Thu Dec 8 6:45pm ET
By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Writer
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder (4) throws the ball before the start of an NFL football game against the Washington Commanders, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin speaks with Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith after an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Atlanta. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 19-16. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota (1) passes the ball as Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Devin Bush (55) makes a hit during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota (1) works in the pocket against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
ATLANTA (AP) Mired in a monthlong slump but somehow still in playoff contention, the Atlanta Falcons are definitely planning changes during their bye week.
Some will be subtle. Perhaps a tweak of a scheme, some different formations, a new play or two.
But one could be a really big deal.
A switch at quarterback.
Marcus Mariota has taken every snap for the Falcons this season, showing flashes of reviving his floundering career, but it's clear coach Arthur Smith is looking for more from his offense heading into the final quarter of the season.
If Smith decides to bench Mariota, rookie Desmond Ridder is the next man up.
While Atlanta fans have been clamoring to get a look at the third-round pick who led Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff a season ago, Smith is mindful of the gamble he'd be taking by going with an untested player in such a prominent role at this late stage of the year.
Especially when the Falcons, despite losing four of their last five games to drop to 5-8, are just 1 1/2 games behind Tampa Bay (6-6) in the NFC South and will close the regular season at home against the Buccaneers.
''You want to make sure you're bringing guys along the right way,'' Smith said. ''There have been guys that have gone out there, maybe too early, and it probably altered their career. There have been other guys that you could make a strong argument they probably should have been out there a little bit earlier.''
The Falcons are in the middle of the NFL pack in scoring, ranking 15th at 22.2 points a game, but a strong running game is the primary reason for their offensive success.
Atlanta ranks second in the league at 158.9 yards rushing per game, but the passing game is next-to-last at 155.7 yards. That's not entirely Mariota's fault, since Smith has gone with a ball-control offense in an attempt to cover the Falcons' weaknesses, but that strategy has done little more than keep games close over the past five weeks.
The last four losses have been by a total of 22 points, three of them coming down to the last possession.
Two of those ended with Mariota throwing interceptions, undoubtedly causing Smith to wonder if he's got the right guy at the top of the QB depth chart.
The coach said Ridder has shown plenty of improvement at practice, but he's yet to get on the field in a game that counts.
''There are things that we've tried to do with all of our young players, things that we do behind the scenes that we add into practices,'' Smith said. ''Some of the things that we do to try to make it hard on them to try to see where their progress is at. With a lot of our young guys, we feel pretty damn good about where they are.''
He wouldn't go into specifics about Ridder, clearly not wanting to tip his hand. Smith will hold out until Monday, when the players return from their off week, to announce any personnel changes.
Mariota said he's not concerned about losing the No. 1 job, which already happened to him once in his career.
''That's not where my mind is at,'' he said after the latest setback, a 19-16 loss to the Steelers. ''At the end of the day, they have to make a decision that's best for the team, and whatever happens, happens.''
The No. 2 overall pick by Tennessee in the 2015 draft, Mariota started 61 games over his first 4 1/2 seasons before being benched by the Titans.
In 2020, he moved on to Las Vegas, where he barely played at all for the Raiders over the last two seasons. Mariota got a second chance with the Falcons and Smith, a former Titans assistant who handed him the job after longtime starter Matt Ryan was dealt to the Colts in a cost-cutting move.
Smith stood by Mariota over the first 13 weeks, but that support seems to be wavering with the Falcons averaging just 17.6 points in their last five games.
''We'll evaluate everything,'' the coach said. ''Every job.''
Mariota blamed the Falcons' offensive woes on third down. Over the last five games, Atlanta has converted just a third of the time in those situations (17 of 51) while often facing long yardage.
''It starts on third down,'' Mariota said. ''If we're not able to convert third downs, we're not getting any more plays, we're not allowing ourselves opportunities to score points. So, it always kind of starts there for the quarterback position.''
While the playoffs weren't really on the Falcons' radar at the beginning of what was supposed to be a rebuilding season, the weakness of the NFC South - where the four teams have a cumulative record of 19-31 - has opened an unexpected door.
The Falcons, whose next game is at division rival New Orleans on Dec. 18, are running out of opportunities to walk through it.
