The final spin of the offseason quarterback carousel is officially underway. The Colts acquired veteran quarterback Matt Ryan from the Falcons in exchange for a 2022 third-round pick on Monday. Ryan, a onetime league MVP, spent the first 14 seasons of his career with Atlanta after going third overall in the 2008 draft. The Colts are hoping to squeeze whatever the four-time Pro Bowler (who’s entering his age-37 season) has left in hopes of maximizing their championship window.
Indianapolis could have done worse. Last offseason, the team rolled the dice on Carson Wentz, taking on the full remaining contract of a player who was coming off the worst statistical campaign of his career and had been benched in favor of Jalen Hurts. General manager Chris Ballard spent a conditional second-round pick (which became a first-rounder) and a third-round pick to land Wentz, whose reunion with coach Frank Reich didn’t result in a renaissance. After missing the playoffs thanks to a confounding performance in their regular-season finale against the Jaguars, the Colts were forced to pivot.
Earlier this month, Indianapolis shipped Wentz to the Commanders for a pair of third-round picks (one of which could become a second-rounder) and a swap of second-round picks. Ryan, his replacement, represents the fifth different starting quarterback the Colts will roll out on opening day in as many seasons. Here are some takeaways following the Ryan-Colts marriage:
The Colts’ floor is raised, but their ceiling is still unclear.
For nearly 20 straight years from 1998 to 2018, the Colts lived in quarterback heaven thanks to Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. But in the years since Luck’s retirement, Indianapolis has wandered the veteran market in hopes of finding a passer that can elevate a playoff-caliber roster, whose most glaring inefficiency is at quarterback. For the second time in the past three years, the Colts are betting that a former Pro Bowl quarterback at the tail end of his career can be a short-term solution.
Ryan wasn’t spectacular last season, but he did flash some vintage ability later in the year, despite an underwhelming supporting cast. He threw for 3,968 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Ryan ranked 22nd among passers in EPA per play. His age is concerning and he’s started taking more sacks in recent seasons, but he has remained durable, missing only one game in the past three years, and only three in his entire career.
The Colts did have other options. Indianapolis wasn’t able to land a big fish in this offseason’s QB market, but the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo is on the trade block, as is Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, who reportedly wanted to be traded to Indianapolis. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were available, too. But the Colts chose Ryan. Per ESPN’s Dianna Russini, they balked at Garoppolo because of concerns over his shoulder injury.
Ryan doesn’t solve the franchise’s long-term quarterback problem, but in the interim he could be good enough to at least get Indianapolis back to the postseason—but how much further? The Colts’ stiffest competition will come from the Titans, who are two-time reigning AFC South champions. Coach Mike Vrabel has navigated Tennessee to three straight playoff appearances. The Titans will be tough to knock off from the division’s top spot, and even if the Colts accomplish that, they still face the daunting task of competing against other loaded AFC teams. Ryan should give Indianapolis a chance to hold its own against a stacked field, but it’s fair to wonder what this team’s ceiling is with him at the helm.
The Ryan trade immediately sent the QB carousel spinning.
The trade had an immediate domino effect. Soon after it was reported, the Saints locked up Winston to a two-year, $28 million deal ($21 million guaranteed). The Falcons then reached a two-year deal with Mariota, who they hope can capitalize on his familiarity with coach Arthur Smith’s system from their time together in Tennessee.
That leaves Garoppolo and Mayfield as the two best veteran passers available for a trade. Garoppolo reportedly drew interest from both the Steelers and Commanders, but they ended up landing Mitchell Trubisky and Wentz, respectively. Garoppolo has led the Niners to a pair of NFC championship games and one Super Bowl appearance, but has struggled to stay healthy. The 30-year-old also underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder this offseason.
San Francisco parted with three first-round picks and a third-rounder to move up in last year’s draft to acquire Trey Lance, and GM John Lynch confirmed at the combine that the club intended to deal Garoppolo. According to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, the Niners are looking for two second-round picks in exchange for Garoppolo, and are expected to get some interest from the Panthers. But after restructuring enough deals to get under the salary cap, San Francisco could keep Garoppolo if other teams don’t express enough interest. The 49ers could also release Garoppolo, which would save them roughly $25 million in cap space.
Mayfield, meanwhile, is in even murkier waters, considering his relationship with his current team appears to be beyond repair.
Only a few teams seem likely to pursue either Mayfield or Garoppolo. The Panthers were among the most aggressive in pursuing Watson, and appear ready to move on from Sam Darnold after one season. The Seahawks, who traded Russell Wilson to the Broncos earlier this offseason, could look into bringing someone in to compete with the newly acquired Drew Lock. But that’s about it—the market for passers has rapidly dried up.
The Falcons’ rebuild reaches a turning point.
The Falcons signed Mariota on Monday, adding some juice to what briefly was a bleak QB room. But considering Ryan’s stature in Atlanta and his contributions to the franchise over the past decade, it’s strange that his departure was so ho-hum. As quiet as his exit seemingly was, the Falcons will reel from it. Atlanta will incur an NFL-record $40.5 million dead cap charge. (It’s nearly $7 million more than the next highest dead cap hit in league history, incurred by the Eagles last offseason after trading Wentz to Indianapolis.) According to Schefter, Ryan didn’t ask Atlanta for a new deal and felt like it was time to move on.
It’s hard to blame him. Atlanta strongly pursued Watson, even though he faces 22 civil suits from women who describe accounts of sexual misconduct and coercion. Ryan and Atlanta agreed to push back a $7.5 million roster bonus to Tuesday so that he could evaluate his trade options.
The Falcons missed out on Watson and last year passed on drafting Ryan’s successor with the no. 4 pick, instead choosing tight end Kyle Pitts. With Mariota under center, Atlanta won’t be forced to find a long-term answer for the next season or two. But his presence doesn’t necessarily preclude the Falcons from finding another potential starter; Mariota lost his starting job with the Titans six weeks into the 2019 season—Smith’s first year as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator—in favor of Ryan Tannehill, who became one of the league’s most efficient passers under Smith.
Atlanta holds the no. 8 pick in the 2022 draft, but this year’s quarterback crop isn’t as star-studded as previous groups. So quarterback is one of several holes the Falcons have on their roster. Receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for the entire 2022 season for gambling on NFL games in 2021. Russell Gage joined the Bucs on a three-year, $30 million deal. Leading tackler Foyesade Oluokun signed with the Jaguars and pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr. signed with the Cowboys. The Falcons were already one of the least-talented teams in 2021, but could be even worse given their key losses this offseason. With only $8.5 million in cap space entering the week, it’s unlikely that Atlanta will improve much until the draft. The Falcons can look forward to next offseason, though, when Over the Cap projects they will have a league-high $136 million in cap space.