The Atlanta Falcons encountered change unseen in their franchise in some time in 2020, but it’s not going to include their most popular remaining players.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank spoke Thursday on how his club will proceed in the offseason at quarterback and receiver, and his point was clear: Matt Ryan and Julio Jones aren’t going anywhere.
“Well, I’d be shocked, completely shocked if he was not (on the Falcons next year), and it really has nothing to do necessarily with his contract,” Blank said during an interview on NFL Network. “Matt has played at a very high level for us since 2008 when we drafted him. He and Drew Brees are the only quarterbacks in the history of the NFL that have thrown for more than 4,000 yards over a 10-year period of time consistently. He’s performed beautifully, was MVP of the league one year. So Matt can still play at a very high level and we expect him to be a Falcon next year, fully.”
While the Falcons have faltered as a team, Ryan has still been effective, finshing fourth in passing yards this season (4,581), throwing 26 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions, and posting a passer rating of 93.3. He did this while operating in an offense that struggled to run the ball effectively for a second straight season.
Quarterback isn’t the issue for the Falcons, then, but timeline is a concern. At 35 years old, Ryan solves any questions at the position for the next few years, but beyond that, there is no answer. Atlanta will need to figure out its next step under center sooner rather than later, and it has led to some thought of attempting to move Ryan for draft capital while he still has value.
The same can be said of the 31-year-old Jones, who battled a hamstring issue to appear in nine games in 2020, catching 51 passes for 771 yards and three touchdowns. He’s not getting any younger, and the Falcons appear to have a legitimate successor in Calvin Ridley, who enjoyed a breakout season in Jones’ absence, finishing fifth in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,374 and nine touchdowns.
As of now, they form a tantalizing receiving tandem when fully healthy, of which Ryan has proven hes capable of taking advantage.
“We expect Julio to be a Falcon, to be playing next year at a very high level as well,” Blank said. “God-willing, taking care of his body, his hamstring will be healed up. He’ll be able to play in more games than he played last year. I know he’s trying as hard as he can, and he’s an athlete and a competitor and he’ll be able to do it. So they’ll both be with us.”
Blank is aware of a need for planning ahead. He’s seen other teams do it successfully. But it won’t involve swapping Ryan or Jones for a shift toward the future — at least not right now.
“In any business, including professional football or any sports business, you do have to prepare for succession planning, and that’s what separates a lot of great organizations that are great over a longer period of time because they think through, how do they continue to stay at the level they’re at,” Blank explained. “In our case, we want to get back to the level of competition we were at before and make sure that we stay there. You have a great relationship with these players, you understand what they do, how much they commit emotionally, physically in every way to the game and to supporting the team. But on the other hand, we all age. I found that out personally.
… “With Matt or Julio or anybody else, it makes sense to go through a transition. We’ve done it before, you look at a player like Roddy White, who was the best receiver the Atlanta Falcons ever had, held all of our records, and we made a transition form him to Julio, and at some point we’ll transition from Julio to someone like Calvin Ridley, who’s playing at a very high level now.
“A good example is what Kansas City has done when they drafted Patrick Mahomes, who came out of a very high-scoring offense in college, but needed to go through a professional transition. He played behind Alex Smith for a year, a great competitor, a great quarterback, a great mentor, and he learned a lot, so he’s producing now at a much higher level and he’s had a healthy transition. So I think you have to think about long-term while you think about winning today. That’s what good coaches and what good general managers do.”
Blank has hired a new coach and general manager in Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot to handle such matters. The moment of decision-making might not arrive this year, though, especially considering both Ryan and Jones are on contracts that run through 2023, and neither includes a manageable dead cap number until the final year.
For now, it seems the Falcons will go with the status quo, even if some want them to blow it up and start over with their new leadership. Should they fix a few other key areas — finding a way to establish a presence on the ground, and maintaining health defensively to start the season off on the right foot — they could turn things around quickly without making major changes.
But before long, significant changes will come at at least one position: quarterback. Father Time has come for everyone not named Tom Brady, and with the fourth-overall pick in their pocket, the Falcons very well could find their own player to fill the Mahomes role.
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