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Which players could become the next franchise cornerstones for the Falcons?

After having A.J. Terrell, Kyle Pitts, and Chris Lindstrom establish themselves as players to build with last season, the Falcons need to continue to see more young talent emerge in year two of the Arthur Smith era.

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NFL: AUG 22 Preseason - Falcons at Jets Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the Falcons head into the 2022 season, the same realistic outlook remains from last season. It’s not specifically about wins and losses. It’s about young players growing into consistent playmakers and dependable starters. Nobody can deny the importance of winning when a team is rebuilding. You want young players to experience and understand how to win games despite most likely being the lesser-talented team. That being said, this is going to be another difficult year for the Falcons, one where every win will have to be fought for and may be hard to come by.

The biggest wins last season came from the emergence of A.J. Terrell, Kyle Pitts, and Chris Lindstrom in becoming top-tier players at their respective positions. All three players proved to be players the organization should look to prioritize in building around. Can Arthur Smith get at least three more players to make similar tremendous strides? That will be the ultimate factor in deciding whether the Falcons are going in the right direction going into 2023.

I listed five players that could take the leap toward becoming a franchise cornerstone. Grady Jarrett and Jake Matthews are either approaching near the end of their peak or have already hit their peak. They likely won’t be counted on two seasons from now. Who are the players that can be depended on to lead the Falcons back into contention? These are the top five candidates in 2022.

Drake London

London’s progression will be one of the biggest deciding factors in determining if the Falcons’ season was a success. While the fit absolutely made sense, it was a massive decision to take a wide receiver with the eighth overall pick. It’s a testament to how badly Smith wanted a big, physical wide receiver with a tremendous catch radius, one who can make explosive plays after the catch. If it meant using a premium pick to select that player after taking Pitts with the fourth overall pick last season, then so be it.

There are plenty of reasons to be confident about London being the next essential building block for the franchise’s future success. His playmaking ability in making extraordinary contested catches to breaking tackles across the middle of the field is something to behold. My colleague William McFadden put together an excellent scouting report of London before the Falcons selected him. All indicators suggest he should be the alpha receiver Smith wants from his number one option at the position. It was clear from the play calling to personnel usage last season that Calvin Ridley wasn’t going to be a good fit for how his offense operates.

London may get off to a slow start due to a knee injury suffered against Detroit in his first preseason game. A potential quiet early season shouldn’t derail what has all the makings to be a productive rookie year. Unconvincing quarterback play and a highly questionable offensive line could produce a few underwhelming stat lines.

That said, the former Trojan is an electrifying talent placed in a featured role with an offensive play caller who specializes in utilizing big wide receivers. Something would have to colossally go wrong for him not to be a star in Atlanta.

Arnold Ebiketie

Unlike previous edge rushers that the Falcons selected high in the draft, Ebiketie comes in polished and ready to play significant snaps. He isn’t undersized and lacking in technique like Vic Beasley. He isn’t raw and overly dependent on bull-rushing like Takk McKinley. Ebiketie is a well-rounded edge rusher who should quickly prove to be the Falcons’ best edge rusher on the roster.

Ebiketie not being overly explosive and struggling to hold up against the run at times were the primary reasons behind him not being a first-round pick. As is the case with all prospects, they have their weaknesses that will cause teams to avoid taking them. For all that, Ebiketie was very much in demand going into Day 2 of the NFL Draft. For the Falcons to end up getting an edge rusher with violent hand usage, clever pass-rushing moves, and high football intelligence should do wonders for a defensive line in dire need of talent up front.

Although he didn’t light it up in the preseason, the crafty edge rusher showed flashes of getting after the quarterback. This wicked spin move against Jacksonville in the final preseason game raised plenty of eyebrows. The setup and transition to blow past the right tackle had fans salivating over the prospect of having a pass rusher that could beat tackles off the line of scrimmage so handily.

Similar to London, Ebiketie is in a prime position to have a memorable rookie season. There will be numerous opportunities for him to showcase his attributes and become an imposing presence off the edge. It ultimately comes down to how his speed will translate to the pros. Will he have to make up for not having a blistering first step with his array of moves or can he improve in that department? Time will well. One thing is for certain, Ebiketie has all the tools to be the edge rusher the Falcons can build around for years to come.

