The Falcons season is within reaching distance as the first preseason game is next week, and the first game of the regular season is a little over a month away. Though the Falcons aren’t expected to be competing for a Super Bowl, there is great optimism around the new regime. If anyone can lead this team to the playoffs a year after the previous regime won just four games, it is Arthur Smith. The Falcons would have to severely underperform for fans to consider this inaugural season of the Smith-Fontenot era a failure.
To get to about seven or eight wins, the players expected to carry this team will do just that while the role players offer little to nothing. Still, for a successful season ending in the playoffs, those under-the-radar players will be key. Here are a few guys I believe could be pivotal to the outcomes of games in their lesser-known roles.
It seems Hennessy will more than likely be the starting center come week 1. Outside of left tackle, center has to be the most important position on the offensive line. They have to be smart enough to call out fronts and blitzes, but also strong and athletic enough — in this scheme — to hold up against nose tackles in pass sets and reach defensive tackles on reach blocks. If this offense is to succeed under Arthur Smith, the big men up front will have to pave the way.
Smith is one of the most undervalued acquisitions Terry Fontenot had this offseason. Not only did Arthur Smith’s Titans run 12 personnel more than any other team in the league, but only one team — the Cleveland Browns — used the 13 personnel grouping more than Tennessee in 2020. Insert Lee Smith, a completely different type of tight end than Hayden Hurst and Kyle Pitts. He’s essentially a sixth offensive lineman and offers virtually nothing except a check-down or backside leak in passing situations. [Lee] Smith will be the Falcons’ version of Green Bay’s Marcedes Lewis, who can consistently handle defensive ends independently when Pitts and Hurst can’t. He’s an important component of this offense, even if you won’t hear his name very often.
He’s one of my breakout candidates because of his inside-outside versatility along the defensive front. Not only does he fit on paper, but he’s putting it on the field. Cominsky had an impressive one-on-one with Chris Lindstrom in the first padded practice, where he drove the former first-round pick back into what would’ve been a quarterback’s lap. He’ll be vital to this defense’s success because I believe he’ll play a large percentage of snaps. 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.
Ogundeji has been stacking impressive practices and routinely gets heads to turn. He’s won multiple one-on-ones, most impressively against Jake Matthews. Without a solidified starter opposite Dante Fowler to rush the passer, there lies an opening for someone to step up. He’ll likely be a part of the defensive front rotation but could see the field early given his ability against the run and his positional flexibility. He can stand up outside of tackles in three-man fronts, put his hand in the dirt in the same spot or kick down in four-man fronts. His pass-rushing skills aren’t effective yet, but he has a fantastic get-off and thrives against the run.
If this offense is to succeed, the offensive line will have to make it so. Hennessy and Smith play a major role in that happening. If this defense is going to succeed, much more than Cominsky and Ogundeji will have to play above their ability. Still, if those two each record four or five sacks, this defense gives me a bit of hope with Dean Pees calling it.
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