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How restructuring Matt Ryan’s contract could impact Falcons’ draft plans

After the reported restructuring of Matt Ryan’s contract, let’s reassess Atlanta’s possible draft strategies

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

On Tuesday afternoon, one day prior to the start of the new league year, WSB-TV sports director Zach Klein reported that the Atlanta Falcons had restructured Matt Ryan’s contract.

According to Klein, the Falcons converted $21 million of Ryan’s $23 million base salary for the 2021 season into a signing bonus. Per league rules, a signing bonus can be prorated over the remaining years of a player’s contract. Essentially, Atlanta added an additional $7 million to Ryan’s bonus number for the 2021, 2022 and 2023 seasons but still freed up a total of $14 million in cap space for this year by cutting down the base salary.

At the time of the report, Ryan had the single-largest cap hit of any player in the league. With the restructuring, however, Ryan’s cap number dropped from $40.9 million to $26.9 million, per Klein. While that one move put the Falcons under the cap limit ahead of the new league year – Over the Cap currently lists Atlanta at around $177,204 in cap space – it could have implications for the future.

As previously mentioned, the downside to the immediate relief that restructuring provides is the longer-term addition to a player’s cap hit. Given the speculation surrounding the role Ryan will have in Atlanta beyond the 2021 season, it’s worth taking a look at his cap hits for the final two years of his deal after today’s move.

Here is a look at what Over the Cap projected Ryan’s cap hits to look like in 2022 and 2023 before the restructure, and what the site now projects after the restructure.

Before the restructure:

  • 2022: $41.6 million cap hit ($26.5 million dead money)
  • 2023: $36.6 million cap hit ($8.6 million dead money)

After the restructure:

  • 2022: $48.6 million cap hit ($40.5 million dead money)
  • 2023: $43.6 million cap hit ($15.6 million dead money)

The dead money is important there, because it shows the amount of savings for Atlanta if it decided to part ways with Ryan. There is still some savings to be had after Tuesday’s restructuring, but that number dropped from around $15 million to $8 million next year.

If Tuesday’s move does indeed tie Ryan to the Falcons past the 2021 season – and there’s no absolute guarantee that it does – the next question has to be: How does this move impact their draft strategy?

There has been fierce debate regarding whether the Falcons – who hold the No. 4 pick in April’s draft – should take a quarterback from a class considered to be one of the strongest at the position in quite a while. Doing so would allow Atlanta to groom the 35-year-old Ryan’s successor and put together a transition plan for the future.

Now that it looks like Ryan might be more than just the Falcons’ present, though, let’s consider a reshuffled version of the three options that have always been on the table.

1. Trade back and accumulate picks

This has long been the top option for a vocal portion of the fan base, and it may make more sense today than ever before. Arthur Smith must still believe he can win with Ryan, and there’s frankly no reason why he shouldn’t feel that way.

It’s no secret, though, that Ryan will be 36 years old when the 2021 season starts, and there’s no way of knowing when his play may begin to decline. It would behoove the Falcons to take the middle path between maximizing their current window and stacking the deck for the future, which is something owner Arthur Blank has always expressed an interest in doing.

New general manager Terry Fontenot has reaffirmed his belief in taking the best player available at every opportunity this offseason, but what if the cumulative impact of multiple draft picks proves to be the best option for a depleted roster?

An argument could also be made that Tuesday’s restructuring actually enhances the value of the No. 4 pick. Now teams won’t necessarily default to having to leapfrog Atlanta to get the quarterback that they like. The Dolphins – who hold the No. 3 pick – may be more hesitant to move back knowing all options are on the table for the Falcons, which could also be the exact reason more teams try to entice the Falcons out of their spot. If the Dolphins are committed to getting a quarterback even with the signing of Jacoby Brissett and the presence of Tua Tagovailoa, the Falcons may hold the last Golden Ticket to the QB Factory.

2. Stay put at No. 4 and take the best player

I don’t think the likelihood of this scenario has changed all that much in the last 24 hours. Either Fontenot is firmly committed to taking the player he believes is the best one on the board, or he isn’t.

As much as fans like to point to some of the talent on Atlanta’s roster, this is not a team that is one player away from competing for a Super Bowl. If you’re not in legitimate contention, you should take the path that gets you there the quickest. That being said, there are some interesting options who will be on the board at No. 4, especially if three quarterbacks are taken before Atlanta is on the clock.

The only problem is that none of the premier players in this draft fill a major hole for the Falcons. Again, Fontenot says that won’t prevent them from selecting someone, but that would seem to give Atlanta a surplus at one position – a bonus for the future – without necessarily making them the best team in the short-term.

3. Stay put at No. 4 and take a quarterback

After the Packers selected Jordan Love in last year’s draft, it’s hard to say anything is off the table. Yes, the Falcons did restructure Ryan’s contract, but they would still save money by moving on from him next season. They’d save even more money if they designated him a post-June 1 cut, with over $20 million in savings possible if they go that route.

That means all options are still in play for Atlanta. The Falcons would still give their young quarterback a year to learn the offense without the pressure of filling Ryan’s shoes from the jump, and they may have a little more flexibility in free agency after the restructure, depending on how they want to approach things.

The biggest impact for the Falcons here is the way the restructure limits their chances of trading him next offseason. His cap hit next season is now $8 million higher than it would have been for 2021 prior to the restructuring. We’ve seen some teams recently take on some big cap hits, but that doesn’t seem like an amount teams would be willing to stomach.

Releasing him could still be financially beneficial, which means there’s no slamming the door on drafting Ryan’s successor in about a month and a half. If they do that, it will feel a lot like Atlanta having its cake and eating it too.