I didn’t expect the Falcons to land Lamar Jackson. I also didn’t expect the Falcons to not even try to land Lamar Jackson, which is the world we find ourselves in today. This is a team without a proven option at quarterback currently on the roster, no matter how much they may like Desmond Ridder, and a chance to negotiate for a trade with a former NFL MVP, and yet it was being widely reported that they were out of the running minutes after the Ravens tag announcement. The natural question is why?
That’s a question several fanbases are asking, with a flurry of reports on Tuesday indicating that the Panthers, Dolphins, and Commanders are also out of the hunt for Jackson. There have been justified rumblings of collusion by the NFL, given that Jackson is looking for a fully-guaranteed deal teams clearly do not want to give him, and those rumblings will not quiet down unless teams start pitching Jackson soon.
Is that motivating the Falcons? As I see it there are four possible options to choose from for why the Falcons ultimately were not interested in pursuing a trade for Jackson, and none of them are “the Falcons don’t think Jackson is good enough to pursue.” Let’s review what they might be.
Option #1: Their team-building philosophy
I’ll lead with this one because it fits with Terry Fontenot’s public statements and actions, minus the Deshaun Watson pursuit, since arriving in Atlanta as the general manager back in early 2021.
In a recent article from Albert Breer, Fontenot talked up (ALERT: Saints) Drew Brees’ intangibles and the degree to which seeing a player without necessarily elite physical tools became great has influenced him. The Falcons have, notably, talked up Ridder’s intangibles in the past, with Cameron Wolfe’s May 2022 interview with Fontenot containing this passage about how the team viewed Ridder shortly after drafting him:
“In fact, Ridder viewed Atlanta as a “perfect fit” for him because he compares himself to Mariota. The Falcons view Ridder as a potential developmental starter. They were particularly impressed with Ridder’s toughness, football IQ, mobility, maturity, leadership and how his college coaches said he changed their program during his 43-win career at Cincinnati. Even if he isn’t the QB answer, he could become a long-term backup.”
If the Falcons think Ridder can be a quality starter—and at least publicly, they’ve said they’re excited about him enough that it seems possible—then their willingness to roll with him instead of a clear upgrade in Jackson without having to surrender hundreds of millions of dollars in a new contract and multiple first round picks makes either a lot of sense or some sense, depending on your perspective.
But there’s a larger philosophy of building a great team around a quarterback that Fontenot has waxed philosophical about, both in the past and recently. From Breer’s article:
“So our mindset is let’s continue to work hard to build the total team and improve the roster, because in order for anybody to be successful (at quarterback), we have to have the right team.”
This is the other piece here. The Falcons are, with all their money and draft picks, a long way away from having a juggernaut roster. If the team thinks the best use of the 2023 season is giving Ridder a shot with a greatly improved but still not quite complete roster to see how he fares, with the ability to pivot to a draft pick or veteran option in 2024 with plenty of cap space and additional draft capital heading their way thanks to the Calvin Ridley trade, then of course they would take this road. Hell, if they want to draft another cost-controlled quarterback that they prefer to Ridder, the same thoughts apply with what many would view as a surer bet. Either way, it’s about having a young quarterback that could grow with the roster.
The short version here is that the Falcons may well believe Ridder/a draft pick can be their long-term starter and that their resources are best poured into the rest of the roster, and that might be a compelling enough reason to not chase Jackson. Depending on your vantage point, that might seem like an absolutely ridiculous notion, but I do not find it all that far-fetched that the Falcons might think an Atlanta team with a super cheap quarterback and a more balanced roster might be preferable to one with Jackson and long-term financial and draft capital restraints.
Of course, they might have never believed a pursuit of Jackson would bear fruit, because...
Option #2: They’re cynical about Baltimore’s intentions
Conor Orr at Sports Illustrated was among those who wrote about why the Ravens chose the non-exclusive tag in the first place, and how it likely came from a place of confidence rather than desperation. I was surprised to see the tag applied given the potential that Baltimore could lose Jackson for only two first round picks, but if you assume the Ravens have no intention of losing him, things click into place.
Essentially, the Falcons may believe that the Ravens are simply trying to use other teams to negotiate Jackson’s next deal for them, with the intention to match all but the most absolutely outlandish contract offer. Atlanta blinked when Cleveland went for a fully-guaranteed deal (more on that in a moment) with Watson. If Arthur Blank and company are not willing to sign up for that kind of contract for Jackson, does it really make sense to burn time and energy negotiating with Jackson just to give Baltimore an offer they can use to keep their quarterback in the fold?
