With constant discussion about how the Atlanta Falcons are operating from ownership to coaching search, it would be best to take a break from analyzing their recent actions. The season has recently ended with numerous questions centering around the team. Instead of getting into potential head coaching candidates or continuing to dissect Arthur Smith’s failures, let’s focus on the current roster.
The overall roster did make strides in 2023, but they enter next season with several positional questions and players with plenty to prove. This final roundtable for the season will be solely based on personnel topics. Dave Choate, Adnan Ikic, William McFadden, Cory Woodroof, and Aaron Freeman join me for a blockbuster last edition of the season.
Outside of adding edge rushers, what do the Falcons need to address positionally to take the next step as a defense?
Dave Choate: I think you’re going to need to see them add another high-end presence on the interior of the defensive line. The Falcons worked wonders cooking up a solid run defense with a rotation of in-season acquisitions, late round draft choices, XFL imports, and the like after Grady Jarrett went down, but Jarrett’s injury and David Onyemata’s frequent ailments in the second half of the season made it clear the team is overly reliant on a pair of 30-plus players to generate any kind of high-end play and pass rushing punch.
The team badly needs a young, high-end player capable of taking on 60-75% of the defensive snaps over the course of a full season, allowing them to rotate Jarrett and Onyemata more to save their legs while keeping useful role players like LaCale London and Ta’Quon Graham in rotational roles. I fully expect the team to invest real draft capital and/or dollars into an EDGE rusher, but I also fully expect them to prioritize a day two investment in an interior defensive lineman who can help unlock the full potential of this group up front. A player like that isn’t just good for the line, as they can help improve the efficacy of Kaden Elliss and Troy Andersen as a pass rushers up the middle.
Honorable mention goes to safety, where I’m not sure DeMarcco Hellams can be a long-term, above average starting safety, and where the team has likely soured on Richie Grant being that guy, too.
Allen Strk: The more the season went on, the more the limitations at safety alongside Jessie Bates became apparent. Grant can’t be counted on as a starter. His limitations in coverage cost the team on numerous occasions. While Hellams showed promise, there isn’t any evidence to suggest he should start by default. The new coaching staff will need to dial in on a player who can be an in-the-box presence and hold their own in man coverage. This addition will likely come from the draft, considering how much they invested in the safety position by signing the now All-Pro Bates.
They will need to have a more structured setup at cornerback after the previous regime shuffled around the position too often in the later part of the season. Clark Phillips should play an integral role next season. It remains to be seen what happens with Jeff Okudah, Dee Alford, and Mike Hughes. The secondary faltered badly at times when the losses began to pile up. If they want to play more three-safety looks and stick with running man coverage more consistently, they must make moves to gain long-term stability on the back end.
Adnan Ikic: The addition of another high-level safety to partner with Bates. I’m not going to mince words here — the Grant experiment has been a disaster, and he is not a starter-worthy player in this league. Grant does some stuff well, like rushing the passer as a blitzer, but he’s horrendous in coverage, giving up a team-high 532 receiving yards in 2023 (which is also the fourth-most among all safeties in the NFL) as well as a team-high five receiving touchdowns. It’s time to realize the sunk cost and admit that taking him in the high second round was an abject failure.
Hellams impressed as a seventh-round pick last year, but he seems to be more of a very good depth piece as opposed to a full-time starter, especially at this point in his career. If this defense wants to take the next step, they must upgrade drastically from Grant. He was the weak link last season.
William McFadden: I think finding a long-term solution at the number two corner spot should be high on the list. Okudah started the season well, but it looked like his level of play dropped off quite a bit once he sustained an ankle injury. Phillips did reasonably well down the stretch, but he was picked on in the season finale to great effect by New Orleans. It’s possible a new staff would view that as a priority spot to add someone who fits the style they want to implement. Also, you can never have enough defensive line depth.
Cory Woodroof: The team needs to settle its secondary with so much uncertainty at the corner spot next to A.J. Terrell and the safety spot next to Bates. Atlanta could have one of the best secondaries in the NFL if they can get those spots settled this offseason.
Aaron Freeman: After the pass rush, the secondary should be the next priority. Potentially adding two new starters at cornerback and safety should be their targets. For some unknown reason, the team seemingly soured on Okudah in favor of rookie Phillips as the starting cornerback opposite Terrell by year’s end. While Phillips played admirably in that role, I think it would be a mistake for the team to consider him a long-term solution at the position due to his physical and athletic limitations too often rearing their head down the stretch. The Falcons have had a revolving door opposite Terrell for four consecutive years, and finding some stability should be a top priority.
Safety is also a pressing need due to the disappointing year of Grant. Grant still can add value as a role player in dime defense, but finding a more reliable option in deep coverage or more effective matching up versus tight ends could do wonders for this defense.
