2022 NFL Previews: Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons have come a long way since appearing in Super Bowl LI in 2017, unfortunately, they have been going in the wrong direction. This team is no longer a contender for the sport’s ultimate prize, nor a threat to win their division. This is a new era of the Atlanta Falcons, and that brings along some bright spots but also some bleak areas.

The one thing for Atlanta fans to be optimistic about is the wealth of young talent that this roster possesses. Although franchise staples such as quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones may not be on the team any longer but the next generation of culture-defining players may already be in town.

Tight end Kyle Pitts is definitely the one leading the charge for the new version of the Falcons. He is already among the most talented tight ends in the league and is entering just his second season. He is coming off an impressive rookie season where he recorded only the second 1,000-yard season by a rookie tight end in history.

He still has areas of his game to improve (he scored just a single touchdown last year) but he is way too talented to not improve his game and overcome his flaws. Pitts will have the benefit of a full offseason with the Falcons and more experience in the offense, both of which should lead to an even better sophomore season. Another 1,000-yard campaign should be attainable for him again and if he adds a few more touchdowns he could quickly become one of the game’s elite tight ends.

The Falcons also got exceptional play from another former first-rounder last season in cornerback A.J. Terrell. The second-year player had a huge breakout season, capping it off by being named to the All-Pro second-team. He improved across the board from a decent rookie season and has entered the conversation of best coverage corners in the entire league.

Atlanta will pair Terrell with free agent addition cornerback Casey Hayward to form a very formidable duo on the outsides. Hayward has had his issues staying healthy at times but can perform at a very high level when on the field. Having him on the defense will not only give Terrell a veteran to learn from but could make the secondary the strongest area of the defense.

While Pitts and Terrell have certainly emerged as the most promising players on their respective sides of the ball, there are plenty of other young players that have the potential to join them as franchise players.

Guard Chris Lindstrom was widely regarded as one of the biggest breakout players along the offensive line in the league last year. In his third year, the former first-round pick finally lived up to his draft status and was one of the better guards in the league. He didn’t allow a single sack all season, according to PFF. Guard isn’t the sexiest position on the field but the Falcons may have a reliable player to fill one of those spots for the next handful of years.

Atlanta orchestrated a very under-the-radar move this offseason when they acquired 23-year-old wide receiver Bryan Edwards from the Raiders for a fifth-round pick. Edwards never really got a chance to prove himself on the field in Las Vegas and that wasn’t going to get any easier with Davante Adams now in the fold too. He is the perfect type of player for a team in Atlanta’s place to obtain. He is still young and has the potential to really break out with a change of scenery.

Edwards also won’t have to come in and be the leading receiver for the Falcons either because that role should belong to rookie wide receiver Drake London. The Falcons made London the first wide receiver taken in the 2022 NFL Draft when they took him eighth overall. He is a big-bodied, physical receiver that should have no issue adjusting to the physical demands of playing at the next level.

London is certainly the crown jewel of Atlanta’s recent draft haul but he is far from the only rookie with promising upside.

Edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie was a borderline first-round talent that the Falcons were able to scoop up in the second and could be a key defensive contributor this year. They also drafted linebacker Troy Anderson, edge rusher DeAngelo Malone, and running back Tyler Allgeier. All three of those players should be serviceable backups at least this season.

The most intriguing draft pick that Atlanta made was selecting quarterback Desmond Ridder in the third round. It puts the Falcons in an interesting position. They now have a rookie quarterback that is coming off of leading the first group-of-five team to the College Football Playoff, but they did not draft him high enough to guarantee that he is the quarterback of the future.

Ridder will have every chance to win the starting job in training camp and preseason but it won’t be easy. He will have to beat out quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was also pretty good in college. Mariota has a familiarity with head coach Arthur Smith and his offense from their time together in Tennessee, so that seems to indicate that he has the upper hand in the battle for the starting spot.

