ATLANTA (AP) — For the first time since 2008, the Atlanta Falcons will be breaking in a new quarterback.
That’s hardly their only concern after trading Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts.
While general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith shy away from the word “rebuilding,” it’s clear this team faces some very serious challenges in the short term.
Namely, a staggering hit to their salary cap flexibility with some $62 million in dead money.
Both insist it will all be worth it beyond 2022.
“We’re taking in on the chin this year,” Fontenot said Wednesday. “But where that leaves us next year is significant.”
Beyond their salary cap woes, the Falcons have some serious public relations work to do.
Already faced with a lethargic fan base after four straight losing seasons, they are now dealing with the perception that Ryan’s departure was hastened by their unsuccessful pursuit of quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Accused of sexual misconduct by nearly two dozen women, Watson sat out last season with the Houston Texans and demanded a trade; a grand jury recently declined to indict him on criminal charges.
Even though Watson still faces a plethora of civil cases, the Falcons were among at least four teams that met with him in hopes of getting him to agree to a trade from the Texans.
It appeared the Falcons were among two finalists, along with the rival New Orleans Saints, until Watson had a change of heart and worked out a fully guaranteed, $230 million deal with the Cleveland Browns.
After their very public pursuit of Watson fell apart — and it’s still not clear how they could’ve afforded him when Ryan’s contract was such a burden — the Falcons had little choice except to hastily work out a deal for Ryan.
Fontenot and Smith wouldn’t go into much detail about Atlanta’s talks with Watson, nor would they acknowledge any pressure from owner Arthur Blank to bring in a player who might fill up thousands of empty seats that have become commonplace on Sundays at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We made a collective decision to explore it,” Fontenot said.
Added Smith: “Matt and I had several conversations. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of transition here. Matt understood there could be a succession plan for us at quarterback because or where we are at and where he is in his career.”
Fontenot acknowledged that the Falcons didn’t get top value for the former MVP who has thrown for the eighth-most yards in NFL history and missed only three games over his 14-year career.
The Colts were able to acquire Ryan, who turns 37 in May, for a mere third-round draft pick because, as Fontenot put it, the Falcons didn’t want to put Ryan through protracted trade talks or not give him a say in where he was dealt.
“It was more important for us to do right by Matt than trying to maximize compensation,” said Fontenot, adding that Ryan didn’t have a no-trade clause. “Yeah, we probably could have opened it up to every team and traded Matt somewhere he didn’t want to be and gotten more compensation.”
After dealing Ryan on Monday, the Falcons quickly agreed to a contract with his apparent successor, Marcus Mariota.
The No. 2 overall pick in 2015, Mariota failed to hold his starting job with the Titans and spent the last two years backing up Derek Carr with the Raiders.
But Mariota is only 28 and will get a chance to revive his career with Smith, his former offensive coordinator in Tennessee.
“There’s been a lot of growth from him and myself,” Smith said. “He’s gonna come in here and give us everything he’s got. He’s a high-end talent.”
Ryan’s long-term successor could come through the draft. While this isn’t considered a banner year for quarterbacks, the Falcons could find someone to their liking with the No. 8 overall pick.
Fontenot said the team has, or will have, representatives at pro camps this week featuring Malik Willis of Liberty, Kenny Pickett of Pittsburgh, Matt Corral at Mississippi and Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati.
“If we feel there’s a great quarterback at whatever pick, we’ll take a quarterback,” Fontenot said. “If we don’t, we’re not gonna reach for something we’re not excited about.”
The trade of Ryan, combined with last summer’s deal that sent star receiver Julio Jones to the Titans and the release of free-agent bust Dante Fowler Jr., has left the Falcons with far more dead cap space than any other team.
But Smith insisted they can still put a quality product on the field.
“I don’t like the ‘rebuilding’ tag,” the second-year coach said. “Our charge is to go out and compete and play better team football than we played last year. We’re going to compete now — and build for the future.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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