Is the Falcons’ rebuild ready to bear fruit?

The hard part of the Falcons’ rebuild could – could, I say – be over. They found a head coach who has gotten the most from what he has. They shed big names and big salaries. They again have money to spend.

They drafted a quarterback who didn’t flunk his audition. They found a thousand-yard tailback in Round 5. This administration’s first two Round 1 picks made NFL splashes. This administration might just know what it’s doing.

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The Falcons play in a division where the winner finished 8-9. No NFC South team can say its quarterback for 2023 is demonstrably better than Desmond Ridder. (If Tom Brady keeps playing, it won’t be in Tampa.) No NFC South team can say its coach is any shrewder than Arthur Smith. (As we speak, Carolina has no coach.)

The Falcons finished 7-10, same record as they had the season before, but this 7-10 was different. The 2021 team was outscored by 146 points but went 7-2 in one-score games. Football Outsiders ranked it 30th-best in a 32-team league. The 2022 Falcons were outscored by 21 points and went 5-8 in one-score games. The same website rated them the league’s 20th-best team.

(Of the 34 games they Falcons have worked under Smith, 22 – that’s 64.7% – have been decided by one score. We say again: That’s amazing.)

This marked the franchise’s fifth consecutive losing season. It was the first of the five to end on a true uptick. After the 7-9s of 2018 and 2019, we knew Dan Quinn would, for no clear reason, be returning. After the 4-12 of 2020, the Falcons had no head coach and no general manager. After the 7-10 of last season, they faced a decision re: Matt Ryan. Their failed pursuit of Deshaun Watson wound up making it for them. After Ryan’s season in Indianapolis, you’d have to say they got lucky.

Ridder’s four games – only one came against a team that finished above .500 – were enough to earn him a longer look. Every decision the Falcons make this offseason must be viewed through the prism of Ridder. If the Falcons believe he can be a playoff-level quarterback, they won’t be obliged to draft another QB. If they feel his ceiling isn’t quite so high, they’d better find someone whose is.

Some drafts are light on quarterbacks. The top three of this class – Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Will Levis – look more promising than any in the 2022 draft, but they’re not to be confused with Joe Burrow. Is Levis a cut above Ridder? Maybe. Are the Falcons willing to trade up for Stroud or Young? Probably not. Should they wait to see more of Ridder before sinking more draft capital and cash money into the same position? Probably.

Under Smith and GM Terry Fontenot, the Falcons have done well at staffing the skill positions, landing Kyle Pitts, Drake London and Tyler Allgeier. Their offensive line isn’t bad. Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, Round 1 picks under the previous front office, have panned out. Another Smith asset: He knows his O-lines.

Given that Smith is terrific at shaping a running game, does he need a Patrick Mahomes-level passer? Smith was the Titans’ offensive coordinator in 2019, when Ryan Tannehill, never a Pro Bowler, led the NFL in passer rating and yards per attempt. (He made the Pro Bowl, too.) It helped that Derrick Henry led the league in rushing. Play-action is a wonderful thing.

Football Outsiders ranked the Falcons’ offense the league’s 13th-best; its defense was third-worst. The most familiar number associated with this franchise – apart from “28″ and “3″ – are its microscopic sack totals. The 2021 defense finished with 18, fewest among NFL clubs. The 2022 number rose to 21, the second-fewest. Coordinator Dean Pees, who just retired for the third time, wouldn’t seem indispensable. A pass-rusher always would be welcome here.

We can’t yet know what the Falcons are thinking. We will soon enough. If they look to deal for a high-profile quarterback, it’s a sign they’re not sure if Ridder is ready. If they draft a quarterback in Round 1, it’s a sign they’re not sold on Ridder at all. If the most they do is add a career backup, it’s a sign they believe they have their No. 1 already.

And maybe they do. Me, I might kick the tires on Derek Carr.