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Season preview roundtable: Assessing the Falcons personnel with Week 1 looming

From wide receiver and cornerback depth to the major potential in the trenches, there is plenty to ponder about what Atlanta can become.

NFL: AUG 24 Preseason - Steelers at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Heading into the previous two Falcons seasons, expectations were minimal and the questions we had about the team were straightforward. We hoped individual players would emerge, rather than setting genuine standards for talent across the roster. Those times are gone now.

The Falcons are built to compete following an exciting offseason and personnel growth across the roster. Arthur Smith has worked over two years to finally be in the position where the team must be ready to win.

That expectation means more intricate questions about positions. Envisioning how well certain players can fare is another exciting aspect of evaluating a playoff-caliber team, as well as how the pieces fit together for a franchise on the rise.

The monthly roundtable will be getting into it as Dave Choate and Matt Chambers join me. This is the second roundtable of the new season following last month’s edition with Kevin Knight.

Are you concerned about the Falcons’ current group of wide receivers, or does the playmaking ability at running back and tight end alleviate those worries?

Dave Choate: If everyone stays healthy, my expectation is that Drake London and Kyle Pitts dominate targets, Mack Hollins and Jonnu Smith mix in, and Bijan Robinson and Cordarrelle Patterson are hell on wheels out of the backfield and potentially out wide. Mix in a few targets for Scotty Miller, MyCole Pruitt, and Tyler Allgeier along the way and this offense should hum, even if the wide receiver depth chart is less than inspiring beyond London.

What I worry about is injury. Knock out Hollins, Miller, or god forbid London and suddenly the Falcons are in the same position they were in back in 2021: Trying to make things work with maybe the league’s least-inspiring corps. London will mask weaknesses for this team so long as he’s out there and the Falcons will be capable of moving the ball so long as the team’s other weapons remain healthy, but the fine line between “fine” and “on fire” here is deeply worrying. For all their remarkable depth at cornerback and major strides in that regard along the defensive line, the team still has paper-thin depth elsewhere, and it’s readily apparent at receiver today.

Allen Strk: The lack of depth could be problematic when trailing by double digits in the second half against the top teams in the league. A highly favorable schedule should prevent the Falcons from facing that predicament until January. They have several dynamic pass-catchers on the roster at running back and tight end. Pitts, Robinson, Patterson, and Smith are all capable of being productive on the outside in moments. Utilizing them in that area in moderation will be pivotal in making up for the lack of consistent wide receivers.

Arthur Smith’s offense is built on personnel versatility. With positionless football becoming the new theme in Atlanta, the plan is to personify it with varied formations and personnel groupings. That strategy should work nicely for a team well-equipped to keep defenses guessing. They will likely have to spread the field and throw the ball more frequently against teams like Philadelphia and San Francisco. Of course, they must earn their place to secure that potential playoff matchup.

Matt Chambers: I’m not overly concerned with the current group of wide receivers based more on the expected number of dropbacks versus the interesting talent outside of the wide receiver position. On a more typical offense, the wide receiver group would be problematic. I don’t think the Falcons have a run rate as high as last year but with a (hopefully) improved defense and keeping things easy on Desmond Ridder, the opportunities for WR2 and WR3 should be pretty light. I think past London, wide receiver targets will be based more on matchups than your typical pecking order, a la tight ends under Kyle Shanahan.

With that said, my guess is London, Pitts, and Robinson will end up with a similar amount of catches this year. Mix that with the expected number of carries, depth at wide receiver isn’t my biggest concern.

There haven’t been high expectations for the offensive line in years. Do you believe they can be one of the premier units in the league?

Dave Choate: No question. We saw it a year ago, when pass protection wasn’t ideal but was certainly better than the fiasco that was 2021, and the run blocking was superlative. That happened despite a one-year stopgap at left guard in Elijah Wilkinson (and his multiple injury replacements), plus Drew Dalman’s growing pains at center.

You’re swapping out Wilkinson, Matt Hennessy, and Colby Gossett for a genuinely intriguing mauler in Matthew Bergeron, and putting a more experienced Dalman back out there with stalwarts in Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom. You could argue that Kaleb McGary could regress—a scary thought, but a legitimate one—and that this unit is all too dependent on good health. My counter to that would be that every line in the NFL right now is dependent on good health, and the talent and coaching acumen here with Dwayne Ledford is outstanding. The Falcons should be able to keep Desmond Ridder fairly clean and will pave the way for an absurd year for Robinson, Allgeier, and Cordarrelle Patterson.

As is the case with the wide receiver group, the concern here is depth. The interior at least has a seemingly capable stopgap in Ryan Neuzil, but right now the lack of a compelling swing tackle is perhaps the biggest concern I have heading into the opening Sunday against the Panthers. We’ll see if that player is Josh Miles, who won the battle over the summer, or if the team adds him to the roster.

