Over the past three seasons, the Falcons’ offensive line hasn’t performed the way it would have liked. It’s not like the Falcons’ former front office built this offensive line to fail. They opened the 2020 season with five former first-round selections in the starting lineup. Young on the right side and experienced on the left, this has the makings of being a talented group in need of some new ideas.
The offensive line’s need for improvement is why Smith’s hiring in particular is such a fit. With the Tennessee Titans, Smith, a former offensive lineman, was forced adjust to numerous lineup changes up front during the 2020 season because of injury. No matter the personnel, the run game never missed a beat.
All of the Falcons’ linemen set to return should benefit immensely with Smith running the show. While offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford hasn’t coached in the NFL before, he did play the position in the league, which should garner respect from his players. He also coached two first-rounders at the college level — Garrett Bradbury (Minnesota Vikings) at N.C. State and Mekhi Becton (New York Jets) at Louisville.
This kind of coaching should help McGary immensely as he enters his third season. McGary is at his best in the run game, which the Falcons figure to do more of under Smith’s guidance. In addition, you can bet the new coaching staff will put plenty of eyes on how to improve this entire group as pass protectors. In 2020, the Falcons allowed 41 sacks, a number that must come down if the offense is to be successful. McGary has the physical tools to be a consistent force on the right side of the line. A run-friendly scheme should work well for this group, with McGary being a player who could potentially flourish.
Linebacker Foye Oluokun: One of Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ best coaching jobs occurred in 2012, when he held the same position with the Baltimore Ravens. That season, the Ravens dealt with a slew of injuries, with inside linebacker Ray Lewis and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs missing a combined 18 games between the two. Late during that season, the Ravens lost inside linebacker Jameel McClain for the season and their subsequent Super Bowl run because of a spinal-cord injury.
Throughout the season and amid the injuries, Pees continued to adjust accordingly, getting more production than expected out of linebackers such as Dannell Ellerbe, Josh Bynes, Albert McClellan and Brendon Ayenbadejo. Pees’ scheme has worked wonders for linebackers over the years, with that 2012 season being a great example.
Oluokun showed the makings of a budding star during his third NFL season. He showed great athletic ability and versatility at the position, often guarding the opposing team’s top tight end in coverage. He was asked to blitz and did a good job defending the run.
With Pees running the defense, Oluokun could continue growing into a playmaking force.
Tight end Hayden Hurst: With the Titans, Smith’s offense got the ball to tight end Jonnu Smith in the red zone quite a bit. Smith finished the 2020 season with eight touchdowns while catching 41 passes for 448 yards. The Titans ran the ball the second-most of any team in the NFL, an approach that didn’t allow for as wide of a distribution of passing targets as most other teams.
When Tennessee did throw the ball, the tight ends were involved. Smith finished the season with the third most yards on the roster. Tennessee’s other tight end, Anthony Firkser, ranked fourth with 39 catches for 387 yards, with one touchdown pass.
It’s evident that the Falcons will look to return to a well-executed play-action attack, which the team hasn’t shown since the 2016 season. Given the personnel at the present time, it’s tough to assume the Falcons will run the ball as much as the Titans did this past season. If the run game improves, however, play-action should as well. From there, a player such as Hurst should only see his targets and opportunities grow.
Hurst finished the 2020 season with 56 catches, 571 yards and six touchdowns. As the season progressed, it seemed his rapport with quarterback Matt Ryan improved by the week. With this direction on offense, Hurst’s skill set has a chance to be utilized to its full potential.