Welcome to Atlanta, where Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith are tasked with rebuilding a Falcons team that was forced to take a long look in the mirror at themselves this offseason.
In 2018, the Atlanta Falcons signed former longtime starting quarterback, Matt Ryan to a brand new five-year, $150 million deal with $100 million guaranteed. Following years of attempts to build a competitive roster around Ryan in an effort to get back to their 2016 Super Bowl quest that they fell just short of, the two parties engaged in numerous contract restructures to free up cap space. This did nothing but kick the can down the road and inflate Ryan’s cap numbers at the end of his deal.
Questionable decision-making and flawed planning have set the Falcons franchise back, but could there be a light near the end of the tunnel? Find out what steps the Falcons took this off-season in an attempt to soon bring Atlanta back to NFC prominence.
This is the second installment of our #32n32 series. The first can be found here. Where we do a deep dive off-season review and season preview of all 32 franchises. Our own Mar’Quell Fripp-Owens, with the help of a few friends, takes you on this journey.
|Week 1: vs. Saints||Week 2: @ Rams||Week 3: @ Seahawks||Week 4: vs. Browns||Week 5: @ Buccaneers||Week 6: vs. 49ers|
|Week 7: @ Bengals||Week 8: vs. Panthers||Week 9: vs. Chargers||Week 10: @ Panthers||Week 11: vs. Bears||Week 12: @ Commanders|
|Week 13: vs. Steelers||Week 14: BYE WEEK||Week 15: @ Saints||Week 16: @ Ravens||Week 17: vs. Cardinals||Week 18: vs. Buccaneers|
2022 Draft Class:
If you are the Atlanta Falcons you have to be satisfied with the way you left draft weekend. The franchise began the exited round one by adding a player that would have been the number one ranked receiver on my board and a lot of other people’s draft boards had it not been for injury. With 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns on 88 receptions in only eight games, how could you blame anyone?
At six-foot-five and experience being aligned as both the X and the slot receiver, a nightmare named Drake London awaits, towering over opposing defenders.
“Put on any game,” Fontenot said following the selection of London via the team’s website. “Find me a couple of times where he runs out of bounds, because he doesn’t.”
“He finishes plays. He lowers his head. He’s tough and physical. Some guys are selective. He’s all the time,” Fontenot said.
London, the most high profile of the Falcons picks looks to make an early impact on a roster in desperate need of pass catchers at the receiver position.
Atlanta also selected a couple of athletic defensive prospects in LBs DeAngelo Malone and Troy Andersen and DE Arnold Ebiketie, who the team hopes can bolster a pass-rushing unit that has been below average for a few years now. Most notably of the two, Ebiketie, the long explosive pass rusher out of Penn State has the ability to become a day one starter and an instant impact player.
While there are massive concerns about his abilities to hold up in run defense, it will be hard for Atlanta to ignore the measurables along with his high-quality pass-rushing traits.
Of their draft class, I’m most excited about second round EDGE rusher, Arnold Ebiketie. ‘The Falcons have been a team that has been one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL for the past decade, and Ebiketie has the potential to make a dent in rectifying that situation. Aaron Freeman, the host of Locked on Falcons podcast via The Philly Blitz
Enough with the fun and games, just about everyone wants to know how the quarterback situation in Atlanta will play out. While Atlanta recently bought in Marcus Mariota, who played under Head Coach Arthur Smith during his time in Tennessee, and is expected to serve as the bridge quarterback.
There was also another move concerning the quarterback position.
Could it be possible that the ghost of Ryan Tannehill’s past is back to strike Mariota once again? See, the Falcons selected University of Cincinnati product, Desmond Ridder in the third round of this year’s NFL Draft.
Where Ridder isn’t the flashy quarterback with a ton of traits that set him apart, he has proven to have tremendous upside and possesses a fine blend of size, arm talent, and athleticism (ran a 4.55 forty-yard dash).
While this Falcons roster as currently constructed may not present Ridder with the best opportunity to be successful early. It’s possible that the former Cincinnati signal-caller could see significant snaps as early as the 2023 season.
“As for Ridder’s franchise potential, while I like Ridder as a prospect and believe in the right environment he could blossom into a Dak Prescott-esque passer. I do not think the Falcons have currently assembled said environment. In reality I expect Ridder to be a competent, but middling starting quarterback in a comparable tier as Ryan Tannehill or Kirk Cousins. And while that is probably not a passer that is going to carry the Falcons to a Super Bowl, that is one that can keep the team competitive while they build up the rest of the roster without costing them anything.” Aaron Freeman Via The Philly Blitz
Atlanta was able to add a multitude of quality football players on both sides of the ball, all of whom should make an impact sooner rather than later. While this draft class alone won’t be enough to propel the Falcons back into NFC contention, this should add multiple pillars to the future core being built in Atlanta. Even fifth-round pick RB Tyler Allgeier has an opportunity to prove his value as a potential workhorse back.
“Allgeier is a player that will have a golden opportunity to have a breakout season, given that the team is well aware that Cordarrelle Paterson, despite coming off his very own breakout year, is not a workhorse at age 31,” said Freeman. “The team is hopeful that Allgeier can take pressure off him and be the grinder between the tackles that Mike Davis was not.”
