2021 NFL Preview: Maybe the Falcons should have traded Matt Ryan, too

·9-min read

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

While acknowledging Deion Sanders, Jeff Van Note, Tommy Nobis and some others, Julio Jones is probably the greatest Atlanta Falcons player. Matt Ryan might be No. 2. 

The Falcons got caught a bit flat-footed this offseason. Jones asked for a trade. That request came in March, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A great relationship had just come to its end. 

"There was nothing toward football, it’s business," Jones said, via the AJC. "So, you just had to accept whatever happens, happens. Like I said, it was a mutual agreement on it. We just split up."

At that point, the Falcons had to make some hard decisions. They could have played hardball with Jones, who had a $15.3 million base salary for 2021. Or they could have traded Jones, Ryan and steered the franchise in a whole new direction. They chose the latter. Kind of. 

Ryan remains. He turned 36 in May, with just enough years left to help a team in need (that would be the Denver Broncos on line one) but perhaps not enough to still be in his prime at the end of a rebuild. The Falcons had the fourth overall pick in a deep quarterback draft class. The reset button was right in front of them, and it would have made sense if they pushed it once they decided to trade Jones. Ryan is a former MVP and a very good quarterback; the Falcons presumably could have gotten a good amount back in a trade and banked a lot of salary cap space after taking one huge dead cap hit. They also have a new coach and GM, Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot, and so the timing would have made sense. 

Instead, the Falcons kept Ryan and will try to make another run with him. They drafted tight end Kyle Pitts with the fourth pick, and he'll suck up a lot of the targets Jones leaves behind. There are still some major questions on the roster, like offensive line, No. 2 and 3 receiver, running back and all three levels of the defense. Things can turn fast in the NFL, for better or worse, but Atlanta doesn't seem like a team that will be a Super Bowl contender over the next few years. Never say never, but it seems unlikely. The Falcons went 7-9 for two straight seasons before 4-12 last season. 

Ryan carries on, trying to get back to a Super Bowl without his most talented teammate. 

"He's been such a great player, he's a hell of a teammate. I love him," Ryan said before the trade was made, via NFL.com. "We'll see how things shake out, but he's probably impacted my career more significantly than any other player. I've been really fortunate to be around him for as long as I have."

Every situation is different. Jones, 32, is likely closer to the end of his prime than Ryan. Jones wanted out and the Falcons presumably didn't want an unhappy star around. Ryan plays quarterback, and that's a lot harder to replace than a receiver. There's also something to be said about a franchise hoping its greatest quarterback retires as a Falcon. 

But it would have made sense for the Falcons to clean house and start over with a new rookie quarterback on a cheap contract. Moving on from Ryan and Jones in the same offseason would have been tough, but Atlanta could have drafted Justin Fields and had a lot of draft picks and cap space to rebuild the roster over the next couple years. Or drafted Pitts and used one of those future picks on a new quarterback after patching it together without Ryan this season. 

The next few years will be telling. In a perfect world, the Falcons' new coaching staff takes a core of receiver Calvin Ridley, Pitts, linebacker Deion Jones and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and helps Ryan make another deep playoff run, or maybe a couple of them. Either way, the full rebuild won't happen. At least not yet. 

Matt Ryan will try to lead a bounceback season for the Falcons. (Photo by David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Matt Ryan will try to lead a bounceback season for the Falcons. (Photo by David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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The Falcons got a 2022 second-round pick and 2023 fourth-round pick from the Tennessee Titans for Julio Jones, which has value but probably disappointed Falcons fans. Atlanta didn't have much cap room, due in part to still having Jones on the books, and didn't give any player more than $3 million per year in free agency. Kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson and running back Mike Davis (who played well last season with Carolina) were the biggest acquisitions. The Falcons saw a few key starters leave, like center Alex Mack and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen. Tight end Kyle Pitts was the biggest addition of the offseason with the fourth pick, and the Falcons had a solid overall draft. Still, you can't overlook losing Jones, a future Hall of Famer. 

