Are the Falcons rebuilding? If not, why not?

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot talking with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney at quarterback Trevor Lawrence's Pro Day workout on Friday, February 12, 2021. (Photo credit:  Courtesy of David Platt/Clemson Athletics)
Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot talking with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney at quarterback Trevor Lawrence's Pro Day workout on Friday, February 12, 2021. (Photo credit: Courtesy of David Platt/Clemson Athletics)

We’ve all – and by “we” I mean the folks who don’t have keys to the brick building at 4400 Falcon Parkway in Flowery Branch – have assumed these Falcons are in rebuilding mode. They’ve had three consecutive losing seasons. They have a new coach. They have a new general manager. Alex Mack and Keanu Neal, stalwarts of the Dan Quinn days, have signed elsewhere. Why would they NOT be rebuilding?

But, to quote every football coach ever, we know what happens when we assume. (It has something to do with making a farm animal out of “U” and “Me.”) To the best of my knowledge, the Falcons haven’t said, “Hey there. We really ARE rebuilding.”

Here’s what Lee Smith – their newly signed tight end, not to be confused with the former Cubs closer – said this week, as reported by colleague Darryl Orlando Ledbetter: “I don’t look at it as a no-hope rebuild. That’s just not the way I look at it. Not with the talent on this roster and the success that they’ve had with so many of the same guys that are still on this roster.”

Then: “I guess the rebuilding thing for me starts at the quarterback. I’ve been doing this long enough (11 years) to know that without a quarterback, it’s going to be long year. I guess my thing is if I can walk into a locker room with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, it (doesn’t) really matter who else you put around them, if you do things the right way, you can probably score on offense.”

Those numbers again: Matt Ryan turns 36 in May; Julio Jones turned 32 in February. Those two carry a cap hit of nearly $50 million, which is nearly 28 percent of the NFL’s salary cap for 2021. We’ve assumed – that word again – the Falcons of Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith are looking at more distant horizons than next season. And yet: Neither man has made such a proclamation. Nor has Arthur Blank.

The Falcons hold the No. 4 pick in next month’s draft. Many believe they’ll draft a quarterback for two reasons, one being Ryan’s age, the other being that this will be the highest draft pick this franchise has held since taking Ryan in 2008. (If you don’t get a quarterback now, when will you?) But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the Falcons of Fontenot/Smith aren’t eager to invest more millions in a QB succession plan when the incumbent is healthy and working with a 10-figure contract.

The famous Mel Kiper just released his latest mock draft on ESPN. It begins with Jacksonville taking Trevor Lawrence, QB. It continues with the Jets taking Zach Wilson, QB. Then, Kiper posits, Carolina will trade for the No. 3 pick, currently held by Miami, and will take Justin Fields, QB. (Update: San Francisco has in fact acquired the Dolphins’ No. 3 pick.) Kiper has the Falcons taking a quarterback at No. 4 – Trey Lance of North Dakota State. Is that how a team starts its rebuild, with the fourth-highest-rated quarterback who’s also from an FCS school?

(Yeah, I know. Terry Bradshaw went to Louisiana Tech. Carson Wentz went to North Dakota State. They were No. 1 and No. 2 in their respective drafts, which were 46 years apart.)

If you’re already close to capped out, do you really want to throw money at a quarterback who, if Ryan stays healthy and reasonably productive, might never become your starter? The Patriots, who don’t miss many tricks, believed they had Tom Brady’s successor in Jimmy Garoppolo, on whom they spent a Round 2 pick in 2014. He started two games for New England, both when Brady was serving his Deflategate suspension. He was traded to San Francisco in 2017. For Brady’s actual successor, the Pats wound up with Cam Newton, deemed superfluous to requirements in Carolina. Brady went to Tampa Bay and won another Super Bowl. New England missed the playoffs.

Ryan was the NFL’s MVP in 2016, the Super Bowl season. He hasn’t made the Pro Bowl since. He still fits the definition of a franchise quarterback: He posts good and sometimes great numbers; he has missed three starts in 13 years. He’s still among the league’s 10 best at his position. Should finding Ryan’s successor be the first major move of a new administration, or should the new crew do the same as the old bunch – build around Ryan/Jones in the attempt to maximize the good years those two have left?

The first two draftees in 2016 were Jared Goff and Wentz. Both were deemed franchise quarterbacks. Goff led the Rams to a Super Bowl; Wentz put the Eagles in position to make a Super Bowl run, which Nick Foles completed after Wentz got hurt. It wasn’t long ago that Goff and Wentz were two of the NFL’s hottest properties. Both were traded this offseason.

I’ve been among those who believe the Falcons should draft a quarterback because Ryan is getting no younger. (This just in: Nobody gets younger.) At the same time, should they pick a quarterback in Round 1 if Lawrence, Wilson and Fields are off the board? Is Lance that great? Or should this club seek to fill some of its many holes early – center on offense, essentially everywhere on defense – and wait until Day 2 to take a flyer on a quarterback?

Their second- and third-round slots are No. 35 and 68 overall, which could be high enough. (As we’re forever reminded, Brady was Pick No. 199.) It’s possible Smith, who did good work with the Titans and retread Ryan Tannehill, might say to Fontenot: “Give me two years with Matt Ryan before we worry about his replacement.” And maybe that, in the grand scheme, would be the way to go.

Maybe it wouldn’t. The longer you stare at this No. 4 pick, the more you question its optimum deployment. Would a trade with some club that doesn’t have a Matt Ryan net two Round 1 choices? Would the club that many among us have advised to move beyond Ryan be better off trying to build around him yet again?

We won’t know the Falcons’ answer before April 29, and it’s doubtful they’ll spell it out even then. NFL teams don’t usually announce that they’re not trying to win. Such a statement is construed by the paying public as an excuse not to buy tickets. After a COVID-constrained season, the Falcons really want people to buy tickets.

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