The Atlanta Falcons said last year that they weren't rebuilding. Well, in 2022, there's really nothing else to call it, and that's not a bad thing at all. After the team failed to acquire quarterback Deshaun Watson and traded longtime franchise QB Matt Ryan, it signaled a changing of the tides that's been needed in Atlanta since the end of the Dan Quinn/Thomas Dimitroff years. The team seems to be finally moving in the direction of progress after taking 2021 to see if there was any old magic left from the former regime — the answer, sadly, was not much.
In 2022, the Falcons will be trying to develop a lot of young talent while seeing if it has a franchise quarterback on its roster thanks to two key roster moves made in the offseason. Second-year head coach Arthur Smith will also be looking to up his game as he tries to reproduce his prolific success as offensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans.
The Falcons' offense will be missing one massive piece from the 2021 campaign — the quarterback. They'll have to see whether veteran QB Marcus Mariota or third-round draft pick Desmond Ridder is more capable of steering the team toward wins in the interim, or permanently. Mariota didn't play much at all last season and was used only sparingly by the Raiders in 2020, but he'll still enter training camp the favorite for the job, at least to start the season. Ridder is a very Smith-friendly quarterback and has oodles of potential, and his pro-ready style might help him get on the field sooner than later.
The Falcons did have a huge 2021 bright spot with running back Cordarrelle Patterson's breakout year. Smith's scheme unlocked the former first-rounder's full offensive potential, as he amassed 1,166 total yards and 11 touchdowns. Patterson signed a two-year deal in the offseason and will be relied on heavily once more as a Swiss Army knife option. He'll be joined by running backs like Damien Williams, Qadree Ollison, Caleb Huntley and rookie Tyler Allgeier in training camp. Watch for Allgeier to be involved a good bit in his rookie season, with his punishing rushing style a good fit for Smith's scheme.
While unicorn tight end Kyle Pitts should continue to display his elite talent in 2022, the team didn't have a lot of promising options on the roster outside of wideout Olamide Zaccheaus and free agent tight end Anthony Firkser. Enter Drake London, the USC prospect whom the team took at No. 8 overall in the draft. London is going to be handed the golden key in his rookie campaign, with the receiver position mainly stocked with guys who have filled traditionally depth roles on offense (Zaccheaus, Auden Tate, Damiere Byrd, Frank Darby, KhaDarel Hodge, Austin Trammell). May trade acquisition Bryan Edwards out of Las Vegas adds another big target who probably has the second-highest ceiling on the roster now at the receiver position. While Smith will line Pitts and Patterson out wide on occasion with both threats in the passing attack, it's London and Edwards who will be the faces of the position going forward, especially with 2018 first-round pick Calvin Ridley out for the year (at least) with a gambling suspension. The days of Ridley and Julio Jones are no more — the London, Pitts and Patterson era has arrived for the Falcons' passing attack. Firkser will be a fun wrinkle for the team after his days with Smith in Tennessee, and 2022 draft pick John FitzPatrick should duke it out with Parker Hesse for the blocking tight end role.
The offensive line looks largely unchanged in 2022. Longtime left tackle Jake Matthews signed an extension in the offseason, and stellar right guard Chris Lindstrom is in line for a new deal. At left guard, 2021 draft pick Jalen Mayfield is the front-runner, but Justin Shaffer could push him. Center should be a camp battle between 2020 draft pick Matt Hennessy and 2021 draft pick Drew Dalman, and at right tackle, 2019 first-round pick Kaleb McGary will try to hold his spot against challengers like Germain Ifedi and Elijah Wilkinson.
The Falcons' defense lost its best tackler in linebacker Foyesade Oluokun but adds a host of interesting pieces that could elevate this unit past some of its struggles last fall, particularly in the pass rush.
Up front, the team has Grady Jarrett in tow, but with an expiring deal; he could either be re-signed or traded before the season begins. Jarrett has long been the team's best defensive lineman. The team hasn't invested heavily in the front four this offseason, adding only journeyman Vincent Taylor to a group that features nose tackle Anthony Rush and defensive ends Marlon Davidson, Ta'Quon Graham and John Cominsky.
It's at outside linebacker where the pass rush could come with more force than in years past. Lorenzo Carter (a career-high five sacks in 2021) will lead a revamped pass-rushing unit that boasts 2022 draft picks Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone and 2021 draft surprise Adetokunbo Ogundeji. These four, along with Jarrett (if he's not traded) and the defensive end group, could give the team a legitimate, consistent pass rush — something it hasn't had since 2017.
The inside linebacker group loses Oluokun but gains former first-round pick Rashaan Evans, who was with Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees in Tennessee. Evans hasn't quite lived up to his draft status, but he should slot in decently as Oluokun's replacement with 2020 draft pick Mykal Walker. A big focus in 2022 is going to be if longtime linebacker Deion Jones can raise his profile after an underwhelming couple of seasons. He is a cut or restructure candidate in 2023. Draft pick Troy Andersen projects as a work in progress, but his freakish athleticism and potential could get him snaps sooner than later.
The secondary might be the most promising position group on the Falcons' roster. Elite cornerback A.J. Terrell will get the best running mate he's had in his young career in veteran Casey Hayward Jr., who signed a two-year deal in March. They'll be backed by slot corner Isaiah Oliver, who flashed promise in 2021 before being injured for the year. Darren Hall and Avery Williams both serve vital depth roles (with Hall especially pushing for more time with his play last fall). Kendall Sheffield, vet Mike Ford and Canadian football export Dee Alford will compete for roster spots. As far as safeties go, the options aren't quite as numerous, but there's potential. Richie Grant will need to substantially raise his profile after Atlanta picked him in the second round as a hoped-for starter, and 2020 draft pick Jaylinn Hawkins will need to keep playing into his potential. The team does have vets like Erik Harris, Dean Marlowe and Teez Tabor to fall back on if those guys underwhelm in camp and preseason.
Kicker Younghoe Koo has turned himself into one of the best at his position, and the team rewarded him handsomely with a five-year extension this offseason. He is the constant for the special teams group, as punter Dom Maggio will likely get competition from undrafted free agent Seth Vernon (and maybe a summer addition). The long snapper spot will be a battle between former Titan Beau Brinkley and former Raider Liam McCullough. Williams should be the guy the team leans on most for return duties, but don't be surprised if Patterson gets a chance with his history as a kick returner.
The Atlanta Falcons won't be a contender in 2022; rather, they'll be a team still trying to find itself and pave a path back into the conversation. With a lot of young talent and some growing to do on the sideline, they could be competitive on a week-to-week basis, even if the losses come as frequently as the wins. The team will see if Mariota or Ridder has what it takes to be the quarterback of tomorrow, or if 2023 will be about getting the QB the team needs to be a potential playoff team going forward.