Five Atlanta Falcons that need to step up in 2020

Dave Holcomb

The Atlanta Falcons have some of the least amount of cap space in the NFL, and the team doesn’t have a Top 10 selection in the NFL draft, which would go a long way to filling an immediate hole.

It’s a similar story to last offseason when the Falcons were counting on a few key players returning to stardom coming off injuries. That strategy didn’t really work, as safety Keanu Neal suffered another season-ending ailment, and other defenders didn’t live up to expectations.

In 2020, the Falcons will be counting on several players stepping up to play much bigger roles in order to get back to the postseason. Here are five players the Falcons need more from this fall:

Running back, Ito Smith

Reports surfaced this week that the Falcons are contemplating moving on from two-time Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman. Considering he averaged a career-worst 3.6 yards per carry, that shouldn’t be a huge surprise. While he recorded four receiving touchdowns, Freeman also scored just twice on the ground.

Smith finished the season on the shelf with a head/neck injury, but he averaged 4.8 yards per carry in seven games. Smith could be the team’s starting running back in 2020, and even if Freeman is back, the Falcons need Smith to be an effective back in order for the offense to be a top five unit again.

Tight end, Jaeden Graham

There’s even more uncertainty at tight end this offseason, as Austin Hooper could hit free agency. The Falcons have the ability to bring back Hooper, but that would exacerbate their cap situation. With other top tight ends around the league, most notably Travis Kelce and George Kittle due for new deals this spring, the tight end market is going to be expensive. It’s possible Hooper could cost an average of $13 million per season.

If Hooper is too expensive, the Falcons will turn to Graham at tight end. He impressed during the preseason but didn’t have many opportunities over the fall. Graham did have a 53-yard reception versus the Buccaneers and four catches for 41 yards with a touchdown against the Saints in two games in which Hooper didn’t play.

Defensive back, Isaiah Oliver

The Falcons were counting on Oliver to take the place of Robert Alford last season. He remained a starter all season, but Oliver struggled mightily at times, as he didn’t record an interception and routinely gave up big plays.

Oliver was better during the second half of the season, though, when Raheem Morris took over the defensive backs. The Falcons need Oliver to continue to develop because in all likelihood, Atlanta will be targeting a pass rusher in the first round.

Wide receiver, Russell Gage Jr.

Gage was a shoe-in for this list. With the Mohamed Sanu trade at the deadline last season, the 24-year-old slid into the slot receiver role and excelled. Gage caught 45 passes for 402 yards and a touchdown in the final nine games of the season. He became an even bigger part of the offense once Calvin Ridley suffered his season-ending injury.

With the potential to be without Hooper this season as well, the Falcons need Gage to emerge as the offense’s No. 3 option in the passing game behind Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.

Defensive end, Takkarist McKinley

Vic Beasley has been the Atlanta fanbase’s scapegoat the last couple years, which has taken the pressure off McKinley. That won’t be the case this season, as the Falcons announced Beasley won’t be back.

For all of Beasley’s faults, McKinley had an even more miserable 2019 season with only 3.5 sacks in 14 games. His tackles for loss and quarterback hits numbers weren’t as bad, but the Falcons need a far more consistent pass rush to be a contender this season. It starts with McKinley being a lot better off the edge.