The free agent market at quarterback figures to be thin in 2024. I’ve said repeatedly that I’d like the Atlanta Falcons to draft their next quarterback, given the potential strength of this class, and it’s unlikely anything is going to change my mind between now and next April.
I’m not in charge of Falcons personnel decisions—feel free to cheer loudly right now, if the spirit moves you—and there is certainly a legitimate possibility that the Falcons go the veteran quarterback route in 2024. That was extremely unappealing with Ryan Tannehill seemed like the best option likely to be available, but it may have become slightly more appealing for team and fans with this week’s big news, depending on where both stand.
That news? That Russell Wilson has been benched by the Denver Broncos, and that the benching is likely a prelude to the Broncos cutting him after the season. If you assume Kirk Cousins will remain in Minnesota, as I do, then Wilson likely springs to the top of any free agent quarterback list. He may just find a landing spot in Atlanta.
I don’t write these kinds of articles as often as I used to, because I think we all get a little tired of wishcasting and exploring unlikely avenues. Wilson feels like he might just be a legitimate option for the Falcons in the right circumstances, however.
Why is Wilson being cut?
Multiple reasons, but the biggest is that he costs too much money. The Broncos now have Sean Payton as their head coach, and he seemed impatient with Wilson from the jump, likely because he wants his own
Taysom Hill quarterback to develop. Perhaps Wilson could compete in the summer for this team if it weren’t for the fact that his contract is onerous beyond belief.
It’s so onerous in part because Wilson hasn’t even started playing on the new deal Denver signed him to when he joined the team. In fact, that deal kicks off next year, and will leave the Broncos with a whopping $85 million in dead money if they cut him, either all at once or spread out a bit with a post-June 1 designation. The team has decided there’s no sense in risking injury, which would guarantee the deal, and so they’ll park him and then cut him this spring.
It was explained, the Broncos never told Wilson if or when they would bench him this season, he just played until he was told this morning he was no longer starting.— Dianna Russini (@DMRussini) December 28, 2023
Obviously, if Wilson was playing like a truly elite quarterback, the team would just eat their frustration and the dollars and keep going. But Wilson has not been that guy, with disastrous games against the Texans and Chiefs joining lackluster efforts in several other games this year. Sean Payton has felt compelled, both because of the state of Denver’s receiving corps and Wilson’s own growing limitations, to lean heavily on screen passes and running backs to the tune of 129 combined targets for backs.
Wilson’s tendency to try to extend plays, sometimes by bailing out of a decent pocket, and an uneven ability to feel pressure and simply drop back and pass have conspired with up-and-down line play to lead to ton of sacks. While his surface numbers are still pretty good and Wilson remains a talented passer and scrambler, he’s not anywhere close to height-of-his-powers-in-Seattle Russell Wilson any longer. Denver clearly feels the price of that play is not remotely worth it, and since Payton holds the real power in the building for the Broncos, he’ll get to pick his next quarterback.
Why might the Falcons be interested?
Wilson still does have talent, and he’d land on an Atlanta team that (assuming they keep Arthur Smith, as I am) has an established head coach and the pieces of a pretty potent offense. This ground game should be special even if it hasn’t been in 2023, and having Drake London, Kyle Pitts, Bijan Robinson, and maybe Jonnu Smith to throw to is a solid start. Wilson would also enjoy better pass protection in Atlanta, likely a plus for a 36-year-old quarterback who has taken plenty of hits in his career.
Okay, so that’s more about why Wilson might be interested in coming to Atlanta. The reasons the Falcons might be interested in turn?
- Wilson is a hyper-effective passer in the red zone—he’s 4th in the NFL in red zone touchdowns and fifth in yardage this year—and Smith was used to having one of those in Ryan Tannehill back in his Tennessee days. Wilson simply heats up inside the 20, as even during the past two years in an annoying Denver offense, he’s thrown 27 touchdowns versus two interceptions; for his career, that’s 221 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. To put that in perspective, Desmond Ridder threw seven red zone touchdowns and three interceptions just in his time as a starter this past season. Wilson has also parked 26 rushing touchdowns in his career inside the 20, and Smith would likely appreciate both his track record and his ability to sow chaos in the red zone.
- He is still capable of wizardry, even if those spells sometimes sputter. When things break down and a quarterback has to buy time with his legs or take off, Ridder has often scuffled, but Wilson (sometimes to his detriment) never hesitates to get moving and try to create something. He’s far quicker, more decisive, and more capable than Ridder of making something happen when everything seems to be going wrong, and that built-in fail safe is a good thing to have in a passing attack that needs work and more talent to function at a higher level. Wilson is also lethal on the critical third and fourth downs Smith harps on, with an ability to run for a first down on shorter downs and sharp passing when that’s not called for. On fourth downs in 2023, for example, he’s dropped back five times and has completed three passes for three first downs, running eight times and picking up seven first downs; on third down and under 10 yards, his passer rating is north of 116 and he’s regularly making positive plays happen. When he’s rolling, Wilson still has an ability to throw defenses into disarray in those vital situations.
