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Atlanta’s franchise cornerstones going into the 2023 season

This list has grown since its inception, last year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Last year, during training camp and leading up to the preseason, I wrote an article highlighting whom I believed were Atlanta’s franchise cornerstones. In the middle of that article, I said this:

As a fun exercise, I hope to make this an annual series, identifying who the team’s continued cornerstones are going into each season, in a sort of “State of the Union” reflection.

I’d like to think that I’m true to my word in now continuing what I hope will become an established tradition. Each year, I will take a step back and try and identify and highlight who Atlanta’s franchise players are going into each passing season.

Before we dive into this year’s players, let’s first refresh ourselves as to what the parameters are in the definition of “franchise cornerstones” as established in last year’s article, which you can find here.

  • I will loosely label a “franchise cornerstone” as someone whom a franchise can rely on to give the team a high level of production, both in the short term and in the years to come. A “high level” will be defined as near Pro Bowl caliber or better, although making it to the Pro Bowl is not a necessity.
  • I will not count any rookies as “franchise cornerstones” in this exercise. Yes, we all hope that the likes of Bijan Robinson, Matthew Bergeron and the rest of the 2023 draft class will separate themselves and prove worthy of the label. However, we need to at least see what they can do at the NFL level first. The previous year’s rookies who did not see much of the field in their first year will also not count. You will not see Bijan Robinson on this list because of this criteria, so don’t freak out.
  • Older players near retirement (presumably within the next three years) will not be counted. Of course, nobody knows exactly when a player will retire, so we will have to make an educated guess on a case by case basis. Older players whose performance has diminished below that “high level” near Pro Bowl mark as they’ve aged will also not fit the criteria.
  • Players will need to be playing at a high level both in the present, and be more likely than not to stick around for at least the next three seasons in order to make this list. To be considered a franchise cornerstone, you have to look like you’ll be in it for the long haul. Once again, nobody can predict the future, so we will have to make our own educated assumptions here.

Without further adieu, here are the players whom I consider to be the franchise cornerstones for the Atlanta Falcons going into the 2023 season. The guys who, for the most part, you think about when somebody mentions the current Atlanta Falcons.

TE Kyle Pitts

I won’t sugarcoat it — Pitts had a horrible 2022 season. His stats of 28 catches, 356 receiving yards, two touchdowns and a 47.5% catch rate were all pedestrian at best and dreadful at worst. It was a far cry from his explosive rookie season, which saw him nearly break Mike Ditka’s rookie tight end receiving record while being selected to the Pro Bowl. His season was also cut short due to a torn MCL.

I’m expecting a massive bounceback for the highest drafted tight end in NFL history, who will continue to be heavily involved in the offensive game plan, but will require better quarterback play than what we saw from Marcus Mariota last season to unlock his full potential. Pitts is only 22 years of age and still years away from his prime. He boasts some of the best raw traits we’ve ever seen at the tight end position, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t put it all together given what we saw from him as a rookie.

DT Grady Jarrett

Atlanta’s leader and anchor in the middle of their defense, Grady Jarrett, continues along being his consistent self year in and year out, even during seasons when the defense has fallen apart around him.

In 2022, Jarrett led all Falcons with with 6.0 sacks (the second-highest mark of his career), 12 tackles for loss (the second-highest mark of his career) and 17 QB hits (the second-highest mark of his career), while finishing second with 29 run stops. Simply put, he continued to be the model of consistency we have come to expect even without much help around him — that’s been the story of Grady’s career.

Jarrett is signed through the 2025 season and has shown no signs of slowing down. The Falcons also went out and signed the man whom they hope will be the best sidekick Grady has ever played with along the interior of the defensive line in David Onyemata. Jarrett is maybe the face of this franchise at the moment, and it finally feels like he’ll have some legitimate and consistent help as he leads maybe the most talented defensive unit of his career in 2023.

CB A.J. Terrell

Terrell took a step back from his impeccable sophomore season in 2022. He allowed more than twice as many receiving yards in coverage and three times as many touchdowns in comparison from 2022 to 2021; but he remained in the top 15 among all CBs who played a minimum of 50% of their team’s snaps in fewest receiving yards allowed and in the top 20 in lowest completion percentage against, despite that regression.

Terrell is a key cog in Atlanta’s secondary and is one of the best young corners in the game. This will be his age-25 season, meaning he is just now entering his prime, and the Falcons hope that the addition of Pro Bowl safety Jessie Bates III in free agency will help to take the Clemson alum’s game back to the elite level we saw in 2021. Don’t be surprised if Terrell is Atlanta’s next major contract extension this coming offseason.

WR Drake London

I couldn’t put London on this list last year since he was freshly drafted and had yet to step onto an NFL field as of the writing of that article. However, the first wide receiver selected in the 2022 draft class did not disappoint in his rookie season, and he has given the Falcons hope that they have found the the next great franchise wide receiver, following in the line of Andre Rison, Roddy White and Julio Jones.

