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Falcons offseason roundtable: Offensive edition

The quiet period of the off-season is in full force. It’s time to start looking ahead to training camp with a full discussion about the Falcons’ revamped offense.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

With summertime finally here, the time is right for another roundtable. For the next two discussions, we will be dedicating our time to a particular side of the ball for the Falcons. This one will be solely focused on the offense. With plenty of notable changes to the group Arthur Smith specializes in, there is plenty to discuss heading into a season filled with mystery.

The Falcons may be worse on paper than they did going into last season, but they are certainly more interesting than they were going into last season. Dave Choate will be returning to the roundtable for the second straight edition, here for the previous one. On this occasion, we have the great Kevin Knight joining us.

Does the Falcons’ matchup against the Saints in Week 1 play a role in naming Marcus Mariota or Desmond Ridder as the opening day starter?

Kevin Knight: I doubt that factors into the decision. Marcus Mariota will be the heavy favorite for a multitude of reasons, regardless of the Week 1 opponent. Mariota’s experience in the scheme gives him an early advantage, and he’s also got multiple seasons of starting NFL reps under his belt. While I don’t think we’re expecting amazing things from Mariota, he should be a competent steward of the offense who can keep things on schedule and watchable.

Desmond Ridder does have a chance because he’s clearly very talented, confident, and hungry. He also played in a pro-style college offense and is known for his work ethic so I wouldn’t rule him out. It’s probably Mariota with an 80% chance to be the Week 1 starter and Ridder with a 20% chance.

David Choate: I don’t think it does. If we take Arthur Smith at his word and assume this is a true competition, if Ridder simply looks better than Mariota this summer, then he should win the job. Obviously, kicking things off against the team’s most hated rival is a tricky matchup no matter who is under center, but the Saints are far from the most difficult matchup this team will face in the early going. If Ridder’s ready, I don’t think there’s a better time in the first seven weeks of the season to throw him into the fire.

Allen Strk: It won’t play a role in the coaching staff’s eyes, but the matchup should make them concerned about throwing Ridder into the wolves right away. The Saints have one of the better front fours in the league. New head coach Dennis Allen calls blitzes more than most defensive coaches in the league. There are also unique designs, where he’ll use Demario Davis on twists and delays to exploit mismatches and open space.

It has been a troubling matchup for the Falcons over the past three seasons. The idea of starting a rookie against them could be very damaging. The offensive line is a major concern, with several players needing to step up. It’s hard to be confident in a unit that looked consistently overmatched last season. Barring anything drastic this summer, Mariota should start against New Orleans.

How can Arthur Smith do what he can to make sure Cordarrelle Patterson doesn’t decline in 2022?

Kevin Knight: It starts with utilizing him more in high-leverage situations and less as an early-down hammer. Patterson had to play that role out of necessity in 2021, but the addition of rookie Tyler Allgeier and veteran Damien Williams should hopefully be able to take some of that “grunt work” off his plate. Let Patterson assume the third-down role and play in key down and distance situations, along with in the red zone.

If he’s fresh, Patterson is an absolute nightmare as a matchup beater. Worn down with 20+ touches, I don’t think he’ll be nearly as effective. Of course, this only works if Allgeier and Williams (and the offensive line) can do enough to keep Patterson off the field.

David Choate: I think the key is to use Patterson creatively, and ideally not as a full-time option in any one role. We saw Patterson’s effectiveness wane late in the year, and part of me thinks a major uptick in touches from Week 12 to Week 15 was a significant factor in his decline. Ideally, Patterson is not the weapon this offense is reliant on but is one team's need to be afraid of in a variety of roles.

Smith needs to embrace Patterson’s versatility even more than he did a year ago when he helped turn him into a lethal weapon out of the backfield but didn’t often employ him as a downfield threat. This is a thin receiving corps, but getting Patterson into space and working favorable matchups against defenses keying on Kyle Pitts and Drake London is going to take advantage of his speed and physicality. So will employing him as a running back, where he fits in a tough-minded, hard-charging group of runners and provides excellent receiving chops out of the backfield. The Falcons just need to continue to take advantage of a varied skill set without overusing him and Patterson should once again be a lethal threat.

Allen Strk: As electrifying as Patterson is, Smith will need to monitor his carries. To give him 15 carries a game could ultimately lead to him declining again by the end of the season. There are moments where you have to ride the hot hand and keep giving your best players the ball. That can’t be the approach every week with a 31-year-old player who doesn’t have experience handling a massive workload. The Falcons have two intriguing young, powerful running backs in Qadree Ollison and Tyler Allgeier.

Unlike in previous seasons, the Falcons have a true change-of-pace, pass-catching back in Damien Williams. It’s been quite some time since they had an array of options coming out of the backfield. These options should allow Patterson to be utilized as an all-around playmaker rather than a pure workhorse back. Smith knows how to create mismatches with Patterson on the outside as a receiver. By figuring out the balance between using him out of the backfield and on the outside, there shouldn’t be any substantial decline from the people’s champion.

Are you greatly excited about the offense being centered around big pass-catching weapons, or are you concerned about the lack of proven receivers that can create separation?

