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Falcons rookies: Who has shined, who hasn’t and what can 2021 look like? - The Athletic

Goober Pyle

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by Tori McElhaney for The Athletic


From the start of the 2020 season, the Falcons’ coaching staff has had relatively high praise for its rookie class. From interim coach Raheem Morris to the position coaches, they all have relayed positive feelings about the group the Falcons got from the 2020 NFL Draft. So when Morris was asked last week if he thought it was more impressive how some of these rookies were performing considering the stout differences in how the offseason evaluations and preparations were completed in comparison to previous years, he chuckled.

“It’s funny you ask that question,” Morris said. “I was just talking to Rich McKay and Ruston Webster and some of the guys the other day, and I said whatever we did in the process of going to look at some of the rookies this year without having some of the access that we normally have of going to work a guy out in person, of going to sit down with him and get his information on who he is and what he’s about … we’ve been pretty productive from a rookie standpoint of playing and getting out there and being productive for our team.”

The Falcons like what they’ve gotten from this rookie class in a year when they haven’t gotten what they wanted from a record standpoint. Everyone is looking ahead now in Atlanta, and the rookies are a part of that future. With that in mind, let’s evaluate the rookies, what they’ve done in 2020 and what their 2021 prognosis may look like.

A.J. Terrell, cornerback

2020 draft spot: First round, 16th pick

Key stat: Terrell has flashed in a few games but particularly in Week 6 against Minnesota. In the Falcons’ first win of 2020, Terrell had his first career interception and had six total tackles (five solo tackles and one for loss).

PFF Grades: 70.3 overall, 30th of 126 corners league-wide

Evaluation: In a year in which the secondary has struggled, Terrell has found ways to shine. There were a number of skeptics when the Falcons used their first pick on Terrell. They seemed to outnumber those who were excited about Terrell coming to Atlanta. Terrell quieted those skeptics one game at a time. From Morris to Jeff Ulbrich to secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. to even Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, they all have said the same thing about Terrell: He doesn’t look, act or play like a rookie, especially a rookie corner. Sure, he has had his moments when a receiver has gotten the best of him, but that’s going to happen to any cornerback, regardless of years in the league. The fact is that whether the skeptics like it or not, Terrell has been a bright spot for the defense in a year that wasn’t so bright.

Prognosis: Terrell has the chance to continue to ride the success he has had into 2021. His starting spot isn’t going anywhere. The offseason leading up to the 2021 season will be important as he works on improving some fundamentals, but nothing too significant will be needed. Next year could be a fun year for Terrell as he continues to grow: He’ll have an entire offseason to prepare and an entire year in the league under his belt. Morris said it best a couple of weeks ago: Terrell really isn’t a rookie anymore with the reps he has gotten in 2020. This year bodes well for Terrell’s future.

Marlon Davidson, defensive tackle

2020 Draft spot: Second round, 47th pick

Key stats: Davidson took the most snaps of the year in the Falcons’ Week 12 rout of the Las Vegas Raiders as he got Derek Carr off his spot a couple of times and finished the day with four tackles. He would have had a strip-sack, but review overturned the call.

PFF Grades: 60.0 overall (68.7 in run defense, 52.0 in pass rush)

Evaluation: It could be argued that Davidson has had one of the toughest years of any rookie in the league this season. Davidson was out for much of training camp with a knee injury. He missed a lot of time and was inactive for the first couple of games. Once he was healthy again, the focus was about getting Davidson back in game shape. He was well on his way but then was placed on the COVID-19/reserve list and missed almost two weeks of practices and games. Since the bye week, however, Davidson has been able to come along nicely without anything standing in his way. Just last week, Morris said that Davidson finally has jumped into the role the Falcons envisioned for him when they drafted him: being a backup to Grady Jarrett on first and second down and a contributor on third downs. Morris said the coaches are fired up about the way they have seen Davidson develop since he has gotten healthy.

Prognosis: While there isn’t as much to go off of for Davidson as there is for Terrell, Davidson’s prognosis for 2021 is still hopeful. Morris said he sees Davidson forming and developing into “an every-down player at some point.” This season has been an uphill battle for Davidson, but recent success keeps the hope alive that the second-round pick will be a nice complement to Jarrett.

Matt Hennessy, offensive lineman

2020 Draft spot: Third round, 78th pick

Key stats: Hennessy’s best game came against Green Bay in Week 4. He was in on 47 percent of the offensive snaps that day.

PFF Grades: 51.2 overall (25.1 in pass blocking, 60.4 in run blocking)

Evaluation: Like Davidson, Hennessy had to miss significant time in training camp with a knee injury. Prior to the injury, Hennessy was taking a number of first-team reps at the vacant left guard position, battling for the spot with James Carpenter. But then the knee injury happened with only a few weeks to go until the start of the season, and that was likely the kicker for Hennessy. Had the injury not occurred at all or at a different time, perhaps it would have been Hennessy and not Carpenter who earned the spot, but we’ll never know that for sure. Hennessy’s live reps in games have been limited with Carpenter holding things down. When Carpenter was carted off the field with a groin injury against the Raiders a couple of weeks ago, Justin McCray went in for him and has continued to fill his spot since. Overall, we haven’t seen too much of Hennessy in 2020.

