The biggest question facing Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot early this offseason was pretty clear: To rebuild or not to rebuild. Atlanta had two aging yet expensive players it needed to stick with or move on from in Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. You work on jettisoning those two or building around them, selecting either the projected top offensive weapon in the draft or grabbing the best quarterback available.
The Falcons have never followed suit when you think they should zig or zag. Instead, the brain trust set feet down on each side while announcing this team was not rebuilding. They can compete. Jones did not want to stay but Ryan is the quarterback, at least for now. The team reworked Ryan’s deal, pushing cap hits into later hits to free up cap space in 2021. The move makes it harder to cut or trade Ryan in 2022, likely keeping him in Atlanta until 2023.
That’s all well and good if the team wins. Four weeks in and the Falcons can’t win. At 1-3, the Falcons look a long, long way from competing. They are so short on talent and scheme fits that it would be tough to say the Falcons are one offseason away, especially considering the lack of cap space available.
So what is the plan for 2022 or even 2023? The future, and what the Falcons can realistically do, is increasingly muddled. The team is not rebuilding. It also can’t replenish this roster and win now.
Rebuilding in the short term would have started with Justin Fields or Mac Jones. The cap will still be a problem in 2022, meaning Fontenot can finally replenish with some free agents starting in 2023. Knowing free agents take time to fit into the scheme, it may be 2024 until this roster is refreshed enough to seriously compete. I am a Ryan fan but he is unlikely to be the starting quarterback in Atlanta in three years.
If the Falcons were trying to win now, you would have to think their plan at guard would be something other than Josh Andrews. Richie Grant would see some playing time. Atlanta might enter the season with more than two starting-quality wide receivers. Either the plan, as modest as it may have been, failed miserably. Or the Falcons viewed 2021 and 2022 as cap shedding years with long-term rebuilding plans.
It is tough to say for sure. The Falcons have averaged six wins the last three seasons and have one of the worst cap situations in the league. Making it work with the overpriced and underperforming roster may not be what Fontenot and Smith had in mind. Instead, are they make cap moves, going cheap through the draft, with the plan to add a rookie quarterback on a team friendly deal to take over in 2023 and compete in 2024?
We likely may not know the true plan for the team for some time. If the Falcons truly believed this team could compete, the new brain trust’s evaluation skills are clearly quite poor. If the Falcons are in a long-term rebuild, no one will tell us for years. The only clarity with the Falcons is the future is unclear.