The 2022 NFL Draft came and went with the Falcons putting together a class many were intrigued by. Coupled with a number of moves in free agency, we now know more about the Falcons plan for the 2022 squad than we did before March began.
So, what have we learned, and what is there still left to figure out as rookie minicamp begins this weekend?
Let's take a look at six such observations and wonderings.
1. The Falcons want to get larger... taller... bigger... whatever word you think fits best
This was a goal of Arthur Smith's coming into the 2022 offseason. He wanted - and needed - larger receiving weapons. He had Kyle Pitts, who stands at 6-foot-6. He wanted more, though. He wanted receiving weapons that had some significant size to them because it was something he didn't really have access to in 2021.
So, Terry Fontenot and the front office went searching for that model of player.
In free agency, they brought in Auden Tate, who's 6-foot-5. In the draft, they grabbed Drake London. The No. 8 overall pick is 6-foot-4. All three receiving threats weigh over 220 pounds. And don't forget Cordarrelle Patterson, either. Though technically listed as a running back, you don't have to look deep into the 2021 season to see the 6-foot-2, 227 pound back making a few game-changing catches.
All of this was by design. All of this was out of necessity. The Falcons needed to get bigger within the scope of their offensive skill players.
With the first few waves of free agency and the draft over, we see that they have compiled precisely what they were looking for this offseason.
2. The offensive line will be the position group to watch throughout preseason camps
One of the Falcons first moves of the offseason was to extend Jake Matthews. One of the Falcons first moves after the draft was to pick up Chris Lindstrom's fifth-year option. One would assume this means the Falcons are pleased with the performance of these two players, with Matthews at tackle and Lindstrom at guard.
However, Smith has made it pretty clear in his press conferences this offseason that spots across the offensive line are up for grabs.
Kaleb McGary, Jalen Mayfield and Matt Hennessy will have to earn their 2021 spots back in 2022. And the Falcons have done their due diligence to find competition to push said players once camp arrives, mainly with the arrival of two linemen on one-year deals.
The Falcons brought in veterans Germain Ifedi and Elijah Wilkinson this offseason. Both have over five years experience in the league, and have an ample amount of live reps at both tackle and guard. The new duo provides something that Smith values at the line of scrimmage: versatility.
Collectively, Ifedi and Wilkinson have almost 150 game appearances under their belt, with Wilkinson making 27 starts in his career and Ifedi making 83. They'll provide a push to be sure. That push will be something to watch through OTAs and training camp in a few months.
3. We still don't know what the future holds for Deion Jones
This is an interesting topic that has picked up a bit of steam as of late. It kind of started with the Falcons picking up Rashaan Evans in free agency, but many felt that was more about replacing Foye Oluokun than anything else. Then, the organization used one of their Day 2 picks to draft an inside linebacker: Troy Andersen. But the talk about Jones really picked up once the draft concluded and Tom Pelissero reported the Falcons were hosting veteran linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski on a visit last week.
It all begged the question: Is Deion Jones' days as a Falcons numbered? And to that the answer is simple: We don't know... yet.
It doesn't take a mathematician to take one look at Jones' contract on Spotrac or OverTheCap.com to see the Falcons are in a bind with him either way you slice it. After parting ways with Matt Ryan, and extending Matthews and Grady Jarrett (more on Jarrett in the next section), Jones carries the largest cap hit at $20 million this year.
If the Falcons are in the market to part ways with Jones, that's going to require them to take on even more dead money than they already are. And that number is extremely high as it currently stands, with the Falcons "taking it on the chin" (per Fontenot) this offseason with $62.8 million in dead money.
If the Falcons choose to move Jones, it's going to be hit. If he's cut before June 1, he'll carry $24.3 million in dead money. If he's cut after June 1, that number lowers only slightly to $18.9 million. Neither option would be viable solutions for the Falcons at this time.
If Jones is traded, however, it's an easier pill for the Falcons to swallow, particularly a trade after June 1, which would result in Jones only having a $5.3 million dead money hit, while saving the Falcons $14.7 million in cap space.
Then, there's the final option: Keep Jones in Atlanta.
Right now, though, the jury is still out, as we simply don't know which way the Falcons are leaning when it comes to their veteran inside linebacker.
4. The Falcons prove they really do "love Grady"
It was said time and time again from the moment the season ended to the moment Jarrett signed his three-year extension: "We love Grady." Smith said it. Fontenot said it. Dean Pees said it before the season was even over. The Falcons love Jarrett, and wanted to keep him in Atlanta. And after negotiations, they made it happen. Jarrett will be in Atlanta until at least 2025.
This was an important move for the Falcons. By signing back guys like Matthews and Jarrett, the organization showed it isn't ready to implode and ship off all of its veterans. Now, they've done that a lot already, but keeping Matthews and Jarrett is significant. It's one thing to say you love these players. It's another thing to prove it with action. This extension is the proof that the Falcons believe in Jarrett's ability to keep anchoring their defense, even in the midst of significant change.
5. Rebuilding the Falcons pass rush isn't going to be a one-year turn-around
The outside linebackers room looks very different in May than it did six months ago. But that was to be expected. With the lack of production coming out of that room, and veterans like Dante Fowler being released, it was inevitable the position group would look different, drastically so.
The Falcons brought in Lorenzo Carter on a one-year deal, and also grabbed two defensive ends in the draft: Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone. This trio will join Ade Ogundeji. In essence, the group is young in 2022. Very young. It's because of this youth that the position group - and the subsequent production of said position group - probably won't be what fans want it to be this season. (Though, to be honest, anything is better than last year).
There is not going to be a meteoric rise in quarterback pressures, hits and sacks in Atlanta in 2022, and, though it may be a tough pill to swallow, that's OK.
This group is in the very early phases of a rebuild. We'll have a better understanding of their capabilities and what we can reasonably expect from their production in 2023 and 2024. Be patient with this group. The production likely won't change too drastically overnight.
6. Marcus Mariota will be the Falcons starter... early.
No. Mariota is not guaranteed to be the Falcons starting quarterback in Week 1 of the 2022 season. However, it makes sense that he will be, even with Desmond Ridder now in the room. In the excitement of the Ridder draft pick, many overlooked Smith's comments about how the next phases of offseason work will go.
"As always with any position on this team, the best player is going to play, but obviously (with) Marcus being the vet, that's the way it will go starting out," Smith said.
He added a cushion by saying "nothing is ever written in stone." But reiterated that because of where the Falcons are right now within the program, "that's how that (quarterback) room works."
Does this mean we'll never see Ridder play in 2022? Absolutely not. What it does mean is that for the time being Smith believes Mariota is the guy. That could change the next time we speak to Smith, but this is the safe bet to make at the current moment. The Falcons have to figure out what they have in Ridder. That'll take time. And counting out Mariota simply because Ridder is in the room is a truly ridiculous notion.
Securing the bag, one rep at a time—the Falcons are back for 2022 and hard at work making those daily deposits. #swolepatrol
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