It began as a wish, became a hopeful sort of meme, evolved into a remote but intriguing rumor to salivate over, and is now something fans and insiders alike seem to be entertaining as a legitimate possibility. I’m referring, of course, to the many whispers and furious dot-connecting regarding Lamar Jackson and the Atlanta Falcons.
With Jackson posting a cryptic message to Instagram yesterday, the Ravens getting bounced from the playoffs without an injured Jackson on the field, and the general sense that the relationship between team and player is strained, every fanbase without a settled quarterback situation is dreaming big right now about getting Jackson in a trade. Atlanta’s one of those teams, naturally, and while there’s no hard reports out there yet, insiders and pundits are bringing up the Falcons as a fit and possibility if Jackson is moved.
Insider @AllbrightNFL expects to see the #Falcons at the front of line in the Lamar Jackson sweepstakes. https://t.co/nfFnVhSg2p— Miles Garrett (@MilesGarrettTV) January 16, 2023
It’s worth noting that this is all noise to this point. The Ravens have to be willing to move Jackson for this to happen, which would mean giving up on a player they know is fantastic, who is still young, and who they can certainly afford to re-sign if they want to, and that still seems a bit far-fetched unless Jackson is hellbent on forcing his way out. Every indication from national types like Ian Rapoport is that Baltimore still very much wants to get a deal done.
The Ravens can simply slap the exclusive tag on him and work out a long-term deal, and all these months of posturing and jersey photoshopping will come to naught. While longtime NFL insider Peter King said he thinks the Ravens may use the non-exclusive tag, which would allow other teams to negotiate deals Baltimore can match, he all but admits that’s a guess. Everyone right now is guessing because no one knows what’s going to happen, which hasn’t stopped a typically exhausting merry-go-round of should-they-shouldn’t-they arguments for acquiring Jackson among the Falcons fanbase, and likely many other fanbases as well.
Still, it’s an intriguing possibility, one that still could come to pass if Jackson digs in and the Ravens simply can’t get a contract done, and even a small chance a star like Jackson becomes available is worth considering. Others here at The Falcoholic will have more in-depth looks at the quarterback position, this team’s options, and perhaps Jackson’s fit, but the rumors have been rolling for so long that it’s time to at least think seriously about this.
Why would this make sense for the Falcons? Why might it not? Should it happen? Take a quick journey through these questions with me.
Why it might happen
Because Lamar Jackson is a great quarterback and the Falcons would benefit greatly from a great quarterback. Sometimes it’s really simple.
Jackson is a one-time NFL MVP who will be just 26 years old next year. He has a nearly 3:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the NFL, a terrific arm and ability to read the field, and has rushed for at least 764 yards in all but his rookie season. In short, he’s a living nightmare to defend against, the kind of quarterback who can overcome deficiencies in his supporting cast with his own strengths. By most every account I’ve heard, Jackson’s also a good teammate and a leader, another welcome development for a team that has emphasized building a good culture. Suffice to say that players as good and electric as Jackson simply do not become available on a regular basis, and teams will and should chase them when they do.
The Falcons have Desmond Ridder as a potential future option, but I think it’s reasonable to say that the very best version of Ridder isn’t ever going to be as good as Lamar Jackson. If they want to cut out development time and uncertainty and simply get one of the league’s better options, they can pay a steep price and make that happen, with Ridder either serving as a very competent backup or part of the trade package. You would be increasing your 2023 chances of a playoff berth, intriguing your fanbase, and immediately upgrading an offense that already has enough pieces to be dangerous this coming year, not to mention adding a quarterback who could still be great in 2030.
Why would the Ravens do this? The Falcons can pull together a pretty compelling trade package featuring a top ten selection in 2023, multiple firsts and high round picks in future seasons, and the added advantage of being a team outside of the AFC entirely. If the Ravens (stupidly, in my opinion) use the non-exclusive tag, the Falcons can just back up the money train and swing two first round picks in what would be an outrageously cheap price for a quarterback that good. If Jackson does become available there are likely to be some real blockbuster offers, with the Jets, Panthers, Raiders, and maybe even Patriots getting in on the action, but there’s no reason to think that if the star align that the Falcons can’t come up with an offer that Baltimore will at least strongly consider.
If a trade were to happen, in other words, it’s easy to understand why the Falcons might be interested and how they might get a deal done. While the Deshaun Watson deal appeared to be very owner-motivated, it did show a willingness to take a big swing at quarterback. There is no bigger swing than this, and Jackson is young enough to be both an asset in a critical 2023 season and a part of this franchise’s bright future for a long while. For the business side of the Falcons, it would help drive ticket and merchandise sales, and on the football side, Jackson would represent a major upgrade at quarterback. Again, it’s quite simple to understand the appeal of all of this.
Why it might not happen
The Falcons have just climbed out of the disastrous aftereffects of Arthur Blank and company holding on to Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn too long. Saddled with bad contracts and just hoping to return to contending, the Falcons kept doubling down on short-term fixes and set themselves on a crash course with a cap nightmare they’re just emerging from after two years of trades, cuts, and penny pinching.
