The Falcons aren’t very good. That doesn’t mean they can’t win the NFC South

Jan. 9, 2022 - Atlanta, Ga: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is helped up by offensive tackle Kaleb McGary (76) as guard Colby Gossett (66) is shown during the second half against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sunday, January 9, 2022, in Atlanta. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Jan. 9, 2022 - Atlanta, Ga: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is helped up by offensive tackle Kaleb McGary (76) as guard Colby Gossett (66) is shown during the second half against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sunday, January 9, 2022, in Atlanta. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Aaron Rodgers agreed to a contract extension with the Packers for $200 million over four seasons. The Seahawks sent Russell Wilson to the Broncos. The Colts dealt Carson Wentz to the football team formerly known as Football Team. That’s a heap of quarterback news for one March week. The Falcons made none of it.

Matt Ryan became their quarterback in 2008. He’ll turn 37 in May. He was the NFL’s MVP in 2016. He hasn’t made the Pro Bowl in the years since. The Falcons were 56-22 in games started by Ryan over his first five seasons; they’re 64-80 over the past nine.

Ryan’s dead-cap number for the 2022 season is $40.5 million. (Esteemed AJC colleague D. Orlando Lebetter reports the Falcons have again restructed Ryan’s contract to knock $12 million off the team’s cap count.) Ryan’s cap hit renders him all but untradeable, which isn’t to say the Falcons should trade him. They have no succession plan. They also have reason to believe Ryan is the best quarterback in what’s left of the NFC South.

Drew Brees retired. Tom Brady retired. Jameis Winston, who has worked for Tampa Bay and New Orleans, is a free agent coming off a torn ACL. Carolina grew so desperate last season it brought back Cam Newton, who started five games. The Panthers lost all five.

Sean Payton no longer coaches the Saints. Carolina’s Matt Rhule may already be down to last chances in Charlotte. (His choice of Joe Brady as offensive coordinator didn’t fly.) Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl with Brady; minus the GOAT, the Buccaneers’ moment surely has passed.

The Falcons aren’t quite starting over. The management team of Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith is in its second year. Their choice of tight end Kyle Pitts at No. 4 in the 2021 draft looks sagacious. They hold the eighth overall selection in April’s draft. There’s not a college quarterback worthy of going that high. There’s no available NFL quarterback – not Winston, not Jimmy Garoppolo, not Mitchell Trubisky – who’d be an upgrade over Ryan. (Deshaun Watson might be, but he faces 22 civil suits alleging sexual assault and harassment.)

The Falcons did well to go 7-10 last season, given that Julio Jones was dealt to Tennessee and Calvin Ridley worked only five games. The latter has been suspended for the 2022 season for gambling, which means he’s not available for trade purposes. His $11.1 million in salary does come off the Falcons’ payroll. For this club, any cap relief is cause for celebration.

The Falcons occupy a strange space. They went 7-10 in 2021, and that was with losing their final two games. They weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until the next-to-last weekend. They were outscored by 146 points over 17 games. (The 4-12 Falcons of 2020 were outscored by 18 points.) They were 7-2 in one-score games. They didn’t beat any opponent that made the playoffs.

The 2021 Falcons weren’t as good as their record. But how good will the 2022 NFC South champ need to be?

The Saints have a new head coach and no quarterback. The Bucs have no quarterback. The Panthers have a new offensive coordinator and no quarterback. The Falcons have a second-year head coach who calls his own offense. They have a quarterback who had his greatest season in his second year under Kyle Shanahan. They have $11.1 million to spend in free agency they didn’t plan on having.

It’s hard to find five better NFC quarterbacks than Ryan. (The AFC, which just added Wilson, is loaded.) There’s Rodgers, duh, plus Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott and Kyler Murray. Justin Fields might soon be better than Ryan, but he isn’t yet. Would you take Kirk Cousins over Ryan? Nah. Garoppolo? Nope.

Ryan is coming off a substandard season. He was sacked three or more times in nine games. The Falcons were 2-7 in those. If you give him time, he’s still effective. If you give him better receivers, he wouldn’t need as much time. That $11.1M might buy a wideout or two. That eighth overall pick should be used on a lineman. Offense or defense? Either. Both.

The dynamics on Ryan change after this season. Come 2023, his dead cap number slips to $15.6M. At some point in this draft, preferably the second day, the Falcons should take a quarterback. Not to start immediately – Ryan still gives this team its best chance to win in 2022 – but to be schooled to start soonish. The trick is to find a quarterback capable of starting NFL games in a draft not QB-heavy.

The day when Ryan isn’t the Falcons’ No. 1 quarterback isn’t yet here. It could arrive in 2023. It can’t happen unless/until the Falcons find someone younger who can grow into the job. Not sure that describes Josh Rosen or Feleipe Franks.