Replacing Matt Ryan this offseason isn’t necessarily something the Atlanta Falcons were planning for even a week ago. A lot has happened this past week, though, and the Falcons’ public but ultimately fruitless pursuit of Deshaun Watson put Ryan’s future in doubt.
Those doubts were ended when the Falcons and the Indianapolis Colts agreed to a trade on Monday, March 21. Ryan will go to the AFC, while the Falcons receive a third-round pick in this year’s draft in compensation, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter and his colleagues:
The trade quickly spurred the Falcons into action looking for a replacement. They have chosen Marcus Mariota, with NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reporting the deal:
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Mariota is a former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 overall draft pick who will play for his third NFL franchise, but he has experience working with Falcons’ head coach Arthur Smith. The dual-threat quarterback could be the ideal stop-gap starter for 2022 while the Falcons develop a signal-caller from this year’s rookie class, according to one NFL Insider.
Smith’s Former Protege Tabbed to Replace Ryan
Developments with Ryan had barely unfolded before Mariota was named as a likely replacement, per NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo:
Things moved fast after the day began with Mariota being touted for the Falcons by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, who chose Mariota as the Falcons’ “best option available to start in 2022.”
Barnwell framed the scenario around the chances Ryan would be traded. The possibility grew stronger when NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported the Colts had “emerged as the most likely landing spot:”
The Falcons had been willing to let Ryan explore his options. That willingness prompted the team to defer payment of a roster bonus due Ryan from Friday, March 18 to Tuesday, March 22, per Schefter:
Of course, that decision was also more than partly motivated by the Falcons waiting for Watson to choose his next team. The now former Houston Texans quarterback was choosing between the Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns.
Watson eventually chose the latter, leaving the Falcons in limbo at football’s most important position. Barnwell believes Mariota could solve that uncertainty, if only temporarily, based in part on his time with Smith when the latter was offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans in 2019: “Mariota was benched that season for Ryan Tannehill, so the partnership wasn’t exactly the stuff of legend, but the free agent has been a capable quarterback and offers a higher floor than any of the other remaining veterans.”
There’s no denying Mariota, who was drafted second overall by the Titans in 2015, would add a different dimension to Atlanta’s offense. Mariota spent the 2021 season backing up Derek Carr for the Las Vegas Raiders, but he’s still a legitimate threat as a runner, evidenced by career tallies of 1,574 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns.
He may also be the ideal fit for the Falcons’ best playmaker in the passing game, second-year tight end Kyle Pitts. As Fantasy Football Analyst Michael F. Florio detailed, the Smith and Mariota combination means a heavy workload for tight ends:
Mariota is likely a band-aid starter for the Falcons because Barnwell’s primary choice is for the franchise to select Liberty’s Malik Willis eighth overall in the 2022 NFL draft. The rookie could then sit for a season while the Falcons get ready to go with a younger starter a year later.
It’s a smart idea, but the Falcons’ QB room still looks a lot weaker without Ryan.
Ryan a Tough Act to Follow
He’s 36, but Ryan remains one of the more capable quarterbacks in the league. His arm strength is still above par, as is the ability to read defenses.
Despite a paucity of talent around him, Ryan has maintained high levels of play, according to Pro Football Focus ratings cited by The Falcoholic’s Evan Birchfield:
Ryan has also earned a reputation for conducting himself well in Atlanta. He’ll be an asset for the Colts, who have had a longstanding need for stability under center. Ironically, the Falcons now find themselves in that same bracket, even after agreeing a deal with Mariota, who has started six games in the last three seasons.
Ditching Ryan now means the franchise has to reset ahead of schedule, something that all but condemns the ’22 season to being another campaign lost in transition.