The Atlanta Falcons still have a slim chance of making the playoffs if they can beat the New Orleans Saints to close out this season. However, this week’s look at the most intriguing players list focuses less on the players that can help them win on Sunday and instead those who have much to play for in 2024.
Obviously the Falcons’ chances of beating the Saints increase if quarterback Taylor Heinicke can play well despite battling an ankle injury. Yet, this game is also important because it could help decide Heinicke’s fate in Atlanta beyond this year. The veteran quarterback stands to count $9 million against the 2024 salary cap, potentially making him one of the league’s highest-paid backups. But the Falcons can free up $7 million towards the cap by releasing Heinicke in March.
Heinicke’s ability to close out this season on a positive note could go a long way toward determining whether he is the team’s first choice at backup quarterback or rolling with the cheaper Desmond Ridder.
Many suspected 2023 would be “joker” Cordarrelle Patterson’s final year with the Falcons, and possibly his last in the NFL. However, based on recent tweets, Patterson doesn’t seem like a player quite ready to hang up the cleats, due to believing that his usage left much to be desired this season.
If Patterson is looking for a bigger role elsewhere in 2024, a strong finale against the Saints is a prime opportunity to show to the rest of the league that there is plenty of gas left in his tank.
Wideout Van Jefferson has received the bulk of the snaps opposite Drake London, thus filling in as the team’s de facto No. 2 wide receiver for the past 11 games. However, Jefferson has done very little with those opportunities, snagging just 10 catches for 88 yards. As an impending free agent, Jefferson hoped 2023 would be a springboard to a lucrative second contract as a starter.
That seems unlikely to manifest given his lack of production and the Falcons likely to upgrade that No. 2 spot this offseason. However, if Jefferson has a productive finale against the Saints, it could open the door for him to land an opportunity as a No. 3 or No. 4 receiver, either in Atlanta or elsewhere.
The Falcons also figure to upgrade their pass rush this offseason, but how big an investment they make might depend on how well outside linebacker Arnold Ebiketie finishes the season. Ebiketie will have an opportunity to shine against the Saints due to the absence of starting right tackle Ryan Ramczyk.
Should Ebiketie take advantage of Ramczyk’s replacement and add to the six sacks he’s already racked up this year, it will give the Falcons more hope that they won’t have to invest as heavily this offseason. It will also act as a springboard for Ebiketie to make the leap to a double-digit sack guy in 2024 with increased playing time.
Over the past few games, rookie corner Clark Phillips has taken over as the team’s starting cornerback opposite A.J. Terrell. This gig could become more permanent should Phillips finish the year with a strong performance against the Saints. Most expected the fourth-round pick would likely play at the nickel cornerback spot this year, but his emergence as an effective outside corner has been a pleasant surprise.
Perhaps a good game in New Orleans might lead to increased expectations that he’ll remain the team’s starting outside cornerback in 2024, even with a Jeff Okudah re-signing and potential future additions looming.
Can you name other Falcons that intrigue you in this matchup or for the future?