Kevin Knight: I like the emphasis on size and physicality in the receiving corps, as I think it’s the first step in a wholesale shift to a more physical team in general. Obviously, this is a multi-year project on both sides of the ball. But we already see the shape of things to come on offense in Kyle Pitts, Drake London, and Bryan Edwards. While London and Edwards aren’t tremendous separators, they create enough space to make plays.

Meanwhile, Pitts most certainly is a big-time separator. Atlanta also has a deep threat in Damiere Byrd to roll out if needed and a quality depth piece in Auden Tate. This isn’t a star-studded receiving corps, but it is actually a deep one now. And I can tell you this will be the best run-blocking group we’ve seen in ages.

David Choate: I’m legitimately intrigued. No one should be heading into 2022 expecting a great Falcons offense, but there’s the seed of one here if things break right, and at the very least, this group is better suited to what Arthur Smith wants to do. He’ll have multiple bowling balls to roll out on the ground and some receivers who can reel in passes that touch the clouds, plus quarterback options who are comfortable being on the move. If he’s worth his salt as an offensive mastermind, Smith will get more out of this group than the one he had last year.

Even more intriguing than the size in this receiving group, though, is the after the catch ability. This offense may not be loaded with players who are going to consistently beat defenders deep—though Pitts and Patterson, in particular, can certainly do that—but from Damien Williams to Pitts to Patterson to London and even Anthony Firkser if he regains his 2019 form, this team has plenty of players who are quick enough and strong enough to turn modest gains into significant ones. That’s what I’m most excited to see, assuming all goes well.

Allen Strk: To have wide receivers that can consistently create separation is one of the best assets an offense can have. It creates high-percentage looks for quarterbacks and increases the chances of converting on third down. While having playmakers who can make contested catches and bully defenders is necessary and exciting, it’s not the most sustainable way for an offense to be productive.

Damiere Byrd is the one wide receiver who showed glimpses that he could create separation. Besides that, it’s a unit filled with mammoth athletes who use their size and athleticism to make plays. Kyle Pitts and Drake London will produce plenty of explosive plays without needing to create yards of separation. It’s the rest of the supporting cast that raises concern, particularly in an offense with major questions at the quarterback position. Relying on Auden Tate and Bryan Edwards could hinder the offense’s progression.

What can the offensive line do to take legitimate steps towards being a respectable unit?

Kevin Knight: Adding a veteran left guard would be big if this team is serious about trying to win games in 2022. They may still do it. If not, they’re committing fully to developing and evaluating the young interior players in Jalen Mayfield, Drew Dalman, and Matt Hennessy. I think Hennessy will be fine. The question is: can Mayfield or Dalman become a starting-caliber NFL guard?

At right tackle, there should be a legitimate competition between Kaleb McGary, Germain Ifedi, and Elijah Wilkinson. I actually think the tackle group is deep and expect the right tackle will be solid in 2022. Ifedi isn’t a world-beater, but he’s consistently been an average starter there. If McGary falters, Ifedi can take over. Wilkinson is also a solid swing tackle option.

David Choate: I think it’s about improvement, ultimately. The Falcons are counting on Jalen Mayfield at left guard as things stand today. They are counting on one of Matt Hennessy or Drew Dalman at center, and they’re hoping Kaleb McGary or Germain Ifedi can step up and be at least an average option there. It’s simple to say, unlikely to all work, and not particularly satisfying to consider, but Atlanta’s put themselves in a position where multiple players are simply going to need to get better or be replaced by other plays they’re hoping to see more from. The Dalman of last year isn’t going to beat out Hennessy and the Ifedi of last year is a shaky bet to be a big upgrade on McGary, and nobody’s feeling particularly confident right now that Mayfield is going to make the leap.

It’s the bet they’re making, though, that multiple players on this list are just a quality offseason or significant competition away from being better than they’ve shown. With plenty of resources to invest in the line next year, the Falcons can rough it out this year if they have to, but they need a legitimate look at Desmond Ridder, yet his ability to evade pressure alone isn’t going to save this offense if the line is putrid again. I think the lack of high-profile moves here tells you they have faith improvement is coming, and they’d better be right.

Allen Strk: Individual performances will determine how the offensive line improves. Matt Hennessey, Jalen Mayfield, and Kaleb McGary simply have to elevate their respective games. If they don’t, the coaching staff can’t be hesitant to replace them. McGary needs to overcome having short arms and slow feet. Mayfield can’t be slow and off-balance so often. Hennessey has to play with greater awareness in pass protection and can’t be on the ground regularly as a run blocker.

Hennessey was the only player to have his starting place challenged last season. Drew Dalman should challenge to start at center again this season. The same applies to Justin Shaffer and Germain Ifedi competing at left guard and right tackle. If Mayfield and McGary can’t clean up their technique, they shouldn’t be relied upon. Chris Lindstrom and Jake Matthews can only do so much on an offensive line that has allowed 40 or more sacks in the past four seasons. At some point, the players who were drafted in the first three rounds must prove to be respectable starters at a minimum.