Eagles and Rams do what Falcons shouldn’t: Decimate cap to trade QB

Eagles quarterbacks Jalen Hurts (left) and Carson Wentz warm up before a game against the Dallas Cowboys in December.
Eagles quarterbacks Jalen Hurts (left) and Carson Wentz warm up before a game against the Dallas Cowboys in December.

Credit: TIM TAI/Philadelphia Inquirer

The Rams agreed to trade quarterback Jared Goff to Detroit for Matthew Stafford and take a $22.2 million “dead money” hit to their 2021 salary cap. That was the most cap space ever devoted to a player no longer on the roster. The record lasted for three weeks.

The Eagles struck a deal with the Colts on Thursday to trade Carson Wentz for draft picks. Wentz will be gone from Philadelphia but remain on the team’s books with a $34 million dead-money charge. Those trades won’t be official until the start of the new league year March 17.

The Falcons would take a $44.4 million dead-money hit if they traded Ryan before June 1. I’ve dismissed that scenario as preposterous because it would make their bad cap situation much worse. I still think it’s a bad idea. But it doesn’t seem so far-fetched now with the Rams and Eagles deciding to eat massive amounts of dead money. I didn’t think one team would do it, much less two within a month.

The Rams and Eagles decided to accept the necessary cap pain for moving on from underperforming quarterbacks. The Lions also took a $19 million charge for trading Stafford. There’s something to be said for the boldness of those moves, but man, all that dead money makes it very difficult for those teams to improve their rosters.

That’s why I believe the Falcons shouldn’t trade Ryan and take the $44.4 million dead-money charge. They should keep Ryan and trade down in the draft. But my perspective is informed by my belief that the Falcons weren’t as terrible as they seemed in 2020 and have a chance to be OK in 2021. The counterargument is that the Falcons are not at all close to being any good and they are starting a new era, anyway, so pay the big cap price now for trading Ryan while adding draft picks.

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot inherited Ryan’s contract and a messy cap from the previous front-office regime. He’s got a lot of roster holes he can’t fill in free agency. The Falcons own the No. 4 overall pick in the draft. They need as many draft picks as they can get because those players are potential bargains.

But trading down in the draft would mean punting on a chance to select a top quarterback prospect. One way to thread that needle is to trade Ryan for draft picks. There are plenty of teams still seeking an upgrade at quarterback. Only two of them, the Jaguars and Jets, have a higher draft pick than the Falcons. Look at the Wentz and Goff trades and you can see that Ryan has value.

Detroit got two first-round picks and a third-round pick for Stafford (Goff is a downgrade but that hardly matters for the Lions when they are rebuilding and need picks). The Eagles will receive a third-round pick and a conditional second-round pick from the Colts for Wentz (NFL Network reported that it becomes a first-round pick if Wentz plays a certain percentage of snaps).

Ryan is seven years older than Wentz and nine years older than Goff. But he’s been better than both players over the past three seasons. Plus, Ryan’s contract theoretically makes him easier to trade. Only $5.5 million of his remaining contract is guaranteed. Goff has $28 million in guarantees left Wentz has $25 million.

A team could acquire Ryan and pay him $23 million this season and release him next year with a much smaller cap penalty. Or they could keep him for 2022 and end up with two years of his services for $47 million. That’s a reasonable price tag for an effective quarterback.

The Panthers paid Teddy Bridgewater $23 million in salary and bonuses last season. Jimmy Garoppolo got a $23.8 million salary from the 49ers. Ryan’s contract would be a relative bargain for the Falcons if they were a winning outfit. The big salary-cap and dead-money figures on Ryan’s contract are an albatross for the Falcons after they extended his contract and posted three consecutive losing seasons.

The Eagles and Rams have demonstrated the perils of developing a young quarterback, going all-in with a contract and then watching them go bust. Both Goff and Wentz were signed to contract extensions in 2019, after their third seasons. Now both players are on their way out before even playing one season on those deals.

The Rams moved on from Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, for the chance to grab a better quarterback. They signed him to the extension months after they went to the Atlanta Super Bowl and lost to the Patriots. Goff was bad in that game and hasn’t been good since. It cost the Rams a lot to get Stafford, but he gives them a chance go further after they lost the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs last season.

The Eagles benched Wentz for rookie Jalen Hurts last season. They moved up in the 2016 draft to select Wentz second behind Goff by sending the Browns two first-round picks and one pick in each of the second, third and fourth rounds. The Colts are taking a chance that Wentz can regain the MVP form he showed in 2017 under ex-Eagles coordinator Frank Reich, now the Colts head coach.

Ryan might similarly benefit from working with new Falcons coach Arthur Smith. Smith’s system is built on the same foundation as the offense Ryan thrived in with ex-Falcons coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2016. The Falcons will have a chance to draft the kind of mobile, pocket-escaping QB that’s become the template. But it’s hard to spend a first-round pick on a guy who’s unlikely to see the field. I keep thinking about Jordan Love not playing a snap for the Packers last season as their defense sputtered.

The Falcons obviously aren’t that close to being a contender, so drafting Ryan’s successor at No. 4 and easing him into the job may not be so egregious as what Green Bay did. The better plan for the Falcons is to trade down in the draft for more picks, build the team’s depth and acquire Ryan’s heir later. A third way is trading Ryan for extra draft picks, taking the huge dead-money charge and selecting a quarterback at No. 4.

I don’t think the Falcons should or will choose that last option. Then again, I didn’t think I’d see a team take on $20 million in dead money. The Rams did that, and then the Eagles took it even further. Maybe they’ll start a new era of teams accepting sunk costs and severe cap penalties to move on from quarterbacks.

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