Happy Friday all. We've got the last Bair Mail of the week right here for you, with plenty of good topics.
That includes some news, with the Panthers trading Christian McCaffrey out of the division in a blockbuster with San Francisco. It also includes a look at Terry Fontenot's part in the Falcons solid start, what the Falcons need most from Marcus Mariota, and what it'll take to beat Joe Burrow and the Bengals.
Let's get to all that in this Friday mailbag.
Barry Wynn from Rex, Ga.
We have heard a bit about the coaching job Smith and the coaches have done with the team. I believe Terry Fontenot should get more credit as well for piecing the team together in the offseason. Clearly the offensive line is performing better, but clearly the players Fontenot has acquired and had played a major role in the turnaround. Do you think Fontenot is one of the best general managers in the league?
Bair: I'm not much into ranking GMs – that'd be a tough list to compile – but Terry Fontenot has a solid job adding talent and keeping the Falcons competitive despite taking on historic amounts of dead money. There's more than $65 million he currently can't use on talent, yet the Falcons are right in the thick of it.
It's always tough to separate the jobs Fontenot and Arthur Smith do, between drafting and player development. I will say, though, that the draft classes Fontenot assembled have been fruitful. Kyle Pitts and Drake London are top-shelf talents. Richie Grant and Ta'Quon Graham are major contributors. Arnold Ebiketie and Tyler Allgeier look the part. Troy Andersen's intriguing.
Finding Elijah Wilkinson was a solid move. Getting Rashaan Evans in here was a plus. Casey Hayward, too. And getting a quarterback on a budget in Marcus Mariota has been a positive. And, now, with the benefit of hindsight, getting a second-round pick and more for Julio Jones was a good return. Oh, and keeping Grady Jarrett and Jake Matthews was the right call on both accounts.
All that is to say this. 2022 could've well been a throw-in-the-towel year, a tank job without the title. The Falcons didn't do that. They chose to stand and fight and have found a way to compete at this point. That in itself is impressive. Can they continue this trend? Time will tell. But they have started well in large part because of the talent brought in on a tiiiiiiiiiight budget.
John Mead from Madison, Ala.
I'm not a Mariota apologist, and I think he has made some truly boneheaded plays but just how many offensive coordinators has he had in his NFL career? Six? Now he's had to unlearn the thinking of all those coordinators in addition to relearning - at the same time, no less - thinking and plays from Smith. It is unfortunate that he had that reputation of sloppy handling before the Falcons, but I am hopeful that he will be able to put it in the rearview mirror and continue his development.
Bair: The Falcons are hoping for that type of development, John. Marcus Mariota has been really good at times. He was at his efficient best against the 49ers, and rightfully was named NFC offensive player of the week. He was really good in a win over Seattle.
He wasn't good against Cleveland and made some critical mistakes against New Orleans and, less so, against the L.A. Rams.
What the Falcons need from Mariota is consistency, and there's cause to be optimistic they'll get it. Mariota talked a lot about gaining more comfort and confidence with each passing game, following two-and-a-half years of barely playing football. While bad moments will come for every quarterback, responding well to them will be key for the Falcons moving forward. If they stay on schedule, run well and avoid negative plays, they can compete with anyone playing their brand of football.
Payton Victoria from Symrna, Ga.
Thoughts on Christian McCaffrey leaving the division after the Panthers traded him to the 49ers? The NFC South looks up for grabs this year and in the future.
Bair: Seeing an elite talent, even one who has been banged up recently, leave the division with several years left on his contract elevates the sense of optimism that the Falcons can do damage in the division. Sure seems like the Panthers are in full rebuild mode, which may make the upcoming games against them a bit easier.
Here's the other side of the CMC trade, though. Carolina got a TON of draft picks for him, and something tells me they'll get more through other trades. And they'll probably have a high draft pick, in the range where they can pick up a top quarterback prospect in the draft. If the Panthers use those picks well, they could get going in a hurry. That's a big if, as we've seen with other teams.
You also look at the rest of the division and the Saints are down on their luck and there's no telling how long Tom Brady continues playing in Tampa. That doesn't mean the Falcons will rise straight to the top. It just means the division is wide open, ripe for the taking with smart personnel decisions, good coaching and, of course, finding a top-level, long-term solution at quarterback.
Isaiah Smith from Newton, Kan.
The Bengals have a solid core and with our low rushing the passer rating, how are we going to be able to contain Joe Burrow?
Bair: I agree, Isaiah, that the former LSU product and No. 1 overall pick is heating up after a slow start this season. He was awesome last week against the Saints and, after a four-pick first game, he has thrown nine touchdowns to just one interception.
I think the key to containing Burrow is actually to stop or slow the run. That's no easy task with Joe Mixon carrying the rock, but the Falcons are good in that area. And consistent run stops will force the Bengals to throw more and then the Falcons can tax a somewhat shaky Bengals offensive front. They also need to play keep away a bit with a solid run offense and sustained drives that keep Burrow on the sideline.
Make no mistake. This is a touch challenge and a tough matchup, but there's no reason why the Falcons can't be competitive against the AFC champs.
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
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