After an abrupt exit from the team following his benching, it seemed likely that Marcus Mariota’s days with the Atlanta Falcons would be over sooner than later. That’s the case today, as the team elected not to wait until the start of the league year and have released Mariota, allowing him to seek a starting opportunity with another team.
The team announced the move on Tuesday, which will save them about $12 million in cap space with free agency just around the corner. That paves the way for the Falcons to acquire another quarterback, either to supplant Desmond Ridder or compete with him heading into the summer of 2023.
Mariota, 29, will hit free agency after a mixed bag of a season that showed he can at least take on bridge or spot starter duties for another team. The unquestioned starter in Atlanta to begin 2022 after being signed in free agency owing to his ties to Arthur Smith, Mariota started off the year on a bit of a tear, winning NFC Offensive Player of the Week after humbling San Francisco and making plays with both his legs and his arm. That six week stretch gave way to struggles, however, with Mariota’s loyal fanbase and fans eager to see Desmond Ridder arguing on a weekly basis while Atlanta wilted and lost six of their next seven games. Mariota had a couple of solid efforts in that stretch, but eventually Atlanta’s declining fortunes and his play led to him being benched for Ridder.
Along the way, Mariota showed he can pilot an offense while reinforcing the familiar criticisms of his consistency as a passer, as he mixed some hyper-efficient efforts with too many sailed throws and a baffling lack of a connection with Kyle Pitts. His ability as a runner remained sterling and led to some of the most fun moments of the 2022 season, and Arthur Smith’s faith in Mariota was evident as he held on to the starting job deeper into the season than we might have expected, given Atlanta’s tenuous hold on playoff hopes and declining late season fortunes.
That led to an odd turn of events where Mariota was informed of his benching, left the team, welcomed his first child into the world, and elected to get season-ending surgery on an ailment Arthur Smith said had not been an issue up until that point. That tumultuous ending and the structure of Mariota’s contract made it likely the Falcons would simply cut ties, regardless of Ridder’s future with the team, and that has come to pass.
The big takeaway for Falcons fans is the cap space. The $12 million the team frees up just adds to their free agent war chest in a year where they’re expected to be far more active than usual, and it puts them well over $60 million in available money to play with. They’ve been linked to quarterbacks (naturally), as well as top tier free agents like soon-to-be-ex-Bengals safety Jessie Bates, so we should expect them to be busy in a couple of weeks.
We do wish Mariota well wherever he lands next, and he shouldn’t struggle to at least find work as a backup elsewhere. Now we turn our eyes to the unsettled Falcons quarterback situation to see whether Desmond Ridder or someone else entirely will be under center in Week 1 for Atlanta.