To say NFL Network isn’t expecting much from the Atlanta Falcons during the 2022 season would be an understatement. In fact, one analyst has predicted the Falcons will prop up the league’s standings and win the fewest games in football this year.
A 1-8 start cripples the Falcons’ chances of taking a leap forward during the second year of general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith’s tenure. Any prospect of improving on last season’s 7-10 record will be further hit by quarterback troubles, with rookie Desmond Ridder expected to replace veteran Marcus Mariota at some point.
The dubious reward for this anticipated significant regression will be Atlanta owning the top pick for the 2023 draft. It’s as close to a guarantee of landing a franchise player as you can get in NFL terms, but if the Falcons are picking first next April 27, Smith and Fontenot will likely no longer be around and the team will be entering yet another full rebuilding phase.
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Falcons Falter Without Matt Ryan to Save Them
NFL Network’s Fantasy analyst Adam Rank recently delivered his game-by-game predictions for every team’s record this season. Rank had the Falcons finishing 2-15 after opening the season with defeats to bitter division rival the New Orleans Saints and defending Super Bowl champions the Los Angeles Rams.
Rank is not convinced either Mariota or Ridder can successfully replace Matt Ryan and navigate a schedule rated as the ninth hardest in the league. The Falcons traded Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts back in March and are attempting to replace him with Mariota, who was a backup for the Las Vegas Raiders the last two years, and Ridder, a third-round pick.
It doesn’t go well in Rank’s predictions, with the Falcons’ lone win across the first half of the slate coming in Week 4 against the Cleveland Browns. That ‘W’ looks like being the lone bright spot for Mariota, with Rank tipping Ridder to be “given an opportunity to see what he can do, because this team will probably be playing for a top draft pick.”
Rank believes Ridder playing competitive snaps during his first season in the pros is more realistic than Mariota becoming “the next Ryan Tannehill.” The latter took Mariota’s job when Smith was running the offense for the Tennessee Titans in 2019.
Mariota has a lot to prove, maybe even more than somebody who has yet to throw a pass in the pros. This much uncertainty at football’s most important position is why Rank has a Week 10 win over the Carolina Panthers on the road as the Falcons’ only other success of the season.
Ultimately, Rank thinks “Matt Ryan was a lot better than we gave him credit for and this team struggles.” It’s a bleak prediction, but it’s also impossible to overstate the challenge facing Mariota and Ridder in replacing Ryan.
A duo that prompts more questions than answers is being asked to make fans forget about the Falcons’ all-time leader in every meaningful passing category, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Ryan also led the Falcons to a winning record on seven occasions in 14 seasons, including earning six playoff berths and a trip to Super Bowl LI after the 2016 season.
Ryan’s a tough act to follow, and the Falcons may have to endure another year of suffering to land a new franchise quarterback.
C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young Likely Reward for No. 1 Pick
Finishing with the NFL’s worst record and owning next year’s top pick would put the Falcons in play for a pair of potential franchise quarterbacks. Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young of Alabama are both popular choices to be the first player taken 10 months from now.
The Falcons are also being widely tipped by mock draft prognosticators to be in position to select one of those passers. Crimson Tide signal-caller Young goes to the Falcons second overall, according to Yardbarker’s Seth Tracthman, who has Atlanta choosing one pick after the Houston Texans take Stroud.
Young would be a worthy selection after winning the Heisman Trophy and dominating the SEC passing charts a year ago, per College Football Reference:
Another prediction, this one from Jacob Schyvinck of Fansided’s NFL Mocks, is more in line with Rank’s thinking. Schyvinck has the Falcons picking first and choosing Buckeyes’ star Stroud.
The latter played his way into potential top billing in the draft with a spectacular showing in last season’s Rose Bowl:
Drafting either Stroud or Young would excite the Falcons fanbase and give the franchise a legitimate blue-chip talent to build around. Yet, it shouldn’t be taken for granted the Falcons will be bad enough this year to own the top pick for ’23.
It’s important to remember a few things. First, it’s way too early during mock-draft season to consider Stroud or Young as locks for the first pick.
Second, it’s also too early for accurate win-loss predictions in the NFL. Those predictions are never an exact science, and it’s unlikely Rank takes his forecasts completely seriously. He once famously tabbed the San Francisco 49ers to finish 3-13 ahead of the 2019 season, when the Niners actually went on to reach Super Bowl LIV.
Most important, the Falcons played better than advertised last season, despite a paucity of talent on both sides of the ball. Three of their 10 defeats came by 10 points or less, according to Pro Football Reference.
Earning seven wins was an endorsement of Smith and his staff, even with Ryan throwing the passes. Fontenot has since added useful playmakers like cornerback Casey Hayward, middle linebacker Rashaan Evans and pass-catcher Drake London, the eighth player taken and first wide receiver selected in this year’s draft.
Those new faces join an exciting core led by tight end Kyle Pitts, cover man A.J. Terrell, nose tackle Grady Jarrett and running back Cordarrelle Patterson. The Falcons have the pieces to prove a few naysayers wrong this season.