The widespread expectation in this fanbase is that the Falcons are going to turn over their roster considerably, and it’s probably a safe bet. Particularly on defense, there just aren’t a lot of safe, locked-in starters for the upcoming season.
Before the offseason really gears up, then, it’s worth looking at who the Falcons already have in the building as starting options and how compelling they are, given that the team will make a lot of moves but can’t replace every starter.
On offense, in particular, I’d expect the Falcons to return about half or more of their 2022 starting lineup at the end of the year, counting on a couple of proven veterans and some young starters with upside to carry the day. Let’s take a closer look.
Quarterback: Desmond Ridder
He has played in just four NFL games, but Ridder is already extremely polarizing. Your camps here essentially boil down to a group that think he’s promising but needs more time, a group that’s convinced he’s the franchise quarterback, a group that thinks he needs legitimate competition, and a group that thinks he’s not good enough and needs to be replaced. The Falcons themselves have been largely noncommittal, with Terry Fontenot heaping more praise on the quarterback than Arthur Smith, though Arthur Blank spoke like Ridder was lining up to start.
That’s a long-winded way of saying the small sample size for Ridder and lack of superlative play has made him divisive and nobody knows what’s going to happen in 2022. We can read the tea leaves and say that right now it seems most likely that if Blank is relaying the larger organization’s sentiments, Ridder is likely headed to camp as the favorite to start with a veteran signing pushing him. Your opinion on that outcome will vary, but I’m still a believer that Ridder can be a good starting quarterback and will be perfectly fine if he takes the job. No outcome would surprise me at this point, however.
Running back: Tyler Allgeier & Cordarrelle Patterson
The Falcons actually have two options here. Allgeier is fresh off breaking Williams Andrews’ rookie rushing record and became more powerful as the year went on. He’s a durable, well-rounded back who didn’t get an outlandish number of touches in his rookie season, and thus Allgeier should be expected to go into the season with a strong chance of leading the backfield.
His primary competition at the moment would be Patterson. For the second straight year, the veteran saw his production and per-snap effectiveness dwindle late in the year, and the Falcons seem likely to heavily weigh whether Caleb Huntley’s health and Avery Williams’ presence will allow them to stand pat at the position. Otherwise, you might see a young complement to Allgeier coming on board.
Fullback: Clint Ratkovich
The Falcons brought Ratkovich aboard on a reserve/future contract, and he’s currently the only fullback under contract with Keith Smith hitting free agency. It shouldn’t be cost-prohibitive to bring Smith back and he’s an excellent special teamer, but nobody should be surprised if the Falcons go with a cheap, punishing blocker at the position.
Wide receiver: Drake London
London is one of the few players on this list who is absolutely locked in to a starting role. Coming off a season where he made a handful of costly mistakes but largely delivered as a big, physical receiving threat, London will be the team’s top receiver and should have a much better season with someone other than Marcus Mariota under center, given that the duo’s rapport fizzled after the first couple of weeks of the season.
Tight end: Kyle Pitts
So long as he’s healthy, Pitts is also locked in as a starter. He had a miserable second season that saw his route running questioned, Mariota putting together an improbably poor streak missing the imposing threat downfield, and then an injury that wiped out the last several games of the year.
For all that, Pitts should be in for a huge year once he’s back to close to 100%, and he and London can legitimately dominant with the right quarterback under center. The Falcons have a lot of question marks at their skill positions, but having Pitts, London, Allgeier, and probably Patterson is a good start.
Tackle: Jake Matthews
For at least one more season, Matthews will be the team’s full-time starter at left tackle. Assuming he stays healthy for a full season, Matthews will finish 2023 with the 14th-most games played in Falcons franchise history, and third all-time for left tackles. He’s still reliable in pass protection and improved his run blocking in 2022, so he should be at least a solid starter again this year.
Guard: Chris Lindstrom, Jalen Mayfield, Matt Hennessy & Justin Shaffer
Lindstrom is one of the league’s best guards, which makes him a no-brainer starter at right guard and a huge asset for this team. At left guard, the Falcons have multiple options, but none of them are particularly compelling.
Hennessy is someone the team seems to have a real interest in at left guard, given that they put him there multiple times last year (only to see injury strike). Mayfield essentially lost the entire season owing to injury, so his improvement or lack thereof is an open question. Shaffer is most likely to settle in as a backup, but the Falcons clearly liked his run blocking when they drafted him, so he may be in the mix.
Left guard feels like the position where the Falcons are most likely to simply go out and acquire a starter, rather than waste time with a competition, but if they do keep it in-house the battle should be a spirited one, especially with Elijah Wilkinson figuring to be a cheap re-signing.
Center: Drew Dalman, Matt Hennessy
Dalman started throughout 2022, Hennessy for the whole of 2021. Neither one was exactly an inspiring starter, but the team may well have the duo duke it out again and choose a winner, especially if they invest heavily at left guard and/or right tackle, where they currently have a vacuum as they mull re-signing Kaleb McGary. Dalman would be the favorite to win the job again, with the team banking on improvement both for his blocking and his snapping.
My guess is that the starters on this list will end up being Ridder, Allgeier, London, Pitts, Matthews, Lindstrom, and Dalman, with Mayfield or Hennessy having a slim chance of taking over at left guard. The Falcons will likely invest in a #2 receiver, left guard, and right tackle (even if it’s just McGary) to fill out the starting lineup, counting on Matthews and Lindstrom to be rock solid starters and banking on growth from Ridder, Allgeier, London, Pitts, and Dalman to improve the offense further. There’s risk in running it back with that many starters from a so-so offense, especially through the air, but I do think most of the players on that list are solid bets to take a step forward, and Pitts should be much better than he was during his miserable 2022.
Who are you expecting to start out of these in-house options?