Atlanta has a lot more problems to solve during the offseason than its current 6-8 record would indicate.
Start with free agency. Twenty-three players are set to become unrestricted free agents – including nine full- or part-time starters. The Falcons are projected to be under the cap by $14.5 million in 2022, but almost 70 percent of that money will be spent on just six players, including one, Julio Jones, who now plays for Tennessee.
The other five players aren’t exactly playing lights-out, either. Long-time quarterback Matt Ryan ranks 17th out of 37 QBs, according to Pro Football Focus. Left tackle Jake Matthews ranks 46th out of 83 tackles. Linebacker Deion Jones has a PFF grade of 39.3, lowest among Atlanta defensive starters, and ranks 74th out of 85 linebackers. And wide receiver Calvin Ridley has played in just five games, missing the rest to focus on his mental health.
Out of those pricey five, defensive lineman Grady Jarrett has the best PFF ranking, as he’s graded as the 33rd-best lineman out of 129.
And in terms of the potential free agent losses? Many of them are having down seasons, too.
Atlanta only has 16 sacks this season, last in the NFL. Soon-to-be-UFA Steven Means is ranked 108th out of 109 edge rushers, while the other starting pass rusher, Dante Fowler, ranks 53rd. Defensive lineman Justin Bullard, another free-agent-to-be, has a PFF grade of 55.7 (which is still better than starting nose tackle Tyeler Davison, who has a PFF grade of 46.7 and ranks 111th out of 129 DL, although Davison is not a free agent).
Things aren’t much better on offense.
But that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise despite star-in-the-making rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, the team’s top draft choice this season. After all, it’s top two receivers from last season – Jones and Ridley – are either playing for another team or not playing at all. And while Cordarrelle Patterson has had good moments, he’s still a 30-year-old converted receiver who is playing running back full time for the first time. He’s also set to become an UFA. The one receiver who’s consistently put up solid numbers, Russell Gage, will also be a free agent.
But what the team probably didn’t see coming was the uninspiring play of its offensive line – which Atlanta has tried hard to fix in recent years. The OL is allowing a pressure 31.7 percent of the time, the ninth-highest rate in the league. Right guard Chris Lindstrom, a first-round pick in 2019, is easily the team’s best lineman with a PFF score of 80.9, followed by center Matt Hennessy, a third-round pick in 2020 who has a 70.6 grade.
The two tackles, though, have struggled at times. LT Jake Matthews has a PFF grade of 68.6, which is better than RT Kaleb McGary, who has a 60.7 grade and ranks 63rd out of 83 tackles.
The bottom line? Atlanta could truly take the “best player available” approach, as it has needs everywhere.
Quarterback, though, isn’t necessarily tops on the Falcons’ wish list. Media and draft evaluators alike think Atlanta will give Ryan at least another year, then consider adding a QB on Day 1 next season when the position is projected to be stronger than this year’s crop of quarterbacks.
The good news for Atlanta? Most of the Falcons’ recent first-round picks have been better-than-advertised. That includes Pitts (2021), Terrell (2020), Lindstrom (2019) and Ridley (2018). Those picks, though, helped to make up for former top-picks who didn’t pan out and/or are playing elsewhere, including Edge Tak McKinley (2017), S/LB Keanu Neal (2016) and Edge Vic Beasley (2015).
In fact, out of the 18 draft picks Atlanta had between 2016 to 2018, only five players remain with the team – and three of them are set to hit free agency.
With that said, Pitts, Terrell, Lindstrom, McGary and Ridley all have something in common besides being picked by Atlanta in the first round: All were very athletic for their positions.
And Ojabo may be one of the best athletes in the draft.
However, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound junior is the epitome of the phrase “one-year wonder.” That’s because the Nigerian-born, Scotland-raised Ojabo barely played his first two years at Michigan and didn’t start playing football until he moved to the U.S. to attend high school in 2017.
But Ojabo has rare athleticism for the position and was extremely productive once he started to get regular playing time. The former high school track star finished the regular season with 35 tackles, 12 TFLs, 11 sacks, 3 PDs, 1 FR and a whopping 5 FFs.
Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton might also be available when Atlanta is on the clock – and it would be hard to pass him up, as Hamilton is widely regarded as the best safety prospect in several years. However, safety is not an immediate need. Although Duron Harmon will be an UFA, Atlanta drafted Richie Grant out of Central Florida in the second round this year, and he’s thus far played about 23 percent of the snaps on defense. Atlanta may want to give the other safety, Jaylinn Hawkins, more time to grow into the position, too, after he was drafted in the fourth-round last year.
David Ojabo started playing football in 2017#CFB
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) October 30, 2021
The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Mathis would fill an immediate need for Atlanta, playing either the 5-tech or the NT position in Atlanta’s 3-4 defense, as both Bullard and Davison will be UFAs at the end of the season.
Mathis compares favorably to another former Alabama lineman, Christian Barmore, who was a second-round pick this year by New England. They’re both the same height and weight; Mathis’ stat-line thus far: 46-8.5-8. Barmore’s stat-line his final season in Alabama: 37-9.5-8.
