In 2018, the Falcons were fully entrenched as Super Bowl contenders. They were coming off consecutive seasons featuring playoff appearances and playoff victories. The foundation Dan Quinn built put them in a position where 2018 was going to be a pivotal year. With Matt Ryan due to get paid, the organization knew they couldn’t re-sign key players like Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe and had to reload their roster in the draft as they did in 2016.
They had two sixth-round picks within each other at 194 and 200. The front office used those picks on Russell Gage and Foye Oluokun. A gadget-type player with explosive traits and special teams’ capabilities, Gage was expected to potentially be a returner and utilized on jet sweeps like the recently-departed yet beloved Taylor Gabriel.
Despite only playing linebacker for one year at Yale, Oluokun fit all the measurables and traits Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff loved to pinpoint in the draft. Selecting true athletes that can play sideline to sideline was what they targeted when drafting linebackers to play Quinn’s defense.
As higher round picks in Isaiah Oliver and Deadrin Senat faltered, Gage and Oluokun shined in what was a promising 2018 draft class. They proved to be the best players from that class outside of Calvin Ridley. Gage developed into a dependable, physical receiver that consistently made timely plays on third down. Olukoun earned a starting spot in 2020 and became the team’s best three-down linebacker.
For all their efforts, both players recently left Atlanta and were deservingly paid elsewhere. They represent the last of Dimitroff’s best work in selecting late-round players. How the Falcons replace them both is something that will be critical going forward.
Deciding not to break the bank for Oluokun
One of the biggest talking points about the Falcons going into the off-season was about the conundrum at the linebacker position. It seemed certain that Oluokun and Deion Jones weren’t going to be starting together in 2022. To invest heavily in two linebackers after seeing them start together for two seasons on a below-average defense would be nonsensical.
Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith are aware of how many personnel issues must be addressed across the roster. They have to use their available resources wisely. What Oluokun’s market was going to be likely determined how much the Falcons would have a chance at re-signing him. Once it became evident that Oluokun was going to be paid like a top-five off-ball linebacker, the team couldn’t match what Jacksonville offered, especially with major trade talks kicking off.
It’s completely justifiable not to re-sign Oluokun. As memorable as his 2020 season was, his 2021 season was fairly lackluster. The first two months of the season mostly consisted of Oluokun missing tackles, being out of position, and struggling against the run. Although his play steadily improved in the final six games, it was disappointing to see the Falcons’ 2020 breakout star not build on his success.
He did outplay Deion Jones for the second consecutive season. That doesn’t say much, considering how much Jones’ performances have declined in recent seasons. It’s still significant going forward with this move. The decision, for now, to keep Jones and let Oluokun walk raises questions on how Dean Pees’ defense will be aligned.
Mykal Walker has shown promise in his first two seasons. His long arms, range in coverage, and versatility makes him an intriguing player. Transitioning from a role player to a full-time starter is a massive challenge for a young player with limited experience. How he would fit alongside Jones is another major question, considering Oluokun played the MIKE role in Pees’ defense last season.
The front office could be looking to add another linebacker, especially with Jones’ future not exactly being secure following two disappointing seasons. Much like most of the positions on the roster, the linebacker position is filled with uncertainty. Not breaking the bank on Oluokun was an easy, understandable decision. Trying to replace him could be much more difficult than anticipated.
Gauging the hole left in Gage’s departure
As Oluokun cashed in on Jacksonville’s spending spree, it felt like the Falcons would do everything possible to bring back their other two coveted free agents in Gage and Cordarrelle Patterson. That wasn’t the case with Gage. He joined Tampa Bay on what was a fairly reasonable three-year deal. It’s bad enough the Falcons currently have zero starting-caliber wide receivers on the roster. To lose him to a division rival that is absolutely loaded at wide receiver is deflating.
Gage has been on an upward trajectory since Mohamed Sanu was traded in October 2019. After finding his niche in 2019, he became one of Matt Ryan’s go-to weapons in 2020. According to Pro Football Focus, he is one of the most consistent receivers at creating separation against single coverage. Gage isn’t your standard possession receiver that only thrives in the slot.
From being used in different alignments across various formations to making contested catches, the former LSU Tiger is a versatile weapon who can be a difference-maker. What he does after the catch in breaking tackles and leaping over defenders makes him even more dangerous as a well-rounded receiver.
From a financial and positional standpoint, losing Gage is more disappointing than Oluokun. It’s surprising the Falcons couldn’t do more to bring him back. There is no questioning the allure of playing with Tom Brady. Per Peter Schrager, Gage was immediately excited at the prospect of going to Tampa Bay after getting a phone call from the greatest quarterback of all time.
To line up alongside Mike Evans and Chris Godwin will create plenty of big-play opportunities for him. For how beneficial the move is for Gage, it remains disappointing that the Falcons lost one of their key contributors over the past three seasons. They desperately need to start adding credible wide receivers to their roster.
There was bound to be a dramatic shift in personnel when Fontenot and Smith took over in 2021, and we’ve seen that play out in ways both large and small. Releasing Dante Fowler to go along with not re-signing Oluokun and Gage indicates how the team is trying to handle their cap situation and move forward to build a long-term plan for success. There are going to be more difficult personnel decisions coming up within the next few weeks. It may even involve Ryan based on all the trade discussions over the past three days.
What is for certain is that the front office is looking to move forward with their own players. Outside of A.J. Terrell and Chris Lindstrom, there aren’t any other players considered locked in long-term that wasn’t drafted, signed, or traded for by the current regime. Times are changing rapidly in Atlanta. It’s a team in search of a new identity, talent, and legitimate winning foundation, and the moves they’ve made (and not made) to this point are just the start.