9 Falcons breakout candidates

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Chris Lindstrom

The Falcons 14th overall selection last year was a surprise to many, and before we could even make any judgments based on his play, he was on Injured Reserve with a broken foot. Lindstrom did return for the final four games, however, and there’s a reason Atlanta was able to score 24+ in each contest while going 4-0. PFF gave him a respectable grade of 66.6, which is even better when considering he was coming off a significant injury. 

When Lindstrom was drafted, he was pegged as an immediate starter that could one day be the best in the league. After one year, that description hasn’t changed. The Boston College product was immediately named by Matt Ryan (before last season) as a player that could make a difference in the offense, and Austin Hooper’s parting comments prior to signing with Cleveland should give fans some solace that the organization made the correct decision. 

In year two, Lindstrom will slot in as the starting right guard. And he, along with Kaleb McGary, could form a powerful side for the Falcons to pound the rock. But while I’m not sold on McGary turning into a pro-bowler, or even an above-average starter, Lindstrom’s floor is already high, and he has the potential to be among the best lineman in football. As far as breakout candidates go, Lindstrom is the one I’m most sure of — as long as he stays healthy. 

Takk McKinley

McKinley has been a breakout candidate for two years now. He showed a lot of promise as a rookie, recording six sacks as a rotational pass rusher, leading many to believe the Falcons made the correct choice by trading up to snag him in the first round. Unfortunately, he hasn’t become the double-digit sack machine many envisioned after his rookie campaign. 

In year two, McKinley only upped his sack total by one. However, he did record the second-highest pressure rate in the NFL — ahead of guys like Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, and Von Miller. While sacks are sexy, the best defensive minds will tell you pressures are equally as important. So for a second-year player, it was impossible to call his season a disappointment, and there was even more hope that a breakout was around the corner. 

Instead, McKinley’s third season was his worst to date. He played in 14 games (13 starts), recording a career-low 3.5 sacks. He was still one of the best at applying pressure on the team, racking up 13 QB hits, but that’s not saying much when considering the Falcons anemic pass rush. Because of the lackluster campaign, management decided to decline his fifth-year option. While I’m not sure that was the correct decision given how much pass rushers demand on the open market, the Falcons have been screwed the last two fifth-year options they did pick up. 

Vic Beasley’s option should never have been picked up, and even though Keanu Neal was undoubtedly deserving of it, he’s suffered back-to-back season-ending injuries. I’m not sure the Falcons would be so keen on paying him close to $10 million now, but they don’t have a choice since the option is guaranteed if the player is injured. So I don’t blame Atlanta for making McKinley earn it, but it could turn out to bite them in the butt. 

The former UCLA Bruin now has all the incentive in the world to perform, as he will be an unrestricted free agent, and he also has the most talent around him to help create pressure. Grady Jarrett has proven to be one of the best interior defensive linemen in football. The addition of Dante Fowler is a massive upgrade over Vic Beasley, and rookie Marlon Davidson will add even more firepower to this pass rush. It could be a perfect storm for McKinley to finally have that double-digit sack season we’ve all been waiting for. 

Kendall Sheffield

Because of the Falcons early struggles defensively, Kendal Sheffield — a fourth-round selection in 2019 — got some valuable playing time as a rookie. It was far from perfect, but by the end of the year, he was an integral part of a defense that was playing like one of the better units in the game.

As he enters his second season, Sheffield is poised to be a starter. He will likely play the nickel corner, with Isaiah Oliver and A.J. Terrell manning the outside, because of his length and speed. However, Dan Quinn said this offseason that he believes Sheffield can be a #1 cornerback.

For now, that’s probably just a coach instilling confidence in a young player. However, Sheffield is a super athlete that should feel confident against the best receivers in the world because of his recovery speed, and the Falcons are putting a lot of trust in him to take a step forward in 2020.

Foye Oluokun

Oluokun was selected in the sixth round out of Yale two years ago. While in college, he was a bone-crushing safety, but Dan Quinn viewed him as a linebacker, and he quickly made the switch. As a rookie, Oluokun appeared in all 16 games and started in seven of them, thanks to a season-ending injury to Deion Jones. But not only did he play; he played rather well, racking up 91 tackles and forcing one fumble.

With Jones healthy in year two, Oluokun returned to more of a reserve role but still played in all 16 games and started in three. However, with his improved play, many wondered why Quinn didn’t turn to him more often. Still, he recorded 62 tackles and once again forced one fumble.

