No Matter Who Is on the Board, Falcons Must Replace Matt Ryan in 2021 NFL DraftApril 5, 2021
Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Trey Lance.
Over the course of the next four weeks, NFL fans will hear those five names more than any others.
And when the Atlanta Falcons arrive on the clock with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, at least two of those five quarterbacks will remain available.
Regardless of who is still up for grabs, the Falcons have to select veteran Matt Ryan's eventual replacement.
Why? Because all five have extremely high NFL ceilings, future drafts are less likely to contain that many high-potential quarterbacks (this could be the first with five signal-callers in the top 10), the Falcons haven't held a top-five pick since they drafted Ryan 13 years ago, and they very well might go another 13-plus years without a primo draft choice.
Oh, and because the soon-to-be 36-year-old Ryan hasn't been a first- or second-team All-Pro—or even a Pro Bowler—since his MVP 2016 season.
With a $26.9 million salary-cap hit and a $24.9 million dead-cap charge in the event of a post-June 1 release or trade, Ryan isn't going anywhere in 2021. But with more than $92 million in cap hits on the books for 2022 and 2023, he's likely running out of time in Atlanta.
He has struggled statistically in three of his last four seasons, and the Falcons have won just 18 games with him under center since the start of 2018. Without a sudden change in his late-career trajectory, there's just no way the organization can justify continuing to pay him elite-quarterback money beyond the next season or two.
Lawrence almost certainly will not be available when Atlanta's turn comes up, but the other four first-round-caliber quarterbacks in that group could all potentially benefit from a year or two (or three) in the stable.
Wilson experienced just one big season against soft competition at BYU, Fields could use time to develop his pocket awareness and processing skills, Jones is practically a one-year starter coming from a system that made life easy, and Lance threw just 318 passes in his college career at North Dakota State.
With quarterbacks likely to be chosen with the first three picks for just the third time in NFL draft history, the Falcons could be tempted to pick the best available non-quarterback in this class. But most experts—including those representing the B/R NFL Scouting Department—view only pass-catchers (Kyle Pitts from Florida, DeVonta Smith from Alabama, Ja'Marr Chase from LSU) or offensive linemen (Penei Sewell from Oregon) as being worthy of such a prime selection.
It just so happens that the Falcons are heavily invested in those spots with Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst at wide receiver and tight end, stalwart Jake Matthews at left tackle and recent Day 1 or Day 2 draft picks Kaleb McGary, Chris Lindstrom and Matt Hennessy also residing along the offensive line.
The tantalizingly athletic Pitts could be viewed as an immediate upgrade over Hurst and a potential long-term replacement for the declining, 32-year-old Jones, but that addition would not be worth passing on a potential successor to Ryan at the most important position in the sport.
There's a perception that quarterback transitions have to take place immediately these days, and it's true that fanbases and front offices have less patience than ever before. But this might be the ideal scenario for a slow, careful baton exchange.
And it's not as though it's unprecedented in this era. Patrick Mahomes spent pretty much an entire season holding a tablet before turning in an MVP season in 2018, while Aaron Rodgers watched Brett Favre for basically three entire campaigns before launching his Hall of Fame career in 2008.
Mahomes and Rodgers just happen to be two of the three highest-rated passers in league history. Both won Super Bowls and MVPs within four years of becoming regular starters.
So even if Ryan suddenly recaptures that 2016 magic despite his age, his career course and the lack of Kyle Shanahan, it makes sense. But the odds are that won't happen anyway.
In fact, the odds are Ryan is close to done.
He threw nearly as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (seven) on deep passing attempts in 2020, and he tossed a tied-for-league-high four picks while posting an ugly 73.1 passer rating in the fourth quarter of one-score games.
It might not be time to move on just yet, but it's absolutely time to start grooming the heir apparent, whoever that may be.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Gagnon.