The Falcons were the draft’s mystery team at #4. The consensus shortly before the draft built toward Kyle Pitts, but certainly few outcomes would’ve been truly surprising given the way Atlanta’s offseason had gone and the vagueness with which the team talked about their plans. The fact that they loved Pitts is not surprising—asking a former tight ends coach to pass up on perhaps one of the greatest tight end prospects in history is like asking Mario to jump over a super mushroom—but in my mind at least there was a big question about whether a new regime would take advantage of what was widely considered to be a terrific quarterback class and snag their post-Matt Ryan franchise quarterback right now. It was a question of whether Atlanta truly believed they could win right now or not, ultimately.
In an illuminating piece from longtime NFL insider Peter King, we learn King doesn’t believe there was much question about the Falcons taking a quarterback #4, in the end. The reports that the team believed Ryan could play at a high level for another 3-to-5 years were all but confirmed in King’s piece, and Arthur Smith was clear that belief means Atlanta’s not interested in a teardown.
“They hired the wrong guys if they thought we were going to lower expectations, take our time, and rebuild,” Smith said. “That’s just not who we are. The expectation is to win now, build for the future, have plans.
“With Matt, I see a really high-quality starting quarterback who’s thrown for 55,000 yards in this league and had unbelievable experience and is still throwing guys open. It doesn’t sound absurd anymore to say, ‘Hey, I want to play till I’m 40.’ If he didn’t want to play, that would be a different set of problems. We still may not have taken a quarterback at 4 because soon as you take one, if you take the wrong guy, there’s some bad unintended consequences because right away, it’s like, ‘There’s your quarterback of the future.’ And if you take the wrong guy just because you want to win the press conference tonight, it’s like . . .” His voice trailed off.
It’s not clear if this has been Atlanta’s stance from the moment they sat down and really watched Matt Ryan’s 2020, or whether the need for a restructure made it clear the sensible thing was to lash themselves to the Matt mast for the next few seasons, or whether they were leaning that way and decided as the draft unfolded. The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz expresses some skepticism that Atlanta would’ve truly passed on Trey Lance had he been available at #4, noting that the A.J. McCarron signing was announced Friday after the first round was over. The Athletic’s Tori McElhaney told Locked on Falcons host Aaron Freeman that day of, she believed the Falcons would’ve taken Trey Lance if he had been there at #4, citing in part the fact that there was a single quarterback on the roster heading into the draft.
Given how good this new regime has been about creating doubt, we may never know whether that would’ve been the case.
It’s also more or less immaterial at the moment if that’s their stance and that’s the direction they’re pushing this franchise in, as all that matters now is maximizing Atlanta’s chances of winning with Ryan. As I’ve argued in the past, coaching was always going to need to be a difference maker for Atlanta this year, given that there are roster holes that cannot be satisfactorily resolved with the team’s cap limitations. They’re going to be heavily reliant not just on creative scheming, though, but also on their core stars, guys like Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Grady Jarrett, and hopefully Kyle Pitts.
And now comes the tricky part: Figuring out how to build a winner around Ryan for 2021 and beyond. For the long term, that’s going to involve nailing free agent classes and draft picks and making some tough calls on personnel, but in the here and now, it just means freeing up enough money to sign your draft class and probably add a couple more useful veterans over the summer. Terry Fontenot alluded to the challenges associated with this now and in the future, because Atlanta does not have the cap flexibility to simply re-sign everybody. They’re already likely punting on keeping Hayden Hurst, having decided not to pick up his fifth-year option.
“My son tells me, ‘You need to trade for this guy, you need to get that guy,’ ” Fontenot said. “People talk about it like it’s fantasy football. We’ve had to move on from some players, and we’re going to continue to have to do that. The roster has to work financially. That’s the challenge. It’s not just as easy as saying, ‘We’ll keep the best players.’ The most challenging part of the job has been more so the cap, where we are, and us having to make decisions more so for business and not just about who the best players are.”
Our own Kevin Knight looked at some of the team’s cap options back in March, with some of those moves having already happened. I also thought Aaron Freeman had an interesting look at the cap today and the limited options available to the Falcons to free up space, which includes cutting Isaiah Oliver (the Falcons did just draft two corners and added Fabian Moreau), Hayden Hurst (they just drafted Kyle Pitts), and Deadrin Senat (they’re relatively loaded at defensive tackle). There’s also the specter of a Julio trade, as unpleasant as that idea is, or a Grady Jarrett extension, and I thought Freeman’s suggestion of a Ryan extension was an idea worth considering if Atlanta’s seriously all-in on him for the next few years. The question is simply whether the Falcons just need to get their draft class under contract or have designs on shoring up some of their remaining weaknesses, especially on defense.
We don’t know how many hairpin turns are on the road ahead for the Falcons and their very tired fans, but all of this is clarifying, and even 100 feet of road before the fog sets in is welcome. Even those of us who advocated for drafting a quarterback high know that Matt Ryan can, as Smith has said, still continue to play at a high level for a while yet. The question is now very much whether Ryan will do so, and whether the coaching, team-building efforts, and play around him will mean that expectation to win now is realized or not. In the end, we’re just along for what we all hope is a pleasant ride.