The Atlanta Falcons wanted a bright mind to revitalize their offense — so they turned to Arthur Smith. The 38-year-old has been running one of the most balanced and successful offenses in the NFL as coordinator for the Tennessee Titans the past two seasons.
Last year under Smith, who has been an assistant with the Titans since 2011, Tennessee ranked second in red zone touchdown scoring efficiency (75%), third in total yards per game (396.4) and fourth in scoring (30.7 points per game).
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill made strides after he joined the Titans with Smith as his OC. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Tannehill’s QBR jumped up over 24 points, his touchdown-to-interception ratio dramatically improved, and he recorded more yards per attempt. Receiver A.J. Brown had more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons.
Smith’s success wasn’t limited to the passing attack — running back Derrick Henry led the NFL in rushing for back-to-back seasons, including a 2,025-yard explosion last season.
Can Smith replicate that offensive success in Atlanta? There is some reason for optimism. After seeing quick turnarounds under young offensive-minded head coaches such as Sean McVay (Rams), Kyle Shanahan (49ers) Matt LaFleur (Packers) and Kevin Stefanski (Browns), the Falcons will likely expect the same from Smith.
It took only two seasons as OC for Smith to bring the Titans from nearly the bottom of the league in scoring to one of the NFL’s top offenses. But he can’t bring Henry, Brown and Tannehill with him. The cupboard isn’t bare in Atlanta, with a budding star in receiver Calvin Ridley, but this situation will require ownership to have some patience.
The Falcons are projected to be around $37 million over the salary cap next season, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System. There will have to be a series of restructured contracts or possible releases of veteran players to fill the roster.
Todd Gurley II is a free agent and may not be back, which would leave a void at running back. Smith’s offense generated chunk plays off of the play-action passing game so Atlanta will need to find some kind of threat at running back but at a low cost.
The Falcons only have 31 players under contract for 2021. Two of those players are aging stars with high cap numbers.
Matt Ryan, who turns 36 in May, has a $40.1 million cap number in 2021 and would cost $49 million in dead money if the Falcons released him. They are basically tied to Ryan this season but they have a potential out if they release him next season.
Ryan won an MVP and led the Falcons to the Super Bowl in 2016 with Kyle Shanahan as the offensive coordinator. Smith’s offense has ties back to Shanahan — through LaFleur when he was Titans OC — so there should be some scheme familiarity for Ryan that could keep their first season together from being a disaster.
Julio Jones has been Ryan’s top receiver until injuries kept him out of seven games in 2020. The tandem will be costly in the coming years. The 31-year-old receiver holds a $23 million cap number and his $38 million cap hit would make it difficult to move him.
The Falcons’ tight cap situation will force them to build through the draft. Atlanta has seven draft picks including the No. 4 overall selection. They could possibly select their quarterback of the future with that pick with Justin Fields (Ohio State), Zach Wilson (BYU) and Trey Lance (North Dakota State) as options.