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What Matt Ryan’s contract means for the Atlanta Falcons

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The near future’s bright, but what are the long-term implications of the deal?

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Ryan’s spent the last decade piloting the Falcons to some very successful season, albeit ones that ultimately fell short of the Lombardi Trophy we’re all so hungry for. The Falcons rewarded him yesterday with a massive extension that temporarily makes him the highest-paid quarterback in football in terms of guaranteed money and overall dollars.

What does that contract mean for the Atlanta Falcons?

Rather than turn this into an essay, we’ll break it down in bite-sized chunks until we have the important structural takeaways. Here’s the good, the bad, and the uncertain from Matt Ryan’s new extension.

The Good

  • The Falcons locked up the best quarterback in franchise history, a player who was the league MVP two seasons ago and who had a better year than his numbers a year ago would suggest. That continuity is important for any number of reasons, but most of all because the Falcons are still bristling with weapons, and Ryan is entering his second year in Steve Sarkisian’s offense. This offense should be primed to explode in 2018 in a way they wouldn’t be if they were trotting out, say, a rookie or Matt Schaub.
  • Ryan’s shown very little sign of decline to this point, if any. His 2017 season was marked by a handful of bad throws and some unbelievably bad luck, but he’s remained one of the league’s most durable quarterbacks, and he’s not as reliant on his legs or a cannon arm as other QBs around the NFL. The chances of him finishing out this deal as at least a productive quarterback, if not one of the ten or so best in the NFL, is as good as it would be for just about anybody else.
  • Oh, you need more than that? Ryan’s deal is only going to be the most expensive in the NFL for like, three months, at which point Aaron Rodgers will overtake him, and then he’ll be overtaken by Russell Wilson, who will be overtaken by another quarterback, and on and on and on and on in perpetuity until the NFL stops growing and the cap space shrinks or our planet is hit by a massive meteor and all life is wiped out. So while this sort of money takes the breath away at first, by the time Ryan finishes out his deal he may very well be top 15 or 16 in salary, not top 2-3.

So long as the cap keeps rising, Ryan’s share of it will remain high but not crippling, as well.

  • When you have your franchise quarterback locked up and you draft well, as the Falcons have under Dan Quinn, you have a sustainable model for success. Atlanta will have some tough decisions ahead in terms of who to keep, with players like Tevin Coleman and De’Vondre Campbell potentially headed out the door over the next couple of seasons, but they’ll have Ryan at the helm, a good young supporting cast on offense, and a ton of intriguing talent on defense. There’s no easier path to success...assuming Ryan stays good and healthy and the Falcons keep nailing their classes.

The Bad

  • Even assuming some genuinely great structuring on the deal, Ryan’s going to cost a lot of money. That’s fine! You absolutely should pay your franchise quarterback. It does mean, however, that the Falcons will continue to need to be creative if they’re going to stave off cap crises and avoid losing quality players. Being able to continually nail the draft will go a very long way, as it has over the last few seasons.
  • Honestly and objectively, this contract took long enough that it took the Falcons out of the running for any significant free agents whatsoever. It’s unlikely the team would have been major players in 2018 regardless of how much space they were sitting on, given their relative lack of major holes, but I do think they would have sniffed around a mid-tier player or two had there been another $4-$6 million in cap space sitting there. The fact that this deal took so long, with the broad strokes seemingly set in stone as soon as Kirk Cousins signed his pact, undoubtedly forced the Falcons to be a little more passive than they might have otherwise been in free agency. That doesn’t feel fatal, but it can’t be spun as a positive.
  • Matt Schaub’s dreams of starting are dead.

The Uncertain

  • Will Ryan play out this contract? As I said earlier, he’s shown few signs of true decline and remains durable, but there are no certainties in the NFL. The fact that so many guys are playing at a high level at or near age 40 has to be encouraging, but it’s still exceedingly rare for a quarterback to be viable that long. Ryan won’t be 40 when he finishes this deal, but there are simply no guarantees. If he stays healthy chances are good this will look like a fine deal by the time it’s done, but if he gets hurt or sharply declines...well, I don’t really want to think about that.
  • What are the terms of this deal, exactly? Can the Falcons get out when Ryan’s 36 or 37 if a collapse comes on? Will they save some money this year? Which year will offer the biggest cap hits? Until we know the structure, we don’t really know what this deal looks like except in its broadest outlines.