Despite only being 15 months into the Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot era, the list of disappointing and embarrassing moments have started to accumulate for the Falcons, even if not all of those moments were easy to see on the horizon.
Although getting a second-round pick for Julio Jones proved to be a solid return, the handling of trading one of the greatest players in franchise history for a second-round pick still doesn’t feel quite right. Still, the team largely moved quietly through a cap-strapped first offseason. In total, 2021 was a bumpy ride, but there seemed to be some progress. The 2022 offseason has been more of a nightmare.
Losing one of their few star players in Calvin Ridley for an entire season due to betting on games while being away from the team is absurd. The organization maintained professionalism in not trading him elsewhere during the process before the news was publicized and appeared to treat their receiver fairly throughout, but their integrity went out the window when the pursuit of Deshaun Watson went full speed ahead. After it appeared they nearly had a deal done, they managed to come up short in the end to Cleveland.
In the process of trying to acquire a quarterback facing 22 civil cases involving sexual assault and harassment, they essentially turned off the greatest player in franchise history and had to trade him for a measly third-round pick. Falling short in acquiring Watson and putting Matt Ryan in a precarious position put the Falcons back where they were in 2007, which is a nationally disrespected team with a roster in dire need of talent and strong leadership. The failures and unbelievable twists of the Ridley saga have overshadowed the rest of this Falcons offseason.
From an on-field performance standpoint, the biggest failure lies in what took place across 17 games last season. The Falcons didn’t have enough young players emerge as potential difference-makers last year after using nine selections in the 2021 NFL Draft and adding several undrafted free agents. On a roster filled with question marks going into the season, the opportunity was there for players to showcase their capabilities, but they largely did not make a huge impact.
The players who did emerge were either drafted by the previous regime, an extraordinary rookie tight end, or a 30-year-old multi-dimensional playmaker. That’s nowhere near good enough for a new regime that so many had high hopes for. The pressure is on for them deliver big change and big upgrades in this upcoming draft.
It all starts with the draft
When faced with a difficult scenario with limited financial resources, the draft is the best place to build your roster into a credible team. Identifying players who can ascend into stars and fit your philosophy is integral for roster-building purposes. That was needed from the start in 2021.
While draft classes can’t be truly assessed until three years of seeing how the players perform, the 2021 Falcons’ draft class is off to a very discouraging start. Kyle Pitts’ greatness can only do so much to salvage the disappointing performances of players such as Richie Grant and Jalen Mayfield, who were both second day selections.
To not have a highly-touted safety emerge in a group of aging veterans and unproven players has to be frustrating for the coaching staff. Grant’s poor positioning and inconsistent open-field tackling left a lot to be desired in his limited rookie campaign action. As he struggled in limited reps in the summer, Mayfield floundered in a starting role and failed to progress as the season went on. His slow hands and inability to anchor quickly made him a major liability for a weak offensive line.
Drew Dalman, Darren Hall, Ta’Quon Graham, and Ade Ogundeji showed glimpses of real potential. That said, none of them can be considered viable starters going into 2022. That’s particularly disappointing for Graham and Ogundeji, who played a combined 837 snaps.
At least two players outside of Pitts will have to make significant strides this season. It’s not ideal for Smith and Fontenot that both lines looked completely overmatched last season after investing four draft picks to bolster two major problematic areas of the roster going into last season.
The current shakiness in the trenches is among the biggest concerns going into the draft. It’s something Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff faced for several seasons and were never able to fully resolve. If Smith and Fontenot can’t turn this traditional flaw into something formidable, they won’t last long in Atlanta.
Understanding success and where it has to come from
In spite of everyone I just wrote, let’s not pretend the Falcons didn’t have players emerge last season. The problem was the players who elevated their game were primarily first-round picks that weren’t drafted by Smith and Fontenot. Chris Lindstrom and A.J. Terrell were two of the three final first-round draft picks under Quinn and Dimitroff. Both players should be considered franchise cornerstones. They are among the best players in the NFL at their respective positions, particularly Terrell after proving to be a legitimate shutdown corner.
What makes their rise even more fascinating is that neither player was considered a certified first-round pick. The previous regime took considerable criticism for selecting both players. They took their fair share of losses and left the team in complete shambles, but Quinn and Dimitroff had a strong success rate at drafting very good players in the first round. They went against draft labels and stuck with their draft philosophy in selecting prospects that fit their desires.
It will be fascinating to see what tendencies start emerging from the draft classes of Smith and Fontenot. All organizations have their preferences and methods for pinpointing the best prospects. What players could turn into gems in the fourth and fifth round ultimately turn bottom-feeders to playoff hopefuls and playoff hopefuls to potential Super Bowl champions and potential Super Bowl champions into perennial contenders.
Whether it’s looking at smaller school prospects or seeking out players from college powerhouses, it’s a matter of finding that balance between valuing impressive tape and seeing how eye-opening measurables can translate into sustainable production.
With five picks in the first three rounds, the Falcons have the draft capital to make serious changes. The focus will be centered on how they replace Ryan and add wide receivers, but there must be a major emphasis on improving across the board within the trenches. The possibility of adding a running back or linebacker could be considered as well.
It’s never wise to base a pick around a position of need. Recognizing the best players available and how they can make your team better in a specific role is the most effective way to determine who to select, especially when your team has several positional needs. The Falcons have vowed to do that, and we’ll hope they do.
Finding the light in a dark situation
It’s no secret the Falcons’ outlook looks bleak at the moment. A difficult situation going into the 2021 draft has deteriorated into an even more painful rebuild going into the 2022 draft. Passing on selecting a quarterback in a highly-touted quarterback class in 2021 was always going to linger over the organization. Will they ultimately regret taking Pitts over Justin Fields, or even Mac Jones?
Besides the sometimes impressive play of both quarterbacks last season, the extremely underwhelming upcoming quarterback class this season will create further discussions about the previous question. It’s on Smith and Fontenot to spot and develop whoever they select to be the hopeful heir apparent to Ryan in the first three rounds, or to come up with a way to ensure they get their guy in 2023.
The biggest failure of the Falcons’ 2021 season was not having enough young players develop into dependable starters. That needs to be their biggest goal in 2022. It’s the most realistic goal, as this team isn’t going to win many games without some truly impressive gains. The possibility of somehow winning seven games again, capitalizing on dreadful quarterback play and incredible individual performances isn’t likely.
Winning four or five games but seeing five to seven players prove to be legitimate potential above-average players or stars at different positions would be far more significant for the team’s future than what transpired in 2021. That process starts with Smith and Fontenot moving past a tough offseason and the mistakes of last season and starting to build a long-term plan to put the Falcons back on the map.