One of the few hallmarks of consistency with the Atlanta Falcons under head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot is that every offseason brings questions about the team’s future at quarterback.
This was the case in their first spring on the job when there were questions on whether veteran Matt Ryan would return or if the team would use their fourth overall selection in the 2021 draft on a future, franchise passer.
Then last year, there were similar questions during the team’s pursuit of eventual Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson that led to the departure of Ryan, the arrival of Marcus Mariota, and the selection of third-round draft pick Desmond Ridder in the 2022 NFL Draft.
This offseason, the questions will center around whether or not the team is firmly going to roll with Ridder entering 2023, coming off a four-game audition with mixed, but promising results. Yet perhaps their eyes stray elsewhere to other available options.
This will be the first of two articles written looking at those potential options. This first part will discuss the veteran starting options that may be available between now and the outset of free agency in March. Our second part will explore potential veteran backups and prospects in the upcoming 2023 NFL Draft.
Ridder is expected to start in 2023 but Falcons can explore alternative options
For the record, I want to say before proceeding into outlining those possible options that I expect Ridder to be the team’s starter when the 2023 season kicks off in September. For a variety of reasons, I think Ridder showed enough to believe that he can be a serviceable to good starter for the team in the immediate future. But the reality of today’s NFL is that serviceable to good is often not good enough. And if the Falcons have an opportunity to find a quarterback that can be great, they may take advantage.
From here on, we will go deeper into opinions and speculations. The caveat is that while professionals like myself use fancy words like “projection” and “prognostication,” all it really is is just guessing. As the last few offseasons have shown us, turnover and turmoil at the quarterback position are just the new normal in the NFL. So if you want to take this with a grain of salt, I would not blame you.
The structure we’ll go through is based on a rough timeline outlined by Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap in breaking down the logistics of the Green Bay Packers trading Aaron Rodgers. Fitzgerald noted that the first domino to fall this offseason in the quarterback carousel would be the fate of Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
Derek Carr’s fate is the first domino to fall this offseason
That is due to the fact that Carr’s contract becomes guaranteed on February 15, prompting the Raiders to opt to trade him or cut him before then. Carr has a no-trade clause in his contract, so he has the opportunity to pick his next destination. Whether the Falcons are that destination remains to be seen, but I find it very doubtful. Reports already indicate that the Commanders, Jets, and Saints will be among his suitors.
If the Raiders do release Carr next month, it should get more teams involved in his pursuit, but I’m still skeptical the Falcons will be one of them. Carr turns 32 in March, will likely command a high salary, and feels too much like a reversion for the Falcons to what they had before in Matt Ryan. His limited mobility also seems to be a poor fit for the play-action-based offense cultivated by Smith. That just smells too much like regression to think the Falcons are serious contenders.
Ravens and Lamar Jackson will play franchise tag dance
The next domino would be what happens with Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Ravens have until March 7 to tag the impending free agent with a franchise tag. While a tag seems certain, it becomes a question of which tag the Ravens will use: exclusive or non-exclusive. While there has been speculation from the likes of NBC Sports’ Peter King that the non-exclusive tag is on the table, I also find that dubious. That would lead to the Ravens potentially allowing Jackson to walk and get less compensation in return than what is expected.
Hypothetically, if the Falcons signed Jackson to an offer sheet after receiving the non-exclusive tag, it would have to be for a price tag that the Ravens were unwilling to match. It has been widely reported that Jackson is seeking a fully guaranteed $250 million contract. If the Ravens didn’t match that, they’d be owed two first-round picks. However, a year ago we saw Watson traded to Cleveland for three firsts and two mid-round picks. Two firsts would be a massive bargain for the team acquiring Jackson and therefore seems unlikely the Ravens would risk it.
Instead, the likeliest outcome is the Ravens slapping the exclusive franchise tag on Jackson, preventing him from negotiating with other teams, and hoping that they can work out a long-term deal at some point in the next six months. Even if they eventually decide to trade Lamar, the exclusive tag puts them in complete control over what compensation they’d get in return.
