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State of the 2022 Atlanta Falcons: Marcus Mariota or Desmond Ridder the answer at quarterback?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Falcons organization, Falcons fans around the world and those who still like to do the Dirty Bird:

Man, it's going to be weird to see the Falcons take the field without Matt Ryan this season. I mean, it was time for the two parties to go their separate ways, I suppose. But it doesn't make things any easier. Just ask the Detroit Lions, who watched their longtime quarterback get traded last year and then go on to win the Super Bowl.

2021 rewind

One high from last season: Beating the Saints in Week 9 to level up to 4-4. You started to think that maybe the Falcons could string some wins together. Could they go on a bit of a run? Nope.

One low from last season: Getting smoked by the Cowboys 43-3 in Week 10 and following that up with a 25-0 loss to the Patriots on Thursday night in Week 11. Getting outscored 68-3 in the span of less than a week is hard to recover from.

2022 VIPs

Head coach: Arthur Smith. You have to feel kind of bad for Smith. I mean, he's an NFL head coach and that's cool. But the Falcons traded away their former league MVP QB this offseason. I mean, the offense already was a disaster (ranking 26th in points per game and 29th in yards last season). And now you're asking him to get it done with his current quarterback situation, which we'll dive into here in a moment. Add to the equation that Calvin Ridley is suspended through the 2022 season, at minimum, and this isn't the ideal situation for a second-year coach trying to find his footing in the league. My biggest fear is we leave this season not knowing who Smith is, and also not giving him a full chance to succeed. Not even an order from Chick-fil-A is going to make me feel better about this team. Although it couldn't hurt.

Quarterback: Marcus Mariota. For the time being, at least. But here's something: The last quarterback not named Matt Ryan to start in Week 1 for the Falcons was … Joey Harrington in 2007. It's been a while. Mariota seems like the pick, considering his history with Smith, going back to their time with the Titans. And if I'm being honest, he looked good in short spurts for the Raiders. So, there is hope Mariota can come to Atlanta and experience the same career rebirth that Ryan Tannehill had in Tennessee when he replaced ... Marcus Mariota.

Now, if third-round pick Desmond Ridder wins the job, he would be just the fourth rookie QB in Falcons history to start in Week 1. The last being Ryan in 2008, of course. Ridder did have 43 career wins at Cincinnati (third-most in FBS history) where he set many school and American Athletic Conference records. And this ties back into what we were saying about Smith. Do the Falcons give it a go with Mariota for a few weeks, experience some predictable results (not a reflection on Mariota, mind you) and then turn to Ridder? And then, how much of a chance does Ridder get? If the Falcons get a high draft pick next year -- and I'm projecting they will -- do they go quarterback, and what does that mean for everybody?

Projected 2022 MVP: Mariota or Ridder. Not to take the cheap way out, but if the Falcons are going to surprise people this year, Mariota has to be the Comeback Player of the Year or Ridder has to be in the conversation for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

New face to know: Casey Hayward, cornerback. We told you last year that the Falcons' secondary was going to take a big step forward, especially if A.J. Terrell continued to develop in his second season. And that dude delivered, posting the second-highest PFF coverage grade (85.6) among CBs with at least 150 coverage snaps in 2021. Bringing in Hayward, an 11th-year veteran, was a nice move, though. He's going to get some looks as quarterbacks avoid Terrell, who is now a true shutdown corner. But Hayward was pretty good last year, too. He allowed a 54.6 completion percentage last year, which was the sixth-lowest among 36 corners with at least 500 coverage snaps.

2022 breakout star: Mykal Walker, linebacker. The Falcons do have some depth at inside linebacker. They signed former Titan Rashaan Evans, who has familiarity with coordinator Dean Pees' defense, and drafted Troy Andersen in the second round. Deion Jones is still in the mix (at least for now) but he's recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Keep an eye out for Walker, who earned a good pass coverage grade from Pro Football Focus last year.

