The Falcons certainly have an average roster that will need upgrading through the draft and free agency before the team can compete in the postseason regularly, and a significant catalyst of that upturn would be the 2021 draft class producing quality starters. Stacking classes is something sustainable organizations do well; they don’t all have to net the next superstar at any one position. The idea is to bring in prospects the coaching staff can develop into a contributor on some level, whether that be a star-caliber player, like Kyle Pitts will more than likely be, or a solid special teams player like Avery Williams.
The Falcons began the season giving very few snaps to their rookies. Kyle Pitts and Jalen Mayfield were the only members of Terry Fontenot’s first draft class as general manager to play significant roles during the start of the year. Since then, whether it be because of injuries or something else, most first-year Falcons have seen the field in meaningful ways — Frank Darby being the lone exception. Avery Williams looks primed to contribute on special teams for many years to come, and eventually, I don’t see it being impossible for him to get regular snaps on offense or defense.
The Falcons need Jalen Mayfield to pan out if the offense wants to be consistent in any capacity; however, the rookie defenders look to be, at the very least, solid contributors in the future. Fontenot selected Richie Grant in the second round, which began a run of taking five defenders in seven rounds — one being Williams. The other four have slowly been worked in at their respective positions. On Sunday, Darren Hall, Ade Ogundeji, Ta’Quon Graham, and Grant showed me enough to believe they’ll become contributors.
Nobody in the group played spectacularly by any means, but that has to be expected when this is the first time they’ve received regular playing time. However, I still saw positives in each players’ game that should give Falcons fans a certain amount of encouragement moving forward. We can start with Grant, who has the highest ceiling of the bunch. The second-round pick had 24 snaps against the Buccaneers, which is 34% of all defensive snaps and a continuation of consistent play the past six weeks.
Grant made several mistakes, including one that resulted in a big gain from Mike Evans in what looked like A.J. Terrell tried to pass the Bucs wideout off, but the safety wasn’t there. Terrell could’ve possibly not carried him high enough, but one would think the rookie made the mistake and not the breakout player. He also gave up a tough contested catch to Chris Godwin in tight coverage, but he still showed aggressiveness and proper technique, keeping containment against Tampa’s run game. If and when Grant grasps the mental side of the game, he could really be an impact player for this defense as long as he continues to refine his coverage technique, which one would have to assume he does. He’s already flashed that electric closing speed and physicality defending the run; the next step will be in coverage.
Moving on to Darren Hall, who led the entire group with 44 snaps, and though the Buccaneers regularly targeted and completed passes to the slot receiver (on Grant or Hall), his play encouraged. Stacking injuries certainly contributed to Hall’s playing time spike, but he’s earned it. Much like Grant, Hall is a willing and physical run defender. Both have the versatility to rush the passer and defend the run, even if the two defensive backs are struggling in coverage. Hall is the better cover man as it stands right now; I mean, he is a cornerback. Isaiah Oliver began the season as the team’s nickel back, and he’s looked better than anyone else Dean Pees has tried there. However, the future of the position is up for grabs as Oliver is set to hit free agency in 2022. He’s shown an ability to grow into the role and will have a shot at starting there next season.
The two defensive linemen of the class — Ade Ogundeji and Ta’Quon Graham — might not have as high of ceilings as the other rookie defenders, but both will be a part of any future Falcons defensive front rotation. Ogundeji out-snapped his counterpart, logging 27 total even with Steven Means returning. Though he doesn’t have much of a pass rush arsenal, Ogundeji does possess a nasty long-arm move that he effectively deployed against Tampa Bay that almost netted a sack. He’s a high-motor EDGE defender who does positive things against the run and has really been a bright spot for this rookie class.
Graham was only in for 22 snaps but logged a TFL and is coming off a sack the previous week against the Jaguars. He, much like Ogundeji, might not turn into superstar defensive linemen, but they both seem capable of contributing in some way. It’ll be up to the coaching staff to develop these rookie defenders, but it’ll also be on the front office to consistently add competition — iron sharpens iron. None of these first-year players are stars by any means. They’re all in different stages of their development, and they all have various ceilings, but they’re showing signs of being able to provide positive play.