In NFC South, Only Atlanta Falcons Are Set at QB

Atlanta Falcons QB Desmond Ridder
Atlanta Falcons QB Desmond Ridder
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Offseason - In these editions of Four Downs, we'll review the biggest hole on each team in the division and then give a short look at each team's major free agents for 2023.

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Need: Edge Rusher

The Falcons had an adjusted sack rate of 4.0%, worst in the league. The sad thing is, that's actually a slightly improvement over 2021, when their adjusted sack rate was 3.8%, worst in the league. They also had the lowest pressure rate and quarterback hurry rate according to Sportradar. They aren't entirely devoid of talent here—Arnold Ebiketie flashed some pass-rush skills early, though he tailed off badly in December—but it's a room full of complementary guys at best, with no big, beefy, one-on-one winners like new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen enjoyed on his line in New Orleans.

Honestly, Atlanta could use a talent infusion on every level of defense—they were trotting out street free agents at cornerback by the end of the year, they were 31st in adjusted line yards on the ground, and were towards the bottom of the league defending receivers of all shapes and sizes. But with the second-most cap space in the league this offseason, Atlanta can afford to splurge on a veteran pass-rusher in free agency, letting last year's picks of Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone continue to develop, and use their draft picks to address other needs.

Major Free Agents: FB Keith Smith, WR Olamide Zaccheaus, TE Parker Hesse, OT Kaleb McGary, ER Lorenzo Carter, P Bradley Pinion

The Falcons turned down McGary's fifth-year option for 2023, just in time for him to have the best season of his career. He's still mostly serviceable at best in pass protection, but he has taken significant steps forward every year as a run blocker and now has an argument as be the best right tackle in the game to run behind. Tagging him at $18.2 million might end up being a bit rich for Atlanta, but it's worth at least trying to sign him to a long-term deal. Past him, Lorenzo Carter was second on the team with four sacks and might be part of the Falcons' solution at edge rusher, but he's not exactly an incredibly high-priority target.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Need: Quarterback

Since Cam Newton left, the Panthers have only had one qualified quarterback hit a positive passing DYAR: Teddy Bridgewater in 2020. Last season, it was swings and misses by Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, and P.J. Walker as Carolina shuffled deck chairs throughout the end of the Matt Rhule era. Of the three, Darnold looked the best, occasionally flashing some of the potential he had as a first-round pick. But even if Carolina decided they wanted to look at that potential again—which, to be clear, they very much should not—Darnold's a free agent. That leaves Walker and redshirt Matt Corral as the quarterbacks under contract. Whee.

Frank Reich came into Indianapolis with the promise that he would get to coach Andrew Luck for years to come. Since Luck's surprise retirement, Reich has had to deal with a string of one-and-done free agents of wildly varying quality. Now the head coach in Carolina, Reich should finally get his chance to pick a prospect and develop him. It would be astonishing if the Panthers didn't end up taking someone at the position in Round 1.

Major Free Agents: QB Sam Darnold, RB D'Onta Foreman, C Bradley Bozeman, DT Matt Ioannidis, K Eddy Pineiro

The only real free agent of note for Carolina is Matt Ioannidis. Normally, a new defensive coordinator coming in and reworking the scheme would be a sign that the team is going to let their free agents go, but Ioannidis does have experience playing in the 3-4 that new coordinator Ejiro Evero wants to install; Ioannidis' first years in Washington were with Greg Manusky, who ran an odd front. Keeping Ioannidis wouldn't be about continuity; it would be about keeping a fairly solid interior pass-rusher as the Panthers go through some growing pains as they shift philosophies. Ioannidis had a comparative down year with just 26 pressures per SIS charting, but he was consistently getting significant pressure throughout his time in Washington. He's worth keeping around.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Need: Defensive Line

You were expecting quarterback? While the Saints are kicking the tires on a used Carr, they still have Jameis Winston under contract, and he would be adequate if the Saints can't upgrade. They have more pressing needs elsewhere.

The defensive line, for instance! Their top three defensive tackles—David Onyemata, Shy Tuttle, and Kentavius Street—are all slated to hit free agency, as is Marcus Davenport as an edge rusher. Even with all those tackles, the Saints were just 20th in adjusted line yards (22nd up the middle) and 24th in stuff rate. Onyemata is an effective interior pass-rusher with some good seasons left in him, but the Saints need to bolster the center of their defense even if they bring him back.

Major Free Agents: QB Andy Dalton, WR Deonte Harty, WR Jarvis Landry, ER Marcus Davenport, DT David Onyemata, DT Shy Tuttle, LB Kaden Ellis, CB Bradley Roby

Note that this list does not include Michael Thomas, who is widely expected to be released. The Saints restructured Thomas' deal in January to allow them to spread his cap hit over two seasons if released as a June 1 cut; there was no other reason to make that extension other than to release him. But, for now, he remains technically on the roster.

