What is a franchise cornerstone? To put it simply, a player whom a franchise can rely on to give the team high level production, both in the short term and for years to come. I would classify “high level” as near Pro Bowl or better. Every franchise has them, some have more than others.
Today, with Training Camp under way and the 2022 season on the horizon, I’d like to identify the players who fit that criteria for the Falcons. As a fun exercise, I hope to make this an annual series, identifying who the team’s continued cornerstones are going into each season, in a sort of “State of the Union” reflection.
Before we begin, I’d like to discuss some parameters about which players will and will not qualify.
- I will not count any rookies as “franchise cornerstones” in this exercise. Yes, we all hope that the likes of Drake London, Arnold Ebiketie, Desmond Ridder and the rest of the 2022 draft class will separate themselves and prove worthy of the label. However, we need to at least see what they can do at the NFL level first. The previous year’s rookies who do not see much of the field in their first year will also not count. You will not see Drake London on this list because of this criteria.
- Older players near retirement (presumably within the next three years) will not be counted. Of course, nobody knows exactly when a player will retire so we will have to make an educated guess on a case by case basis. Older players whose performance has diminished below that “high level” near Pro Bowl mark as they’ve aged will also not fit the criteria.
- Players will need to be playing at a high level both in the present, and be more likely than not to stick around for at least the next the next three seasons in order to make this list. To be considered a franchise cornerstone, you have to look like you’ll be in it for the long haul. Once again, nobody can predict the future, so we will have to make our own educated assumptions here.
Without further adieu, here are the players whom I consider to be the franchise cornerstones for the Atlanta Falcons going into the 2022 season. The guys who, for the most part, you think about when somebody mentions the current Atlanta Falcons.
TE Kyle Pitts
Let’s start with the most obvious one. Kyle Pitts was Atlanta’s fourth overall draft selection last year, and is now arguably the face of the franchise. In fairness, the expectations were near that level from the very beginning for the Florida alum, after the Falcons made him the highest drafted tight end in NFL history.
Pitts made it to the Pro Bowl in his first season, and he became the second rookie tight end to ever eclipse the 1,000-yard receiving mark. He looks set to become the next great NFL tight end, as a breakout in year two would put him in the elite company of the best players at the position already. Just 21 years of age, Kyle Pitts is still years away from his prime, and Falcons fans relish the fact that they’ll be able to watch his career play out in Atlanta.
DT Grady Jarrett
We’ve watched Grady Jarrett go from a young standout player on the defensive line who could prove to be a steal at his fifth round draft status to one of the most elite players at his position. This past season was a bit of a step back from what we’ve grown accustomed to from the Clemson alum. Of course, in the four year stretch between 2017-2020 he was arguably the best interior defensive lineman in the league not named Aaron Donald or Cameron Heyward. Despite that step back, Jarrett remains the key cog in Atlanta’s front seven.
Jessie Tuggle’s son extended his contract with the Falcons this past offseason, adding three more years to it after 2022 was set to be the final season on his four year/$68 million deal that he signed in the 2019 offseason. Jarrett is slated to be a Falcon throughout the rest of his prime, and it’s a very good bet that he’ll get back to his pre-2021 Pro Bowl form, especially if the team finally gives him some help along the defensive line (something he’s had very little of throughout his career).
CB AJ Terrell
Following a shaky rookie season, AJ Terrell propelled himself into the tier of elite cornerbacks with the kind of second year leap that we’ve seldom seen. Targeted in coverage just 66 times, Terrell surrendered 29 receptions for a league low completion percentage among cornerbacks of just 43.9%. No cornerback allowed fewer yards per completion than Terrell (6.9), and the 200 total yards allowed in coverage was bested by only Tavierre Thomas, who surrendered just 12 fewer yards while playing 384 fewer snaps.
Terrell is already arguably the best cover corner in the league, and if not, then he’s certainly in the most elite of company. He has already blossomed into the best defensive player on the Falcons’ roster and will likely be around and playing at a high level in Atlanta for a very long time.
T Jake Matthews
Following the offseason departures of Josh Harris and Matt Ryan, Jake Matthews is now officially the longest-tenured Falcon on the current roster. He’s remained in Atlanta this long because he has been and remained a beacon of consistency at the left tackle position.
Following a 2013 season that was a disaster at the left tackle position, Matthews was drafted with the sixth overall pick and proceeded to bring stability to Matt Ryan’s blindside for the eight years. At his best, he has been a borderline top 10 player at his position, and has consistently graded out as one of the best pass blocking tackles in the league the past number of years, making it to the Pro Bowl in 2018.
Just like Grady Jarrett, Matthews inked a three year contract extension with the Falcons this past offseason. It was a three year, $55 million deal, which combines with the two years he had remaining on his previous contract and locks the Texas A&M product into a total contract which goes through 2027. Matthews will be holding down the left side of Atlanta’s offensive line for a long time, even as the team transitions away from the Matt Ryan era.
G Chris Lindstrom
A first round draft selection in 2019, Lindstrom has done his part in locking down the right side of the interior on Atlanta’s offensive line. With each passing season, Lindstrom has gotten better and better, and is now playing at a Pro Bowl level. Quite frankly, it’s a bit of a travesty that he wasn’t a Pro Bowl selection in 2021.
The man from Boston College was graded as PFF’s sixth-best guard in 2021 (among those who played a min. 50% of their team’s snaps), and the fifth-best run blocking guard. He was also the only guard in the league to appear in all 17 games without giving up a single sack.
Entering his age-25 season in 2022, Lindstrom had his fifth year option picked up earlier this offseason, locking him into his contract through 2023. I would be shocked if the team doesn’t prioritize giving him a contract extension this offseason. We should expect to see Chris Lindstrom dominating within the interior of Atlanta’s offensive line for many years to come.
K Younghoe Koo
Okay, yes, I will admit that it is weird identifying a kicker as one of the franchise’s cornerstone players. That’s not something that normally happens, but an elite weapon like a Younghoe Koo or a Justin Tucker over in Baltimore is an exception to the rule.
I will go into how good Koo has been since arriving in Atlanta for his second chance in the NFL, but first I’ll let our friends over at SB Nation’s Secret Base describe his dominance in one graphic.
Since arriving to Atlanta in 2019, season-by-season he has finished ninth, fifth and then third in the league in field goal percentage, and is an incredible 13/14 on kicks from 50+ yards. Koo led the league with 37 field goals made in 2020, including going an immaculate 8/8 on kicks from 50+ yards. He was a Pro Bowl selection that season and should have been a First-Team All-Pro.
Today, Younghoe Koo remains one of the best kickers in the league and he’s locked into a five-year contract that the team rewarded him with this past offseason. That contract will take him through his age 32 season.