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Falcons post-draft roster preview: Quarterback edition

Will Arthur Smith make Matt Ryan a top QB again?

NFL: Altanta Falcons OTA Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons have not had to worry about who will be starting at the quarterback position in 13 years, and 2021 will not be any different. Despite having 2 down years under Dirk Koetter in 2019 and 2020, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Matt Ryan should bounce back under an improved Arthur Smith offense. At 36, questions have arisen about how much longer Matt Ryan can deliver at a high level, but assuming he has the Smith’s offense nailed down heading into the year, I don’t doubt he can be an effective starter for 2021.

Let’s look at how the roster shakes out at this critical position, both with Ryan and beyond.

Starting Options

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Ryan

2020 stats: 16 games, 626 attempts, 407 completions, 65.5% completion rate, 4581 yards, 26 touchdowns, 11 interceptions

Contract status: Signed through 2023 season

With all of the talk about the Falcons strongly considering a quarterback with their #4 pick in the draft, they opted to double down on former MVP Matt Ryan instead. The fact that he is going to tie up a significant portion of the salary cap probably factored into the equation, but Ryan is a QB who could thrive in the system Arthur Smith wants to bring to Atlanta. After all, it shares a lot of similarities with the Shanahan system that made Ryan an All-Pro and league MVP in 2016. It will be incumbent on this team to help keep the pressure off him, as he’s struggled at times with pass rushers closing in the past couple of years, and the impact of losing Julio Jones will be keenly felt if that happens. Ryan is still good enough to pilot this offense to better heights this season.

The bigger questions about Ryan really gravitate beyond this season. Can he continue to be effective as he moves closer and closer to age 40? Will Atlanta still try to find his successor in the 2022 draft? These are all legitimate questions, but they’re destined to be answered after the 2021 season has come to a close. For now, Ryan is a quality QB who can be a great one if put into the right circumstances. Having Arthur Smith call plays could be part of the career revival we all want to see out of an all-time great for this franchise.

Key Reserves

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A.J. McCarron

2020 stats (Texans): 2 games, 1 attempt, 1 completion, 100% completion rate, 20 yards, 0 touchdowns, 0 interceptions

Contract status: Signed through 2021 season

McCarron started his career in Cincinatti as a backup to Andy Dalton and a subsequent stop in Oakland, moving on to spend the last two years in Houston backing up Deshaun Watson. His career yardage total (1173) is about what you’d expect to see from Matt Ryan after 4 games. While he’s been in the league for a while, McCarron offers no known potential upside other than knowing how to hold a clipboard really well. If the Falcons ever had to turn to him as a starter, things have probably gone horribly wrong, and he hasn’t played enough for us to feel confident he could keep the offense humming if Ryan went down. Hopefully, he’ll play sparingly.

NFL: Altanta Falcons OTA Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Feleipe Franks

2020 stats (college): 9 games, 238 attempts, 163 completions, 68.5% completion rate, 2107 yards, 17 touchdowns, 4 interceptions

Contract status: Free agent rookie contract

Franks certainly looks the part. At just under 6 feet and 6 inches, he’s a big guy with a big arm to boot. Unlike McCarron, Franks has a lot of upside to him, but a very uneven college career suggests he’s not close to ready to putting that upside to work for him. That big arm comes with a quick release and decent pocket presence. Yes, he’s more of a pure pocket passer than anything else and his accuracy has been questioned by scouts, but this is a player to keep an eye on during camp. Additionally, his accuracy improved throughout his college career, which is a promising sign for his long-term trajectory as a player. The big question, again, is whether this coaching staff can translate those tools into an NFL-ready skill set any time soon.

Whether he can develop into a quality backup (or as a big long-shot, a starter) is something we may not know for years, but for now he is a young player with a lot to work on and potentially plenty to offer down the line. We will see if that upside can translate into a spot on the 53-man roster or the practice squad in 2021.

Outlook

Matt Schaub and Kurt Benkert are gone, replaced by an unproven journeyman and a talented but pretty raw undrafted free agent quarterback. If there’s an injury here, it’s fair to say the Falcons would be in rough shape, but that has been true for a very long time.

As has been the case for years and years, it’s all about what Matt Ryan can offer up this season, and he’s at a definite career crossroads where he could wind up finishing his career in Atlanta by excelling in the near-term, or finding himself replaced in 2023 if he falters in Arthur Smith’s offense. He has to be even more tired of losing than we are, so let’s hope this new coaching staff can help get the Falcons and Ryan back to their winning ways.