Expectations naturally grow for a young regime. It’s part of the process after replacing a tandem that was at the forefront of the organization for numerous years. That’s where Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot stand going into their second off-season.
Cleaning up the mess Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff made late in their respective tenures is still among the biggest challenges they face. They already started the process by releasing Dante Fowler following two disappointing seasons.
Despite taking encouraging steps forward in 2021, the Falcons face an enormous task in trying to build a playoff-caliber roster. It was admirable how the team managed to stay in playoff contention until early January. For all the progress last season, the roster is still deeply flawed and in desperate need of talent in several areas.
The draft will be the focus of their rebuilding efforts. That’s how it is for most organizations, including the Super Bowl champions who built their winning foundation in 2017-2018 by making several excellent personnel decisions in the draft before making extraordinary trades to reach their destiny. The Falcons will need to make their mark in the draft in April.
In March, the organization must put itself in a better position to succeed with savvy signings and shrewd personnel decisions to address glaring needs.
Another year, another offseason where the defensive line is arguably the biggest priority
While the financial restrictions clearly limited their ability to acquire high-level talent, the Falcons’ decision to simply wing it upfront and depend on Dean Pees’ scheme was a colossal mistake. They were the bottom in the league in about every pass-rushing statistic, the biggest one being sacks. From giving an aging veteran like Steven Means a whopping 692 snaps to depending on an overmatched fifth-round rookie in Ade Ogundeji, opposing quarterbacks were regularly at ease in the pocket. Not even Grady Jarrett could salvage the effort, as they couldn’t generate pressure nor stop the run against good teams.
Reinforcements are desperately needed. As The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia emphasized in his offseason guide feature, free agency is the place to fill needs. The Falcons clearly agreed with that sentiment by signing Erik Harris and Duron Harmon to one-year deals as a short-term solution to fill both safety spots. They will need to do the same on the defensive line.
Releasing Tyeler Davison would be beneficial, as his cap hit is nearly at $5 million. Upgrading on veterans who are clearly past their best and bringing in viable players to bring much-needed ferocity to the defensive line will be one of the biggest factors in how much the Falcons can progress in 2022.
Finding clarity and being decisive with Calvin Ridley
The Falcons’ organization couldn’t have done a better job in publicly handling Ridley stepping away from football. Allowing him the space to find peace and address his internal issues while maintaining full privacy was important for the sake of his health. It’s a difficult situation that must be handled with diligence. The hope is that Ridley feels rejuvenated and gets back to doing what he loves in Atlanta.
The growing talk appears to be pointing toward a fresh start. Regardless of his decision, the organization must continue to handle the situation professionally and prepare to acquire wide receivers.
With Russell Gage potentially receiving a more attractive contract offer elsewhere, the Falcons are almost as depleted at wide receiver as they are across the defensive line. Trading away Ridley will leave Matt Ryan without much to work with, which was the case for most of the 2021 season. The front office can’t afford to have their starting running back (Cordarrelle Patterson) and tight end (Kyle Pitts) be their only credible pass-catchers during stretches of the season again.
The time will eventually come for Ridley to make the best decision for him. The front office can be fully prepared by doing what they can to re-sign Ryan’s security blanket in Gage and identifying the maximum value with realistic trade partners for one of the top young wide receivers in the league. If Ridley requests a trade, Fontenot and Smith should be ready to field trade offers and capitalize on the most attractive one like they did last year with Julio Jones.
Building a more productive running game
It’s no secret Arthur Smith is a huge proponent of running the ball. He spoke about it nearly every week at press conferences. The message didn’t translate into consistent production on the field. For all of Patterson’s brilliance, the team struggled to average more than four yards per carry in most games. Mike Davis did his best, but the limitations in his running style became more evident as the season went on. The offensive line failed to get movement and push defensive fronts around, particularly during critical moments in short-yardage situations. Patterson, Chris Lindstrom, and Jake Matthews were the only bright spots in an otherwise anemic running game.
As my colleague David Walker pointed out in his running back review piece, Davis is the only running back under contract on the roster. His contract and underwhelming season make him expendable. With re-signing Patterson being one of the front office’s biggest priorities, it would seem likely the team would want a different complementary running back alongside him. What team Patterson signs for will dictate how the Falcons move forward to become more efficient on the ground.
They will also need to do what they can to bring in competition at left guard and right tackle. With Drew Dalman and Matt Hennessey battling it out to see who solidifies themselves at the center position, it’s on the organization to challenge Jalen Mayfield and Kaleb McGary. They simply lost far too many one-on-one battles and ruined drives because of it.
A revamped plan at linebacker
Bolstering the offensive line is absolutely a greater need than linebacker. What changes are made across the offensive line will likely be addressed in the draft. The linebacker position has to be one of the biggest questions going into free agency. Other than Patterson and Gage, there isn’t a free agent more valuable than Oluokun on the roster. Deion Jones’ significant decline has raised major questions about his future. With Mykal Walker showing glimpses of promise over the past two seasons, there should be a greater initiative to see what he can potentially do as a starter.
Whatever the plan is going forward, it shouldn’t consist of playing Oluokun and Jones together. Oluokun is going to command a sizable offer on the open market. Jones’ base salary is at $9.6 million in 2022. Why have two high-priced linebackers play alongside each other after how disastrously it went in 2021?
Whether it’s deciding to reward Oluokun and trading Jones or letting Oluokun walk and try to reclaim Jones’ career, the Falcons can’t go into next season with two expensive linebackers for the sake of their rebuilding defense and financial structure. They have to decide which player is more valuable to them, between Oluokun and Jones.
Adding a linebacker to compete with Walker for the weak side linebacker role would be a wise decision as well. They can’t be stagnant in trying to build a formidable defense, and this is an oft-overlooked piece of the puzzle.