Bair Mail: Russell Gage expectations, taking Kyle Pitts at No. 4 and Hayden Hurst's future

Your questions get answered in Friday's mailbag


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Joint practices are the best. For real. They're my favorite part of any training camp, ranking way higher than any preseason game or regular practice ever could.

And, yeah, they're even better than the good ol' days when teams would do the Oklahoma drill. Those were fun, maybe not so good in the interest of preserving health.

Joint practices provide a clear picture of the team without the live tackling and severe injury risk that comes with playing football as intended. The past two days in Miami were great, save the heat and humidity and all that. The Falcons and Dolphins conducted two clean, efficient practices and we came away with a great sense of where the Falcons stand and what needs to improve.

There were some surprises, including how well the defensive front fared against the Dolphins. Some question mark remain, especially along the offensive front and behind Matt Ryan on the quarterback depth chart. And we all knew the Calvin Ridley-Xavien Howard matchup was must-watch. Those moments did not disappoint.


Let's use all this new information to answer some burning questions in Friday's Bair Mail. And while I address quite a few here, I couldn't get to all of the inquiries. I'm honored that there were so many great questions in the inbox. Keep 'em coming.

Jay King from Albemarle, N.C.

Hey Bair! Just wanted to ask, what do you think of Russell Gage going in? I've seen a lot of people predicting him to have a breakout year. Your opinion?

Bair: Thanks for the question, Jay, and for bringing up one of my favorite players on the 2021 squad. Russell Gage is already locked in and has clearly established great chemistry and timing with quarterback Matt Ryan.

How big a year he has, however, is slightly up in the air. He got 109 targets last season with Julio Jones mostly sidelined with injury. Will he get that many with Calvin Ridley, Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst routinely in the pattern and Tajae Sharpe making plays every day? Maybe, maybe not. Gage is clearly one of Ryan's trusted targets. He could easily end up with 1,000-plus yards. He could also end up around 750, where he was last season. The Falcons have talent at the skill spots. Ryan can spread the ball around, so it's tough to say where Gage's stats will end up. We do know, however, that Gage is primed to make a big impact.

Larry Byrd from Atlanta

When it was obvious to everyone that can spell football that the falcons needed a backup and quarterback for the future. Do you think Arthur Blank and company are competent enough or really serious about trying to win by taking a tight end rather than Justin Fields with a 1st round draft pick? Who does that?!!

Bair: I'll be honest. I got pretty fired up for a second there thinking Larry Bird made a Bair Mail appearance. Just assumed he was a Colts fan with all the Indiana ties. Then I saw the "y." Dang it. Ha. Still glad you chimed in, my friend.

I can tell you're fired up about the Falcons not taking homegrown talent Justin Fields with the No. 4 overall pick. I can also say you're not the only one who feels that way. My inbox has been flooded with Justin Fields questions/hot takes since after he played well in Chicago's first preseason game.

I can confidently say the Falcons made the right choice taking Kyle Pitts. He's the best weapon in this year's NFL draft. Doubt even you would dispute that fact. Don't get hung up on his position, either. Just call him a skill player. Pitts will line up everywhere. He can do it all.

Maybe Fields will be awesome in Chicago. I hope he excels. Let's rationally put the Pitts pick in context. The Falcons have a quarterback ready to produce for the next few years. It wasn't imperative they add a quarterback. Terry Fontenot refuses to conduct a true rebuild despite the salary-cap issues he inherited and is going about building up a team around the quarterback spot. When they eventually add a quarterback – they'll do it soon – having Kyle Pitts will be a huge asset. Are they serious about winning? Heck yeah. That's why they took Pitts, a player who can help them win right away. Drafting a quarterback means the 2021 first-round pick likely wouldn't have even helped the team for a year, maybe two. So, to answer the question directly: Who does that? Who takes Pitts over the fourth QB available after Lawrence, Wilson and Lance? A team set on building a strong foundation with the best players available. At No. 4, Pitts was the obvious choice.

Patrick Cash from Greenville, N.C.

Why is it a forgone conclusion that Hayden Hurst will not be with the Falcons next year? He and Pitts are very different players and hopefully will be on the field together a lot.

Bair: I wouldn't call it an absolute certainty that Hurst is gone next year just because the Falcons didn't exercise his fifth-year option. I would say it might be difficult if he produces like I expect him to. You're right, Patrick, in saying Pitts and Hurst will be used in tandem. This is not an either/or thing. Arthur Smith will use multiple tight ends a ton.

That said, an excellent season could set Hurst up for a big pay day on the open market. That might price him out of Atlanta. Maybe. That would be a good problem to have in 2021, with two quality, versatile tight ends in the pattern at the same time.

Alex Hardy from San Moreno, Calif.

Hey Bair! Welcome to Atlanta! Having spent the last 5 months overseas, its been a bore without football. My question is specifically on the second-year dudes. Which one of these guys are you the most excited to see make more of an impact? Looking at how Mykal [Walker], Jaylinn [Hawkins] and Marlon [Davidson] are growing, the sky is the limit for those guys.

Bair: Great question, Alex, That's something I'm interested to see as well. The 2020 NFL draft class got no offseason program and no preseason games to develop as professionals. They were truly thrown into the fire. There's always great growth between a player's first and second seasons, but I expect that to be more pronounced with this group.

I'll admit I'm pulling for Marlon Davidson, who was so candid about how his rookie season went south and how committed he is to realizing vast potential in 2021. He has all the tools to be a disruptive force. We saw that some last week against Tennessee. Adding that to the rotation up front will be a huge asset to the team moving forward.

Jaylinn Hawkins and Mykal Walker will be good guys to follow as well. We haven't even mentioned AJ Terrell, who could go from being pretty good to elite in a hurry. Yeah. I think he's that good.

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