on the bench, and there’s no indication of when that will change.
Grant has a major role on special teams and is active on Sundays, and that special teams role is no surprise after he excelled there in preseason. What is surprising is that with Duron Harmon scuffling a bit, Grant hasn’t really gotten into a game at all, with Jaylinn Hawkins obviously running as the third safety. Dean Pees has alluded to Grant not being ready to take on a role, but the Falcons could really use a playmaking safety in the secondary, even if there will be some growing pains along the way. I’m hoping he can find his way into playing time sooner than later, but I really have no idea when to expect that.
OL Jalen Mayfield: Starter
When you throw a player many fans and analysts considered raw into the starting lineup, you’d better be willing to put up with some growing pains. Mayfield had those in spades against Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, getting annihilated in Week 1 and just tossed around a bit in Week 2.
The game against Washington will be an excellent test for Mayfield, who has seemingly made strides in each week and took a real step forward against the Giants. If he can survive a murderous Washington front and hold his own, the Falcons will probably elect to roll with him the rest of the way, and Mayfield has a golden opportunity to settle in as a long-term starter at left guard. The Falcons haven’t had that since Justin Blalock, and while expecting Mayfield to be anywhere near that good is foolish at this point, I’m rooting for him.
CB Darren Hall: Reserve
The rookie we’ve seen the least thus far. Hall is only 21 years old and clearly was going to sit no higher than fourth on the depth chart, but with T.J. Green taking on a larger role and Kendall Sheffield returning soon, chances are we’ll see him sparingly on special teams if we see him at all in the early going.
As an aggressive playmaker with good instincts, though, Hall should be expected to be a bigger piece of this secondary in 2022 and beyond. Consider this a learning season for him and expect him to be vying for a top reserve role, at minimum, heading into next year.
OL Drew Dalman: Reserve
We saw a little of Dalman early on, but he won’t have a role outside of a tiny one on special teams unless something happens to Matt Hennessy.
The Falcons like Dalman’s toughness and technique, and the fact that they obviously think he can credibly play center and both guard spots means he’ll be in line for a role if injuries do strike. Otherwise, like Hall, he’s going to be largely sitting and learning in year one, and like Hall will probably be competing again for a top reserve role in 2022.
DL Ta’Quon Graham: Reserve
We’ve been seeing more of Graham the past couple of weeks, and he’s looked very good in his limited opportunities. We’ve seen so many mid-round, physical defensive linemen pass through Atlanta without making a major impact that being a little skeptical of Graham’s chances of doing so was probably fair, especially in the short term.
It certainly looks like Graham has permanently passed John Cominsky, who has been inactive the past two weeks, and he’s shown athleticism and power in every opportunity he’s been given. Graham will be a rotational lineman this year and may not carve out a larger role than the 10-20 snaps he’s settled into at the moment, but he has a bright future.
OLB Ade Ogundeji: Reserve
Ogundeji turned a nice summer into a consistent, 20-25 snap role in this outside linebacker group, and he’s been solid in that role. Like Graham, Ogundeji seems to have passed an incumbent young player in the team’s pecking order, as he’s out-snapping Jacob Tuioti-Mariner in the early going, though JTM has been the more effective pass rusher in the early going.
With Steven Means scuffling a bit in coverage, it’ll be interesting to see if Dean Pees considers giving Ogundeji and Tuioti-Mariner more work. At the moment, my expectation is that Ogundeji has settled into the role he’ll have most of the year, but like many rookies on this list he’ll have a chance to carve out a larger one in 2022.
CB Avery Williams: Starting punt returner and reserve cornerback
Williams has looked smooth and smart on punt returns thus far and has dabbled as a kick returner when teams try to avoid Cordarrelle Patterson. He’s already a good returner and special teamer, and has a chance to be a special one down the line.
Like Hall, he’s a deep reserve in the secondary on defense, so we won’t see much of him there this year. I wouldn’t expect him to be better than the fifth cornerback a year from now, either, but special teams is where he makes the magic happen.
WR Frank Darby: Reserve
We’ve yet to see Darby, who was inactive in Week 1 and has missed each of the last two games with an injury. That’s a shame because this receiving corps could probably use a spark, and the Falcons liked him enough to draft him and keep him around after the wave of cuts down to a 53 man roster. If he can get healthy soon, we’ll see if Atlanta eases him in to any playing time, but his first season still looks likely to be spent on special teams and the bench.
As I said with Hall and Dalman above, he’ll have a better chance at carving out a larger role in 2022, when Russell Gage, Tajae Sharpe and Christian Blake all have expiring contracts.
QB Feleipe Franks: Reserve/Taysom Hill Lite
I had been wondering why Franks was here, which I don’t mean in a disrespectful way. The Falcons clearly view Josh Rosen as Matt Ryan’s backup, so they had to really love Franks to keep him around. I chalked it up to intrigue with his skill set, size and athleticism and figured we’d see him hit the practice squad at some point.
Now we know they’re going to try to make him their very own Taysom Hill, or at least the roughest possible sketch of Hill, likely in the form of a part time tight end, quarterback and occasional runner. The chances of that working out aren’t great—you need a Sean Payton-level obsession with a guy to give him that opportunity, and very few players have proven capable of making that multifaceted role work—but Franks certainly is a good athlete with good size. The Falcons tried him out at tight end for a couple of snaps on Sunday and gave him one snap as a wildcat quarterback, and it appears they’ll continue to tinker with this and see what comes of it.
Franks is probably too light today to function as a true tight end, so the Falcons will likely work on that if they’re serious about converting him. For the moment, this is an interesting experiment that will need time and luck to pay off, but at least we know why Franks is here.
ILB Dorian Etheridge: Reserve
Etheridge has mostly played special teams to this point after a strong preseason, and that’s about what you’d expect from an undrafted free agent stuck behind Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun and Mykal Walker. As long as everybody’s healthy, he’ll stay plugged into a decent-sized role on Marquice Williams’ unit and will stay a deep reserve for the rest of 2021.
Right now, the rookie class is having a quiet year. Pitts and Mayfield are starting, but neither one has been lights-out just yet, and Grant is somewhat surprisingly not sniffing the field on defense. Only three of the team’s later round draft picks are contributing right now, and with the exception of Williams having the punt returner role, all of them are rotational players. That’s not a bad return in the early going, but obviously with a team retooling its roster and needing young players to pan out in the coming years, you do hope for more.
Things are trending in the right direction, with Graham earning playing time, Ogundeji and Williams settled in their respective roles, Franks suddenly earning a longer look, and Pitts and Mayfield starting. The hope is that Mayfield can blossom at left guard, Pitts will start really thriving in the weeks ahead, and that we get Grant out there and proving to be a major contributor at safety. If this team can get almost everyone on the field consistently and a handful of guys contributing at a high level in the weeks to come, it will be a good sign for the draft class, and nearly all of them figure to expand their roles next season.
Hopefully, when we look back in three weeks or so, we’ll find expanded roles and quality play for everyone except Hall, Darby, Dalman and Etheridge, who would only step into those kinds of roles if someone got hurt.