Reality of moving on from Matt Ryan setting in for Arthur Smith

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Falcons coach Arthur Smith discusses recent roster changes, attending Pro Day gatherings while meeting the media Tuesday at the NFL owners meeting.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Falcons coach Arthur Smith is dealing with the reality that quarterback Matt Ryan was traded.

While the Falcons signed Marcus Mariota, they will continue to look at quarterbacks, as they have heavily scouted the coming draft class.

“He’s not the same player as Matt Ryan,” Smith said of Mariota on Tuesday at the NFL owners meeting. “We’ll try to play to Marcus’ strengths.”

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Mariota, who was a reserve the past two seasons with the Raiders, could be used as a bridge to the next franchise quarterback.

“You always have contingency plans,” Smith said. “Even when I got here, it was whether we could keep Matt under the current structure, and obviously at the time, before things transpired, we thought it was in the best interest of the franchise to move forward ... make it work for both parties involved. (Now) that’s where we are going, we’re going forward.”

After trying to trade for Deshaun Watson, the Falcons ended up trading Ryan to the Colts for a third-round pick March 21.

Why wasn’t the move made last season when Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot took over?

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“I knew the situation when I took the job,” Smith said. “So, everybody has got different obstacles. Obviously, our obstacle is the salary cap as we’ve transitioned away from some cornerstone franchise players as we did last year and going into this season.”

The Falcons took on a $40.5 million salary-cap hit for the 2022 season with Ryan’s deal. The team will play the season with $62 million in dead salary-cap space under the $208.2 million salary cap.

“We have to do a great job developing the young guys we drafted. We need to do a good job in this draft. Keep developing this team."

- Falcons coach Arthur Smith

The salary-cap problems clear up in 2023, and the Falcons will be players in free agency. If the cap increases to $221 million to $226 million, the Falcons could have as much as $132 million to $137 million under the cap.

“We have to do a great job developing the young guys we drafted,” Smith said. “We need to do a good job in this draft. Keep developing this team.”

It might not be wise to bring a young quarterback into such a talent-deprived situation. The Falcons hold the eighth overall pick in the draft, which is set for April 28-30 in Las Vegas.

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Smith was with the Titans when they drafted former University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker with the eighth overall pick in 2011. He lasted four seasons and retired.

Smith was with the Titans when they drafted Mariota from Oregon with the second overall pick in the 2015 draft. He was benched in his fourth season and has not started a game since the 2019 season.

“If you reach or if you put a player out there and there is no help around them, it could be ugly,” Smith said. “You can certainly see that. I think you can argue that some of the guys that have had earlier success, they’ve had a little more stability around them. A little more experience.”

That was the case with the Falcons when they drafted in 2008. Ryan, a rookie signal-caller, had a stable offensive line, and center Todd McClure helped him to identify defenses.

“Guys that can make plays,” Smith said. “A little more stability up front. You’ve got to be careful. You want to make sure whoever is going to be that next guy, that he’s got a chance.”

The Falcons have a shaky offensive line, one that allowed Ryan to be sacked at least 40 times over the past four seasons. Putting a rookie behind this offensive line, as currently constituted, might be coaching malpractice.

“It’s still March, we haven’t named anybody,” said Smith, who also noted that there’s a month until the draft. “He’ll have a heck of an opportunity.”

The top quarterbacks in the draft are Liberty’s Malik Willis, Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and North Carolina’s Sam Howell. The Falcons could go for Nevada’s Carson Strong later in the draft.

“They are all different,” Smith said. “I’m not going to get into our quarterback-drafting philosophy.”

The Falcons were in full force at Cincinnati’s Pro Day.

“It’s just part of it,” Smith said. “I don’t think a Pro Day is going to make or break a player. It’s part of the evaluation process. Certainly, you’ve got to take into account that it’s not real. They are throwing on air and off a script.

“It’s part of the process, and you get to know the player. You get to talk to people around the program. All of that stuff helps.”

The Falcons will craft their offense to fit Mariota or another new quarterback.

“There are certain core principles that we won’t move away from,” Smith said. “But you’ve got to tailor your offense to the strength of your team.”

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