Ryan, who said he told owner Arthur Blank, Smith and Fontenot he wanted to pursue other options after the failed Watson transaction, definitely deserved a smoother conclusion and farewell; yet, the final result truly seems best for both parties. The 36-year-old Ryan goes to a playoff contender in the Indianapolis Colts to finish his career. The Falcons move toward a new era by beginning to clean their cap books and lifting perceived pressure to make short-term win-now moves.
The task now, as Blank put it in March, is to find “another version of Matt Ryan” to bring them back. But after the push for Watson failed, the team refrained from making a big swing in the draft this year, using a third-round pick on Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder.
Smith said he expects the first season of the post-Ryan era to begin with veteran Marcus Mariota as the starter and Ridder as a backup who could compete for the top job as the year goes on. They are two similar, athletic quarterbacks who will allow Smith to use more principles of his offense, including deep play-action throws, roll-outs and maybe even some read option.
In fact, Ridder viewed Atlanta as a “perfect fit” for him because he compares himself to Mariota. The Falcons view Ridder as a potential developmental starter. They were particularly impressed with Ridder’s toughness, football IQ, mobility, maturity, leadership and how his college coaches said he changed their program during his 43-win career at Cincinnati. Even if he isn’t the QB answer, he could become a long-term backup.
But the Falcons remain in the mix to draft another option next year in what’s expected to be a deeper, more talented quarterback class than we saw in 2022.
The ’06 “Junction Boys” Saints are not the only model Fontenot looks toward. There are also the 2018 Buffalo Bills, a team that, in Year 2 of GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott’s regime, played it slow in free agency, even while building for the future with the first-round selection of QB Josh Allen.
“I see a lot of parallels with Buffalo,” Fontenot said. “They took a step back to take a step forward as they went through their cap issues.”
The Falcons, without their clear version of Allen, might have further to go than that Bills team. Two rival front office executives told me they’d rank the Falcons among the five least-talented NFL rosters going into the 2022 season.
“This is not a complete teardown,” Fontenot said. “We still have some core pieces here we want to keep. We also know we have a lot of work to do. We’re ready to do the work and bring in the right guys.”
The Falcons prioritized keeping veteran franchise guys on each side of the ball to set the mentality as they transition to a new era. They identified defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and left tackle Jake Matthews for those roles. Jarrett, 29, signed a three-year, $51 million extension this week. Matthews, 30, signed a three-year, $52.5 million extension in March.
It is possible that both players will have aged out of their prime when Atlanta is ready to contend at the highest level, which might not be for two to three years. But with Fontenot and Smith preaching character and culture, the veteran players’ value is obvious.
The Falcons are still searching for a surefire answer at quarterback. They still need more talent. They continue to manage a precarious cap situation. But Smith vows they will play “hard as hell” in the meantime. And ultimately, there is a vision — one that, perhaps, will lead to the light that Fontenot foresees.