Atlanta Falcons reject rebuild talk, eye 'transition' year after Matt Ryan trade

The Atlanta Falcons, days after trading away franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, acknowledged Wednesday they are in the midst of a franchise-wide transition.

While general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith were loath to use the word "rebuilding," Fontenot did say the franchise is "taking it on the chin this year" in terms of the team's dead money.

Atlanta faces dead-money charges of over $62 million after the trade Monday that sent Ryan to the Colts and the 2021 deal with the Titans that sent former star receiver Julio Jones to Tennessee.

But the Falcons don't look at it as rebuilding. It is, Fontenot said, "not something that we ever want to say." But regardless of how leadership wants to classify it, the Falcons clearly are entering a time of transition.

"I don't know what coach is going to coach a team and say, 'Hey guys, we're rebuilding,'" Smith said. "I understand where we're at -- we're in transition. And there is certain elements, you are, you're constantly rebuilding in the NFL. Your roster changes year to year so much.

"It's more of a team philosophy in the players that we have here competing every day and the coaches. So I understand you're talking about big-picture, and I'm not dismissing that. But I'm just talking about your charge when you're in the National Football League: Our objective is to win football games."

Nowhere is that more apparent for the Falcons than at quarterback, where the Falcons traded Ryan, signed 2015 No. 2 pick Marcus Mariota and pursued a possible trade for Deshaun Watson.

The Falcons, who dealt Ryan for a third-round draft pick, said the 14-year veteran was involved in the conversations about his potential trade -- in terms of allowing him to talk with other teams and to identify destinations where he would like to play.

Fontenot said that Atlanta had considered trading Ryan before the possibility of acquiring Watson presented itself and that when they decided to deal the former MVP, they wanted him to have a say -- even if it meant perhaps not getting as much compensation as the Falcons might have gotten elsewhere.

"We could have had a drawn-out process and shopped him and gone through this and traded him somewhere he didn't want to be," Fontenot said. "But we talked about it. We said if we're going to go down this road, we want to do right by Matt. And he has to be involved in it."

Smith also said he's excited to work with Mariota, who signed with the Falcons hours after the Ryan trade. Mariota previously played under Smith in Tennessee when he was the offensive coordinator in 2019 -- the same year Mariota was demoted to a backup role behind Ryan Tannehill.

"There's been a lot of growth from him and myself," Smith said. "I mean, ironically, [Mariota and Tannehill] are completely different players, but Ryan Tannehill was in this situation when he got there. So Marcus is a high-end talent, just like Ryan was, he was a first-round pick and he's in a different spot in his career.

"I trust Marcus, and Marcus, he's going to come in here and he's going to give us everything he's got. He's got a high-end talent, and he understands what's happened in the past. He's learned from them, I've learned from them and you feel excited about the opportunity."

Fontenot, though, said the Falcons will add at least one more quarterback -- the only ones on the roster now are Mariota and second-year pro Feleipe Franks -- either through free agency or in next month's draft.

Fontenot did say "we're not going to reach and do something that we're not excited about." The Falcons attended Malik Willis' pro day Tuesday at Liberty and plan to also attend pro days this week for Matt Corral at Ole Miss and Desmond Ridder at Cincinnati.

While the Falcons might have been considering moving Ryan before becoming involved in the Watson trade talks, that pursuit -- which was made public -- did make it clear the Falcons were interested in making a move.

Fontenot and Smith declined to say whether they spoke with any of the 22 women who have filed lawsuits in Harris County, Texas, against Watson with allegations ranging from sexual assault to inappropriate conduct or with the women's attorney, Tony Buzbee. They also would not say whether they read any of the 22 complaints. Buzbee told ESPN on Sunday that he had not spoken with any NFL teams.

"We're not going to get into our process," Smith said. "We wouldn't in any potential trades with any potential player. We understand the seriousness of the questions you're asking, but we're also not going to comment on an ongoing civil case."

Fontenot did say, though, that when the Falcons looked into Watson, the franchise's decision-makers "made a collective decision" they wanted to "explore" a trade for him. At no point, Fontenot said, did the Falcons feel they were going to have Watson in Atlanta for sure.

Fontenot said that had Watson selected Atlanta, it was "such a layered process" -- which would have included negotiations with the Texans and "more exploring" -- that it wouldn't have been as simple as Watson saying he wanted to play with the Falcons.

Atlanta did not land Watson, though, and instead ended up trading Ryan and acquiring Mariota, setting forth a transition that franchise leadership knew was going to come eventually.

"Our charge is not to be stuck in this kind of limbo area," Smith said. "We're going to build this thing the right way. And we're going to be competitive this year. That's our charge, as a team, as a coach, nobody's sitting there saying rebuild."