This offseason, the Falcons decided they couldn’t pay Campbell, but it became much easier to part ways with him knowing they have a player like Oluokun in the fold. Some wondered whether the Falcons would add another linebacker this offseason, and they did, drafting Mykal Walker in the fourth round. But while Walker will compete for some playing time, Oluokun is the clear-cut starter heading into training camp, and coaches and the players have his back.

Earlier this offseason, Dan Quinn didn’t hesitate when asked if he believes Oluokun is ready to take over the starting job next to Deion Jones, saying, “I know that he is.” And Isaiah Oliver went even deeper than that, saying people don’t undersatand just how fantastic of an ahtlete he really is. 

Oluokun is a tackling machine that could be even better than Campbell in coverage, given his background as a safety. Last year, he graded out as a 62.7, according to PFF, and he was even better the year before (65.7). Falcons fans should have no worries about their starting linebacker situation. Although their depth could be problematic if one of Jones or Oluokun goes down. 


Calvin Ridley

It’s insane that some people outside of Atlanta (clearly they don’t watch the Falcons very much) view Calvin Ridley as a bust after just two seasons. As a rookie, he caught for double-digit touchdowns and 821 yards. In his draft class, he had the most receptions, yards, and touchdowns. To compare that to rookie wide receivers in 2019, he had more receptions and touchdowns than any of them, and only had fewer yards than two — A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf.

Ridley would have built on those numbers in his second season. He caught 64 passes, for 866 yards, and seven touchdowns. However, injuries played a factor, as he missed three games and was hampered in several others. A healthy Ridley would have smashed the 1,000-yard threshold and possibly recorded double-digit touchdowns for the second year in a row. Definitely not a bust, but year three could determine just how high his ceiling is. Will Ridley become a wide receiver ready to take over for Julio Jones? Or is he more of a career WR2?

With Mohammed Sanu now out of the picture, it will allow Ridley to reach his full potential statistically. From what he’s shown thus far, he has an impeccable ability to create separation and is fantastic after the catch. As he continues to improve his strength and adjust to the highest level of competition, all the ingredients are there for him to become an elite wide receiver. Eventually, the Falcons want the torch to be passed from Julio Jones to Calvin Ridley — much like it was from Roddy White to Julio Jones. However, those visions will change if Ridley can’t take the next step in his third season. 

Kaleb McGary

Many draft experts projected that McGary would go in the third round or later, but like the Falcons have shown time and time again, they ignored the outside noise and traded up into the first round to snag him. The decision gave Atlanta an entirely new right side of the line after they selected Chris Lindstrom with the 14th overall pick hours earlier. The expectation was that Matt Ryan would finally have some protection — like he did in 2016 — when he broke multiple records, as the Falcons put together one of the most explosive offenses of all time. Unfortunately, that never came to fruition… at least, not yet.

Before Chris Lindstrom could even begin to make an impact, he was on IR, breaking his foot in Week 1. That was a gut-punch to start the season to go along with a Vikings 28-12 throttling. McGary was left to pick up the pieces on the right side of the line, and he didn’t have much help from Jamon Brown, who was awful as Lindstrom’s replacement.

At times, McGary looked like he could become a well-above-average starting right tackle, like when the Falcons played in New Orleans, as he locked up Cameron Jordan — a top-five pass-rusher in the league — for sixty minutes. But then just a couple of weeks later, against the same opponent, he looked like Devonta Freeman on Donte Hightower in the Super Bowl (too soon?), unable to provide any resistance and leaving Matt Ryan out to dry.

On the year, McGary surrendered 13 sacks, which is way too many for an offense to be consistently successful. He also graded out as the 34th best right tackle out of 38, according to Pro Football Focus, showing just how far he has left to go. For McGary, a breakout doesn’t mean him shooting into the top ten at his position, but if he can jump up to league average, this Falcons offense is going to be significantly better than it was last season, which is scary to think about for opponents.

Hayden Hurst

Hurst is entering his third year in the league after being drafted in the first round out of South Carolina. The athletic 250-pound tight end will be tasked with replacing the production of Austin Hooper, who became one of the best receiving tight ends in football over the last two years, but you could argue a lot of that had to do with his role in the offense.

Hurst’s first two seasons haven’t exactly gone to plan. He dealt with an injury as a rookie that forced him to miss four games and hampered him in many others. That opened the door for Mark Andrews to take over as the team’s primary pass-catching tight end, and he didn’t disappoint, making Hurst expendable. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t be extremely valuable for Atlanta.

