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Twenty for 2020: Ranking Falcons’ most important, impactful players, Part I


Goober Pyle
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https://theathletic.com/1989140/2020/08/11/twenty-for-2020-ranking-the-falcons-most-important-impactful-players-part-i/?source=dailyemail

 

Editor’s note: Part I of this ranking includes pick Nos. 20-11. Part II will publish Wednesday with the second half (Nos. 10-1) of the list.

The Falcons are entering a season in which the team expects to do more, be more. And the Falcons will need to, as questions remain after a lackluster 2019, especially after a 1-7 start. With training camp well on its way, let’s take a look at 20 players whose increased impact from 2019 to 2020 could be the difference-maker for Atlanta as it heads into a year that has many must-wins on the docket.

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

20. Darqueze Dennard

Notable point of 2019: Dennard’s three-year, $13.5 million deal with Jacksonville fell through.

Talking to the media on Friday, coach Dan Quinn finally had the chance to discuss the newest addition to his secondary after the Falcons picked up Dennard as a free agent last week. It’s thought that Dennard will fit into a starting role almost seamlessly, but the Falcons are trying to figure out how best to use him.

“The fact that he’s played nickel, that’s been a big help for us, but he’s made his living playing outside,” Quinn said.

He went on to say the Falcons likely will need a few weeks to make sure they have Dennard in the right space to be successful. It will be a time of trial and error as the Falcons move Dennard inside and outside, but expect Dennard’s role to look a lot clearer by the end of the month.

 
 
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16107.png
ATL - CB
Darqueze
 
Dennard
2019 STATS
TKLS
37.0
93rd
TFL
2
29th
PASSES DEF
5
81st

19. Isaiah Oliver

Notable point of 2019: The changes Oliver made halfway through the season when the coaching staff was shaken up.

Oliver’s trajectory in 2019 followed that of the team, particularly the defense. Simply put, he got better as the year went on, and the further away the team got from that 1-7 start, the better Oliver looked. The issues Oliver was having early in 2019 were technical, the connection between his feet and hands lacking. Statistically, that lack of crispness in technique showed, as he allowed 30 receptions for 427 yards and three touchdowns through that eight-game stretch in which the Falcons won only one game. After Joe Whitt joined the staff, Oliver saw major improvements, as Whitt looked specifically to work on that technique.

With the technical blunders behind Oliver, 2020 is the time to see him be more disruptive in his third year in the league. He has had just one interception during his two seasons, and for the defense to be more formidable, that number has to rise. And with a more settled-in Oliver, perhaps it can.

 
 
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19868.png
ATL - CB
Isaiah
 
Oliver
2019 STATS
TKLS
62.0
17th
PASSES DEF
11
22nd
FF
1
14th

18. Tyeler Davison

Notable point of 2019: Only two quarterback hits and one sack throughout the season.

The struggles the Falcons had getting to the quarterback in 2019 are well documented, and that falls on the shoulders of the defensive line. Davison was solid against the run in 2019, but expecting more production out of the veteran in those disruptive categories of a defense is a likely progression. It also seems as though Davison’s influence could impact a player such as Grady Jarrett. With Jarrett having a season last year that garnered him more respect as an undersized defensive tackle, how successful can he be when teams seek out ways to stifle him? That’s where Davison comes in. The better Davison is at keeping an offensive line unbalanced, the more it frees up Jarrett. The Falcons need the two working simultaneously to be in peak form.

 
 
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16914.png
ATL - DT
Tyeler
 
Davison
2019 STATS
TKLS
58.0
15th
TFL
3
123rd
SACKS
1.0
142nd

17. Keanu Neal

Notable point of 2019: There wasn’t one, and that’s the problem.

You just want to see Neal healthy again. That’s it. Now in the final year of his contract, it was clear what he could do for the secondary when he signed it, but a different Neal emerges in 2020 after the significant injuries he has sustained. His absence left a gaping hole in the secondary, one the Falcons have been working to fill for two years. It allowed for the rise of Ricardo Allen, but one could never quite shake the feeling of wondering how good the secondary could be with Neal in it. Having both available in 2020 would mean good things for the Falcons. If anything, it would mean that the secondary finally feels complete. The defense as a whole looked better as the 2019 season went on, so how would that trajectory continue to rise with Neal back in the fold? That’s the question a healthy Neal would provide the answer to. And if there’s no drop-off from two seasons on the injured reserve, it’s easy to think the answer would be a good one.

16. A.J. Terrell

Notable point of 2019: A large contingent of Falcons fans didn’t want Terrell as the first-round pick in the draft. Maybe that sets up Terrell as an underdog with something to prove. That label can make someone dangerous.

