The 2020 season is thankfully a memory so far in the rearview you have to squint to make out the specifics. The offense in Atlanta was terrible, to the extent that the Falcons have their highest draft spot since the team’s quarterback went to federal jail and the team’s head coach left for a college job mere hours after a loss.
A lot has to go wrong to pick this high. It doesn’t just happen by accident. Fans have to suffer for months and months to get one of those top picks.
With that rare slot near the top of the draft, the Falcons have a shot at one of the top quarterbacks not named Trevor Lawrence. Fans saw what Justin Herbert did for the Los Angeles Chargers. Lamar Jackson for the Baltimore Ravens. Deshaun Watson for the Houston Texans. Patrick Mahomes for the Kansas City Chiefs. Kyler Murray for the Arizona Cardinals.
There are many dynamic, young quarterbacks reforming what we expect from offenses. Yet even those who reached their potential have only occasionally turned those performances into wins. Even Mahomes, the top quarterback in the league, struggled mightily once offensive line injuries started mounting.
That is definitely an oversimplification, however, the Super Bowl showed there is more to winning it all then having that electric, young quarterback, which has been the method teams have been chasing. The Buccaneers had a presumed need at quarterback in the last two seasons yet passed on adding a rookie quarterback. The Bucs passed on Daniel Jones and Jordan Love for Devin White and Tristan Wirfs, two players with huge impacts in this Super Bowl season.
Tom Brady’s success will unlikely be matched, but it solidifies some questions and concerns regarding how long a quarterback can be effective for. Previously, few quarterbacks were able to continue playing effectively past 35. Brady at 43 shattered that belief thanks, in part, due to his ability to remain healthy. Ben Roethlisberger looks absolutely done entering his age-39 season, but he has dealt with injuries every season for the last few years. Drew Brees is expected to retire at 42 after a few injury-plagued seasons zapped whatever remained of his effectiveness. Philip Rivers is wrapping it up at 39 after a few injuries took their toll.
Matt Ryan has remained remarkably healthy entering his age-36 season. After seeing these other players push near and past 40, there is no reason to think Ryan can’t do the same if he remains healthy. Terry Fontenot, Atlanta’s new general manager, is familiar with the concept of building around an older quarterback. The Saints could have replaced Brees years back. Instead, they built up a stout defense and run game, adjusted the offense to what Brees could still do effectively, and they have made the playoffs consistently down that stretch.
Fans, pundits, and the new Falcons braintrust have certainly been wrestling with what to do with that 4th overall pick. The pick could be another Watson or Herbert type. If the Falcons miss on that in 2020, they could be stuck without the draft position to nab a cheap quarterback of the future for some time. However, it is far from clear that Ryan only has a few more seasons of effectiveness. Further, Ryan has been far from the biggest problem. Adding another quarterback will not fix the run game or the lack of pass rush. Ryan may get some blame for blown leads but the team has been unable to control the clock or disrupt quarterbacks in come-back mode. There was a pretty clear difference between the Chiefs coming back against the Falcons compared to the Buccaneers.
It may be difficult to look at Ryan’s injury history, what other quarterbacks have done pushing into their 40s, how other teams have built around their quarterback, and definitively say the Falcons should definitely take a quarterback with that top pick, especially when that player is virtually guaranteed not to start games this year so long as Ryan is healthy.
This will be an era-defining draft for Arthur Smith and Fontenot. It would be a fair assumption to think that era would be kicked off with a new quarterback. It should make more sense to punt on quarterback and build up Ryan’s supporting cast.