Falcons can rise from worst to first in crumbling NFC South

Things appear to be looking up for Falcons coach Arthur Smith. (Miguel Martinez file photo / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Things appear to be looking up for Falcons coach Arthur Smith. (Miguel Martinez file photo / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

The only major move the Falcons have made since the end of their season is hiring Ryan Nielsen to run their defense. Yet it’s already been a good offseason for them. The wreckage is piling up for the other teams in the NFC South while the Falcons rubberneck from a safe distance.

Worst to first is in play for the Falcons in 2023. I’m not saying they’ll be great. They have work to do just to be good. A mediocre team won the South this season. The Falcons will at least clear that bar in 2023. No team in the division is better-positioned to make a big move in 2023.

I’m looking at coaching, quarterback, cap and pick. That’s the head coach and his top assistants, the quarterbacks who will be (or could be) under center in 2023, salary-cap space and NFL draft order. There are a lot of other variables to consider, especially overall roster talent, but those are the four most important categories.

The Falcons are relatively strong in all of them. They’ll have the most 2023 salary-cap space in the South by a wide margin and the highest draft pick, No. 8 overall. Falcons coach Arthur Smith did a better job in Year 2 than he did in Year 1. The jury’s sill out on Desmond Ridder, but have you seen the quarterback situations in the rest of the division?

The Falcons are, finally, on the upswing. They have issues, of course. It’s just that their list is shorter than it’s been in years, and the front office has the means to fix things. No other team in the South can say the same.

The other teams don’t have a good starter in place at quarterback. All of their 2023 payrolls are over the salary cap. The head coaches for the Saints, Panthers and Bucs have one career playoff win among them. Smith has zero playoff victories. He also has a young, improving team, and general manager Terry Fontenot has several ways to add player talent.

The Bucs don’t have any of that. They won the division in 2022. They did it with a losing record, and the best thing they had going has ended. Tom Brady has retired again (he swears it’s for good this time). Right now, his successor will be Kyle Trask, who played 10 snaps in 2022 after not playing as a rookie a season earlier.

Tampa Bay’s top draft pick is No. 19. That’s much too low to select one of the top QB prospects. The Bucs are projected to be $58 million over the cap. They’ll have to do a lot of contract manipulating just to get under it. That’s not a good situation when they have 23 players headed for unrestricted free agency.

Tampa Bay’s coaching situation also isn’t good. The team retained Todd Bowles. He’s produced a winning record once in five full seasons as a head coach. The Bucs are still looking for an offensive coordinator. They are set to interview Todd Monken. He’s done great work as Georgia’s play-caller, but it’s a lot harder in the NFL, especially if the QB isn’t special.

The Panthers do have practical ways of upgrading from quarterback Sam Darnold. The cap situation isn’t too bad. The Panthers also own the No. 9 overall draft pick. Ex-Ole Miss star Matt Corral is an option, though he didn’t play as a rookie.

The problem is that general manager Scott Fitterer has carried on the franchise tradition of always picking the wrong guy to be QB. The Panthers fired Matt Rhule, the head coach whom Fitterer inherited. To replace him, they hired Frank Reich. He’s an underwhelming retread.

Reich took the Colts to the playoffs when Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers were his quarterbacks and won one game. Reich couldn’t make the postseason with Jacoby Brissett, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan at QB. Reich worked for dysfunctional ownership in Indianapolis. He didn’t help matters by making some mystifying decisions, and now Reich works for David Tepper, another meddlesome team owner.

The Saints ruled the South with four consecutive division titles from 2017-20. Then quarterback Drew Brees retired. Coach Sean Payton decided the job wasn’t so good without a franchise QB. The Saints fell to 7-10 in 2022 with Payton’s successor, Dennis Allen. There’s no evidence that Allen can do better. He was 8-28 as Raiders coach.

The Saints are still good on defense. The offense is a mess, even though there are good skill players on the roster.

Jameis Winston isn’t one of them. Good luck to the Saints with getting a better QB. They won’t have enough salary-cap space to sign one. The Saints don’t pick in the draft until No. 29. That’s the best pick they could get for releasing Payton to go work for the Broncos. The Saints are an aging, losing team with a suspect head coach and few resources to improve the roster.

That’s the opposite of the Falcons. They have hope again. Now they need much better results. The Falcons finished 7-10 with a 2-4 record against a weak division. One of those victories was against the Bucs, who didn’t care about the results.

The Falcons supposedly improved on defense late in the season. I saw that as rising from terrible to merely bad. A run-heavy offense limits their ceiling. That’s why I don’t think it’s a good idea for the Falcons to go into 2023 depending on Ridder to take them to the playoffs.

The Falcons can get better at QB and plenty of other positions. That will require Smith and Fontenot to make more good decisions than bad ones. It’s not easy to do. But the Falcons already have a lot going for them, including a core of good young players.

I think Smith is an asset, too. Reich is the most accomplished head coach in the South. Smith might be the best. He built an average offense out of below-average parts. The Falcons were more resilient in 2022 than they were in 2021. We’ll see what Smith can do now that the Falcons are climbing out of rock bottom.

The Falcons finished last in the South in 2022 even with that quasi-exhibition victory over the Bucs. They’ll challenge for the division title in 2023 if enough of their transactions go right. The Falcons already have moved up before even one major player personnel decision has been made because the other teams in the division are fading.