- Zooming out a bit from those particular points in his favor, Wilson is likely to be the best free agent quarterback on the market. Baker Mayfield has played surprisingly well this year but I wouldn’t necessarily count on a repeat of that, and Tampa Bay is unlikely to let him leave if they sniff the playoffs because of the difficulty of getting a better quarterback. Cousins is expected to re-sign, Ryan Tannehill looks old and creaky, and the best player outside of that group is likely Jacoby Brissett, who is a player I have made no secret that I appreciate but likely fits better as a (very good) bridge starter for a team looking to take their time with a young quarterback. Wilson will immediately stand out in that market once he’s released, even with his age and the knowledge that you have to work your offense around him, and thus would be a player who would interest the Falcons if they’re unable to or unwilling to go get a rookie.
- Also, the price is likely to be more palatable. After some ups-and-downs at the end of his Seattle career, a disastrous 2022, and a 2023 that has made it clear that the Wilson of yesteryear is slowly eroding away, the megadeal the Broncos signed him to is not going to be the deal he gets from his next team. You’ll still need a high-end starting quarterback contract spread out over 2-3 years, I’d wager, but Wilson is not sniffing the Denver deal again and he surely knows that. If Wilson is content with the money he’s about to get from the Broncos and wants them to feel the pain from his contract, he could take a small base salary from his new team and let the Broncos pay the rest of the dead money he’s owed. That potentially tiny cost would make him a more appealing option, as well, as a team like the Falcons could pour more resources into the rest of their roster.
- If Arthur Blank elects to keep Arthur Smith around—and that’s really the only situation I’d see Wilson coming to Atlanta in, barring the hiring of someone he has ties to—the owner is going to want to all but ensure the 2024 season is a playoff year. For better or for worse, the proposition of rolling the dice on a top rookie quarterback might not be as palatable given that it can take time for those picks to pay off, and that may especially be true if the Falcons can’t get near, say, the top three options in this class. Wilson is a Super Bowl winner and a household name who can easily be sold as an upgrade for the quarterback position for Atlanta, and while the on-field results are what do and should matter, it’s also the kind of move a team desperate to signal their seriousness to a fanbase might make.
Why the Falcons might not be interested
As appealing as Wilson may be because of his track record, ability to create, and red zone and critical down performance, there are compelling reasons the Falcons may elect to pass.
- Wilson takes too many sacks, a side effect of his desire to make something out of nothing, make something great out of something solid, and so forth and so on. Because he holds on to the ball for a long time and because he’s prone to roam, Wilson absorbs a lot of hits, something he was not thrilled about in Seattle and has not really gotten better in Denver. You can hang some of that on protection issues, but Wilson does wander (or simply sit) into his fair share of negative plays. Fans tired of drive-killing sacks like we saw from Marcus Mariota a year ago or Ridder this year will have to live with some from Wilson, and that might give Smith and company pause.
- The sacks are a symptom of Wilson’s larger, long-standing preference for working out of structure. In a clean pocket, Wilson can linger and dither until the pressure shows up, but he’d prefer to take off and try to make a play on the run. He has never been fantastic at utilizing the middle of the field, something that is partly a product of his height and partly a product of his desire to roll out, and Wilson can and does miss open receivers. With age taking its toll, the decision-making becomes a more glaring issue, because Wilson might be a step slower to escape, a tick less quick and potent with his ability to deliver the ball, and more inclined to unwisely press to make a play that he can no longer make. If you want your quarterback to work in a fairly rigid, rhythm-based passing game, Wilson is not your ideal player, and is in fact pretty damn far away from your ideal player. You need to take him on knowing that he can still be a potent playmaker, but that you’ll have to endure inconsistency and frustration that have been on the rise in his game for years.
- He is not getting any younger, and this team is not supposed to be going year-to-year with their quarterback situation. Terry Fontenot has talked time and time again about having a long-term plan to go with the short-term plan, and swapping out an aging Matt Ryan for Marcus Mariota for Desmond Ridder for Taylor Heinicke for an aging Russell Wilson is the kind of arc that makes talk of meticulous future planning sound ridiculous. The Falcons could get a quality year or two out of Wilson if everything breaks right, but if he breaks down entirely or simply declines further and the offense around him can’t compensate for that, it’ll be a fairly expensive whiff for a team that can’t afford to screw up the quarterback position again.
- He has a reputation as a grating player. We saw the relationship with teammates and coaches sour in Seattle, and there have been reports that teammates have gotten in his face in Denver. Sean Payton also seemed chronically annoyed by Wilson, but to be fair, I’d annoy Payton too if I had the opportunity. Whether he can come in to a new locker room with a seemingly sturdy culture and fit in is something the Falcons would likely spend a lot of time debating and considering, given the outsized importance of culture for the organization.
As things stand today, I’m expecting the Falcons to retain Arthur Smith (based on reporting that it would take a total collapse at the end of the year and Blank’s evident fondness for him) and draft a quarterback for the present and future. It’s the smart long-term play, assuming there’s a player within reach the Falcons like, and it’s important to get that position right regardless of who your coach is. If the Falcons move on from Smith, a new head coach wanting his own rookie to mold makes even more sense.
But I don’t think ruling out Wilson to Atlanta entirely is a wise thing to do, especially well before the next league year begins. A team that has spun through quarterbacks and may well endure its sixth straight losing, playoff-less season in a row will certainly want to ensure the 2024 season is a big improvement, and out of the free agent options available to them only Kirk Cousins and Wilson figure to offer that kind of immediate upside. There are reasons to explore Wilson and some very compelling ones to simply go get that young quarterback instead, but with so much uncertainty surrounding the Atlanta Falcons and the thinning patience for both the franchise and the fanbase, it’s an avenue the team may yet travel.