Atlanta Falcons Rebuild: This Team is Similar to the 2021 Lions

As the 2022 Atlanta Falcons prepare for their first preseason game, their opponent might have more in common with this current regime than people think?

The rebuild for the Atlanta Falcons in Flowery Branch has reached new levels of optimism. Even I have succumbed to looking at this season through training camp goggles. But deep below the surface of A.J. Terrell pass breakups and Feliepe Franks truck sticks is a reality that has not changed: this is still a rebuilding roster.

They are taking proper steps towards competency in the NFC, but there’s still much to do before they’re ready to take that next step. But, when you mix the current quarterback situation with the insane strength of schedule (10th in the league), this step in the rebuild will not be measured in wins and losses.

The Falcons have been preaching competitiveness for the better part of this off-season, a very similar focus made by a team last season that most pundits feel is moving in the right direction: The Detroit Lions.

Comparing the 2021 Detroit Lions and the 2022 Atlanta Falcons

Both teams have not seen a .500 record since 2017. They also both recently let go of their long-time franchise quarterbacks, thus causing uncertainty at the position. Finally, both teams have recently brought in a new head coach to give them an identity.

To add to the similarities, three players highlight the similarities of their respective situations. Three heroes of their rebuilds, if you will.

The Unlikely Hero

For Detroit, the unlikely hero last season was wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. The fourth-round pick out of USC came into the league as a surprisingly complete receiver. He needed his time to get acclimated to the speed of the NFL, and for St. Brown, it took only 11 games. St. Brown’s final six games of his rookie campaign ended with 51 receptions on 67 targets and 560 yards, which accounted for about 60% of his production receiving for the year.

For Atlanta, expect that unlikely hero to be rookie running back Tyler Allgeier. The Falcons were 30th in yards per attempt last season and 31st in total rushing yards. They also did not get much push from the offensive line as they were 29th in yards before contact.

The offensive line has remained about the same, unfortunately. However, mobile quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder open up another aspect of the offense — the run/pass option that Ryan Tannehill ran so well when Arthur Smith was in Tennessee. And with Tannehill came a running back that got better as the game progressed with his physicality.

This is not implying that Allgeier is Derrick Henry; nobody will ever be Derrick Henry. But Allgeier can alleviate some of the carries from Cordarrelle Patterson, allowing him to be more of an offensive weapon than a traditional running back. He will have to beat out Damien Williams, the free agent from Kansas City that shined in Super Bowl LIV. But make no mistake, Allgeier has been brought here to be the feature back for years to come for the Falcons, and it starts with this year.

The Antihero

The comparisons between the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons don’t stop with the unlikely hero. Both teams have an antihero to deal with despite their shortcomings as players. In Detroit, the antihero was quarterback Jared Goff.

The Los Angeles Rams traded Jared Goff in the offseason going into the 2021 season. Goff didn’t have that X-factor to take Sean McVay’s offense to the next level. He doesn’t add anything to the offense past what is on the play-call sheet. But he did keep the ball out of harm’s way, was 12th in completion percentage, and the bottom quarter in interceptions — but dead last in intended air yards per pass attempt. With Goff, you take the good with the bad.

Atlanta will have to do the same with Deion Jones this season. Jones’ production had been steadily declining since his foot injury in 2018. In the Atlanta defense, Deion Jones was known for his coverage ability. However, starting with 2019, his quarterback rating when targeted has been 92.3, 114.0, and 115.5, according to Pro Football Reference.

However, he does still have the speed to go sideline-to-sideline. He was hurt last year, which could explain his hesitancy to seek out contact. Since the Falcons couldn’t trade Jones this offseason, they are ultimately stuck with the seventh-year linebacker. Let’s hope that he can resemble his former self.

The Superhero

Finally, we have the superhero. The most vital hero of the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons rebuilds. For Detroit, the war hero is D’Andre Swift. Don’t let last year’s performance fool you about Swift; he is still the same dawg that came out in 2019. His workload dipped due to a lingering injury, but he has some durability concerns. They stem mainly from him having to shoulder so much of the load offensively.

But all of that is about to change. The Lions have outfitted themselves with D.J. Chark, St. Brown, and rookie Jameson Williams to ease the carry load. The Lions are doing what they can to elongate the career of their feature back. 

