5 Falcons who must step up in 2020

Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley catches a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone during the Dec. 8 game against Carolina. (Hyosub Shin/Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley catches a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone during the Dec. 8 game against Carolina. (Hyosub Shin/Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The Falcons concluded their virtual offseason program Thursday and are now squarely pointing toward the opening of training camp, tentatively set to start July 28.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn is hopeful that they’ll have a chance to get the rookies in a week early.

The NFL and the Falcons, in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, are proceeding like the season will start on time with various protocols and social distancing in place.

To bounce back from consecutive 7-9 seasons, here are five players the Falcons need to take a big step forward in 2020:

1. Hayden Hurst, Tight end: With big money deals already committed to several key players, the Falcons could only watch as tight end Austin Hooper went to the open free-agent market and landed a lucrative four-year, $42 million deal with the Cleveland Browns.

The Falcons traded a second-round pick to Baltimore to land Hurst, a former first-round pick, who will be entering his third season in the league.

He’ll need a breakout season to replace Hooper’s production on offense. Hooper caught 75 and 71 passes the past two seasons. Hurst, in his first two seasons in the league, caught only 13 and 30 passes.

Hooper also got off to a slow start in his career. He caught 19 passes as a rookie and then 30 the following year before busting out in his third season.

Hurst traveled from Jacksonville to Atlanta and then to California this offseason to work out with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

“He is for sure one of the fastest and most athletic tight ends that I’ve played with,” Ryan said. “I’ve been fortunate to play with some really good ones.”

The Falcons had Hurst on their draft board in 2018, but he was selected 25th, a pick before they took wide receiver Calvin Ridley.

“He’s different from a guy like Austin Hooper,” Ryan said. “He’s different from a guy like Tony Gonzalez. He got a different skill set. The thing that is similar to those guys is that he’s a mismatch problem.

“He’s a problem for the guys he’s going against. He’s just going to create, separate and win in different ways than those guys did.”

Ryan believe that Hurst, who was beaten out in Baltimore by Mark Andrews, who was a third-round pick in 2018, can make a big step forward.

“I think people are going to be impressed with his speed and his ability to separate with his athleticism,” Ryan said. “He’s been traveling all across the country to make it work. To find a way to get together. From that standpoint, I really appreciate the effort that he’s put in.”

2. Foyesade Oluokun, linebacker: The Falcons lost the versatile De'Vondre Campbell in free agency when he signed with the Cardinals.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn, cornerback Isaiah Oliver and linebacker Deion Jones all spoke glowingly of how Oluokun will fit in nicely on defense.

Oluokun, a sixth-round pick out of Yale in 2018, has shined in reserve duty.

With Jones out with a broken foot in 2018, Oluokun finished second on the team in tackles with 91. Last season, he had 62 tackles. He has played in 32 games and has made 10 starts.

“I think that a lot of people don’t know how great of an athlete that he is,” Oliver said. “He’s a bigger guy, he’s bigger than kind of like the linebackers that we’ve had on this team in the past. But he’s just a really good athlete and moves really well.”

Oluokun has shown his ability to play strong against the run. He’ll have to hold up in coverage.

“He likes to always tell people, he was a (defensive back) in college when he first got there at Yale,” Oliver said. “That kind of shows up on the field a little bit when he’s covering tight ends and running backs. I think he’ll exceed very well.”

Atlanta Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun (54) celebrates the recovery of the ball during a kickoff against the New Orleans Saints Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Credit: Danny Karnik

icon to expand image

Credit: Danny Karnik

3. Kaleb McGary, right tackle: The Falcons clearly didn't plan to be in so many obvious passing situations last season, and that led to 50 sacks and 135 quarterback hits.

With a strong rushing attack, they thought defenses would have to honor their play-action fakes and that would buy the line some pass-blocking help.

When the running game failed and the offense was placed in obvious passing situations, the line and McGary struggled. He was projected to struggle against elite pass rushers, so the Falcons were not alarmed.

One of his worst games came against the Rams and Dante Fowler. He tormented the Falcons with seven tackles, three sacks, three tackles for losses and four quarterback hits.

Now with Fowler on the Falcons’ roster, McGary will get to practice every day against elite speed and has the chance to improve dramatically.

McGary led the league by giving up 13 sacks last season.

“He was given some things to work on in the offseason,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “Kaleb is having to do some work on his own. Now, that Kaleb has been through a regular season, has a better feel for the guys he’s going against and what it’s going to take. (We feel) that he’s going to take a big jump as well.”

4. Calvin Ridley, wide receiver: Ridley was having a strong season until he was placed on injured reserve with a stomach injury.

Ridley had 63 catches for 866 yards and seven touchdowns over 13 games and 10 starts in his second season in the league.

Ridley has been compared favorably with former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison. In his second season, Harrison, who was on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had 73 catches for 866 yards and six touchdowns.

Koetter said that Ridley needs to continue to work on his route-running and being at the right depth. With Ridley continuing to develop into a major threat that will take some of the pressure off of Julio Jones.

If defenses continue to double-team Jones, then Ridley has to make them pay.

5. Takkarist McKinley, defensive end: McKinley, who is coming off his third shoulder surgery, did not have his fifth-year option picked up by the team.

Before going on injured reserve, McKinley tried to play basically with one healthy arm.

In his fourth season in the league, he’ll have a chance to fulfill the promise that he had coming out of UCLA. He’s had six, seven and 3.5 sacks over his first three seasons.

Quinn concurred with the group of five players that will need to step up.

“Yep, I’d say those are definitely players that we are looking to see where they can develop to,” Quinn said. “So, what I like doing at this time of the year, is talk about what their role could look like. What could they be counted on for, all of those players that you brought up, we’ve had those conversations.”

Quinn said there were many more players he’s expecting improvement from.

“I would say there are probably in my space, you listed five, I probably have about 15 that I see going into that space that had good meaningful conversations with me,” Quinn said. “Some rookies, some veterans and some everywhere in between.”


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