Atlanta Falcons 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Last off-season, the Falcons had the option to completely rebuild. Coming off of a 4-12 season the year before, the Falcons got the 4th overall pick in a talented quarterback draft and could have chosen a successor for Matt Ryan, who was going into his 14th season with the Falcons in 2021. Had they taken someone like Mac Jones or Justin Fields, they could have potentially had a long-term quarterback of the future and one at an inexpensive cost, very important for a team that has lacked financial flexibility in free agency for years. 

The Falcons also probably could have traded Matt Ryan for a first round pick in an off-season where a slightly younger, but arguably less accomplished at the time Matt Stafford went for two first round picks. Instead, they picked an in-between approach, using the 4th overall pick to get Matt Ryan an explosive young receiver in Kyle Pitts, but then turning around and trading his long-time top target Julio Jones to the Titans a couple months after the draft for a draft pick.

The Julio Jones trade looked like a smart move in a vacuum. They were able to secure a 2022 2nd round pick for a player who was going into his age 32 season, an age when many elite wide receivers see significant drop offs, and who had become increasingly injury prone in recent years. That move looked even better when Jones bottomed out with a 31/434/1 slash line in 10 games in his lone season in Tennessee and now remains unsigned as a free agent. 

However, it was a weird combination of moves to keep an aging quarterback instead of trading him at the highest his value would likely ever be again, a move presumably made because the Falcons felt they could compete in 2021, and then trading away his long-time top target, which is a rebuilding move that doesn’t give them nearly the same financial flexibility as replacing Matt Ryan with a quarterback on a rookie contract would have.

The result in 2021 was a Falcons team that went just 7-10 and that was even worse than their record suggested, as their 7 wins all came by 8 points or fewer against non-playoff qualifiers, while their 10 losses came by an average of 17.9 points per game, with just two of their losses coming by 8 points or fewer, both also against non-playoff qualifiers. Essentially, they didn’t play a competitive game against an above average opponent all season. Their efficiency ratings were all below average across the board as well, as they finished 24th, 25th, 22nd, and 29th in offensive, defensive, special teams, and overall efficiency, and it’s not even like they suffered a ridiculously highly amount of injuries, actually having the 3rd fewest adjusted games lost in the league.

This off-season, the Falcons seemed like they were just going to run back the same team, once again without the cap space to make major upgrades in free agency. There were no real rumors early in the off-season that the Falcons would look to move on from Ryan and when Washington traded two third round picks for Carson Wentz, an inferior and more expensive quarterback, it didn’t seem like the Falcons intended to move Ryan. 

However, the Falcons apparently spent the early off-season flirting with trading for Deshaun Watson and then when he went to Cleveland, the Falcons decided to trade Ryan instead of trying to repair the relationship with him and got just a third round pick for him from the Colts, with most teams out of the market for a quarterback at this point in the off-season. The Falcons interest in Watson made sense, but it’s tough to understand why they didn’t trade Matt Ryan earlier in the off-season when there were more available suitors if they knew there was a strong likelihood they’re going to be moving on from him at some point this off-season. 

Even more puzzling was the Falcons hanging on to him for 2021, a highly forgettable campaign, rather than trading him for more of a return a year ago, only to then sell him when his value was at its lowest. Making matters even worse, this was a much worse quarterback draft than a year ago. The Falcons wisely didn’t waste their 8th overall pick on one of the quarterbacks from this year’s draft, instead signing Marcus Mariota as a veteran stopgap and reclamation project and then using a third round pick on University of Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, a developmental prospect who needs a lot of work, but who could develop into a starter long-term. 

Mariota reunites with his former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, now the head coach of the Falcons, but it’s a little surprising Smith wanted to bring Mariota in, considering he only overlapped as coordinator with Mariota as starting quarterback for the six starts Mariota made to start the 2019 season, when he played some of the worst football of his career and led the Titans to a 2-4 start, only to see the team go 9-4 the rest of the way in route to an AFC Championship game appearance. 

Mariota has had better years and even won a playoff game, but he was never more than a middling starting quarterback in Tennessee and he never made all 16 starts. He spent the past two seasons attempting just 20 passes as one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league with the Raiders and he deserves another chance as a starter, but he’s a pretty low upside option who will be a serviceable starter at best. Mariota is good enough to win games when he has talent around him, but he’s not in a favorable situation on this Falcons team. 

Whether through injury or ineffectiveness, Mariota is likely to cede starts to Ridder at some point this season, even if it’s just the Falcons wanting to get a look at him in a few otherwise meaningless starts late in the season. Ridder will likely be overmatched in year one though, leaving Mariota, by default, as their best option for 2022. Even in a best case scenario, Mariota figures to be a downgrade from Matt Ryan, who, even though he had declined from his peak form, still finished as PFF’s 18th ranked quarterback last season, on an otherwise hapless Falcons team. 

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

In addition to the quarterback downgrade, the Falcons also had a tough situation in the receiving corps this off-season. When Julio Jones was traded, Kyle Pitts and Calvin Ridley were supposed to be the focus of their receiving corps long-term, but, while Pitts had a strong rookie season, Ridley was limited to just a 31/281/2 slash line in five games last season before missing the rest of the season for personal reasons. The Falcons were expecting to get Ridley back for 2022, but instead he got suspended for the entire season for gambling. Making matters worse, Russell Gage, who was their top wide receiver last season in the absence of Ridley with a 66/770/4 slash line, signed with the Buccaneers this off-season.

With Jones, Ridley, and Gage all gone, Falcons’ top returning wide receiver is Olamide Zaccheaus, a 2019 undrafted free agent who finished last season with a 31/406/3 slash line in the first significant action of his career, so the Falcons had to essentially rebuild their receiving corps from scratch this off-season. The Falcons made a big investment in their receiving corps when they used their 8th overall pick on USC wide receiver Drake London, who gives them another promising young receiver along with Kyle Pitts who the Falcons can hopefully build their receiving corps around long-term. However, aside from taking London, the Falcons mostly just added bottom of the roster types in free agency and will hope have found some diamonds in the rough and that they get better than expected play from this group.

Veterans Damiere Byrd, Bryan Edwards, Auden Tate, and Geronimo Allison were all added this off-season and they all have some experience, but the highest receiving yardage total from any of them, across a combined 19 seasons in the league, came from Damiere Byrd when he had just a 47/604/1 slash line in 2020. That production mostly came on volume too, as he had just a 1.29 yards per route run average for that season, which quickly dropped to 0.84 in a 26/329/1 season with the Bears in 2021. In total, the 7-year veteran averages just 1.09 yards per route run for his career and, now going into his age 29 season, it’s unlikely he has any untapped upside.

Bryan Edwards probably has the most upside of the newcomers, as he was a 3rd round pick just a couple years ago in 2020 and had a decently productive second season in the league, posting a 34/571/3 slash line, after a 11/193/1 slash line as a rookie. He wasn’t particularly efficient last season though, averaging just 1.12 yards per route run, and his production was mostly the result of being forced into action in a thin receiving corps. With the Raiders finding upgrades this off-season, Edwards was shipped off to the Falcons for just a late round pick. He theoretically has the upside to still develop into a solid starter, but he hasn’t shown that yet and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never panned out.

Auden Tate also has some upside, as the 2018 7th round pick had a 40/575/1 slash line with 1.41 yards per route run in 2019 and has a 1.35 yards per route run average for his career, but he’s been buried on the Bengals depth chart the past two seasons, totaling just 17 catches. The Bengals have the best wide receiver depth chart in the NFL, so it’s not exactly a knock on Tate that he couldn’t earn more playing time in the past two seasons, and he still has upside, only going into his age 25 season, but he’s essentially just a flyer for the Falcons. 

Allison, meanwhile, was a decent reserve receiver with the Packers from 2016-2019, but never caught more than 34 passes in a season and hasn’t caught a pass since 2019, opting out in 2020 and unable to climb the Lions’ weak wide receiver depth chart in 2021. Once again in a weak wide receiver depth chart, Allison has opportunity, but isn’t even a lock to make the final roster. Frank Darby, a 2021 6th round pick, could also be in the mix for playing time, despite just one rookie year catch. The Falcons will be relying on a rookie #1 wide receiver and a bunch of question marks behind him on the depth chart.

Given the state of the Falcons’ wide receivers, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if tight end Kyle Pitts leads the team in receiving for the second straight year, after posting a 68/1026/1 slash line as a rookie. Pitts benefitted from the 5th most targets in the league by a tight end with 110, but his 2.02 yards per route run average also ranked 5th at his position and he averaged 9.33 yards per target on a team that otherwise averaged 6.67 yards per pass attempt. 

Rookie tight ends usually take a year at least to adapt to the NFL, but Pitts is no ordinary tight end, becoming the highest draft player at his position ever and playing more than two thirds of his snaps in the slot or lined up out wide as a rookie. His blocking could use some work, but he has a sky high upside, not even turning 22 until October, and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him take another step forward in year two, even with suspect quarterback play. He looks like he’ll be one of the best receiving tight ends in the league for years to come and he has the upside to be one of the best receivers in the league regardless of position.

With Pitts playing a lot of wide receiver as a rookie, backup tight ends Hayden Hurst (409 snaps) and Lee Smith (310 snaps) both saw significant action, but neither were retained this off-season. Hurst was underwhelming, averaging just 1.00 yards per route run and having limited success as a blocker, so he can be replaced pretty easily by free agent acquisition Anthony Firkser. Firkser isn’t much of a blocker, but has a solid 1.47 yards per route run average as a reserve in five seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2020 when Arthur Smith was his offensive coordinator in Tennessee, posting a 39/387/1 slash line on 1.67 yards per route run. Firkser figures to at least have somewhat of a passing game role, given the lack of other options on this team. 

The Falcons will miss the now retired Lee Smith though, as he was an above average blocker and the Falcons don’t have a clear replacement, with bottom of the roster talent Parker Hesse currently penciled in as the 3rd tight end. Even in a best case scenario where Pitts takes a step forward, London has a strong rookie year, and several others exceed expectations, it’s hard to see this being a significantly above average receiving corps and the downside is enormous, given their lack of proven pass catchers.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

With all of the problems the Falcons had in the receiving corps last season, they relied heavily on their lead running back Cordarrelle Patterson as a receiver out of the backfield. A converted wide receiver who can line up all over the formation, Patterson had the best receiving total of his 9-year career last season in his first season as a full-time lead running back, posting a 52/548/5 slash line. His 2.24 yards per route run average also well exceeded his career average of 1.39 yards per route run.

Patterson actually wasn’t that impressive as a runner though, taking 153 carries for a 4.04 YPC and 6 touchdowns, while ranking 40th out of 50 eligible running backs with a 45% carry success rate, and now he heads into his age 31 season, an age where skill position players, especially running backs, tend to see a significant drop off. The Falcons don’t have a better option, so I would still expect him to be the lead back, but I wouldn’t expect an efficient rushing season from him and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his receiving production drop off as well, given his age and the fact that he is coming off of the best receiving year of his career.

Despite Patterson being a shaky option as a lead back, the Falcons didn’t do much to upgrade their backfield this off-season, replacing veteran backup Mike Davis with a comparable veteran in Damien Williams and using a 5th round pick on BYU running back Tyler Allgeier. Williams averaged 4.49 YPC on 111 carries as the de facto lead back for the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs in 2019, but he opted out of the 2020 season and, upon his return, was ineffective as a reserve with the Bears, while receiving just 56 touches in 12 games. 

Williams has just 334 carries in eight seasons in the league with an underwhelming 4.18 YPC average and now heads into his age 30, so he’s an underwhelming option, even as a #2 running back. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him surpassed by the rookie Allgeier at some point this season. Fifth round running backs tend to have more of a rookie year impact than fifth round picks at any other position, so Allgeier could provide some value for the Falcons in year one, but the fact that he has a chance to earn a big role says more about the rest of this position group than it says about him.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Falcons also had struggles on the offensive line last season. They were an above average run blocking team, but finished as PFF’s 2nd worst ranking offensive line in pass protection, leading to Matt Ryan being pressured at a 39.7% rate, 6th highest in the NFL, despite a faster than average time to throw. Despite that, the Falcons didn’t make any changes upfront and will bring back the same starting five offensive linemen. They may benefit from continuity, but this group also missed just two games combined all last season, so they benefited from great health and continuity and still produced poor results.

The player who most needs to improve is left guard Jalen Mayfield, a 2021 3rd round pick who struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 83rd out of 90 eligible guards on PFF in overall grade, with his worst play coming in pass protection, finishing 88th among eligible guards in pass protection grade. He could be better in year two, even if it’s only by default, but there’s no guarantee he ever develops into a capable starter. If he continues to struggle, he could lose his job to one of the two veteran reserves the Falcons added this off-season, Germain Ifedi and Elijah Wilkinson. 

Ifedi and Wilkinson have primarily played tackle in their career, but 24 of Ifedi’s 83 career starts came at guard, while Wilkinson has played 7 of his 27 career starts at guard, so they have some experience on the inside. Neither has ever been more than a middling starter in their career though, regardless of their position, and both have also struggled throughout long stretches of their career, so neither would be a strong starting job and would likely only see action in a worst case scenario where Mayfield doesn’t improve or injuries strike at other positions.

The Falcons also used a 4th round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on Drew Dalman, who only played 68 snaps as a rookie, which came at center, but he could also push for a role at guard, where he saw some action in college. Dalman could also potentially push to start at center if incumbent Matt Hennessy struggles. Hennessy, a third round pick in 2020, broke out as a high level run blocker last season, finishing 3rd among centers on PFF in run blocking grade, but he finished 34th out of 41 eligible in pass protection, after struggling in both aspects on 225 snaps as a rookie. His run blocking is a significant asset, but his pass protection may never develop and, if he slips as a run blocker, he could become a liability overall.

The other three starting jobs are likely all locked in, with Jake Matthews, Chris Lindstrom, and Kaleb McCary remaining the starters at left tackle, right guard, and right tackle respectively. All three are also former first round picks. McCary has mostly been a disappointment thus far, making 45 starts in three seasons in the league, but never being more than a middling starter and generally struggling in pass protection. He’s going into his age 27 season now, so he’s running out of time to break out as the kind of player who was worth a first round pick. The Falcons seem to be underwhelmed with him as well, declining his 5th year option for 2023 which would have guaranteed him 13.202 million, but they also don’t really have a good replacement, so he figures to keep his job for at least one more season.

Matthews and Lindstrom, on the other hand, have developed into above average starters. Matthews was drafted back in 2014 and has been an above average starter for a while, earning above average grades from PFF in every season except his rookie year, while making 128 of a possible 129 starts in his career. He’s going into his age 30 season, so he could start to decline soon, but he hasn’t shown any signs of declining yet, finishing 38th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2021. He’ll likely remain an above average starter for at least another season.

Lindstrom, meanwhile, was a first round selection in 2019, breaking out with a 21st ranked season among guards on PFF in 2020, after an injury plagued rookie year. Lindstrom then improved even further in year three in 2021, finishing 6th among guards on PFF and, still only going into his age 25 season, he looks likely to become one of the better guards in the league for years to come. Development is not always linear and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Lindstrom slip up a little bit compared to his dominant 2021 campaign, but he should remain an above average starter at the very least. Matthews and Lindstrom elevate this offensive line, but this still looks like a middling group at best overall.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

One of the Falcons’ biggest weaknesses for years has been their pass rush, as they somehow haven’t had more than 39 sacks in a season since 2004. In 2021, they had a league worst 18 sacks and their edge defenders were particularly a weakness, as they didn’t have a single edge defender who earned even an average grade from PFF and only one edge defender had more than a single sack, with Dante Fowler leading the team with just 4.5 sacks. 

The Falcons overhauled this group this off-season, with just one of the seven edge defenders who played a snap for them last season returning for 2022, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this is going to be a significantly better group. They used a pair of draft picks on the position, taking Arnold Ebiketie in the second round and DeAngelo Malone in the third round, and, while they could develop into above average players long-term, they could easily struggle to make an impact in year one. 

On top of that, their only veteran addition was former Giant Lorenzo Carter, who they added on a 1-year, 3.5 million dollar contract this off-season. He’s a solid run stopper, but has been pretty underwhelming as a pass rusher in his career, with 14.5 sacks, 25 hits, and a 9.6% pressure rate in 49 career games (33 starts). Now in his age 27 season, he’s likely reached his peak, so I don’t expect him to be significantly better with his new team.

Their only holdover is 2021 5th round pick Adetokunbo Ogundeji. He could be better in year two, but he was a big liability on 527 rookie year snaps, finishing 107th among 129 eligible edge defenders on PFF, especially struggling as a pass rusher, finishing dead last eligible edge defenders on PFF in pass rush grade and managing a pathetic 4.2% pressure rate. He should only play an early down role, even in a thin position group. The Falcons are counting on big contributions from rookies, but may not get it. They should be better by default compared to last year’s group, which was arguably the worst in the league, but this is still a big position of weakness.

Grade: C

Interior Defenders

One veteran the Falcons could have moved on from this off-season and chose not to was interior defender Grady Jarrett. Jarrett was a dominant interior defender in his prime, finishing 15th, 6th, 4th, and 16th respectively from 2017-2020, but their decision to retain him doesn’t seem to fit with the overall direction of this team. Jarrett dropped off significantly last season, falling to 33rd among interior defenders on PFF, and, while he’s still only going into his age 29 season and could easily bounce back in 2022, he’ll be in his 30s by the time the Falcons are ready to be competitive again. 

Trading him for a draft pick ahead of a 16.5 million dollar salary in the final year of his contract in 2022 would have made sense, but the Falcons instead opted to keep him on a 3-year, 50.47 million dollar extension, which makes him the 7th highest paid interior defender in the league. He may have bounce back potential, but if he doesn’t bounce back or continues to decline, Jarrett will prove to be an overpay on that extension. Even if he does bounce back, Jarrett will likely be on the decline by the time this team is back in contention, with the Falcons starting on what figures to be a multi-year rebuild.

Jarrett was the Falcons’ only interior defender to earn even an average grade from PFF last season and they didn’t make any notable additions to this group, instead hoping to get better play from their young players at the position. Marlon Davidson was a 2nd round pick by the Falcons in 2020, but has played very little thus far in his career, playing just 402 snaps total in 19 career games, while showing very little when on the field as well. He still has upside, only in his age 24 season, and he’ll get significantly more action in 2022 out of necessity, but his career is off to a very unimpressive start and he’s no guarantee to ever develop into an even average starter.

Davidson will compete for playing time with 2021 5th round pick Ta’Quon Graham, who finished 117th out of 144 eligible interior defenders as a rookie on 309 snaps, and Anthony Rush, a 2019 undrafted free agent who is already on his 8th team and who struggled on a career high 250 snaps in 2021. The 6-5 350 pound Rush is the only true nose tackle the Falcons have, so he figures to at least have a base package role in the Falcons’ 3-4 defense, but he is unlikely to see significant more action than he did last season and he could easily continue struggling, even in a limited role. Outside of Jarrett, this is a very unproven group.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The Falcons had a pair of linebackers both play over 1,000 snaps last season, but Foyesade Oluokun (1,148 snaps) and Deion Jones (1,070 snaps) both struggled mightily, finishing 69th and 88th respectively out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF. As a result, the Falcons have tried to overhaul this group this off-season. Jones is still on the roster, but there is reportedly a strong likelihood he will be traded or released at some point this off-season and Oluokun was not retained as a free agent. Meanwhile, veteran Rashaan Evans was added in free agency and Montana State’s Troy Andersen was added in the second round of the draft.

Even with Andersen and Evans being added and Jones coming off of a terrible season, it is a bit surprising that the Falcons are trying to move on from Jones. He’s still only going into his age 28 season and was once one of the Falcons’ best defensive players for years, with his best season coming in 2017, when he finished 4th among off ball linebackers on PFF, and a 16th ranked finish as recently as 2020. Jones’ salary is also fully guaranteed for 2022, with a 4 million dollar roster bonus having already been paid out, and, while the Falcons would get a little bit of cap relief by cutting him after June 1st and could get a little more if his contract has offset language, he would still be on the cap for 2023 in that scenario and the Falcons would still have to pay most of his salary in 2022 to play for another team.

The Falcons would obviously love to trade him, even if it’s only for a swap of late round picks, as they would get out of his salary and would get actual cap relief in that scenario, but it’s unclear if anyone would want to take on his 9.64 million dollar salary for 2022, even if he does have bounce back potential. It doesn’t help their chances of trading him that he is coming off of off-season shoulder surgery and that teams know the Falcons are likely to cut him if he can’t be traded, making him available at a much cheaper price on the open market.

In addition to Jones’ down year last season, the Falcons reportedly are unhappy with Jones’ leadership, which is why they are looking to move on from him, but Andersen is only a rookie, while Rashaan Evans has struggled across the past three seasons, including a 73rd ranked finished among 94th eligible off ball linebackers on PFF on 445 snaps in 2021, so the Falcons would have a very shaky position group if they moved on from Jones. Especially given that they’re paying him either way, the Falcons should strongly consider keeping Jones for at least another season, unless they can find a trade partner.

If Jones is traded, Mykal Walker would become the top reserve and it’s possible he could carve out a significant role, especially if Andersen and/or Evans struggle, which is likely. A 2020 4th round pick, Walker has shown promise in two seasons in the league, but has played just 581 snaps total and would be a projection to a larger role. With or without Jones, this is a questionable group, but Jones is just one season removed from an above average season, which is way more than you can say about the rest of the group.

Grade: C

Secondary

With the Falcons’ defense struggling as a whole last season, by far their best player was top cornerback AJ Terrell, who was one of the best players in the league at his position last season, finishing as PFF’s 4th ranked cornerback. He also ranked 2nd in coverage snaps per reception allowed with 18.7 and he allowed just a 43.9% completion on 66 targets. In total, he allowed just 200 yards receiving, a ridiculous average of just 3.03 yards per attempt, and he also picked off 3 passes to 3 touchdowns allowed, with 13 pass deflections. 

Terrell is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played at last season, after a middling rookie season in 2020, but the 16th overall pick has a ton of talent and is only going into his age 24 season, so it shouldn’t be a surprise at all if he develops into one of the best cornerbacks in the league for years to come. Even if he does, he could take a little bit of a step back in 2022 after such a dominant 2021, but he should still have a strong season. The problem is none of the Falcons’ other cornerbacks earned even an average grade from PFF, so opposing passing games could easily avoid having to throw on Terrell last season. 

The Falcons attempted to fix that problem by signing veteran Casey Hayward in free agency. If Hayward plays like he did a season ago, when he was the only cornerback in the league with more snaps per reception allowed (21.0 snaps) than Terrell, he and Terrell could be one of the best cornerback duos in the league this season, but Hayward is going into his age 33 season, so a significant decline is definitely a strong possibility. 

Even if Hayward does decline though, he was PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback a year ago, his 7th finish in the top-16 in 10 seasons in the league, so he could still remain a solid starter even not at his best. He should be an obvious upgrade on Fabian Moreau, who finished as PFF’s 99th ranked cornerback out of 134 eligible as the Falcons’ #2 cornerback last season. Hayward should be a good value on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal, even if he was a weird signing for a team otherwise rebuilding. 

Hayward’s additions leaves holdovers Isaiah Oliver, Darren Hall, and Richie Grant competing for the 3rd cornerback job, with the other two then settling in as reserves. Oliver was a starter to begin last season and made 28 starts between 2019 and 2020, but he struggled for most of his time as a starter and had his 2021 season end after four games due to a knee injury. The Falcons brought the 2018 2nd round pick back as a free agent after his rookie contract expired this off-season, but he was only brought back on a 1-year, 2.385 million dollar deal, so he won’t be guaranteed to even be the #3 cornerback.

Hall and Grant were rookies last season who saw action in Oliver’s absence, playing 283 snaps and 276 snaps respectively. Hall struggled though, finishing 129th among 134 eligible cornerbacks, not entirely surprising for a 4th round rookie. He could be better in year two, but maybe only by default and he’s no guarantee to ever develop into a solid starter. Grant, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick last year and wasn’t terrible as a rookie, but could play more at safety in year two, unless he locks down the primary slot cornerback job.

At safety, Grant would be replacing veteran Duron Harmon, who was not retained this off-season, after finishing 77th out of 98 eligible safeties in 17 starts last season. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Grant were to replace him and be a noticeable upgrade. The only addition the Falcons made to this group this off-season was veteran free agent addition Dean Marlowe. Marlowe played 700 snaps with the Lions last season, but was underwhelming and, prior to last season, he was a career special teamer who had never played more than 230 defensive snaps in a season. Going into his age 30 season, he would be a very underwhelming starting option.

Holdovers Erik Harris (702 snaps) and Jaylinn Hawkins (462 snaps) will also compete for the starting jobs, even though both were mediocre last season. Harris had a larger role last season and is the more experienced player, with 42 career starts, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and has never been more than a middling starter, while Hawkins is a 2020 4th round pick who at least has upside. Hawkins is probably the favorite for one of the starting jobs, but this will be an open competition at an underwhelming position group. Terrell and Hayward are a talented cornerback duo, but this is a top heavy group with concerns at safety and concerns behind Terrell and Hayward on the cornerback depth chart.

Grade: B

Special Teams

The Falcons also had a below average special teams unit last season, ranking 22nd in special teams DVOA. Kicker Younghoe Koo is one of the best in the league, but the Falcons struggled in the punting and return game and had just one player (Keith Smith) finish in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF. The Falcons did find a new punter this off-season, but Dom Maggio is just an undrafted rookie and, aside from that, not much has changed on the Falcons’ special teams unit.

The Falcons will be hoping they can get more out of return man Avery Williams in his second season in the league, with their only other option being to overload feature back Cordarrelle Patterson with even more touches by using him on special teams as well, and Keith Smith remains their only high level core special teamer, with the Falcons largely hoping for contributions out of rookies at that position. This probably won’t be a horrible special teams unit in 2022, but they figure to be below average again.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Falcons were just 7-10 a year ago and they were even worse than their record suggested, with all their wins being close victories over non-playoff qualifiers and every game they played against a playoff caliber team resulting in a blowout loss. Even if they had just run back the same team as a year ago, they would likely struggle making it back to 7 wins, but the Falcons also lost a significant amount of talent this off-season, most notably long-time franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, with this team undergoing a teardown and rebuild. 

A teardown and rebuild is much needed for this team and they didn’t have a clear path to competing for a playoff spot in 2022 anyway, even if they didn’t rebuild, but the result is not going to be pretty in the short-term, with this looking like one of the worst teams in the league on paper, unsurprising considering their roster has the 2nd lowest average annual salary of any team in the league, only ahead of the also rebuilding Bears. The Falcons could easily compete for the #1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, which could be the goal for a team that now needs to find a new franchise quarterback. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC South

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (8-8) at Atlanta Falcons (7-9)

The Falcons don’t have a terrible record at 7-9, but all of their wins have come by one score or fewer against teams with a record of .500 or worse, while their losses have come by an average of 18.78 points per game, giving them a -136 point differential that ranks 6th worst in the NFL. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, the Falcons rank 21st, 25th, and 25th on offense, defense, and special teams respectively and 28th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, even worse than their point differential suggests.

The Saints only have one more win than the Falcons, but their 15th ranked schedule adjusted mixed efficiency and their +19 point differential suggests they have been the much better team this season and that is despite the fact that they have been as affected by absences as much as arguably any team in the league. They still remain without top wide receiver Michael Thomas, who has missed the whole season, starting quarterback Jameis Winston, who went down for the season week 8, starting left guard Andrus Peat, who went down for the season week 7, and talented left tackle Terron Armstead, who has played in just eight games this season, but they are also as healthy as they have been in a while. 

Their defense will have the dominant defensive line trio of David Onyemata, Marcus Davenport, and Cameron Jordan together for just the seventh time this season and the previous two games were games missed by stud linebacker Demario Davis and stud safety Marcus Williams respectively, who have both since returned. Meanwhile, their offense got wide receiver Deonte Harris, who leads the team in receiving yards per game, back from a 3-game absence last week, a few weeks after getting feature back Alvin Kamara back from a 4-game absence, while talented offensive linemen Ryan Ramczyk and Erik McCoy are expected to return after missing 7 games and 5 games respectively this season.

As healthy as they have been in weeks, I have the Saints 3 points above average in my roster rankings, while the frequently blown out Falcons are 4.5 points below average, giving us a calculated line of New Orleans -6. That suggests we are getting significant line value with the Saints as 3.5-point favorites and that they may be bettable at that number, though I want to make sure Ramczyk is actually returning before locking this one in. If he does not play, I would need this line to drop to three.

New Orleans Saints 23 Atlanta Falcons 17

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3.5

Confidence: Low

Atlanta Falcons at Buffalo Bills: 2021 Week 17 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (7-8) at Buffalo Bills (9-6)

The Bills are just 9-6, but they lead the NFL in both point differential (+163) and schedule adjusted mixed efficiency (10.5 points above average) and they could easily have a few more wins, as they have gone 0-5 in one-score games, while all nine of their wins have come by double digits, with an average margin of victory of 23.6 points per game. The Falcons, meanwhile, only have a couple fewer wins, but they don’t have any wins by more than one score, while six of their eight losses have come by double digits, leading to them ranking 5th worst in point differential at -122 and 30th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency (6 points below average)

With the Bills having nine double digit wins and the Falcons having six double digit losses, a blowout seems likely here, but the spread already takes into account that these two teams are nowhere near as evenly matched as their records suggest, favoring the Bills by 14.5 points. My calculated line is Buffalo -16.5, so we are getting line value with the Bills, even though the Falcons are the healthier team, with the Bills missing top cornerback Tre’Davious White for the season, but there isn’t enough here for the Bills to be worth betting. I would still take Buffalo for pick ‘em purposes, but nothing more.

Buffalo Bills 33 Atlanta Falcons 17

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -14.5

Confidence: Low

Detroit Lions at Atlanta Falcons: 2021 Week 16 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (2-11-1) at Atlanta Falcons (6-8)

The Falcons are 6-8 and technically still in the mix for a playoff spot in the NFC, but they don’t have any impressive wins, as all six of their wins have come by one-score against teams with a .500 record or worse. Meanwhile, their eight losses have come by an average of 20.63 points per game, including six losses by 13 points or more. In total, the Falcons have a point differential of -126, 4th worst in the NFL, and their efficiency metrics are even worse, as they rank 24th, 29th, 28th, and 30th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, mixed efficiency respectively. Fortunately for the Falcons, they get another easy game this week with the Detroit Lions coming to town, sitting at 2-11-1. 

The Lions did win last week in shocking upset fashion against the Cardinals, but teams tend to struggle the week after a big upset win, covering at just a 41.4% rate after a win as double digit underdogs, as teams tend to be flat after such a big win and they tend to be overvalued as well. In the Lions’ case, they have moved from being 6.5-point underdogs on the early line last week to now 6-point underdogs, which is not a big swing, unless you consider that it happened despite the fact that the Lions will be without starting quarterback Jared Goff in this game, leaving overmatched Tim Boyle to make his second career start, a big concern considering how much he struggled in his debut.

The Falcons haven’t blown anyone out this year, but this is probably their best chance to do it, so we’re getting some value with them as 6-point favorites. My calculated line is only Atlanta -7, so we’re not getting a ton of line value with them, but when you add in that the Lions could be flat after essentially winning their Super Bowl last week, there is enough here to be somewhat confident in the Falcons. I think I would need this line to drop to 5.5 to consider placing a bet on the Falcons, but I will also reconsider a bet on this game if there are any further significant COVID absences or reactivations.

Atlanta Falcons 24 Detroit Lions 16

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -6

Confidence: Low

Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers: 2021 Week 15 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (6-7) at San Francisco 49ers (7-6)

The Falcons are 6-7 and theoretically right in the mix for a playoff spot in the NFC, but they have not been impressive, as all six of their wins have come by one score against teams with a losing record, while five of their seven losses have come by double digits, including four losses by 23 points or more, leading to them having a point differential of -108 that ranks 5th worst in the NFL. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, the Falcons rank 22nd, 27th, and 30th on offense, defense, and special teams respectively and just 29th in mixed efficiency.

The 49ers, on the other hand, rank 9th, 14th, 21st, and 10th in offensive, defensive, special teams and mixed efficiency and they are much more in line with the teams who have blown the Falcons out than the teams the Falcons have beaten or played close. My calculated line has the 49ers favored by 11 points, so we’re getting some line value with them as 8.5-point home favorites. Unfortunately, this is a tough spot for the 49ers, who play a tougher game next week against the Titans and they do so on Thursday Night Football. Overall just 40.7% of favorites cover the week before a Thursday Night Football game, so I am hesitant to bet on the 49ers, even though I would still recommend them for pick ‘em purposes.

San Francisco 49ers 27 Atlanta Falcons 16

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -8.5

Confidence: Low

Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: 2021 Week 14 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (5-7) at Carolina Panthers (5-7)

The last time we saw the Panthers, they were beaten easily in Miami in a horrific performance for the Panthers offense in their first game with Cam Newton under center without feature back Christian McCaffrey, who is out for the season. Fortunately, the Panthers had a bye last week, so Cam Newton will hopefully have a better grasp of this offense two weeks later, still only about a month into his return to Carolina, where he has had to learn an entirely new offensive system. Newton is far past his prime, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade on what the Panthers have gotten out of their other quarterback this season.

It also helps that the Panthers are playing the Falcons, who are one of the worst teams in the league, despite their 5-7 record. The Falcons’ five wins have all come by one score against teams with a losing record, while four of their seven losses have come by 23 points or more and five or seven by 13 points or more, contributing to a -116 point differential that ranks 4th worst in the NFL. The Panthers have the same record at 5-7, but they have a significantly better point differential at -17 and they have a clear edge in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency as well, ranking 24th, as opposed to 31st for the Falcons.

Carolina’s offense has been terrible this season regardless of the quarterback and when McCaffrey has been out it has been even worse, leading to them ranking 31st in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency on the season, but their defense has been one of the best in the league, especially in recent weeks since top linebacker Shaq Thompson and #1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore have returned from injury, leading to them ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency on the season. The Falcons, on the other hand, haven’t been particularly good at anything, ranking 26th on offense and 22nd on defense.

Despite that, the Panthers are favored by just 2.5 points at home, suggesting these two teams are about even, which is not the case. My calculated line favors the Panthers by five points, so we’re getting great line value with the Panthers with this line being under a field goal, as just 8% of games are decided by 1-2 points, as opposed to 16% by exactly a field goal. However, I’m not going to bet the Panthers for a couple reasons.

For one, I don’t want to bet on the Panthers until I know how much better Cam Newton has gotten in this offense since the last time we saw him, given how terrible he was his last time out. On top of that, the Panthers are in a bad spot, having already beaten the Falcons in Atlanta earlier this year. Divisional home favorites cover at just a 42.4% rate in a same season regular season rematch against a team that they previously beat as road underdogs, as the Panthers did in Atlanta. The Panthers still make sense for pick ‘em purposes as they are the only team in this game with an above average unit in any phase of the game, but I wouldn’t recommend betting on them.

Carolina Panthers 20 Atlanta Falcons 16

Pick against the spread: Carolina -2.5

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: 2021 Week 13 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3) at Atlanta Falcons (5-6)

The Falcons’ 5-6 record isn’t bad, but all of their wins have come by one score against among the worst teams in the league, while many of their losses have been blowouts, with four of six coming by 23 points or more, giving them a -103 point differential that ranks 5th worst in the NFL. Efficiency ratings show them to be among the worst teams in the league as well, as they rank 28th, 22nd, 31st, and 31st in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency respectively.

In normal circumstances, I would expect the Buccaneers to blow the Falcons out and they easily could. The 8-3 Buccaneers are one of the top teams in the league, ranking 2nd, 9th, 24th, and 2nd in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency respectively, and, while they are not quite 100%, with players like Antonio Brown, Mike Edwards, and Jordan Whitehead out, they are healthier than they have been, with players like Vita Vea, Ali Marpet, Rob Gronkowski, Sean Murphy-Bunting, and Carlton Davis returning to the lineup in recent weeks, with Marpet and Davis making their returns this week.

However, these are not normal circumstances, as the Buccaneers could easily be looking forward to next week’s matchup with the Bills, which lead to them not giving their best effort in this matchup against the inferior Falcons. Add in the fact that this line has jumped to 11 from 9.5 a week ago, as the Buccaneers have gotten healthier, and we’re just not getting enough line value to take the Buccaneers with any sort of confidence, as my calculated line has Tampa Bay favored by 12. They are still the pick for pick ‘em purposes because of their sheer talent edge, but it’s not hard to see how they could overlook their opponent and make this game tougher than it otherwise should be.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 Atlanta Falcons 15

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -11

Confidence: None

Atlanta Falcons at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2021 Week 12 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-6) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-8)

The Falcons are 4-6, but they are much worse than even their mediocre record suggests. While all four of their wins have come by one score against mediocre at best opponents, four of their six losses have been blowout defeats by 20 points or more. In fact, their point differential of -110 is the 4th worst in the league, even worse than the -103 point differential that the 2-8 Jaguars have. That holds up when you look at schedule adjusted efficiency rankings (which are based on more predictive metrics like yards and first downs per play), as the Falcons rank 28th, 21st, 31st, and 31st respectively in offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, while the Jaguars rank 23rd, 25th, 28th, and 28th respectively. The Jaguars are missing their top cornerback Shaq Griffin in this game, but their offense will get a boost from the return of their top lineman Brandon Linder.

Despite that, the Falcons are favored on the road in this matchup. It’s only by a couple points, but my rankings have these two teams about even and the Jaguars should be considered at worst 50/50 to win this game at home. My calculated line favors the Jaguars by a couple points at home and, while that isn’t great line value, as we are within the key number of three in both directions, the Falcons are also in a bad spot to boot, with a much tougher matchup against the Buccaneers on deck, which could easily serve as a distraction for the Falcons. The Jaguars, meanwhile, are in a good spot as home underdogs after a big loss as home underdogs, with teams covering at a 59.0% rate as home underdogs after losing by 14 or more as home underdogs. This isn’t a big bet on the Jaguars, but I like them enough to put a small wager on them against the spread and on the money line, with the money line at +110 likely being the better value of the two.

Jacksonville Jaguars 23 Atlanta Falcons 20 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +2

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons: 2021 Week 11 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (6-4) at Atlanta Falcons (4-5)

These two teams had very different weeks last week, with the Patriots beating the Browns by 38 and the Falcons losing to the Cowboys by 40. Typically, a team who gets blown out fares better the following week against the spread than a team that wins by a wide margin, as teams tend to be overlooked, undervalued, and embarrassed after a blowout loss and, as a result, cover the spread at a 58.1% rate. However, I am not sure that fully applies here with the Falcons as, while they could easily be overlooked by the Patriots and they could play a much more focused game after being embarrassed, they also aren’t undervalued by the oddsmakers.

This spread has shifted up to a full touchdown from the four points the Patriots were favored by on the early line last week and normally I like to fade a significant line movement like that, as it tends to be an overreaction to a single week of play, but, in this case, I think the line is still too low, as the line was too low to begin with and a significant shift was justified after the results of last week’s games. The Patriots’ win was even more impressive than most realize because, like the Patriots, the Browns are legitimately a few plays away from having 2-3 more wins and, coming into last week’s game, the Browns were one of just two teams in the league to rank in the top-10 in first down rate, yards per play, first down rate allowed, and yards per play allowed. 

Meanwhile, the Falcons’ loss was even more concerning than most realize because the Falcons have faced a very easy schedule overall this season and now have been blown out by two of the three teams they have faced with a winning record, with the exception being a win over the Saints, who are starting a backup quarterback. Aside from their win over the Saints, the Falcons’ wins have come against teams who are a combined 8-20 on the season, with none possessing a record better than 3-6.

Six of the Falcons’ nine results this season would have covered this seven point spread, but the Patriots are much more in line with the three teams who beat the Falcons by multiple scores (Eagles, Buccaneers, and Cowboys) than the teams the Falcons have played closely or beaten (Saints, Washington, Panthers, Jets, Giants, and Dolphins). Their loss to the Buccaneers could have been closer had it not been for two pick sixes, but they also lost the first down rate battle by 7.11% in that game. Overall, the Falcons rank 27th, 22nd, and 32nd in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiency, while the Patriots rank 13th, 6th, and 8th. 

Despite their records being somewhat similar, this is a matchup between a team in the top quarter of the league and a team in the bottom and my calculated line has the Patriots favored by 10 in this game, so even with the significant line movement up to seven, we are still getting value with the Patriots. It’s not quite enough line value to bet the Patriots, who could still be in a bad spot against a team who was just blown out and, as a result, could bounce back with one of their best efforts of the season, but if this line moves down to 6.5 before gametime or if Falcons feature back Cordarrelle Patterson, currently a game-time decision, is ruled out, I would recommend betting the Patriots. I will have an update if either of those things happen.

Update: This line has dropped to 6.5 across the board despite it looking unlikely that Cordarrelle Patterson will play. I am going to lock this in now because it could go back up after Patterson is ruled out and even if he plays I like New England enough to bet them.

New England Patriots 27 Atlanta Falcons 17

Pick against the spread: New England -6.5

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at Dallas Cowboys: 2021 Week 10 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-4) at Dallas Cowboys (6-2)

The Cowboys shockingly lost at home to the Broncos last week, in Dak Prescott’s return, a week after they went into Minnesota and beat a quality team with an inexperienced backup quarterback under center. I wouldn’t put too much stock in that one loss though, as the Cowboys were likely just flat after a big effort with a backup quarterback under center the week before. Even with Prescott missing a game and the Cowboys struggling in his first game back, Dallas still ranks 1st in offensive efficiency on the season.

I wish Dallas’ loss had triggered a bigger line movement though, especially with the Falcons winning in upset fashion in New Orleans, but this line only moved from Dallas -9.5 on the early line to Dallas -8.5 this week. The Cowboys also lost talented edge defender Randy Gregory to injury in the past week, which is another reason this line could have shifted. However, we are actually still getting some line value with the Cowboys, even without Gregory, as I have them calculated as 11-point favorites over a Falcons team that only has a 4-4 record because of a very easy schedule.

The Falcons’ win against the Saints last week was just their second game of the season against a team with a winning record and they were only able to beat the Saints in a close game because the Saints were starting a backup quarterback and were likely flat after a big upset win over the Buccaneers the week before. The Falcons’ other wins have come against the Giants, Dolphins, and Jets, three of the worst teams in the league, and their margin of victory is just a combined 14 points across their four wins, with their four losses coming by a combined 59 points, giving them the 8th worst point differential in the league, despite a weak schedule. 

Unless Dallas is flat again, the Falcons should have a hard time keeping up and, if either of these teams are flat this week, I would expect it to be the Falcons, who are coming off of that big win over the Saints last week, pulling the upset as touchdown underdogs. Teams cover at just a 43.1% rate all-time after a win as underdogs of a touchdown or more against a divisional opponent. I wish we were getting a little bit better of a line, but I don’t expect this game to be close, so the Cowboys are worth a bet this week.

Dallas Cowboys 37 Atlanta Falcons 24

Pick against the spread: Dallas -8.5

Confidence: Medium