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"Doing right by Matt": Why the Falcons only received a third-round pick for the veteran quarterback

The Falcons will take on $40 million in dead money for trading Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts. Terry Fontenot, Arthur Smith say it sets them up for a more stable financial future. 

Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan #2 talk during the second half against the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, October 31, 2021. (Photo by Kyle Hess/Atlanta Falcons)
Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan #2 talk during the second half against the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, October 31, 2021. (Photo by Kyle Hess/Atlanta Falcons)

When Matthew Stafford was traded to the Rams last offseason, the Lions received a 2021 third-round pick and two first-round picks in 2022 and 2023. Oh, and the Rams sent Jared Goff to Detroit, too.

When Russell Wilson was traded to the Broncos this offseason, the Seahawks received a 2022 first-, second- and fifth-round pick as well as a first- and second-round pick in 2023. Oh, and the Broncos sent tight end Noah Fant, defensive end Shelby Harris and quarterback Drew Lock to Seattle, too.

When Matt Ryan was traded to the Colts on Monday, the Falcons received... a 2022 third-round pick. Oh, and... that was it?

Nothing more.


For a player who many consider the greatest Falcon of all time, the trade seemed off. Some couldn't understand it. Others questioned it. So, when Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith sat down for a press conference on Wednesday morning, they addressed it.

When asked to explain why the trade was something the organization was willing to execute even with a compensation considerably less remarkable when comparing the parameters of Ryan's trade to that of other blockbuster veteran quarterback trades, Fontenot said the decision solely hinged upon "doing right by Matt." It was something the general manager reiterated a few times in his answer.

"I will say it was more important to us to do right by Matt than to try to maximize compensation," Fontenot said. "When we look at it, yes, we probably could have opened it up and talked to every team and traded Matt somewhere that he didn't want to be and got more compensation."

Fontenot laid it out that this is absolutely something the organization could have done, but chose pretty quickly not to do. For the organization, getting Ryan to a place he wanted to be was more important than what the team in question would be able to offer the Falcons in return. Fontenot and Smith agreed Ryan deserved to have a voice and a say in his own trade agreement.

"He's just done too much for this organization," Fontenot said. "For us, and for everything."

By allowing Ryan to be a part of the process, the Falcons lost their leverage because, as Ryan would later say in his introductory press conference in Indianapolis: "If I made a move, there was only one place I wanted to go."

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan speaks during a news conference at the NFL team's practice facility in Indianapolis, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. After 14 seasons in Atlanta, Ryan joined his new team Tuesday, March 22, 2022. In his first public comments, he thanked the Falcons for the success and memories he built during his tenure as the best starting quarterback in franchise history. But the soon-to-be 37-year-old Ryan also embraces his role with Indy. The Colts believe Ryan can make them a Super Bowl contender by stabilizing a position that has had six different opening day starters over the past six seasons. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Smith and Fontenot still view this trade as a win for both sides, though.

"It's a win for us in the long term," Smith said, "and a win for Matt right now."

And that's how you have to look at this trade for the limited draft compensation to make sense. This trade was more than the third-round pick the Falcons received. Part of the compensation, Smith pointed out, comes in the form of what the trade frees up for the Falcons in the future.

"I felt like it was a win-win because it opens up a lot of (cap) space in 2023 where we don't have to keep playing this game where you restructure, and (sign) minimum deals," Smith said. "That was a part of the thought as well."

This is important to note because the Falcons do not want to continue to be in the same loop they've been in for the previous two years now: Always fighting against the salary cap after having to crawl their way out of a size-able hole last offseason. By trading Ryan now (to a team ready to take on the burden of his salary), the Falcons can begin moving forward to reach a day when the cap won't handcuff them.

This won't happen right away, though, because the Falcons are still strapped to a $40.5 million hit in dead money for Ryan in 2022. That is the largest dead cap hit in NFL history. The Falcons also have Julio Jones still on the books for $15.5 million in dead money. As well as Dante Fowler ($4.6 million) and Tyeler Davison ($1.2 million), too.

"Yeah," Fontenot said, "we're taking it on the chin this year."

But taking the blow towards the salary cap this year means the cap space the Falcons will have in 2023 will be - as Fontenot put it - "significant." And how significant are we talking? Over $100 million if the league's salary cap continues to rise as expected. For a team that was almost $50 million over the cap last offseason, nine-figures of cap space sounds pretty good.

And that's where the Ryan trade leaves the organization, looking ahead.

You have to look at 2023, Smith said. That's when the Falcons will no longer have to play the game they're playing with the salary cap. In the end, they'll be able to stop playing - in part - because of the Ryan trade executed this week.


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