For the Falcons, their superhero is none other than the unicorn himself, Kyle Pitts. He ran out of gas and pulled his hamstring with how much of the offense he had to shoulder last season. The only two players that were legitimate threats on the Falcons offense in 2021 were Cordarrelle Patterson and Pitts, which is insane to think about when you see that Pitts only registered one touchdown the entire season.

Defensive coordinators keyed in on Pitts and forced them to go to any other option in that barren offense. But, just like Swift, the Falcons decided to outfit the rest of the offense around Pitts. Drake London, Bryan Edwards, and Auden Tate to the passing game and Allgeier and Damien Williams to a physical running game as a complement. Making Pitts the focal point of this offense and allowing him to be the superhero of the team should make for an exciting brand of Falcons football in 2022.

Atlanta Falcons Receivers: Breaking Down the 2022 Situation

Calvin Ridley is holding the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver and tight end situation hostage and his decision will shape this group in 2022.

Calvin Ridley, a key player in the Atlanta Falcons receiving corps
Photo Credit: atlantafalcons.com

The Atlanta Falcons receivers group is arguably one of the worst in the 2021 NFL season. They have the least yardage of any wide receiver corps in the league. At tight end, it’s almost the reverse. They have generational talent Kyle Pitts as the starter and quite a few reserves that help out with blocking and can catch short routes as above average No. 2 tight end options. When it comes to groups that need an almost complete makeover this off-season, it’s this one.

Under Contract:

WR Calvin Ridley: 1 year, $11.116 million left on his contract

WR Frank Darby: 3 years, $2.973 million left on his contract

TE Kyle Pitts: 3 years, $26.927 million left on his contract and a potential fifth year option

Kyle Pitts is obviously going to be the primary option for the Atlanta Falcons group of receivers moving forward. He’s the only tight end 21 years or younger in NFL history to gain over 1000 yards. He’s a physical freak and as his routes and catching get more refined, he’s only going to be more impactful. Frank Darby is a very good long-term reserve option for the Falcons as a fourth option in the passing game and is under contract for very little money.

Calvin Ridley is the most unique situation in the NFL as he’s currently under a mental health leave from the league. Should the Falcons want to move on because they aren’t sure he’s in it for their team, they should trade him for the most value they can. It would free up cap space in the amount of $11 million. If he’s ready to go for the Falcons, he’d instantly be an option for No. 1 receiver. Ridley could lead the passing game and mentor Pitts to be an even better player than he is.

Exclusive Rights Free Agents:

WR Chad Hansen

WR Austin Trammell

TE Parker Hesse

TE John Raine

When looking at the exclusive rights free agents the Atlanta Falcons have in the receivers group, this looks like a few guys who can provide a little depth for the camp roster. The only person in this group who could be a regular contributor moving forward is Parker Hesse. Hesse is a good fit for the long-term blocking role in Arthur Smith’s offense. He’s shown abilities as a short-yardage outlet for the Falcons as a rookie and could continue a similar role for the team moving forward.

UPDATE: The Falcons re-signed Hesse, Raine, Hansen and Trammell on 1/10/2022.

Restricted Free Agents:

WR Olamide Zaccheaus

WR Christian Blake

TE Jaeden Graham

Restricted free agents are an interesting situation for the Falcons. While Christian Blake is an obvious non-tender option due to lack of production and lack of talent overall, Jaeden Graham and Olamide Zaccheaus had impacts during their first three years with the team. Zaccheaus and Graham should both be brought back, but ideally, they re-signed for under the original tender offer.

Unrestricted Free Agents:

WR Tajae Sharpe

WR Russell Gage

TE Hayden Hurst

TE Lee Smith

The biggest names from this group in terms of talent and production are Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst. Gage has proven to be a talented third or fourth receiving option in the offense and a good possession receiver needed for those tough third downs. Hurst has shown to be a solid blocker and a good fit for the Arthur Smith offense, but might be looking for a more expanded role in another offense. If the Falcons can get either guy back on a reasonable contract, they should do so.

Tajae Sharpe has been a decent fit for the Falcons as a tertiary receiver and possession guy, but he’s only shown that his value is as a veteran minimum player. If he comes back for that, bring him into camp. Otherwise, let him walk. The same can be said for Lee Smith. He’s been a good blocker, but not much else for the Falcons during the 2021 season.