That’s not to say Mathis will have the same impact his rookie season as Barmore has had for New England this year. However, history is on Alabama’s side when it comes to drafting Crimson Tide defensive linemen in the first- or second-round under Nick Saban.
Since Saban took over in 2007, Alabama has had 10 defensive linemen drafted in the first- or second-round. Out of that total, only one would be considered a true “bust” (Terrence Cody, who was a second-round pick by Baltimore in 2010). The rest have been good-to-great, although off-field issues and injuries ultimately ended 2011 first-round pick Marcell Dareus’ 10-year career.
This is DL teach tape when it comes to block strike, leverage, and OL displacement. Some guys have length but don’ play with it. @PhidarianMathis knows how to use his 34 1/2 arms. pic.twitter.com/UbO8QpACJW
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) November 8, 2021
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound senior isn’t the ballhawk that former Alabama corners Trevon Diggs or Patrick Surtain were in recent years. And he’s had issues at times with penalties.
But Jobe is battle-tested, going up against some of the best receivers in the nation every year while playing for one of the top defenses. Jobe has 129 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 3 INTs and 22 PDs over 51 games, including 23 starts.
However, Jobe’s medicals will be scrutinized, as he’s doubtful to play against Cincinnati in the College Football Playoffs after recently receiving foot surgery for a turf toe issue that’s bothered him all season.
🚨 JOSH JOBE INT 🚨pic.twitter.com/oEN5OJntzN
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 27, 2021
The 6-foot, 195-pound Metchie could return for his senior season, especially after he suffered what is believed to be a torn ACL during the SEC championship game against Georgia. Recovery typically takes nine months, with most athletes returning to play eight to 12 months after the injury.
Still, Metchie is considered a polished player and good route runner, with 155 receptions for 2,081 yards and 14 TDs the past three seasons, including a line of 96-1,142-8 this season, all career-highs.
Had it not been for the injury, Metchie could have gone at least one round higher. But since he’ll likely have to take the year off, it makes sense to do so as a pro, so Metchie could still wind up entering the draft.
Bryce Young ➡️ John Metchie catch and run for the TD 🔥 pic.twitter.com/ijKNt3st0o
— ESPN (@espn) October 16, 2021
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Cook has carried the ball 101 times for 619 yards and 7 TDs this season, all career-highs. Those numbers sound fairly pedestrian until you realize how deep Georgia’s backfield has been in recent years – RB Zamir White should also be drafted, for example.
So Cook will enter the league with less tread on his tires than most senior RBs, which should help his draft standing. And Cook is a capable pass catcher, with 61 career receptions for 603 yards and 5 TDs, including 21 receptions for 157 yards and 3 TDs this season. Matt Miller, draft analyst for ESPN, says he “(wasn’t) sure why some are giving him Day 3 grades, but his tough running style at 190 lbs is eye candy. He’s also a pretty dang good receiver and has open-field moves.”
Two years ago we played Memphis WR Antonio Gibson (yes, that Gibson) exclusively at RB during @seniorbowl week. Last year, UCLA RB Demetric Felton repped at WR. Both hugely benefitted from showcasing that versatility. James Cook will be listed at RB but could show out at WR too. https://t.co/jwcZaKQiz8
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) December 6, 2021
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior put up video game numbers after transferring from Houston Baptist, as Zappe led the nation in passing yards (5,967), completions (475), attempts (686) and TDs (62). The problem, of course, is the level of competition, which is why the Senior Bowl will be crucial to his draft standing. It’s also possible that Zappe won’t be available this late in the draft, as this particular QB class lacks both quality at the top and quantity throughout the rounds. Therefore, it’s possible Zappe goes a round or even two higher due to supply and demand at the position.
🚨Bailey Zappe has broken the FBS passing yards record for a season!!!🚨 Zappe passes former Texas Tech QB BJ Symons (threw 5833 yards back in 2003)! pic.twitter.com/JpvF8Eg246
— ✯✯✯✯✯ (@FTB_Vids_YT) December 18, 2021
The 6-foot-7, 300-pound graduate student transferred from Texas A&M, where he was a backup. Diesch then earned a starting spot for Arizona State last season and saw his career immediately take off. Diesch finished as the second-highest graded tackle in the conference last season with a PFF grade of 81.3. To put that into perspective, Alijah Vera-Tucker of USC was the highest-graded tackle in the Pac-12 with a slightly better grade of 81.8 – and Vera-Tucker wound up going in the first round. At the very least, Diesch provides depth for Atlanta.
#ArizonaState OL Kellen Diesch (#74) is an intriguing prospect that will be playing the East/West Shrine Game here in the coming weeks.
Diesch moves really well and has a much better anchor than I was anticipating from a player with a lighter build. pic.twitter.com/kiebtDLLrR
— Nick Price (Saint Nick🎅) (@PriceCheck3) December 13, 2021