The 2021 QB castaway class was already looking to be the best since the Kirk Cousins-Sam Bradford-Case Keenum “powerhouse” 2018 class, but potential “Patriots QB of the future” crystal balls got a bit more interesting this week when Falcons owner Arthur Blank was asked about Matt Ryan on Monday.
“I love Matt, much like I love Dan [Quinn], I love Thomas [Dimitroff],” he said. "Matt’s been a franchise leader for us. A great quarterback. One of the leading quarterbacks in the last 13 years in the NFL. So I hope he’s gonna be part of our plans going forward. But that will be a decision that I won’t make.
“You know, Matt has the ability to play at a very high level, even at this age. Whether that’s gonna continue or not, I’m not sure. I appreciate his willingness to consider doing that, and the level of what he’s played for us for 13 years, which has been incredible. So I — we’ll have to see. But then again that’s gonna be a decision at the end of the day that’ll be — part of it will be up to the player and part of it will be up to the coaching staff. And whether or not Matt can keep himself together and God willing he’ll be able to do that and play at the level that he’s capable of playing at."
The obvious landing spot for a potential Ryan emigration is San Francisco with Kyle Shanahan, whose offensive scheme helped script Matt Ryan’s MVP season in 2016. This would of course open the door for Jimmy Garoppolo to be either released or traded, as well as create one of the more thrilling offseasons of QB movement in recent memory. Ryan and Garoppolo would join the likes of Dak Prescott, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston as QBs potentially on the move.
Of those six options, and assuming the Patriots don’t get a draft pick high enough in the 2021 draft to be in position to draft one of the top QB prospects, Ryan is by far the best option available.
And it’s not particularly close.
People tend to succumb to the “win-loss” fallacy when evaluating Ryan. They see a few 7-9 records and the Falcons continually blow leads and immediately jump to the conclusion that the quarterback stinks. For most of his career, and especially this decade, Ryan has out-performed and out-produced Atlanta’s surrounding talent and scheme.
Take this season alone: The Falcons offense, under the Jurassic tutelage of one Dirk Koetter, uses the second-least pre-snap motion and passes the fifth-least on early downs. Koetter’s philosophy appears to be get to third down as quickly as possible. As a result, the Falcons have taken the fourth-most third-down snaps of any team in the league and are 23rd in the league at converting these downs.
It’s hardly a radical idea to do everything in your power as a play caller to put your team and quarterback in a better position to succeed. Despite Koetter’s shortcomings, Ryan is fourth in passing yards, eighth in INT%, sixth in both average completed and average intended air yards, and is still in the top-half of the NFL in Next Gen Stats’ aggressiveness percentage statistic--in other words, Ryan is playing hero ball on third and long due to the inefficiencies of the Falcons offense, he’s doing a fine job of it, and he’s not turning the ball over.
But Koetter didn’t get fired alongside Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff on Monday. He wasn’t given the interim head coach title, but Koetter’s still in the building. The narrative surrounding the Falcons is that the defense is the problem, not the offense. Thus, we can assume the ways in which Koetter holds the offense back will continue and the Falcons will end up with a high draft pick and an opportunity to hit the reset button at the position with an elite QB prospect, opening the door for Ryan’s departure.
The argument in favor of acquiring Ryan over a quarterback like Garoppolo is easy: with this current Patriots team, Garoppolo wouldn’t succeed. There isn’t enough talent and he isn’t good enough to elevate the team around him. The argument for acquiring Ryan over Pescott or extending/re-signing Newton is less explicit but still fairly simple: in Ryan, the Patriots would be getting an elite quarterback. Finding a starting-caliber QB is hard enough, and that’s why I’m making this argument despite Ryan being 35-years old and carrying almost $120M worth of cap hits the next three seasons. You simply don’t say no to an elite quarterback, especially when you have the best system in the NFL.
The Ryan cynic will point to Ryan’s one MVP season and the lack of team success as a reason for saying he is not elite. But the NFL’s MVP award simply goes to the QB of the best offensive team that makes the playoffs. Ryan all but replicated his numbers from 2016 in 2018. His yards per attempt was down slightly, 1.2 yards lower than his 2016 career high of 9.3, but that Falcons’ offensive line faced the same fate it has every year since 2016--it was ravaged with injuries. As was the defense. Ryan wasn’t in the MVP conversation in 2018 because the Falcons didn't make the playoffs, not because he underproduced or underperformed. 2018 is the easiest argument to make for Ryan’s defense boxing him out of the MVP conversation, but the 2017 and 2019 editions of the team faced similar fates as far as injuries and subpar defense went (as well as all time inefficient play caller Steve Sarkisian). And I’ve yet to even mention the high-flying Falcons offenses of 2010 and 2012.
But does Prescott being younger and potentially elite and Newton being slightly younger, having a wider skill-set and being potentially cheaper outweigh the upside of Ryan in a system like that of the Patriots? The argument for Ryan over Newton is passing efficiency and prolonged health: Ryan has missed three starts in his entire career. The argument for Ryan over Prescott is… did you see Dak’s ankle?
Look, no one would make the case for Ryan over Prescott in a vacuum. But given what we know right now, Ryan is the best potentially-available quarterback next offseason. If the Patriots can get him, they’d be getting an elite quarterback for at least three years, if not more.