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 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.
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.