Fans were thrilled with the selection of Kyle Pitts. Fans were mostly intrigued with the selection of Richie Grant. Fans were...well, largely nonplussed about the selection of Jalen Mayfield, the Michigan tackle who was a bit of a surprise third round pick. The Falcons clearly liked his tools and his upside, and with Matt Gono and Josh Andrews on the team, they might have expected that they could spend his rookie season refining those.
Nearly a year later, that mild confusion has probably morphed into concern. Mayfield worked as both a guard and a tackle in training camp and preseason before the team pressed him into starting duty Week 1 against the Eagles due to Josh Andrews’ broken hand. Aside from a Week 18 stint for Colby Gossett because Mayfield was out with an injury himself, the rookie started every single week of the year and pulled together a historically bad season, one that saw him lead the league in sacks allowed.
Along the way, Mayfield became a lightning rod for criticism and the front-and-center face of a brutally bad offensive line. The Falcons stuck with him regardless and talked about his progress through the season, and it’s clear they hope that his gasoline-heavy trial by fire in his rookie season is going to translate to a brighter future.
Let’s look back at Mayfield’s rookie season and talk a little bit about what it might mean for 2022.
16 games (16 starts)
11 sacks allowed
49.8 Pro Football Focus grade
Year in review and outlook
Terry Fontenot and this front office have stressed taking the best player available in the draft, so clearly they saw Mayfield as a potential long-term starter. Almost every scouting report on Mayfield out of college suggested that he was fairly raw—especially if he was going to transfer from tackle to guard, where many analysts and the team apparently felt he belonged—and that it would take time to remedy shortcomings in balance and play strength.
I was pretty underwhelmed by the prospect of Andrews starting and argued that the Falcons might be best served by starting Mayfield this year and letting him take his lumps, which the team obviously agreed with once Andrews was hurt. I don’t think anyone—Mayfield, the coaching staff, myself—expected things to go as poorly as they did for him, but Atlanta had other options from Andrews to Colby Gossett to fellow rookie Drew Dalman and generally chose not to use them. Mayfield wound up playing most of the year, and I feel like I’m belaboring the point here, but it was not good.
Mayfield made some small progress through the year—he was better in early December in particular, playing a very clean game against Carolina—but still struggled mightily to end the season. It’s telling that Atlanta, which could’ve won a little fan goodwill by making a switch, chose never to do so. It tells you that a full season of evaluation and growth opportunities for Mayfield mattered to them, which in turn tells you they’re probably not going to be eager to bury him on the bench next year.
Arthur Smith made that fairly clear with comments during the season.
“I think week after week, he’s gotten better,” Smith said.
“You would think he would have a pretty good jump in Year 2.”
It was a forgettable, rough rookie season for Mayfield, and there’s really no way to slice and dice that to make him or us feel better about the toll that took on an already shaky offense. What matters now is where he goes from here, having stepped into a role he wasn’t prepared for and gaining experience and lessons that will either spark a brighter future or give Atlanta cause to make left guard an urgent upgrade in the offseason. For Mayfield and the team alike, I hope it’s the former, and the Falcons seem like they’re going to bank on it.
Final Grade: D