Desmond Ridder drags Falcons down in ESPN roster rankings

NFL: JAN 01 Cardinals at Falcons

The 2023 roster is the best of Arthur Smith’s tenure as Falcons head coach. Following back-to-back 7-10 finishes, the club finally rid itself of the mountainous dead cap that plagued the front office from fully participating in free agency the last two offseasons.

Smith’s team fielded some of the cheapest units in football, spending less on the offense and defense than just about every other team in the league while boasting more dead money than just about everyone.

Despite those financial limitations, the Falcons still seemingly stayed competitive in most games last year. Given the proximity the Falcons were to the postseason, it’s not outlandish to somewhat expect Atlanta to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017 and possibly host a game for the first time since 2016.

The roster has been dramatically improved since the new regime took over, but the folks over at ESPN still aren’t budging. They don’t believe in what’s going on inside Flowery Branch, and the driving factor in the short-selling is Desmond Ridder.

Seth Walder and Mike Clay of ESPN (subscription required) ranked the roster the 26th-best in football, with its strongest unit being the interior defensive line and the weakest unit being the quarterback position.

Strongest unit: Interior defensive line. I had quite a few good options here, including running back and offensive line, but I’ll give the nod to Atlanta’s much-improved D-line. Two-time Pro Bowler Grady Jarrett is the notable incumbent and one of the anchors of this group. Six-time Pro Bowler Calais Campbell is now 36 years old, but he’s fresh off another strong season and will work from the edge and inside. New DC Ryan Nielsen brought David Onyemata over from New Orleans, and he’ll play a big role inside. This is a huge upgrade for a defense that was 29th in EPA last season. — Clay

Weakest unit: Quarterback. Atlanta is undoubtedly building around its run game, and that was evidenced by its failure to upgrade on 2022 third-round flier Desmond Ridder. The 23-year-old attempted 115 passes as a rookie, and his only two TDs came against Tampa Bay’s reserves in Week 18. If Ridder struggles, veteran Taylor Heinicke (career 34 TDs and 24 INTs) is the next man up and offers little reason for optimism. — Clay

There’s definitely an argument to be made for the offensive line and running back units to be the strongest on the roster, but I have no qualms about Clay choosing the interior defensive line; it’s by far the most improved group on the roster.

Last year, Ta’Quon Graham played a prominent role along the front, and he experienced quite the breakout campaign, aiding Grady Jarrett in recording most of his sacks and pressures during that span before Graham headed to the season ending IR. This year, Graham can expect to assume a more supplementary rotational role behind David Onyemata and Calais Campbell. Moreover, Eddie Goldman returns from retirement. It’s a group with elite top end talent and depth.

Now, onto the weakest unit — quarterback. I don’t think it’s even debatable because of how unproven Desmond Ridder is. He’s only got four starts under his belt, which left much to be desired. Much of the Falcons’ playoff hopes rest on the third-round pick’s shoulders. He has an elite supporting cast and a stout defense; there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to succeed.

Walder’s X-factor was intriguing too.

X factor for 2023: CB A.J. Terrell. In 2021, Terrell allowed fewer EPA as the nearest defender (-29.4) than any other corner in the league, per NFL Next Gen Stats. But last year, he gave up more EPA (28.3) than any other corner in the league. That’s a wild swing. But corners are notoriously variant, and we know Terrell can be elite. The question is: Will he be elite again in 2023? — Walder

Terrell’s 2022 campaign was disappointing, considering his 2021 All-Pro season was one of the best by a corner in recent memory. However, regression was always inevitable. That season was so special that putting up anything close would be nearly impossible. With that being said, Terrell is still an elite player at his position and should experience positive regression in 2023 for more than one reason.

Not only was he playing hurt last year, but his supporting cast was abysmal. The defense is much improved, and Terrell should benefit from playing behind the best defensive front of his career and next to the best safety of his career. Expect a Pro Bowl caliber 2023 for Terrell.

And last but not least, ESPN’s nonstarter to know.

Nonstarter to know: RB Tyler Allgeier. He may be second-string now, but do not forget about him behind first-round pick Bijan Robinson. Allgeier recorded 154 rushing yards over expectation in 2022, eighth-most among all running backs, per NFL Next Gen Stats. — Walder

This is a fine nonstarter to know, but it’s kind of a lazy take. Everyone knows who Allgeier is already. He broke the franchise record for rushing yards by a rookie and garnered consideration for the Rookie of the Year award.

Photographer: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire

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