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What the Calvin Ridley trade and deadline moves mean for the Falcons

Atlanta’s sticking to a timeline.

Atlanta Falcons v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons could’ve been buyers at the trade deadline this year. Fans are starved for a winner in Atlanta, considering the last winning season was all the way back in 2017, and they’re sitting at 4-4 and atop the NFC South. It would’ve been easy to go get somebody, anybody, to enhance their divisional chances in 2022 and earn some goodwill at the cost to their cap space and draft capital.

That’s not what they did, though. On Tuesday, we got the shocking news an hour before the trade deadline that the Falcons were moving Calvin Ridley for compensation that bottoms out as a 2023 6th rounder and 2024 4th rounder, and can escalate to a 2023 5th rounder and 2024 2nd rounder. It was a solid deal for a player the Falcons clearly didn’t intend to keep, and the latest cap-clearing, compensation-adding move for Terry Fontenot and this front office. Then we learned the Falcons flipped reserve safety Dean Marlowe for a 7th round pick and swapped a 7th rounder to the Chiefs for cornerback Rashad Fenton, who was a capable starter as recently as last year and is just 25 years old. They were both buyers and sellers, and they arguably got a little better with the addition of Fenton and gave up basically nothing to do so.

The Falcons hired Fontenot, a savvy pro personnel executive with evident patience, with an eye on getting out of their current mess and becoming a contender again. Aside from what I firmly believe to be the owner-led shortcut to contention with the the ill-advised Deshaun Watson pursuit, Fontenot and the front office have been able to take this rebuild at their own pace. Despite making three moves—a basically unprecedented flurry of activity at the deadline for this team—the Falcons didn’t do anything to alter their timeline. They were never going to be major sellers because that would be a form of surrender in a year where they’re genuinely competitive, but nor were they going to throw a wrench into carefully laid 2023 plans with the kind of major move necessary to make the Atlanta Falcons more than a fringe contender in the here and now.

Still, let’s take a look at what the Ridley trade and deadline moves meant for Atlanta, both this year and in the future.

What it means for the Falcons in 2022

This will be short! Atlanta did not have Ridley on the roster, essentially, because of his year-long suspension. His contract wasn’t on the books for the season owing to that, so there are no immediate impacts to the on-field product or the books from that trade.

For the other two trades, the impact is more noticeable. Marlowe is returning to a familiar spot where he’ll have a significant reserve role right off the bat, and the Falcons are giving up a player who just started at safety for them for an entire afternoon. Marlowe finished his eight game career in Atlanta having played 25% of the defensive snaps—that one start and some relief work for Jaylinn Hawkins, mostly—and 75% of the special teams snaps. He was tied for the team lead in special teams tackles, and if nothing else, Atlanta just shipped off a useful reserve and major piece of their special teams unit in 2022.

The Falcons likely feel comfortable with others options—perhaps recently added practice squad safety Jovante Moffatt, perhaps Isaiah Oliver and Mike Ford—to replace Marlowe on defense and special teams, with Erik Harris sure to pick up more work going forward as well.

The big addition is Rashad Fenton. The former Chief was a full-time starter for the first few games of the season in Kansas City, but was parked on the bench the past three weeks after some uneven play. He was quietly pretty good as an eight game starter in 2021 for the Chiefs, is still quite young, and has proven himself to the extent that Atlanta clearly felt good about rolling the dice on him as a contributor. With A.J. Terrell and Casey Hayward out for an indeterminate amount of time—Terrell could be back as soon as this week, Hayward in a couple weeks, but we don’t know when they’ll return—Fenton gives Atlanta a useful reserve with the experience and upside to start. Given the recent state of cornerback play, he’s a welcome addition.

Fenton’s also yet another player auditioning for a new contract next year, but we’ll get to that in a second. Overall, the impact on this year from all of these trades is likely to be small, but Fenton could be an important addition for a team trying to hold on in the NFC South.

What it means for the Falcons in 2023 and beyond

For Fenton, a solid effort in the final eight games means a chance to be re-signed. The Falcons don’t currently have Isaiah Oliver, Dee Alford, or Mike Ford under contract in 2023, giving Fenton a chance to prove himself and hang on as a candidate for the third or fourth cornerback next year. Marlowe’s trade leaves the Falcons a little less settled at safety, but he was on a one year deal, so that doesn’t really impact next year.

I’m most interested, as you’d expect, in what the Ridley trades says about the team’s priorities. Ridley will fetch a couple of draft picks, and at worst they’ll be in rounds where Fontenot has found contributors in the past couple of years. Having a couple more bites at the apple in 2023 and 2024 is a useful thing, and if the 2024 pick winds up being a third or second rounder, the Falcons have an improved shot at adding another quality starter. The picks alone are a good return for a player who seemed likely to have played his last down in Atlanta last fall.

Had the Falcons waited until the spring, when Ridley’s reinstatement was announced, they might have gotten a little more outright. What’s interesting is that they chose to do it now, ahead of the deadline, in a trade rife with conditions. They did so because of the other major benefit of the trade: Getting Ridley’s salary off the books well ahead of free agency, rather than having to wait and see when he’d be reinstated.

While the picks coming back are uncertain, this was a way to be absolutely certain the Falcons weren’t carrying that salary. Depending on which estimates you’re using, the team will head into next year with close to $70 million in cap space, and that’s an amount that will remain large enough to make a few splashes even after the Falcons bring back priority free agents. It’s the kind of money that, if used wisely, could vault a decent team into something much more.

And that’s what it is ultimately all about for the Falcons. The 2021 season was a bargain basement cobbling together of what the team could out of spare parts and big contracts, with the team shedding what salary it could and bringing picks back in. The 2022 season is more of the same, just with a little more money, a second top ten pick and robust draft class, and a staggering amount of dead money. No one involved with the Falcons is unhappy that this team is .500 and looking like a serious threat to win the NFC South this year given all of that, but nobody’s talking themselves into a Super Bowl or likely even a deep playoff run, either. There was a year of crawling and we’re in a year of walking, but the Falcons intend to run in 2023.

I don’t know what the team’s grand aspirations are yet—I’ve seen more than a few starry-eyed fans talking themselves into landing Lamar Jackson at quarterback, while others are just dreaming of a star-studded free agent class—but Fontenot and the front office have been building to this all along. They’ll have a chance to bring back players like Lorenzo Carter and Damiere Byrd who are thriving in auditions and may want to be part of the next great Falcons team, and a chance to add some great players like Jessie Bates at safety and Elgton Jenkins for the offensive line, should they make it to free agency. Seeing that plan coming together ahead of the next spring, and being a believer in this front office’s ability to spend responsibly and identify talent, it’s difficult for me not to think we’re nearly done watching our favorite football team wander in the wilds of mediocrity. After all, that Ridley money could buy you a couple of impact defenders for 2023, something the Falcons badly need.

These trades may not have a huge immediate impact, in other words, but the Ridley trade in particular could be hugely impactful in 2023 and 2024. The Falcons have laid the groundwork for a transformative offseason, and after we see what the remaining nine games of the 2022 season have in store for us, it’ll be time to see where that freshly paved road takes us.