''Unless you literally don't have a phone ... yeah, you're aware of it,'' Smith said of the playoff possibilities. ''We need to get a win. So, whatever we have to do, we have to find a way to try to beat New Orleans down there.''
Even it means a change at quarterback.
Interview with TFC Winner
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said on Tuesday that the team's decision on hiring a new head coach is "coming in days not hours." "We said, as an organization (Colts) the coaching search would be an open-minded and a thorough process and the final decision would be strictly based on what is best for our franchise's success and best for our fans," Irsay tweeted. The Colts have conducted a lengthy coaching search this offseason, which has included Jeff Saturday, Eric Bieniemy, Shane Steichen, Rich Bisaccia Aaron Glenn and Don Martindale, among others. They fired Frank Reich nine games into the 2022 season and replaced him with the inexperienced Saturday, who went 1-7 down the stretch.
The Tennessee Titans hired Tim Kelly as their new offensive coordinator on Tuesday, while Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks coach Charles London will become their new passing-game coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Meanwhile, on defense, Chris Harris was hired to be the pass-game coordinator and cornerbacks coach. Kelly spent last year as the team's pass-game coordinator. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill seemed excited about the news of Kelly's promotion. Before working for the Titans, Kelly had several different coaching roles in eight seasons with the Houston Texans. Harris spent the last three years as the defensive backs coach for the Washington Commanders. Tennessee also promoted Jason Houghtaling to offensive line coach.
The New Orleans Saints invited Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr for a visit and the Raiders have granted permission, according to sources. The plan is for the Saints to visit with Carr on Wednesday. Carr has a no-trade clause and is doing his due diligence with a trade imminent. Saints head coach Dennis Allen put Carr into the starting lineup as a rookie when he was the head coach of the Raiders in 2014. The Raiders benched Carr for the final two regular season games and are preparing to move on from him heading into 2023. If the veteran QB isn't traded a few days after the Super Bowl, Las Vegas will be forced to release him. Carr would be an upgrade over Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston in New Orleans, and although the receiving corps would be a downgrade from what he had with the Raiders, second-year wideout Chris Olave would be a nice No. 1 for Carr to work with.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan mentioned that he is open to returning for the 2023 campaign. The 37-year-old is due $12 million next season, but the Colts can save that money by cutting him before March 17th. Ryan has said there is still good football left in him, but the stats show a different story. The veteran signal-caller threw 13 interceptions and had a season-high 15 fumbles last season. It's tough to imagine him finding a starting spot somewhere after that horrendous season. Although, it's possible he takes a backup job just to continue playing in the NFL.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers plans to take a retreat before making any decisions on his future. The 39-year-old signal-caller is likely going to drag this out for quite awhile. He recently mentioned he doesn't want to play for the 49ers, but hasn't given much information outside of that. He could return to Green Bay, play elsewhere, or retire altogether. It seems like football fans are going to have to wait a few more weeks before Rodgers gives us anymore information.
The Carolina Panthers currently have quarterbacks Matt Corral, a third-rounder from last year, and Jacob Eason, a fourth-rounder in 2020. ESPN's David Newton thinks it's doubtful that the Panthers will make a run at a high-priced veteran QB such as Derek Carr with the team ranked in the bottom half of the league in salary cap space. It means Carolina will probably focus on a signal-caller in the draft, even if it means trading up from No. 9 overall into the top three. New head coach Frank Reich and general manager Scott Fitterer agree that the best way to build long term is to draft a QB and build around him. There's a chance that Corral will enter the 2023 season as the starter under center, but it also depends on which quarterback the team drafts. There's also the possibility the team re-signs Sam Darnold as a short-term solution at the position.
Carolina Panthers tight end Ian Thomas could become a salary cap casualty this offseason. He's good at blocking, but he's not the receiver this team needs and he has a $6.7 million cap hit in 2023. Cutting him with a post-June 1 designation would free up $3.1 million. The Panthers could then use those savings to sign a veteran in free agency, such as Dallas' Dalton Schultz or Jacksonville's Evan Engram. Carolina hasn't had a dependable pass-catching tight end sine Greg Olsen left in 2020. The 26-year-old Thomas failed to find the end zone in 2022 and finished with just 21 catches for 197 yards on 30 targets in 17 games played. His best season was his rookie year in 2018, when he had 36 receptions for 333 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games (six starts).
