The Falcons will have Matt Ryan under center in Week 1 for the 14th straight year when the 2021 season opens. Many of their 2021 opponents, however, won’t have the same players they started in Week 1 of 2020 under center, to say nothing of the ones they started more than a decade ago.
As Matthew Tabeek notes in his latest column, the Falcons could face anywhere from 7-12 teams who will be starting new quarterbacks in 2021, though a couple of those are probably unlikely to make big moves. As two of those teams are the Panthers (looking to land Deshaun Watson) and Saints (Drew Brees is likely retiring and they’re on to quarterbacks unknown), that means anywhere from 9-13 of Atlanta’s games will be against teams adjusting to new signal callers. That may or may not be advantageous, but it certainly creates intrigue and shakes up the schedule a bit.
Here’s a brief look at each one of the teams that seems likely to at least push hard for a new player at the position, and whether a new quarterback is likely to be an upgrade or downgrade, if it’s possible to guess here in late February. I didn’t include Jacksonville in here because Tabeek is reasonably speculating they could be Atlanta’s 17th opponent, and while they’ll obviously be upgrading considerably with Trevor Lawrence, we can hold off until we know for sure they’re on the schedule.
New Orleans Saints: Downgrade
Brees is taking his sweet time hanging up his cleats, and his return would be sort of hilarious because it would A) wreak a little extra havoc on New Orleans and B) might be a limiting factor given how washed he looked toward the end of the season. Assuming Brees does retire at last, though, New Orleans has some big questions to answer.
Is Taysom Hill really the option, considering he threw just four touchdowns in four starts, will be 31, and needs all of Sean Payton’s scheme juice just to look good? Can the Saints take a swing at trading up for a quarterback considering they don’t have a ton of draft ammo and are picking late? Will they just re-sign Jameis Winston, who spent a year hanging out in the system and is affordable?
Chances are good it’ll be something like a Hill/Winston competition for New Orleans, which seems unlikely to yield any kind of real upgrade over a passer as savvy as Brees, even if his arm was completely cooked.
Carolina Panthers: TBD
The Panthers appear hellbent on moving on from Teddy Bridgewater, having identified that as the obvious next step toward contention. They have a number of paths to doing so, but it’s unclear which one they’ll ultimately take, only that they probably won’t go into 2021 leaning on Bridgwater again.
Their preferred option, as Tabeek notes, is getting Deshaun Watson. It would cost Carolina arms, legs, and other appendages to get that done, but Watson is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and a player absolutely worth the haul for a team that feels it has all the pieces but the quarterback. We’ll hope the Panthers are wrong about that self-scouting and that they won’t be able to pry Watson away, given that he immediately becomes the best quarterback in the division, but Carolina is going hot and heavy for this one.
If they fail there, the next option is trying to snag one in the draft. Carolina is picking 8th today and seems likely to miss out on Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Zach Wilson at minimum, with Trey Lance and Mac Jones both possibly gone before then as well. They may have to swap up or content themselves with a quarterback who may not be ready to start Day 1, both of which carry opportunity costs.
Finally, Carolina could dip into free agency again to try to add competition for or an upgrade to Bridgewater to carry them for another year while they bide their time and weigh their options, with Mitch Trubisky, Jacoby Brissett, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Andy Dalton looming as options there. That’s got to be unpalatable for owner David Tepper, who seems eager to win now, but if all goes well the Panthers won’t get the chance to do anything more interesting. We’ll have to see what they can pull off.
Detroit Lions: Downgrade
The Lions have basically admitted they’re not going to be a great team for at least a year or two. They’re banking on returning to contention with a war chest of picks and a rebuild authored by new general manager Brad Holmes, and hopefully being an interesting team in the interim.
The downgrade from Matthew Stafford to Jared Goff seems massive on paper, either way. Goff may well have been hamstrung by Sean McVay’s rigid system, but the more likely explanation for his struggles is that despite McVay’s wizardry, he’s just not a great quarterback. Even if he surprises, he’s not as good as Stafford, a chronically underrated passer with a great arm who was the only thing keeping Detroit afloat some years. Life gets a lot easier for the Falcons facing Goff.
Philadelphia Eagles: Upgrade?
