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Arthur Smith talks 2022 expectations for the Falcons

After a tumultuous but mostly encouraging offseason, the head coach weighs in on why the Falcons will remain competitive.

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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The dust has mostly settled on the 2022 offseason, though Terry Fontenot and the Falcons front office will kick up a little more with free agent signings and possibly a Deion Jones trade over the next couple of months. That means we have a rough idea of the camp battles ahead, the big question marks around the roster, and can at least take some wild guesses about the team’s fortunes this year.

That ceiling is likely somewhere below winning the NFC South, and the floor would be the basement of the entire NFL. There’s a perception outside of this fanbase—and certainly within this fanbase, as well—that even after a quality draft, this is one of the least talented rosters in the NFL. The perception is that the Falcons will, with cap space and another good offseason in 2023, probably be able to make their big splash next calendar year.

Arthur Smith, understandably, is not going to look that far ahead or stick a fork in his team before they even get rolling with minicamp. In a long section of Albert Breer’s Monday Morning Quarterback devoted to the Falcons, Breer writes admiringly of Atlanta’s slow-rolling rebuild in a fast-moving league, but he also tests Smith’s patience for talk of rebuilds and the much stronger term tanking that Breer trots out. While the past two offseasons have featured light spending and trading away franchise legends, Smith’s not going to manage expectations any more than he did a year ago.

“You’re always trying to win,” Smith says, with a little edge in his voice. “I don’t know what coach goes in there and doesn’t try to win. That’s just insane to me. Now, I know everyone’s at different phases. There’s been a lot of teams crowned in the offseason. But this team’s excited to go out there and compete; that’s what we get paid to do. It’s simple as that.”

If you’re looking for big, sweeping insights about 2022 , you’ll have to look elsewhere. If you’re looking for general thoughts about the offseason and a few interesting tidbits on members of the 2021 draft class and Marcus Mariota, though, you’ll want to give this a read. I broke out a couple of those items below.

Mariota’s chance

Marcus Mariota is easy to root for. The Falcons needed a stabilizing presence at quarterback after failing to trade for Deshaun Watson and moving Matt Ryan. Especially in a limited free agent market, landing a familiar face for Smith was key, and Mariota’s drawn praise for who he is as a human being and the strides he’s made as a quarterback.

While Mariota was parked on the bench in favor of Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee, Smith made it clear he’s a fan of the quarterback and thinks he’s going to be an asset for the team in 2022. All indications are that Mariota’s going to get first crack at the starting job, even if I fully expect Desmond Ridder to supplant him at some point in 2022.

“If we ever had to go back to Marcus that year, and [Mike] Vrabel said it to me at one point, I think he would’ve played well,” Smith says. “There were some tough lessons learned, he’d had some really good moments at certain points of his career, we certainly hadn’t been stable around him, if you go back. And I’d been with him the whole time, a lot of coaches in and out, there were a lot of assistants changing, ’16, ’17, ’18, when he was the full-time starter.

“And he led us to a playoff win in ’17 in Kansas City. I think the effect of everything, where he was at, he’s in a completely different place now. Just the way he sees that position, the way he sees that job, I think we’re going to get the best version of him. Even getting to sit behind Derek Carr, he sees things a lot different than he did at that point of his life in 2019.”

We haven’t seen much of Mariota on the field since 2019, making it difficult to know what the Falcons are going to get from him with their evolving supporting cast. I don’t think we should expect him to simply stand aside and let Ridder win the job, though, or that Smith is pushing hard for that outcome.

2021 draft class difference makers

Maybe the most interesting tidbit from the whole article for me concerns Drew Dalman and Adetokunbo Ogundeji, who would seem to be entering very different situations in 2022.
Per Breer’s article: “Others are from last year’s draft class, with tight end Kyle Pitts the headliner, and guys like interior offensive lineman Drew Dalman and outside linebacker Ade Ogundeji expected to compete for big roles come summer.”

The names you’d expect to call out here would be Richie Grant and Jalen Mayfield, who have straightforward paths to starting job and a lot to prove in 2022, so these are interesting names. For Dalman, that certainly makes sense. He was a fourth rounder last year who saw the field in relief of Matt Hennessy on a handful of occasions, and while he didn’t seem to push Hennesssy all that hard last summer, the team clearly likes him. Given that the Falcons didn’t add any competition at center, it’s fair to say Dalman is going to get a real shot at the job.

Ogundeji’s path to a huge role is less straightforward. The team added Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone in the draft, and they signed Lorenzo Carter to add veteran pass rushing punch to the group. The team talked up their 2021 rookie relentlessly last season, however, and there’s certainly room for four or more players to get heavy snaps in a rotation this season. Ogundeji’s solid work against the run as a rookie and the team’s belief in his upside likely will mean he’ll still get plenty of work, but whether he can blossom into a great defender for Atlanta obviously remains to be seen.

Regardless, we’ll want to watch both players this summer.

Keeping veteran leaders

The Falcons don’t have many building blocks at the moment, though that’s something we’re all hoping is changing with the last two draft classes and the emergence of players like Chris Lindstrom and A.J. Terrell. The lack of locker room leadership on the team has been questioned repeatedly by scribes like Jeff Schultz at The Athletic, and the Falcons of course both have lost and are going to lose some outspoken leaders and well-regarded players as they retool the roster.

Not Jake Matthews and Grady Jarrett, though. Breer’s column indicates that the pair are going to be counted on not just to be two of the team’s better players, but absolutely crucial presences on a team bringing along younger players expected to be long-term anchors for the team.

“The leadership started to emerge that we’re excited about, with Jake, [Chris] Lindstrom on the offensive side, and defensively, [A.J.] Terrell coming into his own, and Grady being as consistent as they come,” Smith says. “Really those guys … they’re guys you believe in. They’re all different stages. But especially with the guys up front, with what we’re looking to establish on both sides, that’s there.”

Give the full article a read if you’re interested in hearing more from Smith, but suffice to say it’s going to be an intriguing summer, regardless of how good the Falcons can and will be in 2022.