A lot can change in a few short months, and a lot has changed for the Falcons at quarterback. When we reviewed the position in late January, reports indicated the team was going to hold on to Matt Ryan, so we discussed what his outlook might be in this offense and the possibility of the team drafting a long-term successor.
We all know what happened from there. The Falcons may well have been proceeding with the assumption that Ryan would be under center for one more year, but their pursuit of Deshaun Watson wound up creating a situation where a trade was really the only option. Ryan is now with the Colts, and the Falcons have effectively remade their quarterback room for the first time since 2008, adding a free agent bridge starter, drafting a potential quarterback of the future, and hey Feleipe Franks is still here. Last year felt like a trial and error season in so many ways, but this feels lik
Let’s look at the looming competition ahead and the potential 2022 outlook for the position with all these changes.
Likely starter: Marcus Mariota
2021 stat line: 1/2, 50% completion percentage, 4 yards, 2 yards per attempt, 56.2 passer rating; 13 rushing attempts, 87 yards, 1 touchdown, 6.7 yards per carry
I’ll pencil in Mariota as the starter for a few reasons. The first is that he’s the veteran and you expect the veteran to have some sort of leg up in a competition like this. The second is that Mariota knows Arthur Smith and there should be some sort of comfort level there, as the two overlapped for a long while and Mariota started games for Smith before being benched for Ryan Tannehill. The third is that when you’re looking at two players who will tell you they have similar games, you’ll likely go with the more polished and established option to start with.
Mariota’s mobility and solid all-around game make him a good bridge option for Atlanta, and his leadership ability and willingness to mentor a rookie ought to be invaluable for the team as they move forward. While he hasn’t been a starter in a while, the former #2 overall pick has started 61 games in his career and is a perfectly capable steward for a run-heavy attack where he’ll have multiple skyscraping targets to throw to. The fact that he is a pretty dangerous scrambler and can evade pressure is a plus, particularly behind this offensive line, and while he hasn’t had many chances to show, Mariota is an considerably improved passer since those early seasons in Tennessee.
All of that doesn’t guarantee Mariota the starting job, of course. He was last a full-time starter in 2018, when he threw for 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in 13 starts, and while he fared better in six starts under Smith in 2019 you’re talking about a player who has been a lightly-used backup for two straight seasons. In 2018 and 2019, Mariota was sacked at one of the highest rates in football after doing a very good job of evading pressure in his first few seasons, which might be a bit fluky but could be ominous given that this line is unlikely to be great in 2021. His accuracy has improved over time, particularly when he’s taking shots downfield, but he is still not the most accurate quarterback you’ll ever see. Having Drake London, Kyle Pitts, Auden Tate and Cordarrelle Patterson available as big targets will help him there.
None of that is going to prevent him from starting, but we should temper our expectations to be fair to Mariota, who may be good but almost certainly won’t be great. You should expect him to at least provide us with some highlight reel-worthy runs and deep passes, however, and he’ll be solid enough to keep the Falcons in games as a starter as long as he’s under center.
At some point in 2022, I’d fully expect that he’ll give way to...
Backup/potential starter: Desmond Ridder
2021 stat line: N/A
This was the rare quarterback class where a bunch of players teams felt weren’t deserving of a first round pick just...didn’t go in the first round. Desmond Ridder was actually the second quarterback to come off the board in this class, with Pittsburgh taking Kenny Pickett in the first.
That’s Atlanta’s gain. Ridder may or may not be the long-term starter in Atlanta, but he’s an intriguing option and the team didn’t have to lock themselves into an expensive first round contract if he doesn’t pan out. In his rookie season, Ridder will compete with Mariota and either seize the job and run with it or likely take over eventually at some point in 2022 so the Falcons can take a longer look at him ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft.
Ridder has compared his game to Mariota’s, and it’s not difficult to see why. Mariota is listed as being slightly taller and heavier, but the two run identical 40 yard dashes, came out of college praised for their throwing mechanics, and are both very good athletes for the position. On the downside, both came to the NFL with some questions about their accuracy, and Ridder’s arm strength is questioned more frequently than Mariota’s ever was.
The bet on Ridder is that he can be accurate enough and put enough zip on his throws consistently to be a good quarterback, because the rest of his game is strong. Ridder is extremely calm and poised in the pocket, can evade pressure and get out of the pocket to run effectively when called upon, and throws the ball with excellent timing and anticipation. There are few quarterback analysts better than Football Outsiders’ Derrik Klassen, and he loves Ridder’s game and upside, which is hugely encouraging. The Falcons will need to do more than they’ve done this offseason to surround him with the kind of top-shelf supporting cast that can mask his weaknesses and take advantage of his strengths if they’re going to stick with him for years to come, but when Ridder steps in I think he’ll be solid right away.
The question here is whether Ridder will win the job coming out of camp—I’m legitimately unsure, as I have Mariota’s name down atop the depth chart in very light pencil—and whether he can blossom into a good-to-great starting quarterback and hold down the job for the long haul. We really don’t know the answer to either of those, but suffice to say the Falcons will give him a chance to prove he can get the job done, and it’s really just a question of when he’ll get the shot.
Third-stringer/Taysom Hill Lite: Feleipe Franks
2021 stat line: 375/560, 67% completion percentage, 3,968 yards, 20 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 7.1 yards per attempt, 90.4 passer rating, 40 sacks; 40 rushing attempts, 82 yards, 1 touchdown, 2.1 yards per carry
Franks won’t be a hugely critical piece of this offense in 2022, but I’m going to be very interested to see what the team’s plans for him are. He remains a huge, athletic player with a rocket arm and budding positional versatility, as the Falcons got him a little involved as a tight end, runner and special teamer in 2021.
If all goes exceptionally well, Franks will spend 2022 as a third-string quarterback and occasional gadget player, one hoping to get more run on special teams and as a potential receiving option. He’ll hope to show enough this year to serve as the team’s long-term backup quarterback behind Ridder—again, that assumes Ridder ends up being the guy, because if he’s not he’ll be the long-term backup—and get some approximation of Taysom Hill’s role in Atlanta.
If Franks doesn’t make significant strides this summer, he could be ticketed for the practice squad this year. I think Arthur Smith and company want to find a way to use him on offense, but they now have not one but two quarterbacks they’re going to want to get on the field, and Franks will have to carve out a unique role to stick around. Everything about his ability to stick on the roster in 2021, odd all-over-the-map role, and Arthur Smith’s apparent keen interest in his ability make him an interesting project for Atlanta, but that’s not likely to translate into any significant role on offense.
Outlook: Still TBD
Back in January, the thought was that Matt Ryan would probably stick around given the team’s statements and reports they intended to hold on to him, so all the uncertainty on the depth chart was behind him. With Ryan traded, things are truly wide open for the first time in recent memory, and the best quarterback in franchise history has given way to an interesting veteran bridge and a possible (but not certain) successor as franchise quarterback for the Falcons.
The important thing to know here is that Ridder is going to get his time to prove himself, and Mariota’s ability to seize the starting job initially and hold it deep into the season will hinge on how good he is this summer and fall and how polished the rookie looks. The Falcons appear to have a couple of capable quarterbacks heading into training camp and will be able to get through 2022 with what are likely to be consistently solid performances from the duo, but obviously the long-term future of the position will be determined by Ridder’s ability to be much more than solid.
We’ll see what’s next for the Falcons quarterback situation, but the uncertainty about what’s ahead is equal parts exciting and anxiety-inducing.