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A Falcons Christmas roundtable: It’s time to look towards the future

As the Falcons’ playoff hope fades away, the table is set to discuss if recent performances should affect the 2023 outlook in Atlanta.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The playoff implications discussion is largely over. The quarterback debates are still somewhat lingering, thanks to Marcus Mariota’s very passionate fanbase, but the vision in Atlanta is all set toward Desmond Ridder’s development. The Falcons are building for 2023 following recent hard-fought defeats. This is a team that still needs to evolve in several key areas before being a serious playoff team, not a fun story that is capitalizing on a historically bad division.

It’s an appropriate time to put together another roundtable to analyze what has recently happened and what the future holds for several key players. William McFadden, Everett Glaze, Aaron Freeman, and Matt Chambers join me for a stacked holiday roundtable. This is the fourth roundtable this season following lengthy pieces in September, October, and November.

What was the most concerning aspect of Desmond Ridder’s performance in his NFL debut?

William McFadden: His lack of feel on the deep ball. At its simplest core, I think Atlanta’s offense is designed to draw defenses into single-high safety looks with a well-executed run game and then hit big shots against a coverage the opponent has been forced into. It’s why Arthur Smith stated his desire to see more deep passes from his quarterbacks early in training camp, and it was likely a sizeable factor in the quarterback change.

Although Ridder is a better passer than Mariota, he was noticeably off the mark on his long throws. Ridder was 0-for-3 on passes of 20-plus yards, and he was just 3-of-8 on throws between 10 and 20 yards downfield. For the offense to truly become what it needs to be, I believe that’s the biggest thing he must improve.

Allen Strk: Not being able to stay composed in the pocket after his initial read was covered repeatedly caught my attention. Even when operating in a clean pocket, Ridder would move into the interior line. It happened on multiple third downs, resulting in drive-ending plays that caused Ridder to throw off target or take an unnecessary sack.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ridder was pressured eleven times to go along with four sacks. A few of those pressures were created by his inability to maneuver in the pocket. What is encouraging is that Ridder spoke about letting plays develop more and not getting antsy. With a better understanding of his shortcomings, there is hope improvement comes sooner rather than later.

Everett Glaze: Ridder’s performance wasn’t all that concerning overall when multiple factors are considered. It was his first game against a really solid Saints defense in hostile territory. Of course, there were some footwork, technique, and accuracy issues, but the hope there is that he will improve as he gets more experience. In the first half, you could see that he was really unsettled out there, but he started to show some poise in the second half. He got into a bit of a rhythm, and you can tell he started to get a bit more comfortable.

If there’s one thing I really hope Ridder improves, it’s his mental processing. The speed of the game is different now, and it’ll be important for him to get through his reads faster and get better at anticipatory throws. While his arm strength is certainly good enough to play at this level, it’s not so good that he can afford to be late in delivering the ball, as that will lead to turnovers, as we all witnessed in the near picks he had thrown.

Aaron Freeman: There are multiple things you could point to that are concerning with Ridder’s debut, but probably for me, it’s the questionable decisions about locking on Drake London. There were a couple of times where Ridder seemingly was forcing the ball to London, which nearly resulted in a couple of turnovers. However, it’s somewhat understandable.

Given the absence of Kyle Pitts, London remains Atlanta’s most reliable receiving option. But it’s concerning because if upcoming defenses are successful in containing London, Ridder’s limited rapport with his other receivers may lead to the Falcons’ passing game completely stagnating.

Matt Chambers: I don’t want to get sucked into criticizing Ridder’s first NFL game. He went on the road against a good defense and seemed only to get snaps with the starters beginning at the bye. It certainly wasn’t what you would hope for, especially in light of Ridder predicted as a fantastic scheme fit, the most pro-ready quarterback of the draft, and Arthur Smith’s scheme believed to be quarterback friendly.

The most concerning aspect should be Atlanta’s limited window to evaluate Ridder. Is it possible he gets a fair shake ahead of the off-season? Terry Fontenot should be heading into the offseason with gobs of cap space and a top-10 pick, knowing he needs to get more wins in 2023, or he may not make it to 2024. Would Fontenot risk his job on Ridder after four rookie games? Fontenot needs to determine if Ridder is the future while he starts in an offense that has yet to find an effective passing game, even with Kyle Pitts.

This is a bad situation for the team to be in. My expectation is we see some very uneven performances to finish out the year, and Fontenot is stuck at least kicking the tires on potential starters.

Following Caleb Huntley’s season-ending injury and Cordarrelle Patterson likely having his carries monitored, should Tyler Allgeier be given an expanded role to see what he is capable of after his stunning game against New Orleans?

