With another season in the books for the Atlanta Falcons, we here at The Falcoholic now begin our 2017 roster review, and what better position to start at then the most important one on the field – quarterback.
The Falcons have a commendable level of stability at the position, highlighted by, well, a guy we think about plenty – Matt Ryan.
The veteran signal caller just finished his tenth year in red and black, a topsy-turvy season filled with highs and lows, his output reflective of the overall team’s performance.
Clearly missing his 2016 offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who helped elevate Ryan to the status of 2016’s MVP, Ryan’s numbers regressed back to his career averages. Despite some less-than-desirable conditions, the Mattural still showed why he’s a top-tier quarterback in the league, and why he’s set to reel in a big payday sometime soon.
YARDS: 4, 095 (342/529, 67% completion rate; avg. per throw – 7.1 yds., avg. per game – 255.9 yds.)
SACKS TAKEN: 24
We checked in on the QB at midseason, and besides our bout with Kubiak Fever, the thoughts there tended to stay in stasis, not evolve.
Ryan had a lot on his shoulders when he came into the 2017 season, fresh off adding MVP hardware and an NFC Championship (and a near Super Bowl trophy) to his mantle. Many wondered how the QB would fare without his boy genius play caller Shanahan behind him, and under his first year with Steve Sarkisian, Ryan went back to his typical self, if the best version of it.
His 2017 status looked eerily reminiscent to his first year with Shanahan, right down to the number of touchdowns (20 in 2017, 21 in 2015). Both of those teams struggled mightily in the end zone. He had about 500 more yards in 2015, oddly enough, but less interceptions (and, as we all know, most of those picks can be chalked up to unlucky tips, not boneheaded decisions – Ryan had his fair share of those in 2015).
The eye test in 2017 shows the Ryan we’re all accustomed to, and without that electrifying 2016 campaign where Ryan rose with the tide, perhaps this is the Ryan we’ll always see without top-flight play calling.
He lost his bevy of receiving options – Sarkisian preferred to make his world smaller, with a heavy lean on throws to Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, a limited role for third man Taylor Gabriel, a here-and-there reliance on Austin Hooper, and, really until the last few games of the 2017 march, a lack of targets to RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
This was a far cry from 2016, where Ryan threw a touchdown to nearly every person on the roster that was eligible to catch a touchdown that wasn’t a lineman.
A quarterback will only ever be as good as his play caller unless he’s one of the premiere names at the position. Right now, you can really only argue three players in the league can do it all by themselves – Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson. Ryan’s one of the better ones in the league, but he, like most guys at the position, need help.
It’s unknown how effective Bush Hamdan was in his lone season as quarterbacks coach – he went on to take the offensive coordinator role at Washington, but one wonders if the lack of veteran guidance there hindered Ryan in any way. It’s not likely it was a major detractor, with Ryan a veteran himself who knows the lay of the land, but even the seasoned gunslingers need a little coaching here and there.
Also, Ryan saw his OL’s 2016 luck with injuries vanish, with Andy Levitre and Ryan Schraeder both missing multiple games in 2017 to injury, and Alex Mack playing through a calf strain down the stretch. The OL also had to break Wes Schweitzer in at the right guard position, which is never an easy process. So, more uncertainty on the OL likely contributed to some of the offense’s woes, though, curiously enough, they let up the fewest sacks for a Falcons blocking unit (24) since the 2010 season (23). Perhaps, as @SteveInBrooklyn noted on Twitter, that’s attributable to Ryan’s maturity as a quarterback to see the field, or perhaps, as @Falcons_Andy half-joked, it’s because Ryan got the ball out so quick for short gains.
So, 2017 wasn’t Ryan’s banner year, but it was a reaffirmation of how lucky the Falcons are to have such stability at the position with a top-flight talent leading the charge. Eyeing his 33rd birthday in May, Ryan’s still got at least five years of playing in his prime, and with the way he takes care of himself and *knocks on wood* avoids injury, perhaps he could pull a Brady and play into his 40s. As long as he’s himself, the Falcons will have a chance.
Let’s assume Sark takes the leap we’re all hoping he does – that should help Ryan uptick into his statistics. He will still be Matt Ryan, but perhaps he can find a sweet middle ground between his average and his ballyhooed 2016 numbers. If that’s a possible rise, the Falcons could make serious noise in 2018.
Having a third-place schedule helps, as does having a year with a settled OL – don’t look for the Falcons to upgrade Wes Schweitzer. They could obviously do better, but Schweitzer showed enough promise in 2017 to warrant a second year at right guard. Perhaps he can find consistency, and better handle the NFL’s elite defensive interior talent.
