FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons are a deeper, more talented team than in recent years past. Making the 53-man is no cakewalk, and this summer's training camp will be competitive as heck.
Head coach Arthur Smith made that point before and after the NFL Draft. He was right both times.
- Bair: Why Jeff Okudah, Jonnu Smith should be included in player haul from 2023 NFL Draft
- Recapping 2023 NFL Draft class for Falcons
- Terry Fontenot details how Falcons landed Bijan Robinson
- Scott and Tori break down 2023 Falcons draft class
- On Bijan Robinson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jalen Carter and Clark Phillips III
His team has more top-end talent that his two previous years at the helm. It has greater depth and no major holes in the starting lineup. It didn't entering the draft, with took desperation out of the equation and allowed the Falcons to focus on talent over specific positional need.
That's how they ended up with running back Bijan Robinson at No. 8, linemen on Day 2, cornerback Clark Phillips III to start Day 3 and two seventh rounders following after that.
The goal was clear: Address the lines and add as much talent as possible, wherever possible.
"We got smart, tough, highly competitive players that fit what we're about," general manager Terry Fontenot said. "They fit our makeup and they're versatile, smart football players. So, very excited about the outcome of this draft."
The Falcons added some front-end talent and depth pieces in the draft, which enhanced this group overall. We are, however, still talking relatively. The Falcons don't have the talent level of some championship contenders. They don't have dynamic players at every spots. There are areas where the Falcons are left wanting, but that's to be expected after two years in salary-cap H-E-double-hockey-sticks and a year with a legit ability to spend.
This 2023 offseason has felt like a new beginning, the end of a hard reset where you press Ctrl + Alt + Delete, wait for a few seconds and then the computer restarts more efficient than before.
The Falcons made efficient use of their funds, spreading it out across most position groups while capitalizing on the fact they have a third-round quarterback working on a rookie contract. They also showed they don't care much about perceived position value, paying a guard a record amount, giving significant funds to a safety and then drafting a running back in the top 10.
The Falcons are better because of all that, as they continue to stack good players and depth pieces to get better overall, on paper anyway, and to better weather injury issues that have caused havoc in the recent past due to a lack of quality down the depth chart.
All that leads to this question: What's the state of this Falcons roster after the bulk of free agency – we're bound to see a few more deals come down the pike – and the NFL Draft?
In five words: Way better, not the best.
There's plenty left to prove as the team with so much new comes together this spring and summer, but there are clearly some real strengths, some relative weaknesses and some legit unknowns.
Notice how I didn't name a particular position? Doing so would bely Smith's whole thing about positionless football at the skill spots. If you don't think that's a real thing, go watch his tape. I'd expect playmakers will move around more than ever in 2023, considering the talent available.
I mean, just imagine what Arthur Smith can concoct with this grouping:
Bijan Robinson. Kyle Pitts. Drake London. Tyler Allgeier. Cordarrelle Patterson. Jonnu Smith.
All of those guys can play several spots, meaning the Falcons could huddle up in a personnel package and then completely defy convention lining up to exploit mismatches. As you see above, there's also depth here to survive an injury issue or two. The group also doesn't include Scotty Miller, who can take the stretch a defense, and Mack Hollins, fresh off a career year in 2022.
The Falcons spent beaucoup bucks to get better up the middle. It worked. They added David Onyemata to the front, where he'll line up in a deadly combination with Grady Jarrett.
They added Kaden Elliss, an ascending pressure player who had seven sacks in his first season as a full-time player. He'll work with the super-athletic Troy Andersen inside at linebacker, with the ability to cover, work off the ball or come forward as pass rushers.
Then there's the back end, where safety Jessie Bates constitutes the biggest splash from free agency. Simply put, he's a game changer who makes everyone around him better. Richie Grant will certainty benefit from this upgrade which should help him build on progress he made in Year 2.
While we're not looking at cornerback here, it should be mentioned that the combination of A.J. Terrell, Jeff Okudah, Mike Hughes, draftee Clark Phillips III and incumbent depth makes the position strong by any measure and will improve pass defense overall when working with a truly fortified defensive interior.
Continuity up front
The Falcons offensive line has talent. There's little doubting that after what we saw the position group do last season. They have something else on their side: time. Continuity is king along the offensive front, where player do the monotonous repeatedly until the timing is perfect and impenetrable. Chemistry between Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom, who are as in lockstep as any guard-tackle combo around. The more this group plays together, the better they'll get. And they're already starting from a good place. Some question marks remain about the left guard – is Matt Bergeron the guy? – but that's the only issue working from a position of real strength.
Off the EDGE
This issue isn't the four-alarm fire it used to be, not with Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree around. There's some new depth here as well that has remade the position group into a hulking mass seemingly preferred by new coordinator Ryan Nielsen. That includes third-round pick Zach Harris, an Ohio State product who is super talented but didn't produce a ton at the college level.
The major concerns: Campbell is in his upper 30s, the twilight of his career. Can he maintain stellar production? He never seems to tire, so that's possible, but it's tough to bank on him as a three-down player right now.
Dupree says he feels healthy as ever heading into the offseason program, but can he maintain that good feeling? Injuries have derailed his last two seasons. He can get back on track if he can avoid a third, but that remains a question mark.
The Falcons could've used a top-tier edge rusher from the draft class but went with Robinson. Tough to blame them for that, considering Robinson's other worldly abilities.
It's also fair to wonder how relatively smaller edge rushers like Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone, especially, fit into the scheme. What about Lorezno Carter? He was serviceable last year but not extraordinary. The Falcons should be able to bring heat on the inside and with creative linebacker blitzes. But, sometimes, you have to win rushing four. And that take steady pressure from the outside.
We saw Desmond Ridder do some good things during four starts last season. He's mobile. He's unafraid to let it rip. And in maybe his greatest strength for me, the dude's a gamer who shows well in big moments. Those traits, and his ability to avoid turnovers, gave the Falcons confidence to roll with Ridder in 2023.
We just don't know, however, how he'll fare over a full season. Can he handle NFL defenses adjusting to him? Can be consistent?
He's entering a good place with a real chance to succeed. Ridder has Smith calling plays. He has protection up front, with a strong run game at his back. And he has all these skill players to throw to. If he can facilitate well and put the Falcons in the right plays based upon his reads, the Falcons offense should be explosive. If he's giving the ball away and struggling to put the ball in the right spot at the right time, this offense will underachieve.
We can try to glean what we can from how the New Orleans Saints played defense to know how new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen will run the show, but it might not be apples to apples. Dennis Allen called plays in New Orleans, and while Nielsen put his stamp on the scheme and defensive line work up front, it will be interesting to see what flavor he puts on the Falcons' scheme.
The unknown could be an overall asset to the Falcons in the early going, as the NFL tries to figure out what Nielsen's all about as a play caller. He's widely respected for his previous work and should provide upgrades generating a pass rush with the talent he has on hand. How he'll use his talent, however, remains somewhat of a mystery until the games start to count this fall.
Take a closer look at the newest member of the 7 club, Bijan Robinson! Robinson was a first round draft pick for the Atlanta Falcons in the 2023 NFL Draft and will wear the number 7 jersey.