The end of the season for a team offers time for everyone associated with the franchise to reflect on the past and ponder the future. No matter if you are an executive within the organization or a season ticket holder, this is the time of year to analyze what a team put together in 17 games and how they can improve going into next season. The Falcons have made some strides and find themselves in the right position to make long-awaited major free agent signings to bolster a slowly-improving roster.
Before free agency discussion, it’s important to take the time to review some highlights from the season and examine what is currently happening with the team. Aaron Freeman, Adnan Ikic, William McFadden, Everett Glaze, and Matt Chambers join me for the biggest roundtable of the year. This is the fifth and final roundtable of the season, following lengthy features in September, October, November, and December.
Should Dean Pees’ retirement be viewed as a significant loss or an invigorating opportunity for defensive growth?
Aaron Freeman: It depends. Some will see it as addition by subtraction due to their disdain for Pees’ affinity for the bend-but-don’t-break style of defense. What those people miss is the fact that playing that style with the offense’s tendency towards lower-scoring outputs was the correct choice.
Ultimately, it depends on who the Falcons tap to replace Pees and which players are added in the offseason to upgrade the defense. The bottom line is the Falcons were a bottom-tier defense, not because of play-calling, but due to lacking quality pass-rushers, having limited and inexperienced linebackers, and nagging injuries in the secondary, forcing them to play most of the year with reserve-quality starters. Until that changes, it won’t really matter who calls plays, as there will be no growth.
Adnan Ikic: I definitely see it as an opportunity for growth, but that’s completely dependent on who gets brought in as Pees’ replacement. If the team hires a hot defensive coordinator candidate like Brian Flores or Ejiro Evero, then the ceiling for this defense raises significantly. Despite the opportunity, I don’t look at Pees’ retirement as a positive in a vacuum, just by itself.
He was still an incredibly experienced voice whom the players respected and liked playing for. I’m grateful for the help he provided to a first-time head coach. He started to build a foundation with this defense. There are certainly upgrades out there to replace him. It’s encouraging to see the team looking in the correct direction.
William McFadden: I think it’s a little bit of both. While Atlanta’s defense wasn’t great in 2022, it was a more cohesive and consistent unit than the one we saw in 2021. Much of that has to do with personnel, but I believe Pees is also a significant factor as the man pulling the levers. The Falcons allowed no more than 25 points in their final nine games. They held teams under 20 points in five of those games.
Pees’s experience provided stability on the defensive side of the ball, while Arthur Smith built the framework for his vision as a first-time head coach. I don’t think Atlanta will go towards a drastically different route defensively, but it’s evident Smith values ingenuity and creativity rather than one specific scheme.
Everett Glaze: For me, this is an exciting time due to the fact that Pees wasn’t going to be the defensive coordinator for long under Arthur Smith. My educated guess is that Smith and the staff knew that this would occur sooner rather than later. I don’t consider it a coincidence that Pees is retiring now.
These first few years seemed more about building a culture and laying a foundation on all sides of the ball. Now, the next stage occurs to decide who is chosen to succeed Pees. What’s most intriguing is that we get to see what Smith and the Falcons brass have in mind for the next step in the process of building this defense.
Allen Strk: Pees will always receive his due as a respected figure who players love competing for and learning from. There were moments when he truly got the best out of a limited defense. That said, it feels like the game has passed him by and the defense desperately could use someone with more proactive schematic ideas. The predictable delayed blitzes and reliance on Cover 2 became tiresome under Pees.
There needs to be more aggressiveness and craftiness with blitzing and presnap coverage disguises. This has been sorely lacking in Atlanta. It’s exciting to see how the Falcons are at the forefront of interviewing numerous highly-credentialed candidates. This could be the launching pad they need to start making legitimate defensive progress.
Matt Chambers: The loss of Pees is definitely a loss, no matter how you put it. The Falcons lost a good coach while Arthur Smith got bit by the biggest risk of signing a very veteran coach: he retired. Again.
