Falcons could trigger quarterback succession plan at NFL scouting combine

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Pitt QB Kenny Pickett looks ahead to the NFL and talks about the comparison to Cincinnati QB Joe Burrow. (D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

The Falcons, who hold the eighth pick in the coming NFL draft and will have a chance to address the team’s quarterback succession plan, are set to attend the NFL scouting combine Tuesday through Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

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Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, the most prolific passer in franchise history and the team’s only NFL MVP, is set to turn 37 in May and has two years remaining on his contract. Ryan’s current salary-cap numbers are $48.6 million for 2022 and $43.6 million for 2023.

The Falcons bypassed the quarterback market in the draft last year and may do so again this year, but at some point they must address adding the heir apparent to Ryan.

“Our fans should look for a succession plan,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during Super Bowl week recently. “And I think that’s not improper. It doesn’t show a lack of confidence in Matt, but, you know, I mean, Father Time will get to all of us.”

The quarterback group for the 2022 draft is not considered as talented as the group last year, when the Falcons, who had the fourth overall pick, elected to pass on Justin Fields and Mac Jones. Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance went first, second and third overall before the Falcons picked tight end Kyle Pitts.

“It’s just the way it works,” Blank said. “(The) human body isn’t designed to live to 150. So, Matt has given us great 14 years since 2008. Still playing at a very high level. ... I think it’s a credit to Matt and coach (Arthur) Smith that they work very well together.”

Ryan, despite being sacked more than 40 times or more over the past four seasons, wants to keep playing. He’s stated in the past that he wants to play into his 40s.

The Falcons could have their pick of the quarterback class with the eighth overall pick. Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, who came on late in his career, is considered the top quarterback in the draft class entering the combine.

Also, Mississippi’s Matt Corral, Liberty’s Malik Willis, (Roswell and Westlake High), North Carolina’s Sam Howell and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder are considered among the top five quarterback prospects.

Pickett was spectacular in a 52-21 rout of Georgia Tech on Oct. 1 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. He completed 23 of 36 passes (63.9%) for 389 yards and four touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets.

He made good use of an extra season of eligibility and tossed 40 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. He completed 334 of 497 passes for 4,066 yards as he set several school records.

He finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.

“I think the game really slowed down for me mentally,” Pickett said. “Being able to take what I’m watching on film, streamline that, to seeing those pictures on the game field. Knowing how to attack a good defense and knowing what we are doing with our game plan. I think that really took my game the next level. It really boosted our offense.”

Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy compared Pickett’s persona with Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.

“He’s a heck of a player, obviously, at the college level and now doing what he’s doing at the NFL,” Pickett said of Burrow. “Had a chance to be roommates with him at the Manning (family passing) camp. Talked to him actually towards the end of our season at Pitt. Great guy. Definitely a great role model to have going into the NFL.”

Pickett does believe that he and Burrow have similar mobility.

“He’s a mobile guy,” Pickett said. “He is really accurate from the pocket. We’re both not (Ravens quarterback) Lamar Jackson, but we can move around, extend some plays and find guys downfield. I think that’s a huge piece.”

Pickett tried to make the most of returning to Pittsburgh after checking on his draft status after his junior season.

“This is a unique process,” Pickett said. “I’m just trying to really enjoy every moment of it.”

Pickett would come in with some knowledge of the inner workings of an NFL team. The Panthers practice at the same facility as the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“You see how they operate every day in practice,” Pickett said. “(That) we share a practice facility doesn’t mean that we see them in the building, but we see them out on the field. See how they go about their business. How they work. Go through the walk-throughs and how professional they are.

“So, as a young kid coming into Pitt as freshmen and sophomores, you can see how things are supposed to be done on our practice field and obviously, at the highest level next door.”

With the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers are also in the quarterback market.

“Big Ben’s a Hall of Famer and had an unbelievable career ... so that the possibility of getting drafted there is really unbelievable,” said Pickett, who is from Oakhurst, N.J. “Pittsburgh really is my second home, so that’d be kind of a dream.”

Pickett and Howell had some battles in the ACC.

“Sam’s a great player,” Pickett said.

Pickett received a taste of the interview process at the Senior Bowl.

“Teams want to know what kind of system you were in college and details about that system,” Pickett said. “Everyone has a different process. (The interviews) kind of all touch on the same things in terms of the questions that they’re asking. Some teams do it by having more unique style, which has been cool to learn their system quickly and trying to give it back what they just told me.”

Pickett is hoping to play early in his career, but would have to sit at least a season behind Ryan.

“Become a successful NFL starter,” Pickett said of his goals for his first season. “I don’t know what I don’t know. Learn as much as I can and whatever organization I go to, learn from the quarterbacks in the (meeting) room, learn from the staff, the whole coaching staff and the team in general. Throughout my career, I was always learning every day at Pitt. That’s something I want to take the NFL as well.”

Ryan and Smith, who calls his own plays, blended together well last season as the Falcons overachieved and finished 7-10 despite the poor blocking and lack of weapons.

“I think he’s been able to put in place coach Smith’s offensive system,” Blank said. “Matt has done very well on it. So, you know, I think we’ll continue to assess that and continue to look at it.

“Matt looks at it, from his standpoint from his health and family. We look at it as well as in terms of we have an obligation to the franchise and to our fans to make sure we have a smooth transition from Matt Ryan to the next great quarterback.”

Combined ShapeCaption
American Team quarterback Sam Howell, of North Carolina, throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA Senior Bowl college football game, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Credit: AP

American Team quarterback Sam Howell, of North Carolina, throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA Senior Bowl college football game, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Credit: AP

Combined ShapeCaption
American Team quarterback Sam Howell, of North Carolina, throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA Senior Bowl college football game, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

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