Atlanta finishes the 2022 season 7-10 again, having relied heavily upon one year contracts and young players to get by. Many of those impending free agents will likely be headed elsewhere, but the rookies and second-year players the Falcons leaned on this season will be here in 2023. If this franchise is going to contend for real, it won’t be enough to just add free agent talent; they’ll need at least some of those young players to go from being solid enough contributors to high-end starters.
Who will the Falcons count on to make a leap in 2023?
The reality is that you could pop 10-15 names on this list, even with the big influx of signings coming, because almost everyone the Falcons are counting on to play a prominent role next year could stand to grow. Here are six that are absolutely essential if they remain in their starting roles.
QB Desmond Ridder
The obvious caveat here is this: We don’t know for sure that Ridder will be starting. This is also true of Drew Dalman, who we’ll get to a little later on. I’m working with the assumption that Ridder will be under center in Week 1, and if so, the Falcons are going to be counting on him looking like he belongs there.
Ridder’s needed improvements comprise a lengthy list, ranging from decision-making (no more sideline scrambles in situations where you can’t lose yards or stop the clock), to throws (he sailed too many, especially early in games), to just getting off to faster starts. What was encouraging was that Ridder arguably improved in every single one of his four games, going from an overwhelmed rookie who produced a quiet line in Week 1 to a passer who started chaining together terrific throws against the Cardinals and Buccaneers.
To unlock this offense’s potential, Ridder will need to be at least a solid NFL starter, and preferably much more than that. There’s a lot of work that needs to happen for that to happen, and if the Falcons stick with him no player on the roster will be more closely watched than Ridder.
TE Kyle Pitts
I don’t really hold 2022 against Pitts. Could he have run some of his routes better? Sure. Could he have come down with a couple of balls he didn’t? Absolutely. Could he improve as a blocker? Yeah.
None of that should obscure the fact that his wildly off chemistry with Marcus Mariota was the primary culprit behind a deeply disappointing 2022, combined with an injury that knocked him out of several games near the end of the season. Pitts is a grade A talent who still won’t be 23 years old until partway through this coming season, with all the ability to be one of the league’s truly special tight ends. He fell a little short of being consistently spectacular in 2021 and had a frustrating 2022, but with Desmond Ridder loving tight ends (or a straight up major upgrade at quarterback, depending on what the Falcons do) Pitts should not lack for opportunities.
He and Drake London, another logical candidate for a step forward, should fuel an improved passing attack. If Pitts can’t be a major asset for this team in 2023, there will be questions about his future in Atlanta, and this passing game is not going to operate at peak capacity.
C Drew Dalman
Dalman is not a lock to return as a starter, but he appears to have the favor of this coaching staff. The team tried to give him a legitimate shot at starting in 2021 and handed him the job in 2022, sticking with him despite some frustrating miscues snapping the ball and a performance that was on balance the worst of the starters on the offensive line. Entering his age 25 season, Dalman seems pretty likely to get one more shot to hold down the spot, especially with the team figuring to find an upgrade at left guard one way or the other next to him.
Ridder needs to improve as a blocker and erase the hiccups in his snapping that led to problems for Marcus Mariota in particular if he’s going to hold down the job long-term, and I don’t think the Falcons will go into the year without a contingency plan if that doesn’t happen, given that they really need to improve in 2023 and make significant progress toward becoming one of the NFL’s consistent contenders. If Dalman makes the leap he’ll get a nice new contract between 2024 and 2025; if not, he’ll be replaced swiftly.
ILB Troy Andersen
No player on defense has a bigger gap between their results this year and their potential. Andersen is insanely fast, strong, and versatile, but at times in 2022 he looked a step slow, incapable of making a tackle when called upon, and limited in terms of what he could offer this defense.
When you have a player as raw as Andersen, that’s not exactly a surprise, but it illustrates just how much work he has to do this spring and summer to earn a starting role. The Falcons want him to become a terror on defense and a player who can move around as needed to wreak havoc, but first Andersen just has to prove he can do the essential things at a high level. If he’s even able to make the leap from still-learning rookie to capable starter, it will be a very big deal for this defense.
OLB Arnold Ebiketie
That’s also true of Ebiketie, who faded down the stretch after quietly delivering consistent pressure early in the season. No pass rusher on the roster outside of the great Grady Jarrett has as much ability as Ebiketie, but he needs to become a more consistent force for good in 2023 for this pass rush to thrive, even if they add talent to the group (and they will).
Injury was likely a factor for Ebiketie, but at his best in 2022 we saw a strong and canny edge rusher who was capable of giving tackles fits, and he should be able to build on his modest rookie year production in 2023. If the Falcons add an impact edge rusher to the group and Ebiketie takes a leap instead of a step forward, Atlanta’s pass rush should be more fearsome than it has been since...well, you might dimly remember a time.
S Richie Grant
Grant already did make a leap, going from reserve and special teamer in 2021 to capable starter with some flashes of brilliance under his belt in 2022. It feels like there’s more here than Grant showed us this past season, though, and this secondary badly needs high-end safety play to go from so-so to spectacular.
If Grant can become a more consistent tackler and improve his results in coverage, he’ll go from being a capable starter to a damn good one, especially because his playmaking instincts and ability really showed up toward the end of the 2022 season.