FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It was a day that was always going to come. At some point, the Atlanta Falcons were going to move on from quarterback Matt Ryan, ending an era of success that resulted in three division titles and a Super Bowl appearance.
Now, Ryan is gone to the Indianapolis Colts. And his departure signals a transition for the Falcons. What that looks like, well, that’s why the Falcons hired general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith a season ago.
Even then, Falcons owner Arthur Blank had begun discussing a plan for a post-Ryan future in Atlanta. How it unfolded -- after a failed pursuit of quarterback Deshaun Watson -- was the surprise.
The Falcons recognized the need to embrace the rebuilding process, and that’s not a bad thing.
Everything Fontenot and Smith have said over the past year has been that they’d like to try and win now while focusing on the long-term building of the Falcons. At some point, though, they were going to have to make a choice because straddling those two areas with a contract like Ryan’s -- a $48 million cap hit -- was never going to be palatable.
The Falcons made the decision.
Eat the money this season in order to have financial freedom in 2023. It’s why Atlanta has over $62 million in dead money for 2022. When you’re trying to understand what the Falcons are doing here, understand it is probably a step backward in the short-term so they can instill their plan in the long-term.
What does this all mean?
2022 is going to be a difficult year
There’s no question. With more than a quarter of the team’s salary cap being consumed by dead money, there’s only going to be so much Atlanta can do to field a truly competitive team.
The Falcons will be a very young team while also having some veterans. Signing quarterback Marcus Mariota makes sense as a place to start. A former No. 2 overall pick, he’s still under 30. He has familiarity with Smith’s system -- he played for the Tennessee Titans the first five years of his career -- and Mariota watched as Smith, then the offensive coordinator, resurrected quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s career in his final year with the team.
Mariota -- and to a certain extent, Smith -- are going to see if that can happen again. If it does, then the Falcons have part of their problem solved because they have found their quarterback. If it does not, the club is likely to have a high pick in the 2023 draft and can try to invest in their next franchise quarterback.
Otherwise, 2022 might be a season of trying to see who the team can build around long-term. Some of those are answered, particularly in under-25 players in tight end Kyle Pitts, cornerback A.J. Terrell and right guard Chris Lindstrom. The Falcons gave a three-year extension to left tackle Jake Matthews which likely means they see him as part of the long-term future, too.
This season might be a lot like last season. Many players on short-term deals and a revolving group of faces the Falcons try to put together to see who else might join them. In the immediate, Atlanta has a lot of holes. Monday’s other move -- signing edge rusher Lorenzo Carter -- is an intriguing one because it’s a spot the Falcons desperately need players.
The Falcons still have holes at receiver, edge rusher and defensive lines and need to make competition better along the offensive line and at linebacker. Atlanta’s lack of cap space combined with the draft picks they have means the players coming in will either be young, cheap (older veterans) or both (reclamation project fliers). The biggest key for Atlanta is hitting on much of its 2022 draft as possible. Those players are going to need to play.
Don’t forget this, too. Fontenot wants to use the recently re-signed Cordarrelle Patterson as the example of what they can to do. Atlanta offers opportunity for playing time at every position so they can bring guys in on short deals. Some will shine. Some will fail. Perhaps the Falcons unlock a few players like Patterson, which if they are in their mid-20s instead of early 30s, could be steals.
It’s not the best way to build a roster, but if the Falcons find a handful of players out of that group then it could give them a jump-start into 2023.
The quarterback question
Mariota is the short-term answer. Good play could turn him into the long-term decision. That remains to be seen, but who replaces Ryan long-term won't be known for a while.
The 2022 quarterback draft class isn't great. Atlanta has enough holes on its roster that at this point, taking a quarterback at No. 8 seems like a risky proposition unless Smith and Fontenot decide there’s a player they believe can be the heir to Ryan.
The Falcons may look at a developmental player in the later rounds -- maybe if Desmond Ridder is there on Day 2 he’d be a candidate -- and continue to build other positions around the quarterback.
Having Mariota and knowing the team is not a Super Bowl contender in 2022 allows Fontenot and Smith to be patient. The 2023 quarterback class is expected to be much stronger than the 2022 one if the Falcons do eventually opt for a rookie.
And as seen with the past two offseasons, veteran quarterbacks are looking to move now more than ever, so perhaps the conversation a year from now is the Falcons adding a stalwart from another franchise instead of trading one away for the paltry return of a third-round pick.
2023 should offer relief
If, as expected, 2022 is rough, the Falcons should hold a high pick that could go toward a quarterback. If Mariota shows production, perhaps it becomes a massive bargaining chip to get more young capital.
More important, Atlanta’s salary cap will finally be free of the mess left by former general manager Thomas Dimitroff. The Falcons, as of Monday, have no dead money for 2023 -- although they’ll assuredly accrue some along the way, as most teams do. But they’ll also have potentially more than $140 million in cap space.
They can then go after big-time free agents and start to have a healthy enough cap space they can start to operate like a normal NFL franchise.
The time clock for the Fontenot-Smith tenure in Atlanta never really felt like it started when they were hired. They inherited an awful cap situation with bloated contracts and had little room to maneuver. Of course, they were going to say what they needed to say publicly because people in football want to win, and the only way to entice players in a short-term NFL is to act that way.
But the judgment of their tenures began Monday. Many of the big contract albatrosses are gone, and they’ve made the 2022 decision to eat the cap and start the build. It won’t look pretty. It’ll be a hard sell for at least a year.
But Fontenot and Smith sold Blank on a vision, and now they can start constructing, block by block, to try and fit the pieces together.