What to make of the Atlanta Falcons in 2021? That's a tough question for now.
First-year head coach Arthur Smith is looking to prove that the Falcons need to regroup, not rebuild. A 4-12 season in 2020 could be the beginning of the end for the franchise with key players, but the team is betting on itself this fall before giving up.
Defensively, it is a crapshoot on who will make the final cut. On offense, the picture is much more clear.
Julio Jones might be gone, but the team still has offensive weapons that could be difference makers. Add in the fact that Matt Ryan still is calling the shot under center and things should still be according to plan.
Who are the "locks" on offense to make the final 53?
QB Matt Ryan: Who else is starting here, Feleipe Franks? Since 2009, Ryan has thrown for at least 4,000 yards and 20 touchdowns every season. His age (36) could be a problem down the line, but he's starting at least one more year in Atlanta.
RB Mike Davis: There isn't a solid option in the run game right now, but Davis is the best bet. He posted career numbers in Carolina with Christian McCaffrey missing most of the year and proved he had No. 1 runner capabilities. For the power run offense Smith is looking for, Davis is the top option early on.
RB/WR Cordarrelle Patterson: Patterson likely won't be doing much in the running game, but he was brought in for kickoffs. Last season in Chicago, he averaged 29.1 yards per return, and even scored a touchdown of 104 yards.
FB Keith Smith: Over the past two seasons, Smith has recorded at least 57% of snaps on special teams. The 29-year-old recorded eight tackles on kickoffs and recovered a fumble last year. He also can be used as an extra blocker in the red zone from the I-formation.
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WR Calvin Ridley: Another easy selection. Ridley posted his first 1,000-yard season and set a personal best in catches (93). As a top target in the NFL already, Ridley now will be able to show why he's the heir to Jones in the ATL.
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WR Russell Gage: Gage also had a breakout year with Jones' injury. He tallied 72 catches for 786 yards and four touchdowns. He'll have the first chance to be the No. 2 and replace the production Ridley possessed when Jones was the leading man.
WR Olamide Zaccheaus: Maybe the Falcons run less three receiver sets, but Zaccheaus will get the first crack at the No. 3 spot. Last season, he started two games and finished with 20 catches and a touchdown. That, plus his role on special teams, likely gives him one more season.
TE Kyle Pitts: He's the top rookie player on Madden, the highest tight end ever drafted in league history and can play both inside and on the edge. Pitts making this roster is the ultimate slam dunk.
TE Hayden Hurst: As mentioned, Smith loves to run a two tight end set. It was evident in Tennessee with Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser as both had career years in 2020. Hurst enters a contract year, but he is a viable secondary option and a more well-rounded blocker than Pitts.
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OT Jake Matthews: Maybe soon his play declines, but Matthews is still a top offensive tackle. Overall, he's one of the strongest when it comes to pass blocking sets in the league, and has earned every bit of his five-year extension. No one is beating him out to protect the blindside in 2021.
OT Kaleb McGary: This a prove-it year for the former first-rounder. McGary has been inconsistent in the run game, and his pass protection took a step back last fall. The team drafted Michigan's Jalen Mayfield, but until proven otherwise, McGary will see first-team reps.
OL Chris Lindstrom: The other 2019 first-round pick, Lindstrom has been a constant at right guard. Overall, he's rapidly developed into one of the best pass blockers at the interior position. He's also improved in run blocking, posting record numbers in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus.
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OL Matt Hennesy: According to coaches coming out of OTAs, Hennessy has done everything asked of him during camp. He was forced to learn a new scheme and a new playbook overnight before taking over for Pro Bowler Alex Mack. That said, he's a veteran and should be able to slide right in place at his natural center role.
OL Jalen Mayfield: As mentioned, maybe Mayfield pushes McGary to the swing tackle role. He did start the last two seasons on both sides of the line with the Wolverines. Most scouts believe that he is better suited inside, and could push Josh Andrews for first-team reps at left guard. Either way, the rookie is safe.
OL Josh Andrews: Andrews can play both guard positions and center in a pinch. When looking at that type of production, having a do-it-all offensive lineman that can line up anywhere is too valuable to cut.
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