6 burning questions as Falcons approach training camp

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The offseason is over. The Falcons report to training camp this week, and the 2023 campaign begins. There is palpable excitement in and around Flowery Branch as the regime finally emerges from underneath the dead money from their predecessors’ bad decisions. It’s the most talented roster since Arthur Smith took over, so let’s explore a few burning questions as we approach training camp.

Is Desmond Ridder the answer?

As if Matt Ryan wasn’t a polarizing enough franchise quarterback, Falcons fans are already at war over Desmond Ridder. There’s reason to be optimistic. He showcases elite intangibles, which everyone around him praises him for. The coaching staff and his teammates continually acknowledge his development and ability to lead.

However, his four games last year weren’t anything to write home about. Ridder had an 86.4 passer rating, which was lower than Marcus Maritioa, and he only totaled 177 passing yards per game. He incrementally improved after each outing, but it wasn’t enough to warrant the Falcons placing all of their eggs in his basket; hence the club signing veteran backup Taylor Heinicke.

Only time will tell if Desmond Ridder is the answer for the Falcons at quarterback. Atlanta’s playoff hopes hinge on its signal caller.

Who will start at left guard?

The position has been a revolving door for several seasons now. The Falcons thought Jalen Mayfield was the answer, but that experiment couldn’t have gone worse. I wouldn’t be surprised if the former third-round pick never started another game for the Falcons. Elijah Wilkinson gave the offensive line some semblance of stability, but injuries forced a myriad of others into the fold, including a candidate to start in 2023.

Matt Hennessy has worked with the first team in minicamp, but that shouldn’t be read into that much. Arthur Smith doesn’t just give rookies the world; he makes them earn it. Matthew Bergeron is that competition. The burley Syracuse product is 6-5 and weighs 320+ pounds. The second-rounder is expected to be the left guard of the future, but once again, only time will tell.

Who will start at nickel?

Everyone assumes Jeff Okudah will start opposite AJ Terrell on the boundary, so who will man the slot? Different personnel groups will dictate different responses from the Falcons’ defense. Big nickel looks will likely mean Jaylinn Hawkins or a bigger corner, like Tre Flowers, gets the nod. Regular nickel is where things get interesting. Mike Hughes, Clark Phillips III, Dee Alford, Cornell Armstrong, and Darren Hall will all battle for the opportunity to be the starting nickel. It will be the most fierce position battle of training camp.

Will the defense improve under Ryan Nielsen?

The Falcons haven’t had a decent defense since Arthur Smith took over or even before he did. Under Dean Pees, Atlanta was among the worst defenses in the league in points allowed, sacks, yards, and every other metric. To be fair, a lot of those shortcomings can be attributed to poor personnel. The Falcons were among the cheapest defenses in football last year.

Now, there are sizeable investments on that side of the ball — Jessie Bates, David Onyemata, Calais Campbell, Kaden Elliss, etc. Will the defense improve under Ryan Nielsen? Since he joined the Saints staff in 2017, New Orleans has recorded 281 sacks, which is the second most over that span, finishing in the top 10 in sacks in five of the last six seasons. Pressuring the quarterback has been tough for the Falcons. Will it change in 2023?

What will the running back rotation look like?

The Falcons had a fifth-round pick break the franchise record for rushing yards. Tyler Allgeier proved to be a diamond in the rough and gave Atlanta a dominant two-man backfield with Cordarrelle Patterson. The pair were among the best running-back duos, but the front office made Bijan Robinson the highest-drafted running back since Saquon Barkley. How will the Falcons allocate touches?

Allgeier will assume a more traditional running back role and be the Falcons’ bowling ball on short-yardage and goal-line opportunities. Though he’s capable of excelling in any scheme, gap and power are probably better suited for his running style. Robinson and Patterson are better described as offensive weapons instead of running backs. They are interchangeable throughout the offense; they’ll be used out of the backfield, in motion, in the slot, on the boundary, and everywhere in between.

Patterson was used in a more traditional role in 2022, taking a vast majority of his snaps as a running back. Expect him to be used closer to the way he was in 2021, splitting snaps as a running back and everywhere else more evenly. Robinson is equally, if not more, versatile. He’s a better pure runner than Patterson and might actually be a better route runner. Falcons fans can expect him to be used in a completely revolutionary role.

It will be interesting to see how Arthur Smith utilizes the trio.

Is it playoffs or bust?

This is the first season where there are legitimate expectations for the Falcons. Most of the dead money is off the books, and it’s the most talented roster of the new regime’s tenure. After committing $250+ million this offseason, Arthur Blank is surely expecting improvements from 7-10. The division is the worst in football, and the supporting cast is playoff-caliber. It will be all up to Desmond Ridder. If not now, then when? It’s playoffs or bust for the Falcons.

Photographer: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire

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