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Falcons roster review, post-2019: Quarterback edition

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A down year from Matt Ryan, an option year ahead for Matt Schaub, and the impossibility of knowing what’s ahead.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Welcome back to the positional review series, an annual staple here at The Falcoholic since time immemorial. It seems like just a month ago we were doing this after a disappointing 2018 season, but unfortunately we’re back here again...after a disappointing 2019 season.

As is custom, we’ll start with quarterback, a position vital to the team’s success over the last decade and no less vital today. We’ll re-visit all these positions both after the draft and right before the season.

Starter

QB Matt Ryan

2019 stats: 15 games, 408/616 attempts, 66.2% completion, 26 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 7.3 yards per attempt, 7.1 air yards per attempt, 92.1 passer rating, 48 sacks for 316 yards, 7.2% sack rate, 3 fourth quarter comebacks, 34 rushes for 147 yards and 1 TD, 9 fumbles

Contract: 4 years remaining; cap out not possible until 2023


If you asked me to sum up Matt Ryan’s year, I’d say underwhelming, at least by his standards. Unlike 2017, where I thought a fine year was derailed by a number of flukish interceptions, this year featured stretches where Ryan just didn’t play well. Given how well Ryan takes care of himself and his relatively tender age compared to other high-end quarterbacks still playing well, that’s not a major alarm bell just yet, but there is a soft clanging in the background.

That’s especially true because Ryan missed a game this year, the first time that has happened since 2009. He also took a ton of punishment, with the second-highest total number of quarterback hits and a career-high 48 sacks coming his way behind a shaky offensive line with a shaky offensive play caller. This team can still win without him playing 100%—especially if the defense and ground game ever come along—but ideally they won’t have to.

At his best, Ryan was still great, thankfully. He took it to the Arizona secondary this season, scrambled and threw a clean one against San Francisco, and just missed a furious comeback against Indianapolis, among others. Despite his reputation in some quarters of the fanbase, he continues to move much better in the pocket and scramble more effectively than he ever did earlier in his career, which helps him make plays when things are falling down around him.

He just needs to be sharper in 2020 and have a healthier, more effective supporting cast, which is good because he’s not going anywhere.

Reserves

QB Matt Schaub

2019 Stats: 6 games, 50/67 attempts, 74.6% completion, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception, 8.7 yards per attempt, 8.9 air yards per attempt, 109.0 passer rating, 2 sacks for 19 yards, 2.9% sack rate, 1 fumble, 3 rushes for -3 yards

Contract: 1 year team option


Schaub lived up to his legendary status this year, airing it out in a memorable effort against the Seahawks that he’s still a capable quarterback. His last performance of that caliber was years and years ago, but it was nice to see that he can still be relied upon if Matt Ryan goes down.

Schaub’s always drawn rave reviews for his importance to the quarterback room and the offense, but the play probably bolsters his case in 2020. The team has an option to decide on, one that carries just $375,000 in dead money if they do decide to move on because one of their young quarterbacks look great over the summer. Schaub could probably transition pretty seamlessly to an assistant gig with this offense if that comes to pass, but we’ll have to see how that one pans out. I’d bet heavily on the Falcons bringing him back and letting a genuine competition ride this year.

QB Kurt Benkert

2019 stats: N/A

Contract: 1 year remaining; Exclusive-Rights Free Agent in 2021


Benkert’s injury derailed a promising start to the preseason, when he threw for 185 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 17 yards against the Broncos. In my eyes, if healthy (and he’s thankfully just been medically cleared for 2020), he should be considered a frontrunner for the backup job or the de facto practice squad quarterback spot.

Benkert was showing improved touch and pocket presence in practice and in that one game, and he’s certainly got the athleticism and the arm to be a quality backup in the NFL. The team’s ability to hold on to him for an affordable salary for the next two years makes him an intriguing choice behind Ryan if he can show continued growth this offseason, as he’d save the Falcons over $1 million over Schaub and won’t be 25 years old until this year.

QB Danny Etling

2019 stats: N/A

Contract: Reserve/future contract; won’t go into effect until March 2020


Etling took on the young developmental quarterback role with Benkert out, and he turned in one shaky performance and one solid one in preseason. In all, he threw for 193 yards, completed 54.8% of his passes, and rushed 17 times for 115 yards.

Etling’s calling cards are his live arm and scrambling ability, as he’s a legitimately frustrating quarterback for opposing teams to keep in the pocket. Pressure is a problem and his inconsistent mechanics have been a knock dating back to his days at LSU, but that athletic profile makes him a very fun player to watch and a potentially interesting backup who could be utilized as a gadget player. I think Benkert is probably the better quarterback, but Etling’s multi-faceted game should make him a legitimate part of the competition in 2020.

I’d view him as the guy on the outside looking in if Schaub wins the backup job next year, but if Benkert takes it he should be on the practice squad. At the very least, we should get some great preseason runs out of him.

Outlook: Very Good

There will come a day when Ryan hits his decline, but I don’t think we’ve really arrived there. When you consider that the Falcons installed a new offensive coordinator, dealt with shaky line play, lost Mohamed Sanu to trade and both Austin Hooper and Calvin Ridley to injury, and had little threat of a ground game all year, Ryan’s year was unsatisfying but hardly all on him. On balance, it was still a good year.

That said, just because Ryan hasn’t followed shaky years with more shaky years in the past doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vigilant for that. He definitely missed his fair share of balls this year, and if the line, the running back corps, and the receiving corps all improve and he’s still a bit shaky, it’ll be time to worry.

This is also one of the league’s better backup situations. Schaub has shown he can still play and is reasonably priced for 2020, and the team has two young, interesting passers to compete with him for the gig.

All in all, then, quarterback should not be one of Atlanta’s problems next season. We just have to hope Ryan has several more good-to-great years left as this team attempts to return to relevance.