2022 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. New Orleans Saints. I feel like so many people are going to be down on the Saints (myself included) that we are going to overlook the Falcons in Week 1. This is one of those games where Atlanta could show up and shock the world. I'm not saying it will happen, but it could happen.
  • Week 10 at Carolina Panthers (Thursday night). If there is a point in the season where you look at the Falcons' schedule and think to yourself, this is where the team could make a run, it starts here. Playing the Panthers, followed by games against the Bears and Commanders, might be that opportunity.
  • Week 18 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dare to dream, Falcons fans. But for real, the final stretch of the season looks very tough for Atlanta. The team closes with games against the Saints, Ravens, Cardinals and Bucs.

Will the Falcons be able to ...

... have the best young WR-TE duo since Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce? The Falcons have spent their last couple first-round picks on TE Kyle Pitts and WR Drake London, with London being the runt of the two at 6-foot-4. I know a lot of people like to pretend Pitts was a bad pick last year (I mean, I'd rather have Justin Fields but that's another convo) but he actually was really great. He led the Falcons in targets (110), receptions (68) and receiving yards (1,026) in 2021. Pitts posted the second-most receiving yards by a rookie tight end in NFL history, trailing only Hall of Famer Mike Ditka. London was the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year last season despite missing the final four games due to an ankle injury. He led the conference in receptions (88) and receiving yards (1,084). With Calvin Ridley suspended through the 2022 season, at minimum, these two pass-catchers can bring some stability to the offense.

... find a consistent running attack? Cordarrelle Patterson returns to the Falcons after leading the team in rushing yards (618), rushing touchdowns (six), receiving touchdowns (five), scrimmage yards (1,166) and scrimmage touchdowns (11) last year. The thing is -- and the fantasy football dorks already know this -- he was solid through the middle of last season and then sort of faded down the stretch, with the peak being Week 12 against the Jaguars (108 yards rushing, two TDs). But the Falcons need more consistency. They ranked second to last in rushing offense (85.4 yards per game) last season. And they haven't had a running back top 700 rushing yards since 2018. The ideal situation would be for Cordarrelle to do his thing while rookie Tyler Allgeier provides a spark for the team, as well.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overthink: Losing Foye Oluokun, Fabian Moreau and Duron Harmon in free agency. Listen, the Falcons were miserable last year on defense. And while I love Terrell and Hayward, this team simply doesn't get to the quarterback enough. Atlanta recorded a league-low 18 sacks last season, which was 11 fewer than the next-closest team, the Eagles. The Falcons had the lowest pressure rate in the NFL (19.4%) and a league-worst 115 pressures, according to Next Gen Stats. There could be some help in 2022, though. Hayward was a key signing. The team also added the aforementioned Evans and safety Dean Marlowe. Second-round pick Arnold Ebiketie was pretty great at Penn State. He led the Nittany Lions with 9.5 sacks last season and had the fifth-highest pass rush win rate (22.9%) among Power Five conference players with 200-plus pass rushes, per PFF. By the way, only former Michigan stars Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo had more sacks among Big Ten players in 2021.

... people shouldn't overlook: How many former Bears the Falcons have signed since ex-Bears GM Ryan Pace joined their scouting staff. Pace landed in Atlanta after being fired by the Bears in January, and while the former Bear signings are notable, what's truly disturbing is the fact that the Falcons won seven games last season despite ranking 29th in yards per game. They had a -146 point differential (ranking 28th). Atlanta's seven wins tied for the most in NFL history by a team that finished the season with a point differential of -100 or worse. I can't believe the Bears are not the team with that accomplishment.

For 2022 to be a success, the Falcons MUST:

  • It comes down to what the team gets out of the quarterback position. Figure out if you have your QB for 2023 on the roster. That's kind of what you're playing for at this point. And you want to see if Smith can keep the Falcons motivated and playing hard through what could be a difficult season. Coaches tend not to last long if they're not able to do at least that much.

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