The offseason couldn’t have started any worse for the Falcons. They were one of the few teams to be linked with pursuing a trade for then-Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. It got to the point where it became a near-foregone conclusion that he was going to become a Falcon.
The Browns swooped in and made arguably the most controversial move in NFL history, handing the quarterback a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract. That left the Falcons with a new problem on their hands. They’d devalued Matt Ryan, the greatest player in franchise history, and put him in a position where he had no choice but to play elsewhere.
For the first time since 2007, Ryan won’t be the Falcons’ starting quarterback. It was bound to happen at some point. The hope was it would have transpired more respectably. Both sides had to move on quickly, as Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot did in acquiring Marcus Mariota. They looked for a future potential long-term replacement one month later and selected Desmond Ridder in the third round of the 2022 NFL draft.
As dark as the offseason became, the Falcons managed to make several encouraging moves to infuse optimism back into the organization and fan base. Here is what the Falcons’ franchise-changing offseason turned out to be.
The new quarterbacks with an electrifying wide receiver
On the same day Ryan was officially traded, Mariota joined the Falcons. It wasn’t met with much applause, given the complexity and frustration of seeing the greatest player in franchise history traded for minimal reward. The signing itself was a logical decision based on Smith’s history with the former Titans quarterback. Mariota didn’t have much success under Smith, but they maintained a strong relationship, as Ryan Tannehill took the starting role and significantly elevated the offense.
Mariota is a solid bridge quarterback who can make plays with his feet and overall savviness. For all his limitations with his arm strength and inconsistent accuracy, he does offer a new dimension to the offense. As my colleague William McFadden wrote in a recent piece, the new athleticism at the quarterback position could make a difference across the entire team. Mariota and Ridder will be able to test the defense in practice and stretch opposing defenses in games with their ability to scramble and create openings on option plays.
Speaking of Ridder, he didn’t let his surprising fall in the draft derail him. The rookie quarterback made a huge impression in his preseason debut, leading the Falcons to victory and earning major praise with his arm. Ridder’s poise, accuracy, and knack for identifying coverages to exploit mismatches were on full display in Detroit.
Whether he proves to be the franchise quarterback or not, it was a shrewd move by the front office to select him in the third round. If he continues to shine in the preseason, he may take the starting reins earlier in October rather than possibly in December.
The other most notable move came straight from Smith’s philosophical desires. His offenses in Tennessee featured massive, field-stretching wide receivers who can create explosive plays after the catch. By selecting Drake London with the eighth overall pick, it was apparent that Smith got what he wanted after not having much to work with on the outside last season.
London possesses the size, catch radius, physicality, and contested catch ability to become a star wide receiver. As long as he stays healthy, there is a strong possibility he could win Offensive Rookie of the Year. According to DraftKings, the former Trojan is surprisingly listed below the likes of George Pickens and Jalen Tolbert at 1400 to win it. That could quickly change by the end of September after a few extraordinary plays are made by a wide receiver who knows how to make spectacular catches look ordinary. Falcons legend Roddy White isn’t hesitating to pick him to win the coveted award.
Putting the pieces together defensively
After not making notable signings or drafting any edge rushers last season, the Falcons had to be proactive in addressing the biggest flaw on the roster. Producing just 18 sacks in 17 games is about as embarrassing as it gets for a defense. The Falcons desperately needed an injection of highly regarded prospects through the draft and some semblance of legitimate production at the pro level. Adding Arnold Ebiketie, DeAngelo Malone, and Lorenzo Carter are encouraging steps towards generating a steady pass rush.
Ebiketie is the most fascinating out of the three players based on his ability to play three downs. From having excellent hand usage to holding his own in setting the edge against the run, Ebiketie has all the tools to be an immediate starter. Malone looks like more of a long-term project, but the 10-sack potential within the next two to three years is certainly there.
His bend and long arms could give opposing tackles severe fits. Carter has come into his own over the past few seasons as an edge rusher. While he is a bit undersized and better suited as a rotational piece, there is no reason why the former Giant can’t continue his ascendence.
