Winners and losers of Falcons' trade of Matt Ryan to Colts
Atlanta is left with just two QBs on its roster after the signing of free agent Marcus Mariota.
The NFL's hot stove remains very warm to the touch.
The latest thunderbolt crackled through the league Monday afternoon, the Atlanta Falcons shipping longtime QB Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts. The deal in itself wasn't a huge surprise, despite the massive dead money hit the Falcons incurred. But pretty noteworthy that Atlanta couldn't get more than a third-round pick in exchange.
A breakdown of the winners and losers of one of the most fascinating transactions to go down over the past few weeks:
Atlanta Falcons: The optics are fairly bad, and we'll lay it all out in detail. Let's start with the fact that this is a pretty poor Plan B for a team that apparently buckled in its pursuit to acquire Georgia native Watson when it appeared his choices were down to the Falcons and New Orleans Saints on Friday. Ryan, of course, monitored how that unfolded along with the rest of the NFL, the 2016 league MVP apparently unwilling to serve as Atlanta's Plan B himself. Now? Watson is a member of the Cleveland Browns, and Ryan heads for a fresh start in Indianapolis. Meanwhile, Atlanta swallows a record $40.5 million dead cap hit and assess its options. Free agent Marcus Mariota agreed to a two-year deal Monday afternoon, just minutes after the Falcons officially announced Ryan's departure, and joins Feleipe Franks as the only quarterbacks currently on the roster. (Restricted free agent Josh Rosen could also be back.) The Falcons pick up that third-rounder ... but good luck finding a future franchise quarterback with the 82nd overall selection, because Joe Montana (No. 82 in 1979) ain't walking through that door. A team now in unfettered rebuild mode can only hope to net a future starter to fill a hole at safety, receiver, pass rusher or linebacker. But, hey, at least the Dirty Birds avoided paying Ryan's $7.5 million 2022 roster bonus. Sweet.
Washington Commanders: Again, the Colts gave up one third-round pick for Ryan. The Commanders got fleeced for two Round 3 choices to take Carson Wentz off Indianapolis' books once it became apparent Washington couldn't get ahold of Russell Wilson – a maneuver that appeared like a panic move in the moment, and one that's already aged poorly. If Wentz plays 70% of the snaps this season, which is surely the goal in D.C., then the Commanders will surrender a second-rounder in 2023 instead of a third. You know that saying about sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make? Yep.
Baker Mayfield: According to NFL Network, Cleveland's lame-duck quarterback desired a one-way ticket to Indianapolis once the Watson deal was consummated. Chin up, Bake: Progressive ads should be more fun to do in Seattle's Lumen Field, the coolest yard in the league – if ... you can manage to re-route that ticket to the West Coast.
Jimmy Garoppolo: As it pertains to prospective 2022 starting opportunities ... see Mayfield, Baker.
Cordarrelle Patterson: He had a career year with Atlanta in 2021, coach Arthur Smith unlocking his prodigious abilities by using Patterson primarily as a running back for the first time in his nine-year career. But you wonder if Patterson, an all-universe kickoff return man who had a career-best 1,166 yards from scrimmage in 2021, knew what he was signing up for when he re-upped for two more seasons with the Falcons over the weekend.
Kyle Pitts: The rookie season of the Falcons tight end, selected fourth overall last year, lived up to the pre-draft hype. Pitts' 1,026 receiving yards were the most ever by a first-year player at his position in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). Yet now he's the only skill player on Atlanta's offense who looks like a long-term fit, and questions will arise anew because ...
2021 draft-eligible QBs: ... the onus is now on Falcons second-year GM Terry Fontenot and Smith to prove they were right by choosing Pitts last year instead of suburban Atlanta native Justin Fields or Mac Jones, who were both available at No. 4, if not moving up slightly for Zach Wilson or Trey Lance ... or even snatching Atlanta-bred Davis Mills before the Houston Texans did so with the 67th pick. Mariota is almost surely a short-term fix as Fontenot and Smith weigh if they can afford not to take a swing at a quarterback in the 2022 draft – even though this year's crop isn't nearly as highly regarded as last year's.