While I may regret this, especially because we don’t know who will replace him, I am looking at this as an invigorating opportunity for defensive growth. Planned or not, these last two seasons have been part of a painful rebuild, under which you would have preferred to put in place a coordinator who wouldn’t retire before you get cap space. In light of Atlanta’s spot in its rebuild, there is a ton of opportunity to add a younger, veteran coordinator with less risk of retirement of head coach consideration to build up the defense over the long term.
And hey, at some point, someone has to be able to build the defense.
Excluding Kaleb McGary, who would be the outright winner for the most improved player on the Falcons roster?
Aaron Freeman: I know the expected answer would be a player that showed the most growth from 2021 to 2022, and thus my expected selection would be choosing one of the team’s 2021 draft picks, Richie Grant, Drew Dalman, or Ta’Quon Graham. These are players that leaped from low-level reserves to competent starters this year.
However, I’m going to zig instead of zag by saying 2022 fifth-round draft pick Tyler Allgeier. Allgeier showed the most growth from the beginning of the year to the end. He was a healthy scratch in Week 1, and frankly, his production through the first eight games was nothing to write home about, while other backs like Cordarrelle Patterson (when healthy) and Caleb Huntley seemed better. But in the second half of the season, a switch was flipped, and Allgeier looked like one of the better backs in the NFL. Everything about his game improved, including his vision, burst, and power, as he proved to be a very effective every-down back.
Adnan Ikic: I’ll go with Grant here. He wasn’t an elite safety by any measure, but I think he definitely proved that he is worthy of being a long-term starter and a solid contributor in the secondary. It’s been quite a nice step up for him after being unable to even see the field last season due to a lack of understanding of the playbook, according to some reports.
There were players on the roster who were better overall, but just looking at sheer year-over-year improvement, Grant is my pick. The Falcons need him to keep improving, given the second-round draft pick they used to get him.
William McFadden: Had he finished the year playing a bit more consistently, I’d make Grant the clear choice here. However, he had a shaky finish to the season, so I’m instead naming Graham here - a player who didn’t even finish the season. Before his knee injury in Week 11, Graham established himself as a piece of the future alongside Grady Jarrett on the defensive line.
Graham may not be a future game-changer, but he is the type of player that deep and talented defensive fronts have. He was the third-highest-graded defender for Atlanta this past season, which is a nice jump for the second-year defender.
Everett Glaze: This question is tricky for me because there was too much inconsistency among players from year one to year two under Smith. That being stated, the obvious one that people will consider a no-brainer is Chris Lindstrom. People won’t consider Lindstrom because he was deemed good last year. However, he has made even more improvements this season from last season. His ascension has been quite admirable.
Now, he’s a surefire all-pro at the position. He will earn every dime of the contract extension he will receive. Offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford has done an amazing job with this entire group. This scheme is such a tremendous fit for a player like Lindstrom. His strength, athleticism, improved technique, and ability to climb to the second level flawlessly have been a pure joy to watch, and it’s been amazing to see his progress yearly.
Allen Strk: If Graham didn’t get injured, he would have made a stronger case. Unfortunately, the lasting image of Graham’s season consists of him fumbling the ball and what proved to be the game away against the Chargers in a game the Falcons should have won. For all his mistakes in the second half of the season, Grant did enough that he can be viewed as an improved player.
His instincts were much better in identifying plays in front of him and closing down skill position players. He played with more anticipation in coverage. A safety has to find ways to be around the ball, as long as they aren’t consistently tasked with playing 15 to 20 yards downfield. Grant made his fair share of plays and showed notable growth as a versatile safety.
Matt Chambers: This is a tough question, considering how much the roster has changed since last year. It seems like half of the 53 are new to Atlanta. I think I’ll go with Richie Grant despite his inconsistent play. We didn’t see much from Grant in his rookie season, and what we saw was not good.
In his sophomore season, we started to see some big-play ability that made him a surprising 2nd-round selection. Look at his game-sealing interception against Geno Smith to beat the playoff-bound Seattle Seahawks on the road. He still needs work, but he’s on his way to being an impact starter.
Do Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave producing more explosive plays and better seasons have any impact on the selection of Drake London or should fans be satisfied with his rookie year?
Aaron Freeman: I believe fans should be mostly satisfied with London’s rookie season, assuming they had appropriate expectations. If the goal was to get an explosive playmaker, I’m not sure how London would have been the top choice. Instead, I believe the Falcons’ goal was to find a reliable chain-mover.
London lived up to those expectations, especially once Desmond Ridder took over as the starter. Yet, one of the offseason needs will be upgrading the rest of the receiver corps with those playmakers that can generate explosive plays.
Adnan Ikic: I don’t think so. I feel that we can’t judge London (or any of Atlanta’s pass catchers) fairly because of how limited the downfield passing game was with Marcus Mariota getting 13 starts this season. Granted, Olave put up superior numbers with very similar catchable target opportunities, but it’s very promising what we saw down the stretch when London was paired with a quarterback who was more accurate in Desmond Ridder.
His two highest yardage games of the season came within Ridder’s four starts, including a season-high 120-yard effort in the finale. I won’t pretend like Olave didn’t have a better rookie year, but we’re still far away from regretting that pick or coming to any conclusions about the wide receiver class.
William McFadden: It was pretty apparent coming out of college that Wilson was more explosive than London, and Olave’s elite route-running ability offered more opportunities for chunk yardage. But London’s rookie year was largely terrific. He led the team with 866 receiving yards, despite not having consistent quarterback play.
What we saw in 2022 from London was the tip of what he’s capable of. The jump he makes next year will be huge because of his growth, along with the likely improvement at the quarterback position.
Everett Glaze: The way Wilson and Olave have played has no impact on the selection of London. They are different players with different skill sets. Anyone’s feelings about Wilson and Olave being better than London come from simply a matter of preference. People that have watched film on those receivers aren’t surprised by what they accomplished in their rookie years.
Outside of his untimely fumbles, fans should come away from this loving what London brings to this offense. The rookie receiver is tough as nails, notoriously difficult to bring down, and has excellent ball skills. London is an ideal X in this scheme, and everyone should come away from this knowing that with average to good QB play, he will be a force in the league.
Allen Strk: London was the ideal fit for what Smith desired as the top wide receiver in his offense. A big-body receiver who can make contested catches and gain yardage after the catch elevates the offense. Watching A.J. Brown explode during the first two years of his career with Smith as the play-caller made it evident that this offense needed size at the wide receiver position long before Calvin Ridley decided to step away from the sport and was eventually unfortunately suspended.
Despite Olave looking like the best all-around wide receiver in this class, London put together an impressive rookie season, especially given the difficult circumstances around him. His big catch radius was on full display. How he made plays across the middle of the field gave the coaching staff more opportunities to utilize play action and RPOs to pick up chunk plays. As long as London continues to grow, what Olave and Wilson do shouldn’t have anyone wondering what if because of the schematic fit in how London aligns perfectly with Smith’s offense.
Matt Chambers: My answer is an emphatic yes and yes. For better or worse, and fair or not, draft picks will be linked for as long as they are relevant. We’re still looking at and will continue to compare Kyle Pitts and Justin Fields. We will be comparing London to Wilson and Olave for years. Any shortcomings compared to other possible players don’t fall on Pitts and London but do fall on Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith. It will be tough to build this team from the group up when passing over better talent at positions of need.
For London individually, I’m a pretty big fan. I’m also a sucker for a strong, gigantic pass catcher in the mold of Vincent Jackson or Mike Evans. He looks like a perfect fit for Smith’s offense, and I am itching to see both him and Pitts on the field together with a competent quarterback. He should be a lot of fun, and early indications are he was worth the pick.
How is Arthur Smith graded after two seasons as a head coach?
