The Falcons have completely transformed their roster over the offseason, bringing in a haul of proven veterans to go along with ascending young talent acquired via the draft. There are a lot of fascinating stories, but the ones I am focused on in this piece are the players with the most to prove. There are four Falcons I identified; all with different situations.
This piece was written before Okudah went down with an injury.
The Ohio State product hasn’t lived up to his lofty draft status after the Lions took him third overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Detroit shipped Okudah to Atlanta for a fifth-round pick without even completing his rookie contract. After coming out as the consensus top corner in his class, Okudah hasn’t even come close to realizing his full potential.
Injuries can be attributed to much of his struggles, suffering back-to-back season-ending injuries in his first two years, including a ruptured Achilles in Week 1 of his sophomore campaign. However, he is coming off the best season of his career.
The stat line won’t blow anyone away, only logging one interception but notched career-highs in tackles (73), passes defended (7), and most importantly, appeared in 15 games. Health is the most important note of last year, but a change of scenery cannot be understated either.
“I think a change of scenery sometimes is good for players, and I think it’s been good for Jeff,” new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen told reporters in June.
Nobody quite knows what the Falcons will do under Nielsen, but there will be a lot of man coverage, which Okudah thrives in. He’s got a lot to prove and will have every opportunity to do so opposite A.J. Terrell. Who knows? The Falcons could’ve found Terrell’s long-term running mate.
Another first-round pick, Dupree logged nearly 20 sacks over his final two seasons with the Steelers, where he began his career, which he parlayed into a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Titans in 2021. However, injuries marred his stint in Tennessee.
He only lasted two seasons before the Titans cut bait. Over that time, he only posted seven sacks, eight tackles for loss, and 17 quarterback hits in 22 games. Dupree has a ton to prove because his next contract is riding on this season. He chose Atlanta over Pittsburgh for a shorter term deal to hit free agency again.
“I know what Pittsburgh is, I know they want me there, I know what I am getting myself into,” Dupree told Ramon Foster on The Ramon Foster Show, via Sports Illustrated. “This is the hardest decision I’ve had to make. I wanted to be able to just do a one-year deal, and Pittsburgh wanted two. I want to have a good year and hit the market again.”
He’s from Georgia and is back home looking to prove his time in Tennessee was an aberration. A bounce-back campaign for Dupree could garner another long-term, lucrative free agent deal.
Arthur Smith has already said it — Ridder has a lot to prove in 2023. The club’s personnel is certainly playoff-caliber, but the only thing holding this team from winning the worst division in football is the quarterback position.
Not only is the roster ready to compete right now, but the Falcons had a chance to upgrade the position this offseason. There were a couple of options, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garapolo being the most readily available. Though some believe Atlanta could’ve acquired Lamar Jackson following the Baltimore franchise tagging the former MVP, that isn’t the case.
The Falcons would’ve had to make Jackson an offer, which the Ravens could’ve just matched. Terry Fontenot would then have been doing Eric DeCosta’s job for him in contract negotiations. There was no avenue for Lamar Jackson to come to Atlanta; however, the masses don’t know that.
They believe the Falcons chose Ridder over Jackson. True or not, a lot is riding on the third-round pick this season. He likely will have 2023 to prove he’s the franchise quarterback of the future.
Which one of these isn’t like the others? Ding, ding, ding! The Falcons made Pitts the highest-drafted tight end in league history, so expectations were sky-high. It’s quite possible they were never attainable in the first place, but it’s gone too far.
Some are claiming it’s a make-it-or-break-it season for Pitts, or that he’s already a bust; it’s blasphemy. He posted 1,000+ yards as a rookie en route to a Pro Bowl selection and is somehow considered in the bust conversation.
He nearly broke Mike Ditka‘s all-time league rookie receiving record and followed it up with 356 yards and two scores on 28 catches across 10 games, ending the season on injured reserve. However, it wasn’t all his fault. The drop-off from Matt Ryan to Marcus Mariota, even with Ryan being at the end of his career, was too great for Pitts to overcome.
Arthur Smith ran the ball more than just about anyone in the league, limiting the number of targets Pitts garnered compared to the 2021 season. He also regularly took the ball out of Mariota‘s hands. Moreover, when Mariota did throw the ball, it generally was off-target.
Somehow, everyone forgot how talented Pitts is, and he’s got a lot of people to remind in 2023.
Photographer: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire