Arthur Smith

Arthur Blank Denies Falcons Were Serious On Deshaun Watson, Addresses Lack Of Lamar Jackson Interest

Most of the reporting done regarding last year’s Deshaun Watson sweepstakes revealed the Falcons were set to land the then-embattled quarterback via trade, but the Browns’ $230MM fully guaranteed contract won out. Arthur Blank‘s stance now is the team was not especially close to acquiring Watson.

Asked about the differences between the Watson pursuit and the Falcons joining the rest of the QB-needy or borderline QB-needy teams in avoiding Lamar Jackson, Blank said staff conversations led the team to view Watson as a poor fit.

I think we explored the one last year, which is what our responsibility was,” Blank said, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s D. Orlando Ledbetter. “We didn’t explore it deeply, deeply. We spent some time on it from a legal standpoint, personal standpoint, value standpoint on the player and a variety of things. Soon after we got into exploring, we decided it wasn’t a very good match.

… I think Lamar’s situation, and I don’t really want to spend a whole lot of time talking about players on other clubs, but Lamar’s situation, I think is very different. A different player. Different time.”

The Falcons joined the Browns, Panthers and Saints as meeting the Texans’ trade price, and a report the day Houston agreed to send Watson to Cleveland indicated Atlanta was “very close” to acquiring the Georgia native. Watson had narrowed his list to the Falcons and Saints — before the Browns’ contract offer — and the quarterback was believed to be recruiting Jarvis Landry and Leonard Fournette to Atlanta. That report and others later in the year viewed Watson as being Atlanta-bound were it not for Cleveland’s historic guarantee structure — one that has altered Jackson’s path.

The Texans only permitted the four finalists to meet with Watson had they offered satisfactory trade compensation, pointing to Atlanta being much farther down the Watson road compared to Blank’s assessment. The Browns’ Watson agreement has directly impacted the Ravens’ Jackson talks, with the former MVP long being connected to asking for Watson-level guarantees. No other quarterback is tied to a guarantee north of $124MM, and teams have attempted to make the Watson accord an outlier. Thus far, franchises’ efforts have been successful.

The Falcons drafted Desmond Ridder a few weeks after missing on Watson, and they are committing to the third-round pick as their 2023 starter. With Atlanta having not made the playoffs since 2017 and Ridder far from a sure thing, Blank’s club would seem to be one of the most logical Jackson suitors. No team has emerged as a suitor, and Blank alluded to Jackson’s run-oriented skillset as one of the reasons for the Falcons’ current stance. Jackson’s recent injury history (11 missed games since 2021) is believed to have affected teams’ interest levels, though his contractual demand has long been viewed as the main impediment.

Looking at it objectively, there is some concern about whether or not he can play his style of game for … how long can that last,” Blank said. “I’m not sure. He’s only 26. Hopefully a long time for his benefit or anybody that he’s signed with. But he’s missed five to six games each of the last two years. This is not like baseball and basketball where you’re playing 82 or a 182 games, or whatever baseball is now.”

Blank confirmed Arthur Smith, GM Terry Fontenot and Falcons CEO Rich McKay looked into Jackson. Blank was not involved in the evaluation. While Blank called Jackson “one of the top quarterbacks in this league,” the Falcons will stand down on an expensive pursuit and go with Ridder. The four-year Cincinnati starter worked as the Falcons’ first-stringer in four games last season. Ridder completed 63.5% of his passes, threw two TD passes and no INTs, but averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt.

Ridder’s rookie contract runs through 2025, and it will help Atlanta build its roster. Although Ridder will need to prove worthy of being a player good enough to build around, the Falcons came into free agency with a top-three cap-space figure. This standing came after the team ate a dead-money record from the Matt Ryan trade ($40MM) and also took on dead-cap hits from the Julio Jones and Deion Jones swaps.

During Blank’s run as Falcons owner, the team has authorized three big-ticket quarterback contracts — Michael Vick‘s 2004 extension and Ryan’s second and third accords. It appears Blank, whose team certainly appears to have been close to acquiring Watson last year, would like to build around a rookie deal for a while.

We just came out a period of time … last year we set a record for the most dead money in the history of the NFL,” Blank said. “In my 21 years as an owner, we had close to the least amount of cap room than we’ve ever had before. This year, we had a healthy amount of cap room. Not very much dead money, a little bit, not much.

Having compensation at 25% or so tied up in one player, we’ve lived through that. It definitely can put a lot of restraint on your ability to round out a roster and to have the depth on the roster given 17 games and the nature of this game, it still a contact sport … we need to build a team.”

Falcons HC Arthur Smith Addresses Commitment To Desmond Ridder, Lamar Jackson Interest

For weeks, teams around the league have had the option of making an aggressive pursuit of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, since he was issued the non-exclusive franchise tag. Very little interest has emerged regarding either an offer sheet or a tag-and-trade, however, including from the Falcons, a team many pointed to as a potential landing spot.

Atlanta was the first team reported to turn down interest in acquiring the former MVP, whose contract standoff with the Ravens has taken a number of public turns. The most recent of those, of course, was Jackson’s revelation that he has a month-long standing trade request with Baltimore, since the team has remained unwilling to meet his asking price.

One day after Jackson’s desire to be traded become known, the Falcons committed to 2022 third-rounder Desmond Ridder as their starting quarterback heading into next season. The 23-year-old served as Atlanta’s QB1 for four games to close out the 2022 campaign, taking over from veteran Marcus Mariota. Ridder didn’t put up eye-catching numbers in his audition, but he did enough to convince the Falcons to avoid the high cost (in both draft capital and finances) which would be required to land Jackson.

“He won a lot of games in college and helped Luke Fickell at Cincinnati really change the whole culture of that program,” Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said during an appearance on the Rich Eisen Show (video link). “And I certainly think that experience, you start that many games coming in helps… And certainly there’s a lot of things we all can continue to improve, but we’ve got a lot of faith in him.”

Ridder, the second signal-caller drafted in last year’s underwhelming class, went 2-2 in his rookie year. He has three more years of being team-friendly from a financial standpoint, which helps explain the Falcons’ decision to opt for a patient approach under center. The cap dilemma Atlanta would put themselves in – not long after clearing up a number of expensive contracts, including that of Matt Ryan – remains a key reason why they have shied away from Jackson.

“The belief becomes so much more transactional,” Smith said. “It’s our job to understand the markets that’s going on, and who’s available, who’s not, do they fit… at the end of the day you’ve got to do what you think is best for your team and what you’re building and how it fits into that puzzle.”

The Falcons currently have just over $21.5MM in cap space, which ranks sixth in the NFL. That comes after the team elected to add veteran Taylor Heinicke as their backup, a role he is willing to accept. While Jackson would offer far more in the way of pedigree than that duo, Atlanta remains in line with the rest of the league in turning their attention away from him during roster-building season.

Latest On Desmond Ridder, Falcons’ QB Plans

The 2022 season saw the Falcons turn over their offense to rookie quarterback Desmond RidderWhile that has led to the expectation he will handle the No. 1 role moving forward, that has not formally been decided yet.

The third-rounder was one of several Day 2 selections during last spring’s draft, making Ridder part of the unheralded class of 2022 signal-callers. With veteran Marcus Mariota in place as the starter to begin the campaign, it was considered a matter of time before Ridder was installed as the No. 1. That ultimately took place during the team’s bye week, allowing him to play throughout the rest of the season.

Ridder went 2-2 in his four starts, putting up pedestrian numbers in terms of passing yards (708), yards per attempt (6.2) and completion percentage (63.5%). However, the former Bearcat went without an interception in his limited audition, something owner Arthur Blank noted as one of a few positives in his evaluation of the young passer.

“We’re very excited about Desmond Ridder,” Blank said, via ESPNs Michael Rothstein. “I think from the time he came into training camp, he showed great capabilities as a leader amongst the rookies and then amongst the vets… We’re committed to the position obviously, and we know we need a good leader there, and I think we have it in Ridder.”

Notably, both Blank and head coach Arthur Smith fell short of fully endorsing Ridder as their 2023 starter (in the sense that the Commanders with Sam Howell, for instance, have). Mariota is still on the books next year at a cap hit of $14.5MM, but Atlanta would see $12MM in savings by releasing him in place of more cost-effective competition for the starting role. The Falcons currently hold the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft, though they have plenty of other priorities coming off of a second straight 7-10 season.

Smith added that he and the rest of the organization “feel[s] good about where we’re at” with respect to the QB position. With more moves very likely to be made in the near future, however, Atlanta will be a team to watch as they continue to re-tool this offseason.

Falcons QB Marcus Mariota Leaves Team

Desmond Ridder will be under center for the Falcons going forward, especially considering news that quarterback Marcus Mariota was eyeing a potential IR trip. However, there’s more to Mariota’s rapidly declining role in Atlanta.

[RELATED: Falcons Expected To Place Marcus Mariota On IR]

Coach Arthur Smith revealed today that Mariota has left the team to have his “chronic” knee issue evaluated, per Josh Kendall of The Athletic. It’s uncertain when or if the veteran QB will return to the Falcons. Kendall writes that Mariota was notified of his benching on Thursday, and the Falcons learned that the QB would be stepping away on Friday.

“[The knee] is nothing that has been an issue this season, but that’s [Mariota’s] prerogative so … ” Smith said (via Kendall). “Of course, you want all your guys to be here, but guys have to make decisions. It’s part of professional sports. You have to have contingency plans.”

As Kendall notes, this isn’t the first time that Smith has played a role in Mariota’s benching. When Smith was the offensive coordinator with the Titans, Mariota was demoted to backup. Atlanta inked the 29-year-old to a two-year, $18.75MM deal this past offseason. If he’s cut following the season, the organization could save around $12MM against the cap.

Mariota has gone 5-8 in his 13 starts this season, completing 61.3 percent of his passes for 2,219 yards, 15 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. He’s also added 438 yards and four scores on the ground. The decision to pivot to Ridder was “performance-based,” according to Smith, and the head coach also seemed to hint that it was always the team’s intention to eventually turn to the rookie third-round pick.

“We’ve talked about trying to get over the hump in some of these close games and where we’re trying to push the offense,” Smith said. “We feel like it’s the best decision where [Ridder] is at and where the team’s at. I wouldn’t have made this decision if I didn’t think it was in the best interest of this team, not only short term but probably long term as well.”

The team started preparing for Mariota’s absence earlier this week when they signed QB Logan Woodside off the Titans practice squad.

Falcons, Jaguars Discussed Calvin Ridley Trade For Months

The trade which sent Calvin Ridley from Atlanta to Jacksonville this past Tuesday caught many around the NFL off guard. With the suspended wideout ineligible to play this season, the timing of the deal came as a surprise, but the teams had been in talks regarding a swap dating back months.

As detailed by ESPN’s Michael Rothstein, Jacksonville identified Ridley as a potential target during this past offseason. The Jaguars entered the spring with a new head coach in Doug Pederson, and a need to add at the skill positions around second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence. That resulted, most notably, in the high-priced free agent addition of Christian Kirk, but the possibility of acquiring Ridley was a topic of conversation.

“These discussions have been ongoing for a long time and everything we do here, we understand there’s a lot of parties involved in it,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “[There’s] a cause and effect in a tough business and [we] always do everything in the best interest of the team and in regards to the players we got.”

The Jaguars certainly weren’t the only interested party in Ridley. It became known days after the 27-year-old was issued a year-long gambling suspension in March that Philadelphia almost completed a deal to acquire him. That near-trade demonstrated Atlanta’s willingness to part ways with the 2018 first-rounder, whose final Falcons season ended after he stepped away from the team for mental health reasons.

