NFC South Reporter
Which NFL teams have the best young cores? FOX Sports took a deep look at every team’s core of players drafted between 2019 and 2023 to ascertain which franchises have the most promising base of young talent. Our writers ranked all 32 individually, and the final result is an aggregate of those lists. We’ll count them down for you before the start of the 2023 NFL season, starting with the worst (No. 32) all the way up to No. 1.
The Falcons’ position in this ranking of NFL teams by young talent is much like the team’s overall expectation for 2023 in that the potential for success is mitigated by uncertainty at quarterback.
The world doesn’t know who second-year pro Desmond Ridder will be this season. While the Falcons are optimistic, they have only a four-game sample on which to base that — and he had neither a touchdown nor an interception in the first three of those games. This is a team with a stockpile of young, high-drafted talent, much of it surrounding their unproven quarterback.
Three years in a row, Atlanta has used a top-10 draft pick on a skill-position offensive weapon: tight end Kyle Pitts at No. 4 in 2021, receiver Drake London at No. 8 in 2022 and now running back Bijan Robinson again at No. 8 this past spring. If all three click at the same time, this could be a very dangerous offense. With Pitts and Robinson, the top three quarterbacks were already off the board before Atlanta was on the clock, and 2022 was just a down year for the position.
Pitts has only three touchdowns in two seasons, though last year he was limited by injury. If he doesn’t look more like his dominant college self in Year 3, the pick will face well-deserved criticism. The 10 picks that followed were loaded with impact stars, from receiver Ja’Marr Chase to corner Patrick Surtain to linebacker Micah Parsons. But if Pitts and London can grow and develop in 2023, they’ll be a huge part of Ridder’s success in his first full year as a starter.
CB A.J. Terrell (2020 first round)
RB Bijan Robinson (2023 first round)
WR Drake London (2022 first round)
TE Kyle Pitts (2021 first round)
G Chris Lindstrom, G (2019 first round)
QB Desmond Ridder (2022 third round)
For all the recent picks used on offense, Terrell has a chance to be a long-term part of the Falcons’ future. He was rated as Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 cornerback in 2021, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 47.5 passer rating on throws his way, finishing with three interceptions.
That same stat last year was a 115.8 rating, though he was limited by a hamstring injury and will now play in a new defense under new coordinator Ryan Nielsen. The Falcons have already exercised Terrell’s fifth-year option for 2024, paying him just over $12 million, and with a solid season, he’ll be in line for a lucrative extension in the $20 million per year range.
For all the talk of the league-wide devaluing of the running back position, the Falcons had one of the NFL’s best run games in 2022 and still saw value in taking Robinson with the No. 8 pick. He rushed for 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns last year at Texas, but the Falcons will use him all over their offense.
Robinson caught 60 passes in three years of college football, but could easily exceed that in his rookie season. He’s arguably the most exciting back to come into the league since the Giants’ Saquon Barkley. If Robinson makes the Pro Bowl as a rookie, he could become the Falcons’ first national star in the post-Matt Ryan and Julio Jones era.
Bijan Robinson among Emmanuel Acho’s most impactful non-QB rookies
NFL Network just released its list of the top 50 free agents for next spring, and the Falcons didn’t have a single player on the list. It’s hard to argue otherwise. With Terrell getting his fifth-year option, Atlanta’s 2020 draft class doesn’t have an impact departure to worry about, and most of the Falcons’ top free agents are 30 or older.
If corner Jeff Okudah gets healthy and bounces back with a big year, he could be coveted, but the rest of the free agents (Calais Campbell, Cordarrelle Patterson) are closer to retirement than huge paychecks. The Falcons will be free and clear of much of the dead cap that limited them in recent years, but they don’t have a ton of cap space to play with, compared to this past spring.
- In offensive linemen Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, the Falcons have found two solid starters from the first round of their 2019 draft, both now locked up through at least 2025. Lindstrom was PFF’s No. 1 guard last season, setting up a five-year, $105 million contract, and McGary was PFF’s No. 4 offensive tackle, setting up his three-year, $34 million deal.
- The Falcons ran the ball 559 times last season, the most in the NFL, and they ranked third in total rushing yards and fourth in yards per carry. They might have the league’s top run game in 2023, and it won’t just be Robinson, but the line opening holes for him as well.
- Drake London recorded a PFF receiving grade of 85.3 in his rookie campaign, the 12th-best among all receivers. He had 72 receptions for 866 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
- Desmond Ridder finished his career at Cincinnati with the third-most wins by a quarterback in college football history at 44 and the Bearcats posted a perfect 26-0 mark at home with Ridder under center.
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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