The risks and potential rewards for Falcons drafting a quarterback

Nov 3, 2018 Lexington: Georgia quarterback Justin Fields takes pregame warmups before playing Kentucky in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Lexington.  Curtis Compton/
Nov 3, 2018 Lexington: Georgia quarterback Justin Fields takes pregame warmups before playing Kentucky in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Lexington. Curtis Compton/

Credit: Curtis Compton/

Credit: Curtis Compton/

It’s easy to understand why the quarterback-in-waiting scenario is so seductive to Falcons backers. One reason for the Falcons not to select a quarterback with the No. 4 overall pick is they already have a good one. But what if the Falcons keep Matt Ryan while grooming his eventual successor?

There are some potential drawbacks to that strategy. More on those later. First, I’ll make the argument for why there are so many good reasons for the Falcons to draft a quarterback even if Ryan remains on the roster. The list begins with the tremendous opportunity to pick so early in a draft with several top QB prospects.

Who knows when the Falcons will draft this high again? They’ve picked fourth or earlier just twice in the past 20 drafts. They selected a quarterback both times: Michael Vick in 2001 and Ryan in 2008. Both became NFL stars. The Falcons could try to go 3-for-3 drafting QB prospects during Arthur Blank’s franchise ownership.

The rewards for being right are huge. There’s nothing more valuable in the NFL than a good QB with a salary limited by the rookie wage scale. To wit: Patrick Mahomes made $4 million (including prorated bonuses) when he was voted the 2018 NFL MVP and Lamar Jackson made $3.3 million for his 2019 MVP season.

The Falcons would have to pay the player drafted at No. 4 a much higher salary than Mahomes (No. 10 overall pick) and Jackson (No. 32). The exact amount isn’t yet known, but it will be something close to what ex-Georgia tackle Andrew Thomas got from the Giants as the No. 4 pick in 2020: four guaranteed years for $32.3 million.

That’s still a bargain for a player with so much potential. It’s a steal if Thomas becomes at good starter at left tackle, a premium position. Thomas’ salary-cap figure for 2020 was $5.3 million and is set to be $10.3 million in the final year of his contract. He’ll never be among the 15 or so highest-paid left tackles under his rookie contract.

Quarterback is the most important position in football. There’s a huge opportunity cost for a team that passes over a QB in the draft who becomes a good starter. It’s a chance to get one relatively cheap for five seasons and possibly have a franchise quarterback for years beyond that. That’s what the Falcons did with Ryan.

Missing out on that possibility is one risk with trading down in this draft. The Falcons might build more depth by accumulating extra draft picks. But there will be a ceiling if they don’t find a good QB to succeed Ryan.

Great quarterbacks hardly ever become available on the free-agent and trade markets. When they do, suitors must overpay to acquire them. There’s less risk for teams in drafting a QB because, even if they are wrong, it doesn’t kill their salary cap.

The Falcons could pass on a QB in this draft and seek one later. But let’s say they have a bad enough season to draft high again soon. Will there be a college quarterback in that class worthy of the pick? There may be up to four such QB prospects in this draft, so the Falcons can take one of them if they believe they are worth it.

If the Falcons draft a quarterback, it might be better for that player’s development if he doesn’t have to start as a rookie. We’ve seen Ryan struggle playing behind leaky lines and without an effective running game. He’s a former NFL MVP. How is a novice QB supposed to succeed under similar circumstances? The Falcons will have more resources in 2022 to build a better roster for their next quarterback.

Ryan’s strong finish to 2020 suggests he probably has at least one more season left as an above-average starter. If the Falcons rebound and finish, say, 7-9 with Ryan in 2021 they still would get a draft pick that’s about No. 15 overall. They could use that pick to add another top prospect and continue building the roster with Ryan’s successor.

I’ve already mentioned the potential rewards and the lower risk in drafting a QB compared with paying big for one. There is a potential drawback. A Falcons quarterback-in-waiting would be an untested quarterback with uncertain potential for a longer period. Leaving him on the bench for a season means fewer chances to evaluate him in games before making a longer-term commitment.

The Falcons would have to decide after three seasons whether to pick up the fifth-year option. They also could extend the young QB’s contract then. Those decisions are harder to make with a sample size of less than three full years as a starter.

Jared Goff made 38 starts for the Rams before they exercised his option and then extended his contract. The Eagles did the same with Carson Wentz after he made 40 starts. Goff and Wentz had led their team to the playoffs (Wentz didn’t play in the 2017 postseason because of a season-ending injury suffered in Week 14).

Both quarterbacks recently were traded. The Eagles had Jalen Hurts as QB-in-waiting, and the Rams swapped Goff for Matthew Stafford. The Rams and Eagles had to take unprecedented salary-cap penalties to move on from their quarterbacks so soon after signing them to contract extensions.

The need to quickly evaluate young QBs is one reason why those selected early in the draft rarely sit on the bench as rookies. It’s happened only once even after the rookie salary scale was adopted for the 2011 draft. Teams have drafted 22 quarterbacks within the top 10 picks since then. According to Pro Football Reference’s database, 18 of those QBs started 10 games or more as rookies.

The exceptions are Mahomes, Goff (2016), Jake Locker (2011) and Tua Tagovailoa (2020). Locker was a bust. Goff was voted to the Pro Bowl twice. The mistake for the Rams was in signing him to the big contract, not in drafting him. The jury is out on Tagovailoa.

I’d love it if Terry Fontenot’s first big move as Falcons general manager is to pass on a QB near the top of the draft. It would be a sure sign that he’s not fazed by external pressure, especially if Kennesaw’s Justin Fields is available. Such a bold move by Fontenot would make a great story, but then my job isn’t on the line if it’s the wrong move.

I’d understand if Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith decide to draft a quarterback and bring him along slowly behind Ryan. It’s a reasonable approach. The potential rewards are high, and the Falcons may not get another opportunity like this for a long time, if ever.

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