Stop me if you have heard this before: the Saints are tight against the salary cap. They have already made a number of moves; they have gone from nearly $60 million over to $35 million over as of time of writing and likely will have pushed that down even further by the time you're reading this. They're actually in a little better shape this year than they have been in years past, though that's damning with faint praise if I have ever heard it. If they do squeeze out the money to resign one player, they'd probably be deciding between Onyemata and Marcus Davenport. While Davenport really hasn't paid dividends compared to the trade up the Saints used to go get him in the draft, he's still a solid second edge rusher who is good for around 35 pressures a year. A team with cap space could use him! That may not be the Saints.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Need: Quarterback

Did you hear Tom Brady retired? That may have gotten mentioned once or twice in passing this offseason. This time, it might even stick!

The only quarterback on Tampa Bay's roster at the moment is Kyle Trask. The 2021 second-round pick has 10 career snaps; he went 3-for-9 for 23 yards against Atlanta in the regular-season closer. That, apparently, was enough for Bruce Arians to claim Tampa Bay is in "good hands" with Trask, for Jason Licht to believe he's the best quarterback in the division, and for Dave Canales to claim he's an excellent point guard distributor-type. Color us skeptical, to say the least. And even if Trask is indeed the next big quarterback prospect, the Buccaneers will still need someone else on the roster to flesh out the depth chart! They could go for multi-year deal for someone such as Derek Carr, a one-year stopgap such as Jimmy Garoppolo, or a veteran backup/bridge such as Jacoby Brissett, and what they do will tell us how they really feel about Trask. One way or another, though, they have to add someone.

Major Free Agents: G Aaron Stinnie, DT Akiem Hicks, LB Lavonte David, CB Jamel Dean, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, DB Logan Ryan

The Buccaneers are eating the remainder of Tom Brady's contract this season, putting them in a precarious financial situation. At time of writing, they were both last in cap space and had the least potential room available after simple restructures. They had work to do to be cap-compliant, much less sign any of the small army of defenders with expiring contracts—49.1% of their defensive snaps are set to hit free agency, most in the league.

Interestingly, they may be able to save money by re-signing Lavonte David. David had three void years on his last contract, so he is slated to count $6.9 million against the 2023 cap even if he leaves in free agency. By signing him to a new deal, that bonus money would shoot back down to $2.3 million, so some creative accounting tricks could keep him on the roster and lower his cap hit for 2023. No such accounting trickery can fit Jamel Dean in, and someone is going to offer a much larger deal to Dean than the Buccaneers can afford to match—corners with his combination of size and athleticism do not grow on trees.


31 comments, Last at 01 Mar 2023, 11:18am

#1 by JoelBarlow // Feb 24, 2023 - 1:01pm

I think the odds the Falcons are set with Ridder are pretty low

Points: 4

#18 by anthonytwotimes // Feb 25, 2023 - 1:11pm

Correct. When I read this title, I thought it was sarcasm. Not lying. 

Ridder is trash that offers little with his legs and can’t hit anything deep or intermediate. I guess if the author was believing that Lamar Jackson was getting traded there, I would say it is obviously set. 

Points: -3

#19 by brambo // Feb 25, 2023 - 4:43pm

"Ridder is trash" - Bit of a hot take there after 4 starts? "that offers little with his legs" - Have you ever seen Ridder play? "and can’t hit anything deep or intermediate" - Ohhhh, you're thinking of Mariota!! Now I understand.

Not that I think the Falcons are 'set' at QB by any means, but those comments were pretty ridiculous in my humble opinion. 

I remember many years ago, someone called in on Jim Rome's show talking about Andrew Jones. The caller commented off-hand, "Jones is a liability in center field". Rome quickly agreed stating something like, "Yeah, he's got a good bat but he's not a great fielder." That told me immediately that neither person had watched Jones play. Meanwhile, ten Gold Gloves later...

Not saying Ridder is gonna win 10 Gold Gloves, mainly because he's in the wrong sport for that, but my eyes told me last year that he has potential. He passed better than Mariota, was able to scramble to avoid pressure and get yards when necessary, and grew with each start. I would be perfectly okay with Ridder starting the season - with a veteran backup just-in-case. I'm not stupid after all.

Points: 0

#20 by anthonytwotimes // Feb 25, 2023 - 5:44pm

I’ve watched Ridder play plenty. If he was a better QB, Cincy would have beat Alabama in the bowl game. Instead he missed numerous throws and couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn. The Falcons are so set on him that they are currently trying to trade for Lamar Jackson!  Lmao, I’m not even going to bother anymore with this discussion 

Points: -3

#23 by brambo // Feb 25, 2023 - 7:24pm

Are you comparing the talent Cincy had with what Alabama had? I think it says a lot about Ridder that he was even able to get them to the playoffs. I'm not saying he's is the next Mahomes, but I'm willing to give him more than 4 games while the Falcons build a team. I personally wanted him starting after about game 7 last year. No thanks on Jackson - he'd be great but is too expensive. The Falcons have many needs besides QB and that's all just rumor-mongering anyway. I'm done with this conversation also.