Secondarily, adding another athletic linebacker that can contribute to the Falcons’ struggles to cover tight ends and spy mobile quarterbacks should also be on their defensive to-do list.
Did A.J. Terrell have a disappointing season, or are the explosive plays he allowed overshadowing his otherwise steady high-level performances?
Dave Choate: He didn’t have a disappointing season, but Terrell did have the kind of season that will give the team some pause before investing in him with the kind of contract that pays him like he’s a top 15 cornerback in the NFL.
Terrell was more frequently targeted this year than last, if only by 10ish targets, and his rate numbers for yards per reception and completion percentage were in line with 2023. He also allowed five fewer touchdowns and both upped his number of run stops and cut his missed tackle rate, per Pro Football Focus, showing some improvement on a sometimes tough 2022 season.
But Terrell also allowed more yards after the catch, his a career-long 47 yard reception against him, and was penalized a career-high seven times while still allowing over 500 yards on 44 receptions with four touchdowns. The number of times he appeared to get spun around in coverage or simply slip at an inopportune time this season was too high, and those big blemishes marred the mostly good moment-to-moment work.
Terrell has been elite for one full season and stretches of a couple of others, but the missing consistency and major lapses at times have been frustrating, even if the body of work is still quite good. Atlanta has a big decision to make coming up regarding whether they believe in Terrell’s highs merit a contract that will place him among the league’s most highly-paid cornerbacks, or if they think he’s not quite the top-shelf player who the team should be paying as one of the better corners in football.
Allen Strk: Terrell created such a high standard for himself in 2021. In a mostly forgettable season where nobody watched the Falcons outside of fans, writers, beat reporters, and football junkies, he emerged as a top-tier cornerback that quarterbacks started to avoid. They aren’t looking to avoid him anymore, which signifies a dip in his performance. His decline was more in 2022 than in 2023. That previous season showed him more responsible for touchdowns being allowed and being caught out of position playing more Cover 2 looks under Dean Pees.
Nielsen’s scheme allowed him to play more man coverage, which was more beneficial to his aggressive style. It did result in some subpar performances against Mike Evans and D.J. Moore. His tendency to either get caught in hand-fighting and not locating the ball or not trying to disrupt the route at the line of scrimmage in press coverage can lead to these explosive plays being allowed. That said, Terrell is still one of the more consistent cornerbacks in the league. He only allowed 58% of passes to be completed, per Pro Football Focus, which is a solid number.
Allowing plays downfield to big, physical receivers and committing careless pass interferences are frustrating aspects of his game. That is something that must be corrected for him to get back to being a premier corner. His disappointing season came in 2022. This season was encouraging, albeit recognizing the possibility his ceiling may be very good instead of exceptional.
Adnan Ikic: It would depend on what lens we are looking at Terrell through. Let me explain. He had a much better season than in 2022, where he led the entire league in touchdowns allowed in coverage, but he’s still chasing the peak of his sophomore season in 2021, which was undeniably the best of his career.
Overall, Terrell finished dead average among CBs in terms of yardage allowed in coverage (42nd out of 83 eligible players in his position who played a minimum threshold of at least 50% snaps in coverage this season), but also allowed the 19th most TDs in coverage among CBs (who met the same threshold of snaps). PFF ranked him 22nd in terms of coverage grade in 2023, which is just outside the top 1/4th of corners in the NFL.
In a vacuum, he presents as a very solid CB. However, he will also be looking for elite money in his position. Now that he is eligible for a contract extension (he would play under his fifth-year option in 2024 otherwise). I have no doubt his agent will be asking for something in the $20 million per year range. When compared to every other CB in the league in a vacuum, I’d say he had a solid year; as someone looking to command money that the elites are being paid, I would say his production falls short and into the levels of disappointment. Terrell’s only true elite year among his first four came in 2021, and now the question begs if that’s enough to make him one of the highest-paid players in his position. I would hesitate to do so.
William McFadden: He didn’t have a disappointing season, but he did have some really memorable disappointing moments. And we can add A.T. Perry “Mossing” Terrell for a touchdown to the list that also includes Evans’ long touchdown and Moore’s stiff arm. Those were not pretty.
But the Falcons played a lot of man coverage this season, and they did so with way more successes than failures. Make no mistake, though, there are going to be failures in man coverage, and Terrell’s were notable. On the whole, though, I think this was a better season than last year but a worse season than 2021.
Cory Woodroof: Terrell’s mistakes often mask the great work he typically turns in for the Falcons. Sure, he allowed some costly touchdowns this season, but most cornerbacks do have their flubs in the year. Plus, he played a lot of great wide receivers this season and finally got the best of Evans in that last matchup after years of struggles. Terrell is one of the best corners in the league, but he’s just going to let up some plays now and again.
