Matt Ryan era ends abruptly; franchise QB traded to Colts

Team to take $40.5 million dead-money salary cap hit

Quarterback Matt Ryan, perhaps the greatest player in Atlanta Falcons history, was ushered out of town to the Colts for a second-day draft pick on Monday.

“This was a difficult decision, but it was made easier by Matt’s professionalism and understanding throughout,” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said in a statement released by the team. “Our goal in every decision is to improve our organization for the long term. We believe today’s agreement is the best long-term decision, not only for our organization, but also the best for Matt.”

The Falcons are set to receive a 2022 third-round draft pick for Ryan, a four-time Pro Bowler.

“This business is not without its difficult decisions, and while this is one of the most difficult decisions we have faced as a club, we feel it is in the best long-term interests of both the Atlanta Falcons and Matt Ryan,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said a statement released by the team. “On behalf of the entire Falcons organization, I wish him success as he continues his career and know that he will bring the same dedication and professionalism to his next club.”

The team will take a substantial $40.5 million salary cap hit in dead money to move on from Ryan and his contract. The Colts, who are not making any changes in the contract, will have Ryan for two years at $24.7 million in 2022 and $28.2 million in 2023. Dead money counts against the salary cap even though the player is no longer with a team. All of the bonus money paid to Ryan accelerates into this year’s salary cap for the Falcons, who were already at $20 million in dead money mostly from the Julio Jones and Dante Fowler contracts.

“We’re always evaluating and looking for opportunities to improve our team for the long term,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “This move is another step in that (direction), and we’re looking forward to the future.”

In a related move, the Falcons reunited Smith with former Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has a 29-32 record as an NFL starter. He agreed to a two-year deal with the Falcons on Monday.

Mariota, 28, has been a backup for the Raiders the past two seasons.

He was drafted second overall by the Titans in 2015. Smith was the tight ends coach for the Titans from 2015 to ‘18. In Mariota’s final season with the Titans in 2019, Smith was the offensive coordinator. Mariota was 2-4 in six games with Smith in 2019. He went 3-9 as a rookie in 2015, 8-7 in 2016, 9-6 in 2017 and 7-6 in 2018.

Mariota has completed 1,128 of 1795 passes (62.8%) for 13,437 yards, 77 touchdowns and 45 interceptions. He has a career passer rating of 89.5.

Ryan, who will turn 37 in May, has been the team’s quarterback since the 2008 season, a 14-year career that began when he was selected with the No. 3 overall pick. He’s the only player in franchise history to win the NFL’s MVP award. He did so in 2016 after guiding the team to Super Bowl LI, where it blew a 28-3 lead before losing to the Patriots.

Blank said earlier this offseason that it was not improper for fans to expect a succession plan at the position. Feleipe Franks, who was undrafted last season, is also on the roster. AJ McCarron and Josh Rosen, who both spent time with the team last season, are currently free agents. Rosen opened the season as the backup quarterback after McCarron was injured in the exhibition season. Franks finished the season as the backup.

On the day that Ryan was traded, the Falcons were in Pittsburgh scouting Kenny Pickett, the top projected quarterback in the upcoming draft. The Falcons hold the No. 8 overall pick in the draft.

The Falcons tried to acquire Deshaun Watson in a trade last week, but he was eventually traded to the Browns and got a substantial new contract. The Falcons then turned their attention to moving Ryan and his contract. He agreed to postpone a $7.5 million roster bonus until Monday while the Falcons were trying to obtain Watson.

Ryan, who has 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. 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 a 300-yard passing game over the final nine games.

Ryan was an immediate starter for the Falcons after being drafted from Boston College. 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 they blew a lead and lost to the 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).

Smith and Fontenot were hired in January 2021 to take over for former general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Quinn. Now, with Ryan gone, they are clearly moving on from the past and are in an all-out rebuilding mode.

The other quarterback moves to be made around the league include the 49ers’ expected trade of Jimmy Garoppolo and the expected trade of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield to a new team.

The Panthers and Seahawks are also in the quarterback market after the Saints elected to re-sign Jameis Winston.

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