2022 NFL Preview: Falcons got bad in a hurry, and rebuild in post-Matt Ryan world
The Atlanta Falcons pursued Deshaun Watson, came up short (they might be relieved about that now) and it cost them another quarterback, too.
Before Matt Ryan heard that the Falcons were looking into trading for Watson, it seemed he planned to be back in Atlanta. Understandably, Ryan wanted out after the Watson news broke.
"Had none of this gone down? There’s probably a chance — a pretty good chance,” Ryan said on "The Ryen Russillo Podcast" in regards to remaining in Atlanta. “But it did, you know? So when it does, when the situations change and the circumstances change."
The situation might have been handled poorly, but trading Ryan wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Maybe Atlanta needed to be forced into that overdue decision.
Doing your best to remain mediocre, or close to it, is what a lot of NFL teams do. An 8-9 or 7-10 season might not get NFL coaches or GMs fired, but 3-14 probably will. When the Falcons decided to trade Julio Jones last offseason, they should have jumped into a full rebuild right then. There was no great reason to keep the 36-year-old Ryan to be a sub-.500 team, which is exactly what the Falcons were with Ryan. They held on at least a year too long.
Without Ryan, the Falcons will be bad. There's no way around it. But it's better than chasing third place in the NFC South for the next few years.
There's not much to feel hopeful about. Marcus Mariota is likely just a bridge quarterback to whoever the Falcons draft in the first round next year, unless 2021 rookie Desmond Ridder does enough to show he can be the quarterback of the future. The Falcons' No. 1 wide receiver is a rookie. Atlanta's top running back is a 31-year-old converted receiver. Their best player might be Calvin Ridley, and he'll be serving a one-year suspension for betting on the NFL. It also seems unlikely he'll play for Atlanta again. Their best player who will actually play in 2022 is a tight end, Kyle Pitts. You won't find many good teams that are built around a tight end, no matter how talented he is. The Falcons might have one of the worst offensive lines in the league. On defense Atlanta had 18 sacks, which was 11 fewer than any other team. No player who had more than two sacks for Atlanta last season remains on the roster. And now linebacker Deion Jones will miss the rest of the offseason.
If there was any team that needed to find the factory reset option, it was the Falcons. They took on Ryan's dead cap hit, which at $40.5 million is almost $7 million more than any other dead cap hit in NFL history. They have an unbelievable $63 million in dead cap hits, the most in the NFL. The hope is they'll eat a rough season and get the cap in order, and that will facilitate a rapid rebuild starting in 2023.
"We're taking it on the chin this year," Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said, according to NFL.com. "But taking it on the chin this year and how you look at where we are next year, it's significant.
"With this, you take it on the chin this year and it's our job to find value in free agency and to draft well and to put a good football team on the field this year, even with that dead cap. It's an obstacle, but we look at it as an opportunity, and that's our job. We're not making excuses about it. Us taking it on the chin right now, it makes a significant difference for us next year and the future."
Coach Arthur Smith and Fontenot will be hoping owner Arthur Blank has patience. Blank has been patient before, though he turns 80 years old in September and who knows how blowing Super Bowl LI has affected his mindset. The only thing that seems certain is the Falcons are in for a dry spell. Maybe the downturn won't last long after "taking it on the chin" this season.
The last time the Falcons entered a season without Ryan as their regular starting quarterback was 2007, when Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman split the job. Even if the Falcons never won a championship during the Ryan era, there were some great moments. He had a memorable career in Atlanta. It was time to move on, even if the Falcons resisted that change for too long. And now it's going to hurt.
Over the last two years Atlanta traded Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, arguably the two greatest Falcons ever, and got just a second- and third-round pick in return for both. That's what happens when you hold on too long. It's hard to be excited about an offseason in which the Falcons voluntarily signed up for $63 million in dead cap space. Marcus Mariota is a fine, cheap gamble (two years, $18.75 million). Cornerback Casey Hayward has had a good career and Cordarrelle Patterson had a breakout 2021, but signing two players past age 30 to two-year deals worth $11 million and $10.5 million might not yield a great return on investment. Trading for failed Raiders receiver Bryan Edwards probably won't work out, but it was a frugal risk. The draft was good, with receiver Drake London headlining it. The big USC wideout was the eighth overall pick. Second-round picks Arnold Ebikete, an edge rusher, and linebacker Troy Andersen could pay off soon. Quarterback Desmond Ridder probably won't hit big out of the third round but he wasn't bad value. Hopefully for the Falcons, this draft class starts to form a foundation for the future.
