Atlanta Falcons General Manager Terry Fontenot was extremely busy on Monday afternoon while reshaping the future of his franchise. Fontenot waved goodbye to an exciting era of Falcons football by trading franchise quarterback and all-time great Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a third-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft. Fontenot then further addressed the quarterback position by signing former Heisman-winning signal-caller Marcus Mariota to a reported two-year contract worth $18.75 million. It represents bridge starter money and the total value of the contract contains roughly $4 million more than what Mitchell Trubisky received from the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason.
As things stand, Mariota is expected to start under center for the Falcons in 2022. He’s currently joined in the quarterback position room by former undrafted free agent (and Florida Gators legend) Feleipe Franks, who has one career regular-season passing attempt to his name (it was intercepted). Franks isn’t going to push Mariota for the starting gig, making Atlanta the ideal landing spot on the surface for a quarterback that’s attempting to revive his career as a starter after previously washing out with the Tennessee Titans.
Further examination of Mariota’s contract reveals there’s more than meets the eye. According to multiple reports, Mariota’s two-year contract with the Falcons is essentially a one-year deal worth $6.75 million with a $12 million option for the 2023 campaign. Mariota also received a healthy $5 million signing bonus. It’s a “we’ll see” sentiment from a Falcons front office that will continue to sort through the future of their quarterbacking position, and it won’t prevent Fontenot from drafting a signal-caller with the eight-overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft should Atlanta’s brass fall in love with a quarterback prospect.
Liberty’s Malik Willis, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett all represent potential options in the top-10. There are reasons to believe any one of these quarterbacks could fit in Atlanta from a culture and scheme perspective. Willis possesses high-level athletic traits and rare tools. Pickett has the most experience and appears the most pro-ready. Ridder is a supremely athletic quarterback that recently compared himself to Ryan Tannehill, who Falcons head coach Arthur Smith experienced a ton of success with in Tennessee as Tannehill’s offensive coordinator and play caller.
Atlanta could also decide to trade back, accumulate more immediate and future draft capital while still drafting one of these quarterbacks in the mid-to-late first round. April’s draft isn’t expected to experience a run on first-round quarterbacks, a fact which could allow Atlanta’s decision-makers to get creative while still landing their identified target. It’s worth noting the Falcons passed on an opportunity to draft a quarterback in the top-10 of last year’s draft, despite what was perceived to be stronger prospects available to them than what makes up the 2022 class. Atlanta decided to draft tight end Kyle Pitts over Justin Fields and Mac Jones. It’s also worth noting that Ryan was still their quarterback when they made that decision and things have ultimately changed.
Mariota represents the ideal bridge quarterback for several reasons. He possesses previous experience with Smith in Tennessee, although their short-lived run together yielded less-than-ideal results. In 5.5 starts under Smith’s tutelage (he was benched midway through Week 6 in favor of Tannehill), Mariota completed just 59% of his passing attempts (94-of-159) while throwing for 1,179 yards (196.5/game). He tossed seven touchdowns and two interceptions while leading Tennessee to a 2-4 record. The Titans scored seven or less points in three of those four defeats. Tannehill then proceeded to take over and the Titans exploded for 30.4 points per contest while making a run to the AFC Championship Game. Regardless, Smith has decided to reunite with Mariota in hopes of reigniting the fire, and Mariota undeniably understands the offense after previously commanding it.
Mariota’s passive and friendly personality also makes him an ideal veteran quarterback that could potentially help guide a rookie signal-caller. Mariota is often described as the friendliest person in the room, and he certainly won’t rock the boat should the Falcons draft a quarterback. Shortly after the Falcons announced their contract with Mariota, Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (and Mariota’s teammate of two years) took to social media to call Mariota, “one of the greatest human beings on the planet.” Titans receiver A.J. Brown reacted in similar fashion, labeling Mariota, “the best leader I’ve ever been around” in a now-deleted tweet.
Mariota has an excellent chance to begin the 2022 campaign as Atlanta’s starting quarterback, and that represents the opportunity his representation was longing for via free agency. Atlanta paid him bridge starter money while conveniently allowing themselves to get out of his contract following the first season. Should the Falcons draft a quarterback, that prospect could benefit from sitting and learning behind the consummate professional that is Mariota. All indications point to the Falcons adding another signal-caller before we pull the curtains closed on the current offseason. It’s a situation worth monitoring going forward.
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