In his first year as Falcons’ general manager, Terry Fontenot will likely be wanting to cement his flag into the ground — so to speak — by drafting the foundation of the franchise. It’s no surprise either with Atlanta selecting higher, fourth overall, than they have in over a decade — ironically when they took Matt Ryan with the third pick in the 2008 draft.
Franchise quarterbacks are hard to come by, and trading up to select one usually costs a ton of draft capital. But, I’m a firm believer that Fontenot should even trade up to select a quarterback in this draft if he thinks another quarterback-needy team will attempt to jump the Falcons at four. Regardless, there are reasons for both sides of why the Falcons should or should not draft Matt Ryan’s successor.
The most obvious reason for finding Ryan’s successor is Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith’s plan not to draft this high again. That would mean they would likely have to trade up in a future draft to find their next franchise quarterback — a costly proposition.
Fontenot comes from the school of Micky Loomis, who is an ultra-aggressive general manager during the draft, trading up 17 times over the past 13 years — including nine cases where New Orleans traded a future year’s draft choice in the deal. Loomis has been quoted saying, “If you like the player, go get ’em. That’s our philosophy.” However, a first-time general manager mortgaging the organization’s future away gives off a poor impression. On top of that, Loomis and the Saints going all-in has backfired as New Orleans is in a dire position with the salary cap and no clear succession plan for Drew Brees.
Outside of Atlanta’s draft position, the organization has also hit on quarterbacks taken in this area of the draft in the past — Matt Ryan was selected third in 2008 and Michael Vick first in 2000. Different general managers drafted both, so a third quarterback taken this high by a new general manager makes sense, signaling a changing of the guard. Fontenot could cement his place in Atlanta by selecting the franchise’s next great quarterback, but he will also be tied to that pick for his entire tenure.
The final reason the Falcons should draft Ryan’s successor is for safekeeping. No team wants to be good enough to reach the playoffs but clearly cannot win a Super Bowl, i.e., Steelers and Saints. Now, those teams have no futures and would likely give up considerable draft capital to trade up for their next franchise quarterback. Whereas, the Falcons can grab their guy now and let him develop behind Matty Ice until he’s ready to take the reigns — the most conducive way to sustain winning.
Don’t believe me? See what the Packers did with Brett Favre by taking Aaron Rodgers, and again with Jordan Love. Or what the Chiefs did with Alex Smith by taking Patrick Mahomes. Fontenot has said they’ll always bring in quarterbacks, as he did in New Orleans, regardless of if it’s through free agency or the draft. This is a prime spot for Arthur Smith and Fontenot to take their guy.
The Falcons don’t have any way to get out from under Matt Ryan’s contract without incurring a sizeable chunk of dead money, regardless if they trade or release him. His contract is so hefty with guarantees, Fontenot would be hard-pressed to take on the dead cap even in 2022. Outside of his production, the money points to Matty Ice being in Atlanta for at least a couple more years, which makes sitting such a high draft pick a tough pill to swallow.
Now moving on to his production, the former Boston College Eagle is still playing at an extremely high level. Referencing Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre, the latter absolutely faltered the year his predecessor was a rookie, whereas Rodgers won an MVP when his successor was a rookie. Ryan is closer to Rodgers than Favre in terms of career trajectory. He has at least a few solid years left, and benching a fourth overall pick for a few years seems too safe.
The last reason is the surrounding cast for Ryan isn’t Super Bowl-caliber. There are far too many holes to use such a valuable draft choice on a prospect that won’t see the field in a competitive regular season, barring injuries, for a couple of years. The Falcons have needs at safety, cornerback, running back, EDGE, defensive line, and offensive line. The Packers roster is much more complete, which is why they could afford to let a first-round pick sit for a couple of years and still make it to championship weekend. With far more holes than draft picks, Fontenot could even consider trading back to acquire more capital to address all the needs.
Regardless of what Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith elect to do, I really don’t see many instances where the two botch this draft. I would be happy with Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, or Mac Jones. But even if the Falcons decided to go with the other route, selecting one of Penei Sewell, Ja’Marr Chase, or Kyle Pitts would make sense. I truly believe it’ll be a quarterback, but I wouldn’t be against the other side of it.