4 Falcons entering important contract years in 2021

Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage (83) runs past Saints outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans. (Tyler Kaufman/AP)
Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage (83) runs past Saints outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans. (Tyler Kaufman/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

For a handful of Falcons players, the 2021 season will be crucial when it comes to securing another contract.

As it presently stands, 18 players under contract will become free agents after the next season is completed. That means in addition to seeking immediate team goals, these players will need to stand out individually to show they either should be brought back or sign elsewhere at a premium.

Of those 18 players, here are four in particular who will need to have a big season to earn that next multi-year contract.

The Falcons have yet to reveal whether receiver Calvin Ridley and tight end Hayden Hurst are having their fifth-year options picked up. Therefore, it is unknown if either will become a free agent after next season, so they aren’t included on this list.

Receiver Russell Gage: For some unknown reason, LSU chose not to get Gage involved much as a passing target at the collegiate level. That decision looks silly now that Gage has emerged into a true No. 3 receiver threat with the Falcons. And quite honestly, he fared well as the second option down the stretch of the 2020 season with Julio Jones sidelined because of a hamstring injury.

A sixth-round selection in 2018, Gage finished with career bests of 786 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Three of those scores came in the Falcons’ final six games. Possessing great footwork as a route runner, Gage has developed into much more than the special-teams player the previous regime initially envisioned.

ExploreWho on Falcons’ 2020 offense should stay or go?

Gage is slated to work out of the slot once again, with Jones and Calvin Ridley on the outside. The only issue to ponder is whether the Falcons will throw the ball as much under coach Arthur Smith. Smith said the plan is to be adaptable to the personnel, although his recent track record shows a strong tendency to run the ball. How the offense will look is still a mystery at the present time.

But if Gage can improve on what were impressive numbers for a third receiver, he could be in for a decent payday, which no one could have possibly seen coming after his limited use at LSU.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) nearly strips the ball away from Atlanta Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen (37) after Allen intercepted a pass during the second half Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (Jason Behnken/AP)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) nearly strips the ball away from Atlanta Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen (37) after Allen intercepted a pass during the second half Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (Jason Behnken/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Safety Ricardo Allen: Allen is at a pivotal point in his professional career. The chance still remains that he could be a cap casualty before the 2021 season begins, considering the Falcons can save $6.25 million against what will be a tight salary cap. But if Allen remains on the roster for his final year under contract, he will have a chance to prove to either the Falcons or another team that he can still be a valuable contributor.

In 2020, Allen was once again a go-to leader on defense. Early on, he played in the box and deep, with the Falcons rotating Allen, Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee in the secondary. When Kazee tore his Achilles, Allen moved back to solely being a free safety. The hope for Allen is that the coaching change will help the Falcons generate a better pass rush, which won’t put the secondary in as many precarious situations.

Allen is still a great communicator and has been a de facto coach on the football field. A solid season will continue his playing days onward. If it doesn’t materialize, Allen is at peace with moving into the next phase of his career, which will be into actual coaching from the sideline.

Atlanta Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver breaks up a pass to Saints running back Alvin Kamara but can’t come down with the interception during the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Atlanta Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver breaks up a pass to Saints running back Alvin Kamara but can’t come down with the interception during the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Cornerback Isaiah Oliver: A second-round selection in 2018, Oliver has gone through plenty of ups and downs. With a new coaching staff, perhaps Oliver can put together a consistent 2021 season that warrants either the Falcons or another team extending a second contract his way. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has done wonders with some long cornerbacks in the past, namely Cary Williams during his days with the Baltimore Ravens.

ExploreWho on Falcons’ 2020 defense should stay or go?

Oliver began the 2020 season as an outside cornerback before moving inside to man the nickel position. It’s possible Oliver continues to play nickel under the new coaching staff. He also could move to safety, where his length and speed could be an asset, especially if the Falcons are unable to re-sign Neal or Kazee.

Regardless of where he lines up, 2021 will be an important season for Oliver. It will either set him up for the ever-important multi-year second contract or limit him to a short-term contract with a short leash.

Atlanta Falcons linebacker Foyesade Oluokun (54) intercepts a pass in front of Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) during the first half Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)
Atlanta Falcons linebacker Foyesade Oluokun (54) intercepts a pass in front of Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) during the first half Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)

Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn

Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn

Linebacker Foye Oluokun: With the philosophical change that’s occurring among the Falcons’ defensive coaches, Oluokun could be the biggest beneficiary of anyone on the unit. That should translate well when it comes to his expiring rookie contract and forcing teams to eventually pony up a large sum of cash for the former sixth-round pick out of Yale.

Oluokun will be in good company with fellow linebacker Deion Jones on the field, with the two having been used as blitzers more in 2020 than in previous seasons. Pees also made it clear that every position on the field will be asked to blitz.

Maxing out Oluokun’s athletic ability should be a priority with the new defensive coaches, which, in theory, will bolster his value heading into the 2022 offseason.

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