Points: 0

#34 by Noahrk // Feb 26, 2023 - 11:39am

In any case whatever happened in college has no relevance to his career in the NFL. Chances are he won't make it, but you never know and it does make strategic sense to sink or swim with him.

Points: 2

#36 by theslothook // Feb 26, 2023 - 2:40pm

To riff on a tangential point to this one. Your pre-draft pedigree absolutely plays a role in how much rope teams give you. If Ridder was a first round pick, giving up on him would be a non-starter even though his future would be no less murky given how he actually played.

I was debating this with a friend of mine. How well does a low round player have to look for teams to pass up the chance of drafting a successor and going with that player the next year. I argued If Brock Purdy played slightly worse this year than he did, there's a very real chance the niners seriously consider a player like Derek Carr and or roll with Trey Lance. 

In fact, A lot of these low round success stories have to be good almost immediately or they just never get more chances. If Tom Brady in his first year starting was on a bad team, he probably never gets another chance to grow his career.

Points: 0

#37 by Noahrk // Feb 27, 2023 - 10:06am

No doubt. You normally wouldn't roll with a player like this, but it appears they won't get a shot at the top prospects and they seem to need a lot of help everywhere. I don't know how they won so many games.

Points: 2

#38 by KnotMe // Feb 27, 2023 - 11:25am

My takeaway from the low round success stories is that, once you get to a minimum level of athletic competence, things like dedication and ability to learn are important for QB.  Of course, those are really hard to evaluate pre-draft (hard to predict how a college guy will react to the NFL environment).  And it's all kinda a package strengths in one place can compensate for deficiencies in another.  I feel like the low round success guys basic were strong in places that was hard to evaluate pre-draft but also go a real opp to demonstrate them. Like, I doubt Purdy will be QB3 next year.  

Given that, throwing a guy out there to see what you have if you don't have a better option isn't the worst plan ever, esp bc they are cheap. I'm actually surprised when teams don't do this. Frex: the Colts were in the perfect "lets try a guy" situation last year and didn't do it, but the coach situation was probably part of it.  

Points: 1

#39 by theslothook // Feb 27, 2023 - 11:39am

Frex: the Colts were in the perfect "lets try a guy" situation last year and didn't do it, but the coach situation was probably part of it. 

Well, they did a little bit with Ehlriger. It just became a complete disaster. 

I have a slightly different take with the whole, just play a low round guy. It's probably the best choice when you all you have in front of you are horrible choices.

But, one issue that crops up is opportunity cost in time. If these low round rookies on bad teams aren't playing like Ehlriger, they are often playing like ok to below average vets. And that can fool you into thinking you can groom them into something better. I've seen it with Browns with Charlie Frye and Derrick Anderson. The Jaguars would have done it with Gardner Mishew but they were so terrible that they ended up with the first overall pick anyways.

That's kind of why I said the low round picks need to be really good immediately for me to buy in to them at all.

Points: 0

#41 by KnotMe // Feb 27, 2023 - 3:49pm

The Colts gave up on Ehlinger after 2 games, the second one vs the #3 defense. While I think it's pretty unlikely he was anything more than a backup at best, it's hard to say much with such a small sample size. And (more importantly) it's not like they had anything better to do. 

Points: 0

#42 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 28, 2023 - 9:07am

You and I agree on that.

The guy who cuts the checks did not agree on that.

The part that makes you a professional player and/or coach is receiving a check. So...

Points: 0

#33 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 26, 2023 - 11:36am

If Peyton Manning were a better QB, he would have beaten Florida.
If Tom Brady were a better QB, he would have beaten MSU and OSU.
If Drew Brees were a better QB, he would have beaten Notre Dame (or Georgia, or Washington)
If Aaron Rodgers were a better QB, he would have beaten USC (or Texas Tech).
If Patrick Mahomes were a better QB, he would have beaten LSU (or broken .500).

Please do not further bother with this discussion.

Points: 5

#2 by halfjumpsuit // Feb 24, 2023 - 1:16pm

If by "set" you mean that the guy who started the last game is under contract for 2023, which isn't true for the rest of the division, then yes, they're totally set with... Desmond Ridder.

Points: 4

#3 by Legion // Feb 24, 2023 - 2:07pm

I’m not quite as skeptical as the other comments so far about the Falcons being “set” with Ridder… but I’m still pretty skeptical.

I do think it’s possible that they go into the season with Ridder as Plan A, but I don’t believe for one second that they’re not considering a multitude of alternative options right now.

