When we looked at the 2021 Falcons draft class on paper, it seemed to be full of players who would struggle to carve out major roles in year one. By the end of the season, however, almost every single rookie was either starting, playing a major rotational role, or filling a critical niche on special teams. The sole exceptions were Drew Dalman (who got real run earlier in the year) and Frank Darby.
One of the more interesting selections of the class on paper, Darby was the latest pick and obviously the one the Falcons felt had the most to work on. Eric Robinson’s scouting report was pretty glowing on the subject of Darby’s ability to win contested catches and make plays downfield, but did note that he was inexperienced and would likely need to work on his route running at the next level. Atlanta saved that work primarily for practice and wound up giving him just 20 snaps on offense—he caught one pass—but did ease him into a significant special teams workload toward the end of the year.
Let’s take a look back at Darby’s year and talk about what’s next.
10 games, 0 starters
1 reception, 14 yards
Rookie year highlights
Overall: A developmental year, but what’s next?
Well, that didn’t take long. More than any other rookie, we simply didn’t get much of a look at Darby.
Mike Rothstein at ESPN had a nice piece the other day about Darby’s rookie season, which the enthusiastic wide receiver seemed to take in stride.
The coaching staff has said that they have a plan for Darby, though. When they were asked why he wasn’t playing in a receiving corps that was not producing, they said Darby was working hard in practice.
And practice is where Darby was able to show what might one day be possible from him. After Ridley left the team on Halloween to deal with personal matters – a moment which seemed to awaken Darby to how he needed to approach playing in the NFL – he started to receive more work in practice. It didn’t translate into playing time in games, but it also gave him more work with quarterback Matt Ryan, which may pay off in the future.
Darby established himself as a player the Falcons want helping out on special teams, which is not nothing. The question is whether a year of practice is going to translate into readiness for a much bigger role on offense, because there’s a very real possibility the Falcons are counting on just that. I think it’s probably what they wanted for Darren Hall, Ta’Quon Graham and Avery Williams, as well, but they were forced to press those guys into action owing to injury and ineffectiveness.
The chief reason to think the Falcons are going to have to count on Darby concerns the state of their receiving corps and his skill set. The Falcons were not often able to attack teams effectively deep, something Darby excelled at in college, and that’s because Russell Gage, Calvin Ridley (when he was on the field), Cordarrelle Patterson and Tajae Sharpe did not get open downfield consistently in 2021. Olamide Zaccheaus, Patterson and Ridley are all capable of doing so, but there’s a chance none of them return in 2022. As Rothstein noted in his piece, Darby is the only receiver who ended the year on the 53 man roster who is under contract today, and especially if Ridley doesn’t return the Falcons will be hard-pressed to add enough compelling receiving options that he won’t be called upon to contribute in some fashion.
Darby has talent, and at worst he should be a solid fourth receiver and special teamer for Atlanta once he finds his footing. If he can be more than that—if he can prove to be the team’s next Russell Gage, a sixth rounder who turns into a legitimate offensive weapon—then this team will in much better shape at receiver going forward than they were this year. We just don’t know what Darby is and can be just yet.