Falcons should go all-in for Lamar Jackson

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Two years ago, the Falcons drafted tight end Kyle Pitts over quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones. Last year the team traded high-priced quarterback Matt Ryan and signed successor Marcus Mariota to a bargain-bin contract. Then the Falcons opted against drafting QB Kenny Pickett and selected prospects at wide receiver, defensive end and linebacker before getting around to using a third-round pick on quarterback Desmond Ridder.

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The Falcons haven’t invested much in quarterbacks with general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith. Now the Falcons have a rare chance to make a major upgrade at quarterback by acquiring the 2019 NFL MVP.

The Ravens announced Tuesday that they’ve placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on quarterback Lamar Jackson. He’s free to negotiate with other teams. The Ravens hold the right to match any offer Jackson signs and should they decline, would get two first-round picks in return.

According to the AJC’s Falcons beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter, the Falcons won’t pursue Jackson. That’s a mistake. The Falcons have the salary-cap space to sign Jackson and should go all-in to get him. The big money and two first-round picks are worth the price to acquire a player who would be their franchise QB for years to come.

Jackson reportedly is seeking a deal comparable to the one Deshaun Watson signed with the Browns last summer. That five-year contract included a record $230 million guaranteed. It’s risky to pay Jackson that much money while surrendering two first-round picks. It would be worth the gamble for the Falcons.

ExploreFalcons will not pursue Lamar Jackson

Jackson just turned 26 in January. He has at least five more prime years remaining. With a $230 million contract, the Falcons would be getting high-level QB play for $46 million per year. That’s a bit higher average salary than Patrick Mahomes ($45 million) and less than four QBs: Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray and Watson.

It would be worth it for the Falcons to go even a little higher than $230 million for Jackson. Injuries are a concern with Jackson. He’s a runner who missed four games in each of the past two seasons. Jackson is worth the risk because there aren’t many quarterbacks better, and he still has room to grow as a passer.

We just saw Smith fashion an average offense around Mariota’s running ability. Jackson is a much better runner than Mariota and more accurate on deep passes. What might Smith do with Jackson as a threat to run and throwing to promising youngsters Drake London and Kyle Pitts? The Falcons would become an explosive offense with Jackson under center.

If the Falcons pass on Jackson, then they are going to have to use a big chunk of their abundant salary-cap space or draft capital to acquire a starting-caliber QB. Recent deals for Derek Carr and Geno Smith indicate that it’s going to be a seller’s market for quarterbacks in free agency. And the buzz from the combine suggests that the top QB prospects will be off the board before the Falcons pick if they don’t move up from No. 8.

New Orleans agreed to pay Carr $60 million guaranteed up-front with another $40 million likely to be earned. Carr had down years for the Raiders in 2021 and 2022. Before that he was a top-10 quarterback, not top-5. If he’s worth $70-$100 million, then what will Jimmy Garoppolo get paid when he’s possibly the only quality QB to hit the free-agent market next week?

The Seahawks are to re-sign Smith to a contract with $40 million guaranteed. Smith’s good season for Seattle in 2022 was his first. If $40 million is his price, then what might it cost to sign second-tier (at best) starter Jacoby Brissett?

Garoppolo and Brissett will have leverage because the free-agent market will lack good, veteran quarterbacks. That’s the way it usually goes, which is why teams tend to overpay for them when they become available. Usually, good quarterbacks get re-signed before they make it to market, or their teams use one of the available mechanisms to either keep them off the market or make it too expensive for other teams to sign them.

That’s what the Ravens did with Jackson. The Giants are reported to have agreed to a new contract with Daniel Jones. Four-time MVP/circus clown Rodgers is available in trade, but he and the Packers are talking only to the Jets about a deal.

If the Falcons don’t upgrade at quarterback by signing a veteran, they’ll likely need to trade up in the draft to select a quarterback who clearly is a better prospect than Ridder.

Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud will not be available at No. 8. Will Levis probably won’t be available. I figured Anthony Richardson would fall that far because he’s a very raw prospect. But Richardson wowed teams at the combine with his elite physical traits, so now maybe the Colts will draft him with the No. 4 pick or trade it to some other QB-needy team.

If the Falcons don’t commit major assets to add a quarterback, then they’ll pick a stopgap QB from the leftover pile for the second year in a row. The $6.75 million they guaranteed Mariota is nothing for a quarterback. The Falcons got him on the cheap because Mariota hadn’t started a game since 2019 for the Titans, where Smith was offensive coordinator.

The Falcons released Mariota last week in a move that saved $12 million in cap space. Mariota overperformed his contract, all things considered. The Falcons could hope for a similar outcome with another marginal veteran QB in 2023, or roll with Ridder, while building up the rest of the roster.

Marginal moves at quarterback is how Fontenot has done it so far.

“I would say (it’s) because, philosophically, it’s about the team,” Fontenot told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer at the NFL scouting combine. “You have to build the right team. And, offensively, defensively, kicking game, for anyone to have success, any quarterback to have success, whether he’s a top draft pick, later draft pick, guy you paid a lot of money in free agency, or a guy that’s already had success, you better have the right team around him for him to have success.”

Sounds reasonable, but Fontenot’s words aren’t consistent with the team’s actions.

The Falcons had plenty of roster holes last season. They still tried to trade for Watson, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, and Fontenot’s pursuit of Watson indicates that the Falcons believe the right quarterback can make the team around him better.

Jackson is that kind of quarterback. The Falcons should go all-in to get him.