Every season, fans of every team are looking for the next breakout player. For 2021, who could that be for the Atlanta Falcons?
Despite a major off-season facelift, they have several capable candidates.
Atlanta is coming off a 4-12 finish in 2020. They have a new head coach in Arthur Smith and a new general manager in Terry Fontenot. Julio Jones is now a Tennessee Titan, leaving the No. 1 receiver's role to Calvin Ridley.
Is another wide receiver the breakout star? The Athletic's Tori McElhaney believes that's one of the two that could take the next step.
Fourth-year receiver Russell Gage garnered her vote as the top choice. The other? Former first-round tight end Hayden Hurst.
Everyone wants to talk about Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts when discussing the Falcons’ offensive weapons, and they should. But when it comes to the players who have the most to gain, look to Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst. The Falcons didn’t pick up Hurst’s fifth-year option, so he and Gage can be free agents in 2022. Without Julio Jones, Gage has the opportunity to continue down the path he was on in 2020, as a viable option for Matt Ryan in the passing game. Some may say Pitts stifles Hurst’s opportunities, but with new coach Arthur Smith as the play-caller, expect to see wide use of tight ends in multiple sets and packages. If you’re a tight end, you want to play in Smith’s offense, even with Pitts in the position group. — Tori McElhaney
For those who not well-versed in the Titans' offense from last year, Smith will often implement a two tight-end look. Jonnu Smith enjoyed his breakout season in 2020 in Tennessee, and fellow tight end Anthony Fisker recorded career numbers as well.
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Hurst finished his first season with the Falcons recording 56 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns. Gage, who saw his snaps increase with Jones' injuries, made 72 catches for 786 yards and four touchdowns.
Another name to watch for: Linebacker Mykal Walker. The former Fresno State defender was drafted in the fourth round, but looks to be a steal after his rookie season. He tallied 45 tackles, one pass breakup and a forced fumble in only six starts.
Walker was named to Pro Football Focus' All-Rookie Team despite being selected No. 119 overall.
"If going purely off counting stats such as tackles, the all-rookie linebackers would be players like Kenneth Murray and Patrick Queen, who started for their respective defenses and piled up numbers," Ben Linsey writes. "The PFF grades tell a different story, with Murray earning a PFF grade of 54.4 on the season and Queen coming in as one of the lowest-graded linebackers in the league at 29.8.
"Walker is one of the players who shined in a more limited role. Across 387 defensive snaps this season, he earned a 74.0 overall grade that included a 90.7 grade in coverage. Walker allowed just 74 passing yards into his coverage on 152 coverage snaps all season. He may not have the same stats as several of the other rookie linebackers across the league, but his play warrants some recognition here."
All three players could be ready for a big year in 2021. If so, that's great news for both sides of the ball in Atlanta.
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