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Question of the Week: Who of the Falcons returning players sparks the most excitement for 2024?

The Falcons were one of three NFL teams to begin Phase 1 of their offseason programs Tuesday.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons were one of three NFL teams to begin Phase 1 of their offseason programs Tuesday.

Technically, eight franchises officially received the green light Monday, two weeks ahead of the rest of the league, because they all have one thing in common: a new head coach. The Falcons, Washington Commanders and Los Angeles Chargers chose this week to kick off their nine-week endeavor, while the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots selected next week. The Las Vegas Raiders stuck with an April 15 start, which is the same as remaining clubs with a returning head coach.

Regardless of plans elsewhere, Tuesday saw the return of Falcons players at the Flowery Branch practice facility. That prompts the latest Question of the Week: Who of the returning players sparks the most excitement for 2024? The Falcons editorial staff of Tori McElhaney, Terrin Waack and Amna Subhan answer.


McELHANEY: I went back and forth when deciding on who to name. At first, I thought about any of the Falcons' key offensive weapons; think Kyle Pitts, Drake London, Bijan Robinson or Tyler Allgeier. But if you look in the bottom section of this article, you'll see Amna beat me to KP. That's OK. The person I ultimately chose is a complete 180 from the list above. He's not a youngster. He's not an offensive guy. Like Pitts, London, Robinson and Allgeier, though, he has been in Atlanta for his entire career.

Yep, Grady Jarrett.

There is no denying Jarrett's importance within the scope of Atlanta defenses in the last decade. He has been the heart and soul of the unit for as long as he has been lacing up his cleats for the Falcons. He's coming off the most serious injury he has sustained in his nine years of work to this point. Year 10 in the league -- and in Atlanta -- is now upon Jarrett. And if you don't believe he's chomping at the bit to get back out there, you haven't been paying attention to anything Jarrett has said or done since the moment he was drafted in 2015.

If there was anything the 2023 season told us about Jarrett, it's that he finally has help around him. For too long, one could argue the overall production of the Falcons defense lived and died by Jarrett's performance. It's why you saw Jarrett double- or triple-teamed so much between 2019-22. This past season, though? He had help in the form of David Onyemata, Bud Dupree and Calais Campbell. Their presence took some of the offensive line heat off Jarrett. Just when he was warming up, his season ended.

I don't know what a Year 10, post-injury Jarrett looks like. I do know he has been working, though. And when Jarrett works, everyone in Flowery Branch feels it and feeds off of it.

WAACK: All eyes are on the 2023 superstar: Jessie Bates III. The Falcons signed Bates to a four-year contract last offseason, and he reportedly became the fourth-highest paid safety in NFL history with the deal. Well, Bates proved to be worth every penny during his first season in Atlanta alone.

Bates led the Falcons defense in multiple statistical categories, including total tackles (132), pass breakups (11; tied with cornerback A.J. Terrell), interceptions (six) and forced fumbles (three; tied with inside linebacker Nate Landman). Bates was also the only player with a pick-six, scoring on a 92-yard interception return during the Falcons' Week 12 win over the New Orleans Saints.

Most of those marks, too, were career highs for Bates, who's entering his seventh year in the NFL this season as a former second-round draft pick. The only category that he didn't set a new personal best in was pass breakups; he had 15 in 2020 with the Cincinnati Bengals.

So, really, last season was a breakout performance for Bates. The league realized it, too, naming him to the Pro Bowl for the first time. But Bates was certainly still hungry at the end of the season when the Falcons did not make the playoffs. That drive, paired with his execution on the field, sets the expectation for 2024 even higher – as if 2023 was just the beginning for Bates.

SUBHAN: Kyle Pitts seems to be excited entering his fourth season, and that's what makes me excited.

Perhaps, you're like me and have gotten a kick out of Pitts' social-media posts this offseason. When the Falcons first agreed terms with Kirk Cousins, Pitts caused a friendly online stir about which player would sport the No. 8 jersey. Cousins revealed in his introductory press conference that Pitts told the quarterback only an abundance of targets would ameliorate giving up the jersey number. In the end, Pitts kept the number and Cousins will dress in No. 18 this upcoming season. Fear not, those targets aren't going anywhere, according to Pitts.

Atlanta's new quarterback also dove into his history with Pitts in that press conference. The two got to know each other at the 2021 Pro Bowl games. Pitts came off a stellar rookie season, notching 1,026 yards receiving and 68 catches for an average of 15.1 yards per reception. Cousins said he remembers thinking, "This guy could be dangerous," when watching Pitts play up close.

In his sophomore campaign, the tight end sustained a season-ending knee injury. The last offseason was spent rehabbing. While Pitts registered 667 yards receiving and three touchdowns on just 53 receptions in 2023, there were questions if Pitts still had levels to reach in his recovery process.

Now, questions swirl as to whether the Falcons will pick up Pitts' fifth-year option heading into the 2024 season. The Falcons have until May 2 to make the decision. For reference, Atlanta optioned 2020 first-round pick A.J. Terrell on April 28, 2023, with the same deadline.

A full healthy offseason could help answer those questions. Cousins could help Pitts take a large step next season, too.

In his first year, Pitts played with Matt Ryan under center. Ryan recorded a little less than 4,000 passing yards that season and 20 touchdowns. Though that was one of Ryan's least productive seasons in his career, Pitts got a taste of consistent quarterback play. Since then, the Falcons tasked three different players with the starting quarterback role before signing Cousins in March.

Pairing a healthy Cousins — coming off an Achilles tendon rupture — with Pitts could lead to an offensive explosion Atlanta hasn't seen in a while. I can see why Pitts is excited.

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