As Rothstein notes, the effect Ridley’s suspension had on his contract likely played a part in the Falcons being able to move him. The Alabama product is due $11.1MM on the fifth-year option in 2023 (assuming he is reinstated in time to play next season). That final year of his rookie deal tolled as a result of the suspension, but the figure is also no longer guaranteed. Atlanta has made a number of cost-cutting moves this year, including the deals sending away quarterback Matt Ryan and linebacker Deion Jones. Clearing Ridley’s 2023 cap hit will give the team some added financial flexibility as they pivot to first-round rookie Drake London to lead their WR room, while closing the book on Ridley’s time in Atlanta.

“This wasn’t something that happened at the trade deadline,” Smith further explained. “It was a long process. So leave it at that.”  

The NFL’s Longest-Tenured Head Coaches

The NFL experienced a busy offseason on the coaching front. A whopping 10 teams changed coaches during the 2022 offseason, with the Buccaneers’ late-March switch pushing the number into double digits.

Fourteen of the league’s 32 head coaches were hired in the past two offseasons, illustrating the increased pressure the NFL’s sideline leaders face in today’s game. Two of the coaches replaced this year left on their own. Sean Payton vacated his spot in second on the longest-tenured HCs list by stepping down from his 16-year Saints post in February, while Bruce Arians has repeatedly insisted his Bucs exit was about giving his defensive coordinator a chance with a strong roster and not a Tom Brady post-retirement power play.

While Bill Belichick has been the league’s longest-tenured HC for many years, Payton’s exit moved Mike Tomlin up to No. 2. Mike Zimmer‘s firing after nine seasons moved Frank Reich into the top 10. Reich’s HC opportunity only came about because Josh McDaniels spurned the Colts in 2018, but Indianapolis’ backup plan has led the team to two playoff brackets and has signed an extension. Reich’s seat is hotter in 2022, however, after a January collapse. Linked to numerous HC jobs over the past several offseasons, McDaniels finally took another swing after his Broncos tenure ended quickly.

As 2022’s training camps approach, here are the NFL’s longest-tenured HCs:

  1. Bill Belichick (New England Patriots): January 27, 2000
  2. Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers): January 27, 2007; extended through 2024
  3. John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens): January 19, 2008; extended through 2025
  4. Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks): January 9, 2010; extended through 2025
  5. Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs): January 4, 2013; extended through 2025
  6. Sean McDermott (Buffalo Bills): January 11, 2017; extended through 2025
  7. Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams): January 12, 2017; extended through 2023
  8. Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco 49ers): February 6, 2017; extended through 2025
  9. Mike Vrabel (Tennessee Titans): January 20, 2018; signed extension in February 2022
  10. Frank Reich (Indianapolis Colts): February 11, 2018; extended through 2026
  11. Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona Cardinals): January 8, 2019; extended through 2027
  12. Matt LaFleur (Green Bay Packers): January 8, 2019
  13. Zac Taylor (Cincinnati Bengals): February 4, 2019; extended through 2026
  14. Ron Rivera (Washington Football Team): January 1, 2020
  15. Matt Rhule (Carolina Panthers): January 7, 2020
  16. Mike McCarthy (Dallas Cowboys): January 7, 2020
  17. Kevin Stefanski (Cleveland Browns): January 13, 2020
  18. Robert Saleh (New York Jets): January 15, 2021
  19. Arthur Smith (Atlanta Falcons): January 15, 2021
  20. Brandon Staley (Los Angeles Chargers): January 17, 2021
  21. Dan Campbell (Detroit Lions): January 20, 2021
  22. Nick Sirianni (Philadelphia Eagles): January 21, 2021
  23. Nathaniel Hackett (Denver Broncos): January 27, 2022
  24. Matt Eberflus (Chicago Bears): January 27, 2022
  25. Brian Daboll (New York Giants): January 28, 2022
  26. Josh McDaniels (Las Vegas Raiders): January 30, 2022
  27. Kevin O’Connell (Minnesota Vikings): February 2, 2022
  28. Doug Pederson (Jacksonville Jaguars): February 3, 2022
  29. Mike McDaniel (Miami Dolphins): February 6, 2022
  30. Dennis Allen (New Orleans Saints): February 7, 2022
  31. Lovie Smith (Houston Texans): February 7, 2022
  32. Todd Bowles (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): March 30, 2022

