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Four questions left to answer in the wake of the Matt Ryan trade

How did the organization get here? What's next for the Falcons? 

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan #2 warms up prior to a game against the Cleveland Browns at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, August 29, 2021. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta Falcons)
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan #2 warms up prior to a game against the Cleveland Browns at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, August 29, 2021. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta Falcons)

After 14 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, the organization has traded Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts.

It's a seismic shift within the Falcons organization a year and two months after Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith were hired as the Falcons next general manager and head coach.

This is a moment many expected would one day come. Speaking to prior to this year's Super Bowl, owner Arthur Blank went on the record to say that a succession plan should be installed because "at some point, there will be a sunset" for Ryan's time in Atlanta.

"Great franchises have a successful transition from one quarterback to the next," Blank said. "We want to make sure we're focused on doing the same thing. Coach (Smith) understands that and so does our general manager."


Ryan had two years left on a contract that would have seen him carry a cap hit of over $40 million in both 2022 and 2023, per OverTheCap and Spotrac.

However, all of that changes now that Ryan is heading to Indianapolis. And with change comes a great many questions regarding how the Falcons got here and just where this organization goes from here.

Here are four such questions, with speculation and analysis of their answers.

How did the Falcons and Ryan get to this point?

The Falcons were reportedly working to land Deshaun Watson in the last week. It was reported by multiple media outlets that the teams vying for Watson were the Falcons, Saints, Panthers and Browns, despite Watson still facing 22 civil counts of sexual misconduct and sexual assault.

Late last week, the Falcons and Ryan reportedly agreed to push back Ryan's $7.5 million roster bonus that was originally owed to him on Friday to Tuesday.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported it was to give Ryan "four extra days to vet his trade options" if the Falcons did indeed get Watson.

However, on Friday, Watson chose to waive his no-trade clause for the Browns and receive a new five-year, $230 million contract that is fully guaranteed. He officially signed with the Browns on Sunday. 

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, the Colts were calling for Ryan, and NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported the two organizations had been in talks about Ryan's future "before Atlanta lost out on Deshaun Watson last week."

Atlanta, Indianapolis and Ryan all came to the agreement that Ryan would move on to play with the Colts. Meanwhile, the Falcons agreed to terms with free agent quarterback Marcus Mariota on Monday afternoon.

What is the Falcons draft compensation in the trade? How does it shift priorities for this incoming draft class?

Colts receive: QB Matt Ryan

Falcons receive: 2022 third-round pick

The Falcons need draft capital more than ever in 2022, and grabbing another mid-round pick was an important piece of this trade package. Indianapolis couldn't offer much higher than a third round pick considering they do not have a first round pick to give up this year.

The Falcons currently have the No. 8 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. They also have two second round slots, as they picked up the extra second round pick when they traded Julio Jones to Tennessee last offseason.

Now the Falcons have five picks all before the 100th pick of this year's draft.

Atlanta has a great many needs on its 2022 roster, mainly at edge rusher and wide receiver. The good news is that this is a fairly deep draft class at those two positions. One would think this leaves the Falcons in a good spot to go after both positions with fervor early in the draft, perhaps looking even more closely at offensive tackles as well.

What are the salary cap ramifications?

It was no secret that Ryan's cap hit was significant. For some perspective: ESPN's Field Yates reported in February that Ryan's $48.6 million cap hit in 2022 was the largest cap hit for any player in NFL history.

So, yes, significant is the right word to use to describe this contract.

With Ryan on his way to Indianapolis, however, the long-term effects of Ryan's contract with Atlanta are quite different now that Indianapolis is essentially taking it over.

According to OverTheCap, with a trade prior to June 1, the Falcons will carry a $40.5 million dead money hit for Ryan, but they'll save roughly $8 million in cap space.

More importantly for Atlanta, however, is not necessarily what they have to eat money-wise this year, but what they gain in 2023. Ryan will be completely off the Falcons books after the 2022 season.

The expectation for the Falcons would be that they would have well over $100 million worth of cap space in 2023 with this trade completed (assuming the salary cap continues to rise league-wide).

Will Marcus Mariota be the starter in Atlanta?

As soon as the news of Ryan's trade to the Colts started circulating, so did Mariota's name as Ryan's potential replacement in Atlanta. NFL Network's Mike Garafolo first reported the Falcons were expected to pursue Mariota. Two hours later, the organization had come to terms with Mariota.

Smith was Mariota's offensive coordinator in 2019, the year Ryan Tannehill burst on the scene with the Titans. Smith was only Mariota's play caller for a short period of time, but this is still a reunion worth noting.

The question that is now open for debate is whether or not this acquisition means Mariota will be the starter on Day 1 of the 2022 season? That's still yet to be determined. The Falcons have the No. 8 pick in this year's draft class. They also have two second round picks. Would Atlanta be willing to use those picks on a quarterback?

Though this draft class isn't very deep with rookie quarterbacks, the Falcons did have formal interviews with Matt Corral, Kenny Pickett and Malik Willis at the Combine a few weeks ago. Fontenot was in attendance at Pickett's pro day on Monday, too, as were Smith and offensive coordinator Dave Ragone, according to a report by The Athletic's Dane Brugler.

If the Falcons do have someone they like in mind in this year's draft, that may add competition for Mariota.

However, if you're looking at a quarterback room with - let's say - the likes of Mariota, Feleipe Franks, Josh Rosen, AJ McCarron or some combination of this group in it? It would stand to reason that Mariota would in fact be the starter on Day 1. We'll also know more when the terms of Mariota's contract are released. How much the Falcons are paying him will determine how likely it is that he's the starter in Atlanta.

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