Aaron Freeman: I was underwhelmed by Smith after his first year but came away impressed after he showed tremendous growth in 2022. We saw him make adjustments and try to correct errors that he and his coaching staff made a year ago. One is playing guys during the preseason, and another is getting young players more reps early in the season. The latter led to the team being able to better weather the storm of injuries with the next man up in 2022 than the previous year. You also saw his play-calling attempt to play to the strengths of his offense (running the football) and mask their weaknesses (passing), leading the team to a promising and unexpected 4-4 start. After that point, Smith also tried to evolve the offense to become more balanced, and while the results weren’t quite there (which I blame more on Mariota’s limitations), it was a commendable attempt.
Smith also did things worthy of criticism this year, such as sticking with Mariota for longer than he should have. But overall, 2022 represented significant growth for Smith as a head coach. And I’m eager to see if we see that trend continue in 2023.
Adnan Ikic: I’m giving him a very solid B+. I know he has a 14-20 record in two seasons, but this team has played over its head in each of these years. It’s because of the good work done by the coaching staff. This was always going to be a long-term project, and the first two seasons of it were fully dedicated to untangling the mess left by the end of the Thomas Dimitroff era.
In that time, this team has been competitive and even fun despite having far fewer resources to work with than damn near the rest of the NFL (they had the highest dead cap bill in the league this year). What annoyed me was the insistence on sticking with Mariota for too long and some of the overly conservative fourth-quarter decisions (Week 1 against the Saints this year was a prime example), but I’m convinced that the Falcons are in good hands with Smith leading the charge.
William McFadden: He inherited a ghastly cap situation, an aging quarterback, and a team that truly had some psychological barriers to break through. To twice have Atlanta amid playoff contention longer than the leaves remain on the trees here in Georgia is fairly impressive.
Smith has shown he has a breadth of offensive knowledge and creativity to rival any play-caller in this league. He also possesses a demeanor and frankness that has caught the attention of the players in the locker room. The results haven’t met expectations, but the coaching certainly has.
Everett Glaze: Smith has been quite an enigma in some aspects to me. From a play-calling and game-management perspective, he’s been frustrating. However, what coach in this league doesn’t have those issues from time to time? I also think he simply held on to Mariota as the starter entirely too long and denied himself a much deeper look at Ridder to determine if he could be the future at the position. I’ve seen many calls for his head and people saying he’s not a good coach. That’s ridiculously overblown.
Before Smith took the helm, this team had a horrible running game, lacked toughness, and was one of the most undisciplined teams in the league. As it sits now, this team has a top-five running attack and was one of the least penalized teams in the league. That’s the mark of good coaching. To do it with this roster and loads of dead cap is quite amazing. If I had to put a letter grade on it, a B- seems accurate. To do what he’s been able to do in such a short time is to be commended. Now, we’ll see what he can do when he’s able to acquire more talent.
Allen Strk: Smith’s ability to build a genuine smashmouth running game, unified team culture, and improvement in the red zone deserve enormous praise. The Falcons went from 24th to 14th in red zone conversion rate, which was crucial considering Smith’s exceptional track record in Tennessee. The running game overwhelmed opposing fronts and looked consistently dangerous for the first time since 2017. There were plenty of impressive moments and noticeable leaps across the board.
The biggest criticism consists of the insistence on sticking with Mariota. It was a puzzling decision that put the Falcons at a disadvantage and played a substantial role in preventing them from seriously competing for a very winnable NFC South division. His third-down play calling at times was frustrating as well. These negatives don’t outweigh the overall positives. Smith gets a B from me and appears to be on course to become one of the better coaches in the league.
Matt Chambers: I’m of two minds on grading Smith. The first is I can’t grade a guy coaching this lack of talent. Can Smith develop a versatile passing offense? I definitely can’t tell with Marcus Mariota throwing the ball. I really do want to give him an incomplete. However, we do know Smith can coach the hell out of an offensive line and develop a run game with sub-par overall talent.
We’re seeing some creative concepts and a definite improvement in offensive players. We are also seeing some poor clock mismanagement, confounding play calls, and the unforgivable decision to keep Mariota at starter, preventing Desmond Ridder from getting a full shake at starter.
With all that said, I’ll give him some benefit of the doubt with my grade. B.