The NFL can be a very mercurial business. Players drafted by one staff suddenly find themselves led by another. Success one week is followed by an injury the next. At one moment there is a high, followed by an onslaught of lows.
Time in this league and profession is fleeting for the majority of those who chase glory on the gridiron. It’s not always fair, but that’s the nature of the beast, and it’s something that players are well aware of.
Because of this simple fact, the clock starts ticking the moment a player hears his name called in the draft. Can this player make an impact as a rookie? How about a Year 2 jump to a starter role? Is his third year the time he finally puts it all together? These are the questions that players follow early in their careers. While Cordarrelle Patterson is a great example of a late-career breakthrough, not everyone has one elite skill set to fall back on for a lengthy stay in the league like he did.
For most players, success needs to come early in their careers to warrant a future with the team that drafted them. The Falcons are looking for answers at most positions on their roster in 2022, and there are some players for whom this might be their last shot at solidifying a long-term role here in Atlanta. Let’s take a look at some now-or-never candidates for the 2022 season.
RT Kaleb McGary | Entering 4th season
Atlanta already sent the former first-round pick a message when it declined to pick up McGary’s fifth-year option this past offseason. That makes 2022 a contract year for the polarizing right tackle. I’ve not been shy about my belief that McGary isn’t the biggest problem Atlanta has on offense, but he needs to start to show he can be a solution moving forward.
There are moments when McGary is on the move where he looks like a frenzied man on a mission – sure of where he’s going and determined to run through anything in his way. McGary needs to show more of that as a run blocker this fall. In pass protection, his limited agility will always make things difficult against pure speed players, but he’s shown flashes of greatness against power rushers like Cameron Jordan. His ability to put it all together in his fourth season will make or break his future here in Atlanta.
CB Isaiah Oliver | Entering 5th season
Expectations heading into 2022 might be higher for Oliver than at any time other than his rookie season after he showed glimpses of high-caliber play in the slot for Dean Pees last season. Unfortunately, a knee injury against Washington – after arguably the best game of his career – cut his 2021 campaign way short. The Falcons showed some belief in Oliver by bringing him back on a one-year deal, although that’s a prove-it opportunity more than a major show of confidence.
As the league begins to shift towards a preference for bigger nickel players who still possess strong coverage ability, Oliver could possibly fit that bill. He’s an excellent communicator, a skill that is valuable near the line of scrimmage and shows natural instincts as a run defender. While he does have the coverage skills of a corner, Oliver has struggled on lateral routes throughout his career, and he figures to see more of those in the slot. The coaches seem to be confident that Oliver can be the solution in the slot, but he will have to prove them right.
LB Rashaan Evans | Entering 5th season
A newcomer to the Falcons’ roster, Evans’s inclusion on this list might come as a surprise to some. Typically, a player who hasn’t played a single down yet for his new team wouldn’t have a designation such as this, but his familiarity with Pees changes things a bit. Evans, a former first-round pick, was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in 2018 for a role in Pees’s defense in mind. His most productive season came in 2019 – Evans’s first full year as a starter – when he registered 111 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss of 2.5 sacks and a defensive touchdown.
That shows that Pees knows how to use Evans. The drop-off in production from Evans since Pees retired in 2020 shows that he may be best suited for that particular scheme and coach. If that’s true, it’s quite possible that Evans could have a short leash, especially given the number of new faces here at linebacker for Atlanta. Pees should know what he’s looking for in Evans and will want to see that right away as the veteran can help set an example for the younger players. I’m excited about what Evans can bring to this group, but I think the Falcons want immediate returns here.
C Matt Hennessy | Entering 3rd season
Hennessy enters his third training camp in direct competition with second-year center Drew Dalman for starting honors. Now, that’s not totally different from last year’s camp, and Dalman did work his way into a rotation late last season – setting the stage for the competition to come. Hennessy looked solid as a run blocker in his first year as a starter, but he struggled to protect Matt Ryan, giving up three sacks and 32 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Improvement from either Hennessy or Dalman as well as second-year guard Jalen Mayfield – who is not featured on this list – will be crucial for Atlanta to find more consistency on offense. Although getting more mobile behind center could help achieve that goal as well. Hennessy has the tools to become a good center in a move-based scheme, and he’s flashed enough in the run game to warrant some optimism.
DL Marlon Davidson | Entering 3rd season
When I first heard Davidson exclaim loudly from his podium at the NFL Combine in February of 2020 – wow, how things have changed – that he loved football because he could legally commit acts of violence against other people, I was at the very least intrigued to see what his career would look like. And I can’t say I wasn’t excited when I learned that career would be in Atlanta. I did not, however, anticipate his career not really amounting to much through his first two years.
Davidson has struggled with injuries in each of his first two seasons, which have limited him to just 402 snaps during that time. He started just one game in 2021 – Week 9 in New Orleans – and has one sack to his name. Now, he does also have one of my favorite recent defensive touchdowns, so that’s a big point in his favor. Davidson is still young enough to inspire belief that things can turn around, but as Atlanta reorients its defense, he needs to make his presence felt or risk getting left on the outside looking in.
WR Olamide Zaccheaus | Entering 4th season
I’m going to start out by saying that this spot for Zaccheaus is highly unfair. He’s largely done everything the Falcons have asked of him so far through three seasons. This spot, though, is more about the opportunity ahead of him to ascend another level – something I don’t think Russell Gage was given enough credit for doing in successive seasons. Zaccheaus also has the confidence of this coaching staffwhich should equate to a decent role in this offense.
Zaccheaus had a career year last season, catching 31 passes for 406 yards and three touchdowns. In his second year in the scheme, there’s potentially more on the table for Zaccheaus. Gage was able to parlay his opportunities into becoming a legitimate No. 2 receiver – and at times the No. 1 – for this offense. Can Zaccheaus take another step in his evolution? This year might be his best chance.