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Making sense of the Matt Ryan trade and its aftermath

Atlanta’s embracing an uncertain future by parting ways with the most successful quarterback in franchise history.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Falcons traded Matt Ryan yesterday afternoon, recouping a third round pick from the Indianapolis Colts in the process. That’s the cleanest, most clinical way to put it, but the trade and the process of the trade were anything but clean and clinical.

Atlanta moved a franchise icon, after all, and the whole thing from “hey, maybe we should trade Matt Ryan” to “we’re trading Matt Ryan for a third round pick” happened within the span of two weeks, with the Falcons chasing Deshaun Watson in the middle of it. A move we thought might be coming in 2021 or 2023 but not 2022 after the Falcons reportedly rebuffed trade offers came together suddenly, ahead of a roster bonus deadline and hot on the heels of Atlanta being spurned by Watson. In the end, Atlanta dumped Ryan’s salary overboard for a mediocre return (we’ll cover that more below), gearing up for a cap windfall next season and getting their former franchise quarterback to a place he presumably really wanted to go.

Your feelings about this trade, whether you’re depressed it ended this way and sad to see Ryan go or happy to see this team embrace the full-scale rebuild many have clamored for, will determine whether you think this was a necessary move that might have been ill-timed or a colossal mistake. Regardless of where you’re at, you’ll surely acknowledge that there are huge implications from the decision to trade away the team’s starter at quarterback this past 14 years, and most of them won’t be understood until months or even years pass.

Let’s make some sense of it in the here and now, regardless.

Why the trade?

Presumably you have already read up on this, so I’ll keep this brief. The timetable is never going to be certain here—this regime is notoriously silent on personnel matters to begin with—but it appears the Falcons got serious about moving Ryan around the same time they decided they were going to try to trade for Deshaun Watson.

Previously, the team seemed to be content to hold on to Ryan for one more year, but the pursuit of Watson either started or intensified trade talks. This team could not have gone into the Watson talks thinking they were 100% to get him, which must have meant that they were building a contingency plan for moving Ryan throughout the process, whether it was hastily hatched or well-thought out. Their inability or unwillingness to talk about it sure made it seem sloppy.

This is being done in service of the future, but given that the biggest surprise in some ways is that it didn’t happen a year ago. The Falcons signaled they were using 2021 as an evaluation year and passed on Justin Fields in the draft, which set them up to carry Ryan as a bridge again heading into what’s generally perceived to be a weaker quarterback class. Had the Falcons made the trade last year and taken their lumps, or even pursued it earlier this offseason with a clear statement about how their evaluation of the 2021 season revealed the need to focus on the future, you’d have fewer questions about why the franchise would trade him. The Falcons took several back roads and popped a tire getting here instead, raising questions about why they were so leisurely last year and so frantic when Watson became available.

The end result, I have to stress, is still going to be the same if this team actually executes a plan successfully, though they’re going to be called incompetent a lot more now than they would’ve been had they handled this differently. The Falcons needed a lot of luck to be good in 2021 and they’ll need a lot of luck again in 2022, something that was probably true even if Ryan stayed. In 2023, they’ll need less luck because they’ll have plenty of money to spend in free agency and a general manager who has spent his career in pro personnel, so the only things that should hold them back are what they do in the draft this year and whether they get their next quarterback.

Either way, Ryan’s out. Unless you were already inclined to think less of Matt Ryan—and you shouldn’t—the exit diminishes the organization but not the player. He had the best run any quarterback has had for the Falcons, he gets the chance to continue a potential Hall of Fame career with a contender in the AFC, and he remained a quiet professional until the very end of his tenure. I’m sure he’s not happy about how it ended in Atlanta—how could you be?—but I’m sure he’s excited to land with a team that looks like a contender.

Why did they sign Marcus Mariota?