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said that wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) and Kadarius Toney (ankle, hamstring) "looked good" during a light practice on Tuesday. The Chiefs will test both receivers when more intensive workouts start on Wednesday. Toney said on Monday night that he will play in the Super Bowl on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Both Toney and Smith-Schuster were injured in the AFC Championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals and didn't practice at all last week. They were both listed as questionable, but as long as they are able to practice all this week, they should be active for the big game on Sunday. Smith-Schuster and Toney have been boom-or-bust for fantasy managers this year, although they could have more upside against Philly with Mecole Hardman (pelvis) on Injured Reserve.
The San Francisco 49ers plan to hire former Carolina Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks as their new defensive coordinator, according to sources. Wilks will be replacing DeMeco Ryans, who left to become the next head coach of the Houston Texans. The Niners interviewed Wilks on Monday and obviously liked what they heard. San Francisco's last two head coaches, Robert Saleh and Ryans, went on to become head coaches. In two years under Ryans, the 49ers defense ranked second in the NFL in points (18.9) and yards per game allowed (305.3), fourth in defensive efficiency (60.7) and yards per play (5.04) and fifth in defensive EPA (67.02), so Wilks has plenty to work with in his new job. Wilks has experience as a head coach, defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach in his time in the NFL.
The San Francisco 49ers signed former Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Tyron Johnson and defensive back Tre Swilling to Reserve/Futures deals on Monday. Johnson appeared in four games with the Houston Texans and Las Vegas Raiders in 2022 and caught his only target for an eight-yard gain with the Texans. The 27-year-old spent his rookie year in 2020 with the Chargers and caught 20 of his 26 targets for 398 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games (no starts). Since then, he has three catches in 14 games played. Johnson will give the Niners some more receiver depth heading into the 2023 season.
Cleveland Browns pass-rusher Myles Garrett (toe) doesn't need surgery after dislocating his toe during the Pro Bowl last weekend. He's slated for a short recovery time and should be good to go for offseason workouts with the team. Garrett tied a career high for sacks in 2022 with 16 and was named to his third straight Pro Bowl as a result. The 27-year-old is one of the best all-around pass-rushers in the league and should be one of the first defensive lineman off the board in IDP fantasy formats yet again. Garrett hasn't had single-digit sacks since his rookie year in 2017. Along with his 16 sacks last season, he had a career-high 60 tackles (37 solo), 18 tackles for loss, 26 QB hits, four passes defensed and two forced fumbles in 16 games.
Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener threw for 139 yards and a touchdown to lead the National team to a 27-10 victory over the American team in last Saturday's Senior Bowl to win MVP honors. Haener went 12-for-19 in the game after setting a Fresno State record with a 68.1% completion rate in 2022. He missed four games with an ankle injury but returned to finish off a nine-game winning streak. As of right now, the 23-year-old signal-caller is projected to come off the board in the mid to late rounds of this year's NFL draft. Haener stands at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, and was a three-year starter for the Bulldogs in his collegiate career. His best assets are sound decision-making and accuracy, but he doesn't have high-end physical traits.
Philadelphia Eagles CEO Jeffrey Lurie said on Monday that quarterback Jalen Hurts is "just what we're looking for" when asked about the chances of initiating contract extension talks with Hurts at some point this offseason. "I don't think he has anything to prove [to be the long-term answer at quarterback]," Lurie said. "He is an MVP-caliber quarterback, an incredible leader of the team on the field, off the field." Hurts was a second-rounder in 2020 and has one year left on his rookie deal, but he's now eligible for an extension. He's scheduled to make a base salary of $4.2 million in 2023. The 24-year-old was the QB3 in overall fantasy points in 2022, behind only Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, and he likely would have finished as the QB1 if not for right shoulder injury that cost him several games at the end of the regular season.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Kadarius Toney (ankle, hamstring) said he's "definitely" playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Toney suffered an ankle injury in the AFC Championship game, didn't practice at all last week and was listed as questionable last Friday for the Super Bowl. If the 24-year-old returns to practice this week, he should be able to suit up, but he'll be a boom-or-bust fantasy option, even with Mecole Hardman (pelvis) on Injured Reserve. JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) is also questionable for the big game, so the Chiefs are quite banged up at the position with everything on the line this Sunday. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, rookie Skyy Moore and Justin Watson could have bigger roles if Toney and Smith-Schuster are limited.
Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Snead (head) said he has cleared the league's concussion protocol, and he's expected to return to practice on Wednesday after getting knocked out of the AFC Championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals with a concussion. Snead is good to go for the Super Bowl this Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, as long as he doesn't have a setback in practices this week. The 26-year-old is the team's longest-tenured cornerback on the 53-man roster and is the only Chiefs player at the position that has appeared in a Super Bowl with this team. Snead typically covers the opposing team's No. 1 receiver, which in this case would be A.J. Brown.
The New Orleans Saints are expected to name former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods as their new defensive coordinator, according to sources. Woods served as Cleveland's defensive coordinator from 2020 to 2022 and reunite with head coach Dennis Allen from their days working for the Las Vegas Raiders. In 2022, the Saints used co-defensive coordinators Ryan Nielsen and Kris Richard, with Allen calling the defensive plays. In addition to Woods, the team is expected to hire Todd Grantham, who was a defensive analyst at Alabama last year. At one point last season, the Browns defense ranked 31st in defensive efficiency, and they ranked next to last in the NFL in defensive total rush expected points added. The Saints also struggled mightily to stop the run late in 2022.
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver A.J. Green announced his retirement from professional football on his official Instagram page on Monday. Green really tailed off in his second season with the Cardinals in 2022, catching just 24 passes on 47 targets for 236 yards and two touchdowns in 15 games (10 starts), despite both DeAndre Hopkins and Marquise Brown missing time due to a suspension and an injury, respectively. But Green did have a 77-yard touchdown reception in his final game in Week 18 against the San Francisco 49ers. The 34-year-old entered the league as the fourth overall pick in 2011 by the Cincinnati Bengals, and he was one of the best receivers in the NFL in his first seven seasons. Green made the Pro Bowl seven straight times to begin his career and reached the 1,000-yard mark in six of those seven seasons. He finishes with 727 catches (1,269 targets) for 10,514 yards and 70 touchdowns in 158 career games.
The Carolina Panthers hired Ejiro Evero as their new defensive coordinator on Sunday, according to sources. It's a big hire for head coach Frank Reich in his first year with the team, as they lock up one of the league's most talented young coaches after the Denver Broncos let him out of his contract. In addition to the Panthers, the Minnesota Vikings also had talks with Evero for the same position. The 42-year-old also interviewed for all five of the head-coaching openings this offseason. Despite all the injuries the Broncos dealt with in 2022, they finished in the top 10 in the league in total defense and rushing defense under Evero. The Panthers defense is considered their strength and is led by defensive end Brian Burns and safety Jeremy Chinn. They had a 4-3 base defense last year, but they'll be switching to a 3-4 base defense under Evero.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy (elbow) hasn't made an official decision on whether to have surgery to fix a torn UCL in his right elbow, but signs continue to point toward Purdy having surgery that would involve a six-month build-up to return to action. Purdy injured his right arm in the NFC Championship loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Instead of having Tommy John surgery, Purdy is expected to require an internal brace, which doesn't require as long of a rehab. If all goes smoothly, the 23-year-old could be cleared to return to practice in early August. Purdy stepped in for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo on Dec. 4 and won eight games for the team in his rookie season. Because of how well Purdy played when forced into action in 2022, he deserves to compete with Trey Lance for the starting job in 2023, but he could be fighting an uphill battle if he isn't ready for the start of training camp.
The Kansas City Chiefs activated running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle) from Injured Reserve on Monday, so he will be active for the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Feb. 12. Edwards-Helaire suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 11 and hasn't played since, so it's probably unlikely that he'll see many offensive snaps, if any, behind Jerick McKinnon and rookie Isiah Pacheco in the big game this weekend. It will be interesting to see how much the 23-year-old practices this week, and that could give us more of a sense on how much he might actually play in the Super Bowl. CEH has been a pretty big disappointment in his first three NFL seasons after being taken in the first round (32nd overall) in 2020.