If the Falcons like other options at quarterback and believe in their team-building philosophy, and they viewed Baltimore’s non-exclusive tag as an open invitation for teams to negotiate Jackson’s next Ravens contract for them, their lack of interest would make a lot of sense. Why would Fontenot and company spend, say, multiple weeks coming up with a great deal for the Falcons, only to watch the Ravens happily match it and leave Atlanta scrambling for what remains of a sad pile of free agent quarterbacks? Again, it doesn’t make sense for them to do so.
Of course, the more sinister interpretation is that...
Option #3: They’re part of a larger collusion effort
Nobody in the upper echelons of the NFL was particularly happy when the Browns gave Watson a fully guaranteed long-term deal, the first such mega-deal of its kind, especially given that Watson was embroiled in well over 20 civil cases alleging a host of ghastly mistreatment and sexual misconduct toward massage therapists. Owners are keen to avoid having to give up that kind of contract again, and that’s exactly the sort of contract Lamar Jackson is seeking, given that he’s good enough and young enough to command it.
Generally speaking, I don’t think you can put anything reprehensible or cravenly past a group of billionaires, so it’s certainly possible the Falcons’ lack of interest is driven by a larger landscape of owners not wanting to open the floodgates to fully guaranteed deals. Leaving Jackson twisting in the wind despite his unquestioned excellence as a player is, you must admit, a way to send a powerful message to other players while maintaining a ludicrously thin veneer of not conspiring to do so. Whether something so brazen can hold up—or whether teams hungry for a quarterback eventually break down and try to negotiate with Jackson—remains to be seen.
A lot of NFL teams shouting from the rooftop that they are not pursuing Lamar Jackson as Lamar Jackson clearly seeks guaranteed money, something billionaire owners aren’t keen of. Hm.— Tyler Dunne (@TyDunne) March 7, 2023
Some of you still are not interested in hearing this, but the NFL successfully worked to keep Colin Kaepernick out of the league for many years and managed to convince a significant number of people that it was for purely football reasons, so we are well aware that they are not above working to shut down what team owners and the league office perceive to be a threat to business and bottom line. If they do not want any more fully guaranteed mega deals landing in this league, this is a perfect opportunity to show that with some tiny degree of deniability by ultimately landing Jackson back in Baltimore without his preferred contract. Whether that takes the form of no teams trying for Jackson or teams making weak attempts that fall well short of a fully guaranteed deal also remains to be seen.
You will see these kinds of accusations flying around this week and for many weeks to come if Jackson’s situation drags on, and given the league’s history, it will be hard not to be uneasy that they may well be true.
Option #4: They’re not really out of the hunt
The overwhelming number of reports just minutes after Jackson received his tag certainly suggests the Falcons are out of the picture, as the team would have had to flatly say they’re not in on Jackson. That doesn’t mean that stance is permanent, however.
Jonathan Jones at CBS Sports suggested as much, not specifically for the Falcons but for all the teams who say they’re not in on Jackson. What if he doesn’t sign his tender and this drags out into the summer, when an injury or worrying ineffectiveness pops up at the quarterback position for one of these teams? Will a team feel pressured to make a splash and find that Jackson suddenly looks a whole lot more appealing? Are teams hoping to cool the demand for Jackson’s services before pouncing down the line?
When it comes to who’s in and who’s out on Lamar, know this: a team’s stance today may not be its stance in April, or post draft, or training camp. If Jackson lets the tag sit unsigned, plenty can happen over the coming months.— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) March 7, 2023
I find it unlikely that Atlanta would change course after free agency and the draft—they’re almost certainly adding a veteran and a draft pick isn’t an impossibility, which means it would be awkward to dump multiple players and snag Jackson—but you can’t rule it out. A stance that’s easy in early March may be more complicated in May, June, July, or even August, depending on how long this drags out, and teams like Atlanta and Washington might hit the panic button if their short-term and long-term futures at quarterback suddenly look dire.
In the end, barring the Falcons coming out and telling us why they’ve elected not to pursue a Lamar Jackson trade, we are left to guess their rationale and intentions. I believe you can make a credible case that it is a combination of all four factors I’ve listed above, with the team’s belief in Desmond Ridder and desire to spread their cap space around to address multiple needs mixing with a distrust of Baltimore’s willingness to let Jackson go and Arthur Blank being all too amenable to avoiding handing out a fully guaranteed deal. I also believe that in the right circumstances, however unlikely they may be, Atlanta could be tempted to reverse course.
Whatever their reasons, the Falcons appear poised to walk their talk of building up the team around a quarterback, rather than landing an elite quarterback and counting on him to elevate a roster. Their faith in their ability to do just that is admirable, but their chances of succeeding are what we’ll all be scrutinizing heavily in the months ahead, with the questions about the non-pursuit of Jackson likely to linger until (or if) we know this plan works out.