The Falcons have not made a ton of additions on offense to this point. They have a new blocking tight end in Lee Smith, a potential lead back in Mike Davis, a reserve offensive lineman in Josh Andrews, and some familiar returning faces like Jaeden Graham and Christian Blake. Considering they cut James Carpenter, one of last year’s starting guards, they’ve made at best a small improvement in the offense’s overall talent level, and I say that as someone who really likes the Davis addition.
The draft will change that, but it’s also understandable that less focus has gone into the offense to this point for a couple of reasons. The first is that the team is clearly banking on significant improvement coming from coaching, where Arthur Smith is bringing fresh ideas to a team that clearly needs them after Dirk Koetter’s passing attempt happy, run impoverished offense proved to be both generally so-so and awful in the red zone. The second is that the offensive personnel is objectively better than the defense’s, with three solid-to-good offensive linemen, a terrific receiving corps, a starting tight end with talent, and an established quarterback, so the team’s chances of fielding at least a solid unit with what they have today is much better than it is on defense.
A front office that has vowed to prioritize the best players available in the draft may or may not hit all these needs, but if they don’t I’d expect the team’s scant free agent dollars to address what needs remain. Just how competitive the Falcons can be this year remains to be seen, but I don’t expect them to simply punt entire position groups entirely no matter what, so it’s just a matter of what additions we’ll see in the coming months.
What are the biggest remaining needs? In rough order, here you go.
Left guard and center
If Matt Gono is going to be the swing tackle, the need at left guard is especially acute because it’ll come down to Willie Wright and new signing Josh Andrews. If Gono’s going to get a real crack at left guard, it’s a three man competition. At center, it’s either Matt Hennessy or Andrews, either way.
The signing of Andrews does nothing to make me feel like the interior of this line is less of a trouble spot. As far as immediate needs go, addressing the interior with at least one promising starting option—an option that still seems likely to come via the draft at this point—is going to be critical to ensuring Atlanta can actually execute its offense at the level it wants to.
There was a time with the reports of interest in a center that I thought free agency might bring in a starter there, but with David Andrews back in New England and Austin Blythe signing with the Chiefs yesterday, that ship has likely sailed, leaving it as a rookie or Hennessy. If it’s the latter, hopefully an offseason of mild-to-major concern for Hennessy’s future in Atlanta comes to naught and he excels in the gig.
You’re not going to ever find 5 elite starters along the same line with the money and draft capital you need to spend elsewhere, but the Falcons would be best served not potentially having two questionable starters right next to one another on their line.
The Falcons don’t have settled starters are left guard and center, and that’s sort of a huge deal. They do have a settled starter at quarterback, but they have no backup on the roster.
Stepping back for a moment, let’s consider how important quarterback likely is to this regime. They’ve made no effort to address the backup role with a stopgap to this point and already cut ties with Kurt Benkert, indicating a draft pick is coming. Long-term, at least, the team likely views a significant addition here as critical to the future. Even if Atlanta’s fooling just about everybody with their purported interest in the top quarterback in this class, they need a backup for a soon-to-be 36 year old quarterback who could start to miss time with injury, and ideally that player would be someone they could groom for the long haul.
Chances are good they’ll be looking for more of a long-term successor for Ryan in the first three rounds of the draft, but either way, you have to get a quarterback who is good enough to at least keep you competitive if something happens to Ryan this year.
Hayden Hurst is a good receiver at the position, and Arthur Smith loves tight ends. That alone is going to mean a ton of run for Hurst, which should in turn lead to a nice contract for him in Atlanta or elsewhere in 2022. That doesn’t mean this position is done, either.
I like Lee Smith’s blocking skills and they’ll be utilized frequently, and I’m fond of Jaeden Graham as an all-around reserve. Given that the Falcons figure to use two tight ends a lot—they utilized one back and two tight ends on a league-high number of plays last year, as Will McFadden notes—another pass catching option with upside would be extremely welcome. This, too, is something that seems likeliest to come out of the draft, probably a little bit later on. If Atlanta lets Hurst walk after this year, after all, they’ll have nobody under contract for 2022 at tight end.
Mike Davis as a lead back is a sensible enough notion given the work he did for Carolina, his physicality and fit with what Smith wants to do on offense, and his versatility. Ito Smith offers plenty as a backup, in turn, and Qadree Ollison can take short yardage work if called upon. You could, if you were so inclined, dust your hands and call it a day there.
Again, though, does it really make sense to do that? Ollison is unproven and Ito’s a free agent after this year, and the Falcons could use another back with fresh legs who can be a major part of the group going forward. It’s worth remembering that neither Davis or Ito has handled 200 carries in a season to this point in their respective careers, and while Arthur Smith should have little trouble with splitting carries to make things work, Ito’s injury history alone probably begs for another option here. You’re getting tired of me saying this, but look to the draft for this addition, too.
If they’re able to, I fully expect the Falcons to add depth at tackle and at wide receiver, about the only two positions that didn’t come up on this list. Neither of those are imperative, given that Gono is an extremely capable swing tackle and the receiver group is excellent at the top and interesting beyond that, but Atlanta has talked up adding competition and I expect them to try to do so everywhere.
The upshot is that there are genuine needs here, but the Falcons can probably get by by just addressing the interior of the line and quarterback, at least for the moment, because there’s enough talent here to be successful if Arthur Smith is worth his salt as a coach. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the defense, where the needs are a little more acute and varied.