INDIANAPOLIS -- The Atlanta Falcons are in the midst of a (hopefully) rapid rebuild, but don't have much salary-cap space with which to work in 2022.
In fact, as of now, they don't have any space. Atlanta is currently $7.3 million over the cap and carries four players with a cap number of $20 million or more. Three appear to be essential parts of the puzzle, but the fourth -- quarterback Matt Ryan -- might be on less stable ground.
A difference in tone could lead one to believe Ryan might no longer be seen as essential in Atlanta. As is common for many coaches and executives at the NFL Scouting Combine, there were plenty of vague, guarded responses regarding the futures of multiple players, but when it came to Ryan, neither general manager Terry Fontenot nor coach Arthur Smith would commit to the 36-year-old Ryan being the Falcons' quarterback in 2022.
"Certainly where Matt's at, obviously we just watched in our division, Tom (Brady) played until he was -- maybe he'll still play, I don't know, he certainly didn't look his age," Smith said Tuesday. "Matt is a lot younger than Tom. And I understand there's only one Tom Brady, but Matt certainly feels good about where he's at.
"I anticipate Matt being a part of the team, but you don't ever back yourself into a corner. Somebody gives you an offer you can't refuse -- Matt knows how we feel about him. I think Matt's got a lot of good football left in him."
Fontenot is still a new GM, but the personnel platitudes are already evident. The Falcons look for succession plans at every position, not just quarterback, he said. Atlanta is aiming to improve its entire roster, but can't afford to reach out of desperation. And the Falcons are doing their due diligence on the quarterbacks in the upcoming draft, completing formal interviews with the group that is filled with "different flavors," Fontenot said.
But the key difference Tuesday is what Fontenot and Smith didn't say. Both had an opportunity to definitively state Ryan would be their quarterback, and neither did so, leaving the door at least slightly cracked open for an interested suitor to step through and make them an offer. Given the state of Atlanta's offense, which is in need of additional playmakers, it's a scenario that would undoubtedly be challenging. But when asked if he'd feel comfortable proceeding with an unproven signal-caller, Smith said he wouldn't rule out any possible scenario.
"Depends what the offer is," Smith said. "It's like the old Don Corleone: They give you an offer you can't refuse, I think you've gotta take it. But that's with everyone. You can ask Terry, if somebody wanted to give a bag of balls for me, they'd push me out the door."
Parting with Ryan doesn't make a ton of football sense, but financially, it would provide the immediate cap relief Fontenot is seeking. The GM said Tuesday "the first thing we have to do is create a little cap space," and a post-June 1 trade would clear $23.75 million in space, per Over The Cap. Fontenot comes from New Orleans, home of the Mickey Loomis school of salary cap can-kicking in which the Saints have routinely pushed significant cap consequences down the road via restructures and extensions that often include void years tacked onto the end of deals.
Fontenot could implement a similar strategy with the Falcons' current situation. Or he could complete a blockbuster deal that sends Ryan elsewhere, providing the Falcons with immediate cap relief that can be used to re-sign some key players (Cordarrelle Patterson being one) and get the Falcons in a better financial state moving forward. Such a deal might also leave a massive void under center, one Atlanta could fill in the upcoming draft or via free agency, if a replacement isn't acquired via trade.
All options are on the table for the Falcons, which helps explain their Tuesday stance. Ryan is not on a hot seat, but could be expendable solely because of money. Or, he could be back for his 15th season in Atlanta, leading a team still trying to improve while also turning over the roster to younger talent.