Falcons: 2021 breakout candidates

Falcons: AJ Terrell Greatness on display

This list is comprised of Falcons that could breakout in 2021. Breaking out in the NFL is relative because there are many different ascension points and goals for players, coaches, and teams. For instance, a rookie will have different expectations and standards than a player heading into his fifth professional season. So, breaking out could mean reaching elite status, everyday starter, or a rotational role — all illustrated below.

 

Chris Lindstrom

Lindstrom is already one of those established starters on the Falcons that is rapidly ascending. He took a massive step his sophomore season but should be looking to consistently be mentioned in the top five to ten guards in the league. The Boston College alumnus played nearly every snap in 2020 and improved his PFF grades in all areas. He was Atlanta’s highest-graded offensive lineman, second-highest graded pass blocker, and highest graded run blocker. Lindstrom will be critical in Arthur Smith’s run-based offense, and I expect his ascension to continue. Don’t be surprised if he’s mentioned alongside names like Quenton Nelson, Brandon Scherff, Wyatt Teller, Elgton Jenkins, and Joe Thuney

 

Hayden Hurst

Hurst is similar to Lindstrom in that he’s already the forgone starter at his position and still ascending. However, the former South Carolina Gamecock is a couple of years older than his counterpart, and he isn’t as good as Lindstrom at their respective positions. Still, Hurst has the opportunity to flourish in Arthur Smith’s offense for a few different reasons. 

In Tennessee, Smith was coaching, in some capacity, the tight ends for seven seasons. He knows exactly how to mold a tight end to fit into his system. Anthony Firkser, who might actually end up in Atlanta if the money works, is a prime example of how Smith amplifies his tight ends. He was the Titans’ fourth-leading receiver in 2020 with 39 receptions for 387 yards and was 23rd among all NFL tight ends in receptions and 26th in yards. Smith also revived Delanie Walker‘s career while turning Jonnu Smith into a pro-bowl-caliber tight end — who’s surely inline to get paid this offseason. Hurst has to get more comfortable between the numbers in shallow routes but only had two drops in 2020. His blocking needs to improve the most, which his new head coach should have no problem refining.

 

AJ Terrell

Like the other two, the former Clemson Tiger is locked in to be the starter at his position. Terrell was thrown into the fire this year, consistently matching up with the league’s best wide receivers, which he won’t have to do much of in 2021 because of the Falcons’ schedule. For all the hate spewed, Terrell performed fine in my eyes. Very rare does a rookie defensive back — Terrell finished with the highest PFF grade of all the first-round cornerbacks selected last year — come in and contribute much. Grade-wise, I’d say he was an average starter at his position, but he has the potential for exponential growth. If Fontenot somehow brought in a true #1 cornerback through free agency, Terrell would absolutely blanket opposing #2 wideouts after facing elite wide receivers as a rookie. 

 

Kaleb McGary

After a disastrous rookie campaign, McGary dramatically improved in his second year in Atlanta — the number of sacks he was responsible for dropped from a league-high 13 to 4, and he only committed one penalty in 2020. If his development is more linear, I would expect him to become an average right tackle in the NFL. What especially bodes well for McGary is the influx of quality coaches at his position. Arthur Smith will run the ball. McGary is better at run-blocking than in pass sets, which caters to him, and Dwayne Ledford is widely regarded as one of the best in the business at developing young tackles, as he did with Mekhi Becton most recently. I expect McGary to take an equal if not a larger step in his third year than his second.

 

John Cominsky

Cominsky might be my pick for the most considerable year-to-year leap among the breakout candidates. By no means is he going to be a star like Grady Jarrett, but he could be an extremely valuable rotational piece for Dean Pees. He is an ideal 5-technique in a 3-4 but played along the entire line of scrimmage last year. Pees will likely rotate him with Marlon Davidson at defensive end until one of them separates themselves from the other. At the end of the year, I believe Cominksy will have established himself as a starter opposite of Grady Jarrett.

 

Mykal Walker

Walker is a polarizing name among returning Falcons because nobody knows how Dean Pees will use him. I, for one, think Walker is going to thrive in Pees’ defense. He was named to the PFF All-Rookie team in 2020 after grading out as the second-best rookie defender — behind only Chase Young. What makes Walker a breakout candidate is his versatility. He can play inside or outside linebacker or drift into the slot. His run-support stands to be improved, but he is elite in coverage. Jayon Brown is a great comparison, who thrived with Dean Pees in Tennessee. I see Walker as the starting outside linebacker in base personnel, but instead of blitzing on obvious passing downs, he drops into coverage.

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