The Atlanta Falcons experienced over a decade of stability at quarterback after the 2008 selection of Matt Ryan. But now that Ryan is gone, the team will have to endure some instability as they work to solidify that position once again.
This raises questions for another offseason about what their long-term plans are at the position. Short-term, the team appears on a path to opening the 2023 season with Desmond Ridder as the starter. But the team’s attachment to Ridder beyond this upcoming season remains tenuous.
Thus, the Falcons will have an opportunity to secure their long-term future this offseason by exploring alternative starting options. In the previous breakdown, I explored the timeline of potential veteran starting options that could become available between now and March. In this follow-up, we’ll look at veterans that could serve as backups to Ridder as well as long-term options available in the 2023 NFL Draft.
While previously breaking down that the Falcons may find free agency barren of many veterans that would prove upgrades over Ridder in the starting lineup, there will be an abundance of impending free agents that could serve as quality reserves behind him.
Thus far head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot have focused on known commodities given their free-agent additions the past two offseasons. They have predominantly added players with previous connections to the coaching staff and/or front office. That has been especially true at the quarterback position where AJ McCarron, Matt Barkley, Marcus Mariota, and Logan Woodside have been brought into the fold.
McCarron played under wide receivers coach TJ Yates when he previously coached quarterbacks with the Texans. Barkley played under offensive coordinator Dave Ragone during their shared time with the Chicago Bears, and of course, both Mariota and Woodside were known by Smith during his time as play-caller with the Tennessee Titans.
Of course, there is nothing stopping the Falcons from exploring less familiar options this offseason, especially not the price tag. Over the Cap currently projects the Falcons to have $56 million in salary cap space entering the offseason and that figure should only grow when the Falcons release Mariota to add another $12 million in savings.
Mariota remains an option to return to Atlanta as a backup
When discussing backup quarterback options, Mariota does bear mentioning as a possibility. While it’s certain he’ll be cut this offseason, Mariota could find a way to return to the fold at a lower price tag. Today, that seems unlikely given the ambiguity surrounding his departure from the team after being informed of his benching in favor of Ridder in December.
Let’s just say there have been questions about his commitment since then, so that would need to be resolved before any possibility of his return. But I wouldn’t say the door is completely closed on mended fences leading to him settling in as Ridder’s backup in 2023, but that would only likely happen if the team’s other plans for a backup fell through.
So let’s explore some of those alternative options. If focusing on impending free agents that have connections to this current coaching staff, Blaine Gabbert, Chase Daniel, Taylor Heinicke, and Case Keenum stand out.
Chase Daniel could be a capable mentor for Ridder
The name that jumps out to me among that group is Daniel, who spent time in Chicago in 2018 and 2019 essentially as the backup to Mitchell Trubisky while Ragone and current Falcons quarterback coach Charles London were assistants there. The 36-year-old Daniel has made a career of being an extra set of eyes and sounding board for young quarterbacks throughout his career. He has served in that exact capacity most recently with Justin Herbert, along with Trubisky and Carson Wentz earlier in his career.
While Daniel offers a helpful mentor for Ridder, his ability to produce on the field is limited. His five career starts pale in comparison to players like Gabbert (48), Heinicke (25), and Keenum (64). If the Falcons were looking for a reserve that was less a mentor and more inclined to compete for a starting job and/or produce on the field, one of the others makes more sense.
Trubisky offers both familiarity and on-field success to push Ridder
On that front, another player with connections to the Falcons’ current regime that could become available this offseason is Trubisky. Like Mariota, Trubisky seems destined to be released by the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason due to an impending $10 million cap hit. That’s pricey for a backup coupled with Trubisky expressing his regrets about signing with the Steelers, making his release likely. Those regrets stemmed from Trubisky’s desire to find a more solidified grip on a starting job.
The Falcons certainly wouldn’t be a team to hand Trubisky a starting gig and it’s doubtful any current team would. However, Atlanta at least offers a better chance at competing for one than other destinations, which might be attractive to a choosier Trubisky.
Trubisky offers 55 career starts and has won the majority of them, something that Gabbert, Heinicke, Keenum, and even Mariota cannot claim. As far as adding a known commodity that can not only be a capable backup but worthwhile competition for Ridder, there is probably no better option than Trubisky.
Jacoby Brissett offers a high quality at a high cost
A less familiar option, but in the same vein might be impending free-agent quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Few would question Brissett’s capabilities as perhaps the NFL’s premier backup quarterback, yet that comes with a drawback of cost. Brissett has averaged annual earnings of over $6 million per year serving as the backup to Andrew Luck, Tua Tagavailoa, and Deshaun Watson in recent years.
Tyrod Taylor is set to potentially be the highest-paid backup next season with a cap hit of $6.9 million, and it is probable that Brissett could command a higher salary this offseason. While the Falcons shouldn’t be frugal when it comes to their backup quarterback, Brissett’s potential price may be a tad excessive.
