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Falcons brass talks Matt Ryan, Deshaun Watson, and ‘rebuild’ being a bad word in Wednesday presser

Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith were fuzzy on timelines but clear on their expectations for 2022 and 2023.

NFL: Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve been waiting for the Falcons to talk to the media. Between the failed Deshaun Watson trade pursuit, the successful trade of franchise icon Matt Ryan to the Colts, the team’s uncertain future in 2022 and incoming cap windfall in 2023, and their many signings over the past week, there was a lot I wanted to hear Arthur Blank, Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith address.

On Wednesday morning, Fontenot and Smith sat down and answered questions from the press—including the Falcons’ in-house reporting team—and were asked everything you’d expect given the way the past couple of weeks have transpired. Let’s recap everything we heard today.

Took less to trade Matt Ryan to the Colts

It certainly seemed like the Falcons could’ve gotten more compensation for Matt Ryan, and Terry Fontenot confirmed that was the case in more straightforward fashion than I would have expected. Atlanta ultimately traded Ryan to the Colts for a 2022 third round pick.

The Falcons made it clear that once trade talks got going—and we’ll touch on the timeline for that in a moment—they were focused on ensuring Ryan landed at a spot he wanted to be in. That spot was the Colts, and even though Ryan did not have a no-trade clause, the Falcons locked in on getting him there after Ryan made it clear that was his preferred landing spot. In that sense, at the very least, the Falcons deserve credit for prioritizing Ryan’s wishes over draft capital.

Of course, it’s also obvious that nothing about the process leading up to the trade was as neat and tidy as the Falcons would like to pretend it was. We did not get any clarity on the timeline here, and we probably never will, but it’s worth remembering that reports in early March indicated that team was rebuffing calls from teams interested in trading for Ryan.

UPDATE: In an interview with Mike Golic and Jessica Smetana, Ryan confirmed that Arthur Smith did contact him initially when they began to go after Watson and that they were in contact throughout the process, which is good to know. The interview indicates that Ryan was likely spurred to leave the Falcons because of the fallout from the trade pursuit and does not indicate the Falcons were looking to move him before that time, so there’s still some things that are a bit unclear here.

They also drew up the restructure to his deal to save 2022 cap space, an unnecessary move for a player you’re sure you’re trading, and one which suddenly was put on hold on the same timeline that the Falcons became embroiled in trade talks for Deshaun Watson. The Falcons abruptly changed their mind about trading Ryan, no matter what they said on Wednesday.

In the end, I do believe the Falcons would’ve tried to get Ryan to a preferred destination no matter what, but it’s also evident they backed themselves into a corner where they essentially had no choice but to move him to the Colts. That matters because if the Falcons were staying true to their plans to find value and work methodically toward opening the window further in 2023, they likely would’ve either moved Ryan earlier and created competition for his services, or they would’ve kept him with a restructured deal and punted trade talks until next offseason, as every indication pointed to a short time ago.

The end result for 2023 is likely to be the same, though: A new franchise quarterback, if they get that right, and plenty of cap space to work with as this team tries to finally return to the NFC’s elite.

Zero answers on the Watson trade

I wasn’t expecting satisfactory answers regarding why the team went after Deshaun Watson, especially after we learned Arthur Blank would not be sitting down to face the press alongside his head coach and general manager. What I didn’t expect was the team to seemingly have no practiced answers beyond “hey, we were just exploring.”

The Falcons would not comment on how much they investigated the disturbing complaints against Watson, whether they talked to his accusers or their attorney, how aware they were about the civil cases against him, or anything along those lines.

If you just listened to Fontenot and Smith stumbling through their answers here, you’d be inclined to think the Falcons didn’t do all that much homework (I believe that, given the timetable) and didn’t get close to the finish line with Watson. Fontenot stuck to the vague term “exploring” because that last point is, per basically every report, not accurate. The Falcons obviously had steps to take if the deal was finalized in order to clear cap space, move Matt Ryan and the like, but it sounded like only Cleveland’s massive 11th hour contract offer convinced Watson not to go to Atlanta.

It’s fair to wonder about Arthur Blank’s involvement in all of this. Fontenot was careful to say that Blank wants to win and that the trade talks for Watson happened because there was collective agreement they should, but the owner knows Watson and the quarterback reportedly reached out to the organization to express his interest in playing for them, and it’s unclear whether that spurred Blank to urge his front office to go get him or if the front office had to pitch Blank.

Brett Jewkes, the senior vice president and chief communications officer with AMB Group, noted Blank may address the Watson trade pursuit (and the Falcons more generally) next week in the league’s annual meetings.

Transitions, not rebuilds

Inevitably, with the Falcons rolling out Marcus Mariota (who Arthur Smith spoke glowingly about) at quarterback this year on a roster that looks very much like a work in progress, someone asked about the rebuild. Specifically, they asked why the Falcons won’t just call it a rebuild. The team stressed that they prefer to call it something like a transition, saying they want to still try to win and want to put that emphasis on winning in front of players signing with the team.

In the end, this is parsing words. The Falcons intend to try to be competitive, but obviously that’s going to be difficult in 2022 without some drastic roster upgrades, which I’m sure free agents joining the team are aware of to at least some extent. This is a team that has been careful not to say they’re tearing things down, but they’ve traded away their franchise quarterback and the best receiver in franchise history, lost or cut several veterans who played significant roles on the 2020 team, and have been hamstrung by a lack of cap space the past two seasons. We’re all free to call it what we want, but 2021 and 2022 were and are about overachieving with an incomplete team with an eye on chasing greatness in 2023, which is something I think everyone inside the building and outside the building are aware of.

Fontenot has all but said the team’s big swings are going to start coming next year, and Smith said something similar on Wednesday. The Falcons may still be interesting in 2022—and I hope so—but with a windfall of cap space they will be raising expectations when 2023 rolls around.

Team isn’t done with quarterback room, obviously

Marcus Mariota will almost certainly open the 2022 season as the starting quarterback. Arthur Smith made it clear he’s comfortable with that, pointing out that he knew Mariota well from their shared time in Tennessee.

There is no way Mariota and Feleipe Franks ends up being this team’s quarterback room, however. The team continued to say they’ll stick to their best player available philosophy in the draft and won’t reach for a quarterback—bookmark that for later—but I’d be stunned if they came out of the 2022 NFL Draft without a long-term option to groom, whether that’s in the first round, the second round, or even later. That’s true even if they have their eye on being terrible enough this season to have a shot at the top quarterbacks in what’s regarded as a potentially strong 2023 draft class.

Calvin Ridley’s future uncertain

The Falcons were trying to trade Calvin Ridley and were reportedly close to getting it done with the Eagles when they learned about Ridley’s looming suspension. At that point, they backed away from the talks to avoid shipping a soon-to-be-suspended player to Philadelphia and presumably never being trusted as a trade partner by other NFL teams again.

The team essentially declined to comment on Ridley’s future in Atlanta, but I remain convinced they won’t be keeping him around after the events of the last several months. If the NFL lets him come back in 2023 after his year-long suspension for betting on games, the Falcons will likely look to trade him again to get them additional draft picks to prime what we all hope is a great 2023 season.

What were your thoughts after seeing or reading about the presser Wednesday?