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Falcons have golden opportunity to make painful decision in upcoming draft

As hard as it is for us to admit, maybe it’s time to set the future in motion.

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not a feeling Atlanta Falcons fans are used to, feeling good.

Ever since the Falcons seemingly aced the offseason hiring cycle (if such a thing is doable pre-results), the fanbase has been largely happy with the idea of a new direction under what seems to be a competent, smart staff.

New Falcons head coach Arthur Smith had been heralded as the hottest coaching target this cycle, and new general manager Terry Fontenot had been a primed name alongside new Broncos GM George Paton and Lions GM Brad Holmes as one of the brightest minds in this pool of front office executives. Getting veteran defensive mind Dean Pees to call the plays on defense feels like a luxury.

It’s not at all to say this will be a guaranteed success, but competent hiring gives an optimism a lot of us haven’t felt in a good while. Maybe things are beginning to look up for our Dirty Birds after a few years of flat tires?

Now that the coaching staff is coming together and the offseason is fully underway, we’re about to go through some new feelings and some new experiences. Thomas Dimitroff as a GM was such a predictable thing. He cycled (pun intended) through the same rhythms in his 12 or so years running the team. He had his victories, he had his failures, he had his moments of trading up to “finish the roster,” he had his wild spending frenzies that decimated the cap. He was good for some good draft picks and some definite whiffs.

It’s hard to think about the Falcons without him because we usually knew what he liked. With Fontenot, we’re wading around in the mystery of what his tendencies are, what his drafting habits turn out to be, how frugal or cash-happy he is with the salary cap. There are a lot of ifs. But the biggest decision he and Smith make in this job may loom in April.

The Falcons hold the fourth-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and for the first time in 12 years, there is a good likelihood they’re going to draft a quarterback in the first round.

You know what that means. It’s the pain a lot of us haven’t wanted to embrace knowing Matt Ryan, the former MVP, our rock of consistency and the greatest quarterback to ever play for this franchise, was getting older. He turns 36 in May, and while he’s still playing at a high level, he’s not going to get any younger.

Some feel Ryan had an off year, likely hampered by Dirk Koetter’s ancient scheme, the dearth of a run game and another year of shotty blocking, but even if he had nailed it this past year, the Falcons are still picking fourth in the NFL Draft.

They’ve picked in the Top 10 three other times in Ryan’s tenure: once in 2011 in a historic trade-up to get Julio Jones, once in 2014 when Ryan was barely 30 to draft Jake Matthews and once in 2015 with only defense on everyone’s mind.

April’s pick is consequential because it’s the first a new regime will be making, a statement of sorts for how their era with the team will go. While Ryan’s enormous (yet earned) salary hit this year should cement him as the starter in 2020, we’re veering on a spring where the team finds his eventual replacement.

It’s not to say that’s a lock, but we need to start preparing for it. With four picks on the board and Trevor Lawrence a virtual lock for Jacksonville barring a shock, the team has a mathematical certainty of landing one of Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Zach Wilson. Seeing four-straight quarterbacks go in a row would be absurd and highly unlikely, with players like Penei Sewell and Ja’Marr Chase there for the taking. The Jets and Dolphins draft in between them and Jacksonville, and both have drafted first-round quarterbacks in the last three years.

It’s entirely realistic to imagine a scenario where the Falcons really key in on one or two of these guys at Pick 4 and wish to fully usher in a new era of Atlanta football. If they draft a quarterback, it’d all but guarantee that Ryan is entering his last year in a Falcons uniform.

It’s not uncommon, after all, for a team to draft a quarterback high and let him sit for a year. The Dolphins, at least at first, were doing that with Tua Tagovailoa and the Chiefs recently did that with former MVP Patrick Mahomes II. It’s what the Packers are doing right now with Jordan Love, too.

If you’re wondering why the team shouldn’t just take the BPA or just trade down and grab a blue chip talent later in the single-digits or low teens, consider that, if things go well this fall, the Falcons may not be picking this high again. It’s not to suggest picking a quarterback this high is a sure thing when recent history shows how hit-and-miss it really can be. If the Falcons don’t find their guy this year, they obviously shouldn’t force it with Ryan still the Ryan we’re used to cheering for.

But time is a cruel mistress and it waits for no one. If this class of quarterbacks winds up really being as good as people say it will be, the Falcons might be kicking themselves in five years when Ryan is enjoying retirement and the team can’t find his replacement. You can argue drafting the wrong guy when you’ve got a perfectly good starter in place is also something to worry about, but this year, it’s one or the other.

The future might be now for the Falcons, and we might really be a few months away from knowing who our 2022 and beyond quarterback will be. Trading Ryan right now would be foolhardy business, but suggesting he’s going to be the quarterback beyond this season also feels a little naive, as badly as we all wish time would just freeze long enough for the Super Bowl window to open back up and Ryan and company get another few runs in.

Making the responsible decision is never easy. It’s tempting to dream of Smith’s offense and Fontenot’s draft savvy getting Ryan and the Falcons a few years of great success, but it might be the best call for the future of the franchise for the team to go ahead and make permanent plans for life after Matty Ice.

It’ll hurt like the dickens the day we don’t have Ryan out there, a player so many of us love with all our hearts, but sometimes, the best decisions hurt the worst.