FLOWERY BRANCH — Here are five keys to the Falcons’ season, which begins at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium:
1. Can Marcus Mariota revive his career? The Falcons will have a new signal-caller for the first time since the 2008 season. The Falcons signed Marcus Mariota in free agency and drafted Desmond Ridder in the third round of the 2022 NFL draft.
“We’re really excited about where Desmond is,” general manager Terry Fontenot said. “Excited about where Marcus is. Both players, obviously, you see the physical tools and the traits – they’re mobile, they run around, you see the throws that they’re making out on the field.”
Mariota will open as the starter, but the Falcons tried to force-feed Ridder the offense over the offseason and during the exhibition games.
“They both have all of the physical traits, but the makeup, really the way they prepare, the mental, the types of teammates they are, we’ve been very pleased with both players, and we’re excited about that,” Fontenot said.
2. The coaching staff. Coach Arthur Smith and most of his staff return for the second season, with no changes in the key play-calling positions.
Running backs coach Michael Pitre replaces Des Kitchings, who left to become the offensive coordinator at Virginia.
T.J. Yates takes over as wide receivers coach for Dave Brock, who was the lone holdover from Dan Quinn’s staff.
“It’s about our progress,” Smith said. “We’re not going to live and die with day-to-day narratives. I’ve said that many times, and it’s about our progress. I think they’re coming along. We know we have a lot of work to do before we kick off.”
3. Where’s Drake London? Wide receiver Drake London will be counted on this season after he returns from his knee injury. Mariota believes they put in enough work together before London’s Aug. 12 injury.
“Our (relationship) is great, and that stems from a lot of the reps that we had also in the OTAs and the beginning of training camp,” Mariota said. “We’ve got a good feel. We’ve got a good chemistry.”
London’s injury reportedly is not serious.
“When we get out there, it’s going to be like riding a bike,” Mariota said. “We are going to trust that and trust everything that we’ve done up until this point. Again, I believe in him wholeheartedly. We’ll be all right.”
4. Retooled offensive line. The Falcons’ offensive line did not protect the quarterback (40 sacks allowed) and couldn’t open up much room for the rushing attack (31st in the league) last season.
However, the coaching staff essentially changed only one position – left guard. Elijah Wilkinson beat out Jalen Mayfield for the position.
Kaleb McGary, who didn’t have his $12.3 million fifth-year option picked up by the team, came into camp motivated. He beat back all of the challengers to retain the right tackle position.
Drew Dalman or Matt Hennessy will start at center, while right guard Chris Lindstrom and left tackle Jake Matthews remain in place.
5. Tighter coverage in the secondary. Dee Alford, a former star in the Canadian Football League, won the nickel-back position with an outstanding training camp.
Alford, who played at Spalding High and is from Griffin, weighed 160 pounds when he worked out for the Falcons in the offseason. He’s added 20 pounds of muscle to help him fight in the slot.
In addition to Alford, Richie Grant, a second-round pick in 2021, is set to take over at strong safety, and veteran Casey Hayward was signed in free agency to take over at right cornerback.
A.J. Terrell will man the left cornerback spot, and Jaylinn Hawkins will handle free safety.
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