It was a surprise to many this week to see the Atlanta Falcons waive safety Jaylinn Hawkins. Hawkins has since caught on with the Los Angeles Chargers, but apparently, their safeties are cursed when it comes to avoiding injuries.
But nobody should be too surprised that the Falcons ultimately decided to move on from Hawkins; perhaps the timing just caught many off guard. This has been a move that the team signaled for some time, beginning with the selection of safety DeMarcco Hellams in the seventh round of this past spring’s 2023 NFL Draft. With Hellams receiving more playing time in recent weeks as the team’s dime safety, the role that was expected for Hawkins, the latter become expendable.
Hailing from GM Thomas Dimitroff and former head coach Dan Quinn’s final 2020 NFL Draft class, Hawkins was one of the last players of that former regime sticking around. And he was unlikely to be sticking around for much longer, given that this season was the final one of his rookie contract.
In fact, both of the team’s seventh-round selections this past April were seemingly made with an eye towards pushing some of those 2020 selections off the roster. Center/guard Jovaughn Gwyn could certainly be seen as a replacement for 2020 third-rounder Matt Hennessy. Earlier this summer, the Falcons cut 2020 fourth-round linebacker Mykal Walker, and the team has since seen 2022 undrafted free agent Nate Landman blossom into a capable starter, having stepped in for an injured Troy Andersen there.
It’s part of the typical process seen around the NFL of a new regime reshaping a roster and making it theirs. Current GM Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith began this process when they first arrived in 2021, and it’s still continuing two years later. With Hawkins’ departure, Hennessy and fellow 2020 draft pick A.J. Terrell are the last of the eight remaining Falcons from the 2020 roster that have yet to receive a contract extension from this new regime. Terrell looks to be on the path to getting a lucrative contract extension in the future much like Chris Lindstrom, Jake Matthews, Grady Jarrett, Kaleb McGary, Keith Smith, and Younghoe Koo have received in recent years. The Falcons 2023 draft selections signaled such extensions weren’t in the cards for either Hennessy or Hawkins.
The emergence of Hellams should allow the Falcons to bear the burden of Hawkins’ absence in the short term. Hawkins and Hellams alternated weeks serving as the team’s sixth defensive back in their dime packages the past three games and there was little to no difference in their output. The Falcons also have another insurance policy in backup cornerback Tre Flowers, who served a similar role as a dime defender for the Cincinnati Bengals the past two years.
Also to replace Hawkins on the roster, the team promoted safety Micah Abernathy from the practice squad. Abernathy was well-regarded by this coaching staff throughout the summer, since he worked alongside Hawkins on the second-string defense ahead of Hellams for much of the summer. Then Hellams had a couple of breakout performances during the preseason and leapfrogged Abernathy. The latter’s role moving forward will primarily be on special teams, but that former trust didn’t go away simply because Hellams has outplayed him.
However, moving on from Hawkins is not without risk. Not because the Falcons are going to lose anything when it comes to their dime defense, mind you. The team has deployed their dime on 54 snaps this year (Hawkins and Hellams’ combined snap counts), which is about nine per game. Such a small sample doesn’t offer too many opportunities to make a huge impact on the field especially since their duties are primarily playing far away from the ball to prevent receivers from getting behind them deep.
Yet, where the Falcons could potentially miss Hawkins is if either one of their starting safeties Jessie Bates or Richie Grant goes down for an extended period of time due to injury. Hawkins’ 22 career starts, including 16 from a year ago, would prove invaluable in such a scenario.
Even if Hawkins’ skill as a starter was closer to replacement level, being a more known commodity has value. This coaching staff could trust he could handle the rigors of an extended bout of starting if Bates or Grant were to be absent. That is not the case with either Hellams or Abernathy.
But the Falcons had similar concerns when they parted ways with Walker during the summer and were trusting in similar unproven players at linebacker such as Landman. Yet they have struck paydirt given Landman’s transformation into a very competent fill-in starter. Clearly, the Falcons are betting that Hellams or Abernathy could do the same if need be.
Overall, this regime has successfully made the Falcons' current roster their own, and thus 2023’s results will be ones they must completely own. How that plays out this season won’t be fully determined until the end of the year. But it only underlines previous statements made by ownership that this season is a culmination of a multi-year plan to push for the postseason.
Winning the NFC South is the key to that push, and their attempts to do so continue this weekend against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the decision to move on from Hawkins is unlikely to pay huge dividends in this individual matchup, watching Hellams continue his development this Sunday and on future ones will be welcome.
It’s unknown as of yet if the team’s primary goal of playing in the postseason will be reached by year’s end. But the smaller goal of successfully reshaping the roster can be achieved should Hellams make more impactful plays between now and then.