PHOENIX – Arthur Smith hadn't spoken publicly in a while. Not since before the NFL Combine, in fact. A lot has happened since then, so there was much to discuss when he sat down with reporters Tuesday morning at the NFL owners meetings.
He touched on several different topics over roughly 28 minutes, just before breakfast at the Biltmore Hotel, starting with an official announcement that Desmond Ridder will be the Falcons starting quarterback moving forward.
- Official free agency signings: S Jessie Bates III, DL David Onyemata, LB Kaden Elliss, QB Taylor Heinicke, CB Mike Hughes, LB Tae Davis, WR Mack Hollins; DL Joe Gaziano
- Arthur Smith: Desmond Ridder enters 2023 as Falcons starting quarterback
- Bair Mail: On Desmond Ridder entering Year 2, Jessie Bates and more
- NFL announces key dates for 2023 offseason workouts
That revelation required its own headline. You can read everything he said about Ridder as QB1, what solid him on the Cincinnati alum and the addition of Taylor Heinicke right here.
It wasn't the only news fit to print.
Smith went over a number of new free-agent additions and how they fit, Kyle Pitts' evolution and more that we'll dive into right about now:
Kyle Pitts ready to 'take the next step'
Kyle Pitts had a monster rookie year. The second best in NFL history, in terms of receiving yards by a tight end. The Pro Bowler's stats took a dip in 2022, but it's unfair to say that's his fault.
The 2021 No. 4 overall NFL Draft pick suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 11 victory over Chicago. Before that he was working in an offense transformed from pass happy to be a run-first (second and third) unit, so his role was fundamentally different.
Smith praised his efforts during the year, especially those that didn't show up on the stat sheet. It was clear, however, that Marcus Mariota struggled to get him the ball in space, with some notable and costly misfires that could've changed some outcomes.
No part of 2022 changed Smith's opinion on Pitts trajectory, which remains on the ascent despite an injury setback. Drake London's production cranked way up after Desmond Ridder got promoted and it's fair to assume Pitts will benefit in a similar fashion.
That should crank his stats back up, though Smith will still look at Pitts' impact holistically.
"Kyle came into this league with an enormous amount of hype," Smith said. "He had a productive rookie year. We were playing with Matt [Ryan] and we threw the ball  times more [than in 2022]. That's not Kyle's fault. We missed some opportunities early in the year. He played a little banged up and obviously didn't finish the year. I thought he improved as an overall player. With the way the league is covered with fantasy football and stats, stats, stats, that can be the focus, but his impact on our ability to win was enormous. We certainly missed him when he wasn't available."
Pitts is doing well in his rehab, providing the fair and realistic expectation that he'll be fully ready to go with the 2023 season starts. Expectations remain high – as they should – for Pitts entering Year 3 and they're based on facts over speculation.
"The thing that gives you a lot of encouragement is that he has actually done it," Smith said. "This isn't me selling you on hypotheticals or two years of blowing smoke. We're expecting him to take the next step. As he comes back from his knee [injury], we couldn't be more excited Kyle and his future."
Jessie Bates III and his 'intangibles'
The Falcons added a big-ticket item in free agency, signing Jessie Bates to a four-year deal reportedly worth as much as $64 million. He comes with pedigree and a track record of success. You can turn on the highlights to understand why he was so valuable to Cincinnati and coveted on the open market.
The Falcons felt comfortable ponying up serious cash for a player Smith believes will help the Falcons on the field and off.
"It's not just his play. It's the intangibles, the leadership traits," Smith said. "When you dig into [his background], it certainly helps you feel comfortable when you have guys on your staff who have coached him. We know the kind of leadership he brings. We have other guys on the back end who are in the early part of their career, with A.J. [Terrell] and Richie [Grant]. We think he can provide real, authentic leadership to that group. The playmaking ability is there. The way he studies the game, he's a dynamic playmaker. What we're going to ask him to do, he's really going to benefit our defense."
'The familiarity helps'
The Falcons like familiarity, especially when bringing talent from outside the organization. That's why we've seen an influx of personnel who have spent time with the Titans – where Arthur Smith used to work – and the Bears – where Ryan Pace and Dave Ragone used to work – and New Orleans – where Terry Fontenot and Ryan Nielsen used to work.
Smith said that provides a jump start when integrating new talent, using former Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss and former Titans tight end Jonnu Smith as examples of that.
"The familiarity helps," Smith said. "Guys evolve and develop throughout their careers, but the familiarity helps. I was with Jonnu [Smith] before he went to New England. You've got a jump start because you're not wondering how someone is in meetings and practice. You've got a lot of background and history with a player, which can accelerate what you want to do going forward.
"Having that familiarity with Kaden is a benefit to us as a team and certainly to Ryan [Nielsen] and the defensive staff. The best comparison I can give you is with a guy like Jonnu. I haven't coached him in a couple years but I know him pretty well. He's another valuable roster player. You can call him a tight end but he may be a running back or a receiver for us. We're fired up about having him, too."
Kaden Elliss a 'legit pressure player'
I asked Smith what position Kaden Ellis would play for the Falcons. It was a futile attempt, especially when discussing the topic with a purveyor of somewhat positionless football. It is tough to put a label on Elliss, someone who can do so much. On that we can all agree.
He can get after the quarterback and play downhill against the run. He's also a talented cover man who can work off the ball. He did a little bit of everything for the Saints during a breakout 2022 campaign and should expect to fill a similar role under new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, who also came over from New Orleans.
"Kaden Elliss is a versatile player," Smith said. "He can work on the line of scrimmage and be part of multiple pressure packages. He can play stack linebacker. Just like everything, you're going to play a 17-game season and more, and you like to have depth. Kaden can play a lot of roles for us. We're excited about him.
"He's a linebacker for us. He can play behind the ball. He can play on the ball. Some of the things he can do on third down will be huge. He's a legit pressure player. He can do a lot of jobs. Guys like that are very valuable. When you get into the chess match, he can be huge. Is he a rusher? Is he [dropping back in coverage]? He doesn't have to play on the line. He's a valuable roster player who we're excited about."
Join us as we take a look at our 2023 free agency additions to the Atlanta Falcons roster.