Falcons have activated their succession plan at quarterback

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (left) is greeted by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank before an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Credit: AP

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Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (left) is greeted by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank before an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Credit: AP

The Falcons are deeply exploring their succession plan at quarterback and met with Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson in Atlanta on Wednesday, the team acknowledged.

The Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is due a roster bonus by Saturday and reportedly would like to have a decision before that deadline. However, there are reports that it has been pushed to Tuesday, allowing the parties more time to work out the complicated details.

Watson, who played at Gainesville High and Clemson and was an AJC Super 11 player, has a no-trade clause and is set to make a decision between the Falcons and Saints. The Cleveland Browns have been eliminated from the process, according to Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot. The Panthers are no longer contenders, according to a person familar with the situation.

It’s a complicated deal that likely will require a departure from Ryan, who’s been with the team for 14 years. He arguably is the greatest Falcons quarterback of all-time as he has guided the team to a Super Bowl appearance and became the first player in franchise history to win the NFL’s MVP award, for the 2016 season.

The Falcons have a policy of not commenting on potential trades.

However, Falcons owner Arthur Blank discussed the possibility of a succession plan at quarterback with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during Super Bowl week. General manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith where non-committal when asked about Ryan at the NFL scouting combine.

The Falcons, who currently hold the eighth pick in the coming NFL draft, passed on quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones in the draft last year.

Ryan 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 team has worked a restructured deal, but has not filed it with the league.

Interest intensified in Watson after a Harris County grand jury declined to bring criminal charges in relation to sexual harassment allegations. He is still faces allegations in 22 civil lawsuits.

“Our fans should look for a succession plan,” Blank said during Super Bowl week. “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.”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Falcons had the fourth overall pick last season. Quarterbacks 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 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,was considered the top quarterback in the draft class entering the combine. 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.

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 offensive 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.”

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Watson met with the Falcons on Wednesdya. The Saints’ brass met with Watson for a second time on Wednesday night, with owner Gayle Benson included, sources told the Times-Picayune on Thursday. Nick Underhill of NewOrleans.Football first reported the news.

Watson met with the Panthers and the Browns on Monday.

The Saints made several salary cap-related moves Thursday morning, restructuring the contracts of linebacker Demario Davis, cornerback Bradley Roby, quarterback Taysom Hill and safety Malcolm Jenkins. Those moves gave the Saints approximately $30 million in salary cap space.

Watson has not played since 2020. He sat out last season because of the legal issues.

From 2017-20, Watson, who guided Clemson to a national championship, passed for 14,539 yards passing and 104 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. Watson signed a four-year, $156 million deal Sept. 5, 2020.

“We look for succession plans at every position,” Fontenot said at the combine when asked about Ryan. “We have to add to the roster at every single position. And where you can get in trouble is if you reach and you feel desperate in certain areas …. but we’re not going to do that, and yet, we’re going to evaluate. We’ve got to ...

“We actually had formal interviews with several quarterbacks (at the combine), and there’s a good group in this draft. There’s different flavors. We’re going to evaluate those players, and at the appropriate time we’ll add to that position. But I think you can get yourself in trouble if you reach and you don’t feel good about what you are doing.”

He was asked if Ryan was the Falcons’ quarterback for 2022.

“I’m not going to say anything about any particular players or any ... because if I answer that question, we can go through the entire roster and talk about who they are,” Fontenot said. “But I would say we’re going to look to add to every position and try to improve this roster.”

Ryan has never publicly asked to be traded. He has a great relationship with the administration.

“Matt, he’s a great professional,” Fontenot said. “He comes in and works every day and does everything he can do to help the team win. So, I would say that’s probably a question for Matt, specifically, but from my vantage point, from my standpoint, I really appreciate Matt and what he’s been in terms of a leader, in terms of (being a) worker (and) in terms of professional, everything he’s done here in Atlanta. I would say from my standpoint, from my vantage point, it has been excellent. I appreciate it.”

Smith also was asked about Ryan and his longevity.

“I understand that there is only one Tom Brady, but (Ryan) certainly feels good about where he’s at,” Smith said. “We anticipate Matt being a part of the team, but you know, I think you don’t ever back yourself into a corner. So, if somebody gives you an offer you can’t refuse. ... I think Matt knows how we feel about him. I think Matt’s got a lot of good football left him.”

Smith was asked about getting an offer for Ryan.

“It depends on what the offer is,” Smith said. “Like I said, it’s like the old Don Corleone, the offer that you can’t refuse. I think you’ve got to take it. But that’s with everything. I’m sure that somebody you know, you can ask Terry if somebody wants to give a bag of balls for me, he may push me out the door.”

Ryan, who’s been the consummate professional during his time with the Falcons, has been quiet during the process.

With a weak surrounding cast, Ryan had his worst season since early in his career last season. He completed 375 of 560 attempts (67%) for 3,968 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He had a passer rating of 90.4, which was his lowest since a 91 in 2010. He also threw 20 touchdown passes in 2017. The only season when he threw fewer than 20 was his rookie season in 2008. Ryan’s 6.16 net yards gained per pass attempt was the second lowest of his career. His 6.01 in his second season was the lowest.

Ryan’s protection was shaky, and he was without his top receiver, Calvin Ridley, for most of the season. He was sacked 40 times for the fourth consecutive season. He was hurried 48 times and hit an NFL-high 84 times.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The numbers were atrocious, as Ryan had 2.4 seconds average time in the pocket between the snap and throwing the ball or when pressure collapsed the pocket.

Ryan had the longest 300-yard passing game drought of his career. He did not have 300 yards passing game over the final nine games.

Josh Rosen opened the season as the backup quarterback after A.J. McCarron was injured in the exhibition season. Feleipe Franks finished the season as the backup.

Ryan, who was drafted third overall in 2008, was an immediate starter for the Falcons. He helped guide the Falcons to the playoffs as a rookie. He took the Falcons to the playoffs in four of his first six seasons in the league.

The Falcons went to the NFC title game after the 2012 season, but blew a lead and lost to Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers. After two losing seasons, former coach Mike Smith was fired.

With coach Dan Quinn, in his second season under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Ryan guided the Falcons to the Super Bowl and was named the league’s top player. The Falcons went to the playoffs the following season but have since fallen on hard times.

Over 14 seasons, Ryan has completed 5,242 of 8,003 pass attempts for 59,735 yards and 367 touchdowns. All franchise records. He also holds franchise records for career passer rating (94.2), career completion percentage (65.5%) and career 300-yard passing games (73).

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