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
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are scheduled to hold a second interview with Cincinnati Bengals quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher for their offensive coordinator position this week, according to sources. In Tampa, the Bucs are moving on with life post-Tom Brady in 2023, and they're looking to replace former offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who was fired following the 2022 season. Despite signing a contract extension before the AFC Championship game, Pitcher could end up leaving the organization for a better opportunity to try and fix a Buccaneers offense that was absolutely atrocious running the football last season. Tampa finished 15th in total yards, 25th in points scored and last in all major rushing categories.
The Baltimore Ravens have already had two interviews with Minnesota Vikings pass-game coordinator/tight ends coach Brian Angelichio and Wisconsin offensive coordinator Bobby Engram. Engram previously coached receivers and tight ends in Baltimore. The Ravens are expected to interview Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks coach Dave Canales and Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Justin Outten this week. The Ravens are casting a wide net to find their new coordinator, and they could also want to talk with Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, senior offensive assistant and QBs coach Matt Nagy and receivers coach Joe Bleymaier and Philadelphia Eagles QBs coach Brian Johnson and pass-game coordinator Kevin Patullo. Including the Ravens, there are eight teams in the NFL still currently looking for an offensive coordinator.
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.
Pittsburgh Steelers assistant head coach/linebackers coach Brian Flores accepted the defensive coordinator position with the Minnesota Vikings on Monday, according to a source. Flores has plenty of experience in the NFL coaching defense and was also the Miami Dolphins' head coach for three years from 2019-21. Before his stint in Miami, Flores spent 15 years working under New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Last offseason, Flores filed a lawsuit against the Dolphins, Denver Broncos and New York Giants for discriminatory hiring and firing practices. The Vikings defense hasn't ranked better than 24th in points allowed or 27th in yards allowed in any of the last three seasons, so he'll have his work cut out for him.
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.
The Kansas City Chiefs placed wide receiver Mecole Hardman (pelvis) on Injured Reserve on Monday. Hardman initially suffered a core injury back in Week 9 that landed him on Injured Reserve, but he returned to play in the AFC Championship against the Cincinnati Bengals. He didn't last long, playing only 15 offensive snaps before aggravating his injury. The 24-year-old pass-catcher was hoping to play in the Super Bowl this Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, but that will not happen now. Depending on whether JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) and Kadarius Toney (ankle, hamstring) can play in the big game, fellow wideouts Marquez Valdes-Scantling, rookie Skyy Moore and Justin Watson could have bigger roles alongside tight end Travis Kelce.
Dynasty | A.J. Green announced his retirement Dynasty Analysis: The move isn't unexpected for the 2011 fourth-overall selection. Green notched six 1,000-yard campaigns over his first seven seasons, only missing seven in a row due to injury in 2014. He can safely be dropped in all dynasty formats. We wish him well in his next endeavors.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson is a candidate to have his contract restructured this offseason, although it will be a bit tricky with two years left on his current deal. The Steelers will likely shy away from restructuring him into a bigger dead salary cap number in the final year of his contract in 2024. But if the Steelers are in a pinch against the cap this year, they could add $3.5 million in cap space. Johnson was a big disappointment to the Steelers and fantasy managers in 2022 while working with quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett. He had 86 receptions for 882 yards, but he failed to find the end zone in 17 games after scoring a career-high eight times in 2021. A bounce-back season could be in order for Johnson as he gains more chemistry with Pickett.
University of Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker (knee) is still recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered on Nov. 19 of last year, and it's unclear if he'll be able to play in his rookie season in 2023 because team medical staffs tend to evaluate a player's timelines on a different basis. NFL teams might get their first chance to evaluate his knee in a month at the scouting combine and again at his medical recheck before April's draft. Even though he wasn't able to work out at the Senior Bowl last week, Hooker reportedly impressed during his interviews. Despite his knee injury, Hooker could be in line to be taking in the second round of this year's NFL draft.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky is a potential cut candidate this offseason, even though Mason Rudolph is all but gone and Kenny Pickett already has two confirmed concussions. Trubisky will make $10.63 million in 2023, though, and the Steelers could add $8 million in salary cap space if they release him. The veteran signal-caller has gone on the record about not being happy about how things turned out in 2022. If Pittsburgh cuts Trubisky, they'll need to add another QB behind Pickett. "I expect Mitch will be on the roster next year and be an effective backup if we need him," owner Art Rooney said last week. "I think he showed that he can be that. We can win with him."