Desmond Ridder

It is rare to have a potential cornerstone be the next franchise quarterback. If Ridder is going to be on the level of a franchise cornerstone, he is going to automatically become the franchise quarterback.

Ridder is going to play at some point this season. By playing at a relatively high level for eight or more games, there should be enough evidence to suggest he deserves to have an opportunity to be the default starter in 2023.

The biggest highlight from the Falcons’ preseason was Ridder’s overall performance by far. His command in the pocket, poise when handling pressure, and ball placement on intermediate throws were outstanding. His ability to make pre-snap adjustments and exploit mismatches in coverage were also highly encouraging signs that Ridder isn’t an ordinary rookie quarterback. He showed he looks ready to play now.

The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen wrote a fantastic piece on Ridder’s strong showings in August. It made everyone watching consider the possibility of him being the starter sooner rather than later. Although it’s impossible to pinpoint the right time to play him, Ridder has done nothing but assure the coaching staff of his readiness to step up when needed. His mentality is where you want it to be for a young quarterback waiting patiently for his opportunity.

Ridder will have to immediately prove his capabilities this year wen he gets the chance. Given the likelihood the Falcons get a top-five pick, the pressure will be on the organization to draft a quarterback with that pick, which is something they failed to do in 2021. By being more accurate on deep passes and making smoother progressions in the pocket, Ridder will have to improve on his biggest weaknesses in order to establish himself as the man in Atlanta. The belief is certainly there within the organization. The patience may not be if the organization finds itself with a top-five pick in January.

Richie Grant

During OTAs, Smith said the objective for Grant this season was to be an every-down starter at safety. That is a fairly modest aim for someone who generated plenty of excitement when entering the league. It’s understandable for the coaching staff to take it slow with him following a forgettable rookie season. Grant was caught out of position often, struggled to handle coverage responsibilities, and missed far too many tackles as someone who was supposed to be a surefire tackler.

It also has to be considered that Grant had to fill in at slot corner at times due to injuries suffered in the Falcons’ secondary. A measured approach was going to be taken for a player who had to endure his lumps and play in disadvantageous situations. By playing him in his natural position, there is optimism that the former second-round pick could be the enforcer they envisioned him to be.

Grant was a standout in training camp. His ball skills, which flashed occasionally last season, were on full display during drills. To have that knack to be around the ball and make timely plays does pay off. Grant possesses the skillset to cause turnovers and be a true difference-maker. Before anything else, the promising safety will need to play with better field awareness and anticipation. That is going to be essential for his overall development as a starter.

Dean Pees prefers to play Cover 2 more than most defensive coordinators. Grant’s positioning will be particularly tested in those moments, as the Falcons allowed big plays often when playing that coverage last season. While becoming a true ballhawk would do wonders for him, Grant is going to have to prevent big plays as much as he produces big plays to become an indispensable player for the Falcons’ young defense.

Mykal Walker

Walker is the only player on this list drafted from the previous regime. He is also the only player on this list that wasn’t a high-round pick or potential long-term replacement at quarterback. Although he isn’t garnering the same amount of attention as the players ranked above him, the versatile linebacker can become a valuable player within Pees’ defense. The flashes he showed in limited snaps over the past two seasons make him an intriguing starter going into this season.

The range and instinctiveness stand out the most from watching Walker. He sees the field well and possesses outstanding closing speed. Look no further than his pick-six against Carolina last season. How he reads Cam Newton’s eyes and closes in on the route proved to be a game-changing play in a Falcons’ victory. It’s those types of plays the Falcons’ defense didn’t produce enough of in 2021.

Although he is quite different from Foye Oluokun, he could be on a similar trajectory. Oluokun was underutilized in his first two seasons in Atlanta. After finally taking full reins as the starting weakside linebacker in 2020, he produced a breakout season filled with big plays. Walker should have received more snaps last season as Deion Jones struggled mightily. The coaching staff appears to have learned their lesson and inserted Walker into the opening day starting lineup.

It will be fascinating to see if Walker could have the third-year leap that Oluokun had. From taking on blocks in the running game to handling the variety of coverage responsibilities Pees will put on him, there is going to be significant pressure on Walker to perform. The former fourth-round pick has shown he can make plays in spurts. It’s time for him to convert it to consistent high-level play.