Bair Mail: On Kyle Pitts, Lamar Jackson, Kaleb McGary and where to improve Falcons defensive depth

Edge rusher, defensive line, cornerback should be addressed in 2023 offseason

We've entered a new phase of the season, with playoff hopes formally dashed, where Falcons fans are simultaneously looking at the present and future.

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The mailbag is receiving questions on how make the most of the final two games AND about future needs and how to improve the roster in 2023. Both question types are fair and timely at this point, as we start evaluating how the Falcons can be better next season and what's required for dramatic improvement.

Let's get into all those issues in this Wednesday edition of Bair Mail.

Roger Sherrer from St. Louis, Mo.

Hey! Big fan of the mailbag. I had a question on how you view Kyle Pitts for our future plans. With how Arthur Smith used him this past season, do you see Pitts as possible trade bait in the near future? Many fans across the league saw it as a travesty that a young, elite talent was being delegated to lesser roles like blocking and playing decoy as opposed to using his receiving abilities. Thanks!

Bair: Love the way this topic is framed, Roger, which is why I led with it. Interesting angle on Kyle Pitts and his usage. I think Arthur Smith is right, that Pitts had a good year and improved in subtle ways that allowed him to be a steadily productive member of a run-heavy offense.

He didn't have a great connection with Marcus Mariota, who targeted the tight end often without tons of success.

To your greater point, Roger: Pitts had a nice season before he got hurt and helped in ways that didn't always show up on the stat sheet. But, in my opinion, Pitts is an explosive playmaker in the passing game. He has the talent and drive to rank high among the league's most productive pass-catching tight ends. There's no reason he can't put up Travis Kelce numbers. He's that good. That's why I don't think his season took off the way it was supposed to. Quarterback play is key there, too, and the Falcons are working on that position.

When Pitts comes back next year. Expectations should be high, with confidence that another 1,000-yard season (with a bunch of touchdowns) is on the horizon. If he and Drake London and a new threatening receiver can work well with an accurate, decisive quarterback, the Falcons offense can improve in a flash.

Williams Appling from Germantown, Md.

What do you think the Falcon's chances are at signing Lamar Jackson in 2023? We were very close with Deshaun Watson, and Lamar would excel in the ATL.

Bair: Lamar Jackson is one of my favorite players to watch. The guy's a magician. He would fit perfectly in the Falcons scheme run by Arthur Smith. He's fast and smart and can connect deep and intermediate when the Falcons simply have to make a play.

That doesn't mean I think he's a lock for Atlanta. Why on Earth would the Ravens let him walk out the front door? It has reportedly been difficult agreeing on a long-term deal but, even if they can't successfully do so, you've just got to think they'll slap a franchise tag, maybe an exclusive one, on him this offseason. That would set up a situation where he's locked to the Ravens or they gain leverage in a trade market to demand an insane return while the acquiring team has to pony up on a massive contract.

Never say never, but it would seem hard to get a guy like that. And, are the Falcons a quarterback away? Probably not. Again, I love the way Jackson plays and, if I were GM (checks notes…I'm not) I would kick the tires at least if contract talks continue to stall. Then I'd evaluate the price and the trade ask and determine if I can afford all that considering who else is available and how to fill other needs.

Imre Bella from Budapest, Hungary

Hi Scott! It's been quite long time, but I'm still fan of your mailbag and the wonderful work that y'all are doing day to day! My question is regarding McGary: he was doing great this year (finally), but I don't think we should overreact it with a long-term deal. I don't like franchise tags, but in his case, that would make the most sense to me. Your thoughts? Cheers from Hungary and I wish y'all a very happy and successful New Year!

Bair: Always great to hear from you, Imre! Hope all is well. I agree that Kaleb McGary has had an exemplary season in 2022, anchoring the right side of the line well while working with Chris Lindstrom. The Falcons declined to exercise his fifth-year option last spring, meaning he's set for unrestricted free agency in March. It's a big change for him to cash in following his best season as a pro.

I don't think the franchise tag is an option here for a few reasons: 1. It's a short-term solution, unless it provides more time to work out a long-term deal. 2. The franchise tag for an offensive tackle is huge. It was $16.662 million in 2022 and would be higher this offseason. That's more than the fifth-year option, and you'd owe him at least a 10 percent raise the following year.

I think the play is to let the market set for McGary based upon other team's valuations. Then the Falcons can work with those numbers and decide if they can match it or exceed it. Don't think this is a situation where negotiating alone benefits. If I'm McGary, I'm trying to get big dollars. He had a quality year and deserves a bigger deal. This is the best chance to truly cash in and set himself and his family up. Gotta take advantage of this opportunity.

Chris Atlas from Marietta, Ga.

I hope you & the entire Bair family had a Merry Christmas. After all of our back and forth I finally realized why Smith held Ridder back so long. The scheme is not easy to learn & handle, but he has shown tremendous growth from backup to first 2 starts. With the change at QB & more pass plays you really see the lack of offensive talent, especially without Pitts. Ridder has shown promise week to week which is what you hope for every QB that's not a bonafide star. The defense again played pretty good bend don't break D but the lack of depth showed itself.

Bair: We need to keep seeing progress from Ridder, who is self-aware and a quick study, two important traits for a developing quarterback.

Your last sentence will be the focus of this response, though, if you don't mind. This defense doesn't have many stars, but it has a functional unit that plays well when it matters most. That's how they've survived, playing well on critical downs to keep point totals low. That's huge, but it's not how to play truly intimidating, game-changing defense. The Falcons pass rush is subpar yet again, and can be leaky at times in run defense and a little too giving on the back end.

That's not a play calling problem. That's due to what Chris brings up here: a pronounced lack of depth. The Falcons don't have a real answer for losing Casey Hayward. The injury plague along the defensive front, most notably to Ta'Quon Graham, is a real issue. They also need a better rotation at edge rusher, with top-end talent that can scream in and get strip sacks for force errant throws. While I believe Arnold Ebiketie will be a good NFL player and DeAngelo Malone could be a quality third-down option, the Falcons need more there. They need more on the inside, and they need depth on the back end to help the unit take a big step forward.

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We take a monochrome look at the game against the Baltimore Ravens on December 24, 2022.

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