Bill Barnwell over at ESPN performed his annual summer tradition this week, embarking on the task of ranking all 32 NFL teams’ skill position groups — that being the wide receivers, running backs and tight ends on each roster. He seemed rather bullish on Atlanta’s unit, ranking Arthur Smith’s playmakers as the 10th best unit in the league.
Before giving those exact rankings, Barnwell explained his reasoning in the introduction of the article:
I’m trying to separate out a team’s playmakers — its running backs, wide receivers and tight ends exclusively — to estimate how they would perform outside of their current offense. In other words, if we gave every team an average quarterback, offensive line and playcaller and had them play at an average pace, which would have the league’s best offense?
This was a ranking only for the outlook of on-field performance in 2023, injuries and suspensions being taken into account with wide receivers being weighted more heavily than running backs and tight ends, and with the primary focus being on each team’s top five contributors at those positions.
Here is what Barnwell had to say about the Falcons:
10. Atlanta Falcons
This is a very big three. When everyone’s healthy, the Falcons will roll out a top-10 pick at running back (Bijan Robinson), wide receiver (Drake London) and tight end (Kyle Pitts). No team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 has had a top-10 homegrown player at those three positions at the same time. A few have done it with imported players; the only one since 2010 is the 2014 Lions, who had Reggie Bush, Calvin Johnson and Eric Ebron.
We can leave aside the quarterback situation and the cost it took to get those three players to Atlanta, so let’s talk about how fun this offense can be. Robinson enjoyed glowing reviews coming out of college and was regarded as one of the best players in the 2023 draft, independent of position. Tyler Allgeier was exceptional in this offense last season, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 0.7 rushing yards over expected per snap, so running back should not be an issue. The Falcons should have the league’s best one-two punch at halfback if Robinson lives up to expectations.
The Falcons threw the ball 24 times per game in a league in which the average team threw more than 33 times per contest, so receiving numbers were depressed for their two standouts. Taking a closer look suggests there’s the potential for big numbers there. London was targeted on a whopping 30.9% of his routes, the fourth-highest rate in football, and averaged 2.3 yards per route run. Give London the 573 routes Garrett Wilson ran for the Jets as opposed to the 379 London ran and his numbers prorate to 109 catches for 1,309 receiving yards.
Coming off a 1,000-yard season as a rookie, Pitts was seen as a potential challenger to Travis Kelce’s throne in Year 2. It didn’t go as well. Pitts’ catch rate dropped below 50%, and he finished with just 356 yards and two scores before suffering a season-ending knee injury. I’m still optimistic, given that he was averaging 1.8 yards per route run and commanding a target share north of 30% before the injury. The catch rate will bounce back, and if the Falcons throw more often Pitts and London will be able to produce big numbers.
In part, that will be because there isn’t much in the cupboard after them. Mack Hollins played a ton of snaps for the Raiders as their third wideout last season, but he ranked 70th in target rate and 74th in yards per route run. Jonnu Smith joins after two frustrating years with the Patriots, but he’s probably best as a blocking tight end. This group is going to go as far as the big three will take it.
The Falcons actually had the second-biggest jump in these rankings from 2022 to now, going from 27th overall last offseason to 10th. Only the Jaguars jumped higher, going from 28th to 9th. In 2021, the Falcons were ranked 21st.
Not only are the Birds ranked in the top 10 in the league, but they are also the best-placed NFC South team, with the Saints checking in at 14th, the Buccaneers at 18th and the Panthers at 31st.
Predictions and expectations are what they are and we can merely speculate during this time of the year, with football still months away but Barnwell does a good job of giving concise reasoning to his rankings.
What say you? Is this a good, fair spot for the Falcons?