Current Need

The Falcons need more playmakers moving forward regardless of who’s on the roster for 2022. As much as the team and fans love Kyle Pitts, he can’t do it on his own. Bringing in a competent and talented option to play as the No. 2 to him or even a No. 3 role to him and Calvin Ridley should be a priority for the future. Free agent options to consider that would fill that role include Allen Robinson, Allen Lazard, Juju Smith-Schuster, A.J. Green and Emmanuel Sanders.

At tight end, the Falcons could consider bringing in options that might be able to mentor Kyle Pitts while also working in a similar tight end/wide receiver setting. Jimmy Graham, Zach Ertz and Jared Cook are names that spring to mind that may not break the bank while still providing what is needed. Outside of that, going bargain options for a blocking tight end makes the most sense.

Potential Future Need

In this situation, the potential future need is the same as the current need. The Falcons don’t have a hard contract situation to deal with at this position, but the Calvin Ridley situation brings forth a lot of questions. If Ridley does come back to the Falcons and signs long-term, this would help the Falcons have their No. 1 option settled for the future and remove what this need is.

What the Plan Should Be Moving Forward

The plan moving forward should first be to figure out what Calvin Ridley wants to do. If he wants to be in Atlanta, keep him and set him up long term to be the No. 1 guy. If he doesn’t, trade him for assets that can be used moving forward. If he doesn’t, the Falcons biggest need in this group is a true, playmaking No. 1 wide receiver. And whether they address it in the draft or free agency is to be determined.

Once that situation is determined, figure out the rest of the Atlanta Falcons receivers group and tight end group to complement the strengths and weaknesses of the No. 1 and Kyle Pitts. Having multiple options out there, the Falcons could go in a plethora of directions. What they end up doing isn’t fully up to them due to the Ridley situation, though.

Preseason Preview: Week 2 Falcons @ Dolphins

Dolphins ATB and Falcons ATB break down their respective offseasons, training camp and expectations ahead of Week 2 of preseason.

Acknowledgement:

Before we delve into the game preview, I would just like to thank and credit Hunter Thompson of Falcons ATB, for his contributions and insights in putting together this preseason matchup article.

Training Camp

Q. What do you hope your team will gain from the joint practices held in Miami?

Falcons:

HT: “I hope the team really decides to step up and compete and stays tough and physical with Miami this week. I know going against new players is huge for development, so I hope we see them gain confidence and have good meaningful reps.”

Dolphins:

Heading into the joint practices with the Chicago Bears, I stated how the primary focus would be how to deal with the mobility of Justin Fields. The starting defense to a certain extent did manage to contain Fields, however never really exerted a lot of pressure with Fields having all day in the pocket never really needing to scramble. Coming into the second week of preseason, the Dolphins will face its second kryptonite; elite receiving tight ends. Facing the likes of Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst, all eyes will be on Eric Rowe and the rest of the Dolphins’ defense as to how they contain the threat that Pitts poses.

Coming out of the 2021 NFL Draft, Pitts’ NFL comparison was Darren Waller, a player that torched Eric Rowe Week 16, despite him being right on him nearly every play. Rowe v Pitts will be the biggest matchup to watch out for. Also look out for how Miami’s linebackers especially Jerome Baker looks in coverage.

Nevertheless, the receiving threat posed by the Falcons extends far beyond containing Pitts, especially with the likes of Calvin Ridley coming off the back of a 1,374 yd season where he averaged 15.3 YPC. The whole secondary will for sure be tested after a very good first week of preseason.

UPDATE: Following the first day of joint practice, the battle has been as anticipated. Thankfully for Dolphins fans, aside from the play shown above, by most accounts Eric Rowe had a fantastic day.

Highlight of the day would be where Rowe had a PBU on a touchdown pass intended for Pitts.

Q. A lot of Dolphins fans had their hearts set on Kyle Pitts, how has he performed so far?

HT: “We have yet to see Pitts play in the Falcons uniform, but based on the Training camp we’ve been hearing, he is a standout in camp. He is helping fill the hole left by Julio Jones when he got traded to Tennessee. If Pitts plays this game, look for him to take over the game if he is as good as he is being advertised. “

Fan Q. How strong is the receiving unit this season without Julio? How much involvement do you anticipate Russell Gage having this year? Is he the definite WR2?