It appears that is their plan, and their initial steps in firing offensive coordinator Greg Roman and involving Jackson in the search for his replacement is a welcome olive branch to mend any lingering resentment between the two parties from last year’s contentious negotiations.
So while it is worth speculating whether or not the Falcons would be interested in Jackson should he come available, right now, most signs indicate that he won’t so the issue is moot.
March free agency leads to limited options
After Jackson, we get into your traditional free agency period in the middle of March. Tom Brady, Geno Smith, Daniel Jones, and Jimmy Garoppolo appear as the headliners of this year’s class. And it doesn’t appear that the Falcons would be overly interested in any of them.
Jones’ athleticism might be intriguing in Smith’s scheme, but he should be seen as a marginal, at best, upgrade over what the team hopes Ridder can be in 2023. Not to mention, the Giants may tag Jones to take him off the market.
Garoppolo is well-versed in a similar scheme from his days in San Francisco, but his age (31), injury history, and the fact that the 49ers have tried to upgrade him with younger, more athletic players in Trey Lance and Brock Purdy are telling. Why would the Falcons think they wouldn’t be in the exact same boat a year from now?
Falcons could try to reclaim Trey Lance
Speaking of Garoppolo, he may not be the only quarterback exiting San Francisco this offseason as Purdy’s “ascendancy” is prompting reports from Mike Silver of the San Francisco Chronicle that Lance is potentially on the move this offseason.
There were rumors after the 2021 draft that the Falcons preferred Lance above other prospects and would have selected him if available with the fourth overall selection. If true, and that affinity still exists, the Falcons could definitely make a play for him again in 2023 if they don’t have to pay a hefty price.
Silver suggests a third-round pick would be the price for Lance, a relative bargain for a first-round caliber quarterback even if Lance hasn’t played enough yet to live up to that billing. But is that worthwhile compensation for the 49ers, who gave up multiple first-round picks to get Lance nearly two years ago? Instead, Silver also notes they could opt to keep Lance as a backup, especially given their recent struggles with their starters staying healthy.
But if the 49ers are prepared to move on from Lance, he would be an alluring option for the Falcons. It would give them another cost-controlled and talented young quarterback to compete for the starting spot with Ridder. Lance appears on schedule to be recovered from his season-ending ankle injury by the time OTAs roll around to be ready to compete for a starting spot opposite Ridder.
Is a Ryan Tannehill reunion possible?
The last domino that is worth exploring that may be another tantalizing option for the Falcons is Ryan Tannehill. His fate may be tied to that of Brady, who some reports suggest the Tennessee Titans may pursue.
Tannehill’s experience operating Smith’s scheme at a high level may make him one of the few older veterans the Falcons are willing to kick the tires on. The downsides of adding Tannehill are related to his age (he turns 35 in July) and the fact that he has been public with his unwillingness to help groom his replacement, which doesn’t bode well for Ridder’s future development.
But the upside is that he has been a very productive quarterback in this scheme when healthy. He has likely been productive enough that the Falcons could see themselves in immediate playoff contention next year.
Yet, that outcome is tied to the Titans moving on from him, which is likely dependent on upgrading with someone like Brady. Brady could be attracted to the Titans due to his relationship with head coach Mike Vrabel, his former teammate in New England. But it remains to be seen if Brady is even going to play this year, and if another team such as the Raiders offers a more attractive destination. So while I can say Tannehill is a possibility to land here in Atlanta, several other dominos would have to fall to make that outcome likely.
Instead, the Falcons' focus in free agency may be looking for a capable backup to replace Marcus Mariota, who is almost certainly going to be released come March. There are several potential options available, but we’ll explore those in part two, as well as the possibility that the Falcons dip back into the 2023 NFL Draft to find their quarterback of the future. Stay tuned!
But in the meantime, sound off in the comments if you find any of the aforementioned options worth exploring by the Falcons.