The Falcons need a bridge quarterback, and Smith knows Mariota well from their shared time in Tennessee. It will rightly be pointed out that Mariota was benched for Ryan Tannehill partway through the 2019 season, but it’s not clear how much say Smith had into that trade for Tennessee, and he obviously likes Mariota well enough to want him here as a potential starter.

If the Falcons were intent on going full scorched earth and competing for the #1 pick in 2023, they could’ve gone with a lesser light here. Mariota should be able to keep them competitive and is joining a coach and an offense he’s familiar with.

Mariota is not a great quarterback, but he has about four seasons’ worth of starting experiences in the pros, has been lauded for his leadership, and offers solid accuracy, arm and mobility both inside and outside of the pocket. If the Falcons surround him with some talent, which is a big if at this point given that they have nothing outside of Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson, he will help keep them in games in 2022. He’ll also likely be asked to mentor a young quarterback, and based on everything I’ve ever seen and read about Mariota, he’ll do a great job at it. It’s not surprising the team jumped on signing him almost immediately after the Ryan trade was announced.

If the Falcons whiff on their next quarterback—an awful thought we’re not going to dwell on in case we have to dwell on it down the line—or simply draft someone who needs more time, Mariota may wind up starting two years. If not, he’ll start the bulk of 2022 and go into next year as a valuable veteran backup. It’s not Mariota’s fault any of this happened, and it’s hard not to like the signing even if the upside seems limited.

Why did they only get back a third round pick?

I was expecting the Falcons to get a second rounder and change back from the Colts for Matt Ryan, so that compensation came as a surprise yesterday. There are multiple factors here when you consider why that’s all they got, but it did not help the team’s

First, Matt Ryan is no longer a spring chicken, if anyone besides me who is under 70 years old still uses that phrase. He’s a 36-year-old quarterback with a sizeable (though not unreasonable, for the team acquiring him especially) contract, and he’s coming off one of the least statistically impressive seasons of his entire career. The Colts are justifiably excited to get him, but his trade value has probably not ever been lower than it was this offseason.

Secondly, they lost suitors. The Commanders were supposedly one team in on Ryan and there may have been others, but the Falcons didn’t seem interested in making a trade in early March. The Commanders went and got Carson Wentz, other vacancies across the league filled up, and Jimmy Garappolo is still out there for quarterback-needy teams to chase. It didn’t help that the Panthers and Saints, who both needed quarterbacks, were in the division and thus were not going to be realistic trade partners for the Falcons.

Finally, the Falcons seemingly lost leverage. I don’t know if the Falcons would’ve gotten considerably more compensation if they had done this trade in late February, but they were certainly going to get less after they tried and failed to get Deshaun Watson whilst putting their quarterback on the block, and with Ryan’s roster bonus landing on the Falcons by late Monday afternoon. A team that was patient—and the Colts seemed to go slowly with this—could seemingly sit back and wait for the Falcons to blink.

Regardless, this is obviously not what any of us had in mind when Arthur Smith said this back at the Combine:

“I anticipate Matt being a part of the team, but you don’t ever back yourself into a corner,” Smith said, via “Somebody gives you an offer you can’t refuse — Matt knows how we feel about him. I think Matt’s got a lot of good football left in him.”

Ultimately, that third round pick could obviously turn into a quality player. The fact that it was the second of the Colts’ two third round picks suggests the Falcons had very little leverage and couldn’t scrounge up any extra before Monday at 4 p.m., which made this a frustrating trade executed at seemingly an inopportune time.

How much cap space did the trade free up?

The short answer is not a lot in 2022, an awful lot in 2023.

The Falcons will, as many have noted, be carrying a staggering $62 million in dead money on the cap this season, $40.5 million of which belongs to Ryan after the trade. That’s the single-highest total for any player in NFL history, though the Falcons did free up some money to work with in free agency this year.

