Our 2022 NFL Preview takes us from the desert to the dirty-dirty, where the Falcons continue to embark on what figures to be a rather lengthy rebuild, parting ways with the last vestiges of the franchise’s most successful years. Atlanta bid adieu to longtime Franchise Quarterback, Matt Ryan, back in the Spring, officially making their intent of rebuilding clear to the rest of the league. After a 7-10 campaign in which they overachieved in many respects and hung around the playoff picture much longer than anyone expected them to, (Head Coach) Arthur Smith & Co have effectively hit the reset button, leading to admittedly very low expectations in the ATL. Overseeing a Quarterback competition along with the development of a number of talented, young players, will Smith and his Coaching Staff get more out of their charges than they have any business doing, or will this season end up being a wash as they seemingly start from scratch?
For most teams, the first year of a Head Coach/General Manager partnership generally signifies the first year of a rebuild, and while the Falcons certainly began their renovation in 2021, they kicked it into high gear this offseason. A year after trading away the most prolific Receiver in franchise history (Julio Jones), Atlanta sent the aforementioned Ryan packing in a deal with the Colts, effectively turning the page on the most successful era of football in the ATL. Needless to say, Smith and Terry Fontenot had ambitious plans upon arriving to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, instituting a complete overhaul on both sides of the football, that could take years to bear fruit, though the 40-year-old skipper has shown an ability to maximize the talent at his disposal. Indeed, the Dirty Birds were hardly anything special in 2021, besting the weaker teams on their schedule while getting blasted by those who were significantly better, and while much of that had to do with Ryan performing at a high level, he wasn’t the only name to make an impact. The versatile Cordarrelle Patterson made plays no matter where he lined up, leading the team in rushing (618 yards and 6 touchdowns), while hauling in fifty-two catches for 548 yards and another five scores, along with returning eighteen kickoffs for 434 yards. Featuring for his fifth different team in six years, it appears that the former first round pick has finally found a legitimate home, signing a two-year, $10.5 million contract, including a $5 million signing bonus and another $5 million in guarantees. As Smith looks to get bigger and more physical on the offensive side of the football, having a multi-faceted weapon such as Patterson is a godsend during this period of transition. With that said, can the crafty playcaller work his magic with veteran Right Tackle, Kaleb McGary, or former pupil, Marcus Mariota (much more on him in a bit). A starter over the past three years with the club that drafted him thirty-first overall back in 2019, the mammoth lineman was not offered a contract extension in the Spring, placing him in a prove-it year ahead of looming free agency. As for Mariota, the veteran Quarterback broke into the NFL with Tennessee back in 2015, where Smith was coaching Tight Ends, before eventually taking over playcalling duties in 2019 which is when the former Heisman lost his job due to injuries and poor play. Aware of his skillset and adept at utilizing it, there is a chance that the second time around for these two will yield better results than the first.
The Kids are Alright
While a number of veterans look to enjoy new life under Smith & Co, there is an intriguing young nucleus of offensive talent that is coming together in Atlanta. With the first pick of the new regime, the Falcons surprised many in selecting Tight End, Kyle Pitts (pictured), fourth overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, making him the highest player ever drafted at his position. It didn’t take long for any speculation to be tossed aside, as Pitts immediately made himself the focus of the passing game, reeling in team-highs in receptions (68), receiving yards (1,026), and yards per catch (15.1), all the while being targeted a whopping 110 times. Granted, it will be interesting to see how productive he will be without Ryan to throw him the ball, but a full offseason within Smith’s system will likely see the 21-year-old become all the more consistent. This past Spring, Smith and Fontenot went back to the well again, picking towering Receiver, Drake London, eighth overall, adding another tall, rangy target to the Receiving Corps. Despite coming off a knee injury that curtailed his junior campaign at USC, London is a solid route-runner, who has the size, length, and leaping ability to become a favorite of any Quarterback throwing him the ball, and word out of the dirty-dirty is that he has progressed nicely in his rehab from knee surgery. There is also fifth-round pick, Tyler Allgeier, who should catch the eye of Smith in Training Camp. The 5-11, 220-lb Tailback is a proverbial bowling ball out of the backfield, with his physical style and craving for contact making him an ideal fit for the offensive system. As the Coaching Staff looks to deploy the aforementioned Patterson in other ways, look for the BYU product to make the most of his opportunity. Of course, the development of these young pieces would only be furthered by the play at Quarterback, which will go a long way towards defining the 2022 season for this group…
Competition is Healthy
Saying goodbye to Ryan was one thing but replacing him with the aforementioned Mariota and third-round pick, Desmond Ridder, has signified that Smith & Fontenot are indeed heading in a very different direction than the prototypical pocket passer. Given his history, Smith prefers a mobile Quarterback, and he will have his choice of Mariota or Ridder (pictured), who will be competing against each other throughout Training Camp. As we covered earlier, the former has the benefit of knowing the offensive system rather well, while also enjoying a fresh physique given how he served as a backup with the Raiders over the past two seasons. With that said, Mariota has thrown just thirty passes during that span, including only two in 2021 as Las Vegas utilized him primarily as a change of pace on running plays. And that should be the key for the veteran, who has rushed for 1,574 yards and thirteen touchdowns over his career, proving capable of moving the chains when plays fall apart, which admittedly could happen frequently with such a young supporting cast and an Offensive Line in transition. However, it needs to be said that Smith moved on from the Hawai’ian once before, and if Ridder progresses to his liking, then history could indeed repeat itself. Armed with a sturdy frame, mobility, and a wealth of collegiate experience, the Rookie has the requisite traits to eventually beat out Mariota, though there is a prevailing belief that Smith will afford his former pupil every opportunity to keep the job. Either way, all signs point to Ridder being the future at Quarterback in the ATL, whether it happens at some point this season or later.
Projected Finish: 4-13
They may have overachieved last season, but we have a feeling that much of that was due to the consistently strong play of Ryan, which won’t be the case in 2022. Good Quarterbacks have a way of masking other issues, and Smith won’t have that luxury this time around. While the schedule is far from arduous at first glance, it’s particularly unforgiving in December, and it will take many of their young pieces along with either Mariota/Ridder far exceeding expectations for the Falcons to find themselves in playoff contention.