Prognosis: Hennessy’s 2021 likely hinges on what happens in the offseason with Alex Mack. Since Hennessy was drafted, how he would fill Mack’s shoes at center has been the main topic of conversation surrounding the rookie offensive lineman. If Mack and the Falcons do part ways, Hennessy may be thrust into the position. But he may have his work cut out for him, depending on how things shake out in free agency and if the Falcons feel they can bring in another center. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to how Hennessy’s 2021 season will look.

Mykal Walker, linebacker

2020 Draft spot: Fourth round, 119th pick

Key stats: Walker was called to step up early with Foye Oluokun a bit beat up after the Falcons’ loss to Dallas. In Week 3’s loss to Chicago, Walker didn’t miss a beat in his first NFL start when he had eight tackles, including one for loss, and forced one fumble.

PFF Grades: 75.4 overall, 11th of 86 linebackers league-wide (has a 90.8 coverage grade)

Evaluation: Walker was the biggest surprise addition in this class. Playing behind Deion Jones and Oluokun should have been an uphill battle for Walker, but he turned heads immediately in training camp. It set him up for playing time early, and he has played consistently as the No. 3 linebacker behind Jones and Oluokun. The linebacker group is probably the most consistently productive and disruptive position group the Falcons have right now. And Walker’s development in his first year is a product of that.

Prognosis: Expect next year to look pretty similar for this trio. Jones and Oluokun will continue to hold on to their spots as starters, but Walker isn’t budging behind them. It’s OK to be excited about this group in 2021, especially if these players remain healthy.

Jaylinn Hawkins, safety

2020 Draft spot: Fourth round, 134th pick

Key stats: Going into the Green Bay game in Week 4, the secondary was as beat up as you may ever see a position group. Because of this, Hawkins was able to start in consecutive weeks, and he had eight tackles during those games.

PFF Grades: 54.8 overall (48.6 coverage grade and 69.3 run defense grade)

Evaluation: We haven’t seen much of Hawkins in recent weeks. He was able to play a primary role when the secondary was beaten up early, but since then the Falcons have remained somewhat healthy, and Hawkins’ appearances on defense have been limited. When Damontae Kazee went out with a ruptured Achilles early in the year, Hawkins stepped in, but as Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen have held things down at safety (and even Isaiah Oliver at times), there just hasn’t been many chances for Hawkins outside of special teams appearances.

Prognosis: It will be interesting to see what happens with Hawkins as the Falcons make decisions on some key secondary players this offseason. Kazee, Neal, Darqueze Dennard, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Sharrod Neasman all will be unrestricted free agents in 2021. That could open the door for Hawkins to step into a more prominent role. Will he be ready for that move if it happens? That will be the question.

Sterling Hofrichter, punter

2020 Draft spot: Seventh round, 228th pick

Key stats: Is currently averaging 41.6 yards per punt.

PFF Grades: 65.3 overall, 20th of 31 punters league-wide

Evaluation: The Falcons need more from Hofrichter in 2021 than they got from him in 2020. While he hasn’t done anything particularly glaring, he is last in yards per punt. Thomas Morstead of the New Orleans Saints and Chris Jones of the Dallas Cowboys are tied for the spot ahead of Hofrichter with a 42.6 yards per punt average. That’s a full yard more than Hofrichter, and in a game of inches, that counts a lot.

Prognosis: The question for Hofrichter will be how much progress he can make from Year 1 to Year 2. Coaches always say players make the most significant jumps of their careers during that time, but do punters fall under that same philosophy? We shall see with Hofrichter.



Edited by Goober Pyle
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1 hour ago, Osiruz said:

With the season winding down, Blank and McKay should force Raheem to play the rookies (Hennessy, Hawkins, and Walker alot more). We gotta see what we have in them with Mack and Neal becoming FA. 

Totally agree.  Lets see what some of these guys can do under real game situations.   I want to see these guys on the field so what we really have going into the offseason: Davidson, Hennessy, Hawkins, Cominsky, Graham, Ollison, and Senat

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Arguably, playing the rookies to see what they have makes no sense.  Raheem is trying to win, he would like to be employable next season by someone.  Playing rookies to see what is there does not benefit him, or his staff.  It would benefit his successor.  So, my gut tells me we will trot out our best each week with ever decreasing effort.  Raheem does not want to appear to have rolled over.  Just MHO.

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AJ will no doubt be 1st team All rookie, maybe Walker garners some votes... cant say that AJ is not an A and Walker is a B+

Ive seen Marlon blow some guards up, very active, wish he could have got 500 snaps(same for Comminsky as well Bleh) . Hope he can stay on field last 3 games(is he even playing this week with knee )

Sounds like Henne really avoided a bad injury requiring surgery, but has been hobbled. Probably not best think for interior guy who must gain overall strength. Im ok with him not getting on field rest of year.

Hawkins showed strong ball skills in college(granted I had never heard of him before we drafted him) with 9 INT. Supposedly unblockable in training camp? My god play the man..


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