When it comes to predicting which squads will fight for the first-overall pick in 2022, the Atlanta Falcons are among the most frequently mentioned teams.
In early August, NFL Network released their power rankings heading into the ’22 season. Chicago was dead last at 32, but just one spot ahead of the Bears was Atlanta. The outlet cited their lack of trust in the Falcons’ defense as a reason for being placed so low. It surely doesn’t help that Marcus Mariota, who spent the last two-years as a backup in Las Vegas, is the team’s QB1.
NFL Network isn’t the only outlet who thinks low of Atlanta either. In fact, some think even lower. Take ESPN for example, whose latest power rankings from late August have the Falcons at 32-of-32. The media thinks so low of Atlanta this upcoming season that PFF’s ranking of 30th best team league-wide stands out as a highlight. Talk about dark times in Atlanta.
Are things really as bad as they seem, though? Sure, a roster with Marcus Mariota as the QB1 isn’t that attractive, and neither is Patterson as the starting halfback. Even Bryan Edwards at WR2 sounds unappealing, considering the former Raider has never logged more than 600 yards or three touchdowns in a season.
All things considered, I’m in the minority that firmly believes the Falcons’ floor is high. I know, I know; that’s a bold take. Truthfully, I don’t believe it’s bold at all.
I’ll explain exactly what I mean.
The Atlanta Falcons have legitimate potential despite being crucified by the media.
Two All-Pro cornerbacks? Yes, please.
Perhaps the biggest cause of disbelief in this Falcons team lies in their defense.
Grady Jarrett is the only proven starter on the defensive line, the linebacker core seems serviceable at best, and there isn’t too much safety help. However, this team does have a pair of players who should compete for best duo league-wide. That’s their All-Pro cornerback duo of Casey Hayward and A.J. Terrell.
Do I really have to spend too much time talking about Terrell? The Falcons were ridiculed for selecting the Clemson defensive back 16th-overall; a selection most of the media considered a reach. Well, Atlanta has certainly had the last laugh.
Terrell had a fine rookie season, and followed that up by earning All-Pro honors in 2021.
By all metrics, Terrell was truly outstanding last year. The 23-year-old allowed only 50% of his passes to be completed, logging an opposing quarterback rating of just 61.0. The real magic was in the second-half of games last season, as Rotowire’s numbers indicate. Per the outlet, Terrell surrendered a 31% completion percentage with a 49.1 QB rating in the final half of contests in 2021.
That’s Atlanta’s CB1. Their CB2? All-Pro cornerback Casey Hayward.
Look, Hayward may not have been an All-Pro since 2017, but this last season, he was as dominant as any year he’s played.
I just got done talking about A.J. Terrell in the second-half, but let’s talk about the first-half. In the first-half of the 2021 season, as the CB1 of the Las Vegas Raiders, Casey Hayward allowed one single reception.
If that stat isn’t impressive enough, get ready for this next one. That one reception allowed? A safety against the Miami Dolphins.
That’s right – the only reception Hayward allowed through the first-half of his ’21 campaign was a catch that resulted in two points for the Raiders. Miami quarterback Jacoby Brissett hit Jaylen Waddle on a quick pass in his own end zone, but the veteran cornerback wasn’t letting the play end without points for the Raiders.
Check out the play for yourself.
Casey Hayward came flying in 😤
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 26, 2021
Per Pro Football Reference, this is the first time in their record books where a pass catcher caught a ball in their own end zone and was taken down for a safety. This is the Falcons CB2. I repeat – the Falcons cornerback no.2.
Atlanta’s offense just makes sense.
There’s no household name on the Falcons’ offense, but there really doesn’t have to be.
Let’s start with what I’ve neglected to mention. I talked about the unattractiveness of Mariota, Edwards and Patterson starting on an offense, but I ignored an entire unit; the offensive line.
This O-line is truly not good. In 2021, the Falcons offensive line ranked 27th league-wide per Pro Football Focus. Such a low grade was mostly attributed to the team’s inability to pass block, allowing 200 pressures and finishing with the 29th-highest pass blocking efficiency.
60% of the starting OL unit finished with a pass blocking grade south of 53.5, sinking as low as 27.6. How did Atlanta address their lack of pass blocking this offseason? Well, at least the team drafted Georgia guard Justin Shaffer in the sixth-round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
So, we know the Falcons offensive line is going to struggle in pass protection. How could they not? They’ve done virtually nothing to address the unit.
Right about now, you’re probably wondering what my deal is. I’m arguing the Falcons offense just makes sense by stating how bad the offensive line is and continuing to suggest the team did nothing to fix it. How does that make sense? Bear with me.
We know two things about Mariota. One, this is an extremely mobile quarterback. To say mobility is his best asset is an understatement. The second thing we know is Mariota can get the ball out of his hands in a flash. In 2019, Mariota’s latest season as a starting quarterback in the NFL, the former second-overall pick was the fourth-quickest QB when it comes to getting the ball out of his hands. This was one of his best attributes in college, and hasn’t let him down at the next level.
Mariota may not be a perfect quarterback – very, very far from it, in fact – but he may just be the perfect quarterback for this Falcons team. Bad O-line? No problem, Mariota excels at both escaping the pocket and making plays with his legs, as well as getting the football out lightning quick.
Ok, Mariota may be able to get the ball out of his hands instantly, but who will he be throwing to? Drake London, who’s yet to play a snap in this league? How about Bryan Edwards whose career-high touchdown mark is 3. Surprisingly, these are the perfect targets for this offense.
What you have in both London and Edwards, not to mention the young stud tight end Kyle Pitts, is big body receivers who can bully defenders using their height and strength. And, oh yeah, they all have an unbelievably large catch radius to further help with those quick throws.
The average height of an NFL receiver is about 6′. Drake London, the team’s WR1, comes in at a towering 6’4. Edwards, the no.2 receiver, measures 6’3. I’m not even going to touch on the 6’6 Kyle Pitts.
It gets even better for Atlanta, too.
These big body safety blankets aren’t the only options on these quick throws. While it may be true that 31-year-old Cordarrelle Patterson isn’t an ideal running back from a pure runner perspective, we can’t forget this former Raider spent eight seasons as a wideout. During his days as a receiver, the 6x All-Pro (via special teams) caught 216 passes for 2,087 yards.
How much of a threat is Patterson with the ball in his hands? Well, besides the fact he’s a 6x All-Pro due to his impact with the ball in his hands, Patterson averaged 7.4 yards after receptions last season out of the backfield. This number ranked fourth among running backs with at least 50 catches in 2021.
Another perfect piece for Mariota and this fast firing offense.
All in all, while there’s no true star power on this offense (potentially Kyle Pitts aside), every bit of this side of the ball works in harmony – at least on paper. Can the Falcons translate this to the field? That remains to be seen.