Quinn said just last week that the more you’re around Terrell, the more you start to see traits that stand out, particularly his dedication and willpower to improve. Everyone likes to think they’re a hard worker, but Quinn said with Terrell, you really feel that drive — a competitive fire, as Quinn called it.

“Let’s face it: To come in and play corner not only in our division but in the NFL early on, you better have your game right and the competitive part altogether,” Quinn said. “He has all of those things, so that’s the thing that stands apart to me because physically he’s certainly able to, and now putting all the whole thing together, that competitiveness that he has. He is just kind of down for fighting, especially at the line of scrimmage, and that’s certainly something that I know is a part of his game.”

With potential starting spots up for grabs, time will tell just how far Terrell can go with that fire in his rookie year.

15. Takk McKinley

Notable point of 2019: The Falcons declined his fifth-year option for 2021.

Picking up Dante Fowler Jr. this offseason to assist in the pass rush was an important step the Falcons needed to take for a notable change in that area following the 2019 season. But what also needs notable change is McKinley’s role. Ideally, McKinley would provide the Falcons with more pressure as he works opposite of Fowler. Numbers that look closer to those of McKinley’s rookie year or second year would be a good goal. Even starting five more games from his second year to his third, McKinley’s total tackles didn’t differ too much, and his sack count dropped from seven in 2018 to just 3 1/2 last year. If things are to stick for McKinley in Atlanta, he needs 2020 to be a year when the defense can’t see success without him, and so far that hasn’t been the case.

 
 
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18915.png
ATL - DE
Takkarist
 
McKinley
2019 STATS
TKLS
30.0
87th
TFL
7
54th
SACKS
3.5
69th

14. Kaleb McGary

Notable point of 2019: McGary started 16 games, and the Falcons stuck with him through some early learning curves. He’ll be better for it.

McGary needed reps and time. For better or for worse, he got that in 2019 in his rookie season. At times, he looked like the rookie he was, but history has shown that when it comes to linemen, the first year can be the toughest. And it probably would be a safe bet that the McGary who shows up in his second year will look more polished and knowledgable. Also, as Jeff Schultz wrote in our 53-man projection roundtable, it’s difficult to know the cause of McGary’s early struggles: the learning curve of a rookie season or the offensive line’s issues as a whole. Either way, more stability lies in both notions, and that could mean good things for McGary.

13. Foye Oluokun

Notable point of 2019: De’Vondre Campbell left Atlanta as a free agent. This leaves the door wide open for Oluokun.

As a former safety at Yale, Oluokun had some adjusting, rearranging and learning to do in his first couple of seasons in the league. Now established at linebacker, the first name to roll off the tongue when referring to Campbell’s replacement was Oluokun, who is ready to take the next step to stand side by side with Deion Jones. When Jones was hurt in Oluokun’s rookie season, Oluokun stepped up to fill the void. Now, he’ll work to lead in his own right.

The Falcons can hope Oluokun will start the 2020 season in much the same way he finished the 2019 season. Like many of the defensive players on this list, Oluokun shined brighter the longer the season burned on. In fact, 80 percent of his season total in tackles came in the final eight games.

The expectation for Oluokun to fill the void left by Campbell is there, but the question is whether he will. Truth be told, it should be expected as part of his natural progression.

 
 
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20007.png
ATL - ILB
Foyesade
 
Oluokun
2019 STATS
TKLS
62.0
67th
TFL
2
133rd
FF
1
37th

12. Chris Lindstrom

Notable point of 2019: A broken foot left the rookie sidelined for much of his first season in 2019. Healthy again, could Lindstrom be an important key in the offensive line’s search for more consistency?

Just last week, NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger broke down a quick clip of Lindstrom playing against the San Francisco 49ers last season, saying simply in a short video uploaded to Twitter, “What a difference Lindstrom made for this offense.” Indeed, Lindstrom was able to be a big helping hand for Atlanta during the final weeks of the season. With McGary at tackle and Alex Mack at center, Lindstrom fit nicely between the two and seemed to help McGary more and more as each week passed.

In the run game, those final four games saw Devonta Freeman have two of his highest yards-per-attempt averages for the season, with five of the first seven games seeing Freeman’s average drop below 3.0 yards per carry. That’s not to say Lindstrom’s inclusion on the offensive line changed everything for Freeman and the Falcons’ run game, but looking back at the film, it definitely didn’t hurt to have Linstrom beside McGary.

Lindstrom enters his second season hungry for more chances like those. It will be interesting to see Lindstrom’s impact if he’s able to go full time with the offensive line.

11. Ricardo Allen

Notable point of 2019: In yet another year without Neal, it was Allen who kept the secondary afloat.

Allen has taken a leadership role at practices as of late. Without coaches at the strength and conditioning periods, it’s Allen the group looks to for structure, cues and to set the pace. It’s a title he feels as though he has earned.