Hiring QBs coach Greg Knapp should boost Ryan a bit from a coaching standpoint – we won’t surmise here what Knapp’s hire means for play calling purposes, but Knapp’s worked with Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer of late, who share the same traits as Ryan does, and worked with Falcons backup Matt Schaub in Houston. He’s got experience in the Shanahan system, and has the experience and respect around the league for this to be an excellent position coach hire for a veteran QB. Knapp is an upgrade over what Hamdan could bring to the table for Ryan.
It will also befit the Falcons to add a sure-handed tight end for the end zone – players like Jimmy Graham, Trey Burton, Tyler Eifert and Benjamin Watson highlight the options in free agency – add to the receivers depth, perhaps via the draft. Ryan needs more consistency with his receiving options and having to lean on Julio and Sanu will only take the offense so far. But, that’s on Sark and the front office to fix, not Ryan.
The big story with Ryan going forward will be his contract – he’s set to hit free agency next season if a deal isn’t done by then, but of course, a deal will get done. GM Thomas Dimitroff signaled as much at the year-end press conference – paying Ryan will be a top priority.
Unless Matty decides to be benevolent and take a Brady-esque deal to lessen the positional load on the cap, Ryan’s about to make bank. Paying a Super Bowl-starting QB and a recent MVP usually requires coughing up a pretty penny.
The team would be wise to get Ryan’s deal done before Kirk Cousins breaks the bank in free agency this March – if teams get competitive for Cousins’ services, he could become the highest-paid player at the position, and Ryan’s agent would, no doubt, use that deal as the bar – after all, if that’s what Cousins is worth, Ryan’s camp would no doubt want more.
Late February/early March feels like a sweet spot for a deal to get done, with the NFL Combine always a popular spot for front offices and agents to meet and hash out deals.
The Matthew Stafford deal feels like the bar right now – five years, $135,000,000. Ryan has a more distinguished career, and perhaps Ryan could get all the way up to $140,000,000 or even $145,000,000 on his deal.
Let’s speculate that by the time free agency opens and the Cousins contract negotiations begin, Ryan is inked to a five-year, $142,000,000 contract, putting him in Atlanta through the 2023 season. Ryan will be 39 heading into the 2024 season, and could, hypothetically, negotiate a deal then if he’s still playing like himself.
So, the outlook will be for the Falcons to help Ryan how they can with coaching and roster moves, and to get him paid. Ryan will still be Ryan going forward – hopefully a new tide can rise him closer to 2016.
He’s also got two little Matty Ices coming this spring, so Ryan will have to learn how to juggle being a franchise QB, and, perhaps more importantly, a dad.
Other Position Members
Matt Schaub came to the Falcons in 2016 to back Ryan up, but he’s been credited over time as to helping the blockbuster ’16 season happen. He helped bridge Ryan to the Shanahan playbook, which is attributed behind the scenes as being a big boost for the starter. He was also recently credited as helping Deion Jones in his maturation as a linebacker in practices.
Schaub has his clear impact on the Falcons, even if it’s not him personally on the field making the shots. He’s a fairly-reliable veteran if he’s called upon to start in the cruel twist of events of a Ryan injury, and he’s already got a rapport new QBs coach Greg Knapp. He’s got a bit of a hurdle to cross if he’s to be a Falcon going forward, though – his contract.
He’s putting a $5,500,000 hit on the 2018 cap, one that’s a little tighter than usual for Atlanta, and it’s fair to question if that money should be used elsewhere. His value can’t be overstated to what he brings off the field, but the same was true for Dwight Freeney in 2016. Many defensive line members credited Freeney to helping them develop, but that didn’t spark the Falcons to ever bring him back, even when the injury bug hit the DL earlier in the season.
The Falcons already pay coaches to coach, and right now, they may not have the luxury to keep Schaub around for what he brings to the table off the field, with other positions on the roster needing investments. The Falcons were interviewing quarterbacks at the Senior Bowl this month, so could they be eyeing a younger, cheaper backup?
Schaub’s place in Atlanta in 2018 is likely to come down to where the finances go – could the team wrangle him to stick around to help Knapp out? Or would Schaub wish to continue his career elsewhere? Time will tell if the Falcons’ other quarterback named Matt sticks around for another go-around.
Former Saints QB Garrett Grayson signed a reserve/future contract with the team this month after spending time on the practice squad in 2017, so perhaps Sark and company see something in the former third rounder that would inspire them to give him a shot at backing up Ryan. Plus, he knows the Saints offense, so maybe he can provide a little intel here and there from his old team?
Former Oklahoma/Texas A&M QB Trevor Knight was an early season practice squad addition, but he was placed on practice squad IR later in 2017. Right now, he’s still listed on the team’s website, but without a reserve/future contract, he’s more than likely a free agent whose time in Atlanta has come to a close.
And, of course, new guys can be added in March and April via free agency and the draft. We’ll see if the Falcons make an investment in the future at the quarterback position, or if they’re satisfied with what they’ve got for now.