Try as they might, the Atlanta Falcons can’t avoid the troubling questions about their quarterback situation. Those questions started with the decision to trade Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts in March, and they’ve only multiplied based on how the team has tried to replace the face of the franchise for 14 seasons.
Marcus Mariota was added during free agency, but he’s spent the past two seasons as a backup for the Las Vegas Raiders. Mariota lost his last starting job, as a member of the Tennessee Titans in 2019, on the watch of current Falcons’ head coach Arthur Smith.
If Mariota can’t rediscover the old magic, third-round pick Desmond Ridder will be thrown into the fray ahead of schedule. Ridder’s got plenty of promise, but he’s still a rookie trying to turn around a losing team.
ALL the latest Falcons news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on Falcons newsletter here!
With this many doubts at football’s most important position, it’s no wonder draft scribes think the Falcons should plan to draft a franchise-level passer in 2023. A leading analytics site has identified the quarterback the Falcons should keep watching ahead of a pivotal decision next April.
Star Signal-Caller Should Be Top of Falcons’ List
In a list of the 2023 NFL draft prospects each team should be watching, Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus chose Alabama’s Bryce Young for the Falcons.
Renner emphasized how Young’s experience against quality opposition makes him ideal for the Falcons: “College fans in Georgia are unfortunately all too familiar with Young’s game. The Alabama quarterback put together the single most impressive performance of any passer last year against the most talented collegiate defenses in at least the last decade. Even with options on the roster, a franchise quarterback is still atop the Falcons’ wishlist for the 2023 draft.”
There’s no doubt playing in the SEC offers Young excellent preparation for what to expect in the pros. Young routinely dissected some of the toughest defenses at the collegiate level last season.
Young finished with a brilliant but ill-fated performance against Georgia in the National Championship game. He was on the wrong end of a 33-18 scoreline against the Bulldogs back in January, but Young produced one of those displays that turns a player into a star, even in defeat.
While it wouldn’t be fair to dismiss Ridder before he’s taken a snap as a pro, it’s hard to imagine Mariota matching Young’s performances against the NFL’s best defenses. The Falcons need a quarterback who can consistently beat the best if the franchise is going to get back to competing for a championship.
Mariota Revival Might Be Wishful Thinking
There’s no guarantee Mariota won’t turn the clock back to when he won the Heisman at Oregon in 2014 and went on to be drafted second overall by the Titans a year later.
It’s worth remembering Mariota did enjoy some success in Nashville. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate after the 2016 season and guided the Titans to a postseason victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the following campaign.
At his best, Mariota was a dual-threat playmaker capable of beating defenses with his legs as well as his arm:
The problem has been staying healthy. Mariota never completed a full season for the Titans. Nor did he shed an unfortunate habit for turning the ball over, ultimately throwing 44 interceptions during his time with the Titans.
A brittle streak and issues with ball security ultimately cost Mariota the starting job when Smith was calling the offense in 2019. Smith turned to Ryan Tannehill three years ago, but now he appears content to trust Mariota again and hand him the reins in Atlanta.
Back in May, Smith said “Marcus being the veteran gives us a chance going forward. As with any position on this team, the best player is going to play, but obviously Marcus being the vet, that’s the way it’ll go starting out,” per Josh Kendall of The Athletic.
It’s worth pointing out Smith has also been complimentary about Ridder, reserving special praise for the rookie’s intelligence, per Maria Martin of 11Alive News:
If Ridder steps in and surprises or if Mariota stays on the field, the Falcons won’t be in play for the draft’s top quarterback next year. Yet, if adequately replacing Ryan proves a stretch, it’s easy to see the Falcons competing for nothing more than a top-five pick in 2023.