FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — It’s finally here — the first Atlanta Falcons football season with anything that resembles expectations since at least 2018.
The Falcons open the season Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the Carolina Panthers and new quarterback Bryce Young, the rookie who was taken first in April’s draft.
“Bryce has been in a lot of big-time games, certainly been in a pressure cooker at Alabama,” Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said. “I have a lot of respect for him. I imagine the moment won’t be too big for him. They’ve got some veterans around him who can help him, and he’s got a veteran coaching staff. Every year there are unknowns in Week 1.”
The Panthers defense also will have a new look thanks to first-year coordinator Ejiro Evero, who came to Carolina after leading the Denver defense for one year.
“We are familiar with their personnel,” Smith said. “Scheme is obviously different on that side of the ball. That scheme a lot of people have gotten jobs that have used different versions of it. We practiced against something similar in Miami, played something similar last year with the Rams and the Chargers. There’s some familiarity there, but we know we have our work cut out for us.”
For their part, the Falcons might be getting healthy at the right time. Cornerback Mike Hughes (soft tissue injury) returned to practice on Monday for the first time since the team’s joint practices against the Dolphins. Running back Cordarrelle Patterson (soft tissue injury), wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge (ankle) and cornerback Jeff Okudah (ankle) remained sidelined, but Smith expressed optimism they could be available to play against the Panthers.
“Very pleased with how everybody is progressing,” Smith said. “Wednesday will be an important day where we’ll have to decide who realistically will be ready for Week 1.”
All business in football: Falcons’ Arthur Smith followed his path, not his father’s
What’s going to happen Sunday, we can’t answer. But we do have an answer for these fine questions you all submitted for our season-opening mailbag.
I saw (Desmond) Ridder against Georgia in the Peach Bowl, and I was impressed. I saw his four starts last season and his 17 snaps in the preseason, and I am still impressed — impressed in that I do not believe he will be the reason the passing game does not become a legitimate threat. You’ve seen Ridder more than I have, what is your take on his long-term viability as QB1 in Atlanta? — Kelvin B.
The Falcons say they are confident in Ridder but also kept a third quarterback in (Logan) Woodside. If they were truly confident in Ridder, it seems they would be fine keeping two QBs instead of three (even with the new third QB rule on game day). What are your thoughts? — Bryan S.
Do you think this regime will be extremely patient with Ridder this year? I am just curious because expectations for this season are much higher than in the two previous ones. I was wondering if you felt like they would give him the whole season to prove himself as a potential long-term starter in this league. — Rayman M.
We will try to address all three of these questions at once. For starters, my impression of Ridder is that we have not seen enough to know. I agree with Kelvin that everything we have seen so far can be viewed optimistically. The NFL game is not too big for him, and he has shown incremental improvement at every step in the process. There are enough weapons in this offense that Ridder doesn’t have to carry the team. He just needs to be a consistent point guard, and I do think he’s capable of that. However, we have to see more, and we have to see it over a longer span than four games to know.
I don’t think keeping Woodside says anything about Ridder because the rule states that the third quarterback can only be used if the two quarterbacks ahead of him are injured. What does say something about Ridder is that the Falcons were willing to pay Taylor Heinicke $7 million a year to join the team as a backup. That’s high-end backup money.
That point leads us to the patience question. Yes, I think they will be patient but not 17 games patient. If it’s clear that Ridder is not going to be the answer, the Falcons could just ride that out and, in theory, improve their draft position for 2024 when it would be looking for another quarterback. However, I don’t think coach Arthur Smith can (or would) try that considering his insistence that his team will do everything it can to win every game. Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot lured some veterans with options to Atlanta with the idea that this team is ready to compete. You can’t do that and then tank a season for a draft pick and maintain your credibility. So, if Ridder is struggling midseason, there will be a lot of Heinicke questions coming.
Bijan (Robinson) is special, but is Bijan really going to take over the majority of the touches out of the backfield? I feel like Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson are good enough backs to take touches away both in the air and on the ground. — Michael V.
Yes. In the last 10 years, five running backs have been taken in the top 10. Four of the five (Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Todd Gurley) had 229 carries or more in their rookie season. The fifth (Christian McCaffrey) had only 117 carries but added 80 catches. When teams draft backs in the top 10, like Robinson, they use them a lot.
Allgeier will still get plenty of use. Remember, the Falcons ran the ball an NFL-high 559 times last year, so even if Robinson carries the ball 250 times, there are still plenty of carries to go around. Patterson’s role is a little bit more of a mystery. I think he’ll be third on the team in carries, but how far back he’s going to be is a question mark. He had 144 carries last year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that gets cut in half.
Wondering how the Falcons will distribute the ball? Good news, we figured it out
Thank God, hopefully, this year there are several players that COULD realistically have breakout years. If you were a betting man and had to bet on one player on defense and one player on offense having a huge year, which players would you bet on? — Doug P.
Doug had a ton of great questions this week, and yes. Doug. I did consider doing a Doug-only mailbag but decided to stick with just this one. The reason, weirdly, is because it’s so hard, which I think tells us something about these Falcons. They should be pretty balanced on offense and defense.
