Wanting to fill seats in 2021, Falcons have QB decision to mull over

Quarterbacks are the face of almost every NFL franchise.

There’s a reason seven of the top 10 best-selling jerseys in the league this season all play the ever-important position. When NFL teams hit the reset button to rebuild, that’s the first place they turn to. To get one, the earlier the draft pick, the better. Although to secure such a pick usually requires enduring a painful season of losing a lot of games.

The Falcons, for the second time in three years, are 4-9 after 13 games. Of the six teams eliminated from the NFL postseason thus far, the Falcons sit fourth in terms of projected draft order. When it comes to all NFL teams, the Falcons would select sixth if the season had ended before Sunday’s slate of games.

If the Falcons are able to crack the top five in the next draft, a generational talent potentially could be there for the taking.

This is a situation that Falcons owner Arthur Blank may not have expected to occur this soon. Only four years ago, the Falcons were playing in the Super Bowl with a young roster and a league MVP in quarterback Matt Ryan. After a three-interception performance Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, Ryan, 35, said he still had “plenty left in the tank” and that all he needed to do was play better. In a news conference following coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s dismissals, Blank was noncommittal about Ryan’s future, saying he would leave that to the new front office.

But there’s an element lost in the quarterback conversation at the moment, mostly because Mercedes-Benz Stadium has been much emptier than usual because of the restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. When that number returns to normal -- with a new coach and general manager in the fold -- you can bet Blank will want more bodies in the seats. Before COVID-19, the lower bowl rarely was full, creating an eyesore on television. Even the New Orleans Saints have poked fun at the Falcons’ home crowds with a mocking video montage during games at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

In August, the AJC reported that Falcons fans had defaulted on $10.9 million worth of personal seat licenses from June 2019 to June 2020. It’s evident that fans have lost faith in a franchise that has gone 28-33 since that Super Bowl to end the 2016 season.

If the Falcons earn a top-five pick, perhaps the best way to ensure that Mercedes-Benz Stadium opens the 2021 season at least close to full capacity -- and not with more than half of an opposing team’s fans -- is to draft a new quarterback. Not only that, but that new quarterback must open next season as the starter.

This team needs a jolt of energy in the worst way. The Falcons rarely have encountered a new branding opportunity they didn’t want to try. Therefore, what better way to make this happen than with a major draft-day splash to snag the quarterback of the future?

As things stand, the New York Jets (0-13) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-12) are in position for the top two picks. The Cincinnati Bengals are positioned for the third at 2-10-1. From there, plenty of jockeying will take place over the final three weeks.

The Falcons have a precedent in place for trading up for a quarterback. In 2001, the Falcons traded their first- and third-round picks, along with a 2002 second-rounder, to move from fifth to first to select quarterback Michael Vick. And that came only two seasons removed from quarterback Chris Chandler taking the Falcons to their first Super Bowl. While Ryan took the Falcons to a Super Bowl, the NFL has proved that no player is safe when it comes to a new regime wanting to move in a new direction.

Of course, the price to move up has increased with this scenario in recent years. When the Chicago Bears traded up from third to second with the San Francisco 49ers to grab quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in 2017, they gave up that year’s first-, third- and fourth-round picks, as well as a 2018 third-round selection.

The Falcons, who are expected to have three compensatory picks in the draft, would have enough selections to make a similar deal. The problem would be convincing either the Jets or Jaguars to part ways with one of the top two quarterback prospects.

And those quarterbacks pass the eye test.

Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is considered the top overall prospect by just about every draft analyst. Lawrence, who has completed 69.2% of his throws for 2,431 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, likely would have been the first selection in this year’s draft had he been eligible to enter. Lawrence also has ties to the area as a Cartersville native.

“Lawrence’s intangibles are high-end, and I love his huge arm and the mobility he brings at his size,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay recently wrote in his updated list of top 32 prospects. “He’ll need a little refining with his pocket presence, and his footwork is still progressing, but this kid is the real deal.”

Ohio State’s Justin Fields is considered the second-best overall prospect and quarterback in this year’s class. If the Bengals end up in the second spot, they would make a natural trade partner for any team seeking Fields. Fields, a Kennesaw native who began his college career at Georgia, has displayed pinpoint accuracy, a strong arm and great speed as a runner in the shortened season Ohio State has played.

If the Falcons are unable to trade for one of those two, other potential quarterbacks to take in the top 10 are BYU’s Zach Wilson and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. Wilson has an elite arm and has showcased great accuracy during his time with the Cougars. Lance has all of the tangible qualities, but only 17 starts against FCS competition.

Of course, the new regime could be believers in Ryan and think he gives the franchise the best chance to win now. Or maybe Blank himself would rather ride out another few years with Ryan while hoping he can be the one to turn the Falcons’ fortunes around and fill the empty seats himself.

It’s never easy to move on from a quarterback. But if Blank, often conscientious about his franchise’s image, wants TV cameras to eliminate visuals of a half-empty lower bowl on game day, he may think the quickest way to rectify his franchise’s situation is to take a quarterback if the team loses its way into a top-10 pick.

In Other News