Colts GM: Matt Ryan To Start For At Least Two Seasons

The Colts will soon be one of the few teams in NFL history to deploy a different Week 1 starting quarterback in six straight seasons, but Chris Ballard communicated with his new starter he will be the one to stop the merry-go-round.

Indianapolis’ sixth-year GM told Matt Ryan he will be the Colts’ starting quarterback for at least two seasons, before the team determines its next path. Ryan’s 2018 extension agreement runs through 2023.

I wanted to make sure Matt knew that there’s no doubt it’s going to be two years,” Ballard said, via the Indianapolis Star’s Joel Erickson. “And I think we’ll go from there. I think we’ll know. I think both parties will know as we move forward.”

Ryan, 37 in May, has not indicated retirement resides on his near-future radar. The Colts acquired Ryan’s Falcons contract last week, and after the 15th-year passer entered March with what would have been an NFL-record $48.7MM cap number, his 2022 Indy figure comes in at just $18.7MM. The Falcons absorbed a league-record $40MM dead-money hit, and Erickson tweets the Colts converted some of Ryan’s money to a $12MM signing bonus. Ryan’s 2023 cap figure, thanks to a $10MM roster bonus currently guaranteed for injury, checks in at $35.2MM.

The Colts began the past five seasons with Scott Tolzien, Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz, respectively, at quarterback. Brissett logged the most snaps, replacing Tolzien early in 2017, but the team has not started the same passer in back-to-back seasons under Ballard. The Colts traded Wentz shortly after the Combine, where they did some legwork on Ryan at the Indy-stationed gathering. The Falcons discussed Ryan’s trade value at the Combine, Albert Breer of notes. They were told Ryan’s contract made anything more than a fourth-rounder difficult, and when the Colts-Falcons trade talks commenced in earnest, Ballard said that was the best he could do. The Falcons talked the Colts up to a third-rounder (No. 82 overall).

Atlanta’s Deshaun Watson investigation process began last season, when the team heard the disgruntled Texans quarterback had interest in playing for his hometown team. The Falcons did not communicate their Watson interest to Ryan until the former was cleared by the first of the two grand juries involved in this saga, Breer adds, noting that the Colts as a Ryan trade suitor before Watson had made his decision. Shortly after Watson chose the Browns, Arthur Smith asked Ryan if he would be interested in the Colts. Ryan soon confirmed he was, leading to the teams’ March 21 deal.

Indianapolis does not have a first-round pick this year, but the team could be back on the radar for a Round 1 QB prospect in 2023. But the Colts and Ryan are hopeful he can play beyond that point.

If we decided to make a move on a quarterback, that’s definitely a conversation we would have,” Ballard said, via Erickson, of keeping Ryan informed on his potential successor. “In the world that I’ve been living in since Andrew retired, the whole organization, it’d be nice to get some stability where we have a guy for two, three, four years that can play and give us some continuity.”

Falcons HC Arthur Smith Wants Matt Ryan To Still Be Starting QB

If Arthur Smith has his way, Matt Ryan will be the Falcons starting quarterback in 2022. Per Chris Mortensen (on Twitter), the Falcons HC is a proponent of Ryan and wants him under center next season.

Specifically, Smith wanted Ryan as his QB when he joined the organization last offseason. Per Mortensen, the coach has made his fondness for Ryan clear to owner Arthur Blank and general manager Terry Fontenot.

