The end of the season for an already-eliminated team usually spells some transition on the horizon. At least a few players will be playing their final game for the team. Several more players will likely be playing marginal roles next season. It’s how the process normally goes for a team that didn’t win enough games to compete for a playoff spot, and even sometimes for teams that do. What makes the Falcons’ situation more unique stems from how the roster has been constructed since Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot took their respective places as the head coach and general manager.
Only eleven players on the current 53-man roster were on the team before the organizational overhaul in 2021. Jake Matthews, Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary, Keith Smith, Matt Hennessey, and Olamide Zaccheaus are the offensive players on the roster. Grady Jarrett, Isaiah Oliver, Mykal Walker, A.J. Terrell, and Jaylinn Hawkins are the defensive players on the roster. Younghoe Koo is the lone special teams player. In a span of two seasons, that’s how much remains of the players Thomas Dimitroff drafted. Expect that total to become even lower this upcoming off-season.
Intriguing defensive players fail to make the leap
Walker and Hawkins possess attributes that made many intrigued by the prospects of them starting. Both players had been marginalized in their first two seasons in Atlanta. While they had to prove their capabilities, they should have received more opportunities ahead of under-performing veterans such as Deion Jones and Erik Harris. Dean Pees finally entrusted Walker and Hawkins with integral roles in the defense. Walker received the green dot to handle play-calling responsibilities. Unfortunately, the belief both players could develop into high-impact starters never came to fruition in 2022.
Walker’s inconsistent tackling, frequent lack of discipline in run support, and inability to consistently make enough plays in coverage ultimately doomed him. With Troy Andersen here and part of the future, more consistency needed to be shown for the coaching staff to feel as though he could be a dependable three-down linebacker. The glaring missed tackles against Cleveland and Carolina were alarming. His mental errors in coverage against Tampa Bay gave Tom Brady easy, high-percentage looks underneath to pick up chunk gains. The instinctive, rangy linebacker who showed numerous flashes in his first two seasons never developed into a consistent starter this year, and he may not get another chance in Atlanta.
The same can be said for Hawkins, who has managed to maintain his place in the starting lineup. A player who had his share of notable plays in his first two seasons hasn’t put it together on a consistent level. The missed tackles are starting to add up, particularly against the Saints, where he missed three open-field tackles leading to big plays. His range in coverage isn’t particularly good in the deep safety role that Dean Pees expects from his free safety. While playing every week, unlike Walker, he may find himself in a similar position of being a backup next season, or possibly not on the team if Atlanta really overhauls the safety group.
The Falcons need reinforcements at the linebacker and safety position following Walker and Hawkins not making the strides the coaching staff hoped for, and while both should remain as reserves, it appears they won’t be relied upon as long-term starters.
No place in the offense’s bigger picture
After starting the season strong, Zaccheaus has become anonymous in the passing game with Desmond Ridder under center. It’s hard to be consistent as a pass-catcher in such a one-dimensional offense. What was perhaps more concerning was the fact that Zaccheaus having his snaps reduced significantly against Arizona. To analyze the reasoning behind it would be pure speculation, and it’s possible that it was a one-time move. The undrafted wide receiver has always been a steady contributor that can produce an explosive play, after all. Regardless of the decision, it’s hard to see Zaccheaus being counted on as a starter next season.
Another big-body receiver or vertical threat capable of making contested catches seems likely to bolster an anemic passing game. An inability to create consistent separation has been a problem amongst the skill position players on this roster, and it’s hardly just Zaccheaus to blame for that. Given the limitations at quarterback, it becomes increasingly difficult when more tight window throws have to be made to receivers that aren’t consistent at creating separation or making contested catches.
Similar to Hennessey, who seems to be a backup guard or center at best despite earning some fill-in starts down the stretch, Zaccheaus will likely find himself in a similar position or on another team next season. Per The Athletic’s Josh Kendall, the Falcons are 27th in the league in plays of 10 yards or more and 25th in the league in plays of 20 or more yards. That will need to be drastically improved upon next season to compete for a playoff spot, as the personnel as expected wasn’t good enough in 2022. Zaccheaus can be an invaluable reserve for Atlanta, but the team may once again turn over most of the depth chart after this year’s production.
Valuing the franchise cornerstones while building for the future
As integral as it is for the team to continue building, they do have stars and above-average players in key positional areas. Chris Lindstrom and A.J. Terrell must be valued as players to build around. Jake Matthews and Grady Jarrett will remain dependable, tremendous veterans bringing it all on every snap and helping the young core of talent grow. The legend of Younghoe Koo will continue to be cherished, while Keith Smith continues to be a difference-maker as a lead blocker. How the organization views Kaleb McGary should be fascinating, as the former first-round pick is undoubtedly the Falcons’ most improved player this season.
Besides those players, no one else on the roster would command a high salary this off-season. That allows enormous opportunities to upgrade in multiple positional areas in free agency. It gives the organization chances to capitalize on having such a young roster, mostly on rookie contracts. According to OverTheCap, the Falcons have the fifth-highest percentage of players on rookie contracts or with three years or less of experience on the roster. After two years of maneuvering around cap constraints, the time is now for Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot to go full speed ahead.
It’s well-documented the mess Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff left after being fired in October 2020, as the organization chose to chase contention for one more season at the expense of what little cap flexibility they had after 2019. Besides drafting very well in the first round, it’s difficult to find many other positives from 2018 to 2020 for the prior regime.
A major overhaul was bound to happen, despite the hope that a few late-round gems could emerge from the previous draft class. That hasn’t happened, which will result in a further clearout with Smith and Fontenot at the forefront. The final transitional phase is coming. It’s going to be time to see whether the current regime can forget a better path forward with a roster that is truly their own.