HT: “The receiving unit without Julio will look very different. Look for the Falcons to implement a lot of two tight end looks to take advantage of having both Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst on the roster. And for Gage, look for him to be a potential flex option or low-end WR2 for you and your fantasy team. I think he will still be the third option, but who knows for certain.”

Preseason

Q. How did you fare Week 1 of preseason? What went well? Who stood out? What/who concerns you?

Falcons:

HT: “We lost 23-3. And it was a tough game all the way around, we struggled in the trenches on offense and only amassed 139 total yards. Nothing really on offense went well which is concerning, but the defense actually had some standouts in Ogundeji and JTM at the EDGE positions. Marlon Davidson (who is out this week) also managed to stand out in the DL department.”

Dolphins:

The Good:

Despite losing 20-13, the Dolphins started preseason very positively. Box scores in such games are largely irrelevant. The Dolphins starters and second team played very well. By the half, the Bears had barely managed a first down against a defense not featuring, Howard, Jones, Phillips or Ogbah. The offense were successful at moving the ball down field with Tua going 8/11 and 99 yards. However, Miami did struggle in the red zone, being stopped on the goal line and then the eventual pick to end Tua’s evening. Nevertheless, I would not be worried about this, as Tua has excelled in red zone drills all throughout camp.

Stand out performers include Tua (despite INT), Justin Coleman (the one man hit sticking machine, who needs to learn to wrap players up), Nik Needham, Mack Hollins, Eric Rowe, Salvon Ahmed, Jakeem Grant and Noah Igbinoghene who made some good plays, despite a rather troublesome camp.

The Bad and the Ugly:

Without sounding like too much of a broken record, the offensive line struggles exhibited during Week 1 of preseason will be the primary focus heading into Saturday’s game. Facing the Bears elite defensive line, the offensive line was decimated throughout the first day of joint practice. Despite some bounce back during the second day of practice, the offensive line remained an issue heading into the preseason debut. While the starting pass protection was fairly good, with Tua Tagovailoa complementing the line for giving him a relatively clean pocket, run blocking was almost none existent.

As Chris Spooner eluded to in his recent article, the left side of the line including Austin Jackson and Solomon Kindley was especially problematic in establishing the run. Consequently, PFF gave Kindley a 45.7 run-blocking grade while Austin Jackson graded even worse scoring a dreadful 38.1.

For a full recap of the game, go check out Tanner Elliott’s post game analysis.

Q. What are your expectations going into the game? What do you hope the team takes away from it?

Falcons:

HT: “I am going into this game with low expectations for a few different reasons. Mainly because it’s the preseason and I don’t think the game itself matters as much as meaningful reps for each player. Last week we saw a few standouts even though we as a team struggled, and that’s the biggest plus of the preseason for me. But I hope we see the offensive line step it up. Last week against the Titans the line struggled the entire game and we can’t afford two weeks of that. When the line struggles it makes the evaluation process for skill positions so much harder.”

Dolphins:

Going into the second preseason game, the main thing I hope to see is consistency. If Tua can string together another couple of good series to his depleted options at receiver, it will be a success, even against a shaky Falcons secondary. I would like to see a lot more of Jaylen Waddle in this game as a receiver, as he left week one without a catch. I would also like to see more of our pass rush in getting pressure in at the QB.

However, all eyes will be on how the offensive line performs. As aforementioned, pass blocking was relatively good during the first game. I want to see this continue with consistency while beginning to open up running lanes for the backs. The return of Liam Eichenberg can bring some optimism to fans, although I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

Q. Are there any injury concerns affecting the team heading into the game?

Falcons:

HT: “I don’t really have any major concerns coming in, I’d like to see Marlon Davidson playing in the game, but it is what it is.”

Dolphins:

In contrast with that of Atlanta, Miami’s situation is a lot more tenuous, especially at wide receiver. As I stated in a previous article when healthy the Dolphins have an elite receiving threat, however we are yet to see it. Coming into the first day of joint practice, the following receivers were missing:

In addition, Preston Williams remains on PUP and Allen Hurns has been placed on IR.

