Atlanta is in an interesting position with their quarterbacks. They could very reasonably move ahead with Matt Ryan and Kurt Benkert and call it a day, given that Ryan is entrenched as the starter and Benkert has been here long enough and has enough promise to be a perfectly credible backup. Whether they elect to build the roster around a long-term run with Ryan or plan to move on from him in a year or two, we can’t know, but the team’s moves this offseason will provide clues.
The Falcons could choose to draft a future successor to Ryan, draft a replacement backup if they’re not sold on Benkert, or even sign a free agent backup. We simply do not know, until the team comes out and publicly backs Benkert, what their plans are for Ryan’s backup. That’s the focus of today’s post, where we look at a small handful of veteran options to back up Ryan if Atlanta’s not planning to address the position through the draft and wants a different look at their backup position.
It should be said up front that we have no real indication at this point where the Falcons will go, which is why this option is legitimately in play. In winnowing down the list of free agents quarterbacks for Atlanta to go after, I landed on five at least semi-interesting options and did not include Dak Presccot (he’s signing a megadeal with someone), Joe Flacco (washed up), or Ryan Fitzpatrick (ancient if still interesting).
If you close this out in disgust I don’t blame you, but there are reasons this make sense.
Trubisky has shown those frustrating flashes of being a quality player but hasn’t come close to putting that together consistently, and he’ll likely have a year where he either has to compete for a starting job or accepts a Jameis Winston-style deal with a team to be a backup and rehabilitate his value. The Falcons hired Dave Ragone and Charles London from the Bears—particularly relevant because Ragone was Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach for years—and could see Trubisky’s mobility and raw promise as enticing given that Arthur Smith had a lot of luck with Ryan Tannehill.
Trubisky had his stellar efforts in 2020 but also plenty of empty calorie games where he simply didn’t do enough to get his offense moving, including against the Falcons, which led to his benching for Nick Foles. He’s not a total lost cause and the temptation for Ragone to make something of him elsewhere will probably be powerful.
The fact that Trubisky likely won’t be dirt cheap and really hasn’t shown even Tannehill’s upside as a passer in his four years in the NFL means this still is probably a longshot, but his specific skill set and his ties to Ragone make this at least a possibility if his market isn’t robust. He’ll only be 27 years old this season and might be lured to Atlanta with the idea that he’ll get a shot at the starting job down the line, even if that also would feel like a longshot.
The Atlanta native heading home would be a nice story, even if the signing would be immediately polarizing. Newton is coming off the worst season of his career in New England, but he was also playing with a depleted and generally awful group of pass catchers. That wouldn’t be the case with the Falcons.
Newton also would be interesting for Smith because he’s not just a capable runner—remember, Smith prized that quality in Tannehill—but because he’s maybe the most imposing and physical runner ever to play the quarterback position. Newton is a lethal short yardage and goal line option for that reason and remained one in 2020, meaning he could find work in this offense even if he wasn’t pressed into starting duty for any reason. Also, while it’s obvious that Newton is an inconsistent passer and isn’t as good as he was at his peak, you can make a strong argument that New England’s weak options held him back. Remember, Tom Brady went from 24 touchdowns and 8 interceptions with the Patriots to 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with the Bucs this year, which tells the story of the talent disparity on offense for those two teams.
Brissett’s price point is also uncertain, but he’s coming off a year where he was parked on the bench behind Phillip Rivers. The question is whether he’ll land a deal as a bridge starter like Teddy Bridgewater or whether he’ll be looking for a good landing spot as a backup quarterback when the dust settles.
If it’s the latter, he could be attractive for Atlanta. In his lone season as a full-time starter taking over for Andrew Luck after Luck surprisingly retired, Brissett was a middle-of-the-pack starter who put up a combined 22 touchdowns, 18 through the air and 4 on the ground, with just six interceptions. Brissett was hurt a bit by the limitations of his weapons but also faded pretty badly down the stretch, managing over 200 passing yards just twice in the second half of the year, but is a capable starter with terrific short-to-intermediate accuracy on his good days. I’d feel more confident in Brissett delivering a quality game or two if something happened with Ryan than anyone else on this list, especially with the passing game weapons he’d have to work with in Atlanta.
Taylor would give the Falcons a mobile quarterback with a proven track record. Taylor was an underrated three year starter in Buffalo, one capable of thriving in a passing attack that prizes short, quick throws and moving around in the pocket. He’s not the player he was then, as he’ll be 33 this year, but he’s a beyond capable backup who would likely thrive in Arthur Smith’s system if he had to get into a game.
The same question that applies to Trubisky and Brissett applies to Taylor, and that’s how much he’ll cost a team sorting through its cap problem in the months ahead. Taylor is older than both Trubisky and Brissett and has less upside, but is also an experienced and capable backup who made $5.5 million last year. If that’s his price point again in 2021 I’m not sure the Falcons go for it, but if it’s a little lower than that he’d be a fine choice for the role.
Beathard consistently has been capable for the 49ers when called upon, even if his win/loss record doesn’t show it. He moves around well and is a generally sound decision maker with the football, and would not have much trouble moving from Shanahan’s offense to the similar principles of the Arthur Smith offense.
He’d be the cheapest option on this shortlist, probably by a wide margin, and would be appealing as competition for Benkert rather than an outright replacement for him. If the Falcons are feeling budget-conscious but also don’t plan to draft a quarterback, you’re looking at someone like this or a much older, affordable option like Colt McCoy.
I’d greatly prefer to just roll forward with Benkert than to sign anyone here, if I’m being fully honest, but I do find myself interested in seeing what Brissett and Trubisky could do in this offense if Arthur Smith is what he’s billed to be. Ultimately it feels like a virtual lock that the new regime will want to bring in at least one quarterback to compete with Benkert, and given Smith’s success with Tannehill in Tennessee, it’d be surprising if they didn’t prize mobility in a backup option. Given that, we’ll get a better sense of whether Atlanta’s going to prioritize a quarterback in the draft based on whether any of the guys above (or an option I’m not considering here) signs in March.
Be sure to check out Kevin Knight’s video breakdowns of high priority positions in free agency, too, which you can find linked below.