Marcus Mariota set to lead Falcons into mandatory minicamp

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota talks about how the offseason has progressed and how the team is looking forward to the 2022 season.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

FLOWERY BRANCH — For the first time in 14 seasons, someone other than Matt Ryan will lead the Falcons on the field at quarterback for their mandatory minicamp.

ExploreNew opportunity for Mariota in Atlanta

Free agent Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NFL draft, was signed to compete for Ryan’s vacant job after he was traded to the Colts. The Falcons also selected Desmond Ridder in the third round of April’s NFL draft.

Mariota started for 4 ½ seasons with the Titans, until he was benched in 2019, and spent the past two seasons as a backup with the Raiders. The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner from Oregon, who was 29-32 as an NFL starter, has a chance to revive his career with the Falcons.

“Throughout this process, that was kind of my main goal was to find an opportunity to play,” Mariota said. “This presented itself, and with the staff, with the relationships that I’ve had with these guys before, it made pretty much an easy transition and easy decision.”

Falcons coach Arthur Smith was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator when the decision was made to bench Mariota in favor of Ryan Tannehill, who has since salvaged his career despite a poor showing in the playoffs last season.

This is Mariota’s chance to earn another starting job and chase away some of the problems that dogged him early in his career with the Titans.

“Part of it was the communication,” SiriusXM NFL radio analyst Rich Gannon said recently. “There’s a lot that’s thrown on the shoulders of a quarterback. He struggled with that initially.”

ExploreMariota excited about reuniting with Arthur Smith

“Then he struggled, I think, with trusting the protection,” added Gannon, a four-time Pro Bowler during his 17-year NFL career. “Understanding the protection and trusting his feet and functioning as a pocket passer. In college, he was athletic enough, talented enough and fast enough to just run away from trouble. He wasn’t able to do that in the NFL. He hasn’t been able to do that in the NFL.”

Smith is certainly aware of Mariota’s past issues. Smith, offensive coordinator Dave Ragone and quarterbacks coach Charles London will try to play to Mariota and Ridder’s strengths.

“We’re going to try to grow with them and evolve with what we think makes the most sense,” Ragone said. “We’ll get the feedback from them and more importantly, when you watch the film, seeing where they are most comfortable.”

The football world is paying close attention to see if the Falcons can salvage Mariota’s career.

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“If he’s going to take the next step and become the starter in Atlanta, and he’s going to hold off Desmond Ridder, that’s where he has to be better,” Gannon said. “He’s going to be able to make some plays for you every game, there is no question about that. He’s going to be able to generate. He’s going to be able to do some … make four or five plays that a lot of other quarterbacks can’t make.”

Mariota will need to improve in pressure situations.

“The question is, can he make the five of six throws and decisions on third-and-6, third-and-8, third-and-12 and down in the red zone where he has to sit in there and he has to take the extra hits,” Gannon said. “He has to get hit in the face and make the big throw down the middle. That’s what we have to find out about Marcus Mariota. That’s really what’s been missing from his game if you’ve really studied him in great detail over the last eight seasons.”

Mariota is pleased with his transition thus far.

“So, it’s been awesome,” Mariota said. “It’s been great. It’s a fun group to be around. I really believe in what Art is building here. It’s just been fun for me to come into work and be around a lot of good people.”

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