William McFadden: I’m not so sure we should consider his performance on Sunday all that stunning. I think there have been signs pointing to a game like this for Allgeier all season long. The rookie has started six games this season, including the most recent two, and his first stint as a starter helped him maintain a healthy workload even when Patterson returned to the mix.

Allgeier has now averaged more than 8 yards per carry on double-digit attempts in three games this season, highlighting his ability to stay productive with greater volume. I believe we already know what he’s capable of, and it’s being the Falcons’ starting running back - even with a healthy Patterson.

Allen Strk: There shouldn’t be hesitancy to give him more of the workload in the final three games. Allgeier has made significant strides in becoming a dependable well-rounded back. His pass-blocking has improved. His vision and patience make him more dangerous as a pure powerhouse runner. The growth is certainly real from the new fan favorite.

As dangerous of a playmaker Patterson is, the urge to play Allgeier more should be spreading within the organization. How he continuously ran through defenders and gained yards after contact against New Orleans was outstanding. It became evident that the Saints’ front was completely worn down from trying to bring him down and combat with the variety of personnel groupings. The coaching staff needs to continue making him a focal point within the offense.

Everett Glaze: I’d absolutely be on board with giving Allgeier an expanded role within this offense, and this is the ideal time to do so. Considering the game he had against the Saints, he’s earned that opportunity. This guy runs violently and always finishes his runs with authority.

He also has deceptive speed. For the coaching staff, he already has Ridder taking snaps and London looking like a legit X. Now, it would be a good move to see how much Allgeier can take on when he is featured in different ways on the offense.

Aaron Freeman: Yes. This is a no-brainer.

Matt Chambers: Yes, the Falcons should be in full evaluation mode for 2023. Allgeier should have the opportunity to prove he’s worthy to carry the load and push off any talk of Bijan Robinson or other top prospects. Different from the quarterback position, you absolutely can evaluate a back in the last few games of the season.

Allgeier can cement himself into the starting bell-cow role with a solid finish to 2022. What an unusual position for these Falcons to be set at a position before the offseason even starts.

Have Lorenzo Carter and Abdullah Anderson earned their places as contributors to the long-term vision for the defensive line?

William McFadden: Yes, as long as they are on the periphery of that vision. I think Carter is best utilized as a situational pass rusher who can plug in as a starter for stretches and hold his own at a solid level. But that’s what you’re looking for in a third-edge player, not your ostensible top-edge rusher. He makes plays and does the little things well, so I’m all for keeping Carter around for a couple more seasons.

Anderson has been a very pleasant surprise this season, and Sunday was one of his best games all year. That said, the team needs to find a viable longtime starter to plug into the middle of the interior, and there’s significant room for improvement over Anderson. On a good team, Anderson might be the last man on the defensive line rotation, but he’s a solid depth piece to keep around.

Allen Strk: Both players have emerged over the past month with their solid play. While neither of them should be playing as much as they currently are given the personnel circumstances, they have been the most productive defensive linemen on the roster, not named Grady Jarrett.

Carter is proving to be a steady edge defender against the run while showing flashes as a pass rusher. The same can be said for Anderson, who plays with good leverage and impressive hand usage. They both have limitations, but the performances indicate they possess the ability to be capable players for 20-25 snaps a game. An impressive end to the season could be needed, considering the likely big spending that will be taking place in Atlanta this upcoming March. As well as they have played in spurts, they aren’t irreplaceable.

Everett Glaze: I wouldn’t be opposed to having both Carter and Anderson back on the squad going forward as rotational players. They certainly have value there, so at the right price, I can see them both staying. Carter has certainly shown his strength and athleticism, but he isn’t a primary edge rusher.

That being said, I’m always up for upgrades, and considering that Fontenot will actually have quite a bit of space going into free agency, he may end up looking elsewhere.

Aaron Freeman: If by contributors, we mean being a lesser part of the Falcons rotation, then the answer is yes. But the problem is Carter has played more snaps than any other player in the team’s defensive front this year. Also, since Ta’Quon Graham’s injury, Abdullah Anderson has been playing nearly as much as Grady Jarrett. Carter was fifth in the New York Giants’ rotation in 2021, and ideally, Anderson would be a back-end rotational player getting less than half as many snaps.

So while I’d welcome both players returning, the Falcons should not be relying on them to play as much as they have this season. That is owed to the overall lack of talent up front. It’s an offseason imperative to resolve that issue, and whether Carter and Anderson are part of that solution is somewhat inconsequential to me.

