The Atlanta Falcons started the 2021 season 0-2 and it did not get much better from there as they finished the season 7-10 and failed to qualify for the postseason. Every season there is at least one team that made the playoffs the previous year but fails to do so the following season. Last week, this piece outlined which NFC team would fall into that category. But, conversely, each season there is at least one team that missed the playoffs the prior year that qualifies for the playoffs the following season. Here is why the Atlanta Falcons will make the playoffs in 2022.
Atlanta Falcons Will Qualify for the 2022 Playoffs
The easiest and most surefire way for a team to obtain a postseason berth is to win their division. And the Falcons do not exactly play in the toughest division. It has been difficult in the past, but that was because the New Orleans Saints had Drew Brees under center for 15 years and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had Tom Brady as their quarterback in 2020 and 2021. But Brees retired after the 2020 season and Brady retired this off-season.
Quarterbacks in NFC South
The Bucs currently have Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Trask and Ryan Griffin on their roster at quarterback. The Saints have Jameis Wintson, Trevor Siemian, Taysom Hill, Blake Bortles, and Ian Book listed on their roster. Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker are currently listed as the quarterbacks on the Carolina Panthers roster.
Tampa Bay will most likely start either Gabbert or Trask or sign some unimpressive veteran quarterback. They probably are not going to get one of the marquee options (Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, or Deshaun Watson). Winston will be a free agent this off-season and he is rehabbing due to a season-ending torn ACL and none of the other quarterbacks currently listed on the Saints roster instill a lot of confidence. Neither Darnold nor Newton worked out in Carolina and they need to make a change at quarterback. While Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has his faults, he is currently the best signal-caller in the NFC South.
Yes, Ryan is set to have the largest salary cap hit for a single player in NFL history since his cap number will spike from just under $27 million in 2021 to $48,662,500 in 2022. Atlanta could release Ryan and save over $8.1 million against the cap this year. If they wait until after the 2022 season they will save $28 million in salary cap space. It seems unlikely, given the lack of a quarterback market, particularly in the draft, this year that the Falcons will move on from Ryan. They will more than likely keep Ryan under center for at least one more year and restructure his deal.
The Panthers, who have the sixth pick, and Falcons, who have the eighth pick, both have selections in the top 10 in this year’s draft, but the quarterbacks in this year’s crop leave something to be desired. It is doubtful that either team drastically improves at the quarterback position through the draft, particularly in the immediate future for the 2022 season. However, if Deshaun Watson resolves his off-the-field issues and is cleared to play and the Panthers can pull off a trade, that would absolutely solve their quarterback problem. But that is still a ways away from happening. And the Saints pick at 18 so it is even more unlikely that the Saints will be able to select a really talented quarterback this year.
Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL and in the NFC South, the Falcons have the best one.
In addition to Brady retiring this off-season, the Bucs will have 24 unrestricted free agents, including wide receiver Chris Godwin, running backs Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones II, and Giovani Bernard, and center Ryan Jensen on offense, and Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston on defense. Sure, Tampa Bay will be able to use the franchise tag on one player, but there will be too much turnover and uncertainty at quarterback for the Bucs to challenge for the division in 2022.
Just like Tampa Bay, New Orleans needs to figure out their quarterback situation, which was stable for so long with Brees under center. But last season proved that the Saints do not have the answer to Brees’ replacement. But quarterback is not the Saints only problem. New Orleans still has needs to add some pieces at wide receiver, offensive tackle, defensive line, and safety. Left tackle Terron Armstead will hit free agency this off-season and he will need to be replaced if he leaves New Orleans. The Saints should see the return of Michael Thomas in 2022 which should be a big boost to the offense, but time will tell what Thomas is still capable of after he missed so much time. And the Saints need to add some talent and depth at the receiver position, even if Thomas produces close to his previous level. But doing so could prove difficult. The Saints are probably kicking themselves for missing out on so many talented receivers over the last few drafts.
And while there will be some continuity along the Saints coaching staff, losing Sean Payton to retirement (at least for now) was huge.
The second-round pick that Carolina gave up to trade for Darnold obviously would be beneficial to have this year, but they made the deal, and it did not work out. Now they have to figure out what to do at quarterback (they will be stuck with Darnold’s $18.8 million fifth-year option in 2022) and how to fill other positions of need. Trading for Deshaun Watson is a possibility, but Watson’s off the field/legal issues have to be resolved first and then a trade needs to actually happen, before Watson could suit up for the Panthers. Plus, Watson missed all of the 2021 season due to his legal issues so he would be trying to get back to his former level of play after missing an entire season.
Their offensive line has only two legitimate starters on it and did not perform well last season so that must be addressed this off-season. The Panthers could also use some help at cornerback. And Haason Reddick will be a free agent this off-season. If Reddick and the Panthers are unable to agree to a long term deal or if the franchise tag is not placed on and signed by Reddick, Carolina will also need to look at adding an edge rusher.
As stated previously, the Falcons do need to figure out Matt Ryan’s salary cap hit issue. But if they do they will have the best quarterback in the division by far, barring a blockbuster move, like Watson to the Panthers and him being eligible to play. Atlanta also has some holes they will need to fill this off-season, with players like Russell Gage and Cordarrelle Patterson set to be free agents. And Calvin Ridley, who missed much of the 2021 season with mental health issues, could request a trade. But the Falcons could use the franchise tag on Patterson or create some cap space (extend Grady Jarrett and Jake Matthews, trade Ridley, which would save $11 million against the cap, and/or restructure Ryan’s contract). And trading Ridley would not just save money against the cap but given his ability when he is on the field, they would get compensation that they could then use to help fill in needs, like the offensive line.
All of this just breaks down the Atlanta Falcons path to the 2022 playoffs via winning their division. But, given that the NFC is by far the weaker conference (especially if Aaron Rodgers is traded to the AFC), the Falcons could have a shot at a wild card spot as well, if needed.