Aaron Freeman: Absolutely not. The nature of the cornerback position means that people tend to remember and focus on the handful of times where the player is beaten versus the countless times when the player did his job. Terrell had two games where he struggled against Evans and Moore, two of the most productive receivers in the NFL this season. Outside that, Terrell was mostly lights out. He also had some memorable breakdowns versus Calvin Ridley, DeAndre Hopkins, and a few others, but we’re talking about a literal handful of bad plays that might represent one percent of Terrell’s season.
The only concern I’d have with Terrell’s 2023 season is wondering if he performed at a level to merit being the highest-paid corner in the NFL now that he is eligible for a contract extension. He’s deserving of being among the highest-paid corners in the NFL, given his overall body of work these past four seasons. However, splitting hairs about his performance makes more sense when it comes to the millions of dollars in compensation due to him.
Should the Falcons keep the same starting offensive line, or does the unit need reinforcements?
Dave Choate: I would look at changing out one of the tackle spots, but the financial situation doesn’t make that easy.
Matthew Bergeron is a fine young guard, Drew Dalman made huge strides at center, and Chris Lindstrom is an elite player at right guard, but the questions at tackle are more pressing. Jake Matthews is still good, but is also heading into his age-32 season and the Falcons have an out on his contract in 2025, when the dead cap will be $12 million versus savings of $9ish million. But given his level of play and durability, he’s not my priority replacement. That would be Kaleb McGary, who is an excellent run blocking tackle but is not a high-end asset in pass protection and was dinged up last year on multiple occasions. I’d really only prioritize getting rid of McGary as a starter if the Falcons drafted Michael Penix Jr., who is a left-handed quarterback and would not want McGary on his blind side.
But with savings minimal for Matthews and McGary next year, it’s probably best to run it back and look at bolstering depth, with a tackle an absolute must in the 2025 NFL Draft.
Allen Strk: Considering the investment at both guard spots and Dalman’s steady improvement, the interior line is well-stabilized moving forward. A conversation should be had about how the Falcons had no drop-off when Storm Norton replaced McGary at right tackle for multiple games. That should raise questions about McGary’s value, especially when considering how much of an impact Smith’s scheme had on him.
Barring a dramatic coaching change, it’s difficult to see them moving on from McGary. The same can be said for Matthews, who isn’t as dependable as he once was. He doesn’t anchor as well in the run game. As you suspect, given his age, the athleticism isn’t quite the same. If any offensive linemen were to be replaced, Matthews would be the likely player because he doesn’t offer what he once did. Given the quarterback instability, they would likely keep the offensive line secure without any significant changes. Unless there is a clear path to upgrade at either tackle position, they should keep the same starting five. This is still a talented overall group that was more let down by quarterback play, predictable scheming, and disappointing tight end blocking.
Adnan Ikic: I’m keeping the same unit together going into 2024, without a doubt. It was a shaky start to the season, especially on the right side of the line, but things meshed very well as the year went on, and the line became a unit of strength on offense for the second consecutive season. PFF ranked the Falcons’ offensive line as the fourth-best in the NFL and graded their overall pass-blocking efficiency at 87.4, which was second in the league.
Lindstrom had the highest PFF blocking grade among all guards for the second consecutive season. Dalman was second among all centers behind only Detroit’s Frank Ragnow (among players who played a minimum of 50% of snaps). Matthews remained a steady metronome as a pass blocker, and Bergeron showed the flashes as a rookie that Atlanta knew he had when they decided to trade up in the second round to take him.
Despite taking a step back as a run blocker (he was still solid in this area, just not elite like in 2022), McGary had his best season in pass protection. Norton delivered steady play in relief during injuries to McGary to the point where I would even be comfortable bringing him back as the swing tackle next year as well.
William McFadden: A lot of it will depend on the style of football that the next coach wants his offense to have. Right now, this unit is best suited to a zone-running attack and moves very well in space. There is consistency with most of this group, and they have performed at a high level in the past.
A new staff may look at not having to address multiple spots along the offensive line as a luxury, allowing it to focus on finding a quarterback and adding more talent at the skill positions. Outside of adding more depth, which every team should always try to do, I’d imagine center and right tackle would be the two spots most likely to get a look.
Cory Woodroof: With the Falcons veering into win-now territory no matter how this coaching search goes, keeping Matthews in place seems prudent. His pass blocking has always been stronger than his run blocking, so perhaps the next offensive scheme could lean on that more.
Center is the spot I’m very curious about, where a new offensive coordinator might want a center who protects the quarterback with more consistency. McGary’s future is also in question. Lindstrom and Bergeron will be here for a while, and for good reason.
