The Falcons open the 2021 season at home against the Eagles, where there will be a matchup of new regimes. Atlanta completely cleaned house, hiring head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot; Philadelphia ownership kept Howie Roseman and hired Nick Sirianni to be the head coach.
Both teams are expected to be in the league’s bottom half, but there is an easier way for Philly to make the playoffs even if they aren’t the better team because they play in the NFC (L)east. There are plenty of storylines to follow as a new chapter begins in Atlanta, but here are five specific Falcons to watch that will be pivotal in earning a win.
This will be all I can focus on as I’ve been on a rollercoaster with Mayfield. Once I watched his tape, I figured Arthur Smith and Dwayne Ledford could get him up to standard for Week 1. Here we are, and the only reason the rookie third-round pick is starting is because of injuries to guys ahead of him. He’ll have his hands full with Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave. There is no doubt he will struggle, but I’m curious to see how Arthur Smith helps him with schematics and play calling.
Although he always had the starting job, Hennessy is in a similar situation as Mayfield — inexperienced interior linemen facing a gauntlet of interior defensive linemen. Even though it was a small sample size, Hennesy was terrible at the end of 2020. Granted, it was against Chris Jones and the Buccaneers’ defensive line. Hennessy was highly coveted coming out of college, so this will be big for the offense if he can establish himself as a reliable center.
I cheated a little bit here. I couldn’t choose one of Grady Jarrett, Jonathan Bullard, Marlon Davidson, John Cominsky, Steven Means, and Dante Fowler. I’m fascinated with the idea of having six versatile defenders that can be moved up and down the line of scrimmage with Dean Pees calling the shots. I’m excited to see Means and Cominsky rush from the interior; I’m curious to see how Fowler will be featured as the group’s best pure pass rusher, and I’m eager to see how Davidson looks against the likes of Jason Kelce and Brandon Brooks.
Every Falcons fan loves to use Oliver as a verbal punching bag, but I’m here to tell you that you’ll want to walk those insults back once you see him in this defense. I believe he’ll look like a totally different player in a system that accentuates his strengths and hides his weaknesses — the nickel back. Oliver will likely be the first or second defensive back on the field depending on the offensive personnel, but this will be a big year for the former second-round pick. He’s had impressive moments and discouraging ones in Atlanta, but fans should give him a clean slate in 2021.
This is a bit of a cherry-pick, but who cares? It’s the fourth-overall pick. I am most excited to watch how Arthur Smith uses Kyle Pitts knowing Jonathan Gannon — the Eagles defensive coordinator — will be keying on the rookie. I imagine him being used in a bevy of ways — lining up in the slot, on the boundary, in line, in the backfield, in motion, and running the variations of the route tree from any alignment. Most importantly, I’m looking forward to watching how he deals with the pressure of his first NFL game.
I’ll recap each of these players and my takeaways after the Eagles game. Be sure to check back in!
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