Points: 1

#7 by KnotMe // Feb 24, 2023 - 5:16pm

Well, the plan is probably "send Ridder out there for a year and hopefully he's good enough to solve the problem or bad enough to get a replacement". 

Points: 0

#11 by JoelBarlow // Feb 24, 2023 - 9:52pm

tho amazingly he outperformed Fields as a passer, although everyone did

although we're somehow not allowed to criticize this

Points: 1

#17 by KnotMe // Feb 25, 2023 - 12:36pm

Honestly this is why I find the idea that they trade the #1 pick odd. Although QB is such an important position that I think a bad outcome here gets someone fired even though I don't think you can predict the correct course of action. 

Points: -1

#4 by theslothook // Feb 24, 2023 - 2:45pm

If any of these teams had the 4th pick or better, every single one of them would be taking a QB. 

Points: 9

#5 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 24, 2023 - 2:45pm

for Jason Licht to believe he's the best quarterback in the division

That may be true!

Points: 0

#9 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 24, 2023 - 9:01pm

Getting housed in the playoffs may be enough. Brady wasn’t enjoying life in the second half of the season as the team eroded.

Points: 0

#8 by ImNewAroundThe… // Feb 24, 2023 - 6:03pm

"Set" might not be the best word but they sure put themselves in an unnecessary position (8) in the draft with the pointless signing of Mariota. But I guess the QB room of Mariota and Mariota Jr. could be worse (which...might make them the worst actually). If only they rolled with Feleipe Franks, maybe the reigns would've been given to Ridder sooner and we might be more confident in saying set. But no one could've seen Marcus Mariota being being mediocre so long. No one!

Oh look the Panthers did something similar! Except, after they drafted their rookie (and before he got hurt). And gave up draft capital. For a worse pick (9). But don't forget Jacob Eason is under contract now too! (Walker is a RFA). Woooo! Purgatory! 

Also didn't know Lavonte David was an UFA, wow. 


Points: 4

#10 by AFCNFCBowl // Feb 24, 2023 - 9:05pm

Sam Darnold actually had a passing DVOA of 23.2%, which would make him the 5th most efficient passer in the league if he qualified!

(NOT saying he should be the Panthers' QB1 next season)

Points: 0

#12 by Spanosian Magn… // Feb 25, 2023 - 4:44am

The Darnaissance went unnoticed and un-remarked-upon, but it sort of happened! *enormous, Jerry Jones-ian scoreboard flashing "SMALL SAMPLE SIZE WARNING" shines brighter than the sun*

It's worth noting that he did cut his INT% massively in his short season last year - his main problem has always been making preposterously stupid decisions too often (while lacking Josh Allen-esque tools to make up for it), so if the lightbulb finally went on, that potential might finally actualize. He's still only 25 and until last year, he had been coached by Adam Gase and Matt Rhule, so it's not completely unthinkable... oh god I'm doing it again.

In all seriousness, if they can't get CJ Stroud or Bryce Young (very strong "if" there), I think there are worse options than giving Darnold a one-year "prove it" contract to start next year. Two of those worse options are Anthony Richardson and Will Levis.

Actually a one-year Darnold deal, BPA at 1-9, and Hendon Hooker in the 2nd round might be a best-case scenario.

Points: 3

#22 by ImNewAroundThe… // Feb 25, 2023 - 6:54pm

Giving Darnold (36th/39 in EPA/CPOE composite over the last 2 years) new money is insanity. Corral is literally right there. 

Points: 0

#16 by Bob Smith // Feb 25, 2023 - 10:02am

Off-topic but interesting---I just read that Trevor Lawrence is now 2nd to only Terry Bradshaw when you compare a 1st Round Draft Picks  increase from his 1st to 2nd year in the NFL when looking at Passer Rating.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Bradshaw's Passer Rating went up the most, but Lawrence is now 2nd and John Elway is third. Just imagine if Trevor could play good enough to help his team be as successful as Bradshaw and Elway were.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Bradshaw and Elway played good enough to help their teams win 15  total championship games combined. Bradshaw won 8  (4 Conference and 4 S.B.'s,) and Elway won 7.(5 Conference and 2 S.B.'s.)

Points: -1

#35 by Dr. A. W. Niloc // Feb 26, 2023 - 1:41pm

Is the term "set" being used in the bridge sense, as in "failed to fulfill promise"?

Points: 1

#43 by Sifter // Mar 01, 2023 - 11:18am

Bryan, if your plan was to get people to click on this article in building rage about Ridder, you succeeded!  Well played sir!


I think it would be fun to see the Falcons roll out Ridder, the Panthers roll on Corral and the Bucs roll out Trask just to see what they have in the box.  But would have zero surprise if they ignored them for other options.  

Points: 2

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