Desmond Ridder and the Atlanta Falcons are ready to challenge for the NFC South title in 2023.
Marcus Mariota arrived in Atlanta last offseason, reuniting with his former offensive coordinator and new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith. Under Smith’s tutelage with the Titans, Mariota only played six games and posted less-than-spectacular numbers.
Marcus Mariota & Arthur Smith Reunite
Mariota would later find his way to Vegas during the 2020 offseason, leaving behind the franchise that drafted him at No. 2 overall in 2015. Thanks to injuries earlier in his career, Mariota was reserved for a backup role, with a running package mixed in on short-yardage situations.
The former Oregon superstar performed admirably in this role, but few expected this success to lead to a full-time starting job when Mariota hit free agency. Alas, after taking the head coaching gig in Atlanta, Smith came knocking.
The Falcons entered the 2022 season with a makeshift option at quarterback — and it showed. While Smith believed there was still plenty in the tank for Mariota, unfortunately, the latter’s body didn’t agree. Mariota started 13 games but looked like a player whose best days were squarely in the rearview.
Mariota threw an interception in more than half of his starts and graded out as one of the least accurate passers in the entire NFL. Kyle Pitts, Olamide Zaccheaus, and Drake London all ranked inside the top 20 players with the most uncatchable targets in the league. It was that bad.
Desmond Ridder Will Guide Falcons To 2023 NFL Postseason
Rookie Desmond Ridder took the reins from Weeks 15-18, leading Atlanta to a 2-2 record down the stretch and showcasing his potential as a starting quarterback on Sundays. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Ridder, but he was willing to stand in the pocket and deliver passes with more accuracy and better ball placement.
As a runner, Ridder didn’t spread his wings and fly as much as he could have. Expect his legs to become a focal point in the Falcons’ offense in 2023. The former Cincinnati signal-caller looks noticeably larger in the frame, namely his newly chiseled arms and upper half. This added muscle should provide more durability for the lanky quarterback.
The Falcons flirted with the idea of Deshaun Watson last offseason and seemingly did the same with Lamar Jackson this year. However, neither move came to fruition, and general manager Terry Fontenot is more than happy to move forward with Ridder behind center.
Given the lack of investment in Ridder (in terms of draft capital), 2023 is likely an audition campaign for the young quarterback. Atlanta can throw the former third-round pick into the fire in Year 2 and see what they’ve got in Ridder. One thing is for certain: he will have no shortage of weapons at his disposal.
Falcons Own Top-Tier Offensive Pieces
The Falcons, to the chagrin of some, used the No. 8 overall pick at the 2023 NFL Draft on running back Bijan Robinson. Regardless of where you stand on the early running back convo, it is undeniable how flawless of a prospect Robinson is.
The former Texas Longhorn is the most polished ball carrier to enter the league in years and has the explosiveness and dual-threat ability to handle a heavy workload in the NFL. Thankfully, Atlanta also employs 2022 rookie star, Tyler Allgeier, giving the franchise a fearsome 1-2 punch out of the backfield.
The weapons don’t stop there. Drake London went inside the top 10 at last year’s draft and routinely found open areas as a rookie, even if then-starter Marcus Mariota failed to see him. Tight end Kyle Pitts is another piece of the puzzle, as he missed several games and regressed across the box score in 2022.
As we addressed earlier, the dip in production was less about Pitts and more about Mariota. There are endless clips on Twitter showing every time Mariota missed Pitts wide open… just make sure you are comfortable and have some popcorn ready because there are SO MANY.
Outside of the skill positions, the offensive line offers promise as Smith’s influence continues to bring the best out of his players. Chris Lindstrom blossomed into one of the game’s premier interior linemen in 2022, while Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary return to bookend the unit. The Falcons traded up for Syracuse lineman Matthew Bergeron on Day 2 of the draft, expecting the first-year player to start at left guard immediately.
Not to be outdone, Atlanta was busy on the other side of the ball this offseason. Safety Jessie Bates III, pass rusher Bud Dupree, and two elite defensive linemen — David Onyemata and Calais Campbell. Factor in a projected second-year leap from Arnold Ebiketie and Troy Andersen, and the path to a postseason berth is well within reach.
The Case Against Other NFC South Teams
The Saints improved significantly this offseason with the addition of quarterback Derek Carr, but the roster continues to age, and it no longer has the depth to fill in when/if an injury occurs. No one would be surprised to see New Orleans win the division with 9-ish wins, but it’s just as likely they fall closer to the 6-win mark.
The Panthers made the bold move of trading up to No. 1 overall and selecting quarterback Bryce Young. While the Alabama signal-caller was a phenomenal selection, some youngsters take time to find their bearings in the league. I expect Young to be ready, and the Panthers’ roster is sneaky good, but 2023 might be a year early for Frank Reich’s crew.
Now, this brings us to the Buccaneers. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Following Tom Brady’s retirement, Tampa is stuck picking up the pieces. With an older roster and several players who battled injuries in 2022, it is hard to find a path for a playoff run. The starting quarterback will be one of Baker Mayfield, Kyle Trask, or John Wolford. If Brady won eight games… it’s tough to project anything close to that without him.
All in all, the stars are aligned for the Falcons to go on a run in 2023. The division is arguably the weakest in the NFL, and on paper, Atlanta boasts the easiest schedule in the entire league. The pieces are all there for Desmond Ridder and Arthur Smith. It is time for them to prove their worth to the franchise and the fan base.