In the end, for all the draft intrigue and early spring trade rumors, the Falcons quarterback situation was the same in 2021 as it has been since 2008. Matt Ryan was the starter and the team doesn’t have a long-term, obvious backup, and certainly not a successor.
The season also went much the way 2019-2020 went, where Ryan was far from this passing game’s biggest and most glaring issue, but also was not able to pull off any miracles en route to a losing season. The spirited and typically unkind debates about Ryan’s fortunes are not going anywhere—they wouldn’t if he bombed out completely or was the best quarterback in football, frankly—but the new front office and coaching staff got a good look at him. Ryan’s durability, ability to deliver consistent performances despite a shaky receiving corps and even shakier offensive line, and the way the team singled him out for praise all seem to bode well for him heading into 2022.
The backup situation figures to be a bit murkier, as the team dealt with some unexpected things on the depth chart behind Ryan and don’t have an obvious option in-house to carry a clipboard. With A.J. McCarron’s unfortunate injury, the Falcons went out and scooped up Josh Rosen to be Matt Ryan’s backup. Over the course of the season, undrafted free agent Feleipe Franks was the player Atlanta seemed to have the most trust in as Ryan’s backup, however. That could have interesting implications for 2022, given that Arthur Smith clearly likes Franks and is willing to try him out in the kind of gadget role Taysom Hill once occupied in New Orleans, but it still may be time for the team to finally draft a quarterback who at least profiles as a quality long-term backup.
Let’s take a look at the year Ryan and company had, as well as the outlook for the position.
QB Matt Ryan
2021 stat line: 375/560, 67% completion percentage, 3,968 yards, 20 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 7.1 yards per attempt, 90.4 passer rating, 40 sacks; 40 rushing attempts, 82 yards, 1 touchdown, 2.1 yards per carry
Ryan is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career statistically, and he absorbed more hits than any other NFL quarterback this year. Pulling apart how much of that is on him versus how much is on the coaching staff and the team around him is something that will be the subject of a longer, more nuanced piece, but suffice to say I think most would agree it’s not even close to primarily his fault. The chief questions around Ryan right now are whether his mid-to-late 30s decline will end up making him less capable as time goes on, and whether his contract will be an impediment to building the kind of supporting cast he needs to thrive.
The two biggest question marks for Ryan’s play at his current age are how he fares under pressure and how his deep ball is holding up. Pressured at the fourth-highest rate of any quarterback in the NFL this past year, Ryan frequently had no chance to make a play. His willingness to hold on to the ball and look for an opportunity was costly at times, as he absorbed a handful of sacks he didn’t need to and fumbled the 6th-highest number of times of any player in the NFL this past year. Ryan mostly fared very well on passes of 20 yards or more, earning very high marks as a deep ball passer from Pro Football Focus, but he’s had clusters of underthrows each of the past few seasons and that continued in 2021. His arm is not falling off, but it’s not going to suddenly enable him to hit receivers in stride 30 yards downfield on a consistent basis, either.
For all that, Ryan was in an extremely difficult situation and played admirably in spite of it, hanging in despite the many hits he took and maintaining his ability to deliver sharp passes. The team took away his top target from the past decade by trading away Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley missed most of the season, and Russell Gage didn’t really get going until late in the year. Couple that with an up-and-down rushing attack and some of the worst pass protection Ryan has ever had—which is saying something—and it’s not a surprise that his statistics took a major dip. Ryan is still, at the very least, a very good quarterback. He just needs to not be in an awful situation going forward.
It seems likely, given the scuttlebutt that the team is planning on keeping Ryan for 2022, that the team probably shares that opinion. Arthur Smith insisted the team will evaluate the position in the offseason and there may well be a surprise coming, but Ryan’s huge cap hit and the impossibility of mitigating more than half that hit via trade means he’ll likely be here at least one more season. The Falcons have a lot of major needs this offseason, but giving Ryan’s a puncher’s chance of settling into a rhythm and finding receivers who are actually open has to rank very close to the top of the list, and they probably need to find a way to lessen his cap hit to make the easier.
2021 stat line: 2/11, 18.2% completion percentage, 19 yards, 2 interceptions, 1.9 yards per attempt, 0.0 passer rating
It’s hard to remember this now, but there was a fair amount of excitement and hype when Rosen was signed. The former first rounder got destroyed his rookie season in Atlanta and has bounced around since, but every team that’s taken a shot on him has been convinced they can at least make him a quality backup, and fanbases seem to share that enthusiasm.
I thought Rosen would probably settle in as Ryan’s backup, but he had ugly games every time he actually got into game action and was passed by Feleipe Franks by the end of the year. Rosen just doesn’t appear to have it anywhere he goes, and I’d be surprised if the Falcons re-sign him.
2021 stat line: 0/1, 1 interception; 3 rushing attempts, 6 yards, 2 yards per carry,
The only guy who feels like a part of the future here. Franks finished the year as Ryan’s direct backup, pushing Rosen to the inactives list, and dabbled enough on special teams and at tight end to think the Falcons are going to try to give him a small but varied role next year. We’ll see if he can surprise and push his way into a role as Ryan’s direct backup,
If McCarron is healthy heading into the summer, he may well be back. The Falcons signed him right after the first round of the draft to back up Ryan and he was locked in to that role until he suffered a season-ending injury in preseason. If the Falcons like him enough and aren’t going to draft anyone—or, I guess, put Franks in as Ryan’s direct backup—we could see him again. `
Matt Ryan: Under contract until 2024; $48.66 million cap hit in 2022
Feleipe Franks: Under contract until 2024; $830,000 cap hit for 2022
Josh Rosen: Free agent
A.J. McCarron: Free agent
Given Chris Mortensen’s report and the financial realities of Matt Ryan’s contract, I fully expect the Falcons to roll with No. 2 as their starter this year. I’d also expect Franks to functionally serve as the third quarterback, though Arthur Smith is going to have him dabble in a few different roles in his quest to turn him into Twosom Hill.
That said, there are still a lot of unknowns here. The team’s backup quarterback isn’t on the roster, and we don’t know if the team will invest in a quarterback from this class as Ryan’s eventual successor. We also don’t know how good the team around Ryan is going to be, and we do know that it needs to be better to give Ryan a fighting chance at a great season.
Given all of that, all we can safely say at this point is that Ryan seems likely to be here in 2022. If the Falcons are going to succeed with him at the helm, as they’d like to and can, they’ll have to do a damn good job of rebuilding this roster and ensuring this offense is primed to take advantage of the sharp passing Ryan is still very capable of bringing to the table. Ideally, they’d also have a high-end backup for him, or a potential successor to learn and grow for a year, two years, or more.
Last year around this time, everything felt profoundly unsettled with a new regime coming in, but the team committed to Ryan to such an extent that they didn’t take Mac Jones or Justin Fields a year ago. We can’t know the future, but the path forward at the moment appears clearer, and the central question does not concern where Ryan is going to play in 2022 but how he’ll play and how good the Falcons team he’s playing for will be. That’s no less terrifying, but as always, we have no choice be to see how this plays out.