I’m bullish on Jalen Hurts, who gave the Eagles offense a spark of life when he played instead of Carson Wentz last year. It’s just that we don’t know for sure if Philadelphia is going to start him over invest in a quarterback with the #6 pick, and a rookie isn’t a guaranteed upgrade on Wentz even if they are a likely one.
Either way, Philly’s offense should be a little better with another draft class and a healthy year for Jalen Reagor and the rest of a somewhat limited Eagles supporting cast. This isn’t likely to be a great team either way, but not getting a hollowed out Wentz under center figures to make Philadelphia a bit more challenging.
New York Jets: Upgrade?
Sam Darnold needs a change of scenery, having become the latest top quarterback prospect to be slowly consumed by the lousy green tidal wave that is the New York Jets franchise. It sounds like Robert Saleh will get a brand new quarterback to work with, as this team has the #2 pick and are rumored to be sniffing around Zach Wilson and Justin Fields pretty hard.
A rookie should be at least a modest upgrade on Darnold, but again, this is the Jets so we’ll have to see how quickly the new guy fades.
Washington Football Team: Upgrade
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this franchise can do better than Alex Smith and Taylor Heinicke, even if they’re selecting at #19. Heinicke had one impressive game but is exceedingly unlikely to be a solid starter over a full season, and while Smith is a great story, he wasn’t a great quarterback last year.
A short hop up for Mac Jones could be on the team’s radar, they might elect to sign a free agent quarterback like Cam Newton, Trubisky, or Brissett, and either way it has to be better than their revolving door last season. Washington just needs competence given that they’re quietly building a good team around the quarterback position, so I’d fully expect them to get someone who gives them a better shot at winning.
New England Patriots: TBD
Cam Newton did not fare particularly well in New England’s offense last year, but it’s not clear how many players would have. Bill Belichick and the Patriots front office have been hilariously terrible at drafting pass catchers for a full decade now outside of a couple of big hits, and that means their offense is pretty weak at the moment. I don’t believe they’ll just bring Newton back as an unquestioned starter and Jarrett Stidham is a backup, full stop, so like Washington they’re looking at someone like Mac Jones in the draft or a Trubisky, Dalton, Brissett, or someone similar to tide them over for another year. Those could be upgrades, but only if New England actually builds up their supporting cast this offseason.
The next two teams are not guaranteed to make changes at quarterback, but certainly could.
Miami Dolphins: TBD
This is one of the most interesting situations on this list. Miami just drafted Tua Tagovailoa last April, but as Tabeek notes, there have been plenty of rumors that the Dolphins will consider drafting a quarterback again and potentially moving on from Tua.
If Miami wants to draft one of Zach Wilson or Justin Fields at #3 and move Tua to a quarterback-needy team, they’ll both get their guy and pick up another batch of picks. I’m not sure either player is going to be better than Year 2 Tua right away
San Francisco 49ers: TBD
I don’t think it’s any great secret that the 49ers would like to upgrade the quarterback position. Jimmy Garappolo had a fine season in 2019 but looked shaky throughout the playoffs and into the Super Bowl, and he played just 6 quiet games a year ago. He’ll be 30 this season and has hit his upside, which appears to be “can win if healthy because his coach is Kyle Shanahan.”
The 49ers are within striking distance of the top quarterbacks in this class, but Shanahan may also be tempted to once again prove he’s a genius and plumb the free agent pool for options he can fix. It’s worth remembering that Shanahan has almost exclusively worked with veteran quarterbacks in his career as his top option and has a track record of getting the most out of Matt Schaubs, Matt Ryans (Matts Ryan?), and Jimmy Gs, and given the mad rush for rookies quarterbacks they may go that route.
There’s also the real possibility they strike out everywhere and just stick with Garoppolo, but if they do it’ll likely be the last season.
The big concerns here are in the division, where New Orleans and Carolina getting quality replacements for their current starters would wreak additional havoc in the NFC South. I don’t think we know enough yet to declare that Atlanta’s schedule is going to be tougher or easier based on the coming shifts—though we’ll certainly know by early May—but it’s clear that matchups like Detroit and New York will at least offer some additional intrigue with the presence of new quarterbacks.
None of this changes what the Falcons themselves have to do this offseason, and we know that Atlanta is very much on the list of franchises who may be considering a quarterback in the top 10 of this particular draft. Knowing they can go into the season without joining half the league in frantically flipping starters is, however, a genuine comfort.