- QB Marcus Mariota
- CB Casey Hayward
- LB Rashaan Evans
- RB Damien Williams
- WR Auden Tate
- WR Russell Gage
- LB Foyesade Oluokun
- TE Hayden Hurst
- LB Dante Fowler
- CB Fabian Moreau
The rebuild is officially on in Atlanta; some may say better late than never, and some may say too little too late. All we know is, the Falcons were in prime position just one year ago to select a potential quarterback of the future in a draft class that saw five players at the position go in the first round.
Instead, they opted to select a unicorn pass catcher in Kyle Pitts, who joined Mike Ditka as the only rookie tight ends in NFL history to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season. Not too shabby, but as the year progressed and it became clear that the 2021 version of the Atlanta Falcons wouldn’t be very successful. Many couldn’t help but wonder what could have been.
It’s easy to criticize in hindsight, especially with the misallocations of positional value in a way that only the Falcons can. Yet it was the domino effect that followed that has finally bought us to where we are now.
While head coach Arthur Smith proclaimed (via Albert Breer) that it “wasn’t tough” to trade Matt Ryan because Atlanta had “moved on,” let’s face it aside from the fact that Ryan had been the face of the franchise for the better part of a decade; somehow he managed to produce almost 4,000 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, only 12 interceptions, and a 67% completion percentage with the set of skill players he had last season and getting sacked 40 times. This is nothing but a testament to Ryan and where he is at age 37. Plus, no team in the league wants to be faced with the largest dead cap hit in NFL history at $40.5 million, which is currently the case following the Matt Ryan trade.
All this because the Falcons convinced themselves that a last-second push for a potential Deshaun Watson trade, despite over 20 open lawsuits accusing him of sexual misconduct and a pending suspension from the NFL, was worth it.
Of course, this news would become public following an alleged meeting between Watson and the Falcons, ultimately putting Atlanta in a position where they had to deal their franchise hero whether a Watson deal occurred or not. As we know now, no deal as such ever took place and the Falcons quickly moved on from Ryan, sending him to the Colts, and struck a deal with journeyman QB Marcus Mariota.
So here we are and the question remains the same: was this worth the wait?
Time will tell if it was the right decision. But from the Falcons perspective, I think they would rather describe it as a necessary one. A year ago, I think they believed that with Matt Ryan at quarterback, and some of the weapons like Calvin Ridley, Kyle Pitts, and revamped play calling under Arthur Smith, they could be a competitive team given their soft 2021 schedule. While they were still playing meaningful games in the final month of the season it became increasingly clear up to that point that there was a clear gap between them and other playoff-caliber teams. Which compelled them to rip the band aid off this off-season. Aaron Freeman via The Philly Blitz
Whether it was worth it or not becomes an afterthought at this point. Following a 2021 season that saw the Falcons’ offense finish in the bottom half of every single offensive statistical category with the exception of one, (passing yards per game — an ode to Matt Ryan). It’s clear that Arthur Smith and his unit must get on track soon.
“Smith’s play calling, something he was lauded for during his days in Tennessee, appeared overly conservative and uninspiring,” said Freeman, “I’m hopeful that those appearances change this year for the better, in part due to a revamped group of skilled position players on offense.”
See while selecting Pitts may have been a questionable decision given the circumstances, by no means was it a bad idea. At 6-foot-6 and 247 pounds, with the ability to lineup across the formations, Pitts presents a mismatch nightmare. So when you add next to that a 6-foot-5 physical specimen like Drake London, quarterbacks are offered a larger window because of their massive catch radiuses.
Things that come in handy in situations like third down, or in/near the red zone — where Atlanta ranked 26th in the scoring percentage back in 2020. The significance here? This was prior to the hiring of Arthur Smith, when (at the time) he was still calling plays for a Titans team that ranked 2nd in red zone scoring.
Noticing a trend? It’s possible that both Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith had a plan to acquire bigger-bodied receivers, increasing efficiency on money downs while acquiring players with similar skillsets to some of Smith’s previous units.
It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to see Kyle Pitts utilized in a Jonnu Smith-esque role, continuing to be deployed as the X receiver while also being a moving piece, while London serves some of a Corey Davis role, mostly being aligned in the slot but having the size and skill to lineup outside when needed.
While Atlanta’s skill position group is much improved there are still significant concerns about the trenches on both sides of the ball. To put it in perspective, as mentioned Matt Ryan was sacked 40 times this past season. That total more than doubles the amount the Falcons’ defense produced in that same time (18).
The offensive line remains my biggest concern. ‘It was certainly the teams biggest weakness on the offensive side of the ball a year ago, and the team did very little this off-season to upgrade it. Aaron Freeman via The Philly Blitz
With questions at a multitude of positions, it seems the Falcons are content with putting faith in young players to continue to develop. Only time will tell if that’s a smart decision but at least the cornerback room is much improved.
With A.J. Terrell coming off a breakout season, the acquisition of Casey Hayward, and nickel corner Isaiah Oliver continuing to improve, this could prove to be one of the more formidable units on the roster.
While I don’t expect the Falcons to be too competitive in 2022, this is a much-improved football team than the unit we last saw which gives reason for optimism, given the Falcons won seven games this past season.
As for the team’s future outlook, they are probably a few years away from being a perennial playoff team. I’d like to believe that with a windfall of cap space to address some key holes on their roster next off-season, they could be back in wildcard contention as early as 2023. But in all likelihood they’re probably at least two or three years away from being able to make any significant amounts of noise in the NFC playoff picture. Aaron Freeman via The Philly Blitz
Record Prediction: 6-11
Cover Image Credit: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images