The Atlanta Falcons reported to training camp yesterday, and the roster is ripe with competition. Here are some of the most intriguing position battles:
The quarterback competition in Atlanta will headline most articles covering the team’s training camp. After trading away Matt Ryan this offseason, the Falcons quickly signed Marcus Mariota and drafted Desmond Ridder as the two are set to compete to take over as the organization’s first signal caller other than Matty Ice in over a decade.
Most people, including me, would give the nod to Mariota based on his experience against NFL defenses and in Arthur Smith’s offense. However, reports coming out of Flowery Branch suggest Ridder isn’t like most rookie quarterbacks. He’s not struggling with the verbiage and schematics of an NFL offense. Teammates are also gravitating toward him as a leader — the two most important things for a young signal caller in this league. Falcons fans will more than likely see both players at some point during the 2022 season, though.
Prior to the offseason beginning, the Falcons receiving core looked like one of the worst in the league. Calvin Ridley was suspended indefinitely, and Russell Gage signed with the Buccaneers, leaving Kyle Pitts as the only reliable receiving target.
However, Terry Fontenot did his best to bolster the group, drafting Drake London and trading for Bryan Edwards. It might not be the most proven unit, but the influx of talent is undeniable.
London, Edwards, Olamide Zaccheaus, Auden Tate, and a few others will compete for only a few opportunities. Arthur Smith’s passing attack will surely feature Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson, so the targets will be few and far between for the wideouts. Despite Arthur Smith using 11 personnel (3 WRs) more than any other formation, the Falcons’ offense ran almost half of their plays out of two-receiver sets. So, the obvious answer would be Edwards and London for the majority of snaps, but don’t count out Zaccheaus stealing opportunities, given his pedigree working from the slot.
The next few position battles should be watched closely because the offensive line was easily the weakest unit of the team a year ago. Three starters could’ve been upgraded, but the Falcons did little to nothing to provide competition other than sign a few reserve-caliber players in free agency.
Jalen Mayfield was arguably the worst offensive lineman in football during his rookie season. Germain Ifedi and Elijah Wilkerson were signed during free agency as both can compete for snaps at right tackle and left guard. The Falcons also drafted Justin Shaffer. All four are set to compete, and your guess at who comes out on top is as good as mine.
Matt Hennessy was atrocious at times in pass protection, but Drew Dalman wasn’t much better in the few chances he was afforded. The Falcons invested in Dalman, so that’s where my money would be. However, Hennessy certainly has the experience advantage. Center is one of the most important positions on offense, and the Falcons can’t afford another terrible season from this spot.
Kaleb McGary‘s clock is running out in Atlanta. The team decided against picking up his fifth-year option, revealing how the staff and front office feel about the former first-round pick. The Falcons brought in Ifedi and Wilkerson to compete at multiple spots this offseason, and right tackle is certainly one of them. I’d be shocked if one of them unseats McGary, but the competition will heat up come training camp. Honestly, even the backups aren’t inspiring. This offensive line is going to be horrendous again in 2022. Mariota or Ridder will be running for their lives if the rushing attack doesn’t dramatically improve.
The Falcons completely overhauled this unit. Ade Ogundeji is the only returning member as the front office signed Lorenzo Carter while drafting Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone. From an experience standpoint, Carter will likely get the nod to play every down. However, after that, it’s a crapshoot.
Ogundeji is stout against the run but doesn’t have the pass rush acumen of Ebiketie and Malone. I imagine the two rookies will play a prominent role in obvious pass-rushing downs while the second-year Ogundeji will assume the early-downs role. The Falcons would love for the Notre Dame product to take a step in his pass rush development, but I wouldn’t count on it. He showed little to no improvement in that area a year ago.
Interior Defensive Line:
The Falcons signed Eddie Goldman a few weeks ago, but an untimely decision to retire has forced the Falcons to look for an answer already on the roster. Anthony Rush, Ta’Quon Graham, Marlon Davidson, and others will compete for snaps next to Grady Jarrett. Now, those are different kinds of players. Rush is more of a run-stuffing nose tackle whose snaps will come during early downs, while Graham and Davidson are better served on pass rushing downs. Still, the snaps next to Jarrett are up for grabs.
It seems from the outside that the Falcons are still waiting for Deion Jones to get healthy to either cut or trade him, but he could find himself on the roster when Week 1 rolls around. If that is the case, I’d imagine Debo and Rashaan Evans to be the starters, given their experience. Nick Kwiatkoski and Mykal Walker shouldn’t be counted out, though. The former is as experienced as Jones and Evans, but his best years are definitely behind him. In comparison, the latter hasn’t had the chance to be a full-time starter in the NFL yet but has flashed at times.
Early reports have indicated Walker is blowing the staff away. Kwiatkoski is still capable of providing solid run defense, and Troy Andersen is an athletic marvel who could really become a difference-maker in Dean Pees’ defense. The second-round rookie will likely play sparingly during his first season because of the mental side of the game. On top of all the speculation regarding Jones’ future in Atlanta, this position battle should be the most competitive this offseason.
All eyes will be on Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins to come out of camp as the starting duo on the backend. Erik Harris will be the veteran in the room and will still likely garner some playing time in nickel and dime packages even if the two youngsters grab the starting jobs. The staff loves Harris; he’s in the right place most of the time, which Pees demands out of his secondary, and Grant struggled to grasp the playbook during his first year in Atlanta. I’d say odds are it’ll be Grant and Hawkins, but watch out for the ever-reliable Harris to compete for starting reps.
Photographer: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire