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Falcons Made Big Mistake Passing on Justin Fields, Not Going Full Rebuild

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJune 12, 2021

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) looks to throw against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

The Atlanta Falcons sit in the worst position a team can hold in professional sports. They're neither good enough to be considered a legitimate contender nor bad enough to be in the conversation for next year's No. 1 overall pick.

Yet the team didn't commit to either direction this offseason.

Instead, the organization chose to rework Matt Ryan's contract to its own detriment and passed on an opportunity to find a long-term starter behind center, opting for tight end Kyle Pitts with this year's fourth overall pick as the class' top non-quarterback prospect.

Also, the Falcons caved and traded star receiver Julio Jones to the Tennessee Titans.

Something Stealers Wheel sang long ago applies to the Falcons' relationship with the team's all-time leading passer:

Yes, I'm stuck in the middle with you
Stuck in the middle with you
Here I am
Stuck in the middle with you

The combination of keeping Ryan, passing on Ohio State's Justin Fields and moving on from Jones doesn't make sense. It's a scattershot approach based on flawed logic.

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The Falcons should have bitten the bullet this year, understood they had to endure Ryan's exorbitant salary-cap charge and moved on a year from now with a future franchise quarterback tied to the new regime. It never happened.

Pitts is an exceptional talent who should thrive under head coach Arthur Smith's supervision. But the franchise's lack of foresight at the game's most important position while working its way through salary-cap issues placed it in a difficult position.

General manager Terry Fontenot knew it too:

"We knew when we stepped into this that we were going to have to make some tough decisions, because it's just the reality of it. That's where we are with the salary cap. So we have to make some difficult decisions so we have to look at all the different options and all the different scenarios. And so, if someone calls about any player, we have to discuss it and do what's right for the team. That's what we're always going to do. But we hold that player in high regard, we just have to look at every option to get where we need to get."

Atlanta moved on from a large group of veterans based on financial restrictions caused by the lowered salary-cap number. Center Alex Mack, running back Todd Gurley II, guard James Carpenter, utility lineman Justin McCray, defensive lineman Allen Bailey and safeties Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal are no longer with the squad.

The Falcons weren't active in free agency either. Running back Mike Davis signed the only deal longer than one year and for more than $3 million.

Fontenot and Co. renegotiated Ryan's deal to get the team under the salary cap at the onset of the new league year. The move achieved part of the goal since the team was approximately $16 million over the number prior to the move and Ryan's restructured deal created $14 million in space, per WSB Channel 2 Atlanta's Zach Klein.

At the same time, the move hamstrung further options, especially if some thought existed of a potential Jones trade. Knowledge of the wide receiver's intentions apparently became clear months earlier, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. The idea of trading the seven-time Pro Bowl selection—which they ultimately didshould have been in the team's back pocket, knowing his departure would create $15 million in salary-cap space after a June 1 trade.

Atlanta is now $16 million below the cap (prior to getting the rookie class under contract), per Spotrac.

The team had to be under the mandated number when the new league year opened, and Ryan's contract became the most obvious target. But other possibilities existed, like reworking Grady Jarrett's deal (on top of doing the same with Jake Matthews earlier in the offseason) and cutting a handful of other veteran contracts.

Would the roster have taken a significant hit with that approach? Absolutely, and that's the point. Ryan would have been the starter for one more year or until Fields was ready to take over the offense.

Yes, the incoming decision-makers were saddled with multiple bad contracts. However, the new general manager and head coach lacked the vision or fortitude to navigate a difficult transition. Now, they're stuck.

They're stuck with Ryan, whose salary-cap charges exceed $43 million in each of the next two seasons. The Falcons will be forced to eat $24.9 million if he's cut or traded after June 1 next year.

A trade may have been possible without a restructured contract. Atlanta could have saved $23 million by agreeing to a move after June 1 of this year. But that possibility never had a chance to materialize.

The Falcons are a year behind where they should be with the start of a full-blown rebuild. This isn't a philosophical discussion. Coaches, players and, yes, front-office personnel want to win. Even so, the practicality of investing in a franchise quarterback prospect made sense from the start.

A discrepancy emerged during the evaluation process. Fontenot wanted to take a quarterback with the fourth overall pick, albeit North Dakota State's Trey Lance, while Smith thought he could squeeze a couple more years out of Ryan, per ESPN's Chris Mortensen (h/t The Falcoholic's Evan Birchfield).

Fields was never a consolation prize, even though he fell to the 11th overall pick. His natural ability reached or surpassed the first three quarterback prospects off the board.

In fact, Fields graded as the most accurate quarterback prospect since Pro Football Focus started evaluating collegiate players. His CPOE (completion percentage over expected) trumped Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Joe Burrowall of whom heard their names called with the first overall pick in their respective draft classes.

Fields ranked first in his class in working from a clean pocket and throws past his first read.

Once the 22-year-old's athleticism and toughness factored into the equation, he could have easily been a top-three selection. Instead, a handful of teams passed on a massive talent, potentially to their detriment.

Early returns in Chicago are promising.

"Everything that we thought he was going to be when he got here with learning and being obsessed with everything that we teach him and then being able to be himself out on the fieldhe's really doing things in a really good way," Bears head coach Matt Nagy told reporters Wednesday.

Running back David Montgomery added: "Justin is definitely a freakish athlete, to say the least. He already kind of carries that leader mantra that you rarely see in rookies that I know I didn't have."

Fields signed his fully guaranteed rookie contract Friday. While the Bears are elated and ready to move forward with the new face of the franchise, the Falcons enter another year of uncertainty with no shortcut to fixing the problems they faced this offseason.

        

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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