With the Falcons sitting at 4-9, you have to look for new reasons to tune in each week. This Sunday, it could be because your sick mind wants to watch Kyle Shanahan shred his former team – a reminder of what could have been. But you’ll only be able to suffer through with that mindset for so long. Eventually, you’ll have to search for some positives regarding the future, which will come with the abundance of youth taking the field for the Falcons down the stretch.
Sixth-round picks rarely turn into starting wide receivers. That is what Gage was when the Falcons selected him 194th overall out of LSU in 2018. Their initial plan for him was to be a special teams standout, which he became rather quickly, eventually working his way up the depth chart as a pass-catcher. After a stellar preseason, Gage entered this season as the team’s fourth wide receiver. Following the trade of Mohamed Sanu, he became the team’s primary slot option. And now, with Calvin Ridley out for the season, he will be Ryan’s #2 target at the receiver position. Although he will remain lined up in the slot primarily.
I’ve been super impressed with Gage’s development, and he’s having a career year. With Ridley out, opponents are going to be double and triple-teaming Julio Jones, leaving plenty of opportunities for Russell Gage and Christian Blake to make plays. This is Gage’s chance to take life by the horns and prove that he is capable of being the starting slot man next season alongside Jones and Ridley. As things stand now, you could see Atlanta bringing in another receiver to compete for the job – whether through the draft or free agency – but if Gage can ball out these final three weeks, that becomes much less of a priority.
It was a beautiful sight to see the Falcons first overall pick of the 2019 draft back on the field last week for the first time since Week 1. The Panthers don’t have the world’s best defensive line, but he made his presence known, as the offensive line put together possibly their best performance of the year as a group. Now that Lindstrom has passed all of his conditioning tests, he will start receiving a full load of snaps. It will be worth monitoring the offensive line these final three weeks, especially against the 49ers, who will be a fantastic measuring stick. As abysmal as they have been all year, with Lindstrom back in the fold, this unit could surprise some people down the stretch.
Kendall Sheffield/Isaiah Oliver/Jordan Miller
Isaiah Oliver has started in all 13 games and had his fair share of growing pains, but I believe he still has the potential to be a great cornerback in this league. With Desmond Trufant out for the season, everyone will have to pick up the load a little more, which means Oliver will be the team’s #1 corner – quite a responsibility for a first-year starter. It should be fun to watch.
Across from him will be Kendall Sheffield in the base defense. Like Oliver, Sheffield has had his games he would like to forget, but he’s also had some standout performances as his role has increased. I don’t think many people at the beginning of the season would have predicted that Sheffield would be starting outside at any point in his rookie season, but injuries stop for nobody. You have to have the next man up mentality, and we will see how Sheffield handles it. My guess is he will stay outside in the Falcons base defense but move inside when in the nickel.
Jordan Miller will be the fourth cornerback on the depth chart come Sunday but expect him to get some run too. The Falcons have nothing to lose, so they might as well see what their sixth-round pick out of Washington can do in extended playing time. He’s only appeared on defense in four games but had a career-high 14 defensive snaps last week against Carolina. Look for him to see more of the field this week versus the 49ers and going forward.