Every year, we’re fortunate enough to get to ask Football Outsiders a few questions about the Falcons. This year, I wanted to see what a pretty unbiased, heavily analytical site thought about expectations for the Falcons in 2022, and especially the defense, breakout star A.J. Terrell, and hyper-promising second-year tight end Kyle Pitts.
To get those insights, we turned to Bryan Knowles at Football Outsiders, who was kind enough to answer five questions. Check out his thoughts on this Falcons team, and be sure to get the always-invaluable Football Outsiders Almanac when that’s available soon.
Dave Choate: The quarterback battle is obviously a big deal for this year, but also potentially for the long-term, given that Desmond Ridder has at least an outside shot of becoming the team’s franchise quarterback. Who do you expect to win this battle, and how much upside does Ridder have?
Bryan Knowles: We expect Marcus Mariota to win the starting job when the season begins. He has a history as a serviceable starter, he has a history of working with Arthur Smith, and has looked good in the few cameo appearances we’ve seen from him in Las Vegas. Ridder will get a chance to sit and learn and adapt to life in the NFL before being thrown to the wolves.
As for Ridder’s upside? QBASE, our quarterback projection system, gives Ridder a 41.1% chance to avoid being a bust, and a 5.4% chance of becoming an elite starter. Those are both third-best in the class behind Kenny Pickett and Matt Corral; there are concerns about his accuracy. But our chief film guy considers Ridder a tier above any of the other rookies right now – the most put-together quarterback in the class, with the ability to raise an offense’s floor, if not necessarily shatter the ceiling. Other rookies may have more potential, but potential doesn’t always become reality; Ridder may well look like the best rookie passer this season if he ends up starting.
Dave Choate: Defensively, I think Falcons fans have (dangerously) high hopes for this unit achieving competence this year. Is it reasonable to expect a step forward after an abysmal 2021, and where do you see improvement coming from if so?
Bryan Knowles: We really like the cornerbacks. We’ll get to A.J. Terrell some with your next question, but the Falcons went out and got him some running mates which should help. Casey Heyward isn’t the same player he was in San Diego, but he’s a very valuable contributor in the zone defenses Atlanta likes to run. Add in the better-than-people-think Isaiah Oliver, and Atlanta could make an argument for having the best cornerbacks in the division. There also should be some improvement in the defensive front, if only because there’s nowhere to go but up. They got younger and more athletic off the edges with Lorenzo Carter, Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone, which is bound to help. So you can see some signs of hope if you’re looking for something to cling to.
We still project them very low - 31st overall in defensive DVOA. Competence might be too high of a bar to clear – there was just so much work to do, and so few resources with which to do it. If this collection of complimentary pieces and interesting rotational prospects in the front seven is anything better than dire, it will be a masterclass in coaching by Dean Pees, making something better than the sum of its parts.
Dave Choate: Speaking of the defense, A.J. Terrell looked like one of the best corners in the NFL last season. Are you feeling good about him building on that performance this year or should we expect some mild regression?
Bryan Knowles: We expect a little regression, but that’s because Terrell was playing at once-in-a-decade levels. Terrell allowed 3.3 yards per target – that didn’t just lead the league; it’s the best number for a qualified cornerback since Darrelle Revis in 2010. It’s doubtful that he’ll put up numbers quite that high again, but Falcons fans shouldn’t worry – there’s no reason to believe he won’t be a top-level cornerback for the foreseeable future. Maybe fans will figure that out and actually vote him to the Pro Bowl this season.
Dave Choate: Kyle Pitts’ talent is undeniable, but he didn’t get a chance to shine as consistently as any Falcons fans would’ve liked a year ago. What are reasonable expectations for year two and how do you see this coaching staff adjusting to ensure he’s getting the ball as often as possible?
Bryan Knowles: Our KUBIAK projections for Pitts have him in the top three in receptions and receiving yards among tight ends, and in the top 10 for touchdowns – that last bit is more an indictment of the Atlanta offense than it is for Pitts himself. Pitts was remarkable as a rookie, and should only keep improving as he gets more experience. As for getting the ball as often as possible, he already led the Falcons in targets as a rookie, and there’s little reason to believe he won’t do it again in 2022. Atlanta will just keep using him as a big slot receiver, feeding him slant after slant and daring opposing linebackers and safeties to try to cover him.
Dave Choate: The big picture question: How good can this team be this year, both overall and in terms of wins/losses? The staff expectation on our end is better results with a worse record.
Bryan Knowles: The Falcons were the worst seven-win team in our database, which goes back to 1981, so we fully agree with the “worse record” prediction. As for better results? Maybe. It looks like 2022 will be a year filled with learning experiences and growing pains as some of these young players attempt to make their mark in the league. I fully expect the Falcons to be fighting for the top pick in the 2023 draft, but it does feel like they have a plan going forward. It will be a long season, but I think I’d rather be a Falcons fan than, say, a Panthers fan from a long-term view.