Aaron Freeman: A lot depends on the offensive system of the new head coach and/or play-caller. The Falcons have spent the better part of the last decade constructing an offensive line built to excel in an outside zone-blocking run scheme.
If the new regime wants to shift to more of a gap-blocking scheme, it will potentially require a complete revamp of this unit in the coming years. But regardless of scheme, multiple late-season injuries to starters limited the offense down the stretch. They can certainly improve the depth to avoid dealing with that in 2024.
Which player has the most pressure on them going into the 2024 season, between Kyle Pitts, Drake London, and Bijan Robinson?
Dave Choate: It’s easily Kyle Pitts. The Falcons put Pitts in a rough position by drafting him fourth overall, because he essentially had to be one of the great tight ends in NFL history to justify that level of investment. Instead, despite the fact that he’s just 23 years old and has over 2,000 receiving yards in the NFL, his career to this point is widely viewed as a disappointment relative to expectations.
Much of that is overblown, as Pitts may not be a great blocker but is a very good receiving tight end, and should be better in 2024 when he’s presumably fully recovered from the significant injury he suffered in 2022 and spent 2023 playing while recovering from. But Pitts is heading for a big payday in the not-too-distant future and badly needs to prove he’s an elite tight end (or, if he wants to argue for the classification, wide receiver) to get that major contract. Arthur Smith and this team’s putrid quarterback play are and should be getting the lion’s share of the blame for Pitts’ production the last couple of years, so it’s in his best interest to have the kind of season that confirms that.
Either way, I’m not certain his future in Atlanta is a lengthy one, even if I’d like it to be. A changing of the guard will remove one of Pitts’ champions from the organization and the Falcons may need to deal players to move up and acquire a top pick for a quarterback, which could spell a swift end to Pitts’ tenure. If he is here in 2024, it’s a huge year for him to prove that he’s a long-term fixture with the Falcons and one of the league’s better players at his position.
Allen Strk: As much as Robinson has pressure to live up to the loftiest of standards for such a highly-touted running back, the answer must be Pitts here. What he did in his rookie year remains as one of the most remarkable individual seasons for a tight end. How he has become somewhat of an anonymous figure in the past two seasons is incredibly frustrating. It has put doubt on a player who has proven he can play at the highest level in a below-average offense in 2021.
The dynamic tight recently acknowledged the significance of playing every game after MCL/PCL surgery. It was evident he didn’t look healthy at times. From his lack of burst after the catch to not going full speed on vertical routes, there were concerns about whether he could be the player everyone envisioned he could become two years ago. The new coaching staff will certainly look to do everything possible to maximize his capabilities in different formations. It will be on Pitts to get fully healthy, improve at making contested catches, and become competent as a blocker. Another uneven season could mark the end of trying to replicate his rookie season and put the finishing touches on an abysmal first draft class for Terry Fontenot.
Adnan Ikic: This is pretty easily Pitts to me. After a great rookie season where he became just the second tight end ever to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in his first year, Pitts has vastly underwhelmed for someone of his draft pedigree. 2024 feels like a make-or-break year for him in Atlanta, and it’ll come with all of the change that we’ve been clamoring for.
There will be a new coach, a new playcaller (this could be one in the same), and a new quarterback. He will be a full season removed from his injury. There are no more excuses for Pitts — he has to deliver now.
William McFadden: We all know it’s Pitts. But I do really like his perspective on the 2023 season, which he shared in a recent Instagram post. It appears he was feeling the lingering effects of his knee injury late last season for a good bit of this year’s campaign. He was pleased to make it through all 17 games healthy, which indicates a walk-before-you-run mindset.
When coming back from a knee injury, that’s a very understandable approach to take. However, this all sets up a very pivotal fourth year for Pitts because he needs to prove he can become a game-in, game-out difference-maker.
Cory Woodroof: Pitts could shutter all the narratives around his past couple of seasons with an explosive 2024, and he’s still the player he was in his rookie season. Smith’s scheme never put him in the best positions, even if he was used plenty on the field.
A more pass-friendly offensive coordinator could find more suitable ways to get him open, and he could position himself as the elite talent we know he can be. For now, he’s got the most pressure of that trio for the upcoming fall.
Aaron Freeman: It’s definitely Pitts. The Falcons will have to decide on Pitts’ fifth-year option this offseason. While I assume they will pick it up due to the modest salaries of tight ends (Overthecap projects it around $10.5 million), it does make 2024 somewhat a make-or-break year for Pitts.
Despite seasons that didn’t live up to expectations the past two years in part due to being limited by injuries, Pitts remains one of the more productive tight ends in the NFL. This past year he finished 11th in receiving yards among tight ends. But the reality is that expectations for Pitts are much higher than being a borderline top ten player at his position.