Why 2022 offered optimism for the future of the Atlanta Falcons

Running back Tyler Allgeier was a smashing success as a rookie, topping the 1,000-yard mark. Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith sat at a table last Wednesday and for the first time since they took over, they could approach an offseason differently.

After two seasons of roster overhauling and eliminating issues with the salary cap, they could spend the next couple of months figuring out what they need and what they want to add without worrying as much about how to pay for it.

“We had a plan from the very beginning, and now we’re in the next phase of that,” Fontenot said. “This is going to be a different offseason than we’ve had in the previous years. Yet, we’re still going to be smart, we’re still going to handle things the right way, we’re still going to set parameters and have discipline with everything that we do.”

With that in mind, there has been clear progress from when they took over -- and not just in creating cap space, of which Atlanta will have at least $70 million at this point for 2023.

While the on-field progress might be hard to see after back-to-back 7-10 seasons to start Smith’s time in Atlanta, it’s also easy to understand that the 7-10 put together in 2021, with a veteran roster soon to be purged, and the 7-10 put together in 2022 with a roster mostly comprised of young players on their rookie NFL contracts or veterans on one-year deals, are vastly different.

The 7-10 in 2021 was within the range of expectation. The 7-10 in 2022 exceeded most expectations, including the sharp minds in Las Vegas, who had the over-under for Falcons wins in 2022 between 4.5 and 5.5.

“Write whatever you all want. You guys ranked us 45th. You buried us in May. Bury us again,” Smith said after the Falcons blew a 16-point lead in Week 1, losing to the Saints. “We don't care. We'll get back to work.”

Atlanta proved that all season. The Falcons were outclassed once -- a blowout loss at Cincinnati. Everyone else Atlanta played? Win or lose, the Falcons hung around. That’s a barometer for progress with the Falcons and what Smith and Fontenot are trying to build.

It begins in two places: The coaching staff and the young core.

Getting the Falcons to 7-10 in 2022 was a very good coaching job by Smith and his staff. Were there missteps? Sure. But this is also a team last season that never really seemed to give in. Example: When Atlanta was eliminated after Week 16, the Falcons went out and won their final two games.

This might seem unimportant. It might annoy some because of draft positioning lost. When you’re trying to build something, continuing the same message is more important than one or two draft slots.

“The culture here has kind of been set as far as what they expect and everything like that,” veteran safety Erik Harris said. “The record doesn’t reflect that, as far as how close of a locker room we are and everything, but I think this is a really special group.”

Harris is one of the many players the Falcons may or may not have back in 2023 – he’s a free agent. But the difference is while a lot of moves were inevitable last offseason, Atlanta now has a group to build around for the next five years.

The reasons for optimism can start here. Atlanta’s leading rusher, Tyler Allgeier (1,035 yards), was a rookie. So was their leading receiver, Drake London, who had 72 catches for 866 yards and four touchdowns. Kyle Pitts, their No. 1 tight end, injured most of the season, is 22 years old entering his third year.

Left tackle Jake Matthews is tied to the team until 2026. Center Drew Dalman has two years left on his rookie contract, and the Falcons have enough cap space (at least $70 million) to extend Pro Bowl right guard Chris Lindstrom, who will be entering his fifth-year option season in 2023, and bring back right tackle Kaleb McGary if they would like to. A core of the offensive line could be set for the next few years.

While there are questions about quarterback -- Atlanta needs to decide if rookie Desmond Ridder is its starter -- but Smith said at different times he’s been “pretty pleased” and “certainly encouraged” by Ridder’s development.

In four starts, Ridder completed 63.5% of his passes for 708 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran 16 times for 64 yards.

Defensively, Atlanta has one of its centerpiece players, tackle Grady Jarrett, under contract until after the 2025 season. It has a linebacker the team believes in with three years left on a rookie contract in Troy Andersen. A.J. Terrell is entering the last year of his rookie deal, but it would be surprising to see the Falcons not pick up his fifth-year option. Safety Richie Grant showed marked improvement from his rookie season, too, finishing second on the team in tackles (123) and passes defensed (seven) while tying with Mykal Walker and Jaylinn Hawkins for the team lead in interceptions (two). And before his knee injury, defensive lineman Ta'Quon Graham showed potential playing next to Jarrett.

Last year’s second-round pick, Arnold Ebiketie, showed flashes as an edge rusher with 11 quarterback hits and 2.5 sacks, but they’ll need to see a jump in Year 2.

So there are players Atlanta can build around defensively, but it is this side of the ball -- particularly when it comes to the pass rush, where the Falcons had 21 sacks in 17 games -- that needs the most help. It also needs a new boss, as Dean Pees retired, sending Atlanta looking for a new defensive coordinator.

“Clearly, we want more. We know that’s an area of improvement,” Smith said. “It’s not just because we took two young edge guys that magically, you had Lawrence Taylor Year 1. So, there are a lot of things as we build, strategically, and other pieces that you add along with it, and the development of these young guys.

“That’s how, to me, we need to take another step, but there’s a lot of moving parts to it.”