Grade: D

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Matt Ryan is an interesting case, in terms of his career and for 2021. Ryan is coming off good but not great seasons. Does he have an uptick in new coach Arthur Smith's play-action heavy offense that saved Ryan Tannehill's career with the Tennessee Titans, or is he on the decline in his late 30s? Figuring that out is just as challenging as putting Ryan's career in perspective. He has been a clearly above-average quarterback for most of his 13 seasons. He had one historic MVP season in 2016 and would probably be a near Hall of Fame lock had the Falcons not infamously blown the Super Bowl. Ryan may not make the Hall of Fame, but there are plenty of franchises who would be thrilled to have a quarterback like him for more than a decade. 

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BetMGM has the Falcons' win total at 7.5, and the under is one of my favorite plays on the board. A coaching change could help a team that went 4-12, but the Falcons didn't add too much in free agency, Kyle Pitts isn't sure to make a huge impact right away at a tough position for rookies and Julio Jones is gone. The Falcons did have a ton of close losses last season and that will regress, but improving by four wins is a lot to ask of a team whose roster is worse. (As a bonus, give me over 774.5 receiving yards for Pitts. More on him in a moment.) 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "It's fair to call Mike Davis a journeyman (the Falcons are his fifth team) and you could even call him a JAG if you want (career per-rush average: 3.7). But Atlanta's especially thin at running back, and Davis might be asked to carry a heavy snap share. 

Although Davis is more expensive in Yahoo formats (ADP: 66) than he is in some national rooms (NFFC: 81), he still looks like a reasonable target if you're building a fantasy backfield on a budget. Volume and opportunity buoy fantasy value as much as raw talent."  

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The Falcons were horribly unlucky last season. Yes, their early-season collapses were partially self-inflicted. But some tough luck goes into blowing two straight 15-point fourth-quarter leads. No team in NFL history had blown two 15-point fourth-quarter leads over an entire season before the 2020 Falcons. Atlanta did it in two weeks. The Falcons were 1-8 in games decided by 7 or fewer points. That was the most losses and worst record in the NFL in 7-point games. It won't repeat. 

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How good can Kyle Pitts be this season? 

We have seen great tight ends have tough rookie seasons. Rob Gronkowski had 546 receiving yards his rookie season. Tony Gonzalez posted 368. Shannon Sharpe had 99. Tight end is probably the toughest position in the NFL for a rookie to have success. 

Then again, Pitts isn't a normal rookie tight end. 

Pitts was the highest tight end drafted in the Super Bowl era, at fourth overall (Ron Kramer was also taken fourth overall by the Green Bay Packers in 1957, though he was designated as an end coming out of Michigan). Pitts is a rare prospect that checks every box for athleticism and on-field production. His ceiling is one of the greatest tight ends ever. That's lofty but possible, considering he's probably the best tight end prospect of the modern era. Mike Ditka had 1,076 yards in 1961, and that's still the NFL record for a rookie tight end. Pitts could break that, especially in a pass-happy offense that doesn't have Julio Jones anymore. 

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It's hard to be overly optimistic about the Falcons' ceiling. The defense was average at best, below average against the pass, and Atlanta didn't add much to it. The Falcons have always had a good passing game, but that was with Julio Jones. Arthur Smith could end up transforming the Falcons (though he won't have Derrick Henry, like he did with the Titans), and some of that bad luck in close games could completely flip. It's just hard to see how a 4-12 team from last season finds itself in playoff contention after an uninspiring offseason. 

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Matt Ryan is getting to the age in which a quarterback can start to decline in a hurry. What if it happens a couple years earlier than expected? The Falcons didn't want to trade their quarterback, and that's understandable. But they could regret it. The Falcons might have been better off going with a full rebuild with a new coach and GM, because there's no guarantee Atlanta looks any better this season even with Ryan still at QB. By the end of the season, the Falcons could have another top-five pick and a lot of holes to fill, perhaps even including quarterback. 

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I like to be optimistic with teams coming off a bad-luck season, and the Falcons' point differential of -18 indicated they should have won about 7.5 games. Their 4-12 record was unlucky. I just don't trust the roster. There's not a lot of depth, and some glaring holes in the starting lineup too. Over the long term I think Arthur Smith will prove to be a good hire, and I believe Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts will be a great nucleus for Atlanta's passing game for many years. But this season could be another rough one in Atlanta. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers

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