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Wyche: Progress of young, emerging core key to evaluating where Falcons stand

Youth movement is underway at key spots, but development must continue


It's happening, and it's not so subtle anymore.

The implementation of the Falcons' younger players and eventual nucleus – a process we heard about through the preseason and over the first five games– is underway.

It's been brought on in part by design, in part by players like Jalen Mayfield and Kyle Pitts growing and developing, and in part, by injuries. Whatever the reason, the draft picks and younger players general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith knew had to emerge for there to be any true evaluation of this season's team, have and will continue to get opportunities.

Will that come at the expense of wins? Maybe. Does that matter, though?

The Falcons don't want to lose the majority of their final 12 games after starting 2-3. The goal for any team is to win. That said, with a new regime and a slew of players on one-year contracts, developing players to formulate sustained success is priority.

Owner Arthur Blank and every member of team leadership insisted on this after three consecutive losing seasons and a fan base eager to sink its hooks into any glimmer of hope.

Let's start with Mayfield, who Smith reiterated, rightly, will continue to start at left guard even though Josh Andrews has returned from injured reserve (broken hand). Mayfield, the third-round pick, obviously has taken his lumps, first in preseason when he was tried at right tackle and struggled for all to see.

After being moved to starting left guard, things looked just as problematic initially when Eagles defensive lineman Fletcher Cox taught him a thing or two in the opener. Mayfield, though, kept grinding and getting better.

The pass protection is cleaner and more in harmony with the other linemen and his run blocking has really developed. Check the Jets' tape. He was mashing people.

To those that nitpick, nitpick this: Mayfield, by his play, clearly has the temperament that you want. Despite his struggles, his has the nasty in his game that should only improve as he gets more consistent with minor fundamental things, like playing with a lower pad level, and understanding opposing personnel and schemes. With his arc heading in the positive direction, there is no way Smith could have or should have benched him. Now, it's up to Mayfield to continue to improve.

Oh, and with Mayfield and center Matt Hennessy getting up to speed with the rest of the offensive line, anyone notice how quarterback Matt Ryan is playing? The comfort level Ryan is playing with right now should give no reason to think he'll be done (in Atlanta) after this season.

He has 10 touchdowns and three interceptions on the season and eight of those touchdowns with no picks in the last three games. As we’ve seen over Ryan’s career, when he feels secure with the guys up front, he plays like one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the league.

Again, will this translate into wins? We'll see.

Pitts had his coming out party in the Falcons' victory over the Jets in London. Much of this was out of necessity because wideouts Calvin Ridley (personal reason) and Russell Gage (ankle) were out, and the receiving options were marginalized.

With Pitts catching nine passes for 119 yards and a touchdown, the fourth overall pick showed the impact he could have. More importantly, he should understand that he can play with the real players.

In my decades of covering the NFL and NBA, when humble, hard-working players realize they belong, things change. They practice better. They develop a sense of confidence that they can't be stopped. Then, it's simply a matter of durability and commitment.

Over the next few games, we'll see if things are real with Pitts, but people with the team believe it is. His opportunities are only going to increase, despite Ridley and Gage back for the Week 7 game against reeling Miami.

With Pitts and Mayfield establishing moments for themselves, defensively, outside linebacker Ade Ogundeji and defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham, both rookies, have made their presence felt in games.

On the back end, Richie Grant and Darren Hall had to share reps the nickel back spot with Isaiah Oliver out for the season and each had 3 tackles against the Jets – their most extensive action of the season.

The feeling of fortune among some with the Falcons is that there doesn't seem to be resignation among some veterans that some of the younger players are biting or will be cutting into their playing time.

The time being shared by tight end Lee Smith and Hayden Hurst with Pitts, or Jake Matthews with Mayfield and Cordarrelle Patterson with every player and coach has created a selfless environment for this process to bear fruit.

With all this, there's always the trap door of regression. That's the downside of how this team and its leadership will be judged. As good as things seem to be trending, a negative market correction can cause internal second-guessing and outside criticism.

Will regression or success equate to wins and losses? To some degree it should be, but not so much this season unless there is some radical run in either direction. There's two-thirds of a season left for the Falcons to show who and what they are – and who they could be.

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