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5 players who can elevate or derail Falcons’ playoff aspirations

With expectations growing in Atlanta, more talent will be needed to step up in order for the team to make noteworthy strides.

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NFL: AUG 27 Preseason - Jaguars at Falcons Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When a team has playoff aspirations, there are usually under-the-radar players that must produce within demanding roles. The coaching staff entrusted them to take command of their respective responsibilities and be the above-average player they expected them to be. It’s not about producing Pro Bowl-caliber numbers. It’s about being consistent in an important position.

If the Falcons are going to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017, five players will likely have played significant roles in their success. They all enter this year in positions where they will be counted on.

Some are entering a critical stage in the development of their young careers. Others are attempting to maximize being in a new environment following disappointing past seasons. No matter what their current status is, they are expected to be productive this season. Here are the players who should have high expectations placed on them to get the Falcons back to where they once were at the top of the NFC South.

Mack Hollins

Hollins could find himself occasionally overlooked this season in an offense filled with top-ten picks and impressive overachievers who defied the odds. There may be games in which he only receives three targets. There could be instances when he isn’t on the field in critical situations. Those games or moments won’t diminish his value.

Hollins will be a vital contributor that can help elevate the offense, which is why he was signed. His physical frame and field-stretching ability will provide explosive-play opportunities for Desmond Ridder. What he can do without the ball in his hands makes him even more crucial to the Falcons’ success.

Hollins’ tremendous work ethic will be valuable on a young team. From challenging players to running miles after practice to putting in extra workouts in the Las Vegas heat, he transformed into a leader for the Raiders. The desire to improve as a player was evinced by the way he produced career-high numbers across the board. He also made a difference as a run blocker, helping Josh Jacobs have his career year, and that will be vital in Atlanta’s offense.

As The Falcoholic’s finest Kevin Knight indicated when the Falcons signed Hollins, Pro Football Focus rated him as the sixth-best run blocker in the league last season. To reiterate an obvious point, being able to block effectively is vital in Smith’s offense. It’s fair to say that Hollins’ size, determination, and blocking technique make him an ideal fit in Atlanta. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him become the offense’s true X-Factor as they pursue a playoff spot.

Troy Andersen

It may seem odd to select a second-year player that was considered raw coming out of college. Considering the Falcons didn’t add any true three-down linebackers this off-season, the coaching staff appears to be confident in his ability to take command in the middle of the field. Andersen endured his fair share of growing pains in his rookie season.

As he recently expressed, there were many lessons learned from playing in Dean Pees’ scheme. A more aggressive, man-coverage-based defense could better suit his impressive athletic traits.

Andersen is in a position to play every down this season. With Kaden Elliss as more of a hybrid linebacker-pass rusher and Mykal Walker largely underwhelming in an expanded role last season, Andersen must take a notable leap as one of the bigger pieces of this revamped defense. Ryan Nielsen is enthusiastic about how his skill set translates to his defense. A much-improved defensive line should present more opportunities to get clean looks at running backs rather than constantly fighting through traffic.

Understanding coverage responsibilities and taking better angles in the open field are a pair of high priority items the former second-round pick will need to improve on. If he makes those strides, the moments to produce sacks and create turnovers will come in Nielsen’s defense. That likely means getting better-than-average linebacker performances for the first time since 2020 for the Falcons.

Drew Dalman

Maintaining a high level of consistency in pass protection is one of the most significant ways the Falcons’ offense can take the next step as a unit. It was far too much of a hindrance in games against playoff-caliber opposition. Not all of it can be attributed to the lack of stability at left guard and Marcus Mariota’s tendency to hold onto the ball for too long.

Communication breakdowns and poor awareness of identifying twists played a massive role in their inability to keep a clean pocket. Those issues largely have to fall on the center, especially when the player is not blocking anyone or is a step behind in picking up the free rusher.

Dalman was fine as a run blocker last season, but his pass protection put the offense at a disadvantage on too many occasions. The coaching staff clearly views him as a player who can start long-term, given that the only competition they brought in was seventh round pick Jovaughn Gwyn. In light of that, it’s encouraging to see Dalman putting in extra work to have a strong rapport with Ridder. As productive as the running game is, Smith’s offense can’t afford to be one-dimensional like it so often was last season.

The amount of draft investment they’ve put into pass catchers will make it catastrophic if the offensive line struggles to block in five-man protections. Dalman must prove he can handle pre-snap responsibilities more efficiently and recognize when defensive fronts get creative about their looks in order to generate pressure.

Jeff Okudah

There is no player on this list with a higher ceiling than Okudah. The flashes shown in his young career covering top receivers represented legitimate top-level cornerback play. Not being to put it all together because of injuries and loss of concentration in zone coverage assignments derailed his career in Detroit. The setbacks shouldn’t faze the former number-three overall pick. This is someone who knows how to overcome adversity.

A fresh start could work wonders for Okudah. He will be playing more press coverage in Atlanta. The onus won’t be on him to cover opposing top receivers, with A.J. Terrell more than capable of shadowing number-one wide receivers. While the pressure will be reduced, it will remain to some degree for someone with a decorated football background who needs to prove he can be a starter for an entire season.

While the corner depth is fairly solid, Okudah has the talent to elevate them into being one of the better secondary units in the league. His ability to play physically and diagnose routes should help him flourish in an aggressive scheme. The manner in which he finds a way to play with better awareness and doesn’t lose focus in different coverage schemes will be the primary challenge for a player who fell out of favor in Detroit after not consistently showing his considerable upside.

By being more consistent and disciplined, there is a strong chance Okudah ends up being the biggest difference maker on this list. He was a top pick for a reason not all that long ago. after all.

Bud Dupree

It may seem odd to list a player who has been injured often for the past two seasons and could very well leave after one year in Atlanta. Still, Dupree’s overall skill set and size make him extremely valuable on a team filled with uncertainty at the edge rusher position. The former first-round pick possesses impressive power, violent hands, and bend to give opposing tackles fits. He is capable enough to be used in base and nickel packages.

That versatility could prove to be extremely valuable for a defensive line in transition. Providing Nielsen an option who can set the edge and wear down offensive linemen can create openings for players around him, and there are young options who could use that help.

There’s no telling how many snaps Dupree will play per game. What can’t be disputed is that he is the only edge defender on the roster that played consistent snaps as a full-time starter at a high level in his career. If he can brutalize offensive tackles on early downs and contribute on passing downs when called upon, this signing will materialize into one of the best decisions ever made by the front office.

His impact could greatly benefit the development of Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone. Grady Jarrett would get the necessary support he’s been craving over the last five years.

A double-digit sack season shouldn’t be expected of Dupree. How he is utilized and produced on snap to snap basis will determine if he can be the punishing defensive end Nielsen depended on heavily in New Orleans. All great defenses need tone-setters who can overwhelm opponents. Dupree has the capabilities to be one of those players to elevate the Falcons.