In his second season, Hurst was healthy for all sixteen games, catching a respectable 30 balls for 349 yards and two touchdowns. While his production wasn’t eye-popping, he proved to be an explosive target with fantastic hands, which will fit well in Dirk Koetter’s pass-happy system.

A primary reason for Austin Hooper’s explosion last season was Dirk Koetter becoming the offensive coordinator. The former Tampa Bay Buccanneers head coach has a noticeable tendency to incorporate his tight ends into the passing game. With Hurst now a primary option, I expect his targets to double compared to last season, resulting in a lot more receiving yards and chunk plays. I don’t see any reason why Koetter won’t be able to put him in a similar situation to thrive. On top of that, while Hooper was an excellent pass-catcher, he left a lot to be desired as a run-blocker. Hurst will be an upgrade in that regard, as the Falcons aim to be a more balanced team in 2020. 

It’s not fair for fans to expect Hurst to become a 1,000-yard receiver — like Austin Hooper was on pace to be had he not been injured — overnight, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Hurst could catch somewhere around 70 balls for 700-800 yards. He has all the talent in the world, and Koetter is the perfect coordinator to make the most of that ability. 

Russell Gage

Some Falcons fans expect Laquon Treadwell to work his way into the starting lineup as the team’s third wide receiver. He’s the flashy name that was a former first-round pick out of Ole Miss. However, it’s no fluke that Treadwell hasn’t been able to eclipse 800 yards in his four-year career. Gage might have reached that threshold last year alone had he not began the year as the team’s fourth wide receiver.

The former LSU Tiger was a sixth-round selection in the 2018 draft. As a rookie, he was primarily used as a special teamer, where he thrived. However, Gage proved he was a lot more than that last offseason, making it easier to part ways with Mohamed Sanu. He was a matchup nightmare way more often than people realize because of his speed, athleticism, and the weapons around him, allowing him to catch 44 balls for 402 yards in the last nine games of the season.

Falcons offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, told the media last month that we could see a “jump” in his production this season. He will be the full-time third receiver in a pass-happy offense that features two other pass-catchers that will require all the attention. Matt Ryan has already shown a ton of trust in him, which will only grow with more experience. On top of that, there are gobs of targets up for grabs with so many offensive weapons moving on from last year.

While I’ve talked about a lot of these breakout candidates as a possibility, Gage is one of the ones I am most confident about. He will easily win the job over Laquon Treadwell and become a reliable target for Matt Ryan for years to come. He’s the perfect complement to Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, and I can’t wait to see what he does this year in Dirk Koetter’s offense.

Isaiah Oliver

When the Falcons were able to snag Isaiah Oliver late in the second round of the 2018 draft, I don’t think there was a draft expert who gave it a grade below a B-. Many thought he was one of the most talented corners in the entire draft and should have been a first-rounder because of his length and playmaking skills. Unfortunately, that only means so much, and to this point, Oliver hasn’t lived up to his second round status.

As a rookie, Oliver saw action in 14 games, including two starts, but he didn’t play as much as one would have thought, considering how porous the Falcons cornerback play was in 2018. The next year, we found out why. He simply wasn’t ready.

Oliver became the full-time starter last season across from Desmond Trufant, and it didn’t take long for teams to start targeting him early and often, reaping the rewards. In the first eight games, he allowed a passer rating of 119.4, surrendering 30 catches on 45 targets for 427 yards and three scores, while also committing five penalties, via the Atlanta Falcons team website. Oliver was a primary culprit for why the team started 1-7 and Dan Quinn was relieved of his defensive play-calling duties, but once Raheem Morris took over the secondary, things began to change for the better, earning him the nickname “The Blanket.”

Here’s what new secondary coach, Joe Whitt Jr, had to say about Oliver’s development in the second half of last season.

“I thought over the last eight games he did a really good job of connecting his feet and his hands in his press game,” Whitt said. “He stayed more square. That gave him the ability once they got up the field to connect at the top of the routes.”

Oliver still committed three penalties in the final eight games. However, his performance, as well as the defense’s as a whole, was a night and day difference.

The attributes have always been there for him to become a #1 corner. Now, the Falcons are hoping they found something under new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. Atlanta will be relying on Oliver even more after cutting Desmond Trufant, and he’s now the veteran of the group — with only three years of experience. If the final eight games last year were a foreshadowing of the rest of his career, the Falcons should be just fine. However, if it was more of a flash in the pan, they will have severe problems — ones they probably won’t be able to overcome.

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