The Falcons lost out on Deshaun Watson in dramatic fashion, or at least it looked that way outside of the building. National reporters breathlessly reported that Watson had decided to go to the Cleveland Browns for the largest fully guaranteed contract in NFL history, a stunner considering most every report in the hours leading up that revelation indicated the Falcon were the frontrunner to land him.
After the shock wore off, the next question was obvious: What are the Falcons going to do now?
There’s actually two answers to that question. The first is that they have some public relations work to do, work that I doubt anyone involved with the team is relishing at the moment. The Falcons had to be bracing themselves to address what’s in the in-depth investigative reporting done by Jenny Vrentas and respond to articles like this one from Conor Orr in response to the Browns getting Watson, but they were going to do so having landed the quarterback they were clearly desperate to trade for. Now the questions about the team’s big push to get Watson are still going to be asked—you’re fooling yourself if you think the Falcons can just ignore them until they go away—but there’s no Watson in Atlanta.
As they figure that one out and the fans argue, though, the personnel side of the house is going to be working on the roster, which is a lot more of a straightforward job minus one variable. The Falcons have largely treated free agency like they did a year ago, as a way to plug holes on the roster without busting the budget. Had the Watson pursuit never happened, we’d be applauding the Casey Hayward signing—it’s a really good signing!—and debating the merits of Damien Williams in the same way we did for the team’s raft of reasonably-priced free agents a year ago.
They’re going to continue to do that with their remaining holes, which we’ll touch on in an article a little later this weekend. Once they’re satisfied with the job they’ve done patching holes on the roster, they’ll turn to the draft, where they have three picks in the first two rounds and plenty of opportunity to grab impact players there.
This is the work that Terry Fontenot and the front office promised to do, with an eye on waiting out the market and trying to find value, and it’s the work the Falcons will continue to do now. The goal will still be to come out of this spring with a roster that’s better than last year’s, and if they’re savvy enough in free agency and the draft and get a little bit of luck, that may still be a goal they can deliver on. Like I said, straightforward, if perhaps not thrilling.
The problem is the variable I mentioned above, the one Falcons introduced with their failed and furious pursuit of Watson. The working assumption all offseason was that the Falcons were holding on to Matt Ryan, because there were reports they had been declining to talk trade with other teams, and that would mean at least one more year with him at the helm of the offense and possibly a draft pick invested at the position. That may still be the case, but less than 24 hours ago the Falcons seemed to have the door wide open for a Ryan trade. If he’s not happy about that and not willing to return to Atlanta after they seemed so eager to replace him, the team may well go through with a trade. We should know by Tuesday, the delayed date of Ryan’s roster bonus.
If he goes, the Falcons will have to sign at least one quarterback with starting experience so they have a stopgap option for what would quickly look like a pretty miserable 2022 season, and they’d likely draft one as well unless they’re just going to hold out for a top pick in 2023. If he stays—and that may only be for 2022, depending on how Ryan and the team are now feeling about one another—the Falcons will likely try to draft his successor with the knowledge that they might be just good enough to avoid getting a top 5 or top 10 pick. I think we’re all well aware that the Ryan era is coming to a close soon either way, but whether 2022 is a semi-competitive year or the setup for a top quarterback selection in 2023 will likely hinge as much or more on whether Ryan comes back than anything the Falcons do in free agency and the draft.
Either way, the Falcons have a decimated receiving corps to rebuild, depth to acquire basically everywhere, and a need for a punter and long snapper with Thomas Morstead remaining a free agent and Josh Harris off to the Chargers. Everything related to the quarterback position this past week has been tense and suspenseful and will continue to be for a little while longer, but the rest of the work—while considerable—is straightforward.
Atlanta is going to have to face the media and discuss their pursuit of Watson at some point soon, answering questions about why they got involved and what it means for Matt Ryan and the team. In the meantime, expect them to continue to do the quiet roster-building work that never really stopped, especially with the draft just around the corner.