Falcons QB Matt Ryan currently stands 10th on the NFL's list of career passing yards.

Matt Ryan makes Falcons only NFC South team set at QB

I don’t know how much longer Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan will be a good NFL starter. He turns 34 in May. I’m confident that Ryan’s window will extend beyond that of Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who just turned 41. Brees already is considering hanging them up.

Maybe Ryan’s remarkable run of good injury luck will start going the other way. Cam Newton, 30, has suffered bad fortune in that area for a while. That’s why the Panthers may be moving on from him. The Falcons were the first of many teams to expose Newton’s backup, Kyle Allen. 

Ryan probably won’t duplicate his MVP form from 2016, but his ceiling is top 10 in the league. Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston won’t stop being a turnover machine, so his ceiling is Ryan’s floor. The Bucs might be done hoping Winston figures it out.

The point here is that every team in the NFC South except the Falcons has uncertainty at QB. The other three teams will either line up with new quarterbacks or stick with guys that have questions about how effective they can be. The Falcons have posted consecutive losing seasons but it still holds that, in a passing league, a team with Ryan and Julio Jones can’t be discounted. 

Ryan had an off-year in 2019. Pro Football Focus still ranked him 15th among QBs with at least 250 drop backs. Winston is 21st. Allen is 32nd. 

Brees is No. 3 in PFF’s rankings. NFL Network reports that Brees will take a month to decide if he wants to keep trying to defy time. The Saints want Brees back, as they should. He might have one more Super Bowl run left in him. 

But there is a risk for the Saints. A pattern has emerged for Brees over the past two seasons. He looks washed up, gets revitalized and then ends the year with a thud. What if the revitalization doesn’t happen this time? 

The Saints paid Teddy Bridgewater $7.5 million to back up Brees last season. It was a good investment: Bridgewater was competent for five games in relief of Brees. But he’s set to be become a free agent, and there will be a market for him to be a starter elsewhere. 

Taysom Hill, the Saints’ No. 3 quarterback, also can hit the market. There’s speculation that Saints coach Sean Payton eventually wants to build an offense around Hill, whom he’s compared with Steve Young. The Falcons should hope that happens because Hill is a gadget guy, not a starting quarterback.

If Brees comes back, the Saints will have the best quarterback in the NFC South. That’s assuming he doesn’t finally fall off a career cliff. If Brees doesn’t return, then the Falcons will have the best QB situation in the division no matter what the Bucs and Panthers do because the free-agent options aren’t appetizing.

Winston is set for free agency, too. Opinions on him are polarizing. That’s appropriate for the first quarterback to throw at least 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a season. Coach Bruce Arians doesn’t seem to be a Winston fan, but Arians might talk himself into believing he can fix Winston with another year. 

The Panthers hired coach Matt Rhule soon after his Baylor team lost to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Rhule immediately became part of a franchise-shaping decision with Newton, who had foot surgery in December. The Panthers, like the Bucs, must consider that there is no great Plan “B.” 

The Falcons don’t need to make that kind of calculation. They are set at QB. There’s much else to fix. There are open questions about whether coach Dan Quinn, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and new supervisor Rich McKay can do it. 

Still, a good quarterback gives the Falcons a chance. Even better when that QB stands out among division foes. Consider that the Falcons are 8-4 in the division over the past two seasons. That’s despite a bad defense and a leaky offensive line. 

Ryan is the main reason the Falcons didn’t completely collapse. I see his 2019 season as an outlier rather than a sign of decline. And it’s not as if Ryan was bad last season. He just wasn’t good enough to lift a bad team to the playoffs. 

Ryan made more inexplicable decisions than usual, and his accuracy wavered. There also were circumstances beyond his control. Notes PFF: “(H)is offensive line struggled in pass protection, and he faced his highest pressure rate since 2013 — and that was also the last year that Ryan finished outside of the top 10 in PFF’s quarterback rankings.” 

Ryan will be better if Quinn and Dimitroff can put a better offensive line in front of him and coordinator Dirk Koetter can develop a better plan. Those aren’t small issues. But the Falcons have a QB they can be confident will be among the best in 2020. That’s a luxury in the NFC South.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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