3 Falcons players to watch in 2021

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter / AJC

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Falcons rookie tight end Kyle Pitts comments on his first game catch in NFL during final exhibition game of preseason against Cleveland.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter / AJC

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons are projected to flip 50% of their opening day starters from 2020 to 2021.

The offense is set to have five new starters and the defense will have six new starters.

Explore5 keys to Falcons' 2021 season

On offense, the Falcons have replaced wide receiver Julio Jones, left guard James Carpenter, center Alex Mack and running back Todd Gurley. Fullback Keith Smith started in the 38-25 loss to Seattle on Sept. 13, 2020, but the Falcons will not open in a three-wide receiver set with two backs like they did last season.

The five new starters are projected to be tight ends Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst, running back Mike Davis, left guard Jalen Mayfield and center Matt Hennessey.

On defense, the Falcons cleaned out the secondary, which was 32nd out of 32 teams in defending the pass last season. The new opening day starters are projected to be linebacker Foye Oluokun, defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard, outside linebacker Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, cornerback Fabian Moreau, free safety Erik Harris and strong safety Duron Harmon.

Here are three key players to watch for the Falcons in 2021:

ExploreWhat will be different about Falcons’ offense?

Kyle Pitt, tight end: With the number four overall pick, the Falcons made Pitts, the highest tight end selected since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.

Riley Odoms was the highest drafted tight end since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Odoms, who played at the University of Houston, was taken with the fifth overall pick of the 1972 draft by the Broncos.

“I was the only person that I had heard that compared him to Calvin Johnson,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. “On NBC (recently), they did that. People would say, well what is he like? ... I would say frankly, he’s built more like Calvin Johnson than any tight end.”

Johnson, the Hall of Famer from Georgia Tech, was a big wide receiver at 6-foot-5, 237 pounds. Pitts is listed at 6-6 and 245 pounds.

“He’s got the height,” Blank said. “He’s got the weight. He’s got the speed. They are within a 1/10 of second of each other (in 40-yard dash times) and he looks more like that.”

The Falcons will move Pitts around their formations.

“In fact, at Florida half of his snaps were way on the outside,” Blank said. “A quarter as a slot and then a quarter as a traditional tight end. I think he’s going to be an excellent player in the National Football League.”

Pitts only played two snaps in the exhibition season and had a catch for 27 yards. He lined up at the right tight end position.

“I think he will earn the No. 4 pick as the highest tight end ever drafted in the league ... is he going to go through a learning curve in the NFL, I’m sure he will. Every player does,” Blank said.

The Falcons believe Pitts, who’ll turn 21 on Oct. 6, will adjust.

“It’s different than college,” Blank said. “The level of competition is different. It consistently at a much higher level than you necessarily see every Saturday at the college level. He’s used to competing in a conference where there are no-holds barred. He’s competed against some very, very fine teams with great athletes and he put up exceptional numbers. I think that will be the case in the NFL as well.”

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Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) makes a handoff to running back Mike Davis (28) during open practice Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) makes a handoff to running back Mike Davis (28) during open practice Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) makes a handoff to running back Mike Davis (28) during open practice Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Mike Davis, running back: Falcons coach Arthur Smith had a workhorse running back in Derrick Henry in his two seasons as the Titans’ offensive coordinator.

The new regime has moved on from Todd Gurley, Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison, who were the top four backs in 2020 when the Falcons finished ranked 27th in rushing. Davis, after filling in for the injured Christian McCaffrey last season with the Panthers, was signed in free agency. He amassed more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2020. He’ll be counted on to carry most of the load at running back.

“I just want to come out and win,” Davis said. “I (am not) really too much pressed for the stats or whatever that comes with. I’m just here to try to make the team better, my teammates better. I just want to win.”

Davis, who played at Stephenson High and South Carolina, is with his fifth NFL team. He was drafted in the fourth round of the 2015 draft by San Francisco. He’s rushed 412 times for 1,531 yards (3.7) and 11 touchdowns over his career with San Francisco (2015-16), Seattle (2017-18), Carolina and Chicago (2019) and Carolina (2020).

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Falcons coach Arthur Smith and linebacker Dante Fowler comment on the veteran's status and role in new scheme.

Dante Fowler, outside linebacker: The Falcons have not had a player register double-digit sacks since Vic Beasley took down the quarterback 15.5 times in 2016.

If Dante Fowler gets to double-digits this season, he’ll get financially rewarded. After taking a pay cut, Fowler signed an incentive-laden deal. Fowler was signed to a three-year $45 million deal last season with $29 million guaranteed. Fowler’s contract was renegotiated on March 17 and lowered his salary cap number from $18.5 million to $10.6 million for 2021 with $6 million base salary guaranteed, according to NFLPA documents. He can earn $4 million more if he reaches 11 sacks. He can get $1 million for five sacks, $2 million for seven sacks, $3 million if he gets nine sacks.

ExploreWhat will be different about Falcons’ defense?

Fowler missed the start of training camp on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He worked his way up to full practices. He played just 10 snaps in the exhibition finale against Cleveland.

Fowler is moving much better in practice coming off the injury-plagued 2020 season, where he tried to play through a high-ankle sprain and that lead to a hamstring injury. Fowler played in 14 games and made 13 starts. He finished with 23 tackles, four tackles for losses, three sacks and eight quarterback hits.

He played 601 defensive snaps (56%) last season. He’s familiar with the 3-4 defense that the Falcons will run under Dean Pees. He compared it to the Ram’s defense when he had 11.5 sacks during the 2019 season. “I’m healthy,” Fowler said. “I’m ready to go.”

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