There were major changes in the back seven as well. The addition of Casey Hayward could be one of the best free-agent signings the Falcons have made in recent years. The two-time Pro Bowler had a resurgent year with the Raiders following an injury-plagued 2020 season with the Chargers. Hayward’s experience and versatility should help improve an extremely young secondary.
After not being able to outbid Jacksonville in re-signing Foye Oluokun, moves were bound to be made at linebacker. Dean Pees certainly had a role in the decision to sign thumping linebacker Rashaan Evans. Evans played in Pees’ defense for multiple seasons in Tennessee. After specifically focusing on adding athletes under Dan Quinn, it will be fascinating to see a hard-hitting, old-school linebacker in the middle of Atlanta’s defense.
Nick Kwiatkowski is similar to Evans in his ability to take on blocks and defend the run. It will be interesting to see who ends up starting at linebacker between Kwiatkowski and Mykal Walker. With Deion Jones seemingly out of the picture (he’s on injured reserve to start the season) and Troy Andersen a long-term project, Pees will look to utilize the two new additions at linebacker alongside Walker.
How the rest of the offense shakes out
Calvin Ridley’s year-long suspension for betting on NFL games and Russell Gage signing with Tampa Bay left the Falcons with a considerable amount of work to do at wide receiver. They decided to sign as many pass catchers as possible to address those massive losses. Damiere Byrd and KhaDarel Hodge were both signed in free agency. Byrd is likely to earn the biggest role in the offense as a crafty route-runner and solid separator.
The biggest addition comes from an intriguing trade, where Bryan Edwards will look to capitalize on a greater opportunity. The playmaking wide receiver needed a change of scenery following the Raiders’ enthralling offseason. Pairing up with a head coach who knows how to utilize big wide receivers could do wonders for his career. Edwards has made a plethora of big plays over the course of his NFL tenure. It’s now a matter of finding consistency and converting those flashes of jaw-dropping plays into sustainable production.
After Mike Davis couldn’t find his niche in Atlanta, the front office needed to go in another direction in the backfield. Tyler Allgeier will be at the forefront of trying to revive a running game that has been mainly non-existent for the past four seasons. The fifth-round rookie is capable of gaining yards after contact, which will be crucial behind a below-average offensive line.
His physical running style aligns with Smith’s scheme, along with his commitment to becoming a complete back. With Damien Williams being brought in as a dependable pass-catching, third-down back, the running back rotation looks more formidable than it did last season.
When a team is rebuilding, they can’t properly address every weakness in one offseason. That applies to an anemic offensive line not being upgraded. Signing veterans Elijah Wilkinson and Germain Ifedi does give the Falcons competent depth. Wilkinson appears to be on course to start at left guard, as Jalen Mayfield continues to struggle in all aspects and landed on injured reserve with a lingering back injury. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Ifedi line up at right tackle at some point, given Kaleb McGary’s pass protection woes.
Neither signing is expected to drastically elevate the offensive line. These signings should be viewed as options to make the players the organization had high hopes for (McGary, Mayfield) accountable for their lack of progression.
A change for building a future contender
What started as an ugly offseason turned out to be more positive than expected. The Falcons’ draft class looks incredibly promising, while the defensive free agent signings could help solidify a unit that has been a work in progress for quite some time.
It’s well documented that the Falcons are going to endure growing pains. Not having Ryan will lead to instability at the quarterback position. The defense won’t suddenly become a top 15 unit. Expectations will need to be measured.
What this offseason can bring is genuine hope for the future: That London and Kyle Pitts are one of the most terrifying pass-catching duos in the league. Hope that Ebiketie and Malone prove to be the consistent edge rushers Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley couldn’t develop into. Hope that Allgeier’s power translates into the pros and he becomes a ferocious downhill runner.
These are the most realistic, influential things that could happen to make the Falcons’ offseason a memorable one, setting the team up for future success.