Marcus Mariota had a good run with the Tennessee Titans, though that has been forgotten. Over an eight-game stretch his second season, he had 21 touchdowns and three interceptions with a 117.7 passer rating. He had a pedigree as a Heisman Trophy winner and second overall pick of the draft. Then it fell apart. He seemed to lose all of his confidence. The last time we saw him as a starter was October of 2019, when he was benched for Ryan Tannehill. The Titans offense took off after the move to bench Mariota, and Mariota has attempted 31 passes since. This is likely his last chance to establish himself as a starter, though he probably could be a long-term backup. It's not out of the realm of possibility he has a nice season, though it's not a great environment around him. If he falters, the Falcons might take a long look at third-round pick Desmond Ridder, a very good college quarterback at Cincinnati who slipped to the 74th overall pick.
The Texans and Falcons are tied for the lowest season win total at BetMGM. Atlanta's win total is a paltry 4.5. It's hard to bet any team to go under a win total that low, but it's not like anyone can envision the Falcons blowing past that total and competing for a playoff spot. One good thing for the Falcons, in regards to the odds, is first-round receiver Drake London being the second favorite for offensive rookie of the year at +650.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "It was fun to see Cordarrelle Patterson have a spike season in his ninth NFL campaign. He finally received a heavy offensive workload, collecting 205 touches — that’s 120 more than his previous career high. He became a valuable hybrid player for the Falcons, and by season’s end, he was getting plenty of reps as a traditional running back. And entering the 2022 season, most fantasy providers (including Yahoo) have Patterson recognized at running back, forever the critical fantasy position.
"We always knew the guy had talent. Patterson was a former first-round pick, and made four Pro Bowl trips in his first eight seasons, always as a special-teams ace.
"It’s no fun to throw cold water on the story, but we need to stay pragmatic. Asking Patterson to be a de-facto running back again feels unrealistic, an unsustainable business model. He’s also into his age-31 season, and even considering his modest workload through the years, that’s a risky age pocket for most running backs or receivers. Although Patterson isn’t unreasonably priced in the early market — his Yahoo and NFFC ADPs are both an eyelash under 100 — he’ll be one of my fades for the fresh season. Late-career breakouts are generally horrible bets in the follow-up season, and the Falcons offense as a whole does not inspire confidence."
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The Falcons were 7-10 last season, but they were lucky to get to seven wins according to a few stats. The Falcons were 6-2 in games decided by seven points or less, and 3-0 in games decided by a field goal or less. That's some good fortune. They also had the third-best injury luck in Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost metric. According to FO's estimated wins and pythagorean wins (which calculates how many wins a team should have had based on point differential), the Falcons profiled as a 4.7-win team. In addition to everything else working against Atlanta for this season, it's also likely that some regression is coming.
Can Kyle Pitts and Drake London lead the Falcons forward?
The strength of the Falcons is either cornerback, where 2020 first-round pick A.J. Terrell is becoming a star, or the size of their pass catchers. The Falcons invested the fourth overall pick last year in big, versatile tight end Kyle Pitts, who delivered with a 1,026-yard season, and then drafted Drake London eighth overall this season. Many had Garrett Wilson as the top receiver in this year's class, but the Falcons preferred London's 6-4, 219-pound frame. Both of those guys will be a matchup problem. Pitts had just one touchdown last season, but that seems like a fluke. He and London will both help their quarterbacks with contested-catch brilliance, this season and in the future.
No matter how bad the Falcons look on paper, they were in the playoff race last season until a Week 17 loss at the Buffalo Bills. If Drake London is an immediate star, perhaps he and Kyle Pitts can help Marcus Mariota resurrect his career. If the Falcons can be somewhat competitive again, that would look good on second-year coach Arthur Smith. Though, maybe a season in which the Falcons are just good enough to narrowly miss the playoffs and then buy in further to Mariota as he nears 30 years old wouldn't be the best outcome.
Perhaps Matt Ryan is cooked. It's also possible that he had a bad season because his offensive line was one of the worst pass-blocking units in the league, he had almost no traditional run game to help out, and his targets were among the worst in the NFL. The Falcons didn't do a ton to fix any of that — with the exception of picking receiver Drake London in the first round — and does it seem like Marcus Mariota can thrive in that environment? Finishing with the first overall pick of the 2023 NFL draft is well within the Falcons' range of outcomes. That actually wouldn't be all too bad for the franchise. If you know you're going to be bad, at least get a great draft pick out of it.
The Falcons swallowed hard and punted 2022. There was a decision to be made: push some of those cap hits to future years to be somewhat competitive this season, or take a bad season and have more flexibility in the future. The Falcons chose the latter, which made sense. But it does mean this season should be painful. The Falcons will be in contention for the first pick of the draft next year. At some point in the future, a miserable 2022 season might seem worth it to Falcons fans.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders
17. Arizona Cardinals
16. Tennessee Titans
15. Cleveland Browns
14. Indianapolis Colts
13. Philadelphia Eagles