In 2022, London finished third among rookie WRs with 866 yards, behind fellow first rounders Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, and he had four touchdowns to match them both. Something seemed to have clicked for the USC product down the stretch of the season, when he became the number one target following Pitts’ injury — he had 428 receiving yards over the final four games of the season, including a career high 120 yard performance in the season finale.

The hope is that London can build on that stretch run, and that his chemistry with quarterback Desmond Ridder raises his ceiling in what should be a fierce career competition against Olave and Wilson.

G Chris Lindstrom

If we were to rank the best Falcons players regardless of position, Lindstrom would be number one. Playing a very unglamorous role along the offensive line takes him out of the team’s limelight, but the Boston College alum is one of the best overall players in the NFL.

Lindstrom followed his year three jump in 2021 with a quantum leap in 2022 which saw him grade out as the best offensive lineman in the NFL according to PFF, who gave him an absolutely ridiculous 95.0 mark. His run blocking grade of 93.1 was best in the NFL and his pass blocking mark of 81.7 was 16th among all lineman and sixth among guards. Lindstrom’s performance saw him rewarded with his first Pro Bowl appearance as well as being named as a Second-Team All-Pro selection by the Associated Press.

Chris Lindstrom is the best guard in the NFL and one of the best lineman, period. He’s still only 26 years old and he will be a Falcon for years to come after Atlanta made him the highest-paid guard in NFL history with a 5 year/$102 million contract extension this past offseason.

T Jake Matthews

The steady metronome of Jake Matthews continues to carry on year after year, as it has done so since the Falcons drafted the newest inductee in the Texas A&M Hall of Fame all the way back in 2014.

Following some rookie struggles, Matthews has consistently been a very above average although not quite elite player at the left tackle position, with borderline scary consistency. Looking at PFF’s offensive line grades, from 2015 on Matthews has registered an overall grade between 70 and 80 every single season and has put up a pass blocking grade below 80 just twice (with 77.2 being his low). This is the level of play and consistency that a majority of NFL teams would relish out of their left tackle, especially when you consider that Matthews is one of just two players in the league to not miss a single game since 2015.

Last season, Matthews graded out as the 10th-best lineman in the NFL in PFF pass blocking grade (min. 50% of snaps played) and he had his best run blocking grade since 2017 as well. Matthews has already climbed up to third in franchise history among tackles in number of games started, behind only legends Mike Kenn and Bob Whitfield, and he’s signed in to his current contract for four more seasons (including this upcoming one). He is the team’s longest tenured player and remains a trusted pillar of the offense.

T Kaleb McGary

Going into last season, I wasn’t even sure if McGary would be the team’s starting starting right tackle throughout the entire campaign, but what we saw in 2022 from the University of Washington product was the type of bounce-back which resurrects a career.

While McGary has been plagued by struggles as a pass protector in his time as an NFL player, he improved to about average levels in that phase of the game, allowing a career low in QB hits and hurries despite still conceding six sacks (tied for 16th-most in the league). What McGary always did well was run block, and in 2022 he became nearly the best player in the NFL at it, finishing third in PFF run block grade (91.6) behind only Lindstrom and Trent Williams. This combination of improved pass protection and all-world run blocking made McGary one of the best right tackles in football.

There was some fear that McGary would leave in free agency after he wasn’t franchise tagged, but he made his way back to Atlanta on a very reasonable 3 year/$34.5 million contract instead. Still just 28, McGary presumably has plenty of strong years ahead of him.

S Jessie Bates III

Bates is one of those needle-moving free agent signings that has the sort of instant impact on a specific side of the ball to the point where I feel comfortable saying that he’s already good enough to be considered this team’s franchise safety.

This was the big splash signing in a free agency period of splashes for the Birds, as they agreed to a long term 4 year/$64 million ($36 million guaranteed) contract with the best safety on the market, marking this as the biggest free agent acquisition since Alex Mack in 2016.

Bates was one of the team leaders on a very good and successful Cincinnati Bengals defense, being named a Second-Team All-Pro selection in 2020 and having a career high four interceptions last year. Bates is expected to stabilize the secondary, much in the same way Mack stabilized the offense line all those years ago, and to help the Falcons’ defense reach new heights. The best part? He’s signed in throughout the remainder of his 20s.

RB Tyler Allgeier

How about the value pick Tyler Allgeier offered? After being selected out of BYU in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft, he made an immediate impact on Atlanta’s rushing attack in year one.

Following an early season injury to Cordarrelle Patterson, Allgeier was given a chance to showcase himself with a flurry of double digit carry games before being given more of a legitimate bell cow role following the Week 14 bye week, being given 79 carries over the last four games of the season and taking them for 431 rushing yards. This run included two separate games of 135 and 139 rushing yards and three out of four performances where he had at least 100 yards from scrimmage.

This prolific final quarter of the season helped Allgeier become the first Falcon to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season since Devonta Freeman in 2016, and it helped him break William Andrews’ franchise rookie rushing record which has stood since 1979. Allgeier showcased himself as a legitimate asset to Atlanta’s offense and he isn’t going anywhere, even with Bijan Robinson’s arrival.

Would you add anyone else to this list, remembering that we’re not adding rookies?