I wondered back in late December whether the Falcons might try to emulate the Buffalo Bills, who traded or cut most of the players on big contracts in 2018 and ate a $70 million cap charge in exchange for the space to retool their roster around a rookie quarterback. They haven’t traded Grady Jarrett or Deion Jones—at least yet—but the Falcons are already on track to have $136 million in cap space in 2023 after moving Matt Ryan and continuing to limit themselves to short-term deals in free agency. This team was never going to trade Ryan with the expectation that it would set them up to splurge this offseason, but the space they’ve carved out next year is going to be what this team counts on to set them up as a contender.

What’s the plan now?

The road they took to get here was wild and the 2022 squad is going to be worse than it would’ve been with Ryan at the helm, but I don’t think the long-term plan for the franchise really changed. If the Falcons had landed Watson, they would’ve been looking at a fairly tight cap situation and a suspended quarterback and likely would’ve been no better than a team flirting for the #7 seed this year, plus they would have absorbed a lot of justified blowback for the decision. If they had kept Ryan, they would’ve been looking at a fairly tight cap situation and likely wouldn’t been any better than a team flirting for the #7 seed this year, likely parting ways with Ryan in less frantic and confusing fashion in the 2023 offseason. With Marcus Mariota, a promising rookie quarterback and a savvy offseason, they seem likely to be pretty bad, with the faint hope we’ll cling to that they’ll be unexpectedly fun and competitive and everything pinned on 2023 and beyond.

Regardless of what happens in 2022, the Falcons continue to look at 2023 as the timetable to truly contend, as they seemed to be doing before we learned about the Watson trade pursuit or the Ryan trade. They’ll have a ton of cap space next year, two draft classes with extra selections and top ten picks, and potentially a young quarterback to groom if they decide to go after Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder or one of the other top options in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Remember, Fontenot is a pro personnel guy, and even if you’re upset with the trades and down on his first draft class—I should note that I’m not—his free agent signings on a budget thus far have been solid. With a lot more cap space to play with, Fontenot does not figure to turn this team into the Jaguars or Jets of yesteryear, spending wildly simply because the cash is there. That more than anything is a reason to believe this team will be markedly better next year than it is right now.

The other piece is harder. The Falcons have stocked their front office with guys like Kyle Smith and Ryan Pace who have strong draft backgrounds, and they need this class to be impactful. They have five picks in the first three rounds and plenty of selections, and getting those right would stock this team with needed talent under contract for multiple seasons, allowing the Falcons to be more choosy about where they spend their dollars next year. One of those pieces, of course, is a new franchise quarterback.

Here’s where the degree of difficulty ramps up even further. The reality is that Matt Ryan was a rare player, someone who came in and started immediately and delivered quality play for well over a decade, and most quarterbacks don’t come close to touching that kind of success. It’s not a given that Atlanta will find a great player in this class or the next one, and that they’ll be able to acquire a great one if they whiff in the draft, and that more than anything else is a cause for wariness when it comes to this team’s long-term future. The Bills did absolutely everything right, but if Josh Allen hadn’t turned out to be a unicorn, we might still be talking about them as a team with all the pieces but the quarterback. The Falcons have their work cut out for them, and may need to take multiple swings in the draft and elsewhere to find a player they can be great with.

I’m certain the Falcons are confident they can pull all that off, but the best-laid plans of most NFL teams do not amount to greatness. The Falcons saw, at some point in the past month, that they were going to be moving Matt Ryan, the most successful quarterback in team history, because of their long-term plan, their ill-advised Watson chase, or some combination of the two. What’s next matters a lot, at least for Falcons fans sick of losing and tired of unpleasant surprises, and the simple truth is that success is deeply uncertain. It always is in the NFL.

What is next? Signings minor and slightly more major, the draft, maybe the shedding of more big contracts (we’ll write about this soon), and the first season in recent memory without Matt Ryan under center. That’s going to be a big change for all of us, especially Ryan and the Falcons, and I hope that somehow all of us—the quarterback, the team, the fans—feel better about the aftermath of this trade when we look back on it in a couple of years, no matter what we’re feeling right now.