I don’t think rookies fall in the “breakout year” category, so I won’t say Bijan Robinson. Drake London had 72 catches last year, so I’m not sure he’s going to do enough more than that to qualify as a breakout. Tyler Allgeier had 1,035 yards rushing, so same for him. Mack Hollins had a career-high 57 catches last year, so that was his breakout. (If you’re wondering why I’m not listing Kyle Pitts here, it’s because I’m in wait-and-see mode with Pitts.) So, given all that, I’ll take KhaDarel Hodge, a sixth-year pro who has never had more than 13 catches in a season. Hodge is the fourth wide receiver in this rotation, and Smith has said he thinks Hodge should have gotten more opportunities last season. Among players with 20 or more targets last season, Hodge finished 11th in the NFL in yards per target (10.1), tying with Tyreek Hill, according to TruMedia.
Defensively, there are just as many possible candidates, but I’ll go with Troy Andersen. The second-year linebacker was fifth on the team last year with 62 tackles, which is not bad for a rookie, but he didn’t have a sack and had only three tackles for loss. We’ve seen what new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen can do with an athletic inside linebacker. Kaden Elliss had seven sacks in 11 starts last year in New Orleans. Now Andersen has Nielsen calling the plays and Elliss by his side, so I expect his disruption numbers to skyrocket.
Seems like our front seven is much improved, yet I’m still nervous about not having “the guy” who can get us 10-plus sacks. Is the pressure on Arnold Ebiketie or who can realistically step up? — Joshua B.
Is the defensive line looking like it will ACTUALLY get a solid number of sacks, say top 20 in the league? Or are the additions, especially “older” guys (Calais Campbell, Bud Dupree) looking a little more like they’re there to just provide some short-term leadership to the unit? — Philippe C.
Joshua is right that this front seven might not have a dominant player, but I do think, to Philippe’s point, that the sum of its parts will put the Falcons near the middle of the pack in the NFL in sacks, which, as we all know, would be a tremendous improvement. Campbell and Dupree aren’t the players they were in the prime of their careers, but they’re still a marked upgrade in Atlanta. Throw in David Onyemata and consider that Grady Jarrett finally has help, and the Falcons have an NFL defensive line for the first time in a while. As for Ebiketie, I don’t think there’s any pressure on him because I don’t expect him to be in the top five this year in quarterback pressures. Jarrett, Campbell, Dupree, Elliss and Andersen will all likely be relied on more there.
Falcons 53-man roster reaction: 3 QBs, questions in the secondary, no ‘pizza party’
When do we see Kyle Pitts, No. 4 pick, become a dominating force in the NFL? Please don’t explain his progress before the injury or that compared to other tight ends from much more affordable picks, he is doing well. Is it Arthur’s system holding him back or is it he hasn’t shown the NFL they need to fear him (and not his college tape)? — Kraig B.
You’re not going to like my answer, but I’m not sure we do. This doesn’t mean I don’t think he’ll be very valuable this year and into the future. It’s just that in this system, I’m not sure he’s going to be “dominating” in any traditional sense.
The wait is over, Kyle Pitts catches his first NFL touchdown in America and at MBS ‼️
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) October 16, 2022
Here’s the thing about Pitts: His best fantasy football value would be to essentially use him like the Falcons used him in 2021, which is to say as a wide receiver. Miami’s Mike Gesicki was the only tight end to play more snaps split wide than Pitts in 2021 (240 to 227), according to TruMedia. However, Atlanta drafted Pitts with the idea that he was a player with No. 1 wide receiver ability who could also play tight end well enough to give the team true positional flexibility. If Pitts can’t — or just isn’t asked to — block then it handcuffs the Falcons’ ability to manipulate the types of defensive personnel they face.
Smith praised the improvements in Pitts’ blocking last season before his injury, and I would expect more (or at least the same amount) of that this year. That would mean more value for the Falcons but fewer counting stats for Pitts.
I see we have 12ish million dollars available on the salary cap. Do you think it’s more likely we make a trade and take on some salary that way or are we more likely to roll it over, maybe for the A.J. Terrell extension? — Josh R.
We received a lot of salary-cap questions this week, and here’s what I think: The Falcons will hang on to the money as a rainy-day fund. Atlanta quietly (or maybe not so quietly?) thinks it has a chance to be pretty good this year. If there’s a deal for a wide receiver that makes a lot of sense early in the season, then maybe the Falcons make that deal. But I think it’s more likely they hold on to it in case they get deep into the season, are rolling along pretty well and have to plug an unexpected hole because of injury or poor play.
It’s football season in Georgia. What can possibly go wrong? Let’s examine
Why are the Falcons keeping so many offensive linemen? They have nine on the active squad and four on the practice squad. I understand the need to have maybe two or three quality backups, but these guys don’t play special teams, do they? Seems like some of those spots are better spent on linebackers or defensive backs. — Keith B.
You’re right, Keith, that offensive linemen aren’t much help on special teams. Last year, the Falcons kept only eight offensive linemen on the initial 53-man roster, and that’s what I expected this year. I have to figure that center Jovaughn Gwyn, the seventh-round rookie, is the ninth man on the list, and it might not be more complicated than Smith wanting three players who can snap the ball at all times. (Drew Dalman and Ryan Neuzil are the top two options at center.)
Let’s say you aren’t picking the Falcons to win the Super Bowl this year… Who you got? Give us your playoff field in each conference and your picks to make the Super Bowl. — Paul S.
That is a safe bet that I’m not picking the Falcons.
NFC: 1. Cowboys. 2. 49ers. 3. Packers. 4. Falcons. 5. Eagles. 6. Seahawks. 7. Lions.
AFC: 1. Chiefs. 2. Bills. 3. Jaguars. 4. Bengals. 5. Chargers. 6. Jets. 7. Ravens.
Super Bowl: Chiefs over Cowboys.
(Top photo of Desmond Ridder: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Preorder it here.