The NFC South could be the worst division in the NFL this season. What is scary to consider is that the Falcons could be the worst team in that division. In fact, they are favorites to rank dead last in the division according to the latest NFC odds.
And although the Panthers have what may be the ugliest quarterback situation in the league, Atlanta’s outlook is pretty bleak on so many other fronts.
The Falcons lost Matt Ryan and are attempting to replace him either with Marcus Mariota, already clearly stamped as an NFL bust, or a rookie who was a third-round pick in an unusually weak draft class for QBs. That will be the position battle to watch in the preseason and beyond.
Mariota or Ridder? Who Will Emerge?
Falcons Are Heavily Flawed Around the QB Position
If Atlanta wants to finish ahead of Carolina and avoid the divisional basement, having quarterback stability could be the difference. The Panthers have a major edge at running back if Christian McCaffery stays healthy. Cordarrelle Patterson wore down late last year and his best complement may be fifth-round rookie Tyler Allgaier.
All eyes will be on prized rookie Drake London and rising star Kyle Pitts as the top pass-catchers, but there is nothing much else around them. A shoddy offensive line was not upgraded. The defensive front seven was weakened by the loss of Foyesade Oluokon. There are some promising rookies in the linebacker mix, but the unit has the look of a group in transition. The secondary is good enough at cornerback, but there are still questions to be answered at safety.
We are witnessing a clear rebuild after the Falcons moved on from their longtime signature player on offense and one of their best two players on defense (at least Grady Jarrett is still around). This team is weak on the offensive line and respectable at best on the defensive side of the line. The better NFL teams frequently have a solid foundation on the offensive and defensive lines. That obviously is not the case in Atlanta.
Whoever plays quarterback is going to have to display regular running ability behind the Atlanta offensive line. Both Mariota and Desmond Ridder are quality players in that regard, but Mariota is the better of the two. Arthur Smith showed he could be a creative mind last season, but new offensive coordinator Dave Ragone was not an inspiring hire after working with the Bears over the last six seasons.
The question for Smith and Ragone is how long they should stick with Mariota if Ridder is being thrown into an adverse situation as a rookie. The Falcons’ over/under win total at Caesars Sportsbook is 5.5, and the under is at -175. A generic question from outside observers will be, why start Ridder if he could be in for a major challenge to succeed on a weekly basis in his first taste of NFL action?
Mariota is not a full-fledged “bridge” type of quarterback, either. While he has fallen far from his status as a No. 2 overall pick in 2015, he was certainly ticketed to get another chance to start after he ended his tenure as a backup with the Raiders. There is still a sense that Mariota deserves another opportunity to revive his career, and another team would have given him that shot if the Falcons did not. The fact that he is being given another chance to start also speaks to the state of widespread uncertainty at QB for many NFL teams.
Which QB Can Achieve Respectability?
Ultimately, though, the Falcons want to field a competitive team that does provide hope for the future. Mariota has to do more than keep a seat warm. He must show that he can get the ball consistently to his two young and promising pass-catchers. We haven’t seen any sort of consistency from Mariota in the past, but published reports have already indicated that Smith may be patient with him this time around after benching Mariota for Ryan Tannehill late in his Tennessee tenure.
A big key will be how well Ridder performs in the preseason. If he shows any smidgen of Russell Wilson/Dak Prescott rookie season potential, the pressure will be heavy to start him. Ridder is likely going to have some ups and downs whenever he gets a chance to start. But if he looks overwhelmed in the summer, Smith could exhibit more patience with Mariota.
Ridder does have to work on refining his accuracy and release, so he still may be a work in progress during the preseason. There was a widespread opinion that none of the quarterbacks drafted in 2021 were going to emerge as immediate NFL starters. Ridder is also likely to take more of a beating behind the Falcons’ offensive line than Mariota, who wins in terms of pure mobility.
Ridder has been praised more for his intangibles, confidence, and leadership ability. That is essential for a winning team over time. But Mariota now has what may be his final opportunity to show he can still be a competent starter in the league. Staying healthy has been one of his biggest challenges. Ridder could be pushed into a starting role simply because of Mariota’s durability concerns.
Our take at The Game Day is that Mariota should come out of the preseason as the starter and Smith will not have a quick hook with him. Mariota will be motivated to show he can still be a respectable NFL starter. But at some point, we should see Ridder because of a potential injury. That will be his best chance to start, because he may not prove capable of winning the job in the preseason.
It will come down to which QB can keep the Falcons in games and out of last place. We’re betting that the veteran will prevail initially, while it may be better for Ridder to watch and learn for much of his first pro campaign.