Falcons’ roster talent sinks to last place in 32-team NFL

Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith, right, watches play against the New England Patriots during the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Caption
Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith, right, watches play against the New England Patriots during the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Team is ranked behind the Giants and Lions

FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Falcons are sinking, in large part because of their lack of depth.

After the Falcons beat the Saints and were 4-4, Football Outsiders ranked the Falcons as the second-worst team in the 32-team NFL, ahead of only winless Detroit.

After blowout losses to the Cowboys (43-3) and the Patriots (25-0) by a combined score of 68-3, the Falcons, after the numbers crunched on Tuesday, are the 32nd ranked team.

A quick look at the four drafts from 2017-20 and poor free-agent signings in the last years of the Thomas Dimitroff-Dan Quinn administration helps explain how the Falcons sank from Super Bowl contenders.

The Falcons do not have any players left from their 2017 draft class. Defensive end Takk McKinley (Browns), linebacker Duke Riley (Dolphins), guard Sean Harlow (49ers), safety Damontae Kazee (Cowboys), running back Brian Hill (Browns) and tight end Eric Saubert (Broncos) are playing elsewhere.

Of the 2018 class, wide receiver Calvin Ridley is on the non-football injury list and cornerback Isaiah Oliver is on injured reserve. Third-round pick Deadrin Senat and fourth-round pick Ito Smith were released by the new administration. Wide receiver Russell Gage and linebacker Foye Oluokun, both taken in the sixth round, are contributors. Oluokun leads the team in tackles with 110.

In the 2019 class, the first-round picks were Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. Lindstrom appears on his way to a solid career, while McGary continues to struggle against elite pass rushers and with missed blocks. Cornerback Kendall Sheffield and defensive tackle John Cominsky, both taken in the fourth round, are buried on the bench. Running back Qadree Ollison is on the practice squad, while cornerback Jordan Miller is on the Saints’ practice squad and wide receiver Marcus Green is with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League.

Of the 2020 draft class, cornerback A.J. Terrell (first round), center Matt Hennessy (third) and safety Jaylinn Hawkins (fourth) are making major contributions. Defensive tackle Marlon Davidson (second) and linebacker MyKal Walker (fourth) are reserves, while punter Sterling Hofrichter (seventh) is out of the league.

There were mostly modest free-agent signings such as defensive end Jack Crawford in 2017 and defensive end Derrick Shelby in 2018. However, when the Falcons tried to fix their offensive and defensive lines, they wasted a bunch of money. Guards James Carpenter (four years, $21 million) and Jamon Brown (three-year, $18.75 million) signed, and they didn’t solve the offensive line issues.

In 2020, the perpetual look for pass-rush help led to the Falcons to sign Dante Fowler to a four-year, $45 million deal that was renegotiated down after last season. They also wasted money on running back Todd Gurley, who didn’t play much over the second half of last season and currently is out of the league.

Not finding enough players in the draft has lead the current state of the roster where the depth has been exposed, especially over the past two games. Without Ridley, running back wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and tight end Hayden Hurst, the offense grinded to a halt.

The Falcons have tried to fabricate depth through competition.

“Ollison is a great example of continuing to go out there and compete each day,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said. “You never know when your opportunity is going to arise. You never know when you’re going to get your chance. In this league, when you get the opportunity regardless of how much or how little the opportunity is, take advantage of it.”

Ollison, who’s on the practice squad, is in line to get more action after rushing nine times for 34 yards against the Patriots. The Falcons have struggled to run the ball for years and currently ranked 30th in the league while averaging 78.6 yards per game. The knock on Ollison has been his blocking, but running back Mike Davis, who was signed in free agency, has not been productive. He had a season-low three carries against the Patriots and is averaging 3.2 yards per carry.

“That builds your depth when there is great competition,” Ragone said. “When guys know there is a chance for them to compete and when they have an opportunity they’ll get a chance to play.”

Hennessy was drafted by the former regime. That didn’t stop the new front office from taking a center in the fourth round of the draft. Hennessy has struggled at time as the Falcons have been getting stuffed in short-yardage situations. Center Drew Dalman, who was taken in the fourth round out of Stanford in 2021, may be in line for some playing time.

“It’s not just a question of is Drew ready,” Ragone said. “We expect everybody who gets a helmet on game day to be ready to play.”

If a player is not on the game-day roster, he’s expected to compete at practice in case of an emergency.

“That’s just on the physical part,” Ragone said. “We expect you to understand the game plan. Go out and be a professional.”

The Falcons have needed their depth on defense with a knee injury to Oliver. They have used five different players at nickel back with Hawkins missing two games with an ankle injury.

“Guys are going to get hurt,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “It’s hard for everybody to play all 17 games. If there is a big drop-off between the first group and the second group, that could be a tough day.”

Pees likes to have rotations at all positions.

“You’d like to play as many guys as you can possibly play in a game,” Pees said. “I really have always believed in that, but to play you’ve got to know what you are doing. We’re not going to play you just to gain experience at the expense of the other 10 guys.”

With Pees, if you’re out of position, you will not earn playing time.

“If you play a guy just because you want to play him, you want to get him experience, but he’s not doing it the way you need to have it done, that hurts him with the other 10 guys,” Pees said. “You don’t ever want to let that happen.”

“I’ve seen that happen before, and all of a sudden that guy loses creditability. You want to put the guys in the spots where they are going to be successful as possible, but you would like to play as many guys as you can. You’d like to spread the wealth around a little bit.”

One example of a player struggling for playing time is safety Richie Grant, who was a second-round pick this year, and the Falcons have a developmental plan for him.

The Falcons like their depth along the defensive front and have been freely rotating the defensive tackles, with the exception of Pro Bowler Grady Jarrett.

“There are certain guys that are up on certain weeks and certain guys that aren’t,” Pees said. “There is not a big drop-off.”

Defensive tackles Mike Pennel, Anthony Rush and Ta’Quon Graham played against New England, while Davidson and Tyeler Davison were inactive. Jonathan Bullard also is a part of the six-player rotation.

“There’s a lot of guys that can be active one week and not active the next week, and it has nothing to do with them not necessarily playing well,” Pees said. “It has more to do with maybe the style of defense we are going to pay that week. Other than Jarrett, I think all of those, we can play any one of those guys. I do like the fact that we have started to establish a little depth up there.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Caption
Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees discusses the difference between pressure and coverage as the team prepares for its next game vs. Carolina.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Falcons’ 2021 schedule features trip to London, January trip to Buffalo

Atlanta Falcons schedule and scores

Eagles 32, Falcons 6

Buccaneers 48, Falcons 25

Falcons 17, Giants 14

Washington 34, Falcons 30

Falcons 27, Jets 20

Bye Week

Falcons 30, Dolphins 28

Panthers 19, Falcons 13

Falcons 27, Saints 25

Cowboys 43, Falcons 3

Patriots 25, Falcons 0

Next four games

Falcons at Jacksonville, 1 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 28

Tampa Bay at Falcons, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 5

Falcons at Carolina, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 12

Falcons at San Francisco, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 19

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