Trading for Lamar Jackson would immediately squeeze that space again, with the team having maybe one or two years of top 10 quarterback salaries on the books before contending with $40 million-plus annually. If they have to give up a fully-guaranteed deal to lure Jackson to Atlanta—that’s what he’s after, remember—there won’t be much in the way of wiggle room with those annual numbers. Even with cap space expected to balloon in the coming years, was all this cap-clearing destined to go to having to build another roster constrained at least somewhat and immediately by a franchise quarterback’s megadeal? I’m not so sure.
The cap space is one thing, but the draft capital is another. The Falcons haven’t had all hits with Terry Fontenot at the helm, but they’ve drafted a pair of dangerous weapons (Drake London, Kyle Pitts), promising defensive starters (Richie Grant, Ta’Quon Graham, Troy Andersen, Arnold Ebiketie), a potential top running back (Tyler Allgeier) and other useful pieces. Trading potentially three years of first round picks plus other premium selections to get Jackson would, in combination with the cap pinch, make it more difficult to build up a premium roster around their new quarterback. Atlanta is already a long ways away from having Baltimore’s talent, especially on defense. Fontenot has been pretty good at acquiring stopgaps and interesting one-year gambles to help keep the Falcons afloat, but the reality is that it’s not enough to build a great team on its own. The calculus changes if we’re only talking about two first round picks on a non-exclusive tag in a situation where Baltimore chooses not to match, but again, I view that as an unlikely scenario.
Finally, while Jackson is a tremendous player, his recent injury history will probably be the one non-draft, non-financial issue that gives teams like the Falcons pause. His PCL injury cost him five regular season games and the team’s Wild Card playoff game this season, and an ankle injury cost him part of a game and the final five games of the 2021 season, as well. He has been cautious about getting back on the field as he recovers—and as controversial as that has proven to be, it’s the best move for Jackson’s future—but there is a real possibility that he’ll miss a handful of games each year. An acquiring team just has to be certain they have a capable backup, if that’s the case.
In essence, the reasons not to make a move boil down to the cost, because the specter of injury isn’t nearly enough to detract from how great Jackson is and can be.
Should it happen?
This is a tougher question to answer, because it depends on the franchise’s outlook, but regardless the answer is definitely not a hard no. The Falcons have been, with the exception of the Watson pursuit that I’m very confident originated from Blank, building steadily and slowly toward having a windfall of cap space and the chance to transform the entire roster. Trading for Jackson would seem to fly in the face of that slow burn and would almost immediately put the Falcons back into a situation where they have to weigh the cap carefully, as Jackson’s contract paired with upcoming megadeals for Chris Lindstrom, A.J. Terrell, and (soon enough) Kyle Pitts would quickly chew up a significant chunk of Atlanta’s annual cap.
Given the approach the Falcons have taken thus far, it’s easier to imagine them going with Desmond Ridder and a somewhat affordable veteran, keeping their quarterback spending well under $20 million in 2023 while stocking the roster so whoever is under center will be well-supported. Ridder and, say, Jacoby Brissett can’t even come close to approximating what Jackson can offer as a quarterback, but if the rest of the team is miles better the Falcons may view themselves as better-positioned going that route because of the additional financial flexibility in 2023, 2024, and possibly 2025 before Ridder lands his first big deal.
But quarterback is an important position to get right, as we’ve seen teams like the Colts and Commanders self-destruct while trying to beg, borrow, and steal capable starters. If the Falcons simply don’t believe Ridder can be the guy, even if he’s not being asked to carry the offense, then acquiring Jackson is the surefire way to get the position right and set themselves up to have 5-10 years of excellent quarterback play. You could draft someone, but that’s no sure bet, and Jackson is so much younger and a seemingly better fit for Arthur Smith’s offense than anyone hitting free agency and/or available via trade (looking at you, Derek Carr) that he’s really the only swing-for-the-fences option that moves the needle for Atlanta.
It comes down to what the Falcons want from the quarterback position and what they view as Ridder’s upside, in all likelihood. If Jackson becomes available, they’ll pick up the phone no matter what because they’d be foolish not to at least inquire about a player of Jackson’s caliber and age, and nobody should be surprised if they splurge on the surest possible option they can get. The price they’ll be willing to pay is the question mark.
The likeliest possibility in my eyes remains the Ravens and Jackson smoothing things over and the quarterback who has been such an integral part of their success sticking in Baltimore, because we’ve seen months of sniping back-and-forth and doubt erased quickly and cleanly erased by a huge contract in other situations in the past. If the Ravens and Jackson are headed for a divorce, though, it’s certainly well within the realm of possibility that the Falcons will be among his many suitors. Surely even Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith have occasionally found themselves imagining Jackson bombing passes to Kyle Pitts and Drake London a handful of times in recent months.
It would be difficult to be upset and easy to be excited about Lamar Jackson in Atlanta, which is why the hoping and wishing has been so feverish with Jackson nearing free agency and the tension between team and player seemingly ratcheting up. The arguments about Jackson in Atlanta are just premature, because there’s still plenty of time for Baltimore and the quarterback to get a deal done, and there has not been one single concrete report that indicates they’re done or that the Falcons are planning to throw their hat in the ring.
My advice is to not get your hopes up until it’s clear that Jackson is on the block and the Falcons have legitimate interest, but it’s only natural to daydream about having one of the league’s great players land in Atlanta to help revitalize a team that has hasn’t been a truly exciting contender in far too long. The rumors won’t die down, but a resolution to this situation doesn’t appear to be right around the corner.