Most Falcons fans are delighted with the club’s offseason.
The front office added playmakers at all three levels of the defense, adding David Onyemata and Calais Campbell to the defensive line, Kaden Elliss to the second level, and Jessie Bates III on the backend.
That doesn’t include the additions of Bud Dupree, Lorenzo Carter, Mike Hughes, and Jeff Okudah on the defensive side of the ball. Also, consider the talent that was already there — A.J. Terrell, Grady Jarrett, and Ta’Quon Graham — as well as the young, ascending talent — Troy Andersen, Richie Grant, Arnold Ebiketie, and DeAngelo Malone.
The offense already featured a number of playmakers in Kyle Pitts, Drake London, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Tyler Allgeier. But the front office wasn’t satisfied. Atlanta acquired Jonnu Smith via trade and Bijan Robinson with their first-round pick. By season’s end, it will be regarded as one of the best skill groups in football.
The offensive line also returns four of five starters from one of the best units a year ago. Matt Hennessy and Matthew Bergeron will battle for the starting left guard position, but the offensive front looks great on paper.
A lot of the team’s hope rest on Desmond Ridder‘s shoulders. Arthur Smith’s offense is quarterback-friendly, but Ridder will have to make a handful of big-time throws every game; there will come a time when the third-round pick will have to put together a game-winning drive, which he’s shown an ability to do.
Even still, the Falcons did a lot of improving this offseason, but not everybody is as impressed as fans around Atlanta. Bill Barnwell of ESPN pegged the Dirty Birds’ 2023 offseason as the 26th-worst in the NFL.
What went wrong: Is this a long-term solution? The Falcons are better on defense, but you could take issue with some of the choices they made. Bates is a great player in the prime of his career, but can you say that about anybody else in that list above? Campbell is a legend, but he’s 36. Onyemata and Dupree are 30, and the latter missed some or all of 15 games over his two disappointing seasons in Tennessee. Elliss had played 196 defensive snaps before a seven-sack season a year ago. Hughes and Okudah are joining from Detroit, which just fielded the worst pass defense in football and decided to overhaul its secondary.
The Falcons added a lot of veterans on one-year deals. Barnwell is correct, but I would argue maintaining that flexibility can be seen as a positive. The Falcons have a number of young, up-and-coming defenders to take the place of those veterans that will test free agency again next offseason.
Clark Phillips III is primed to take over the slot. Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone will have every opportunity to assume significant roles on the edge. Ta’Quon Graham had a breakout season in 2022.
Even still, the Falcons are set to have a mountain of cap space next offseason, as they did this year. The ability to constantly tweak rosters in free agency should be seen as a positive. Drafting franchise players will always be a more practical approach in the long term than signing them in free agency.
Most of Barnwell’s gripe comes on the Desmond Ridder front.
Speaking of Ridder, the Falcons didn’t bring in significant competition for their young quarterback, with Taylor Heinicke joining from Washington to serve as the backup. Has Ridder, a third-round pick in 2022, earned that sort of free path toward the starting role? He started four games last season, one of which came against the Saints, where he threw the ball 26 times … for 97 yards.
Ridder averaged 6.2 yards per attempt across those four starts, and although he didn’t throw an interception, he did lose two fumbles. The Falcons went 2-2 with him at the helm, but the only starting quarterback he faced for an entire game during that stretch was Andy Dalton. The Ravens fielded Tyler Huntley; the Cardinals started (and nearly won with) David Blough; and the Bucs removed Tom Brady in the second quarter of a meaningless game to run out Blaine Gabbert and Kyle Trask.
Ridder deserves more time, but this feels like a Davis Mills situation, where a team talks itself into a third-round pick looking passable down the stretch and doesn’t do more to be competitive at quarterback if that player fails to work out.
None of those things are wrong, but perspective should be considered. Ridder’s supporting cast, including the play caller, is far superior to Davis Mills‘ situation, so the likelihood that Ridder succeeds is much higher.
Moreover, writing any player off after a four-game sample size is lazy and quite frankly disrespectful. I’m not here to defend Desmond Ridder because his starts last season left a lot to be desired, but we should all give him a bigger sample size before we make sweeping judgments.
I will contend that the Falcons’ playoff hopes hinge on Ridder. If he can become an average quarterback in this league, the Falcons will find themselves champions of the NFC South and hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2016.
Photographer: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire