On the hit Apple TV show “Ted Lasso,” the titular football-turned-soccer coach played by Jason Sudeikis has an inspirational message above the door exiting his office. It reads in big, bold letters, “BELIEVE.” It’s not hard to imagine that new Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot have a similar message above their office doors, but with three words added: “BELIEVE IN MATT RYAN.”
With former coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff gone, the Falcons are on the journey back to NFL relevancy. The new regime already has made a major decision in passing on drafting a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and hitching their future to Ryan, the former MVP, to lead them to winning ways. Will their belief pay off, or will it go down like English tea does for Lasso: not well, not well at all?
Smith broke out in 2019 with the Tennessee Titans, helping engineer quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s career turnaround and sparking the rise of star running back Derrick Henry. Smith was hired as the Falcons’ new coach for one big reason: to score points. In Atlanta, Smith will get a slight upgrade over Tannehill with Ryan, who hasn’t had a play-caller of this caliber since Kyle Shanahan in the Super Bowl season of 2016.
The Falcons were 16th in the NFL in points scored per game in 2020 with an average of 24.8. Ryan, though, was his typical prolific self with 4,581 yards and 26 touchdowns. Former coordinator Dirk Koetter’s scheme held Ryan back some, as did an underperforming offensive line that allowed 41 sacks. Ryan, 36, should get a boost from Smith’s creative play-calling, which utilizes pre-snap motions and loves to get the ball to the tight end.
Smith’s arsenal of offensive weapons is as formidable as anyone’s in the NFL, although it no longer includes future Hall of Famer Julio Jones. The seven-time Pro Bowler was traded to Smith's former employer, the Tennessee Titans in June, for a second-round in next year's draft and a fourth-rounder in 2023. Jones, who missed nearly half the season last year due to injury, had expressed a desire for a change of scenery earlier in the offseason and his contract was becoming more of an issue for the team from a salary cap standpoint.
Part of the reason the Falcons were so willing to trade Ryan's former favorite target is the presence of Calvin Ridley, who had his first 1,000-yard season last year to go along with nine touchdowns. He's the clear No. 1 now and the hope is that Russell Gage, a 2018 sixth-round pick, will continue to emerge while 2019 undrafted free agent Olamide Zaccheaus and 2021 sixth-round pick Frank Darby out of Arizona State serve as deep threats.
The marquee acquisition came at tight end, with first-round draft pick Kyle Pitts out of Florida. Regarded as one of the best tight end prospects ever to come out of the NFL Draft, Pitts can line up wherever you want him to and can do just about whatever you ask of the position — and more. He’s a nightmare to defend and a major boost to this team’s passing attack. Hayden Hurst is a heck of a second fiddle and should perform better under Smith than he did under Koetter. Jaeden Graham is a nice third option in the pecking order, and veteran blocking tight end Lee Smith should help.
At running back, Smith looks like he’ll roll with free agent Mike Davis right now after not drafting an RB. The journeyman running back broke out in Carolina last year, amassing 642 yards and six touchdowns on the ground and 373 yards and two scores in the air. He’s not Henry, but Smith’s scheme should set him up for success. Behind him is return ace Cordarrelle Patterson, a career wideout whom the team lists as a running back on its roster. He’s a gadget player whom Smith can use all over his formations. Qadree Ollison — a 2019 draft pick — and Louisville UDFA Javian Hawkins could contend with a future free-agent addition for roster spots.
The offensive line has three spots claimed for left tackle Jake Matthews, right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary. Center Matt Hennessy, a 2020 draft pick, played sporadically last year behind Alex Mack (now in San Francisco) and will compete for the starting job in the middle with 2021 fourth-round pick Drew Dalman out of Stanford. Left guard may come down to a battle between longtime swing tackle Matt Gono, 2021 third-round pick Jalen Mayfield out of Michigan and free agent Josh Andrews.
Veteran defensive coordinator Dean Pees should provide a major spark to the Falcons defense, which has been one of the league’s least effective units since 2018. The team has struggled to get a consistent pass rush for eons, and the coverage unit has deteriorated since the days of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. There are some bright spots, but overall, the unit needs a revitalization.
Fontenot wasted no time addressing the biggest problem area on the roster — safety — adding three new impact guys in free agents Duron Harmon and Erik Harris and 2021 second-round pick Richie Grant out of UCF. When you say that a 2020 fourth-round pick (Jaylinn Hawkins) is the elder statesman at the position, you know the team has made some adjustments. But there’s flexibility with all of those pieces to move around and give Pees what he wants at the position. At cornerback, 2020 first-round pick A.J. Terrell will lead the pack after showing promise his rookie season. Can 2018 second-round pick Isaiah Oliver finally lock himself in as a deserving starter, or will 2019 fourth-round pick Kendall Sheffield emerge? Free agent Fabian Moreau and 2021 mid-round draft picks Darren Hall and Avery Williams should all compete for playing time.
The linebacking spots look quite promising, with 2017 Pro Bowler Deion Jones and 2018 sixth-round steal Foyesade Oluokun one of the most underrated duos in all of football. Mykal Walker, a 2020 fourth-round pick, also proved his worth with some promising snaps last fall. The team also added veteran Brandon Copeland to play on the outside.
The defensive line is a bit of a question mark aside from Pro Bowler Grady Jarrett. Jarrett is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL, but after him is a cluster of guys all waiting to carve out a spot with Pees and his new staff. Dante Fowler Jr. took a pay cut to stay with the Falcons, and they’ll need him to do much more in the pass rush than he did last year after signing as a free agent. Reliable edge presences like Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Steven Means will return, as will nose tackle Tyeler Davison. John Cominsky is waiting to break out, and Marlon Davidson, a 2020 second-round pick, basically took a redshirt year last fall and could emerge as a surprise force. Free agent DE Jonathan Bullard could pitch in right away, and 2021 draft picks Ta’Quon Graham (tackle) and Adetokunbo Ogundeji (end) will supply depth as they develop.
Onside kick maven Younghoe Koo made the Pro Bowl last year in his breakout season, going 37-for-39 on field goals and 8-for-8 on kicks of 50-plus yards. Sterling Hofrichter will be the punter again. Josh Harris will hold down the long-snapping gig. Patterson is one of the game’s electric kick returners, but punt returner should be an open competition. Watch out for 2021 draft picks Williams and Darby to get a crack at that spot along with perhaps Zaccheaus.
It’s a new day in Atlanta with Smith and Fontenot making the calls, but much will depend on whether the marriage of Smith’s play-calling and Ryan’s quarterbacking is successful, and if Pees can figure out how to get the most out of a defense that’s a bit short on stars. They might not be a playoff team on paper, but the coaching changes alone might spark a revival for the Falcons.