A fresh start feels necessary for the Atlanta Falcons.
The roster is aging in certain areas and won't get the same return the team once received from those veterans, especially at quarterback.
With a new general manager and head coach about to take the reins after the franchise fired Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff in October, Matt Ryan's future with the franchise should be in question, though his potential departure won't come easily.
"I think there will be a lot of teams trying to swing trades—more sellers than buyers—because of the cap, and some big names will be available. I could see someone like that," an NFC executive speculated when speaking to Fowler about Jones.
The financial impact of the salary cap's drop to $175 million for the 2021 campaign from this season's $198.2 million high-water mark will create ripple effects through the league and serves as a good starting point when examining Ryan's marketability.
The Falcons' biggest obstacle in making a switch at quarterback involves Ryan's ongoing five-year, $150 million contract, which still has three remaining seasons. The only realistic solution is trading the 35-year-old signal-caller after June 1, giving the Falcons a $23 million reprieve for 2021. Even in that scenario, Atlanta will take on the burden of $17.9 million salary-cap hits each for the next two seasons.
For a possible suitor, the price tag isn't exorbitant, relatively speaking. Ryan's base salary next season is $23 million. The number ranks seventh in actual cash spent. It falls to ninth the following year. From that perspective, Ryan's salary isn't prohibitive, especially for a franchise in search of a win-now veteran.
Because of these financial factors, the asking price for a onetime league MVP shouldn't be much, and it's out of mundane NFL accounting that potentially interested parties will emerge. General managers look years ahead when molding their long-term strategy. The feasibility of trading for a quarterback like Ryan isn't likely for some because of their salary-cap situation, quarterback room or franchise direction.
In Atlanta's case, the organization can move forward with a potential trade knowing three things.
First, a deal won't bring back 2021 picks or players because of the structure of Ryan's contract. Second, the return won't be gaudy but would still be reasonable as the franchise pursues another direction. Finally, April's fourth overall draft pick, which the 4-12 team is in line for, guarantees a quality quarterback prospect to marry with the incoming head coach instead of trying to repair a broken organizational foundation.
Obviously, the Falcons can't force their hand, but they sit in an excellent position to land Ohio State's Justin Fields or BYU's Zach Wilson, as long as the Miami Dolphins don't trade down from the third overall pick. Even then, North Dakota State's Trey Lance could come into play. (Note: We're assuming the Jacksonville Jaguars will select Clemson's Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick.)
Three organizations jump to the forefront with a need at quarterback, the capability of winning in the short term as potential playoff squads and long-term financial flexibility.
The logical starting point for a trade partner starts with the franchise trying to reignite the flame of a burnt-out dynasty.
The New England Patriots missed the playoffs this season for the first time since 2008. Bill Belichick's squad finished behind both the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. The team's offense ranked 27th. Cam Newton, whom the franchise signed as a free agent last offseason, looked like a shell of his 2015 MVP self.
So, why tread a similar path next season?
Despite the failed Newton experiment, the Patriots are still well suited for a veteran signal-caller to lead the offense. Newton entered this season after multiple injured reserve stints and can no longer shoulder an offense. Ryan has a different game than his former NFC South counterpart, and the 13-year veteran can still sling the football, as he posted the league's fourth-best total of 4,581 passing yards.
Jarrett Stidham is the only quarterback from the active roster under contract through next season. Everyone can play the "Is he or isn't he ready?" game again next spring, but the majority already know the answer.
Even so, the problems extend beyond the quarterback in New England. The Patriots own the league's worst wide receiver and tight end rooms. By concentrating on those positions in the draft and then coming back to quarterback in the summer, New England can shape a new offense.
Belichick has the patience to wait out a possible deal. After all, the Patriots didn't sign Newton until July 8. Waiting until June to acquire Ryan might bother some franchises; New England won't be one of them. The Patriots already have $63.2 million in projected space, so taking on a $23 million cap hit remains feasible.
Compensation: 2022 second- and sixth-round draft picks
General manager Chris Ballard is meticulous in his approach to building the Indianapolis Colts roster. He won't make a move just to make one.
"If we get to a point, and you can read this as you want to read it, a true difference-maker in the free-agent market, I'm good paying for [one]," Ballard said in a radio interview two years ago (h/t Indianapolis Star's Jim Ayello). "But they have to be a true difference-maker, unquestionably. Not the media saying he's a true difference-maker—the tape saying he's a true difference-maker."
Substitute free agency with any type of non-draft acquisition, and the general manager's philosophy comes across loud and clear.
The Colts will have options at quarterback. Ballard could re-sign Philip Rivers (if the 39-year-old doesn't retire) or Jacoby Brissett. Rivers could be cheaper and wouldn't cost future assets, but he's also three-and-a-half years older than Ryan, while the latter is a better passer. On the other hand, Brissett, 28, is a developing quarterback who still hasn't shown the capabilities of a full-time starter.
An upgrade at the game's most important position with the potential to last beyond the 2021 campaign should hold value.
Money isn't an issue since Ballard has done a wonderful job of maintaining the Colts' salary cap over the years and keeping them among the teams with the most flexibility. Indianapolis ranks in the top four in projected salary-cap space in each of the next two seasons.
Of any organization, the Colts can most easily absorb Ryan's contract even as they extend younger players such as Darius Leonard, Braden Smith, Quenton Nelson, Rock Ya-Sin and Bobby Okereke at some point during the final years of the quarterback's deal.
But don't expect Ballard to overspend, even for a signal-caller.
Compensation: 2022 fourth- and fifth-round draft picks
Of the three franchises mentioned, Washington sits in the most precarious position because the team isn't good, per se. Yes, the nameless ones captured an NFC East crown, but it was with a 7-9 record. The team had to rely on Alex Smith's miraculous comeback just to make that happen.
Smith remains under contract through 2022, which makes Washington the less likely possibility compared to the previous two franchises (plus the fighting Ron Riveras reside in the NFC alongside the Falcons).
However, Washington can release Smith after this season and save $14.7 million toward the 2021 salary cap. If the team would then entertain a trade for Ryan, his addition would add less than $10 million to the $47.2 million in projected space Washington already owns.
A move of this type may be more important for Washington than other franchises because the team can't pick higher than 19th overall and will likely miss out on multiple top quarterback prospects. It also needs a veteran to lead an offense that is quite young among its skill positions.
Rivera prepared for Ryan twice per year for nine seasons. Washington's head coach knows exactly what he would get in the quarterback if the franchise were to swing a deal.
Meanwhile, the organization could place itself in a position to stay atop the NFC East for multiple seasons instead of potentially fading next year, depending on how its rivals develop after a disastrous campaign for everyone outside the D.C. area.
Compensation: 2022 second- and fifth-round draft picks