Indianapolis Colts: The 2022 season will mark the fifth in a row where they're led by a different quarterback, Ryan following Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers and Wentz. Starting with Luck's shocking retirement during the 2019 preseason, Indy GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich have valiantly been trying to make the most of an unenviable circumstance. But so many prime years for players like All-Pro G Quenton Nelson and LB Darius Leonard have already been squandered, and it's worth wondering how viable a Super Bowl window this team legitimately has given the influx of players like Russell Wilson (Broncos), Adams (Raiders) and Khalil Mack (Chargers) into the AFC – to say nothing of Watson's intraconference jump to the Browns. The Colts should be a legitimate threat to the Tennessee Titans for AFC South supremacy, but it's just as easy to argue they're not in the conference's upper half.
Indianapolis Colts: Let's also be completely fair and shower deserved praise on Ballard, Reich and Co. Organizationally, they felt last year's Wentz acquisition was a mistake – one that cost them their first-rounder in the 2022 draft – but the brain trust didn't dwell on it and recovered beautifully in landing Ryan, who didn't even force the Colts to mortgage anything beyond that mid-tier Round 3 selection. Yes, he'll be 37 in May. But Ryan continued to play reasonably well despite a deteriorating roster around him in Atlanta, shifts over to a unit where his No. 1 job will be handing off to the NFL's 2021 rushing champ, Jonathan Taylor, and might even halt the Colts' QB carousel given he's under contract the next two seasons. Sure is hard to imagine Ryan, who guided the Falcons to six playoff trips and their infamous Super Bowl 51 berth – that overtime loss to the Patriots was hardly any fault of his – melting down in last season's regular-season finale in Jacksonville the way Wentz did in a loss that cost Indianapolis playoff entry.
2022 draft-eligible QBs: With the Falcons picking eighth, and the Seahawks now in the No. 9 hole after trading Wilson, increasing chance Liberty's Malik Willis, Pitt's Kenny Pickett or another incoming passer gets pushed into the top 10 of this draft even if none seem to merit such an investment based on their talent level and/or readiness to play in the league.
Marcus Mariota: The No. 2 pick of the 2015 draft with Tennessee, he gets a shot – tough as the odds he faces are – to rejuvenate his career in Atlanta under Smith, who served as his offensive coordinator in Nashville. Even if it is a temporary role for Mariota, you couldn't ask for a much better mentor for an incoming youngster if he cedes the reins this year or next.
Salary dumps: Perhaps none of the high-stakes quarterback deals over the last year have been as financially motivated as, say, when the Texans shipped Brock Osweiler to the Browns – for whom Osweiler never took a regular-season snap – in 2017. (Cleveland absorbed Osweiler's pact a year after he signed a four-year, $72 million agreement, Houston sending the Browns a second-round pick as part of the package as compensation for its own salary cap relief.) The Falcons didn't get much at all in return for Ryan – again, hold up the Wentz swap for context – but did unrestrict their salary cap now that the teardown is on. Ryan is almost certainly a preferable option in 2022 to Wentz or Jared Goff – and both those passers conveyed much larger returns in swaps with Indianapolis and Detroit, respectively, because the Eagles and Rams both shed such unsightly contracts. Maybe the NFL's silly season is actually starting to resemble the NBA's.
Tom Brady: He always makes the winners' list, right? In this case, it's because the unretired TB12 is now the dean of QB1s in the NFC South, and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers have an even easier path – credit Ryan enormously for getting seven wins out of last year's Falcons roster – to the 2022 division crown.
Matt Ryan: You have to feel good for him. The four-time Pro Bowler and greatest passer in Falcons history was a consummate professional during his 14-year run – which began with the No. 3 overall pick of the 2008 draft's unenviable task of following iconic (if disgraced) predecessor Michael Vick and ended with the team's fail bid to replace Ryan with Watson. Joining an ever-stout AFC gauntlet is hardly optimal, but at least Ryan is going into the conference's weakest division – and 9-8 or 10-7 might be enough to earn a home playoff game in 2022. And a few seasons with the Colts probably give "Matty Ice" a much better shot to put a Hall of Fame résumé on ice and, with a few well-timed breaks, maybe even get that elusive Super Bowl ring.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.