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State of the 2023 Atlanta Falcons: Is Desmond Ridder ready to help lead a playoff push?

Where does your squad stand in 2023? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Falcons organization, Falcons fans around the world and especially those who cheer for the Falcons because they loved using Michael Vick in Madden 2004 ...

Atlanta has a very interesting team this season. My friend Charles McDonald (@fourverts) described the Falcons as the NFL version of an AND1 Mixtape. I love that description. Will the intrigue translate into wins in 2023? That's what I'm here to explore.

2022 rewind

One high from last season: Beating the 49ers in Week 6. This was right before the Niners traded for Christian McCaffrey, so they weren't yet operating at their 2022 peak. Still, the Falcons kind of dominated one of the best teams in the NFC, holding San Francisco scoreless in the second half and everything, despite fielding a defense that finished the year ranked 27th in yards allowed. It was fun.

One low from last season: Losing four straight down the stretch. It was kind of a weird year for the Falcons. They never got above the .500 mark, but they put themselves on the fringe of the playoff picture with a win over Chicago in Week 11 that pushed their record to 5-6. But then they dropped a winnable game against the Commanders the following week, beginning a four-game skid that took them out of the running for the NFC South.

2023 VIPs

Quarterback: Desmond Ridder. The 2022 third-round pick played started the team's final four games last season and performed reasonably well (63.5% completion rate, 708 passing yards, 2:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 86.4 passer rating). Though the sample size was small, the Falcons must have liked enough of what they saw, considering they chose only to add veteran journeyman Taylor Heinicke (replacing Marcus Mariota) to the QB depth chart this offseason. And according to NFL Network's Cameron Wolfe, Ridder has been the "clear starting quarterback" in Atlanta since March, operating with the respect of his teammates and support of head coach Arthur Smith.

Ridder was a four-year starter at Cincinnati, helping the Bearcats reach the College Football Playoff in 2021. I was recently talking to rookie Bears receiver Tyler Scott about Ridder, and though it might not be surprising to hear (like when I start in on my child's AYSO exploits), Scott was glowing in his review of his former Bearcats teammate.

I believe in Ridder. I know his debut was not earth-shattering, but I am heavily factoring in the upside of his situation. There's nothing better for a young QB than to have an offensive-minded head coach and be surrounded with talent. That's what the Falcons have provided for Ridder, who will be working behind a solid offensive line, handing the ball off to Bijan Robinson, Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson and throwing to a group that includes Kyle Pitts and Drake London. The 23-year-old has to improve his ball security (three fumbles in four games as a rookie), but he's a good passer with the athleticism to move when he needs to. He reminds me of Alex Smith, who could run, even if his game was based primarily on his aerial skills.

Projected 2023 MVP: Calais Campbell, defensive end. After ranking 31st with just 21 sacks last season, the Falcons clearly need to get to the quarterback at a higher rate. Campbell can still help in that department (he was good for 5.5 sacks in 14 games with the Ravens last season) -- but what the 36-year-old veteran signee brings to the locker room and sideline might be more impactful than anything he does on the field. Don't get me wrong: Calais needs to go out there and perform, but the 2019 Walter Payton Man of the Year seems to be exactly the kind of personality who can help a team that has finished no higher than third in the NFC South over the past three seasons take the next step forward in its growth.

New face to know: Jessie Bates, safety. The Falcons signed Bates early in free agency, and it was one of the biggest -- if not best -- moves of the offseason, adding one of the top safeties in the game to a defense that had an obvious need, coming off a year in which Atlanta ranked 25th in passing yards allowed. My favorite Bates stat: He held opponents to a -8.7 completion percentage above expectation in 2022, eighth-best among DBs with 450-plus coverage snaps, according to Next Gen Stats. He will be missed by the Bengals and should be huge for the Falcons.

2023 breakout star: Kyle Pitts, tight end. If you follow my exploits in fantasy football, then you know that I was banking on the fourth overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft having a breakout season in 2022, elevating himself to the upper end of the tight ranks alongside the likes of Travis Kelce and George Kittle. Unfortunately, Pitts tallied 28 catches for 356 yards and two TDs in 10 games before suffering a torn MCL. But I still believe Pitts can break out. He's kind of a unicorn out there. And let's be real: It does sometimes take tight ends a while to get going at the NFL level. Atlanta's trade for TE Jonnu Smith could actually benefit Pitts, freeing him up to be a bigger receiving threat this year.

