The Falcons are waiting. They’ve re-signed or extended multiple players, but otherwise they’ve been sitting back and letting free agents like Russell Gage, Foye Oluokun and Josh Harris head elsewhere. They are waiting because they have been working up to pitching Deshaun Watson, have pitched Deshaun Watson, and have to now see what his decision is. Reports keep suggesting that decision is imminent, but there’s no concrete timetable.
When the waiting is over, the Falcons will be facing one of three possible scenarios.
Scenario A: Land Watson, trade Ryan
This is what the Falcons have been working toward, whether that’s the prudent course or not. If Watson does go to Atlanta, the Falcons will be surrendering picks and players to the Texans. They’ll likely restructure Watson’s contract as soon as he’s been traded and immediately set about dealing Matt Ryan, all with an eye on freeing up cap space to kick start free agency.
Cap will be tight in year one and the Falcons will have to deal with the immediate fallout of moving another franchise icon and importing a player who still has 20-plus civil cases pending against him, but the front office won’t be able to slow down once the deal is done. They have to put at least a credible roster around Watson with their new space, however limited that may be, and there are reports that there will be players who are eager to join Watson at his next stop if the team can afford them. Outside of that, it will be stopgap and value signings again as the Falcons try to navigate this year and set themselves up for a more robust offseason with more cap space in 2023. Things will be moving quickly, in other words.
They also have to find a landing spot for Ryan that he’ll actually want to go to—no-trade clause or no, they tried to do that with Julio and they’ll damn well try to do it with Ryan—and recoup some of the draft capital they’re surrendering. Some of the groundwork for this has likely been laid, but it will be a scramble while the Falcons fanbase celebrates and burns itself down at the same time.
Scenario B: Don’t land Watson, keep Ryan
If Watson chooses New Orleans, Carolina, or Cleveland, the Falcons will have to move quickly, because they will be at least a day or two behind on signings. The question will then become whether Matt Ryan will still be here.
There are conflicting reports about whether the Falcons kept Ryan in the loop on all of this, and whether or not they did, there’s no guarantee he’s going to want to stick around after sitting back and watching this team pursue another quarterback.
If Ryan is willing to let bygones be bygones here and wants to play out 2022 with Atlanta—and if the Falcons don’t plan to trade him anyways—the offseason proceeds more or less the way it would have before we ever knew the Watson rumors existed, just with a delayed start. The Falcons will gear up for the draft, sign a bunch of value free agents with the space they’ve carved out and a restructure to Ryan’s deal, and try to be reasonably competitive this season. They need an answer by Saturday, though, because that’s when Ryan’s $7.5 million roster bonus comes due and they presumably want that restructure in place by then if he’s staying.
Scenario C: Don’t land Watson, trade Ryan
If Ryan wants out, the Falcon are hellbent on trading him, or some combination of the two, you find yourself here. The Falcons will recoup quite a bit of cap space with a deal, but they will also have no quarterback. Well, unless you count Feleipe Franks.
In this scenario, the Falcons will almost certainly be drafting a quarterback, but they will also be signing a stopgap starter. There is not much out there, as you might guess, so short of getting a quarterback in a trade this team is going to be hard-pressed to contend this year and may wind up turning to a rookie earlier than they would like. Obviously, in this scenario, contending becomes extremely difficult and the team evaluates another crop of free agents and a new rookie class with an eye on getting back on the horse in 2023. It would be a very straightforward consequence of swinging for the fences with Watson and whiffing.
I don’t claim to know what’s going to happen, but we will know soon enough. You can say this about a lot of major moves, but rarely with so much emphasis: The future of the Atlanta Falcons and the kind of team they’ll be in 2022 and beyond hinges on what happens after the wait.