Matt Chambers: Sure, we have seen some good play from both defenders, with Anderson playing starter-level snaps in four of the last five games in place of Ta’Quon Graham. My bigger concern is avoiding the past problem of the coaches and front office determining either guy is a starter versus competent depth. I think there are too many examples of a Tyeler Davison or Levine Toilolo situation: a decent year turns into paying a depth piece like a reasonable starter.

Are Carter or Anderson starters? I don’t think they start on a good defense. They’ve done enough to stick around in an appropriate role. I don’t want the team to pay them and play them as below-average starters.

Do the recent poor performances from Troy Andersen and Richie Grant make you concerned about their long-term outlook as starters?

William McFadden: Not at all. I think it’s far too early to tell for Andersen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a positive little step forward in his second year. The athleticism is apparent. I think he just needs to become more comfortable and confident at the NFL level. Grant’s recent downward trend is a bit more troubling because he has made such a lead in his second season.

His decision to try to undercut the deep touchdown pass to Rashid Shaheed is among the most baffling of the season, and he’s no longer making the impact plays we saw to start the year. I’d be curious to know if the team has put more on his plate as the year has progressed or if anything has changed in recent weeks, but I still think he’s got a bright future.

Allen Strk: Young players are going to make mental errors and be on the receiving end of big plays. While the struggles shouldn’t affect their long-term outlook as starters yet, it’s disappointing that both players aren’t showing progression after strong starts to their respective seasons. Andersen is a step behind on several plays and doesn’t seem to be processing what’s happening around him well. Grant has reverted to his poor positioning ways, where he either misses open-field tackles or blows his coverage responsibilities.

It’s too early to hit the panic button. Both players are capable of bouncing back and proving why the organization trusted them to be long-term starters for the future. For Anderson, it’s a matter of gaining more experience and reading the game better to utilize his tremendous traits. As for Grant, he needs to be more disciplined in the back end. His versatility and range are essential for how Dean Pees wants to run the defense.

Everett Glaze: When it comes to Andersen, he’s completely raw, so everything we’ve seen up to this point is to be expected. Some forget that Andersen wasn’t a full-time off-ball linebacker until his last year at Montana State, so his struggles aren’t surprising to me. He’s an elite athlete, but it was clear that he was going to struggle in his rookie year. Right now, he seems to have supplanted Mykal Walker as the starter, so experience is his best friend and crucial to his development.

Grant’s play has been concerning. However, the play of Jaylinn Hawkins hasn’t helped him either. While Grant does have some ability to play the deep safety, it’s not his strength. To maximize his talent, I’d like to see Grant closer to the line of scrimmage, along with playing the robber role. If the Falcons can get them a legit playmaker that can play that deep safety well and excel in split safety looks, I’m pretty confident his play will improve.

Aaron Freeman: Not really. Andersen was always more of a long-term project and he’s contributed more in 2022 than I initially expected. So overall, I’ve been more encouraged than discouraged with his play based on those lower expectations. But his recent play only reaffirms that it may take some time before we see him playing consistently good football.

As for Grant, I have no major concerns. I think he’s been much better when asked to play closer to the line of scrimmage, and being out of position on the deep ball to Rashid Shaheed last Sunday only underscores that opinion. I think the safety position needs to be revamped this off-season. Firstly, finding a better option than either Grant or Jaylinn Hawkins to play that centerfielder role when they deploy their single-high looks is needed.

Also, Grant has done an admirable job covering tight ends this year, but the size disparity he’s giving up shows from time to time. So someone that can be more of a dedicated “tight-end eraser” would also help. Grant’s biggest strength is his versatility, so adding those two players alongside him would give the team a lot of flexibility to match up against different kinds of offenses each Sunday.

Matt Chambers: Both players sure are enthusiastic about showing you the good and the bad.

For Andersen, it is far too early to have thoughts about his outlook. He looked like quite the project coming out of Montana State but had such intriguing athletic upside. I originally assumed he’d be stuck on special teams as a rookie. For better or worse, he’s played a significant amount of defensive snaps. He has had a few wow plays but many more oh-no plays. It should be the expectation for his rookie year. I would start to have concerns if we are seeing the same problems late in 2023.

For Grant, that concern is starting to build. Grant was considered by many as a reach in the second round of the draft, he couldn’t unseat Erik Harris as a rookie, and should be looking more sound this late into his second year. Safety typically has a bit longer developmental timeline than linebacker (Andersen’s position) but Grant lacks the size and speed upside that makes Andersen’s developmental timeline more palatable. The Falcons need a contingency plan for the safety position in 2023.