It’s been four seasons since Ryan and the Falcons finished with a winning record, but the veteran QB was still managing to put up numbers. That wasn’t necessarily the case in 2021, as the 36-year-old’s 3,968 passing yards and 20 touchdowns were among the lowest of his career. To top it all, the Falcons once again finished below .500 at 7-10.

There have been rumblings that the Falcons could pursue a replacement at the position, with many pundits believing the organization could look toward the draft. The team avoided the position during last year’s draft, and while they could reconsider during the 2022 draft, the rookie class isn’t filled with a bunch of future starting QBs. Further, considering the money that the Falcons still owe to Ryan, the team might not even have a choice when it comes to the former MVP’s future with the organization; rather, they might just be stuck with him.

Arthur Blank ‘Fascinated’ By Draft’s Top QBs

Falcons owner Arthur Blank referenced the Chiefs’ Alex Smith-to-Patrick Mahomes baton pass in February, when discussing his team’s quarterback situation. Blank appears interested in his franchise traversing such a path.

The Falcons hold their highest draft choice since selecting Matt Ryan 13 years ago, and NBC Sports’ Peter King reports Blank is “fascinated” by this year’s top crop of quarterbacks. The prospect of the Falcons capitalizing on their rare top-five pick to acquire Ryan’s heir apparent has factored into Blank’s thinking here.

[RELATED: Teams Expect Falcons To Draft Kyle Pitts?]

While the longtime Atlanta owner could throw his weight around and insist his new regime go for a quarterback at No. 4 overall, King adds that Blank will not push Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith in a direction. Smith is also believed to be intrigued by this QB class, King notes, but the first-year Falcons HC also believes Ryan still has quality football left. When a report surfaced indicating Smith and Fontenot disagreed on how the team should proceed with the No. 4 pick, Smith was said to prefer drafting a non-quarterback. Fontenot, however, was believed to be leaning closer to the Falcons indeed selecting Ryan’s successor.

Despite a subsequent report indicating Smith and Fontenot came to an understanding on what they will do at 4, Blank and his new GM being linked to QB interest could throw a wrench into this year’s draft. The Falcons are entertaining all options at 4 and have received calls. Should they select a quarterback, not only would this be the first draft ever to begin with four straight QBs being chosen, but the rest of the QB-seeking lot — a list that includes several teams — would be down to one of this year’s top five passers for which to vie. This would apply pressure on the likes of Denver, New England, Washington and Chicago.

The Falcons sent three staffers — assistant college scouting director Dwaune Jones, QBs coach Charles London and passing-game specialist T.J. Yates — to Trey Lance‘s second pro day, Albert Breer of notes. They also sent the maximum three staffers to Justin Fields‘ second pro day last week. While the 49ers will control which quarterbacks are available for the Falcons at 4, the latter team could follow San Francisco’s QB pick with one of its own.

Falcons HC, GM Aligned On No. 4 Pick?

It’s no longer a house divided. Falcons GM Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith are now “aligned” on what to do with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Earlier this week, we heard that Fontenot was pushing for a quarterback. Meanwhile, Smith wanted to stay the course with Matt Ryan. Ryan is on the verge of his 36th birthday, but he’s been durable and fairly steady.

Of course, we don’t know where the Falcons ultimately landed, and we probably won’t know for sure until the draft kicks off on April 29th in Cleveland. The Falcons are in an enviable position — the Jaguars, Jets, and 49ers are all expected to tap quarterbacks with the first three picks, which would allow them to take the best non-quarterback in this year’s class. They could also trade down and parlay that pick into a wealth of ammo for 2022 and beyond.

If they resist the urge to take a QB, the Falcons could select Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, or Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II. Or, if they stand pat to grab Matt Ryan’s successor, they could come away with Trey Lance — the North Dakota State product who could have more upside than Zach Wilson and Mac Jones (basically, a higher ceiling than any passer not named Trevor Lawrence).