Ten offseason storylines to watch for Falcons

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith (left) and general manager Terry Fontenot confer during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

caption arrowCaption
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith (left) and general manager Terry Fontenot confer during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

With the first regular season of the Terry Fontenot/Arthur Smith regime completed, the Falcons will have another busy offseason as they try to return to the franchise to respectability and the playoffs.

The Falcons have not had a winning season or made the playoffs since the 2017 season.

Here are 10 offseason storylines to follow with the Falcons:

1. Matt Ryan. Ryan will turn 37 in May and has said that he wants to play into his 40s like Tom Brady. He has been healthy most of his career and has two years remaining on his contract.

The Falcons are in no position to cut Ryan, the only player in franchise history to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award. The Falcons would take on a $40.5 million cap hit. The Falcons want to keep him as they continue to build out the roster. Without Ryan, the Falcons likely would have won just two or three games in 2021.

Ryan, in the past, has said he wants to stay in Atlanta. But what if he’s tired of getting sacked and playing behind a poor offensive line that can’t protect him? The Falcons tried to scheme the passing game around the line and that worked for 10 games, but over the final seven games, Ryan was under siege.

The Steelers, with the expected retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, will reportedly be in the market for a veteran quarterback. However, they have offensive line issues also.

“I mean, they’re all different,” Ryan said when ask to compare this season to others. “Every year brings its unique set of challenges and opportunities. So, they’re all different. I don’t know as though it’s more difficult than any other year.”

2. Calvin Ridley. Football took a back seat in the life of Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley during the 2021 season.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith reiterated his weekly stance that there was nothing new to report in the situation on Ridley heading into the regular-season finale. That will change over the offseason.

The internet took a speculative comment by NFL Network senior writer Steve Wyche that both parties may look for a “fresh start” on 92.9 The Game last week and spun that into a full-blown break up.

Ridley put out a statement on social media during the game against Carolina on Oct. 31. Ridley tweeted a statement that read in part, “These past few weeks have been very challenging, and as much as I’d like to be on the field competing with my teammates, I need to step away from football at this time and focus on my mental wellbeing. This will help me be the best version of myself now and in the future.”

Smith found out the morning of the Carolina game that the team would be without Ridley after he practiced all week. Ridley had missed the game against the Jets in London on Oct. 10 because of a personal matter.

Ridley was placed on the non-football injury list by the team Nov. 5. He did not return. He was on the 53-man roster for seven games so he gets an accrued season (year of service for free agency). Even without the accrued season, his 2021 contract year would have continued to run. Earning an accrued season and contract tolling are different concepts.

In May, Ridley, the team’s top draft pick (26th overall) in 2018, had his fifth-year, $11.116 million option picked up by the team.

In three seasons with the Falcons, Ridley has 217 receptions for 3,061 yards and 26 touchdowns - including 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020. He had 31 catches for 281 yards and two touchdowns this season.

The Falcons have been supportive of Ridley during this journey. It will be important for them to know if they can move forward with him as a dependable member of the franchise.

3. Fixing the offensive line. The offensive line didn’t create any room in the rushing attack and couldn’t protect the quarterback.

Left tackle Jake Matthews and right guard Chris Lindstrom are solid. Perhaps center Matt Hennessy and rookie left guard Jalen Mayfield can improve, but while right tackle Kaleb McGary has been durable, he’s is a liability in the run game and pass protection.

An upgrade is needed.

Free agency is the hardest path to fix the offensive line. as many players don’t reach free agency. Teams generally aren’t in the business of trading Pro Bowl caliber offensive line talent.

The best path to fixing the offensive line is drafting better talent and development. That’s not an obvious quick fix.

The Falcons, after passing on offensive tackle Penei Sewell to draft tight end Kyle Pitts, drafted Mayfield in third round and center Drew Dalman in the fourth round. Mayfield struggled at times, but played more than 1,000 snaps. The Falcons tried to rotate Dalman at center with Hennessey and that failed.

Josh Andrews was veteran insurance and Matt Gono, spent the season on the physical unable to perform list after suffering a serious undisclosed injury. He was seen wearing a neck brace early in training camp.

4. Finding a pass rush. Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees originally said he planned to create a pass rush and would blitz from anywhere. He tried it, but the blitzes didn’t work because the Falcons couldn’t play man-to-man coverage.

The Falcons entered the final game last in the league with 16 sacks. Even when you count the quarterback hits and hurries, the pass rush is weak.

