What we don’t: Is the Falcons’ quarterback good enough?
What we wonder: If the players around him are exceptional, can the Falcons get away with an unexceptional quarterback?
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell credits – or debits – the Falcons for having the NFL’s 26th-best offseason. That sounds low, given that the Falcons took the second-best player on ESPN’s draft chart with the No. 8 pick. They also added a slew of defenders, some of whom – Jessie Bates, Calais Campbell, Bud Dupree – should help.
Barnwell’s gripes: Campbell is 36, Dupree hasn’t been healthy and that you should never take a running back in the first round, let alone with the first round’s fifth pick. As for Desmond Ridder …
Barnwell: “This feels more like a Davis Mills situation, where a team talks itself into a third-round pick looking passable down the stretch and doesn’t do more to be competitive at quarterback if that player fails to work out.”
Davis Mills is a Round 3 pick who started for the Texans last season because the team, having dumped Deshaun Watson, had nothing else. He was OK – completing 61.1 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. The difference: Rather than say, “In Mills we trust,” Houston spent the No. 2 pick on C.J. Stroud.
By the time the Falcons’ turn came, the top three quarterbacks – Stroud, Bryce Young and Anthony Richardson – were gone. They took Bijan Robinson, the best college back since … Adrian Peterson, maybe? Under Fontenot/Smith, the Falcons have spent top 10 picks on a tight end, a receiver and an RB. Ridder came with the 74th pick of the 2022 draft.
This is the NFL, where everything hinges on the quarterback. And yet: The 49ers made a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo. Three years later, they turned to Trey Lance, who got hurt, which meant returning to Garoppolo, who also got hurt, and then to Brock Purdy, the last player drafted in 2022. Purdy led the team to the NFC title game, wherein he got hurt and the Niners had no chance.
Everything hinges on the quarterback – unless you do as the 49ers have done. You surround a non-elite quarterback with playmakers of the highest rank – running back Christian McCaffrey, wideout Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle. It helps to load up on defense, too.
Maybe this works only if Kyle Shanahan, who for all his Super Bowl foibles is among the best in the business, is your coach. The 49ers are 42-24 over the past four seasons, having reached the conference championship three times. Smith can coach a bit himself, having bled 14 victories from seasons that saw undermanned teams work 22 one-score games.
Under Smith/Fontenot, the Falcons have made a run at one big-time quarterback, that being Watson, who chose Cleveland instead. They went with Marcus Mariota, no longer big-time, for 13 games last season. They gave Ridder the final four. That modest audition – of 78 completions, one was for more than 29 yards – convinced the Falcons they had their QB.
If that’s a reach, it’s a considered one. As offensive coordinator, Smith turned the Titans into a powerful offense by pairing a serviceable quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) with a great back (Derrick Henry). Something similar could work here. Having Robinson and Tyler Allgeier – don’t forget him – should clear downfield space for Kyle Pitts and Drake London.
The belief is that this will work. The belief is that the Falcons will win the NFC South. The belief is that Smith has what he wants, which mightn’t be what someone else would have wanted, but he’s the only one coaching this team.
The caveat: This belief is contingent on Ridder being serviceable. If he’s not, Arthur Blank will have a few questions for Arthur Smith.
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