Trading quarterback Matt Ryan to Indianapolis left a whopping $40.525 million in dead money on the Falcons' salary cap in 2022, higher than any cap figure for a QB playing with a team this season.
Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said Wednesday the dead money is tough to swallow, but taking their lumps in 2022 frees up flexibility in the future.
"We're taking it on the chin this year," Fontenot said. "But taking it on the chin this year and how you look at where we are next year, it's significant. If not, if we don't do that, we could've restructured his contract or done something with his contract and kept him this year, and then we would still have to trade him after the season or if we keep him next year then you're still in a really tough salary cap situation. With this, you take it on the chin this year and it's our job to find value in free agency and to draft well and to put a good football team on the field this year, even with that dead cap. It's an obstacle, but we look at it as an opportunity, and that's our job. We're not making excuses about it. Us taking it on the chin right now, it makes a significant difference for us next year and the future."
The trade signals loud and clear that the Falcons are in full-on rebuild mode. Ryan was the last piece keeping Atlanta from bottoming out in previous seasons. Now, they'll look to the future, where they should have a boatload of cap space to fill holes in the coming years.
"These guys are excited about going out there and competing," Fontenot said. "Yes, it's a challenge with all the dead money this year, it's a challenge. But taking it all on this year, we're excited about what we're going to do this year because we're going to do the best we can and we're going to go out and compete, and then next year, it's significant when you look at where we are. ... We would never say (this is a rebuild) because it's just not fair. It's not fair to the players here. We've got 17 games next year, and we're going to go out and compete in every single one of them. ... That's why rebuild is not something that we ever want to say."
The Falcons will compete, beginning with Marcus Mariota as the bridge QB. The former first-round pick is experienced in Arthur Smith's offense from their time together in Tennessee. Mariota is the type of QB who can run an offense well enough to evaluate other positions while probably not rising to a level that would keep the Falcons from having a high draft pick.
The GM noted that the team expects to add to the QB room, possibly with a draft pick.
"We're excited about Marcus Mariota," he said, "and we're going to continue to add to that room."
The trade of Ryan not only left a huge dead-money hole, the Falcons only recouped a third-round pick for the former NFL MVP. If Carson Wentz can go for double that, surely Atlanta could have gotten more. But Fontenot insisted the goal wasn't to maximize the trade haul but to send Ryan where he wanted to go after 14 years of service to the organization. That place was Indy.
"He's earned the right to be involved, and so he was," the GM said. "He was involved in this whole process. Arthur (Smith) was great communicating with him on a daily basis, and we allowed him to communicate with the team. It was more important for us to let Matt be involved in it and get Matt somewhere where he wanted to be as opposed to just trying to maximize the value. Again, so appreciative of him and who he is as a man. That decision was us looking at the long term and trying to do what's right for him and doing what's right for the team when you look at the impact that it will have on us next year and the situation we're going to be in next year at this point."
Trading Ryan came on the heels of the Falcons' talks to acquire Deshaun Watson, who ultimately chose Cleveland. The Atlanta brass maintained it was considering trading Ryan even before Watson became a possibility.
"Whether we began to explore Deshaun or not, we were discussing trading Matt," Fontenot said. "We were discussing that, just looking at all the options and what was best for this team. So, we were already having those discussions."
In the end, the Falcons didn't end up trading for Watson but did ship out its longtime franchise QB for peanuts while incurring a massive cap hole. The rebuild is in full swing in ATL.