MOBILE, Ala. — One of the biggest questions surrounding the Falcons this offseason is the future of Matt Ryan.
Five seasons removed from his MVP season and Super Bowl appearance, Ryan has just two years left on his five-year $150 million contract signed in 2018, per OverTheCap, and restructured multiple times since then.
Ryan threw for 3,968 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2021, marking the lowest passing touchdowns since 2017, his lowest total passing yards and the first time under 4,000 yards since 2010.
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Still, anyone that watched the Falcons in 2021 knows that Ryan's numbers do not tell the entire story.
There was a revolving door at the wide receiver position for much of the year, with Calvin Ridley only playing five games, Russell Gage battling injury during a subpar first half of the season, and the Falcons offensive line struggled. Ryan was not perfect, of course, but he did enough in 2021 to give general Terry Fontenot confidence heading into next season.
"When you talk about an unselfish guy, smart, tough, a good teammate and the way they prepare and the way they focus – that's who Matt is," Fontenot told Atlantafalcons.com on Wednesday. "There's always gonna be adversity. We're always gonna deal with that; that's why you gotta have tough-minded players with the right mindset so they can handle that adversity, and that's who Matt is."
That said, the Falcons aren't making any bold proclamations about Ryan or the status of any other player heading into the offseason.
"Matt knows how we feel about him. But you're not going to get like a hot take from me today to ever back ourselves into a corner," Arthur Smith said when asked about Ryan's future following the Falcons regular-season finale. "Everything is evaluated every year, and that's the way it goes in the NFL."
Along with Ryan's season, the landscape of the NFL, and particularly the NFC South, may also be giving the Falcons confidence in 2022. Tom Brady announced his retirement on Tuesday, and the Buccaneers have nineteen free agents, including Ndamukong Suh, Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, and Chris Godwin.
Sean Payton announced he was stepping away from coaching the Saints last week, who have $75 million in dead cap, per OverTheCap, and have questions at the quarterback position. The Panthers finished last in the division and have uncertainty at the quarterback position with Sam Darnold, PJ Walker, and Cam Newton all starting games in 2021.
Not only do these changes make the NFC South much more winnable for the Falcons next season, but they also have the most experienced and best quarterback in the division.
Still, Fontenot says he is not giving much thought to what has happened in the division.
"We just have to make sure we're doing the right things this offseason," Fontenot said, "because if you look at other places, you lose sight of what you need to be focused on. So right now, we're focusing on making this team better."
Grady Jarrett has been one of the Falcons' best players since he sacked Tom Brady three times in the 2016 Super Bowl, wreaking havoc on the defensive line. Like Ryan, Jarrett's numbers were down in 2021. But also, similar to Ryan, the numbers don't tell the entire story.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has mentioned that Jarrett's lesser production results from the Falcons needing to develop pass rushers, so Jarrett has the opportunities to make plays.
And Fontenot feels that they have the coaches in place to do that.
"When you're evaluating players, you're never just gonna look at production and bringing in the best player, we're looking at traits and what this player is and what he can become," Fontenot said on bringing in an edge rusher to help Jarrett. "So hey, this player might not have had a lot of sack production in college, but you look at his physical traits and what he can become, and I believe we have teachers and developers that can bring that out of him.
"You're not going to only draft ready-made players; you're also going to draft developmental players with large upside. That's why you really can't judge it after one year or two years; you have to give it some time for those players to develop."
While Ryan and Jarrett had a down year statistically in 2021, first-year Falcon Cordarrelle Patterson evolved into one of the Falcons' most consistent offensive weapons and a fan favorite. Patterson was arguably Fontenot's best free-agent signing in his first offseason as the Falcons GM, getting Patterson for a one-year $3 million deal, per OverTheCap.
Patterson has been campaigning relentlessly for the Falcons to re-sign. He has done everything from taking pictures with fans signs about resigning him to custom cleats telling Falcons owner Arthur Blank to "cut the check."
"I don't really notice it, man," Fontenot said while hysterically laughing. "He's funny, though, man. He's a great teammate, and he did some great stuff this year, but I don't notice it, man."
Falcons Final Whistle | A Postgame Podcast
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Welcome to Falcons Final Whistle – an Atlanta Falcons football postgame podcast during the season that shifts gears in the offseason to answer a pressing question about the team's future each week through free agency, the NFL Draft and the offseason program.