So, what’s next for the Falcons?
The first order of business is mending relations with quarterback Matt Ryan, who was professional throughout the courting of Watson. Unlike Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, Ryan didn’t issue a “thank you” note to the city nor did he remove his uniform from his social-media pages.
Ryan, as he’s done for the past 14 seasons, went professionally about his business.
Ryan, the only player in franchise history to win the NFL’s MVP award, is set to turn 37 in May. Falcons owner Arthur Blank said it was not improper for fans to expect a succession plan at the position.
The Falcons elected to pass on quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones in the NFL draft last year. The Falcons have the eighth pick in the coming draft and are projected to have a shot at the top quarterbacks in the draft.
If they don’t take one in 2022, they can delay the succession plan for another year. Currently, Feleipe Franks, who was undrafted last season, is the only other quarterback on the roster.
The Falcons had formal interviews with several of the top quarterbacks at the combine.
Carolina, with the sixth pick, is the only team in front of the Falcons looking for a quarterback.
Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, Liberty’s Malik Willis, North Carolina’s Sam Howell and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder are considered the top quarterbacks in the draft.
Ryan has two years remaining on his contract, but neither Fontenot nor coach Arthur Smith would declare him the starter for next season at the end of the season or at the combine. Smith said they expect Ryan will stay with the team, but wouldn’t turn down a huge trade offer.
“I would say we’re going to look to add to every position and try to improve this roster,” Fontenot said.
The Falcons, who finished 7-10 but were outscored by 146 points, are rebuilding. They want to try to win while they are rebuilding, but the point-differential may be too much to make up next season against a tougher schedule.
The Falcons have plenty of executives that have been around unique quarterback successions.
Fontenot was with the Saints when they made the deal to get quarterback Drew Brees and was there through his time.
Smith was a defensive quality control assistant in Tennessee when the Titans drafted Washington quarterback Jake Locker with the eighth overall pick in 2011. He was there as the offensive line/tight ends coach in 2015, when the Titans selected Oregon quarterback back Marcus Mariota with the second overall pick.
The Titans eventually signed Dolphins castoff Ryan Tannehill, and Smith and his staff helped to develop him into a quality NFL starter.
Falcons executives Ryan Pace, Ruston Webster and Phil Emery are former general managers who have comparable players from their years in the scouting game.
Pace, who was with the Saints with Fontenot, recently was dismissed as Chicago’s general manager. He was in charge when the Bears selected Mitchell Trubisky in the draft over Patrick Mahomes and Watson.
Because of Ryan’s contract and the fact that they passed on Fields and Jones, the Falcons were suspect entries in the Watson recruitment. Some questioned if the Falcons pursued Watson only to push up the price for their NFC South rivals Carolina and New Orleans.
If the Falcons had landed Watson, they would have had to find a taker for Ryan’s services. Seattle and Indianapolis are in the quarterback market after trading Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz, respectively.
There also was the public-relations matter of maybe losing the respected Ryan, who’s been a model of civility and has raised millions to help the less fortunate in the city, for Watson, who’s looking at allegations in 22 sexual-misconduct cases.
The Falcons have multiple needs, most glaringly along the offensive line and and at pass rusher, while quarterback is not among their pressing issues.
In the end, the Browns came up with the cash.
They also pointed out that they have an elite receiver in Amari Cooper, who the Browns recently required from Dallas. The Cleveland group, which would not take no for an answer, also showcased their stout defense, a running game that features former Georgia standout Nick Chubb and the offensive line.
For the Falcons, they can get back to their draft board after making a call or two to Ryan.
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