Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft by the Titans, is the Falcons starting quarterback -- right now.
Is he a bridge quarterback filling the position until the Next One is in the building? Or can he resurrect a once-promising career, which, if he did, would resurrect a franchise that's fallen on tough times and had a challenging offseason?
"There is nothing guaranteed," Mariota told me this weekend. "This is just an opportunity. I feel like I have never been handed anything and I'm excited for this."
Mariota is clearly aware that his status is tenuous. The Falcons have the No. 8 overall pick and could use it on Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett, Liberty's Malik Willis, Cincinnati's Desmond Ritter or Mississippi's Matt Corral. If Atlanta doesn't use it's first pick on a QB, there's still the likelihood they'll draft a QB later or add one post-draft.
"If it's not me, it's okay too," Mariota said. "I've been in this situation before. It's a 'control what I can control,' mindset. I have no ego. I can be an ear and listen. Teams are going to do what they're going to do. If they do draft someone, I'll give as much advice and knowledge as I can. If not, I'm ready to roll."
I've known Mariota for years, mainly through our dealings with the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame and Polynesian Bowl (he grew up in Hawaii and is of Samoan and German descent). He is an incredible human being. He is mild mannered and not outspoken, but don't confuse that with him being non-competitive.
In watching him back up Derek Carr with the Raiders the past two seasons, he's as intense as I've ever seen him. He proved routinely reliable when he got his weekly packages to execute. He honestly is focused on putting the "bridge quarterback" conversation to rest with his leadership and play.
"If things work out, hopefully I'll be here for the next few years," Mariota said.
Mariota rejoins Falcons head coach Arthur Smith, whom he worked with in Tennessee before leaving to join the Raiders after the 2019 season. That relationship, knowledge of scheme, and personal and professional growth by both is why Mariota said he finds this THE ideal situation to try and get his career back on track.
In terms of the depth chart, Mariota and Feleipe Franks are the only quarterbacks on the roster. That creates the dynamic of whether you want to draft another quarterback – Franks made the roster as an undrafted free agent last year – and have two developmental quarterbacks behind Mariota.
This doesn't seem like the succession plan Falcons owner Arthur Blank talked about for years, knowing former NFL MVP quarterback Matt Ryan's playing window was closing.
That window closed for the Falcons in late March, when Atlanta traded Ryan to the Colts for a third-round pick. That left a colossal void, which now is filled by Mariota.
The last time the Falcons had to adjust after a seemingly unexpected quarterback development came in 2007. That's when Joey Harrington was signed as a free agent to replace Michael Vick, who was suspended and eventually imprisoned for dogfighting.
This is a vastly different circumstance, of course, but this subject is about finding a quarterback after an unforeseen situation developed -- the trade of Ryan came after failing to acquire Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson seemingly led to where things stand.
There are similarities. Harrington was selected No. 3 by Detroit in 2002. Mariota was taken No. 2 overall by Tennessee in 2015. Both had/have every physical trait you'd want in your quarterback. It's simply a side note, but Harrington and Mariota also attended Oregon.
We take a look at eight options for Atlanta's first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Harrington failed to take advantage of his final chance to start in the chaotic 13-games-and-done season under coach Bobby Petrino. Mariota is coming into a far more stable leadership situation under Smith, with whom he played under with the Titans before being replaced by Ryan Tannehill in 2019.
Following the disastrous 2007 season, Atlanta wound up with the No. 3 overall pick, which it used on Ryan. No one, trust me, no one in the organization wants to revisit what that team went through as a roadmap to how they find their next quarterback.
The foundation laid by Smith and his staff last season, when the 7-10 record was viewed league-wide as a commendable showing based on some of the roster upheaval, was too vital to take steps backward.
Yet, is going through a season with Mariota and waiting to add a quarterback next season the best way to find the long-term successor? There's a risk in that.
The Falcons might not be in draft position to take the elite quarterback prospects in the 2023 class. Those quarterbacks pegged as likely top picks could get hurt, or have a flaw exposed that hurts their appeal. There aren't many top-shelf quarterbacks slated to be free-agents in 2023. Trading for a veteran would be the more likely route if that's the best option.
GM hat time: Drafting a rookie provides some relatively inexpensive cost certainty at quarterback for five years. Adding a top-shelf vet is going to cost $40 million or more annually.
Then again, if Mariota plays well and gains the trust the same way his draft classmate Jameis Winston has gained the trust of the Saints organization, the Falcons might back into the answer to their biggest question.
"It's going to be tough. That's part of it," Mariota said. "At the end of the day, I'm looking at things as though it will allow guys to gravitate toward each other and create a foundation for the future. It might not be pretty, and we may have to claw to win games. That's the culture you want to build in terms of toughness and culture mindset of winning.
"I've experienced a lot of things in the league whereas some guys haven't yet. I'm excited for this."