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Expect to see more of the Falcons starters this preseason

In a wide-ranging interview, Arthur Smith talked about the summer ahead, lessons of last season, and more.

NFL: AUG 29 Preseason - Browns at Falcons Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arthur Smith is on something of a media tour, as we broke down a few comments from him in Monday Morning Quarterback earlier this week, and he spent about an hour with 92.9 The Game on Tuesday. Along the way, we’re learning a little bit more about the roster competitions to come, Smith’s expectations for how and where this team needs to improve heading into 2022, and even preseason snaps.

The interview with Mike Bell and Carl Dukes covered a lot of ground, with the hosts peppering Smith with questions about the rookie class, veterans expected to step up, and what he learned from last year’s big wins and stumbles. It’s worth your time to listen to the full 40 minutes or so, but I wanted to break out a few interesting remarks and notes after listening myself.

Starters will get more time in preseason

One thing that Smith and Terry Fontenot stressed when they arrived in Atlanta was that they’d be building a culture of accountability, and while I’m paraphrasing a bit here, that they wouldn’t get stuck doing things that didn’t work year after year. While the team won seven games last year, which was more than many fans expected, the team fell short in several matchups for reasons that were a combination of the talent on hand and a coaching staff making mistakes.

It’s too early to say what will change for the coaching staff and their approach in 2022, but Smith noted more than once that things have to change for this team to be successful, echoing the accountability and adaptability messages from his first press conference as head coach.

One item that sounds like it will change: Preseason snaps.

One criticism that I didn’t put a lot of stock in last summer was Smith largely choosing to park starters, including rookies like Kyle Pitts, during preseason. That limited action seemed to come out of a desire to prevent injuries for a thin roster, something Smith alluded to in this interview, and that seemed like a worthwhile goal given that the Falcons were a multi-week absence away from Josh Rosen under center or Jason Spriggs at left tackle, to name a couple of potential outcomes.

Now, though, Smith acknowledges that approach as something that was a factor early in the season, one that played a role in the sloppiness that marred efforts against the Eagles and Washington Football Team in particular.

“Yeah, my approach will certainly change this year,” Smith said of preseason snaps, adding a little later that “I’m going to go a little more old school, and we gotta get ready to play, we gotta get ready to go from the jump. Is that the reason we lost the first two games? No, but it certainly didn’t help. We gotta play smarter, we can’t have self-inflicted wounds.”

Smith said if he’s asking players to improve—obviously, he’s asking that—he also has to improve. Being a little less gunshy about getting starters reps in preseason and in-game decision-making sounds like it will be part of that.

Open offensive line competition

The funny thing about this offseason is that I’ve only seen the Falcons bring in one player I’m certain will be competing for a starting job along the offensive line, and that’s Germain Ifedi. I’d imagine he’ll be in the mix with Kaleb McGary at right tackle.

Otherwise, the offensive line appears to be a battleground for incumbents and future hopefuls, between Drew Dalman and Matt Hennessy at center and Jalen Mayfield, Colby Gossett, and Justin Shaffer at left guard. It seems like Atlanta’s putting a lot of faith in that competition yielding better results, even if the starters wind up the same from left to right.

Dukes asked what Smith saw from the line and how the team could get players who struggled in 2021 to improve. Smith mentioned that the team will look to “move the quarterback” and not get into too many obvious passing situations, and added that Mayfield would need to earn his job at left guard. I’ve predicted that Mayfield will have a pretty clear path to the starting job after the team let him take his lumps by fire in 2021, and while he won’t be handed the job, it’s clear the head coach has a lot of respect for him.

“He’s a tough-minded guy, he’s a physical player, and I’m excited to see his growth in year two,” Smith said.

Smith specifically mentioned Elijah Wilkinson and Ifedi as additions in the conversation at guard, however, which may mean both will get a crack at left guard despite not playing there much (if at all) in the NFL.

The Falcons may not be done adding to the line, something Smith alluded to briefly, but if the group stays the same he seems confident competition will bring out the best in the players they’ve assembled. The hope, obviously, is that McGary’s healthy and ready for a career year heading into a contract season, and that Mayfield and Hennessy can turn their 2021 struggles into impressive 2022 growth. If not, well, maybe we see Ifedi, Wilkinson, and Dalman out there instead.

“We like those guys, there’s gonna be competition, we gotta help them, we can’t sit there and get into obvious passing situations. That is the worst place to be as an offense,” he said.

All options on the table for quarterback

The Falcons would presumably love for Desmond Ridder to become their next franchise quarterback. If you’ve snagged an above average starter or better in the third round, it means you can use the first round pick you might’ve ticketed for a quarterback in 2023 to add another franchise-altering talent, and it would give Ridder time and experience in the offense that should help him hit the ground running next season.

As you’d expect, Smith isn’t going to anoint Ridder. He had praise for him and echoed his MMQB praise for Marcus Mariota, but also made it clear that the Falcons won’t be shy about making moves next offseason if they’re not locked in to either player. That doesn’t qualify as news, but it is another indicator that if the Falcons aren’t pretty sure Ridder is the guy heading into 2023, they won’t hesitate to add competition or an outright replacement.

“If we feel we that need to address the position in ‘23, we’re gonna do that,” he said.

Odds and ends

  • Troy Andersen is going to start his career at inside linebacker and will get plenty of run on special teams, Smith indicated. He also indicated that starting jobs in that position group will be up for grabs.
  • Smith made it clear the team is expecting “big things” from Richie Grant in 2022 after most of his work came on special teams and filling in at nickel in 2021. Grant will have to compete—you may notice a theme here—but it’d be a stunner if he doesn’t open the season as a starting safety for the Falcons. That’s certainly my expectation.
  • Responding to a question from Bell about Lorenzo Carter and Rashaan Evans potentially re-igniting their careers on one-year deals, Smith was pretty effusive about Carter’s ability. He also noted that “when the cap opens up” next offseason players who joined up on those one-year deals will have a chance to earn multi-year contracts in Atlanta, and it’s not hard to imagine the Falcons gladly handing a 27-year-old Carter that kind of deal if he’s a force to be reckoned with this year.

Don’t listen to this expecting Smith to give away who the team expects to start or a record prediction, but there’s plenty of interesting tidbits with rookie minicamp right around the corner. To hear the full interview, click here.