Falcons GM Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith were insightful during their Wednesday postseason press conference, especially from a philosophical standpoint, entering an offseason brimming with optimism, quality draft assets and salary-cap space.
They were, however, a little light on the details.
They weren't ready to declare whether Desmond Ridder would be the starter in 2023. They didn't outline a priority list of pressing needs to be filled. They didn't want to negotiate player contacts through the media.
Why not? To be respectful of what-should-be private negotiations? To maintain a competitive advantage in the marketplace and the draft? To not lock in on a QB when there are so many others to evaluation?
Pish posh. Give us the dirt, guys. For entertainment's sake. No? Sticking with proper etiquette? Dang.
Then that leaves several questions unanswered as we head into this Falcons offseason. Let's address the top five:
Who will be Falcons QB in 2023?
Desmond Ridder put a good foot forward over his first four NFL starts, showing steady improvement, NFL-level arm talent and quality as a field general. Oh, and my favorite part: The guy's a gamer. He's unafraid of the moment and never backs down.
Those are all positive things. The other side of things: He's a bit of a slow starter (to this point) and misses some makable throws.
The first question from Wednesday's press conference was if Ridder did enough to earn the starting job next year. Smith didn’t back himself into a corner, saying there's plenty left to evaluate this offseason. That includes a deeper dive into Ridder's performance, and the other quarterbacks available in free agency, via trade and in the draft.
Is there a significant upgrade over what they know of Ridder? The Falcons should (and will) look. Why? The free-agent QB class is deeeeeep. There are some top QBs available. And quarterback trades have been more frequent recently than ever. We'll know from their actions what they found out more than what's ever said at a podium.
How will Falcons address not-good-enough pass rush?
In my opinion, this will end up the Falcons' main emphasis this season. I think they'll add free agents and more through the draft. And that doesn't just mean edge rushers, though I think at least one joins the mix next season. The defensive line should also be addressed, to add depth and quality to the group.
Smith and Fontenot also said helping coverage helps the pass rush and that's true – there's a definite need at cornerback – but they need guys outside Grady Jarrett who can dominate individual matchups or handle double teams inside. I like Arnold Ebiktie a lot. I think DeAngelo Malone will improve. More, however, is required. Possibly at No. 8 overall and via free agency. If the Falcons could snag a three-down edge rusher and a stout, versatile lineman, that could help a group that isn't getting to the QB enough. There is some quality depth pieces on the roster. They need more frontline talent, and have the asset required to add it.
Will they bring in an A-list free agent?
While the Falcons have tons of salary cap space – they could have upwards of $70 million with the possibility of more with 2022 rollover and at least one strategic cut – heading into the 2023 league year. That doesn't mean they're going to spend it all in one place. Fontenot made a point Wednesday to say the Falcons had to be disciplined in how they allocated dollars and both he and Smith stated they must make sure someone's a culture fit before handing out big money.
They have to extend some homegrown talent (more on that later) and they have several holes to fill. That could be a QB, though there's zero chance Lamar Jackson doesn't get a franchise tag and Derek Carr might require a trade. Not sure if there's another QB to demand top dollar on the market, but a big-name edge rusher could.
Daron Payne is set to make some serious cash. So is Javon Hargrave. P.S. There are lots of intriguing defensive tackles out there. Will the Falcons be players for one of these guys, or someone else demanding big money during free agency's initial wave?
Free agency can often be fool's gold. Other times it's a laser-targeted remedy to push a team over the top or into serious playoff contention. The Falcons could spread some money around to help different positions, or use their glut of space to offer big roster bonuses that keep future cap numbers lower or make big deals become pay-as-you-go after a couple years.
The point: they have options. That's a good place to be.
Which of their own will they reward?
The Falcons have options here. Chris Lindstrom would likely be the first, considering he's entering his fifth-year option and only has a year left under contract. Whether he make it or not, Lindstrom also had an All-Pro year. Guards are being rewarded more than ever, so his deal could be a big one.
This also marks the first offseason A.J. Terrell can get an extension. He has another year locked in, plus a fifth-year option surely exercised this spring, but he won't be getting any cheaper. He's a top tier talent at a premium position. He's a proud Atlanta native and a fan favorite. Can the Falcons and Terrell's camp get together on a deal that works for both sides? They should try.
Right tackle Kaleb McGary is coming off a career year and heading into unrestricted free agency. His market price has been driven up to be sure. How much could he command on the open market? That might determine whether the Falcons can keep him. The offensive line set the tone for this season, and Smith said the fronts would be the Falcons foundation. McGary was a huge part of that. Replacing him won't be easy, either. Can the Falcons afford to keep him? Or Can they afford to let him go? That will be a tough choice for the front office.
There are also a series of guys on prove-it deals who proved worthy. That list includes Bradley Pinion, MyCole Pruitt, Rashaan Evans and Isaiah Oliver. The new defensive coordinator choice might influence the defensive decisions. Maybe. And, again, it all comes down to price. The Falcons can just start overpaying because they'll flush with cap space, lest they end up not maximizing their dollars.
Who will be Falcons DC?
This won't be a space where we start throwing names against the wall, hoping one sticks. There are plenty of alternatives for that type of discussion. We can say that it'll be a pivotal decision influential on how the Falcons perform in 2023. That person will have be a quality play caller and designer. He'll also have to win over a locker room loyal to Pees over the last two years.
As Smith said on Wednesday, Pees cared deeply about his players, and they knew and appreciated that. The next person will have big shoes to fill and a charge to get the pass rush going while maintaining positive momentum built over the second half of 2023, when the defense regularly kept point totals under 20 and performed well on critical downs. This is the first mark the first significant change to Smith's staff. He's got to get this hire right.
In January 2023, the Atlanta Falcons kicked off the new year with the opening of a new studio space, Ticketmaster Studios, at their headquarters in Flowery Branch. The facility boasts professional studio spaces for broadcast, photo, and podcasts, plus control rooms, edit bays, and the newly-minted Jimmy Cribb Media Room. With this new facility, the Falcons have a ticket to endless creative possibilities for years to come.