With a new regime in charge, the Falcons had to make a tough choice that had massive ramifications for Ryan. So how did Atlanta handle the most important decision in franchise history? Thanks to the four-time Pro Bowler, we now know the truth about the secret nature of his team’s draft plans.
The Falcons passed over several potential franchise quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL draft
The Falcons entered the 2021 NFL draft as one of the most fascinating teams to watch. Would they use the No. 4 overall pick on a new franchise quarterback? Or would new general manager Terry Fontenot select a skill player or trade down to acquire more draft capital?
Ultimately, Atlanta passed over two talented signal-callers for a playmaker with frightening upside.
Although Justin Fields and Mac Jones both seemed like potential fits for the Falcons, the team made tight end Kyle Pitts the fourth player off the board. A dynamic athlete who tips the scales at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, the former Florida star totaled 100 catches for 1,492 yards and 18 touchdowns in his three-year college career. Pitts won the 2020 John Mackey Award after totaling 43/770/12 in only eight games for the Gators.
Widely viewed as the best non-quarterback prospect in the draft, the 20-year-old has the size, speed, and length to dominate in the passing game. And barring any major injuries, Pitts should quickly become a perennial Pro Bowler.
Still, the Falcons took a bit of a risk with the biggest decision in franchise history by taking a tight end over a quarterback. Given the fact Ryan turned 36 on May 17, it would have made complete sense for Atlanta to select his potential heir.
Matt Ryan reveals the truth about how Atlanta handled the most important decision in franchise history
As it turns out, Falcons fans weren’t the only ones left in the dark about Atlanta’s draft plans. In fact, not even the team’s longtime quarterback knew which direction the franchise would go once the San Francisco 49ers took Trey Lance with the No. 3 overall pick.
In speaking with Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated, Ryan revealed the truth about how Atlanta handled the most important decision in franchise history.
“When the pick went in, that was the big [moment],” he explained. “To the organization’s credit, they were very up-front about that from the start—Hey, we’re gonna pick whoever we think is the best person to help us moving forward. And they said they had a lot of belief and all those things, but they were up-front from the start about that. So I knew when Kyle got drafted that Kyle got drafted.”
Although the Falcons didn’t make Ryan any promises about who they would take with their top pick, Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith both made efforts to build the foundation of a relationship with him. And by adding an elite talent who can help the team’s incumbent starter, Atlanta showed its commitment to trying to win a Super Bowl with Ryan at the helm.
“I was fired up!” Ryan told Breer. “I mean, I watched this guy play through college, so it was like, Oh, alright, let’s go! I was watching it with my wife, and I think she was probably more fired up than me.”
What does the future hold for Ryan and the Falcons?
Figuring out what to make of the Falcons isn’t the easiest exercise. On one hand, the team boasts an impressive lineup on the offensive side of the ball. At the same time, that group could experience a major change in the near future.
With Julio Jones likely on his way out, how will Atlanta’s passing attack look? The future Hall of Famer has been one of the NFL’s most dominant wideouts for years, so it will be fascinating to see how the Falcons plan to replace his production.
Could Pitts take over as Ryan’s No. 1 target? That wouldn’t be a total surprise given his rare combination of physical skills. Then again, that will require the rookie to make a quick transition to the pro game.
Meanwhile, Ryan must prove he can play at a high level into his late 30s. Although he’s under contract through the 2023 season, Atlanta does have a way out of his deal. Releasing him after the conclusion of the 2021 season would result in a dead cap hit of $40.5 million.
However, waiting until after the 2022 season would significantly lessen the financial blow for the Falcons. At that point, they can save nearly $30 million in cap space by moving on from Ryan.
So even though Atlanta didn’t draft a quarterback this year, don’t be surprised if the franchise uses an early-round pick on the position next April.