NFC South Notes: Mariota, Saints, Bucs

Marcus Mariota did not acquit himself well during the Falcons‘ Week 10 loss to the Panthers, and Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post notes the eighth-year passer’s status as Atlanta’s starter past the midseason point has befuddled various NFL staffers. Mariota’s style has led Arthur Smith to lean heavily on his ground attack (23.1 pass attempts per game), and while that has been fairly effective for the Falcons, the team’s top-10 picks over the past two years — Kyle Pitts and Drake London — are being limited by this offense. Some execs are wondering why it is taking the Falcons so long to bench Mariota for rookie third-rounder Desmond Ridder, La Canfora adds. Pitts, who became only the second rookie tight end in NFL history to surpass 1,000 yards (behind Mike Ditka, 1961), has topped 30 yards in just two games this season. This year’s first wideout taken, London has not exceeded 50 yards in a game since Week 3.

It is certainly possible the Falcons, who are rebuilding yet also competing in a weak NFC South, do not view Ridder as ready. But this situation is raising eyebrows around the league. Here is the latest from the NFL’s lone division without an above-.500 team:

  • Pete Werner missed the Saints‘ Week 10 game due to an ankle injury, and it does not sound like he will return anytime soon. The second-year linebacker underwent surgery, Nick Underhill of tweets. Werner remains on New Orleans’ active roster, oddly, though it seems likely the team moves him to IR soon. The Saints are not ruling Werner out from a return this season, Underhill adds. After working as a part-time starter last season, the former second-round pick has been a three-down player this year. The Ohio State product has made a career-high 74 tackles and ranks as a top-30 linebacker, per Pro Football Focus.
  • The Saints should be expected to augment their running back situation in 2023, Mike Triplett of tweets. Mark Ingram will turn 33 soon, and his contract expires at season’s end. Alvin Kamara will likely be suspended for his role in an alleged assault; the five-time Pro Bowler’s case has been delayed multiple times and is now tabled to January 2023. The Saints will likely have a bevy of options to choose from to find a Kamara complement/fill-in option. While certain free agency-eligible backs (Saquon Barkley chief among them) will not hit the market, many will. The contingent of starters or key contributors who are eligible for 2023 free agency includes Kareem Hunt, Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders, David Montgomery, Damien Harris, Tony Pollard, Devin Singletary and D’Onta Foreman. Although the Saints could obviously look to the draft here, this is shaping up as a buyer’s running back market.
  • Rob Gronkowski‘s second retirement following O.J. Howard‘s free agency departure led to a near-overhaul for the Buccaneers at tight end. While longtime contributor Cameron Brate remains, he sustained a concussion recently. During Brate’s injury hiatus, the Bucs explored adding a tight end at the deadline, Jeremy Fowler of tweets. However, the team stood pat and has since used fourth-round rookie Cade Otton frequently. Otton, who caught Tom Brady‘s game-winning toss to beat the Rams earlier this month, and Brate have played in front of offseason addition Kyle Rudolph. Brate’s Week 10 return left the 12th-year vet a healthy scratch.
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