2023 braintrust

Table inside Article
Head coach Arthur Smith
General manager Terry Fontenot
Offensive coordinator Dave Ragone
Defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen
Special teams coordinator Marquice Williams
  • Arthur Smith's seat seems like it has the potential to get hot this season. He got the gig in 2021 after serving as offensive coordinator for a Titans team that finished second in yards and fourth in scoring in 2020, but thus far, he hasn't enjoyed anything close to that kind of success in Atlanta, hitting high-water marks of 24th in yards and 15th in scoring last season. I'll be honest: I thought Marcus Mariota was going to do better than he did as the quarterback in 2022 (170.7 passing yards per game, 15:9 TD-to-INT ratio). Still, Smith was brought in to fix the offense, and while the Falcons obviously thrived on the ground (ranking third in rushing yards), a higher level of success across the board (the passing offense finished 31st) would help all involved. Smith doesn't want to end up like one of those school dads who always brags about how good he is at fixing cars then ends up picking up his kid on a skateboard because his car isn't working. Yes, I know that was awfully specific.
  • Ryan Nielsen takes over a defense that has been completely retooled and loaded up to make a serious run at the NFC South this year -- to the point that Smith even joked former DC Dean Pees might have buyer's remorse over retiring. And I get that. I once spent like three months working for a car rental company, and I asked management why we couldn't wear polo shirts instead of ties. Six months after I left, everyone was wearing polo shirts. I'm still mad about that. In addition to Jessie Bates and Calais Campbell, Atlanta added veteran pass rusher Bud Dupree, defensive tackle David Onyemata, linebacker Kaden Elliss and former first-rounders Jeff Okudah and Mike Hughes at cornerback.
  • Terry Fontenot spent on the defense like someone who was finally given the corporate credit card. He also took a risk on drafting a running back in the top 10. I love it. He operated like the kind of co-worker you want to make sure you're hanging out with on a business trip, because you know who's going to be picking up dinner.

Roster reshuffling

Below is a rundown of the Falcons' most notable roster developments for the 2023 season, including this year's draft class, as well as key acquisitions and departures via free agency and trade.

Table inside Article
Draft class (round-pick) Key additions Key departures
Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas (1-8) Taylor Heinicke, QB Marcus Mariota, QB
Matthew Bergeron, OL, Syracuse (2-38) Mack Hollins, WR Damiere Byrd, WR
Zach Harrison, DE, Ohio State (3-75) Scott Miller, WR Olamide Zaccheaus, WR
Clark Phillips III, DB, Utah (4-113) Jonnu Smith, TE Anthony Firkser, TE
DeMarcco Hellams, DB, Alabama (7-224) Bud Dupree, OLB MyCole Pruitt, TE
Jovaughn Gwyn, DL, South Carolina (7-225) Calais Campbell, DL Colby Gossett, OG
David Onyemata, DL Elijah Wilkinson, OG
Kaden Elliss, LB Abdullah Anderson, DL
Tre Flowers, CB Rashaan Evans, LB
Mike Hughes, CB Mike Ford, CB
Jeff Okudah, CB Casey Hayward, CB
Jessie Bates, S Isaiah Oliver, CB

2023 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Carolina Panthers. Nothing really gets settled in Week 1 -- we've seen teams lose big in the opener, then go on to win a division title. So I don't want to put too much into this one game. But the Falcons could use a hot start, with games against the Packers, Lions and Jaguars following this one, and a win against Carolina could get them cooking quickly.
  • Week 5 vs. Houston Texans. I expect the Texans to be better this season. However, this begins a stretch of very "gettable" games for the Falcons. Atlanta does have the easiest strength of schedule this season.
  • Week 16 vs. Indianapolis Colts. Another winnable game awaits the Falcons in their final home contest. Atlanta is one of four teams that will finish the regular season with two straight on the road (at Chicago and at New Orleans).

Will the Falcons be able to ...

... get the most out of Bijan Robinson's rookie year? Cool, man; apparently we're drafting running backs early again. I'm tired of seeing the position undervalued. And I loved the big swing Fontenot and Co. took on Robinson with the eighth overall pick. Robinson reminds me a lot of Saquon Barkley when he was entering the league, as a three-down back who can basically do it all. If there is one player in the entire first round who's virtually guaranteed to have an instant impact, it's Bijan. Remember, too, that Derrick Henry emerged as a true force in 2019 and 2020, when Smith was serving as Titans OC and basically went, Hey, maybe we should run Henry on, like, every play. I could see the Falcons taking the same approach with Robinson.

... put some pressure on the quarterback? I mentioned this briefly when discussing Calais Campbell, but the Falcons were terrible at getting to the quarterback in 2022. In addition to ranking second to last in sacks, they also finished 31st in total pressures (128) and pressure rate (22%), according to NGS. Outside of Grady Jarrett -- the stalwart defensive tackle who led Atlanta with six sacks -- the Falcons barely laid a finger on opposing passers. Can all the additions on defense change that? Specifically, I'll be keeping an eye on David Onyemata and Kaden Elliss, who recorded five and seven sacks, respectively, last year with New Orleans -- where, by the way, Ryan Nielsen was serving as co-defensive coordinator after a long stint as the defensive line coach. The Saints accumulated the second-most sacks in the NFL (281) since Nielsen joined the staff in 2017. He's going to be asked to duplicate that success in his new position.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overlook: How good the Falcons' offensive line is. The Falcons currently own the No. 7 spot in Pro Football Focus' O-line rankings. They created some stability by extending right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary. They will have rookie Matthew Bergeron starting at left guard next to left tackle Jake Matthews. The Falcons already ranked third in rushing last year behind Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson; they should be even better with Bijan Robinson joining the backfield. Continuing to run the rock effectively behind this line will just open things up for my guy Kyle Pitts -- yes, I'm still trying to make that a thing -- and Drake London, who could also break out this year.

For 2023 to be a success, the Falcons MUST:

  • Make the playoffs. If you watch the video of my attempt to predict every team's record, you'll notice I pick Atlanta to do just that. The NFC South isn't that great, and the Falcons' roster has plenty of talent, giving Art Smith the perfect opportunity to finally break into the postseason after a pair of 7-10 finishes at the helm.

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