Expectations are rising around the Falcons, as they should.
The new regime is past the point of excuses. There’s nothing holding them back from making the playoffs, even if Desmond Ridder isn’t some franchise cornerstone.
Arthur Blank shelled out more than $250 million this offseason in contract extensions and free agent deals. The owner is expecting improvement, which would mean at least eight wins, but I’m going to assume he means a playoff berth, given the club’s proximity to postseason contention up until the final weeks of the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
Sure, nobody expected the Falcons to make any noise in either of Arthur Smith’s first two seasons, but times have changed. The club boasts the most talent of the regime’s tenure, featuring a star-studded skill group and plenty of proven veterans on the defensive side of the ball.
The NFC South is wide open, the roster is much improved, and the Falcons have one of the easiest schedules in football… there’s no reason not to host a playoff game in January as division champions.
Hell, I think fans are expecting it. The Falcons are a ways away from competing for the Lombardi, but Bill Barnwell doesn’t care how far Atlanta or any organization is for that matter, paving the path for the Dirty Birds to become Super Bowl champions.
17. Atlanta Falcons
Chance to win Super Bowl LVIII: 1.4%
Chance to make the playoffs: 50.5%
Finally, the Falcons have a defense! After years of running out defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, cornerback A.J. Terrell and a cavalcade of overpaid veterans or overmatched young players, Atlanta has added significant talent in free agency. Coordinator Ryan Nielsen should run out as many as seven new starters this season, including veterans with a track record of turning teams around in defensive end Calais Campbell and safety Jessie Bates. A defense that hasn’t been good since the peak of the Dan Quinn era finally has the players to deliver even a league-average performance in 2023.
league-average defense with the offense we saw in 2022 would be a playoff team this season, especially coming from the NFC South. Falcons fans are optimistic that quarterback Desmond Ridder in his second season will be an upgrade on the oft-frustrating Marcus Mariota, and rookie Bijan Robinson gives Arthur Smith yet another playmaker in Atlanta’s run-happy offense. The path for the Falcons looks a lot like that of Smith’s former employers in Tennessee: Remember that the Titans advanced to the AFC Championship Game with an unwanted Ryan Tannehill in 2019 and claimed the 1-seed in the AFC two years later.
A lot would have to go right for the Falcons to reach their ultimate goal.
Let’s first assume everyone stays healthy. Defensively, everyone gels immediately and instantly realizes their full potential. A.J. Terrell, Grady Jarrett, and Jessie Bates III play at an All-Pro level; David Onyemata, Calais Campbell, Bud Dupree, and Kaden Elliss play at a Pro Bowl level. All of the youngsters — Ta’Quon Graham, Arnold Ebiketie, Troy Andersen, and Richie Grant — take the necessary steps forward. Most importantly, Ryan Nielsen proves to be a hell of a game planner and coordinator.
Offensively, the biggest question mark is Desmond Ridder. Can he manage this Ferrari of an offense? Can he limit mistakes and maximize efficiency? In this scenario, Ridder becomes a league average quarterback and enables Atlanta’s playmakers — Kyle Pitts, Drake London, Bijan Robinson, etc. — to flourish in Arthur Smith’s offense.
It’s a hell of a thought, but let’s just make the playoffs first.
Photographer: Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire