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Falcons post-2020 roster review: QB edition

Matt Ryan faces an uncertain future and Kurt Benkert hopes to step into a larger role.

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

Welcome to our roster review! In the average year, this is a space where we recount Matt Ryan’s fine-to-excellent season, talk about Matt Schaub’s continued presence on the roster, and maybe pine for Kurt Benkert to get a longer look. With a new regime coming to town, plenty of buzz around Ryan’s status with the team, and Schaub’s retirement, we have a lot more to talk about this year.

Let’s take a look at last year’s performance for Ryan, talk a little bit about his future, and discuss the outlook at the position.


Starter

QB Matt Ryan

2020 stats: 407/626, 65% completion percentage, 4,581 yards, 26 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 7.3 yards per attempt, 93.3 passer rating, 41 sacks; 29 rushes, 92 yards, 3.2 yards per carry, 2 rushing touchdowns

Contract: $40.9 million cap hit in 2021; unrestricted free agent in 2024

Ryan just had, on balance, his best season statistically under Dirk Koetter since 2012. Ryan passes a lot in a Koetter offense, with its lack of compelling ground game and focus on airing it out, and this year he was 1st in completions and attempts in the league, 4th in yards, tied for 12th in touchdowns, and 9th in interceptions (not great) and 21st in passer rating (also not stellar). In a volume passing attack that asks him to hang in the pocket and dial up deeper passes, Ryan puts up counting stats but is not his best self, something that was readily apparent all year no matter what his final numbers are.

The Falcons have wasted two of Ryan’s quality years in that offense, something I’m not sure any of us are going to be in the mood to forgive them for any time soon, and he heads into 2021 with his fifth career offensive coordinator on the way and an entirely new regime that may have no attachments to him. Ryan will be 36 years old, which is not a death sentence in an age where quarterbacks take excellent care of themselves and three of the top seasons ever in passing yards were put together by quarterbacks 37 or older. Ryan is also not overly reliant on arm strength or his legs, meaning he should continue to age relatively gracefully. The right offense, tailored to his strengths and with significant upgrades at running back and guard, will almost certainly allow Ryan to excel for another year or two. After all, he didn’t miss a game and posted up three of his best games at the end of a grueling season, rolling up over 900 yards and 7 touchdowns against zero picks against the Buccaneers and Chiefs.

That hasn’t stopped the growing perception that Ryan is a has-been and a dinosaur, which took hold eons ago and washes ashore like the tide every time he struggles. There were moments in 2020 where Ryan looked bad, full stop, and it may well be that the frequency of those terrible efforts will grow as he continues to age. A change in scheme will do wonders for the knock on Ryan’s mobility, which is perfectly fine—Ryan was asked to hang around in the pocket and wait for slow-developing plays longer than any other quarterback in football this year, a factor in all those frustrating sacks—but he’s not a difference maker in terms of his ability to escape pressure and run, as fun as those occasional scrambles are. His deep ball has never been his biggest strength, but to these eyes it’s looking more inconsistent with each passing year.

He has weaknesses, in other words, ones that have to be managed and schemed around by the next coaching staff. He still brings more to the table than he takes off of it, however, and is at worst the kind of player good teams can win with, like a late career Peyton Manning or Drew Brees with quite a bit more arm juice.

The likeliest outcome is that Ryan returns as the unquestioned starter in 2021 because of all of those factors and his contract, which makes him even more expensive to move than to keep. For the first time since post-2015, when Ryan had a difficult year with Kyle Shanahan and there was some quiet buzz about a new coaching staff maybe looking for his long-term replacement, there’s a real sense in the air that the Falcons might try to replace him in 2022 and beyond, perhaps by drafting one of the top quarterbacks in this class. The simple reality is that a brand new front office and coaching staff will look to make their mark and remake a roster that simply hasn’t been good enough for at least three years running, and they may not think a 36-year-old quarterback is going to be a piece they want to build around, no matter what level he can play at with better coaching.

Ryan is the greatest quarterback in franchise history and will, if the team elects to keep him, be capable of winning plenty of games in Atlanta for at least the short term. There’s just no way of knowing who is coming aboard and what they’ll plan to do with Ryan at the moment, which makes his future with the franchise cloudier than it has ever been.

Reserves

QB Matt Schaub

2020 Stats: N/A

Contract Status: Retired

Schaub threw fewer passes in 2020 than Russell Gage, and Arthur Blank announced his retirement in Monday’s season-ending press conference. Schaub has been credited over and over again for helping Ryan get Kyle Shanahan’s offense down, supporting the growth of Benkert, and generally being another coach on the sideline, and we’ll track his career with interest from here. There’s an opening for the backup quarterback job for the first time in a long while with him gone.

QB Kurt Benkert

2020 Stats: N/A

Contract Status: Reserve/Future contract signed; under contract for 2021 if new regime elects to keep him

If this season had gone well, Benkert would be in a prime position to take over for Schaub in 2021 under Dan Quinn and Dirk Koetter. Because things went horribly awry, Benkert also has some question marks ahead.

The athletic, strong-armed Benkert has been sitting and growing for a few seasons now, spending the 2020 season primarily on the practice squad. He has the talent and the experience with the franchise now to step in and serve as Ryan’s backup if he’s called upon to do so, and I’d feel very comfortable with him in that role, at least for the next couple of seasons. With a brand new regime coming to town and the drafting of a new quarterback at least on the table, though, Benkert will have to wait and see whether he gets a legitimate shot at that role.

Outlook: Uncertain

The last time there was this much cloudiness for the future of the quarterback position, we were coming off of a 2007 season when Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich, and Chris Redman all started games. The Falcons can move ahead with Ryan knowing he’s still a capable starter and even plug Benkert in as a backup with some upside, but that’s hardly a lock.

That’s entirely because of the sea change in the organization, which is expected to hire a new general manager and likely a whole new coaching staff in the near future. Arthur Blank and Rich McKay have had to fight rumors and reports that they’ve been involved in decisions in the past, and Blank has responded by vowing he won’t tie a new general manager’s hands with Ryan if that hire views moving the franchise quarterback to be in the best interest of the team. Perhaps there’s a creative trade that lands Ryan with a team like the 49ers, Patriots, or Broncos that may be out of range of the top quarterbacks in this year’s class but badly need an upgrade, but that possibility does still seem remote. If the Falcons draft Ryan’s long-term replacement this year, meanwhile, that player may or may not get into any actual games, but it will certainly make it clear that Ryan will be under pressure to perform at a high level all year. That’s something he’s quite capable of doing.

In the end, I expect we’ll see Ryan back in 2021, potentially with a sharper season under the right coaching staff. All bets are off beyond that, of course, but the Falcons will likely have their quarterback situation sorted for at least one more year, even if they introduce a new option for the future.