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Atlanta Falcons 2023 NFL Preview: Embracing their run-first approach with Bijan Robinson pick

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

Lamar Jackson to the Atlanta Falcons made a lot of sense.

The Falcons, swimming in cap space, could have given Jackson an offer sheet that would have been very hard for the Baltimore Ravens to match. Giving two first-round picks to the Ravens wouldn't have been that much; look at some recent quarterback trades. And it's not like former MVP quarterbacks who just turned 26 years old are available that often.

The Falcons passed. Maybe it was durability concerns, the fit in Arthur Smith's offense or something else like owners having an unspoken agreement over giving out any more fully guaranteed deals like the one Deshaun Watson got. (Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said the quiet part out loud.) But the Falcons leaked out early on that they wouldn't be interested and they never made a move.

Right or wrong, they're showing a ton of faith in Desmond Ridder and a run-first offense that you don't see often in this era. Instead of going all-in on an elite quarterback, the Falcons drafted a running back with the eighth overall pick. Talk about bucking conventional wisdom.

The Bijan Robinson pick — along with the refusal to consider Jackson — tells you what the Falcons want to be. Atlanta had Tyler Allgeier, who rushed for 1,000 yards as a rookie. As a fifth-round pick, he was on a cheap deal. Under Smith, Atlanta has had great success in the running game without a luxury model running back. Most teams would have invested in another position, even if Robinson is a top-of-the-line prospect. Atlanta had offers to trade down but passed on those. The Falcons sent the message they're focused on establishing the run, and are willing to pay for it.

There is more than one way to win in the NFL, and the Falcons believe that running the ball takes pressure off of Ridder and also a defense that's still building. And if you want your identity to be a run-first team, you might as well go all-in.

The Falcons aren't that far from playoff contention, partially because the NFC South isn't very good. Atlanta went 7-10 last season despite Marcus Mariota having a poor season. Ridder took over with four games left and was decent for a third-round rookie. Apparently the Falcons were sold on him, at least enough to give him the shot to be the full-time starter this season.

Atlanta Falcons rookie running back Bijan Robinson (7) will be a big part of the team's offense right away. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Atlanta Falcons rookie running back Bijan Robinson (7) will be a big part of the team's offense right away. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

If Ridder hits like the Falcons apparently think he can, there's a lot to like in Atlanta. The defense got some help in free agency, signing safety Jessie Bates III, defensive linemen David Onyemata and Calais Campbell and outside linebacker Kaden Elliss. The Falcons have two highly drafted pass catchers in receiver Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts, assuming the latter is healthy after knee surgery that ended his 2022 season early. And the Falcons better be one of the five best running teams in the NFL.

There will always be a "what if" involved with ignoring the Jackson possibility this offseason. Or maybe Atlanta will show everyone they didn't need him.

Offseason grade

The Falcons had some cap space this offseason and took advantage of it. Safety Jessie Bates III got a little more than $64 million over four years. Defensive tackle David Onyemata received $35 million over three years. Offensive tackle Kaleb McGary was re-signed to a three-year, $34.5 million deal. Outside linebacker Kaden Elliss got $21.5 million over three years to leave New Orleans. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell signed a one-year, $7 million deal. Even quarterback Taylor Heinicke got $14 million over two years. It was a big spending spree. The Falcons traded for cornerback Jeff Okudah and tight end Jonnu Smith in low-cost deals. The draft didn't get good grades but it depends what you think about taking a running back eighth overall. Bijan Robinson is an elite prospect, just at a non-premium position. Even if you didn't love the pick, Robinson will make an impact right away.

Grade: A-

Quarterback report

The Falcons obviously have a lot of faith in Desmond Ridder. He got four starts last season. In the first three he had just 484 yards passing, no touchdowns and no interceptions. The Falcons must have really liked what they saw Week 18 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when he had 224 yards and two touchdowns. It was a promising outing and if he can build on that, the Falcons will be happy.

"This time last year, my head was spinning," Ridder said, via the Falcons' site. "Obviously having a year under my belt and a whole offseason, things have become a lot more comfortable. Now we're trying to work the intricate details of it, the ins and outs, and knowing the exact reasons why everything is going on."

Ridder isn't physically impressive but he was a very productive player in college at Cincinnati and his processing from the pocket and understanding of the game gets rave reviews. He has a shot to establish himself as the Falcons' quarterback of the future.