Other notable free agents that could make worthwhile investments as backups behind Ridder would be Teddy Bridgewater, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Mike White, and Josh Dobbs. Whether the Falcons choose to spring for a veteran like Brissett or Trubisky or go cheaper with someone like Daniel, among others, the team shouldn’t have any shortage of veteran options to bring into the fold either to compete with or mentor Ridder.
Yet a veteran behind Ridder is just a short-term option and none of the aforementioned names appear as promising options as starters beyond 2023 should Ridder struggle this season. Therefore, the Falcons will have to do their due diligence on the upcoming quarterback class in the 2023 NFL Draft, where a long-term solution could be had.
Dipping back into the draft could give Falcons a star in the making
Thus far, there are four players that have been frequently projected to be first-round picks that may be available when the Falcons are on the clock with the eighth overall selection. They are Bryce Young (Alabama), CJ Stroud (Ohio State), Will Levis (Kentucky), and Anthony Richardson (Florida).
The Falcons don’t necessarily need to draft a quarterback in the first round and could select prospects such as Hendon Hooker (Tennessee), Tanner McKee (Stanford), Stetson Bennett (Georgia), Jaren Hall (Brigham Young), Max Duggan (Texas Christian), among others, later in the draft. However, that seems less productive than simply signing a veteran to be the backup. Young quarterbacks need reps, and there will be a limited number with Ridder and another rookie on the roster. Any that Ridder gets will be taken away from the rookie and vice versa.
This is why using a draft pick on a quarterback, whether in the first or fourth round, seems unlikely. However, the heart wants what the heart wants, and Smith and Fontenot could fall in love with one of these prospects believing them to be a star in the making. Therefore, selecting one could give them the much-desired long-term stability at the most important position on the roster.
Past preferences suggest Will Levis might be Falcons’ top target
However, given this regime’s past proclivities, I remain skeptical that they’ll fall in love with any of this year’s crop. Based on the past two offseasons, reports have suggested that Trey Lance was the passer they liked the most from the 2021 class. And there has been no indication to suggest Ridder wasn’t atop their quarterback draft board a year ago. What Lance and Ridder seem to have in common is their athleticism and familiarity with the West Coast offense.
North Dakota State’s offense is very reminiscent of the Kyle Shanahan-style attack that Smith’s offense is derivative of through Matt LaFleur. Cincinnati, during Ridder’s time there, incorporated West Coast principles thanks to offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock’s influence from years under former Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham, a protege of Dennis Green, who learned the offense under Bill Walsh in the 1980s.
If that trend of targeting athletic quarterbacks with West Coast familiarity applies to this year’s draft class, then Levis appears as the best bet to attract the Falcons. Levis arrived on the scene in Kentucky in 2021 under offensive coordinator Liam Cohen, a disciple of Sean McVay. This past year, Rich Scangarello, a Shanahan disciple, took over play-calling at Kentucky when Cohen went back to Los Angeles.
Whether Levis will be available when it’s time for the Falcons to pick is debatable, which also applies to Young, Stroud, and Richardson. With several teams picking ahead of the Falcons potentially in the market for a quarterback such as Houston, Indianapolis, Seattle, Detroit, and Las Vegas, the Falcons may find slim pickings when they are eventually on the clock. Not to mention, a team like Carolina picking behind them possibly being eager to trade up ahead of them.
The only way to guarantee the Falcons secure the top guy on their draft board would involve their own trade-up. That would only make sense if the Falcons are head over heels in love with that prospect. Even though the collective 2023 quarterback draft class is stronger than the 2022 class that Ridder was part of, it’s already getting similarly dismissed by those suggesting 2024’s class will be stronger. Given where they’re picking and the current crop available, it doesn’t appear that the Falcons will be pulling the trigger on a passer early in the 2023 NFL Draft. But we have to explore all the possibilities, and it certainly remains one.
Standing pat with Ridder remains the most likely outcome
Instead, of all the possibilities presented, the most likely remains sticking with Ridder as the starter and adding a veteran to help mentor or push him in training camp. That would culminate in the hope that those two players (along with Logan Woodside) would do enough to push the Falcons into playoff contention at the top of the NFC South heap in 2023.
Of course, should this plan fall short—likely due to Ridder’s shortcomings—the Falcons will find themselves back in this same position searching for new options a year from now. Perhaps they’ll find better luck at that point. Luck will be important given the rarity of franchise quarterbacks, as teams that find them are often more lucky than good.
Yet in the meantime, we can be certain that the Falcons will make at least one addition at quarterback this offseason. Whether it’s via trade, free agency, or the draft there will be plenty of options.
Now that all their options are laid out, what path do you expect the Falcons to take this offseason at quarterback? Do any of these veteran backups or draft picks intrigue you?