The Chicago Bears would love to have something in wide receiver Chase Claypool, whom they acquired at midseason in 2022 from the Pittsburgh Steelers. His first season in Chicago was a disappointment and he missed time with injuries, but the Bears aren't giving up on him just yet. "I don't think we have that figured out just yet, but I see him getting a lot of opportunities," offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said about Claypool's role. "He's someone that we need to play at a really high level, and he's capable of that. He's done that in the past. We've got to get the most out of him, and he wants that, too." The 24-year-old had just 14 catches for 140 yards in seven games with the Bears, but with better health and with more time to develop chemistry with quarterback Justin Fields, Claypool could easily bounce back in 2023 with a big role.
Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen and tight end Gerald Everett are both scheduled to become free agents in March and could be salary cap casualties. Allen would represent $14.8 million in cap savings as a pre-June 1 cut and $17.5 million savings post-June 1. Everett would save $4.25 million before or after June 1. If the Chargers move on from Allen, they'll need to draft a receiver early to replace him. If they don't cut him, the Chargers still need to add more speed at the position. The Bolts need to find a bona fide No. 1 all-around tight end. Donald Parham Jr. only played in six games due to injury last year, and Tre' McKitty took a step back in his second season. Allen, 30, has been a target hog for LA, but he played in just 10 games in 2022 due to injury.
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert has accrued three NFL seasons and is eligible for a contract extension, which The Athletic's Daniel Popper thinks will get done this offseason. The earlier the Chargers get a deal done, the better. Herbert will likely be looking to top Aaron Rodgers' average annual value at $50.27 million per season. It remains to be seen if he'll reset the QB market, especially after he took a slight step back in his third NFL season from a numbers perspective. The 24-year-old had a career-high 68.2% completion percentage, but he also threw a career-low 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while amassing 4,739 passing yards in 17 regular season games. However, Herbert is still one of the best young signal-callers in the game and will be compensated generously.
Dynasty | The Athletic's Mike Sando believes the Giants won't overcommit to either Daniel Jones or Saquon Barkley this offseason. Dynasty Analysis: The Giants do have their work cut out for them in that Jones and Barkley are both free agents and the team was surprisingly successful in 2022. They have already expressed a desire for both players to return for 2023. Under Sando's scenario, he believes the team can retain its flexibility by tagging Barkley while seeking to work out a multi-year deal in the near future while focusing on locking up Jones on a more team-friendly short-term deal, though Jones may not be amenable to that. As pointed out, the team does face a delicate balancing act. Daniel Jones is found as DLF's QB18 while Saquon Barkley is listed as RB4.
Dynasty | Free agent Josh Jacobs wants to remain in Las Vegas Dynasty Analysis: The Raiders missed an opportunity to lock up Jacobs as part of a fifth-year option as a previous first-round selection. Instead, Jacobs, with free agency looming, led the league in rushing with 1,653 yards and 2,053 total scrimmage yards. Only 24, the running back said "I feel like I'm in the driver's seat." He most certainly is. He also expressed a desire to not be franchise-tagged by the team, an option which remains a definite possibility. The team has multiple tag options available and application of one of them seems likely to play out. Jacobs was a bit of a dynasty cast-off ahead of the 2022 season and richly rewarded acquiring dynasty coaches taking a value-based leap of faith. With true three-down potential, healthy, and entering his age-25 season, Jacobs is found as DLF's RB8 and should remain a top option for years to come.
Dynasty | Keenan Allen was listed as a likely cap-casualty Dynasty Analysis: The Chargers have to clear $23.4M to get under the cap and additional money if they wish to compete for free agents. Allen turns 31 in April and struggled with injury in 2022, appearing in only 10 games and producing a 66/752/4 stat-line, his worst performance since 2016. While Allen is an institution for the team, the numbers suggest he'll be released and become a free agent. Found as DLF's WR42, Allen is now a reasonably-priced acquisition target for competitive dynasty teams. He should have no shortage of suitors if released.
Dynasty | Tight end Gerald Everett was listed as a likely cap-casualty Dynasty Analysis: The Chargers have to clear $23.4M to get under the cap and additional money if they wish to compete for free agents. Entering his age-29 season, Everett has been a hold-the-line TE2 over his six years in the NFL, but just turned in a career-best campaign in 2022, producing a 58/555/4 stat-line. A popular selection in dynasty as a breakout candidate, he's never turned the corner toward becoming a consistent TE1 producer but will, once again, possess that potential in 2023. Whether he remains with the Chargers or not, he listed as a value-laden TE22 on DLF's dynasty tight end rankings.