Matt Ryan getting traded to the Indianapolis Colts back in March, left the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback position in a state of flux. That’s something of an understatement considering the options to replace four-time Pro Bowler Ryan are Marcus Mariota and rookie Desmond Ridder.
Mariota is a former second overall pick who lost his starting job with the Tennessee Titans and settled for being a backup with the Las Vegas Raiders. Despite the downturn in his career, Mariota is still expected to start early ahead of Ridder, the Falcons’ third-round pick this year, who many believe will take snaps as the QB1 this season.
Naturally, not many observers are convinced by Mariota nor Ridder. One NFL writer has tipped Atlanta’s key signal-caller to be the team’s “biggest bust” in 2022.
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Falcons QB1 Will Be ‘Below Average’
Mariota’s expected to win the starting job ahead of Ridder, but Bleacher Report’s Alex Kay thinks that will be bad news for the Falcons: “The 28-year-old led his Tennessee Titans squads to a sub-.500 record (29-32) during his four-and-a-half seasons as a starter and has long struggled with injuries. Mariota missed time in each of his starting seasons and never threw for more than 3,426 yards or 26 touchdowns in any campaign.”
Kay believes Mariota has never made the most of his opportunities in the NFL, instead showing himself “time and time again to be nothing more than a below-average QB.”
As predictions go, the one offered by Kay is about as bleak as it gets, even if there are solid reasons informing this outlook. The most obvious is how Mariota ultimately flopped after being drafted with the second pick by the Titans in 2015.
All that pick earned the Titans was a single trip to the playoffs in 2017. Although Mariota led his team to a postseason win over the Kansas City Chiefs, he rarely convinced coaches he could become an elite QB, with turnovers a constant problem:
He threw 44 interceptions and fumbled 12 times during his five-year stint with the Titans. As Sheil Kapadia of “The Ringer” put it in 2019, Mariota became prolific producing plays that had a negative impact on his own team:
A penchant for giving away yards and the ball ultimately condemned Mariota to being usurped by Ryan Tannehill. Worse still, Mariota lost the starting job on the watch of Falcons’ head coach Arthur Smith, who was running the offense for the Titans in 2019.
Smith may lack the patience to indulge the rough edges in Mariota’s game again. Especially since the coach already sounds high on Ridder, calling the first-year signal-caller “light years ahead” of other rookies at the position, in terms of intelligence:
While there are ample reasons to agree with Kay’s pessimism regarding Mariota, there’s also just cause to back the 28-year-old to defy expectations this year.
Mariota Can Surprise Critics
Those reasons begin with Mariota already knowing Smith’s offense. Sure, he went from starter to backup running the Smith playbook, but Mariota’s familiarity with those pages gives him a leg up on reviving his career in Atlanta.
So does the talent the Falcons have assembled around whoever will be anointed Ryan’s immediate successor. Using the eight pick this year on wide receiver Drake London was a smart move because it gives the quarterback a 6’4″ target who can make contested catches and turn bad throws into successful ones.
London and Pitts can form a double act any quarterback would love to have catching his passes, but there are other weapons. Specifically, utility playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson will still be a source of big plays from both running back and wide receiver, while former Chicago Bears wideout Damiere Byrd can be a factor from the slot.
There’s also more talent in the backfield, after Damien Williams arrived in free agency and the Falcons used a fifth-round pick to draft Tyler Allgeier. Mariota won’t be lacking for weapons, and nor will he be playing for a coach unwilling to take advantage of his dual-threat skills.
Smith has already indicated mobility from the QB position will be a key part of this season’s offense:
Obviously, this wasn’t an option with the more static Ryan, but it makes sense to let Mariota run. He’s amassed 1,574 rushing yards since entering the pros.
The only drawback to letting Mariota attack defenses with his legs is how it increases his chances of injury. It’s no coincidence Mariota has never completed a full season at this level.
That’s one more reason the Falcons took a gamble when they gave Mariota a two-year deal to replace Ryan. Fortunately, it won’t take much for the veteran to defy low expectations.
If he does, the risk the Falcons took will look like a masterstroke.