Everything with the Atlanta Falcons is about building for a promising — and immediate — future. After a 4-12 season in 2020, Atlanta still believes it is a contender in the NFC.
Although the Falcons traded superstar receiver Julio Jones, they might've found his replacement in rookie Kyle Pitts. The Florida tight end isn't just a tight end, but rather a versatile weapon that can win at every level of the field. He could be - fingers crossed - the Falcons' franchise player for the next decade.
Every team is always looking for its franchise cornerstone pieces. Sometimes, the best way to see which players will stick around is to ask yourself 'Who would be protected in an expansion draft?.'
The NHL will be adding a new team in the Seattle Kraken for the 2021-22 season. There will be an upcoming expansion draft for the new Kraken franchise, allotting them a chance to pick from players other clubs don't protect.
In the NHL's plan, teams are allowed to protect up to 11 players (seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender). In NFL terms, it would be five offensive players, five defensive players and one specialists.
If that's the case, who would the Falcons protect entering the 2021 season?
QB Matt Ryan
No reason to waste much time here. Ryan is the starter. Despite slowly regressing with age, his numbers still are at an all-time high. Last season at 35, he threw for over 4,000 yards for the 10th straight season and since 2008 he's thrown for at least 20 touchdowns every season.
At some point, Atlanta has to consider adding his replacement. But now is not that time.
WR Calvin Ridley
Part of the reason new general manager Terry Fontenot was willing to move off of Jones' contract was the emergence of Ridley. A quality No. 2, the former Alabama star shined last year when Jones missed time with injuries. He finished with 1,374 receiving yards on 90 catches for nine touchdowns.
Each year, Ridley has shown he can be a leading receiver for an offense in the future. With Jones in Tennessee, he'll have his opportunity to make a splash for the next decade.
TE Kyle Pitts
He might be a rookie, but the expectations for Pitts are through the roof. Scouts agreed that not only was he the top tight end prospect in the draft, but some argued he was the best overall pass-catcher in the class.
Likely best used in a flex option, Pitts will be a do-it-all player. He'll work from the slot, play the perimeter and be the big-bodied weapon for Ryan's third-down offense. Pitts isn't a tight end, he's a weapon that will be a mainstay for the Falcons' new regime.
TE Hayden Hurst
For anyone that knows new head coach Arthur Smith's offense, the Falcons will be running a lot of two-tight end sets. Again, Pitts is more of a threat that will play both on the line and in the flex. Hurst is the standard three-point stance player.
In his first year with the Falcons, Hurst's role as a pass-catcher increased. He recorded a career-best 56 catches for 571 yards and found the end zone six times. He's a sure-handed receiver, dropping just three passes since entering the NFL in 2018.
OT Jake Matthews
You're either betting on the upside of Kaleb McGary or hopeful that Matthews still has a few good years left in him. In the end, you can't beat veteran production.
Matthews' run-blocking skills have consistently been put to the test, but his pass-blocking skills are among the best at his position in the league. For an offense that will pass and pass some more, he's the go-to guy.
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DL Grady Jarrett
Jarrett has fallen off the top list for most rankings due to the Falcons' pathetic overall defensive performance. He is, however, the brightest spot on a unit that can't find consistency.
As a top interior pass-rusher, Jarrett thrives in a one-gap system where he can bulldoze his opponents and force his way into the backfield. Last season, he recorded a career-best 57 quarterback pressures in a year where the team struggled against the pass.
Most of Atlanta's defensive players are replaceable. Jarrett is a talent that doesn't come around often.
DE Dante Fowler Jr.
He almost didn't make the cut, but Atlanta needs to make sure they have some type of pass rush off the edge. Last season, Fowler underachieved with just three sacks and eight quarterback hits.
There's certainly room for improvement, and perhaps Pees' system will rejuvenate him. This time next season, don't think fans will be clamoring for him to be "saved" by the protection draft.
LB Deion Jones
Yes, last season was a down year, but Jones is still one of the better linebackers in the game. A nice blend of cover skills and the ability to play the run, there's very little not to like.
In five NFL seasons, Jones has tallied at least 100 tackles in four of them. He also has recorded at least one interception and five past breakups each season. In what should be a bounce-back year, he's still a top 10 linebacker.
CB A.J. Terrell
Terrell was inconsistent during his rookie season, but he was far from a bad player. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed 71 receptions for 901 yards and five touchdowns on 102 targets. He did thrive as a run stopper, unafraid to take on runners on the edge and use his body to make the play.
Keep in mind that cornerback is one of the hardest positions to transition to in Year 1. With a full offseason and a new scheme, that might be better for the Clemson product as he enters a year with much hope for a standout performance.
FS Richie Grant
Some people might call it crazy to protect two players who have yet to see the field, but Fontenot nailed both his first and second-round picks. Grant was an All-AAC defensive back, playing in 46 games, starting in 33, and recording 290 career tackles with 11.5 tackles for loss during that span.
It's his center-fielding coverage skills that make Grant a name on the rise. In three year, he recorded 10 interceptions, 17 pass breakups, and five forced fumbles. A younger Marcus Williams, he will be a free safety staple for years to come.
K Younghoe Koo
Do we need to explain? Koo came back in 2020 and dominated the kicking game for Atlanta's special teams. He recorded the NFL's most field goals (37) with the sixth-highest accuracy (94.9%).
It's the long game where Koo shines brightest. Last year, he was perfect 8-of-8 from 50 yards or more. You can't find production like that in most places, and he's a steal for the Falcons' future.
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