The Falcons first-year head coach and general manager are trying to build a sustainable, winning culture in Atlanta for many years to come. There are two obvious factions of this foundation made of the right mental, physical, and emotional make-up — proven veterans and young ascending or unproven players.
Any solid foundation needs both, but most importantly, a young crop ready to take the reigns. Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot have one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, and here are the top 10 players 25-years-old and younger. The final three spots were difficult to determine, so I have a few honorable mentions: Matt Gono, Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield, Jalen Mayfield, and Jaylinn Hawkins.
10. Marlon Davidson, 23
Big questions surround Davidson this year, but the potential is there after hardly playing his rookie year.
As a scheme fit, Davidson benefits more than anyone in this draft class from this new regime. Gary Emmanuel has already stated that Davidson will begin this year with a new slate after little to no action during his rookie year. During his introductory conference call with the Atlanta media a year ago, Davidson reaffirmed his ability and willingness to move around the defensive front. “I can play it all,” Davidson said. “Whatever they want me to be, that’s what I’m going to be. If they want me at 285, 280 playing a big end on the edge, or if they want to kick me inside, I can do it all.” That is exactly what the Falcons are going to expect out of him this year. He’s the perfect size and length to play a five-technique next to Jarrett as Davidson is a stout run defender but won’t be relied upon nearly as much to get after the passer. This is effectively a redo of his rookie year, but will he show any support for Jarrett?
9. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 24
JTM played in all 16 games last season and finished with 31 tackles, five quarterback hits, three fumble recoveries, and one sack. A former undrafted free agent, he’s slowly earned himself more and more playing time after beginning on the practice squad, which shows his intestinal motivation to improve at his craft. After playing 35% of the defensive snaps and producing the fourth-highest pressure total (15) on the defense, Tuioti-Mariner has shown the ability to be effective as a run defender and has improved greatly as a pass rusher. He was also a core piece of the special teams, playing 48% of the snaps there a year ago, so, at the very least, he’ll be an effective piece for new special teams coordinator Marquice Williams.
8. John Cominsky, 25
Cominsky is a breakout candidate because of the seamless scheme fit with Dean Pees’ defense and his ability to move all along the defensive front. His versatility gives him a shot to play in most personnel packages. In base defenses, he can line up as an edge defender with his hand in the dirt in even fronts and standing up in odd fronts. He can slide down to play the five-technique defensive end in odd-man fronts in those same base defenses. Cominsky can align in a one, three, four, or five-technique in nickel and dime packages depending on the situation.
7. Richie Grant, 23
Even though he hasn’t played a snap in the NFL yet, Grant’s instincts give me the feeling that he’s a “can’t miss” prospect. Grant can play in the slot, close to the line of scrimmage, and in the deep middle of the field. He’s got incredible awareness when dropping into coverage, and his explosion and aggression upon contact in the alley when defending the run is exceptional. His impact might be minimal at first, but once the game slows down for him mentally, the results will become evident.
6. Mykal Walker, 23
With the news of Barkevious Mingo‘s contract termination, I don’t know whether Walker will play outside or off-ball linebacker. He was named to the PFF All-Rookie team in 2020 after grading out as the second-best rookie defender — behind only Chase Young. Walker obviously didn’t play a high percentage of defensive snaps — only 36% — with the likes of Deion Jones and Foye Oluokon playing at such a high level, but that should change in 2021. He lined up at inside and outside linebacker at Fresno State, but Walker even showed well at defensive end too, so his value lies in his versatility.
5. Russell Gage, 25
With Julio Jones missing seven games in 2021, we saw the emergence of Gage. Last season, the former LSU Tiger set career highs in targets (109), receptions (72), yards (786), and touchdowns (4). In the last seven games from 2020, Gage recorded at least 50 receiving yards five times, proving his effectiveness in the offense.
4. Foyesade Oluokun, 25
Terry Fontenot will have a difficult time deciding whether or not to bring Foye back; after all, he was one of the few bright spots of the 2020 campaign after spending the first couple of seasons in the league as a rotational player. Oluokun had a career-high 14 starts, two interceptions, three sacks, and four forced fumbles. He was arguably the best defender on the team last year, and he gives his defensive coordinator great flexibility with his coverage ability.
3. Kyle Pitts, 20
Another member of the 2021 draft class who hasn’t played a single snap in the NFL. Pitts is… well, a generational talent. He’s the highest tight end drafted in league history, and rightfully so. The former Florida Gator broke record after record at his Pro Day. He’s a matchup nightmare for any defensive coordinator, and Arthur Smith’s offense is catered to tight ends. The match couldn’t be more perfect.
2. A.J. Terrell, 22
Terrell showed well during his rookie season. The former Clemson Tiger flashed the resiliency needed to be a high-level corner in this league, especially after falling victim to incredibly tough matchups and a few highlight-reel catches. Terrell showed good enough technique in his first year, was rarely out of position, but most importantly, he seems to have the desire to improve his game continually.
1. Chris Lindstrom, 25
Lindstrom had a better-than-average rookie year after dealing with injuries, but the leap he made last season has him on the cusp of becoming one of the best guards in football. Arthur Smith has already mentioned Lindstrom as one of the few players that initially stood out during his thorough film review. Smith also spoke on The Flying Coach podcast about how important Rodger Saffold was to the offenses in Tennessee when he was offensive coordinator. I believe Lindstrom could have a similar impact.
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