With that in mind, here’s an early look at the quarterback position entering the offseason.
Contracts expiring: Backup Matt Schaub’s contract is up, and the veteran decided to retire. Schaub enjoyed a 17-year career, which began with the Falcons in 2004.
Still under contract: Ryan remains under contract through the 2023 season. In the short term, his salary-cap figure for the 2021 season is a staggering $40.9 million. That number can be reduced if the Falcons either release or trade Ryan after June 1. That’s going to be a tough conversation for the new Falcons brass to have about the face of the franchise.
The only other quarterback under contract is Kurt Benkert, who signed a reserve/futures deal shortly after the season. The former undrafted free agent just wrapped up his third season with the Falcons.
Falcons backup quarterback Kurt Benkert completes a pass with Matt Ryan looking on during training camp Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton firstname.lastname@example.org)
Credit: Curtis Compton
Credit: Curtis Compton
2020 performance: Early in the season it was clear Ryan felt more comfortable with Julio Jones in the lineup. During the first eight games, Ryan completed over 70% of his throws in the six games when Jones was available. In the two games Jones missed over the first half of the season, Ryan completed only 53.3% of his passes.
Ryan’s worst game of the season came Dec. 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers, which saw him throw three interceptions, including one on a would-be game-winning drive with less than a minute remaining. The Chargers capitalized and won with a buzzer-beating field goal instead. Ryan kept better care of the football in the final three games, as he went without an interception.
In the end, Ryan’s numbers turned out fine, with 4,581 yards, 26 touchdowns and 11 picks. But he certainly had his moments where he admittedly wished he played better.
Offseason outlook: During their introductory news conferences, both Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot punted on questions regarding Ryan’s future. Fontenot actually did so preemptively by saying he wouldn’t address any player’s status during his opening statement. But Ryan will be a talking point through the remainder of the offseason until there’s some clarity on what’s going to happen. Will he stick around for another year or two? Will Smith and Fontenot decide that it’s now time to part ways and either release or trade him?
While the biggest question centers around Ryan, the Falcons also need to figure out what to do at backup quarterback now that Schaub has retired. Is Benkert ready to step into such a role? Should the Falcons find another veteran quarterback to add through free agency? A lot will depend on how much the Falcons would be willing to spend on a veteran backup. Veteran options hitting free agency this offseason include Andy Dalton, Robert Griffin and Colt McCoy.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) reacts after throwing an interception in the fourth quarter against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Falcons lost 23-16 to start the season 0-5. (Jason Getz/For the AJC)
Credit: Jason Getz
Credit: Jason Getz
2021 draft options: With the fourth overall pick, the Falcons could choose to draft a quarterback and still keep Ryan on the roster. This may be the safest route for the franchise. With Trevor Lawrence pegged to be the top overall selection, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and BYU’s Zach Wilson are presumably next two quarterbacks to be considered. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance also is a possibility.
Having such a high selection could make it difficult to pass on a quarterback this year.
Conclusion: The Falcons aren’t interested in revealing what they’re thinking regarding Ryan’s future at the present time. Regardless, having the fourth overall selection might force the franchise to think of the future and take one of the aforementioned quarterbacks. Plus, if the Falcons turn the team around in a year, it’s unknown when they will have the opportunity to take a quarterback of this caliber again.
Previous stories in this series
Falcons must search for spark at running back
Calvin Ridley’s emergence eases Falcons’ worries at wide receiver
Falcons will hope new coach turns offensive line around
Falcons seek to fill out tight end room with only one under contract
Mixed results lead to questions with Falcons’ special teams
Falcons’ defensive line needs better sack production in 2021
Falcons linebackers offered stability on struggling defense
Next staff will have some retooling to do in secondary