ATLANTA (AP)Arthur Smith saw a glimpse of the Atlanta Falcons’ future, with an offense featuring rookies Desmond Ridder, Tyler Allgeier and Drake London.

That vision gave Smith, the Falcons’ second-year coach, confidence that this year’s 7-10 finish provides far more hope than his debut season, when Atlanta finished with the same record.

”It’s a much different year,” Smith said after Sunday’s 30-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Strong play by the offensive line and the production of the 2022 draft class, especially the playmakers on offense, make Smith confident the Falcons have a foundation in place to end a streak of five consecutive losing seasons.

Ridder started the final four games after Marcus Mariota lost his starting job and then opted for season-ending knee surgery. The Falcons were 2-2 with Ridder, closing the season with back-to-back wins.

Ridder threw his first two touchdown passes against Tampa Bay. Smith said he was ”pretty pleased” with Ridder’s performance but was not yet ready to label the rookie the 2023 starter.

”We’ve got a long way to go before we make any decisions in the offseason, but there’s a lot you can learn from this,” Smith said.

The team must decide whether Ridder, a third-round pick out of Cincinnati, has shown he can be the new face of the franchise.

Ridder’s unforced lost fumble was a low point against the Buccaneers, but he didn’t throw an interception during his four-game audition.

”I’d argue as the games went on, he got better,” Smith said. ”Very encouraged by watching him in pressure moments.”

Ridder completed 19 of 30 passes for 224 yards, his top passing performance of the season.

Asked if he believes he deserves the starting job next season, Ridder said, ”That’s not my call.”

”I’m going to go out there and play my game and do what I do,” Ridder said. ”At the end of the day, I don’t care about stats and what it looks like, but at the end of the day I want to win. That’s who I am as a person. I want to be a winner. I want to be a competitor.”

RUN FIRST

If the team’s direction at quarterback is not clear, there should be no question Allgeier is the lead running back. Allgeier’s 135 rushing yards against Tampa Bay gave him 1,035 yards for the season, a Falcons rookie record. Atlanta ranked third in the league in rushing.

Allgeier’s emergence in the second half of the season means the Falcons can plan to utilize Cordarrelle Patterson’s versatility as a runner and receiver in 2023.

Allgeier’s average of 4.9 yards per carry was impressive while also reflecting the offensive line’s strength as run blockers. Smith said he ”absolutely” considers the line, led by right guard Chris Lindstrom, the team’s only Pro Bowl selection, as a foundation piece to build around.

LONDON CALLING

It was difficult for London, a first-round pick, to excel in a run-first offense, but he led the team with 72 catches for 866 yards and four touchdowns. Like Allgeier, London enjoyed a strong finish with six receptions for a career-high 120 yards.

Allgeier and London became the first pair of rookies in franchise history with more than 100 rushing and receiving yards in the same game.

”It’s a great foundation,” Smith said of the duo. ”Those guys got better as the season went along. That’s very encouraging.”

LOOKING FOR EXPLOSIVE PLAYS

The Falcons’ longtime weakness remained unchanged as they ranked 31st in the league with 21 sacks. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett led the way with six sacks.

In 2021, Atlanta ranked last in the league with 18 sacks.

Once again, the search for pass-rush help, especially an edge rusher, will be an offseason priority.

Smith also is looking for more explosive plays on offense in 2023, when tight end Kyle Pitts, a Pro Bowler in his 2021 rookie season, returns from a knee injury. The Falcons may look for a deep threat at wide receiver to join London and Pitts.

NEW LEADERSHIP COMING ON OFFENSE

The Falcons must find another defensive coordinator following Dean Pees’ retirement on Monday. Pees, 73, led Atlanta’s defense for two years. Linebackers coach Frank Bush, who filled in for Pees as the defensive play-caller against the Saints on Dec. 18 after Pees was hurt in a collision during pregame warmups, is a contender for the job.

NEXT STEPS

The Falcons will have the No. 8 overall pick in this year’s draft and face a decision about whether to select a quarterback. The team will have a much improved financial position as it considers the free-agent market after carrying more than $62 million in dead money this season.

AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL