After weeks of waiting, Atlanta Falcons fans finally got a glimpse into the future of their team, and it’s an icy one.
The team did a maximum restructure on quarterback Matt Ryan’s deal Tuesday, essentially kicking a good portion of his salary down the road and freeing up needed relief to get the Falcons’ salary cap into the green.
The move was certainly timed to Wednesday’s start of the league year for free agency purposes, but it also gives a pretty big hint into what new coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot think about having around a former MVP and Pro Bowl talent at the roster’s most important position.
With a top-four pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and a new group decision-makers, it’s been tempting to speculate that the Falcons would perhaps use that fourth draft selection and find Ryan’s eventual replacement. With guys like Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Zach Wilson bandied about as popular targets, it was beginning to seem almost like a foregone conclusion that the Falcons would at least strongly consider the possibility, if not make the decision altogether.
Tuesday’s news of a restructure does not eliminate that possibility—it’s worth noting that one of Jeff Schultz’s sources told him Terry Fontenot felt he had no choice but to restructure and the team’s thinking about a quarterback at #4 hasn’t changed—but it might reframe the conversation around exactly what the new guard thinks of Ryan and if they would feel comfortable with him being the keeper of the keys for a few more years.
Consider the situations these guys just left. Smith is coming from Tennessee, where he saw a highly regarded quarterback prospect in Marcus Mariota regress significantly after a promising start and a thought-to-be-washed Ryan Tannehill step in and transform the Titans offense. Tennessee got lucky with Tannehill; Smith’s work with him in part led to his resurgence, but there’s a team that didn’t find any longstanding success with a player thought to be a sure bet that high in the draft.
Fontenot comes from New Orleans, where that organization fought off Father Time’s fire-breathing dragon as Drew Brees’ health declined in his last year or two in the league. Sean Peyton has gotten cute by throwing mounds of cash at “quarterback” Taysom Hill and now looks to have him in a camp battle with Jameis Winston.
Both guys understand what happens when you have stability at quarterback: Fontenot soaked in years of Brees excellence (gag), Smith watched Tennessee play musical chairs at the position for years until Tannehill solidified himself as a playoff-winning QB. They understand you can’t screw up this spot. By showing a willingness to invest in Ryan’s future with heightened cap space past this season, they’re showing they’re not opposed to a future with Ryan under center, at least for now.
Ryan is not Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson. He is not the future of the league or a tantalizing draft prospect. He is, though, a former league MVP and a proven franchise quarterback who has won a lot of games and can win a Super Bowl in the right circumstance. He’s not had the best success with play callers since his banner 2016 year with Kyle Shanahan, either. Two years of Dirk Koetter 2.0 have diminished his standing in the league, as have three subpar seasons for his team.
What Ryan gives Smith and Fontenot is a guy they can rely on to implement their new systems and culture, a guy with immense respect in that locker room who can go out there and be one of your franchise faces. If Smith’s work with Tannehill is indicative of anything, it’s that Ryan can get back to peak performance in the right offensive system (with hopefully better blocking) and regain his league-wide respect. It’s much less of a gamble to bet on Ryan than a rookie right now, even if the gamble of a rookie might could pay off higher dividends.
That’s the difficult situation Smith and Fontenot found themselves in when they took jobs in Atlanta. Do you stick with Ryan for a few years, a guy you know is good at his job and might could thrive in the right, creative system, or do you make plans now for the future while you’re in position to draft a potentially elite prospect at quarterback? Committing money to Ryan’s future might hint they feel more comfortable doing the former than the latter.
If they whiff on drafting a quarterback, both will face what a franchise like the Chicago Bears is facing right now. That team missed on Mitchell Trubisky in 2017 and are now locking Andy Dalton and Nick Foles in a position battle. Missing on a quarterback in the draft can put you on the edge of losing your job. The Bears haven’t had a franchise quarterback in eons, while the Falcons haven’t had to worry about the spot since 2007.
That’s how important having a good quarterback is; it changes the way your team operates. Smith and Fontenot might decide, yes, they’re happy with the guy they inherited and may want to spend some time with him before trying, down the road, to find his eventual successor. A few years of success with Ryan might give them more leeway to make that decision down the road.
Ryan will be 36 this fall and hasn’t really shown any signs of slowing down significantly. Tuesday’s moves don’t really mean that Ryan will be here in four to five years, but the money is such that it makes it harder to move on from him in through 2022. 2023 is the earliest right now the team can move on without any significant penalty. Drafting a new guy would put them on the bench, it seems, potentially through 2022 right now. They could do that, but would they?
If you still want a new quarterback, it’s not that this week shuts that door, not at all. Anything is possible. If you still assume that’s where we’re going, follow the money. While this new regime hasn’t come outright and said Ryan is the quarterback they want to run with right now, the business side of things might beg to differ.
With the way things are looking right now, it sure does appear that this new era of Falcons football won’t be taking the fact that they have a franchise quarterback on hand for granted. There’s more to learn here, but they might be more than willing to let the Mattural keep his Falcons uniform on for the next few seasons.