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The NFL’s shaky quarterback landscape offers opportunity and warning for Falcons

Atlanta’s big offseason decision concerns securing the future at quarterback or reloading with a treasure chest of picks.

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

Depending on whether you count the Atlanta Falcons or not when you put together your list, you can tick down an alarming number of teams that do not have a settled quarterback situation heading into 2021. That list includes the Saints (Taysom Hill is their only option under contract) and Panthers (not sold on Teddy Bridgewater long-term), and the Buccaneers and Falcons do not have in-house options today for life after their respective starters. By my count, more than half the league cannot say with 100% certainty who will be starting for them at the position next year, and even teams that should bet set like the Texans and Dolphins are considering shakeups.

There is a widespread perception in the league that next year’s quarterback class will be much weaker than this one, which has Trevor Lawrence at the top and Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Mac Jones behind him, not to mention interesting options later in the class. With Deshaun Watson potentially moving and Matthew Stafford on the block, as well, there’s no shortage of options but not nearly enough for every quarterback-needy team to come out of the offseason with an upgrade.

The Falcons step into that offseason with a big choice to make. If they’re keen to take advantage of picking fourth in a class full of interesting quarterback prospects and potentially secure their long-term successor to Matt Ryan, this may be their best chance to do so for a while. If they’re keen to take advantage of all the other teams who have outsized quarterback needs and get back a war chest of picks to jump start their roster retooling around Matt Ryan, this may also be their best chance to do so for a while. If they misjudge this moment—if Ryan doesn’t age as gracefully as we expect him to, say, and the Falcons find themselves in desperate need of their next franchise quarterback in a year or two without the draft capital to make that happen—there will be repercussions for it.

Picking a quarterback would afford them the opportunity to secure the future, riding with Ryan through at least most of 2021 and either pursusing a midseason trade or one in a 2022 offseason where plenty of teams will still be thirsty for a quality player at the position. Given that they would not be picking up an impact player who will start right away—I’m dubious the team can and will choose to trade Ryan this offseason—it also represents an opportunity cost for a club that Arthur Blank clearly wants to contend this year.

Trading down, meanwhile, gives them the opportunity to pick up an additional first rounder in 2022 and/or additional 2021 selections while still giving them a shot at quality prospect. Those additional picks could be transformative for a team that has holes almost everywhere on the roster, but if Atlanta concludes in 2022 that they need a quarterback because Ryan’s play slips in 2021, they’ll likely find it more difficult to land a top tier option at the position as a result. In many ways, both options would happen with an eye toward the future, while sticking at #4 and drafting someone like Penei Sewell or Micah Parsons could bear more immediate fruit. Given that this team has vowed to be adaptable and smart over the long haul, it’s hard to imagine them not giving real weight to the quarterback selection or moving down, however.

The quarterback situation around the league certainly guarantees there’ll be interest in #4 if Atlanta wants to go that route, though. Teams like the Lions (once they move Stafford), 49ers, Broncos, and Patriots could be looking at Fields, Wilson, Lance or Jones available with that pick and considering the relative costs of moving up versus going through another year of middling quarterback play and deciding a jump is well worth it.

The staff perspectives regarding selecting a quarterback in the first couple days of the draft are all over the map—Cory Woodroof has a take on why it’s potentially a golden opportunity that will drop tomorrow, I’m deeply intrigued by Trey Lance in particular but would prefer a trade down from #4 to snagging a QB—but we all agree Atlanta has a rare opportunity here. The path they choose will tell us a lot about whether they intend to pursue a championship in Matt Ryan’s golden years or do so with a true fresh start at the position #2 has locked down since 2008.