The Falcons offense was a curious beast in 2022. They were middle of the pack in points, in the bottom third of the league in yardage, 31st in passing, and 3rd in rushing. By some metrics, especially early in the year, they were among the most efficient offenses in the NFL. By the end of the season, they were just kind of mediocre at everything except running the ball, though there were the occasional glimpses through the air.
After a 2021 where they passed at a so-so clip and couldn’t run at all, it was sort of a thrill to see the offensive line and ground game take such a massive step forward. It was not even all that hard to imagine that with more consistent quarterback play and a couple more weapons in the passing game that this offense might actually be something worth writing home about, either as a pale shade of the Kyle Shanahan and even 2018 Steve Sarkisian Falcons or perhaps even one a little more rubicund. But of course, it’s rarely just that simple, and you could make a credible case for upgrades and additions just about everywhere but right guard and the top receiver and tight end spots.
That leaves the Falcons in a curious spot for 2023. Do they prioritize the defense and try for modest upgrades along the offensive line, a medium-sized splash at wide receiver, and count on big strides from Desmond Ridder, Drake London, Kyle Pitts, and Tyler Allgeier to deliver more success next year? Or do they believe that aside from London and Pitts, they need a more substantial re-tooling of the personnel in order to put together a balanced, more dangerous offense?
We don’t know the answers to that yet, but we can still talk about this team’s most glaring needs on offense. Let’s do so now, in an order that’s contingent on some assumptions we’ll outline below.
The Falcons have gotten borderline heroic stretches of play out of Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus the past two years as effectively the #2 options in the passing game, but that’s obviously not something that they wanted to have happen. Gage and OZ are better at your third receiver or very high-end reserves than volume options, but the Falcons didn’t have that luxury after Calvin Ridley stepped away and depth took a hit in 2021 and then the Falcons decided Bryan Edwards couldn’t get the job done in 2022.
Zaccheaus should be back—he’s a capable option—but the team likely isn’t interested in having him serve as the de facto #2 receiver again this year. Beyond Drake London, the Falcons have virtually no one under contract, with just Frank Darby, Jared Bernhardt, and reserve/future deals for Ra’Shaun Henry and Josh Ali to work with at the moment. Even if you assume Darby and Bernhardt will have roles and Zaccheaus is coming back, there’s a major need for a high-end #2 receiver and potentially a really good #3 option if they want to upgrade on OZ. No matter how things shake out, you’re talking about adding a very good starter to this group, and a failure to do so could leave the Falcons once again short-handed at receiver.
Because it’s such a clear-cut need at a position that has been a trouble spot with no potential in-house solutions that we’re aware of—counting on Bernhardt or Darby to make The Leap (TM) seems unwise—it’s at the top of our list.
When I polled the team here at The Falcoholic about top needs, Kevin Knight put center as his top choice. Why? You have to look at Drew Dalman for that.
It’s worth noting that the Falcons actually have three center options under contract, with Dalman, Matt Hennessy, and Ryan Neuzil all capable of playing the position. The problem is that those options are either unproven (Neuzil) or have had a full, underwhelming season as a starter (both Dalman and Hennessy). Per Pro Football Focus, Dalman led the team in pressures allowed (with 27), led the offensive line in penalties (9), and had the weakest pass protection grade while also tying for third in pass blocking grade among starters.
He’s still pretty young and the team seems to believe in him, so it’s quite possible that the improvement will come from inside the house here. Dalman’s 2022 performance suggests the team should be looking very hard at upgrading center and Hennessy’s 2021 suggests he won’t be an improvement, so if they’re not married to Dalman this becomes a major need to address in free agency or the draft.
If the Falcons don’t think Desmond Ridder can start in 2023, this jumps to the top of the list by default. If, as I assume, they’re rolling with Ridder, it’s still a major need because there’s likely to be no established backup and competition for Ridder once they cut Marcus Mariota.
If it’s outright replacement, the Falcons are probably looking at a top draft option, a high-end starter like Derek Carr or Lamar Jackson who becomes available, or a familiar starter who once did great things in an Arthur Smith offense like, say, Ryan Tannehill. If it’s someone to compete with Ridder and serve as an insurance policy, it’s probably more likely to be a Jacoby Brissett (my preferred option), Taylor Heinicke, Drew Lock, or Tyler Huntley, to throw a few darts out there. Somewhere in between that would be players you’d expect to hold down the fort for a year before Ridder or someone else replaced them, like Geno Smith.
Who is ultimately be available will probably inform the team’s thinking here, but my current assumption is that the Falcons will build up the strongest possible roster around Ridder and give him a chance to prove he’s the guy in 2023. If that’s the case, it’s important Atlanta gives themselves a quality veteran as a backup, both in case Ridder gets hurt and in case he falters.
Elijah Wilkinson did a fine job, and given that he had never really played left guard in the pros, it was an impressive year. His struggles with injury and the constant shuffling when he was out at left guard points to the team needing a long-term solution at the position.
This is another spot where the Falcons have options, ranging from Jalen Mayfield (I know, I know) to Matt Hennessy to Justin Shaffer. They could also simply re-sign Wilkinson if they liked his 2022, or even try out Neuzil at the spot given that he came into the league as a guard and has untapped upside. Especially if the Falcons don’t replace Dalman, they could stand to aim high at left guard and try to put a dominant line on the field.
Right tackle/tackle depth
If Kaleb McGary doesn’t return, you need a starting right tackle, and that’s a huge need. If he does, you just need a capable reserve, and that is at least easier to find.
My working assumption is that McGary will be back if he doesn’t break the bank, and given that he’s a little bit older for a player just finishing his rookie contract (he’ll be 28 next month) and still had his adventures in pass protection, it’s fair to assume he’ll be very well compensated but not the highest-paid right tackle in football. If that’s the case, you look hard at bringing back Germain Ifedi, Chuma Edoga, or both, and grab a player you feel is capable of playing a game or two in a pinch. That’s a need, but not a major one.
If McGary’s gone, there are options in free agency, including reliable starter George Fant, San Francisco’s longtime starter Mike McGlinchey, and reliable fill-in David Quessenberry, among others. The hope is that it doesn’t have to come to that with other, more pressing needs on the interior.
Honorable mentions: Running back, offensive line depth
The Falcons don’t need more backs, but with Caleb Huntley recovering and Cordarrelle Patterson getting older, it wouldn’t hurt to add more young talent to the group. Tyler Allgeier will likely be atop the depth chart regardless.
Offensive line depth—and really all depth—deserves a mention here, but the Falcons have Neuzil, Hennessy, Mayfield, and Shaffer, and really just need an option at tackle if McGary’s back. They have to address it but shouldn’t be hard-pressed to do so.
You’ll note that I didn’t put tight end here, and there’s a reason for that. Parker Hesse is a terrific blocker, MyCole Pruitt proved he can be a capable reserve, John FitzPatrick is hopefully ready to make some noise, and Feleipe Franks is still hanging around on a depth chart with Kyle Pitts at the top of it. It should be relatively simple to build the position group here.
How would you rank these team needs?