Originally regarding the salary cap, the Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith talked about taking their lumps during their first two seasons with the Falcons. The 2023 season was supposed to be the end of taking lumps and the start of giving them. That hasn't exactly been the case this season with the Falcons, even as they lead the division with a 5-6 record. When asked about the first two seasons of cap hell, Fontenot was quoted explaining the mentality (courtesy of NFL.com's Kevin Patra):
"We're taking it on the chin this year, but taking it on the chin this year and how you look at where we are next year, it's significant."- Atlanta Falcons GM Terry Fontenot
The Falcons had to deal with cap situations in 2021 and 2022 that severely limited the roster. It's part of what made the 7-10 records in those years acceptable. In 2021, the Falcons had $30.3 million in dead cap space and quite a few bad contracts on the roster for underperforming players like edge defender Dante Fowler and linebacker Deion Jones. In 2022, that was exacerbated by the trades that sent Matt Ryan to the Colts, Julio Jones to the Titans, Deion Jones to the Browns, and the massive amount of roster clearing that was needed. They finished the year with over $80 million in dead cap space and another over $20 million on injured reserve.
When it comes to taking lumps, cleaning up the cap is the biggest lump any team can take. It severely limits the roster-building process and hurts the team as a whole. Even in 2023, they're still dealing with $25 million in dead money from past mistakes, but have been able to clean up and develop a roster that is worthy of a playoff bid and should be able to win more games than they have on this schedule so far. That being said, the injured reserve cap space is nearing $30 million this season with the loss of Grady Jarrett. Atlanta has been taking lumps in this field the last three seasons and should finally have some relief there in 2024 with just $10 million of projected dead cap from expiring deals.
Fontenot and Smith have done a good job of building the roster. They've built up a defense that's at least league-average. They've built a running game that can grind down games and get tough yardage. They've even built a very solid special teams unit with an elite kicker in Younghoe Koo and a top-tier punter, kickoff specialist, and holder in Bradley Pinion. The one thing that seems to be missing is an apparent franchise quarterback that they can continue to build a roster around and have win them games. The best option that's been realistically available that wouldn't have crushed the roster has been Desmond Ridder.
Lamar Jackson would have been fun, but he would have hindered the cap with a deal that averaged over $50 million a year and taken away two firsts at a minimum. He also wasn't realistically available as the Ravens placed a non-exclusive franchise tag on him basically asking for other teams to negotiate his contract for them. DeShaun Watson would have been a mistake that would have eaten up picks from the better part of three years' worth of drafts. Matt Ryan was winding down and is now in a broadcast booth and any sort of trade-up for a quarterback would have been foolish. Even the thought of taking Justin Fields in 2021 made no sense considering they had so much cap committed to Ryan for that season.
So the fortunes of the franchise's 2023 season rests on the arm and legs of Desmond Ridder and how well he's been able to bounce back from taking his own lumps. When a quarterback is drafted in the third round, he's normally not given the chance to start for an extended period and work through issues and develop like a first-round pick is. That quarterback definitely isn't given chances if he's responsible for eight interceptions and seven fumbles during the 10 games he's played in that season the way Ridder has. However, Atlanta is sticking with him and giving him a chance to develop.
One thing head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot have is patience. They were patient with the cap situation. They are being patient waiting for Ridder to develop into a guy that doesn't just show flashes like the above play but is consistent with all of his throws. Ridder has been slowly developing into a more consistent quarterback and has shown that he can win games late and is one of the better quarterbacks in the fourth quarter. The real question is how the Falcons can get him into a rhythm earlier in the game. The real development will be seen when Ridder can start leading the offense to scores in the middle part of the game before the half and right after the half. That's where games are won and lost the majority of the time in the NFL.
More importantly than the rest of it, Ridder has to cut out the turnovers. He's got 14 games and 13 starts under his belt. The Falcons have six games left this season, and he's going to have a baseline of 20 games and 19 starts to work off of for the future if he stays healthy the rest of the season. He's going to have to show that he can be more consistent with his ball placement and reads moving forward. The flashes are fun when they're there. And he has been improving in the subtle aspects of playing quarterback like recognition pre-snap and making adjustments to help his situation.
Fontenot and Smith have been patient wanting Ridder to improve. Ridder has been taking his lumps. But to continue his improvement, he'll have to consistently show down the stretch that he's a net positive for the team. He's going to have to show that he can give lumps while he's taking them. Otherwise, Atlanta will have to be patient waiting for their next quarterback to develop.
All advanced stats are courtesy Pro Football Focus or Football Outsiders. All traditional stats are courtesy of official team websites, NFLGSIS or CFB Stats. All RAS and athletic testing numbers are courtesy of DraftScout.com and Kent Lee Platte's RAS Football website.