BetMGM odds breakdown

The Falcons' win total at BetMGM is 8.5, and it's an interesting number. Atlanta wasn't bad last season and added a lot of talent. They play in a bad division and have an easy schedule. I'll go under because I'm not sold yet on Desmond Ridder, but there are good arguments for the over. The Falcons winning the NFC South at +240 might have some value. They could cash that even if they don't reach 8.5 wins.

Yahoo's fantasy take

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Is the glass half full or half empty with Kyle Pitts? The Atlanta tight end entered the NFL with a glowing scouting profile, and he did amass a snappy 1,026 receiving yards in his rookie season. Alas, he’s scored just three touchdowns in 27 pro games, and even if we grade last year’s tight end pool on a per-game basis (a reasonable idea, given that Pitts missed seven games with a knee injury), Pitts ranks a forgettable TE18 in fantasy points per start in basic scoring (he slides to TE21 in PPR).

"Atlanta’s quarterback play hasn’t elevated Pitts — his rookie year linked with late-career Matt Ryan, and journeyman Marcus Mariota was the primary starter last season. But no one views Desmond Ridder as a quarterback savior. The jury is also out on Arthur Smith, who might be coaching for his job after a 14-20 start in Atlanta.

"Pitts is currently the sixth tight end in Yahoo ADP, landing around the 60th pick in average drafts. It’s a reasonable price, but it’s also baking in a third-year step forward. Given my reservations on Ridder and Smith, I will not draft Pitts proactively."

Stat to remember

Kyle Pitts went from 60.4 yards per game in 2021, which gave him the second 1,000-yard season ever for a rookie tight end, to just 35.6 last season before he injured his knee. His targets went down a bit too, but it seems like Pitts' drop in production can be attributed to Marcus Mariota's inaccuracy, particularly on deep passes. Pitts is clearly talented. He was one of the greatest tight end prospects ever and had a very good rookie season. It will be hard for him to get a ton of targets, considering the Falcons just added a high-volume rookie running back to the offense, but he could still have an efficient third season and be a big factor in Atlanta's offense.

Burning question

Can the Falcons finally rush the passer?

It's hard to be a decent defense if you can't pressure the quarterback. The Falcons have been awful at that the past two seasons, and had just 21 sacks last season, 31st in the NFL. The year before they had only 18, which was 11 fewer than any other team. They were dead last in pressure rate each of the last two seasons. That's a big reason many people didn't love them taking a running back eighth overall. The Falcons added defensive linemen David Onyemata and Calais Campbell and outside linebacker Kaden Elliss, and they'll presumably help. Perhaps late addition Bud Dupree can recapture what he had as a pass rusher a few years ago with the Pittsburgh Steelers. None of those additions are great bets to get double-digit sacks, but the Falcons hope that between all the new pieces their pass rush can go from terrible to passable. If the Falcons' pass rush is still near the bottom of the league, it will be hard for the defense to improve much.

Best-case scenario

It's easy to talk yourself into the Falcons being a breakout team. Atlanta could be the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL after their investments. Bijan Robinson might win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Maybe the Falcons are right about Desmond Ridder. He has two elite pass catchers in Kyle Pitts and Drake London. It could be a fantastic offense, and the defense made some significant additions. The NFC South offers opportunities for wins. On top of all that, the Falcons have the second-easiest schedule in the NFL according to Sharp Football Analysis. A huge jump isn't out of the question.

Nightmare scenario

Even if you want to be a run-first team, you still need solid quarterback play to win. It's possible Desmond Ridder is like most quarterbacks taken after the first round and fades away very fast. It's not like Ridder was great in his four starts last season. Running the ball well can work, but if you play that style you usually need a very good defense too, and the Falcons were bad on D last season. It's possible that the Falcons' only strength this season is the run game, and that won't take you very far in the modern NFL.

The crystal ball says ...

Atlanta is intriguing. The Falcons have the pieces to make a nice jump this season, and an easy schedule will help. I still have enough questions about their defense and passing game that I'm not foreseeing a big leap, though it's possible. In a weak NFC South and weak NFC as a whole, the Falcons can stay in playoff contention through the season. I'm not predicting them to make the playoffs, though it's close.

Other team previews

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28. Los Angeles Rams

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Indianapolis Colts

25. Washington Commanders

24. Las Vegas Raiders

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22. Denver Broncos

21. Atlanta Falcons

20. Green Bay Packers

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18. New York Giants

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12. Jacksonville Jaguars

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3. Cincinnati Bengals

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