This team isn’t going to tank, but they do need to get a longer look at players who may play more significant roles in 2022.
Forget the notion of tanking, something the Falcons simply won’t do on purpose. Forget about playing young players at the expense of winning, a mindset the Falcons shouldn’t let themselves fall into. Let’s talk instead about playing some of this team’s 2021 draft picks and young reserves in more prominent roles because it makes sense to do so, both now and for the future.
The Falcons have so many weaknesses right now that you can credibly argue getting young players playing time does them no great harm, because in many cases it’s not clear the young player in question is a significant downgrade or any kind of downgrade at all. Getting those players time has the added benefit of giving them invaluable regular season snaps that will hopefully help them be ready for 2022, which we’re all hoping will be a less uneven year. We are not necessarily talking about players who will become dominant starters or starters at all, here, so we’re not talking about parking veterans in favor of new starters the team may not consider to be ready. What I’m advocating for is that the following six players, at least, get some more run as the Falcons traverse the final seven games of the season.
Once you’ve read my list, I’d welcome your additions to it.
RB Qadree Ollison
I’d also accept Caleb Huntley, here. The Falcons are not going to park Mike Davis entirely and they’re going to continue to prioritize touches for Cordarrelle Patterson, as they should. Getting Ollison or Huntley working in favor of Wayne Gallman—and at the expense of a few Davis carries per game, given that those have been going nowhere all year—feels like a good move because both players are pretty young, have a physical running style Arthur Smith likes, and could be back next year on an affordable deal. The team clearly wanted a longer look at Ollison against the Patriots.
Ollison had an uneven game like everyone else against the Patriots, but he also broke two strong runs, flashing that straight-line speed and power that once intrigued Dirk Koetter’s version of the Falcons. It’d be nice to see if he can offer that regularly.
WR Frank Darby
The Falcons have, if you haven’t noticed, a bit of a problem at wide receiver. Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus and Tajae Sharpe are all credible options, but they are not going to produce like your #1, #2 and #3 receivers when they are in fact your #1, #2 and #3 receivers, as they are now.
Darby isn’t going to overtake any of them in his rookie season—until recently, he was a weekly inactive—but he should get a bit of a longer look. In college, Darby put up excellent per reception numbers not because he’s an absolute burner, but because he possesses a strong all-around toolkit of speed, physicality and a willingness to push for yards after the catch. The Falcons have been lacking the physicality and YAC ability from their receivers throughout the season, and even if Darby can only offer that in fits and starts, he’ll add value to the passing game. Considering he’s just one of two receivers under contract in 2022, the team should be eager to figure out whether he can contribute.
DL Ta’Quon Graham
Graham got more run this past Thursday after being a surprise inactive a couple of times this year, and I’m hopeful that’s a sign of things to come. He’s been quiet in terms of the stat sheet, but
ILB Mykal Walker
There’s been clamoring for Walker playing time basically since he was drafted, and when he showed well in his opportunities a year ago, those calls intensified. They’ve been a bit more muted this year, but a little more time on defense for Walker (he already is a major contributor on special teams) feels like it would be worthwhile. He’s missed a couple of tackles in his limited chances this year, but he’s also been active and solid enough in coverage, something that Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun have struggled mightily with in 2021 thus far. Even if you believe Walker isn’t going to offer anything close to what Oluokun and Jones do in terms of talent or production—and that’s a very fair thing to believe—the fact that Oluokun could be headed elsewhere and we’re not 100% sure the team will keep Jones around with his cap number begs for at least a modest bump in Walker’s stats.
I wouldn’t mind seeing him used as a pass rusher occasionally, as well, given that he was productive enough in that role in college.
CB Darren Hall
Like Graham, Hall got more run against the Patriots, and he looked damn good with the opportunity. Hall came in untouched for a sack on Mac Jones, wrapping up the quarterback in a way other Falcons defenders did not, and flashed a couple of times in coverage and as a tackler. Hall is one of the relatively few cornerbacks under contract next year, has physicality and a nose for the ball this defense could use, and has held his own in limited opportunities to this point. It’s time to work him in to the gameplan a little more regularly, even if I don’t expect him to exceed 10-15 snaps per game if everyone’s healthy.
S Richie Grant
He’s last, but he’s probably the headliner here. Grant was this team’s second round pick for a reason, because they loved his playmaking ability and aggressiveness, but he’s mostly been a factor on special teams to this point. Injury has forced Dean Pees to use him more often of late, but Grant has mostly been an afterthought in this defense by and large.
It’s a strong bet that Grant is going to be, at worst, this team’s third safety and a significant piece in 2022. Pees has made arguments against throwing young players in when they’re not ready so as to not dent their confidence and Grant has had his struggles, but this team chose him when they did to make him a foundational piece of this defense. It’d be awfully nice to get a longer look at whether that’s going to be the case next year or not.
Who would you add to this list?