The Falcons essentially had three routes in front of them on Thursday night, with a quarterback, best player available at other positions, or a trade down. If you boil that down further, in reality there were two clear paths: Build around Matt Ryan, or start paving the road for a new quarterback to take over.
I indicated that I thought the Falcons would go the latter route, based on the belief that the team would find it difficult to pass up a top quarterback prospect if he was available and atop their board. It is rare that a team fires a coaching staff and general manager into a still-burning sun and elects to stick with their current quarterback, and I was genuinely impressed by Justin Fields, Trey Lance, and even Zach Wilson, who only wasn’t worth discussing because he was locked in as the #2 pick months ago. It would’ve been easy for Atlanta to pick Fields, the only one of that trio still available, and buy themselves an easy 3-5 years for that to work out, especially with an owner in Arthur Blank who reportedly fell in love with the options at the position this offseason. Instead, the new regime took the consensus best non-quarterback and elected to stick to their best player available ethos and give this thing a shot with the team’s franchise quarterback since 2008 in place for the foreseeable future, a move that will be a defining moment in Atlanta for Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot.
Fontenot: From the very beginning, we’ve had a lot of confidence in Matt Ryan.— Kelsey Conway (@FalconsKelsey) April 30, 2021
Why? Let’s start with the obvious: Kyle Pitts has a better-than-average chance of being an elite player. He is a nightmarish matchup, a Mr. Fantastic-armed tight end who can line up anywhere and give defenders fits. Arthur Smith loves tight ends and is obsessed with making defenses miserable, so stumping for a tight end who could be an all-time player at his position just makes sense. For Terry Fontenot, this is a really not much of a gamble on the best player available, a talent who truly stood out against his peers, especially if positional value was removed from the equation. Given that you have made Matt Ryan the focal point of your offense for at least the next couple of years, giving him a weapon who could be virtually impossible to stop is just a smart play, but it’s worth noting that if Pitts pans out he’ll be a factor for the Falcons long after Ryan is retired and in the booth happily laughing it up with Tony Gonzalez. I wrote repeatedly over the last couple of months that we should be prepared for any outcome because we didn't know the team's board, but I did think Fields and Lance would be difficult for the team to pass up if they were available. In the end that was simply wrong, at least in Fields’ case, and Pitts was clearly atop their board.
Fontenot was clear from the very beginning of his tenure what a pick like this (or Fields, or Penei Sewell) would mean: A commitment to acquiring talent above all else. He spoke admiringly of the great Ozzie Newsome stockpiling great players regardless of positional need, and we risk getting ahead of ourselves breaking down what this means for Ryan in particular, something I’m about to do now. Regardless of whether Fontenot is all-in on Ryan playing into his 40s or not—and he very well could be, to be clear—you can’t ask more of a general manager than sticking to his most dearly-held philosophy. The Pitts pick makes it clear that while no GM is 100% pure in that regard, you can expect Fontenot to hew as closely to best player available regardless of position as he possibly can.
The blowback they’ll receive from the fanbase if that doesn’t work out will be more severe than most years and most significant if Justin Fields is an elite quarterback three years from now, something I think we’re all aware of. Almost everyone has already weighed in on Ryan, whether you believe he’s skated due to an elite supporting cast or that he’s a franchise quarterback who has been weighted down by poor coaching and crummy defense for years now. Tethering yourself to experience and proven ability rather than potential means if those expectations are not met in the near-term, there will be disappointment, including from an owner who was reportedly enamored with this rookie quarterback class.
If the Falcons fail, though, it’s not likely to be because of this offense in the first place. Matt Ryan is at least a competent quarterback who should continue to age gracefully, and he’s being handed a generational wide receiver, a receiver who proved just a year ago he’d be the No. 1 option on a lot of teams across the league, a universally heralded tight end prospect who may be one of the 3-5 best players in this draft class, and multiple quality receiving options beyond those guys. With at least a decent ground game and offensive line—and I think he’ll have both—even a merely decent quarterback would likely find plenty of success in that offense. With better coaching potentially leading to much better outcomes, plus Ryan’s still considerable ability to thrive in a quality offense, this Falcons team could be lethal on that side of the ball as soon as 2021. It’s not particularly difficult to figure out why Smith in particular views the thought of just crushing teams with talent and his scheme this year to be so appealing, and the lingering questions concern just how far a very good offense will be able to carry you, not whether the team will have one.
This decision also should affirm their commitment to trying to win right now, and especially to figuring out the best path forward for 2022 and 2023 with Ryan at the helm. Atlanta could get cute and try to half-ass this season in the hopes that talent wins the day, recognizing they could dip their toes back into the quarterback question if Ryan and this offense fall short of expectations. That isn’t and shouldn’t be their move now, though, with Pitts giving Atlanta one more dangerous weapon on an offense that underperformed for too many years.
The commitment has to be toward circumnavigating the cap in 2021 and 2022 in particular to give Ryan and this team the best possible chance to succeed, finding the absurdly affordable late summer deals for starting calibers player lingering in tough cap deals and scheming ways for Pitts, Julio and Ridley to make it effectively impossible for defenses to stop Ryan from finding an open man. This team hasn’t come out and said “yes, we can win now with the offensive personnel we have,” but they may as well say so after their draft class wraps up. It’s what they clearly intend to do, because while Pitts ought to be a weapon for Ryan’s successor and perhaps a quarterback after that, he’s clearly meant to help this offense right now. That is a big time statement of belief in Pitts, a player who we hope proves to be as special as his college career and draft hype indicate, but it’s also a belief in Ryan, who was still a very good quarterback last year despite a complete lack of a run game and an offensive coordinator who could charitably be said to have been operating a few years in the past.
Atlanta’s fortunes this year will probably depend much more on the health of the offense and what they can do to fix a still-shaky defense than what Ryan does, but the decision to hand him a mismatch in cleats can’t hurt his chances. Having gone down the route they’ve chosen, the Falcons just have to recognize the path they’ve taken and pour every resource they have into making it a success. I hope we have no reason to do anything but applaud because the Pitts pick is wildly successful and Ryan banishes the ghosts of the past three years for good, but regardless of where this road ends, it’s good to know for certain which one the Falcons are taking at last.