The playoffs are starting without the Falcons (again).
I have spent this season seeing a lot of these playoff teams in person and speaking to coaches, players, and executives from these teams and those that have played against them. These are playoff teams for a reason.
The Falcons aren't because they don't have some of the qualities and personnel of teams like the Titans, Rams, Packers, Cowboys and even the Bengals.
What do I mean? Explosive playmakers, consistent takeaways, routine physicality, and the most obvious, disruptive pass rushers/pass rush.
It's not easy to establish all these things at once, especially with a new regime trying to deal with a tight salary cap, players that might not fit schemes and retooling on the fly.
So, let's look at some issues and things that could be handled in the offseason to make headway.
Let's address wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who missed much of the season for personal issues. Coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot reiterated in a postseason news conference that nothing has changed on that front and they continue to support Ridley.
Whether the player Atlanta hoped would be quarterback Matt Ryan's top target returns remains unknown. The Falcons picked up his fifth-year option at $11.1 for next season. From people I've spoken to around the NFL, there could be trade interest in Ridley. Emphasis on could.
Who knows if the Falcons would move him? It would be hard to fathom Atlanta not exploring trades for any player. That said, if Ridley and the Falcons feel it would be best for him to be back, then that's that. If one or both feel it would be healthier to part ways, then the Falcons could start listening or making calls.
A quick aside: salute to the Falcons for how they've deal with Ridley's personal matter. They have kept things private and that shows decency and professionalism. I have covered professional sports since 1994 and rarely can I think of a time when a team or agent or someone has not spilled some tea that eventually became public about an issue or player that supposedly was personal or private.
The team's handling of this will register with players, coaches, and staffers as well as incoming players, players on other teams and their agents – and that's a major positive.
Skills positions upgrade needed
As for the wide receiver position, regardless of whether Ridley is back, it must be upgraded with more explosive talent.
Look at the Bengals. Their offensive line is as questionable as there is among playoff teams when it comes to pass protection. Yet, wideouts Ja'Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins and tight end C.J. Uzomah allow QB Joe Burrow options to get rid of the ball quickly and hit big plays.
Getting better perimeter talent could offset some of the issues along an offensive line, which I expect to look different next season.
Atlanta simply can't win in today's NFL if they don't have more than one running back that can break a big play. Look at the Niners, with Eli Mitchell, a sixth-round rookie, Jeff Wilson, JaMychal Hasty – and wide receiver/running back Deebo Samuel. All those players are tackle-breakers who can turn a four-yard run into a 14-yard first down.
Cordarelle Patterson was the lone threat to do that for Atlanta and he’s a free agent. I'd expect him to have some interest on the free-agent market, but not at the high dollar amount some people think.
Again, I have covered this league long enough to know how teams feel about 30-year-old ball carriers, even with Patterson's versatility. So, all things being equal, it would surprise me if he's not back with the Falcons along with at least another explosive running back.
Offensive line/tight end
This must be a priority. Not just players that can be developed but players that can block, protect, and make opponents feel their presence. There is little doubt the Falcons will try and upgrade up front. It just all depends on if the draft, free agency or both will me the means.
Kyle Pitts is the future at tight end league wide. What a strong pick who will continue to get better when the talent around him improves. Another tight end will be needed, though, because Hayden Hurst likely is gone after his contract expires this winter.
First things first. Management must decide whether to extend defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who has one year left on his contract. He was a stud this season and coaches loved what he brought on and off the field. Extending him would provide some salary-cap relief and secure the anchor of the defense for a few more seasons.
There also is little doubt that the Falcons will make a hard charge to sign pending free agent linebacker Foye Oluokun to a long-term contract. Yes, he led the NFL in tackles, but more important, he flourished in defensive coordinator Dean Pees's scheme and in Arthur Smith's culture.
Oluokun will have more suitors than the Falcons and you have to wonder if or when the price could get too high.
Take a quick gander to how I led off this column talking about the need for a pass rush. The Falcons must – this really isn't an option – find players who can put heat on the quarterback from the interior and edges to ever get over the hump.
You don't need a T.J. Watt or Aaron Donald, but having an inside mauler in the mold of the Packers Kenny Clark to complement Jarrett and an edge guy in kind to Arizona's Markus Golden (11 sacks) are needed upgrades.
How can this be done?
With the No. 8 overall pick, the Falcons literally can choose the best available player because they have needs at every level of the offense and defense. Most GMs I've spoken with whose teams have Top 12 picks use the BPA acronym as cover, but they target needs. Don't ever believe otherwise.
The best player available this season is a perfect fit because he will fill a need. The Falcons can draft targeted players with their two second-round picks, or trade at least one of those to create more options.
Maybe one could be used on a quarterback because it is time for the Falcons to develop a real succession plan for Ryan, but there are bigger priorities.
With the salary cap increasing by $25 million, the Falcons will have some space to work with, especially if they extend Jarrett and make a trade or two to help create even more space and add to the draft-pick allotment.
As Fontenot and Smith said at their news conference, it won't be a quick fix via free agency because that's not their grand plan. Drafting and developing is. Still, look again at the teams in the playoffs. They all added key pieces via free agency and trades.
As I wrote last week, nobody is happy that the Falcons didn't make the playoffs. That will feel much, much worse if that's not the case next season, especially now that they know what they need to do.
Not want, but need to do.