“Thing that we just really have to develop in the offseason and before next year is the ability to rush the passer and not always have to pressure to do it,” Pees said. “And number two is to be able to play man coverage better in the back end. It’s kind of a two-fold thing.”

The Falcons could bring back Dante Fowler on a more modest deal and select a couple of pass rushers in the draft. The Falcons’ talent pool along the defensive front will be a priority.

“Now when I watch guys rush the passer, I’ll guarantee you the coach didn’t coach him,” Pees said. “The guy has got talent.”

The Falcons have to do a better job of acquiring and developing the pass-rush talent. Often opponents just focused on stopping Grady Jarrett, who played some defensive end this season.

“We’ve tried, I mean if you noticed, there’s been some time we’ve played him outside,” Pees said.

5. Replacing coach Des Kitchings. Running backs coach Des Kitchings left to take the offensive coordinator position at Virginia.

Bernie Parmalee, who was interviewed for the opening could become available, after serving on Urban Meyer’s staff in Jacksonville. Also, anyone who’s worked under San Francisco’s Bobby Turner would be an excellent candidate.

Kitchings, 42, who played at Furman, was in his first season with the Falcons. The Falcons are 30th of 32 teams in rushing in the NFL at 86.8 yards per game, entering the finale. However, Kitchings has done a fine job of converting former wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in to the team’s top running back.

6. Keeping Cordarrelle Patterson, Foye Oluokun and Younghoe Koo. With the NFL salary cap projected to jump from $182.5 million to $208.2 million in 2022, the Falcons’ situation will improve slightly next year.

Patterson, arguably the team’s offensive MVP for 2021, signed a one-year, $3 million deal in the offseason. His market value has been set at $6.1 million, according to Spotrac.

After leading the league in tackles, Foye Oluokun’s price went up. He entered the last game with 179 tackles, which were the most in the league since Patrick Willis (2000) and Jerod Mayo (2010) had 174.

Koo made $920,000 in 2021. Baltimore’s Jason Tucker was the league’s top paid kicker at $5 million last season.

Ryan ($48.6 million), defensive tackle Grady Jarrett ($23.8 million), left tackle Jake Matthews ($23.6 million), linebacker Deion Jones ($13.6 million), wide receiver Calvin Ridley ($11.1 million) and tight end Kyle Pitts ($7.4 million) make up the players with the top salary-cap numbers for 2022.

The Falcons were in a bind because the 2021 cap went down from $198.2 million in 2020 because of the revenue shortfall from the COVID-19 pandemic. The losses were spread over several years and agreed to by the NFL and the players union.

7. Draft preparation. The Falcons will have the No. 8 overall pick.

The Falcons have picks in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth rounds. Their seventh-round pick resides with Buffalo from the Lee Smith trade.

The Falcons could be awarded compensatory picks for losing center Alex Mack and safety Keanu Neal. The Falcons could pick up two additional sixth-round picks.

8. Post draft, stock OL and DL with undrafted FAs. The Falcons must create true competition along the offensive and defensive lines. Once the draft is over, they need to sign to the top five undrafted offensive line and the top five undrafted defensive line and promise they’ll have a shot to compete, possibly make the team and help out the weak units.

The Falcons were beat up in the trenches in 2021 and that must change. Before they return to the playoffs and title contender status, the Falcons must figure out a way to win at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

9. Senior Bowl/Combine. The Falcons will heavily scout the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine.

The Senior Bowl is set for Feb. 5 at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Alabama.

The scouting combine is set for Indianapolis from March 1 through 7 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

10. OTA/Pitts development. The OTA’s will be important for the second season as the foundation of the program has been set. Now, it will be time for the Falcons to take a step forward.

Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts’ continued growth will be important for the franchise moving forward. He’ll need to hit the weights as he gets older so that he’s a functional blocker when attached to the line.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons are expecting rookies Richie Grant, Darren Hall, Ta’Quon Graham, Ade Ogundeji and Avery Williams to all make major strides.

“You take your lumps, sometimes learning the system, but then now you don’t have like Richie and Darren and all of those guys, they don’t have to re-lean the system,” Pees said. “They’ve been through it. Starting out next year, it’s not going to be like brand new to them. There is going to be a lot of carryover… we can meet with them and do all that kind of stuff that it’ll pay off in the long run.”

caption arrowCaption
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith (top, left) and general manager Terry Fontenot (right) confer during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith (top, left) and general manager Terry Fontenot (right) confer during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

caption arrowCaption
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith (top, left) and general manager Terry Fontenot (right) confer during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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