With the season on the line, five of the nine players the Falcons selected in the 2014 NFL draft and one undrafted rookie will play key roles for the team against the New Orleans Saints at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Superdome.
It will be their first trip to the Big Easy, where the Falcons are 1-5 in the Superdome under coach Mike Smith. The Falcons (5-9) need a victory over the Saints (6-8) to keep their playoffs hopes alive.
A win over the Saints and a victory over the Carolina Panthers in the regular-season finale would put the Falcons in the playoffs with a 7-9 record. They would host a wild-card round playoff game.
A loss to the Saints, however, and the Falcons will be eliminated from the playoff race.
Of the rookie contributors, left tackle Jake Matthews (first round, sixth overall) and center James Stone (undrafted) are the lone starters.
Defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman (second, 37th), safety Dezmen Southward (third, 68th), running back Devonta Freeman (fourth, 103rd) and linebacker Prince Shembo (fifth, 139th) are playing key reserve roles.
Also, cornerback Ricardo Allen (fifth, 147th) was added to the 53-man active roster Tuesday. Defensive end Tyler Starr (seventh, 255th) is on the active roster, but has been inactive for all 14 games.
Linebacker Yawin Smallwood (seventh, 253) was cut, but is on Tennessee’s practice squad.
Matthews was slated to start at right tackle, but was moved to left tackle when Sam Baker went down with a season-ending knee injury Aug. 16 in the exhibition season.
Matthews suffered a high-ankle sprain in the season opener, but returned after missing a game. Matthews struggled while trying to play through the injury. His play has stabilized as he’s recovered.
While the Falcons are pleased with his play, his analytic numbers are pretty gruesome. Pro Football Focus rates him as the worst (57th) among tackles who’ve played more than 50 percent of their teams’ snaps.
Matthews has played 833 snaps, with 541 pass sets. He’s allowed six sacks, six hits and 31 hurries for a bad-play ratio of 12.6.
“You’ve got to say that Jake Matthews has played at a very high level, especially over the last six weeks,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “I thought Jake was very good in his pass protection (against the Steelers).”
The Falcons believe Matthews is starting to smooth out his game and that his woeful numbers are attributed to playing him on one-ankle early in the season.
“He’s going to be everything that the Atlanta Falcons expected,” Smith said. “He’s going to man that left tackle position for a very long time.”
Stone took over at center after season-ending injuries knocked out Joe Hawley (knee) and Peter Konz (knee). He’s played 545 snaps and hasn’t surrendered a sack.
Hageman has averaged 13.5 snaps per game. He doesn’t have a sack, but has two quarterback hurries over 189 snaps.
“Ra’shede Hageman has made some plays for us,” Smith said. “He had a big play in the game (against the Steelers). He’s blocked two field goals. He’s done a very good job.”
Southward was slowed by a concussion early in the season, but has come on to play 202 snaps, mostly in the Falcons’ dime (six defensive back) schemes.
He showed some playmaking ability with his speed and by coming up with an interception late against Cleveland. He was drafted to eventually take over at free safety.
“You can see his ability to run and you can see his ability on specials teams,” Smith said.
Freeman has played 117 snaps, including 25 while pass blocking. He has 79 touches (54 rushes, 25 catches) from scrimmage for 370 yards or 4.6 yards per touch. However, he’s averaging just 3.7 yards per carry.
“Devonta Freeman has created some explosive plays for us as well,” Smith said.
Shembo, who’s being converted to an inside linebacker, has played 301 snaps. He’s blitzed 24 times and has one sack.
“Prince Shembo is splitting time with Joplo Bartu when we have a two linebacker scheme,” Smith said.
Allen was cut and re-signed to the practice squad. For a team starving for a pass rush, Starr hasn’t shown enough in practice to warrant being activated. Linebacker Marquis Spruill (fifth, 168th) suffered a season-ending knee injury and is on injured reserve.
“He looks like he’s put on about 20 pounds,” Smith said. “He is looking really good. He’s been working hard.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com