The Falcons are close to being good again. They weren’t far off last season. Eight of their 10 losses came in one-score games; six of those eight came with Marcus Mariota at quarterback.
Mariota is gone. The Falcons’ quarterback in 2023 will be Desmond Ridder, at least at first. If Ridder fails, it’ll be Taylor Heinicke. If Ridder proves NFL-worthy, the Falcons should win 10 games. In the NFC South, that should suffice.
The Falcons have a plan. It didn’t include making a run at Lamar Jackson, though apparently no NFL team felt moved to make such a run. On the one hand, he seemed a nice fit for coach Arthur Smith’s brand of offense. On the other, he’d have cost a ton in salary and draft picks. That would have required a rewritten plan.
It also would have required scrimping on money for other positions. Getting past Matt Ryan means the Falcons no longer must scrimp. It’s a nice feeling. Having available money allowed them to sign Calais Campbell and trade for Jeff Okudah after the first blasts of free agency. The result is a roster that, even before the draft, appears fleshed-out for the first time in forever.
Not all free agents pan out. There’s a reason they were allowed to become free agents. In the hard-capped NFL, there’s no such thing as having a Pro Bowler at most, or even many, positions. A team needs a quarterback, yes, and difference-makers at difference-making positions. At other spots, competency is all that’s required.
The Falcons’ defensive coordinator is Ryan Nielsen. They hired him from the Saints, which marks a lose-lose for the NOLA crew. Nielsen will have Campbell and David Onyemata up front, Bud Dupree and Kaden Elliss at linebacker, Okudah and Jessie Bates in the secondary. Grady Jarrett and A.J. Terrell no longer are islands of excellence. This defense should be OK at worst. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to say as much.
The offense has a Round 1 receiver in Drake London, a Round 1 tight end in Kyle Pitts and a Round 5 back in Tyler Algeier, who rushed for 1,035 yards as a rookie. Round 1 linemen Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary re-upped. Tight end Jonnu Smith, wideout Scotty Miller and lineman Germain Ifedi signed as free agents.
Pieces have been put in place. At issue is Ridder: Is he good enough? Then again, how good does he need to be?
Smith guided an offense led by Ryan Tannehill to an AFC Championship game. Kyle Shanahan, of whom you’ve heard, took the 49ers to the NFC title tilt with a rookie quarterback who was the last man drafted. More and more, we’re seeing franchises fit offenses around QBs who don’t fit the tall-guy-with-the-big-arm mold. The Eagles had Carson Wentz; they preferred Jalen Hurts.
Ridder is not untalented. He was the 74th player drafted. (Hurts went 53rd in 2020.) It took the Falcons a while to say, “The plan is obviously to start Desmond” – we assume they were Keeping Options Open – but Smith spoke that mighty sentence at the owners meeting last month. Heinicke signed with the Falcons having been told he’ll be a backup.
The Falcons believe Ridder is indeed good enough. This isn’t blind faith. They’ve had a year to assess. His four starts weren’t proof positive, but they were indications. So he’s not Aaron Rodgers. Didn’t Green Bay just decide to hitch its franchise to Jordan Love instead?
The administration of Smith and Terry Fontenot got ahead of itself when Deshaun Watson became available, but the flirtation did no harm. It prompted the team’s severance with Ryan, which needed to happen anyway. Smith and Fontenot have had two drafts, neither a botch. Now they’ll have a chance – or so we presume – to land a defender of significance at No. 8. (Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith, maybe?)
There has been a purpose to the Falcons’ offseason. They’re building around Ridder, an affordable QB1. Again having serious money to spend, they’ve spent in a serious manner.
It’s possible Ridder won’t meet expectations. For today, let’s assume he does. For today, there’s more reason to feel good about the Falcons than at any time since they led 28-3.
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