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6 players the Falcons will count on for big strides in 2022

Hint: They’re pretty much all 2021 rookies.

Detroit Lions v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

We’re about to enter acquisition season for the Falcons, where they’ll be spending money and then draft picks to add to the roster. While those additions are going to be impactful—and hopefully very impactful so this team wins more games in 2022—they’re also going to be counting on significant improvement from those already locked on to the roster.

Here’s your list of six Falcons who the team will count on to improve and improve significantly in 2022. Technically it’s a list of five with an either/or, as you’ll see.

TE Kyle Pitts

The most obvious candidate, even though Pitts is already a star. I think there was a vague sense throughout the season that we could’ve seen much more from him than we did, though, and he is the most likely candidate to take another impressive leap forward and deliver a breakout season that tops his rookie breakout season.

Pitts reeled in “just” 61.8% of his 110 targets and scored just one touchdown, and was operating as the team’s sole above-average receiving option for large stretches of the season while adjusting to the NFL game. The team doesn’t need to throw him the ball 50 additional times in 2022 for him to have a cleaner, more efficient season with a lot more red zone success, and it feels like those strides from Pitts and the people tasked with getting him the ball are going to be instrumental for this offense if they’re going to take a real stride forward. He should be the centerpiece of the offense.

LB Ade Ogundeji

It’s clear the Falcons have big plans for Ogundeji because they have consistently talked like they do. In his first year, Ogundeji stepped right into a major role, but it was a quiet sort of season from the rookie.

As the only outside linebacker who is currently under contract, he’s almost certainly going to be relied upon to play at least a significant rotational role, and the Falcons will want to see Ogundeji grow as a pass rusher first and foremost. Atlanta memorably had the worst pass rush in the NFL last year and didn’t get a whole lot from the rookie, who was solid enough as an all-around option and did manage a sack but didn’t exactly look like a future double digit sack artist. Even modest strides in that capacity and overall improvement would make Ogundeji very valuable for this Falcons defense, but I’m curious to see whether he’s got a more surprise leap in store.

S Richie Grant

The rookie ended up playing under a quarter of the defensive snaps, putting him behind fellow rookies and much later draft selections Darren Hall and Ta’Quon Graham. While he was a key special teamer, Grant’s defensive contributions were fairly limited.

That has to change for this defense to make strides in 2022. All the reasons the Falcons drafted Grant—his versatility, his aggressive style of play, his coverage ability—are reasons to believe he’ll be able to make a significant jump in playing time and play this coming season. It’s also a huge need for a team that got by with largely bland but semi-effective play from its starting safety duo this past season, with all the missed tackles and missed opportunities that would imply. Grant has the talent to be the kind of playmaker the Falcons have been missing at safety (or hell, nickel, if that’s where they end up slotting him) for a while now, but obviously he’ll need to get on the field more to show it.

G Jalen Mayfield

There’s nowhere to go but up for Mayfield. One of the worst starting guards in the NFL last year, Mayfield became a meme for all the wrong reasons in 2021. While he made some progress during the year, especially as a run blocker, his pass protection was a problem consistently.

Here’s what I believe is true with Mayfield after a lot of thought this offseason: The Falcons liked him enough to draft him in the third round despite his reputation for being raw, believed in him enough to start him all year despite having Colby Gossett, Josh Andrews and Drew Dalman available to spell him, and didn’t put Matt Ryan in harm’s way for 16 games to say “well, that sucked, but we tried.” I think Mayfield will have to faceplant pretty hard not to have a real shot at the left guard job in 2022, and I think the Falcons are counting on him turning his tools into something worth building on this season.

They won’t go into the year without someone to compete with Mayfield—it may be Gossett or Dalman, but they’ll have a plan—and obviously there’s no guarantee that he’s going to improve significantly in his second season. I think the Falcons are hoping for it, however.

This is sort of an either/or situation with the next player on the list.

C Matt Hennessy

I don’t believe the Falcons will replace both Hennessy and Mayfield, but I do think it’s likely one or the other. To me, Hennessy seems more likely, given that Arthur Smith yanked him out of the lineup in favor of Dalman on multiple occasions and he was not this regime’s draft pick.

Hennessy was given an impressive grade by Pro Football Focus, but that didn’t necessarily match what Falcons fans were seeing most of the season. That’s not to say he didn’t have any good games—he had far more than Mayfield—but that his pass protection and strength were sometimes real issues. Aside from the drafting of Dalman and the insistence on inserting him in the lineup at times, we don’t have any solid clues as to how the Falcons feel about their center, but I’m operating under the assumption that he’s at least going to be strongly in the mix for the starting job and that the team is hoping to see significant strides. It would obviously be ideal to already have your starter at a critical position like center already figured out.

I do think one of Mayfield or Hennessy will likely be replaced. Ideally, of course, both players would make massive strides and the Falcons wouldn’t have to replace either, allowing them to funnel draft picks and cash toward other pressing needs. That’s probably just not realistic.

LB Deion Jones

I know, I know. The cries to get Jones out of town have grown in fervor and volume ever since last September, and he’s coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. It’s entirely possible the Falcons chalk him up as a bit of a lost cause and look to deal him for draft selections and cap relief.

I’m not entirely sold on that notion, though. Jones is obviously talented and it doesn’t seem all that difficult for Dean Pees to talk himself into the idea that the linebacker just had a tough first year in his defense. The team just restructured his deal, he won’t be 28 until November of this year, and it’s possible Year 2 in this more complex defensive scheme will see an improvement from Jones.

If they keep Jones around, they’ll be counting on him to be one of their most improved players heading into 2022. If they do, I hope he is.

Who else would you add to this list?