While availability for a preseason game is not a big issue for the likes of Parker and Fuller, until those players are on the field we will not see the full capability of this offense. With the offensive line woes many people have questioned the decision to pass on Penei Sewell. However, with the options at receiver now, thank god for Jaylen Waddle.

Outside of the receiving room Jaelan Phillips returned to practice this week, but given his value, he will be brought back form injury very slowly, making him an outsider to feature heavily in the second preseason game. Liam Eichenberg, Brandon Jones and Ogbah have all returned to practice this week. Rookie TE Hunter Long has been dressed for practice, but has not participated in team drills due to ongoing pain stifling his return.

Q. Which player on the other team scares you the most?

Falcons:

HT: “Jaylen Waddle. 100%. His explosiveness is concerning for the young defense we are going to be fielding.”

Dolphins:

Calvin Ridley no doubt. His route running is truly elite and one of the most technically gifted receivers in the game. Any one who can torch Xavien Howard the way he did in camp, deserves fearing.

Q. What are your expectations going into the season?

Falcons:

HT: “We are at a weird point where we are retooling the roster while still trying to be competitive, which looks strange. But looking at what we did in the draft and how some of those picks are playing we are running a pretty decent first offseason under the new regime. But that also makes this conversation difficult because no one really knows what to expect from this current roster. Some fans are expecting a playoff push, while others are expecting another top 10 draft pick.”

Dolphins:

Dolphins fans you will just have to keep your eyes peeled for the Dolphins ATB staff’s expectations and season prediction article in the coming weeks.

Conclusion

Once again I would like to thank Hunter for his help and insights throughout this article. Be sure to go follow him on Twitter. Many have predicted this game to be the “dress rehearsal” for the season with the final game intended for those players on the edge of the roster. As such expect Tua to get more reps and thus hopefully more highlights for us fans to revel over until the season. Fins Up!

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Kyle Pitts, Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidate?

Kyle Pitts was the number 4 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft for the Atlanta Falcons. Many fans, including myself, were disappointed that the pick was not Ohio State Quarterback Justin Fields. But it is hard to ignore the talent that Pitts possesses. Pitts is a unicorn that Atlanta added to their offense. Pitts was the consensus top pass catcher in this past draft class who possesses a perfect blend of athleticism and ball skills to become a dominant weapon in today’s NFL.

As we can see right here, Pitts athleticism and ball skills really take over as a potential red zone threat for the Falcons this season. The Falcons have had some serious red zone issues over the past couple seasons. In 2020 they ranked 26th in red zone touchdowns scored. Pitts gives Matt Ryan a huge target who can help the offense take over in the red zone this coming season. Which in turn should see Pitts get major red zone targets which could see his Touchdown production be through the roof.

When Pitts got drafted by Atlanta he was predicted to be the #3 option behind Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley in the new look Falcons offense. However that was before the Falcons dealt Julio Jones to the Tennessee Titans back in June. Now Pitts has the potential to take over the Julio Jones type of role in Atlanta. He has the ability and the skillset to become the new dynamic duo with Calvin Ridley in Atlanta. He should become the number 1B to Ridley’s 1A.

The new coaching staff in Atlanta led by Arthur Smith formerly the Titans OC. Looking at Tennessee’s offense in 2020, Smith used plenty of two TE sets and two WR sets, which allows Pitts to be on the field to create tons of mismatches against the opposing defenses with his previously mentioned athleticism and ball skills. Look for Atlanta to use Pitts in a variety of ways similar to how Tennessee used Jonnu Smith last season (Jonnu had 8 TD’s on 41 Receptions). Pitts has the ability to to become a chess piece for this new look Falcons offense.

Which brings us to Pitts’s offensive rookie of the year campaign. Pitts currently has +800 favorites for the Offensive Rookie of the Year odds. Which I would be putting money down on, if sports betting was legal in Georgia, but it sadly isn’t, but that’s a topic for another day. Pitts being the 1B option in Atlanta should gives us a stat line somewhere along the lines of: 75 Receptions, 1100 yards, 9TD’s. Which I calculated using Atlanta’s and Tennessee’s 2020 Receiving Stats because it takes Matt Ryan into account and Arthur Smith’s 2020 Tennessee offense into account.

Could Kyle Pitts potentially win OROTY? Will he be an immediate Julio Jones replacement?