Falcons finally can hope they’ll be good again soon

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts during warm-ups before a game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears  In Atlanta on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.   (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts during warm-ups before a game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears In Atlanta on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Wins or hope really are the only two things NFL teams can sell. If they aren’t good now, then supporters at least need to see a clear path for that to change soon. Before this season, Falcons owner Arthur Blank didn’t really bother trying to sell his customers on winning. No one was buying that after he oversaw the team’s rapid decline from Super Bowl contender to a mismanaged mess.

The Falcons still are losing more than they win. They are 5-8 with no realistic chance of making the playoffs. But, for the first time in a long time, the Falcons have hope that those days are over. The present isn’t as bad as expected, and the future is brighter after two years of gloom.

The outlook will get a lot better if rookie Desmond Ridder shows something as the starting quarterback the rest of the way. He’s expected to replace Marcus Mariota when the Falcons return from their bye this week. Even if Ridder doesn’t play well, the Falcons will have a lot of other reasons to feel optimistic about their chances of being a playoff team in 2023.

They’ve made a good run at it this season despite their limitations. The Falcons have four games left. They can plausibly win half of them to finish 7-10. That would be the same record as last season. It wouldn’t be the same kind of season, though, because the Falcons already beat preseason projections.

Coach Arthur Smith got above-average results for most of the season with an offensive roster that’s short on premium, veteran players. Smith helped the Falcons develop a physical and competitive identity. General manager Terry Fontenot patched together a better-than-expected roster with promising young player and stopgap veterans.

The Falcons can keep the best parts of what they’ve built. If the Falcons cut players this offseason, it will be because they want to, not because they must. The best players are under contract for 2023 at reasonable salaries: Grady Jarrett, A.J. Terrell, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jake Matthews and Younghoe Koo. The Falcons have plenty of options to add more good players to that foundation.

The Falcons (finally) will have an offseason with no dead weight weighing down the cap. They can move on from Mariota with little traces of his contract left behind. The Falcons will have to use the cap space wisely. Mistakes in free agency are costly. It’s better not to have the cap dictating moves, which has been their circumstance for the past two offseasons.

Drafting and developing players is the more efficient way to build a roster. The Falcons have options there, too.

The Falcons own seven picks that currently are among the top 150 of the 2023 draft. They can use them to build roster depth. They can go for a top talent by packaging picks and moving up in the draft. The Falcons already have young players on the roster with the talent to be part of a winning program: Kyle Pitts, Drake London, Tyler Allgeier and Arnold Ebiketie.

There’s a long list of things for the Falcons to feel good about. But I’m not trying to downplay their challenges. The Falcons have a lot of ways to fill holes on the roster, but there are a lot of holes to fill.

It’s been a decade since the Falcons played great defense. They’ve rarely been average over that time. The defense is bad again this season. The Falcons need more players who can rush the passer, cover receivers and make tackles that prevent short gains from becoming big plays.

A better quarterback could quickly make the Falcons’ average offense a lot better. Ideally, that player would be a key part of the run game, like Mariota, but also make downfield throws consistently. Maybe Ridder, a strong-armed athlete, can be that guy. He’ll get as many as four games to prove it.

I loved the Ridder pick for the Falcons. Colleges underrated him as a prospect. I believe NFL teams did the same. Ridder was a low-risk, high-reward selection for the Falcons. The odds are good that he won’t become a good starter. If so, that wouldn’t necessarily set the Falcons back.

Ridder’s contract won’t count more than $1.7 million against the salary cap through 2025. If he’s not starter material, the Falcons can find one while keeping Ridder around as a cheap backup. They can sign a stopgap veteran after this season, like they did with Mariota for 2022. Or the Falcons can draft a top quarterback prospect

They have the capital to do it. Before this week’s games, the Falcons’ top pick was projected to be No. 11 overall. That’s too low to draft quarterbacks Bryce Young (Alabama), C.J. Stroud (Ohio State) or Will Levis (Kentucky). Several good prospects should be available at No. 11 or later. SEC fans will recognize three of the names: Anthony Richardson (Florida), Hendon Hooker (Tennessee) and Jayden Daniels (LSU).

The Falcons hope Ridder will play well enough over the final month that acquiring a quarterback won’t be a priority. Then there would be less pressure to move up in the draft to nab one of the top QB prospects. Four starts for Ridder should be enough to give them some clue about his ability to be a good starter. Players with Ridder’s background usually can’t hack it.

The Falcons selected Ridder with the No. 74 overall pick. NFL teams drafted 84 quarterbacks at that slot and lower from 2010-20, according to the Pro Football Reference database. Only five of those players ended up being at least competent starters. Ridder has a history of beating the odds.

I heard good things about Ridder from friends who watched him play for prep football powerhouse St. Xavier in Louisville. But Ridder had no scholarship offers from FBS schools until Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville came calling. After Cincinnati fired Tuberville, successor Luke Fickell made the wise decision to keep Ridder’s offer open.

Ridder was rookie of the year in the American Athletic Conference and won league player of the year twice. The big-time college programs missed out on him. Now Ridder will get a chance to show that a lot of NFL teams overlooked him, too.

That’s the story for the Falcons over the final four weeks of their season. It shouldn’t be make-or-break. If Ridder blows his audition to be the starter, the Falcons still will be on the come. They haven’t done a lot of winning lately. They finally have real hope that will change soon.