The Falcons made sweeping personnel changes this offseason. After two years of minimal additions, the club was finally able to spend considerable cap space in upgrading the roster.
Terry Fotenot rounded out the offensive side of the ball, acquiring Jonnu Smith, Bijan Robinson, Matthew Bergeron, Scott Miller, and Mack Hollins; however, his most impressive work came on the defensive side of the ball.
The defense was completely overhauled. Ta’Quon Graham started every game last year before an injury ended a breakout campaign, and the former fifth-round pick will likely only assume a rotational role thanks to the additions of David Onyemata, Eddie Goldman, and Calais Campbell. The edge group is also much deeper with the return of Lorenzo Carter and the addition of Bud Dupree.
The gem of the free agent class was Jessie Bates III, who will quarterback the defense from the backend. The cornerback room didn’t improve its top end talent, but the depth was dramatically improved with Jeff Okudah, Mike Hughes, and Clark Phillips coming aboard.
It’s by far the best roster of the Arthur Smith era, but it doesn’t move the folks over at Pro Football Focus, who ranked Atlanta the 26th-best roster in football, noting the biggest strength, weakness, X-factor, and rookie to watch.
Biggest strength in 2023: Offensive Line
Atlanta fielded decisively the best run-blocking unit in the NFL last season while also carrying the eighth-best pass-blocking grade as a team. Chris Lindstrom was the best guard in the NFL in 2022, and retaining Kaleb McGary at right tackle is a huge plus. Jake Matthews is still a very good pass protector on the left side, and Matthew Bergeron was added this year in the second round to potentially start at left guard. Bijan Robinson should excel early behind this group.
Returning four of five starters is an under-appreciated facet of this group. Offensive lines don’t work individually, and continuity is a consistent aspect of the most successful units. I expect Drew Dalman to take another step forward. Center is the one position that can turn the Falcons’ offensive line from very good to elite.
Biggest weakness in 2023: Quarterbacks
The Falcons’ defense was poor last season, but they at least poured resources into it this offseason. It’s tough to believe much in Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke at quarterback, though. Whoever starts likely won’t be expected to throw more than 25 times per game. They need to be efficient in the play-action game and limit turnovers to allow the run game to shine.
Wide receiver has an argument, but quarterback is by far the most important position in football, and it’s an undeniable fact the Falcons don’t have a franchise signal caller. Desmond Ridder will have to prove that he’s the guy.
X-Factor for 2023: TE Kyle Pitts
Pitts’ production dropped off a cliff last season. He has the potential to be the best tight end in the league and needs to be a legitimate threat for the Falcons to succeed. Drake London is the only returning player on the team who posted more than 400 receiving yards last season. Pitts has to be at least the second-best option in order for the Falcons to overcome their shaky quarterback situation.
Kyle Pitts was the best rookie tight end we had ever seen, nearly breaking Mike Ditka‘s all-time receiving record from a first-year player. The highest-drafted tight end in league history fell off a cliff last season because of Marcus Mariota. I don’t even mind speaking in absolutes. Mariota was absolutely dreadful and held Pitts back. 2023 should be different.
Rookie to watch: RB Bijan Robinson
Robinson should be the early favorite to win Rookie of the Year. He’s the most talented back to come out of the draft in the past decade and is running behind the NFL’s premier offensive line. A rushing title is not out of the question in Robinson’s first year.
This one doesn’t even need to be discussed. If Bijan Robinson doesn’t win the Rookie of the Year award, it will be disappointing. He’s an electrifying playmaker that will immediately be the most impactful first-year player in the league. The sky is the limit for him in this Falcons offense.
Over/Under 8.5 win total: Under
It’s hard to give the Falcons a winning record with Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke as their quarterbacks. Even so, the NFC South may see an under-.500 division winner again. Bijan Robinson fits in perfectly behind Atlanta’s offensive line, and Arthur Smith is an excellent play caller. With that in mind, the Falcons feel like a seven-win team that could come out on top in a couple more games if their quarterbacks overachieve.
The Falcons haven’t been one game over .500 since 2017, and I think that changes in 2023. The Falcons will host a playoff game after taking the division from the Saints.
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