The Falcons finished 7-10 last season, despite being in the playoff hunt until early January. I do believe Arthur Smith outperformed the roster, but the personnel may have taken a step back this season. Even though the Falcons addressed massive areas of need, they also got worse at some positions and remained stagnant at others.
Terry Fontenot added a playmaker on the perimeter, multiple EDGE defenders, and a potential franchise quarterback. However, Matt Ryan is gone, and Mariota is a significant downgrade. Moreover, the team is seemingly electing to run it back with the exact same starting offensive line, which is egregious. It is the team’s single biggest positional need at this point in the offseason.
The Falcons boast one of the worst lines in football. After surrendering 40 sacks last year, Atlanta is choosing to run it back with essentially the same squad. They did add to the position through the draft and free agency, but the front office didn’t invest heavily. Justin Shaffer was selected in the sixth round and is set to compete at left guard. Germain Ifedi and Elijah Wilkerson were brought in to compete with Kaleb McGary at right tackle. And Matt Hennessy‘s competition will be drawn from last year’s draft class in Drew Dalman.
So there is competition, but instead of iron sharpening iron, it’s more like lead sharpening lead. The Falcons are basically trotting out the same starting five, three of whom were some of the worst pass protectors in the league. Mayfield is the very worst in pass sets, Hennessy is the sixth-worst, and McGary rounds out the group as the ninth-worst lineman in pass protection. That’s three starters in the bottom ten. That’s a problem.
Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot have been adamant regarding their team’s pursuit of winning and not tanking, but sending Marcus Mariota or Desmond Ridder out there behind this group suggests otherwise. Despite the sunken cost in Mayfield, the Falcons need to add a starting-caliber guard; he’s the weakest link of the unit… by far.
What makes this pill even more difficult to swallow is Arthur Smith’s reluctance to admit they’re doing anything other than competing to win games. In an interview with Jeff Schultz of The Athletic, the first-time head coach scoffed at the notion the team is looking toward next year’s draft. “This is a waste of your time and my time if you want to talk about ’23.”
“It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard — that a team would try to not win football games. If you don’t, there’s going to be consequences. OK, you’re at the top of the draft — I got it. But you’re in a very transactional phase of the National Football League right now. Trades in the draft. Trades for quarterbacks. It’s a different landscape than when Jimmy Johnson took over the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. It was pre-free agency. The famous Herschel Walker trade. They blew it up and went 1-15, and … it was a long rebuild. That is not the same NFL as today. Back then, people would’ve given their first born before they gave their picks away. People are still going off old narratives, and it’s comical. Any good team knows how to rebuild every year.”
I don’t believe the Falcons are tanking. Smith truly gives off Bill Belichick vibes of competing at every waking moment. However, there has to be some self-awareness here. Atlanta is putting the same starting five linemen out there, despite the group struggling mightily a year ago. If the Falcons truly see themselves as postseason contenders, they would’ve upgraded the left guard position, at the very least. But that hasn’t stopped Smith from voicing his desire to win football games.
“I want to win. I have an urgency to win,” Smith said. “You’re never promised anything. You don’t know what’s going to happen a year from now, and I’m not just talking about this job, I mean with health, in life. I’m not trying to be all philosophical here. But I like the makeup of our team. I like where we’re going. We have a lot of guys who are hungry, guys who are competitive, guys who have one-year deals and feel like they have something to prove. We have something to prove.”
Either the Falcons are mind-numbingly stubborn or seriously can’t self-evaluate properly. 2023 will be a huge test for Jalen Mayfield and Matt Hennessy; if neither takes steps forward in their pass sets, we’ll be right back here next offseason, clamoring for upgrades along the front.
Photographer: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire