In a quarterback-driven league, the common perception of each NFL draft is that it begins when the first non-quarterback comes off the board. In the 2021 NFL Draft, Trevor Lawrence going No. 1 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars was a lock. Once the New York Jets traded away Sam Darnold, it became quite obvious a quarterback would come off the board at No. 2 overall. And of course, when the San Francisco 49ers parted with three first-round selections to move from No. 12 to No. 3, there was no doubt it was for a quarterback.
That brought us to the Atlanta Falcons, owners of the No. 4 overall selection. While they didn’t have to pick a new franchise quarterback, Ohio State’s Justin Fields was there for the taking. Matt Ryan is still in the fray and continues to perform at a high level as one of the most consistent and productive passers in the NFL. With that said, Ryan is entering his 14th season at 36 years old and doesn’t present the dual-threat skill set or ability to extend plays that matches current league trends. With head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot in their first season leading the Falcons, taking advantage of picking No. 4 and securing the long-term stability of the quarterback position would have been logical.
Atlanta delivered its first clue that a quarterback at No. 4 wasn’t in their plans when the team restructured Ryan’s contract and took $21 million of Ryan’s base salary for 2021 and converted it into a signing bonus spread out over the 2021, 2022, and 2023 seasons. The move provided the Falcons with much-needed cap relief for this season but it also made it more complicated to get out of Ryan’s deal without a massive accumulation of dead cap space.
Whether it was trading back, picking a quarterback, or selecting a non-quarterback, Atlanta’s decision at No. 4 would reveal how the team viewed itself. Earning a top-five selection with a 4-12 record and entering the offseason with one of the league’s worst salary cap positions combined with hiring a new head coach and general manager after three consecutive losing seasons, it would have been fair to believe the Falcons shouldn’t be viewed as a team that can win now.
As it would turn out, the Falcons stood pat and made Florida tight end Kyle Pitts their pick. In a vacuum, the Pitts selection makes perfect sense. He’s a worthy high selection and brings a rare blend of size, length, athleticism, ball skills, route-running ability, and versatility to become one of the NFL’s most feared offensive weapons. He’s the ultimate mismatch in the passing game and perfect for Smith’s play-action-heavy offense.
If Atlanta felt they had what it takes to compete now and Pitts was the addition needed to maximize Ryan’s ability to produce at this point in his career, then it’s a perfectly defensible selection. While I disagree that Atlanta is a “Pitts away” from making noise in the NFC, a passing game that features him along with Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones with Ryan as the triggerman presents a lot of challenges for opponents.
Recently, The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz wrote that the Falcons want to trade Julio Jones, giving legs to a quiet whisper of a rumor this offseason. As June 1 nears and the financial benefits of Atlanta become more favorable, the timing makes sense.
Over the last 10 seasons, Ryan and Jones have been one of the most prolific QB-WR tandems in NFL history. Across that span, Jones has accounted for 848 receptions, 12,896 yards, and 60 touchdowns while being named to seven Pro Bowls. Much has been made about Jones’ “not being able to stay healthy,” but he’s played in at least 14 games in every season since 2013 with the exception of 2020 where he appeared in just nine games.
Given Jones’ age, contract, and health concerns, there is plenty of logic behind why the Falcons are exploring trade options. With that said, it does make the Pitts selection confusing. If Atlanta believes it can win now, surely they have a better chance of competing with Jones still in the mix, right?
While expectations for Pitts are high and he could be extremely productive as a rookie, he would benefit from having Jones on the field with him. With Ridley as the only proven pass-catcher of note, the Atlanta passing game isn’t as dynamic without Jones.
My concern with the Falcons is that they have an identity crisis with where they are in their lifecycle as a football team. The worst thing a team can do is be part in rebuilding and part in on a “win-now” mentality.
The salary cap dynamics have presented plenty of challenges for the Falcons in the first offseason of the Smith/Fontenot Era, but not picking Fields or taking the opportunity to trade back and stockpile assets while “loading up” to make a run with Ryan while also saying goodbye to Jones sends mixed messages. Assuming Atlanta does part with Jones, all eyes will be on how he fares with his new team and imagining how that could have impacted the Falcons.
Smith and Fontenot have certainly increased expectations for themselves in year one by sending the message they can win now with Ryan. If they don’t, questions will loom over how Atlanta can find its next franchise quarterback, how Fields is performing in Chicago, and what the team could have accomplished with a trade down to help reshape the roster.
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