9/30/18 - Atlanta - Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley (18) gains yards in the 4th quarter on a Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) pass. The Atlanta Falcons played the Cincinnati Bengals in an NFL football game Sunday, Sept 29, 2018, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Falcons look forward with youth

Ridley, Kazee, Oluokun offer reasons to be excited

Nobody’s happy about missing the playoffs, given the lofty expectations on the team, yet the Falcons got mileage out of every member of their 2018 draft class, and their first and last picks – wide receiver Calvin Ridley and linebacker Foye Oluokun – played beyond reasonable projections. 

Second-year defensive back Demontae Kazee grew up, too. It’s just a bummer for the Falcons that it took injuries to others to get so much tape on some of these guys.

Ridley was a starter from the jump, and led all NFL rookies in receiving yards (821) and touchdowns (10), was second in receptions (64) and first among wideouts. He did nothing of note in the season opener at Philadelphia, and then over the next three games caught 15 passes for 264 yards and six touchdowns, including three against the Saints.

“We see usually first- and second-year players make the biggest jumps, and I certainly anticipate that with this draft class,” Quinn said. “I think from a production standpoint, you saw Calvin’s speed and explosiveness that we probably talked about on draft night.”

Kazee wasn’t new to NFL football, but his role grew when starting strong safety Keanu Neal went down in the first game at Philadelphia and increased more when free safety Ricardo Allen went down with an Achilles tendon rupture in the third game.

All he did was ring up seven of the Falcons’ 15 interceptions, add 82 tackles (80 on defense), 10 pass breakups to rank behind only cornerbacks Desmond Trufant (12) and Robert Alford (11) while also forcing a fumble. Kazee also improved over time at quarterbacking the defense, although not to the level of Allen.

Oluokun moved into the rotation when middle linebacker Deion Jones suffered a foot injury in the first game and Duke Riley moved from the weakside to replace him with the sixth-rounder from Yale back-filling for Riley. Before long, he replaced Riley in many situations and remained on the field when Jones returned from his injury in December.

All Oluokun did was rack up 91 tackles (89 on defense) to rank second on the team to strongside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell’s 94. On four different occasions, Oluokun had 10 tackles in a game including three times over the second half of the season. 

“There’s definitely things you find out about certain players. A guy like Kazee was thrust into a bigger role. A guy like Foye was thrust into a bigger role. I thought they thrived in some of those roles,” Quinn said. “ ... So those would be two examples of guys that took on a bigger role than if maybe had we been healthy, that wouldn't have been the case.”

Cornerback Isaiah Oliver missed the first two games with an injury, but the second-round pick played in all 14 after that, and started twice.

He subbed for Alford on occasions late in the season to suggest that team officials are considering moving on from Alford, who next season is scheduled for a salary of $8.5 million with a $9.1 million salary-cap charge if on the team vs. a cap hit of $1.2 million if he’s not. The hit would be $600,000 if he were released June 1 or later, and then $600,000 in 2020.

Oliver missed an assignment at the bitter end of the Bengals game, allowing A.J. Green to catch the winning pass, yet he also broke up seven passes on the season and pulled in his first interception at Carolina in week 16.

Defensive tackle Deadrin Senat played in 15 games, starting two, and although his production slipped in the second half as the third-round pick contended with injury, he pitched in 30 tackles and three quarterback hits. 

Running back Ito Smith was drafted in the fourth round and played more than anybody would have predicted after Devonta Freeman was injured twice in the first few games and barely played.

He rushed 90 times for 315 yards and four touchdowns and caught 27 passes mostly for short yardage. There were moments before his season ended in the 14th game.

Fifth-rounder Russell Gage primarily was a special-teams player, and although he committed a couple of costly penalties, he added four tackles in addition to catching a couple of passes as a wide receiver.

It’s impossible to know how expansive these players’ roles will be next season.

Neal, Allen and Freeman are expected to be healed and back in the mix, but there may also be salary-cap casualties at some roster sports.

A large number of Falcons also are slated to become free agents, including defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and Terrell McClain, running back Tevin Coleman, nickel back Brian Poole (restricted) and wide receivers Justin Hardy and Marvin Hall (exclusive rights).

“This was a really mature group that took to it quickly,” Quinn said of Falcons rookies. “... You'd love to keep everybody as long as you can all the time, but knowing that's not the case, it kind of challenges you to ... push it on to the development of some players ...

“And that can excite you when you see guys making steps from Year 1 to 2, and 2 to 3. That's why the development piece is such a big one. ... And for all of them, I don't think anybody's near where we think they can get to. And that lights me up because I think all of them can make a significant jump moving forward.” 

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