What are we expecting from the rookies on Atlanta’s roster?
Atlanta’s first draft class with Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith at the helm of the franchise has yet to take a regular season snap, so determining the long-term future of the nine players they drafted and the two undrafted players who made the roster is basically impossible right now. Figuring out where they slot in this season is much more doable.
The simplest summary is that on a team finding its way through a problematic cap situation and years of shaky depth-building, most of this rookie class will have a role. Ahead of this season, let’s kick off a weekly look at the first-year players and their likely roles to kick off the matchup against the Eagles.
TE Kyle Pitts: Starter
Hayden Hurst may continue to be listed ahead of him on the depth chart, but the Falcons are obviously pinning a lot of their 2021 hopes and dreams on the incredibly gifted rookie tight end they picked 4th overall. He’s a starter, whether he is in name or not.
The ceiling for Pitts is “greatest rookie season by a tight end in NFL history” territory, given how integral he is to what Arthur Smith is trying to build in Atlanta. His floor is probably somewhere around what Hurst did in 2020, in which case Hurst is probably heading for a better season. Either way, Pitts is going to be expected to be an impact player immediately.
S Richie Grant: Reserve
Grant goes into the year as the third safety, but that still figures to give him a clear path to a role. In Tennessee, Dean Pees had his third safety playing about a third of the defensive snaps, and Grant has shown flashes of his playmaking ability this preseason that could help push him past Duron Harmon and Erik Harris for a starting job down the line. Even if he doesn’t, Pees will find a role for him because of his athleticism and upside.
Regardless of his role, he’ll be a key part of the special teams picture
OL Jalen Mayfield: Forced into starting
Mayfield’s uneven, all-over-the-line summer had him looking at a reserve role heading into the season. An injury to Josh Andrews changed that, and he now looks likely to start against the Eagles and perhaps beyond. It’s a golden opportunity for the rookie, who could ensure Andrews never gets his job back if he can surprise at left guard, which also just so happens to be the position I think the Falcons want him to hold down over the long haul. We’re rooting for him.
CB Darren Hall: Reserve
A solid but quiet summer has Hall ticketed for a reserve role in 2021, and I’m not solid enough on the pecking order just yet to know whether the Falcons will get him in a game first in case of injury or turn to T.J. Green or Avery Williams instead. The aggressive corner is a player the coaching staff clearly likes, though, and he may get a longer look as a starter next year when Isaiah Oliver and Fabian Moreau’s contracts are up.
OL Drew Dalman: Reserve
Like Mayfield, Dalman got time at multiple positions and had some great moments mixed with some lousy ones. He’ll be a reserve at guard, likely behind new addition Colby Gossett, and figures to be Matt Hennessy’s direct backup at center. If he gets into games in 2021 things will have gone awry, but I like his chances of becoming at worst a dependable reserve for the interior of this line sooner than later.
DL Ta’Quon Graham: Reserve
Graham quietly showed well throughout preseason, but he won’t have a major role right away on a fairly deep line. Like Hall, Dalman, Ogundeji and Darby, however, he figures to get a better shot at a larger role in 2022 and beyond, and his strength alone makes him an intriguing over the long haul.
OLB Ade Ogundeji: Rotational player
A starter throughout preseason and someone who received a lot of first team snaps in training camp, Ogundeji showed well for a player I had penciled in as a deep reserve right after he was drafted. He won’t step into a huge role right off the bat in the regular season, but I do think he could wind up getting 15-20 snaps in the outside linebacker rotation pretty much immediately. Ogundeji’s future in Atlanta is bright, but he’s one of the few players drafted on day three this year who also might be able to carve out a significant role in 2021.
CB Avery Williams: Starting punt returner and reserve cornerback
The other late selection who will have a major role, of course, if Williams. He’s likely to start the year as a deep reserve at cornerback—though he did a nice job there this summer—but he’s also going to be a core special teamer. Williams got time as a gunner and is slotted in to handle punt returns for the Falcons in 2021, something he was tremendous at in college. If any rookie not named Kyle Pitts is going to get a Pro Bowl nod, it’s going to be Williams based on that electric return ability, which I hope he’ll use to good effect against an Eagles offense that might be punting a few times Sunday.
WR Frank Darby: Reserve
Darby’s not locked in to a roster spot, so he could wind up on the practice squad if the Falcons shuffle their receiving corps in the days ahead. As a player who did good work as a deep threat in college, an infectious hype man and a useful special teamer who got some work at gunner in preseason, Darby does have value for this team. He’ll likely have to wait until next year to get much of a real shot at a role on offense, however.
QB Feleipe Franks: Reserve/practice squad player
I still expect Franks to wind up on the practice squad when the dust settles, but the Falcons liked him enough to keep him on the roster through the first round of cuts and figure to want to hold on to him and see if a year or two of development can turn his raw tools into something approximating a quality backup quarterback. There’s always the slim chance the Falcons decide he’s their best bet as Matt Ryan’s backup this year, but that remains to be seen.
ILB Dorian Etheridge: Reserve
Etheridge had a strong summer and a truly eye-opening first preseason game, and that earned him a ticket to a roster spot. As the fourth inside linebacker on a team with three high-end options, his role will be limited if everyone’s healthy and effective, but he shouldn’t have trouble holding on to a roster spot or practice squad slot as he develops.