“We always talk about setting a standard, and that standard may look different for everybody, but being someone who’s been around, and I’m someone I feel like has worked from the bottom, and I scraped for everything I got, I feel like I have a lot to offer,” Allen said.

But he also noted that there’s something to be said about the sense of urgency the entire defense feels heading into 2020. Allen was one of Atlanta’s top tacklers last year with 85 combined tackles, averaging around five per game. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t being pushed. He said when there’s as much competition as there is in the secondary right now, everyone’s level of play has to naturally go up.

As the final name before getting to the top 10 on this list on Wednesday, Allen’s impact is representative of a player who waited for his turn to thrive. Now, he’s the one the group looks to.

 
 
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16520.png
ATL - FS
Ricardo
 
Allen
2019 STATS
TKLS
84.0
16th
TFL
5
11th
INTS
2
16th
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1 hour ago, Vandy said:

“Allen who kept the secondary afloat”

I’m sorry, not sure what the writer of this article was smoking. Because Rico Allen was terrible last season. 

Yup.

Rico is an example of what has plagued the personnel decisions of TD and Quinn (and AB) - nice guy, good story, mediocre player. In other organizations there would have been a search for an upgrade a couple of years ago, or Kazee would have been specifically groomed to take over. In Falcon world, Rico is a "Falcon for Life" and gets a much bigger contract than he'd get anywhere else. Good for Rico for getting that - not so good for the defence.

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2 minutes ago, EpicBird said:

Yup.

Rico is an example of what has plagued the personnel decisions of TD and Quinn (and AB) - nice guy, good story, mediocre player. In other organizations there would have been a search for an upgrade a couple of years ago, or Kazee would have been specifically groomed to take over. In Falcon world, Rico is a "Falcon for Life" and gets a much bigger contract than he'd get anywhere else. Good for Rico for getting that - not so good for the defence.

Great points.

I was a big Rico fan those first few seasons he was here. He was young & inexpensive, smart and coachable,  and bought into what Quinn was doing. He was serviceable FS until other positions of need got addressed. But I always knew the defense would never evolve into a championship caliber D without a talent updraft at free safety. It’s way past time in  doing that, IMO.

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3 hours ago, EpicBird said:

Yup.

Rico is an example of what has plagued the personnel decisions of TD and Quinn (and AB) - nice guy, good story, mediocre player. In other organizations there would have been a search for an upgrade a couple of years ago, or Kazee would have been specifically groomed to take over. In Falcon world, Rico is a "Falcon for Life" and gets a much bigger contract than he'd get anywhere else. Good for Rico for getting that - not so good for the defence.

Groom Kazee to take over 😂 he's started more games at Safety than Rico has the last two years. His awareness havent evolved. 

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6 hours ago, Vandy said:

“Allen who kept the secondary afloat”

I’m sorry, not sure what the writer of this article was smoking. Because Rico Allen was terrible last season. 

People are honing in on his leadership and I think stopping there in terms of assessing him. He's serviceable but that's it.

"He helps get players in position."

Well aren't they supposed to know where the **** to line up anyway? Only with the Falcons would you see some silly ish like that 😆

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4 hours ago, Precyse said:

Groom Kazee to take over 😂 he's started more games at Safety than Rico has the last two years. His awareness havent evolved. 

Hasn’t evolved or p*** poor coaching...point is Rico is serviceable at best and you upgrade the position. If Kazee ain’t it then you find a way to move on from both and improve. Rico was playing full time the first half last year while the secondary looked like the Keystone cops, and Kazee was played out of position as the nickel. 

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1 hour ago, EpicBird said:

Hasn’t evolved or p*** poor coaching...point is Rico is serviceable at best and you upgrade the position. If Kazee ain’t it then you find a way to move on from both and improve. Rico was playing full time the first half last year while the secondary looked like the Keystone cops, and Kazee was played out of position as the nickel. 

Piss poor coaching! I believe Kazee could be one of the top safeties in the league. Especially  if we would have focused  on improving him as a safety instead of cross training him to play nickel.

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10 hours ago, SipDirtyBird84 said:

Piss poor coaching! I believe Kazee could be one of the top safeties in the league. Especially  if we would have focused  on improving him as a safety instead of cross training him to play nickel.

He was cross trained to play safety. Nickel was his natural position since college. 

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11 hours ago, EpicBird said:

Hasn’t evolved or p*** poor coaching...point is Rico is serviceable at best and you upgrade the position. If Kazee ain’t it then you find a way to move on from both and improve. Rico was playing full time the first half last year while the secondary looked like the Keystone cops, and Kazee was played out of position as the nickel. 

Rico always played with Oliver Kazee and Tru in front of him. Kazee had Rocky, Tru and Poole in front of him and we were still giving up 30+. 

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