In the months ahead, fans will keep untangling the complicated legacies of Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff in ways both concrete and intangible. One of the most tangible ways to talk about what they did while they were here comes from the roster, which is going to be the primary concern of the next coach and general manager to take over.
Let’s start with what the duo left the Falcons on offense, traditionally the calling card of this team over the last decade-plus. Is this still a group with the talent to be elite under a new coach, or has aging, expensive contracts and short-term thinking sapped it of its talent?
Below, we’ll take a look at player ages in 2021 for those who will be under contract, as well as the broad contours of their deals in terms of years remaining and potential outs, and then wrap this whole thing up with a bow.
Matt Ryan: 36, 2024 contract expiration, 2023 out
The only quarterback who is currently under contract for 2021 is Matt Ryan. This probably signals the end of the lengthy Matt Schaub era in Atlanta, and whether Kurt Benkert returns next year likely depends on what kind of draft selection the Falcons invest in quarterback under a new regime.
If you hadn’t watched any games this year, you’d conclude that having Ryan under contract with a deal that’s difficult to move sets Atlanta up nicely for the next couple of seasons, given that he’s pretty consistently been a top 10 (if not top 5) quarterback in the NFL in his career. With Atlanta trending toward a top pick and Ryan having a down year by his standards, however, the idea that the Falcons might pick his successor and then use him as bridge for a year or two is gaining a lot of traction. Given the quality at the top of this draft class at the position, I find it difficult to argue with that, should Atlanta not play themselves out of position.
Depending on who takes the gig and how Ryan plays the rest of the way, his contract is either going to seem like an expensive boon or an albatross. There was no real reason to think Ryan was falling off before this season, and even that is based on shaky performances over three weeks in a Dirk Koetter offense that increasingly looks like a dying dinosaur, a sample size that’s too small to feel confident in. I imagine a bright offensive mind would love to utilize Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Hayden Hurst (plus any weapons they add) for at least one year while they retool the roster, but whether Ryan is considered an asset or not will depend entirely on who joins up.
Ito Smith: 26, 2022 contract expiration
Qadree Ollison: 24, 2023 contract expiration
The cupboard is going to be bare here. Ito is a capable pass catching back and runner but is the clear third fiddle in the Falcons offense this year, and he’s a merely okay blocker. He’ll likely be no more than the #2 guy in Atlanta under the next regime, and he only has one year left on his contract.
Ollison is basically an unknown at this point. He’s typically inactive as the fourth back, and while he showed some good physicality and straight line speed in limited touches last season, we don’t know how he’d look with a larger workload and the offensive coordinator he was picked under isn’t letting him on the field. The next coaching staff will evaluate him with an eye on figuring out what his upside is, but he’s likely no more than the #3 back here and is an aggravating pick given that Atlanta does not seem interested in giving him any kind of real work.
Brian Hill would be a semi-affordable re-signing and has looked good this year, but the next group will probably draft their own feature back. If that’s the case, Smith’s pass catching capabilities and solid work as a runner and Ollison’s potential upside as a short yardage option leaves this team in decent shape, but the next regime isn’t going to inherit a ready-to-roll depth chart here.
Keith Smith: 29, 2023 contract expiration, 2021 out
Smith is a rock solid special teamer, which will make him a nice building block for the next special teams coordinator. We have no idea how into the fullback position the next head coach and offensive coordinator is going to be, but Smith’s contract is easy to get out of if this team wants a different look or to go with a hybrid player at the fullback position. Otherwise, he’s a pretty affordable and quality blocker and special teamer, which makes him a solid asset.
Julio Jones: 32, 2024 contract expiration, 2023 out
Calvin Ridley: 26, 2022 contract expiration (5th year option)
Russell Gage: 25, 2022 contract expiration
Olamide Zaccheaus: 24, 2022 restricted free agency
Julio’s contract is the most obvious albatross on offense that the new regime will be inheriting, as much as it pains me to say that. If missing time with injury becomes the new norm for #11, he will likely cease to be an elite wide receiver in the short term and will become more difficult to move to another team, and there’s no clean and easy way to escape the contract until 2023 barring some major restructuring. A healthy Julio is a player any head coach and offensive coordinator would love to inherit, but between his contract and health questions it remains to be seen whether he’ll be that Julio in 2021 and beyond, making his contract a potentially delicate topic in the months and years ahead. I really don’t like to think of Julio playing elsewhere but it’s bound to come up again.
Ridley, meanwhile, is a top-flight receiving option for Ryan, the next quarterback, or both, and thanks to his fifth year option should be here through at least 2022. He’ll likely command a big contract heading into his age 29 season in 2023 from Atlanta or someone else, but if Julio is not here he’s likely to get it. He’s an obviously attractive piece for the next regime to build around.
Gage is affordable and has shown signs of being a quality third receiver, even if he’s fallen off with the rest of the passing game in recent weeks, and has special teams value even if he gets bumped down the depth chart.
Zaccheaus is also a useful special teamer and has the speed and hands necessary to be a useful fourth receiver, and he’ll be very affordable to keep around through 2023. I’d expect him to be the kind of useful and hopefully beloved role player any team can use through at least then.
This depth chart will be added to—I wouldn’t count on the next regime being married to Gage as the third receiver—but barring a Julio trade it’s in pretty good shape for at least next year. The Falcons haven’t always done the best job stocking depth at receiver but this group is a net positive for whoever’s coming next.
Hayden Hurst: 28, 2022 contract expiration (5th year option), 2021 out
The Falcons can and should plan to bring back Jared Pinkney as a developmental piece and both Luke Stocker and Jaeden Graham will be affordable should the team want them back, but this is another position where the cupboard is frustratingly bare.
Hurst is a tough one to figure out. He’s so affordable next year that the new regime will almost certainly keep him, and his speed, hands, and at least flashes of ability to get open in the red zone are points in his favor. Hurst is not a terrific blocker, however, and it’s fair to wonder whether his mystifying usage this year is due more to Dirk Koetter’s generally lousy offense or his own route running shortcomings. Either way, given that his price tag will rise dramatically in 2022 with a 5th year option, I wouldn’t expect him to necessarily be a long-term solution at the position for whoever comes next.
The team may well go a year with Hurst, Pinkney, and a veteran blocker before starting over in 2022. My hope will be that Pinkney can be a useful piece over the long haul but that’s obviously yet to be determined.
Jake Matthews: 29, 2024 contract expiration, 2023 out
Kaleb McGary: 26, 2023 contract expiration (5th year option)
The Falcons can re-sign Matt Gono as an affordable swing tackle if they wish, but the starting tackles are set. This is, and I never expected to type this, one of the great strengths of the offense that Thomas Dimitroff left for the next regime.
Matthews is expensive but not outlandishly so for a franchise left tackle, which despite the occasional boneheaded penalty and the twice-annual bad games he certainly is. He has yet to allow a sack in 2020, per Pro Football Focus, and consistently is one of the ten best tackles in football. The team may want to approach him for a re-structure at some point, but I’d expect him to be here through at least 2024 protecting Matt Ryan’s (and/or his heir appparent’s) blind sides.
McGary has shaken off a shaky rookie season to play pretty well this year, too, as he’s holding up really well in pass protection and looks like a vastly improved player who also happens to be under contract fairly affordably until 2023. Having two starting tackles set when you’re set to make big decisions at quarterback and running back is a legitimately huge plus.
James Carpenter: 32, 2023 contract expiration, 2021 out
Chris Lindstrom: 24, 2023 contract expiration (5th year option)
Depth will be the priority here, in all likelihood, but Lindstrom is the only sure thing on the roster at the moment.
Carpenter has played better this year but is not actually an appealing bridge starter at $5 million per year, $3.25 million of which can be peeled off the books in 2021 with his release. If the team finds other cost-savings measures and wants to be able to not worry about overhauling guard in year one of a new regime, they can certainly keep or re-structure him, but Carpenter’s history of up-and-down play does make that a shaky bet.
Lindstrom hasn’t been elite this year but has been quite good overall and is still very young, meaning he’s likely to be a building block along this offensive line for whoever comes next. He, Matthews and McGary are frankly the most enticing pieces of this offense outside of Ridley for a coach looking to breathe new life into this team.
Again, there are affordable options to re-sign here, including Gono, but we’ll see what the next regime’s priority is.
Matt Hennessy: 23, 2024 contract expiration
The jury will be out on Hennessy until we see more from him, because he’s been a very mixed bag through five games. Still, he’ll be just 23 next year and is under contract affordably through the next three seasons, and has the upside to be a starting guard or center for this football team going forward. We’ll see if he’s a building block or not, but at least he has a chance to be.
So much will depend on the perspective of the next group that takes over. That said, this is not quite the rosy picture on offense that it would’ve been a year ago, at least on paper.
The Falcons have zero signed depth at quarterback, tight end, and all along the offensive line. They have nothing but depth at running back. They have three building blocks on the offensive line—plus a possible fourth in Matt Hennessy—and a great young receiver in Calvin Ridley, which is legitimately helpful. Unfortunately, they also have question marks in Hurst (how much of that is Koetter?), Julio (is injury going to keep him out of games more often going forward?), and even Ryan (is he declining?) Good coaching and savvy acquisitions can make this offense better in 2021, but there are enough missing pieces here to think that greatness will only come if Ryan and Julio can return to form. That doesn’t feel as likely as it once did.
It’s impossible to know or even guess what the next regime might do here when we don’t know who they are, but they will be inheriting an expensive offense with a couple of top-shelf aging players and holes at running back, tight end, and likely guard. The right hires will have enough to work with to make this an effective offense in the short-term, but over the long haul there’s a lot of work to do in order to make this a truly elite offense on paper again.