Mariota is also a proven commodity in the NFL, whereas Ridder is not. Mariota is good enough to start and run the offense but he won’t be special enough to win more than a couple of games. That could be exactly what the Falcons want, setting them up to draft a quarterback near the top of the 2023 draft and lock that position down for the foreseeable future.

Regardless of what Atlanta has in mind for the quarterback position, Ridder will get a chance to win the job. He could end up being a steal and becoming the franchise quarterback (like Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott) or he could win the job and lead the team to a high draft pick and ultimately his replacement. The Falcons are one of the few teams with actual uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position, which makes them an intriguing team in the preseason.

No matter who is starting at quarterback, they will have a valuable weapon in the backfield in Cordarrelle Patterson. He was one of the best individual stories of the 2021 season. The former wide receiver and return specialist had the best season of his career last year as a running back in Atlanta.

Despite being 30 years old (which is nearly ancient for the NFL, especially running backs), Patterson impressed in his first season primarily as a running back. He earned a two-year contract from the Falcons after tallying over 1,100 yards from scrimmage and scoring 11 touchdowns. He may not be able to repeat that kind of performance but he will certainly have the majority of the workload again to prove that 2021 wasn’t a fluke.

The most unfortunate thing to happen to the Falcons during the course of the offseason was the suspension of wide receiver Calvin Ridley for gambling on games. The year-long suspension was one of the harshest penalties the league has given out and it couldn’t have been worse timing for Atlanta.

Ridley was one of the lone bright spots on the Falcons but missed a majority of the last season due to a mic of injuries and personal reasons. When he was on the field, Ridley was one of the most talented young receivers in the game and was on the cusp of becoming a superstar and taking over for Julio Jones.

Now Ridley will be forced to miss the entire 2022 season, and who knows if he will be the same player when he returns. The suspension of Ridley likely influenced the Falcons in their offseason decisions to draft London, trade for Edwards, and resign wide receiver Olamide Zaccheus.

But being without Ridley will be a major blow to whichever quarterback will be under center for the Falcons this year. It will be lost time for him to develop chemistry with Ridder if he is to eventually be the guy and it will put a lot more pressure on Mariota to operate without a true number one receiver if he is the starter.

Even with all the question marks on offense, the defense will still probably be the weak spot for the Falcons again in 2022. Atlanta gave up the third-most points and the seventh-most yards last year. Plus they lost linebacker Foyesade Oluokun in free agency after he led the team in tackles a year ago.

But the biggest problem on the defense, and has been so for a few years, is the pass rush. The Falcons are absolutely horrendous at getting to the passer. They had the fewest sacks (18) and pressures (105) in the entire league in 2021.

Yeah, that’s right, the entire Falcons defense recorded fewer sacks than linebackers T.J. Watt and Robert Quinn did by themselves. The player with the most sacks for Atlanta was defensive end Dante Fowler with 4.5, and he isn’t even on the team anymore.

Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has been a very solid player for Atlanta for a few years but his production is waning and it is more difficult to get sacks while rushing on the interior (and even more difficult when there are no other threatening players for the opposing team to block).

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like much is going to change for Atlanta in the pass-rushing department. They lost their best pass rusher and didn’t do much to offset that loss. Unless either one of the rookie rushers emerges as a legitimate edge rushing threat, Atlanta will probably once again be one of the worst teams at getting to the quarterback.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, that is going to make it pretty hard to win games in the NFL. With games against Matthew Stafford, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and two against Tom Brady, not getting pressure on the passer is going to make it hard to grab wins.

But it’s not like that is the only reason the Falcons aren’t going to win a lot of games this year. This is a year team without a clear answer at the quarterback position, which is not a very good formula for success in this league.

With only three non-division games that could be considered “easy” (Seattle, Chicago, and Washington) that means the Falcons are going to have to pull off a few upsets if they want to get near .500.

To me, this seems like a six-win team at best unless Ridder proves to be something special in his rookie year. There will be some encouraging individual success this year for Atlanta but the team success will not follow. This team is much more likely to finish in the top three of the draft than their division.