Allen Strk: Strides must be made in pass protection to solidify their status as a top-tier unit. For all the terrific pin and pulls and combo blocks, they weren’t convincing in pass protection. They were overwhelmed on the road in games against Tampa Bay, Carolina, and New Orleans. Not all their shortcomings can be placed on the instability at the left guard position. Dalman struggled to pick up blitzes and recognize designed rushes. McGary’s short arms can still be a major hindrance against long-armed, twitchy edge rushers.

No team used more max protection sets than the Falcons last season. That can’t solely be attributed to being a run-first offense and trying to compensate for Marcus Mariota’s poor pocket awareness. The offensive line is extremely talented, with a strong balance of nasty maulers and intelligent, athletic specimens. If they can grow collectively in pass protection, with Bergeron proving to be an instant upgrade at left guard, the offensive line will live up to all high expectations.

Matt Chambers: One of the premier rushing units, absolutely. I am cautiously optimistic about Bergeron’s chances early as the opening-day starter at left guard. If he’s a positive force, which he showed flashes of in preseason, your line looks pretty stout in the run game. The weak spot is Dalman, who is fine enough at center. I don’t expect the group to make any Pro Bowl nods based on five-step drops, but this is likely an elite group opening up holes in the run game.

Plus in year three, Ledford and Smith have to have their blocking scheme fully implemented — this should be a finely-tuned machine. More than Ridder, the shuffled defense, or even Robinson, I’m most excited to watch this offensive line punish defenses this season.

If everyone is healthy within the group, which three cornerbacks are playing in the nickel defense on opening day?

Dave Choate: It’s A.J. Terrell, Jeff Okudah, and Dee Alford.

Terrell is self-explanatory, but I think a healthy Okudah is a player the Falcons are legitimately excited to get out there as a starter. He’s a player who flamed out of Detroit owing to injury and inconsistent results but still has the talent to be a force as a starter. The hope is that a change of scenery helps, and he and Terrell could be one of the league’s better young duos if it does.

Alford has earned this by fighting like hell for every opportunity and playing well in all of them. In his second year in the NFL, Alford is the starting nickel, and his ball skills and strength in coverage from last year ought to only improve with more experience and a higher comfort level, not to mention better players up front to help the secondary. I’d expect all three to hold down these jobs all season long, assuming good health.

Allen Strk: Despite his inconsistency and injury history, Okudah is too talented not to start. His ability to challenge opposing receivers and embrace man coverage responsibilities makes him a terrific fit to thrive in Ryan Nielsen’s defense. While he hasn’t come close to putting everything together, his potential to be a top-level corner is evident from performing impressively in battles against Justin Jefferson and Terry McLaurin. It’s more difficult to choose who plays inside.

Tre Flowers and Mike Hughes have veteran experience but have been targeted by opposing quarterbacks in recent seasons. They were a step behind too often in their respective roles. Alford has shined in limited reps and deserves to have a genuine chance to play nickel. Although Clark Phillips possesses impressive intangibles, the undersized rookie corner could use more time to learn and develop. Alford would be my pick to line up with Terrell and Okudah to assemble an intriguing trio.

Matt Chambers: Terrell and two guys who are going to get targeted.

Which defensive lineman not named Grady Jarrett ends up having the biggest influence on the Falcons’ defensive improvement?

Dave Choate: It’s Calais Campbell. I am excited about Zach Harrison’s potential and David Onyemata will make a major impact, but Campbell is a sack sage who can impart lessons to the likes of Harrison and Ta’Quon Graham while offering quality snaps as a run-stopper and a pass rusher. The veteran leadership piece is a big part of Campbell’s appeal, but for a nearly 37-year-old, he’s also still a terrific player, one fresh off a six-sack, 16-stop season.

Simply put, if this defense is going to be better, Campbell will be a huge piece of the puzzle, both literally and figuratively.

Allen Strk: Campbell will have the biggest locker room influence based on his countless years of experience and tremendous accolades. From a performance standpoint, Onyemata will be the interior presence that the defense has been missing since 2017 with Dontari Poe. His ability to command double teams, run vicious stunts, manhandle guards, and create chaos with his first step will make a significant difference.

The edge rushers will have more favorable opportunities. Linebackers can get clean looks to make stops. Most importantly, Jarrett will be able to capitalize on one-on-one matchups and not be at the center of the opposing offense’s attention every time he is on the field. Onyemata’s impact won’t necessarily regularly show up on the stat sheet. It will be apparent from watching him wear down offensive lines and shut down potential running gaps.

Matt Chambers: Campbell is the easy answer, with the even easier reasoning that the Falcons haven’t had a 6-foot-8 lineman with six Pro Bowls before. The more complicated answer is that Campbell probably won’t have the biggest impact on the field.

He’s a very well-respected veteran addition, which Atlanta has lacked for some time, perhaps since Dwight Freeney during Atlanta’s Super Bowl run. Campbell brings plenty of experience with him to help motivate and elevate. That is invaluable to a defense that has been in constant flux and lacking an identity since Keanu Neal tore his ACL.