The Falcons are in the process of hiring a new coach, unless they opt to re-up Raheem Morris, in which case they’d be re-hiring the same coach. They’re also seeking a general manager, and they’re not sure which will come first: GM or coach, chicken or egg? These are Issues 1 and 1A in Flowery Branch, and it seems a bit presumptuous to broach Issue 2, which won’t come to a boil until April 29, in the chill of January. Then again, is it ever too soon to talk about drafting a quarterback?
That’s the first question the new coach/GM will have to address. The Falcons hold the No. 4 in the 2021 draft. It’s their highest pick since 2008, when they drafted Matt Ryan third overall. Ryan has started every game save three over the intervening 13 seasons, making him the definition of a franchise quarterback. He’s also coming off one of his lesser seasons. (Though not in volume: He led the NFL in pass attempts and completions.) He’ll turn 36 in May.
Given that the Falcons’ backup quarterback just retired at age 39 — Matt Schaub has the distinction of being the understudy for Michael Vick and Ryan — a need exists, but nobody spends the No. 4 pick on someone ticketed as a career No. 2. You can find those on the waiver wire. The only way you’d take a quarterback in Round 1 is you believe he’ll someday be your No. 1, and herein lies the rub.
The Falcons just went 4-12. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2017. They have a franchise quarterback, but lately that hasn’t availed them much. He’s under contract through 2023. His cap number in 2021 is more than twice what it was this past season — from $18.9 million to $40.9 million. Yikes.
If you listened to Arthur Blank and Rich McKay last week, you know that those two believe the Falcons aren’t far from being a winning team. A new coach/GM might see it differently, although that poses the cosmic question: Would McKay/Blank hire a coach/GM who doesn’t share their happy-days-are-almost-here-again vision? (“Here’s my master plan: We trade away everybody who’s any good and go 3-13 the next four years. Where do I sign?”)
When you’ve gone 7-9, 7-9 and 4-12, you cannot pretend yours is still an upper-crust roster. You need help. You might grab an offensive tackle (Penei Sewell of Oregon) at No. 4. You might take another receiver (Ja’Marr Chase, formerly of LSU). You might take yet another Alabama receiver (Heisman holder DeVonta Smith). But your first decision must be: Quarterback or not?
Trevor Lawrence will go No. 1 to Jacksonville. There’s growing belief he’ll be playing for Urban Meyer, always a Georgia fan favorite. It’s possible Justin Fields of Harrison/UGA/Ohio State will be available at No. 4. If not, Zach Wilson of BYU should be.
Here, though, we get into numbers. For the Falcons to draft a quarterback that high would mean devoting even more millions to a position into which you’re on the hook for $40 mil next season. (Owing to his cap hit, Ryan is all but un-tradeable.) Only one quarterback can play at a time, unless one of them is Taysom Hill. The unyielding nature of the salary cap means every dollar spent somewhere is a dollar that can’t be spent elsewhere. There was no such issue when the Falcons took Ryan. Their franchise quarterback was no longer on salary; he was in prison. They hoped and prayed Ryan was their guy not just for 2008 but for the next decade. Sure enough, he was.
It’s hard, though, to believe that Ryan will ever be quite as good as he was at his lofty peak. Someday soon, the Falcons will have to find a replacement. They might never have a better chance than in this draft. But Blank/McKay said they hoped to win next year and every year, and it’s unlikely that any rookie quarterback in 2021 will be an immediate improvement over Ryan. So now you’re juggling timetables — short-term against the longer haul, aging bird in the hand against a youthful one flying free. Remember, even Vick — for whom Dan Reeves traded up to take No. 1 overall — served an apprenticeship behind Chris Chandler.
To get good and stay good, an NFL team must have a reliable quarterback. Ryan has been — and could remain, at least for another year or two — reliable. But here’s how many winning seasons Ryan had in his first five pro years: five. Here’s how many he has had in the past eight: two. We can argue as to whether the Falcons have done enough to support him; we cannot dispute that his career arc has, since the Super Bowl, tracked a downward path. In three of the past four seasons, his passing rating and yards-per-pass number have lagged his career averages.
The day is coming when the Falcons must plot a future without him. It would be hard to pass on a Fields or a Wilson, especially when the folks doing the picking are apt to have no connection with Ryan. (Retaining Morris would be an exception.) There are many examples of great quarterbacks being found outside Round 1 — Kurt Warner was undrafted; Tom Brady was taken 199th in 2000 — but a check of Falcons history is instructive.
Their first franchise quarterback was Steve Bartkowski, the No. 1 overall pick in 1975. Their most recent two went No. 1 and No. 3, respectively. There’s a reason the NFL swears by the draft. There’s a reason the Falcons need to find their quarterback of the future before Matt Ryan becomes yesterday’s man.