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Titans vs. Falcons preview: 5 Questions with The Falcoholic

NFL: Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans kick off the preseason tonight in Atlanta. We already know that guys like Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry and Caleb Farley will not play. I would expect that list to be much longer by the time the game ends tonight.

There aren’t going to be a lot of things to take away from this game at the top of the roster, but that doesn’t mean we won’t learn anything. Melo has a list of 5 players to watch. All of those guys could end up playing a pretty large role for the 2021 Titans.

I was able to catch up with Dave Choate of The Falcoholic this week to get some insight into the Atlanta Falcons. You can head over there to check out his questions and my answers.

1) How are things going so far with Arthur Smith as the head coach?

We’re obviously not at the point where we can evaluate Smith from a results standpoint, but I’ve liked more or less everything I’ve seen from him otherwise. The players who are expected to be leaders on this team, Grady Jarrett chief among them, have talked about straightforward he is and his drive for success in a positive light, and he’s obviously a bright guy with results in Tennessee that have us all excited about what he might be able to do for this offense. The early indicators are all positive.

The real test, of course, comes when he’s got to get this roster back to winning, something Falcons fans have been starved for the past three seasons. My expectation is that he’ll at least coax improvement out of this team despite their holes, and in terms of who he seems to be as a person and how he’s working with players and coaches, I’m a fan.

2) How many years does Matt Ryan have left?

Great question and one we grappled with a lot this offseason. From a durability and skill perspective, I think Ryan could legitimately play until he’s 40. He’s not overly dependent on a strong arm or foot speed and has aged pretty gracefully, and he’s only missed three games total in his entire career. Barring any sudden and surprising decline, he’ll be at least a good quarterback for a while yet, and the Falcons have effectively tied themselves to him for the next two years at minimum unless they want to eat a ton of money.

Will he do that in Atlanta? I suspect the Falcons seriously considered the idea of drafting Trey Lance if he made it to #4, but it didn’t come to that and the team instead drafted Kyle Pitts as a stud weapon for Ryan. This will be a critical year for him, because if he’s excellent in Smith’s system I suspect the Falcons will extend him and try to continue to re-tool the roster around him, given his huge cap hit in 2022. If he’s not, well, he may play until 40 but it may not be in Atlanta.

3) Thanks for Julio! What do the Falcons have at receiver behind Calvin Ridley?

Right now, it’s Russell Gage and an open competition. Gage has primarily worked as the team’s slot receiver over the past couple of seasons, but he’ll be at least the nominal #2 behind Ridley this year. He’s a good player who did a nice job for the Falcons offense minus Julio a year ago, and he was rarely used downfield despite his speed. I’m looking forward to seeing if he still has untapped upside.

Behind those two, it’s still in flux. Olamide Zaccheaus has lethal speed and seems to be in the lead for #3 receiver duties and likely a prominent role in the slot, Tajae Sharpe is fighting with rookie Frank Darby and a host of free agent signings and undrafted free agents for #4 and so on down the depth chart. My expectation is that the team will only keep 5 receivers, with Cordarrelle Patterson serving as the sixth guy even though he’s listed as a running back and will have a real role there.

Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst are going to get a ton of work together, though, so the third receiver in this group probably doesn’t have as much upside as he did a year ago.

4) What have you seen from Kyle Pitts so far? How much of him do you think we see Friday night?

Nothing but good things, really. He’s had a few rookie miscues in camp, but they’re overshadowed by his work ethic, his evident talent and some very impressive plays. So far, at least, Pitts has looked as good as advertised and a potential matchup nightmare.

I don’t think he’ll be mothballed because he can use the reps, but I’d only expect to see him for a couple of series-to-a-half before he exits for the night. The offense is going to flow through Ridley and Pitts to such an extent that the team seems unlikely to take the risk of him getting hurt in preseason.

5) What are your expectations for 2021?

I’m somewhere in the 8-9 to 9-8 range, depending on the day, though I recognize how many unknowns there are with this team. You’re talking about a new front office and coaching staff for the first time in years, a rebuilt running back group, the addition of Pitts and the subtraction of Julio Jones, plus a defense that still seems light on game-changing talent. That said, I think Dirk Koetter was somewhat of an underrated disaster for Atlanta the past couple of seasons on offense and Dean Pees will be good for the defense, and progress on both sides of the ball in an unsettled NFC South should translate to more wins. I’m not expecting a deep playoff run or anything, but man, it’d be nice to get back to a winning season.