Falcons FA Focus: Quarterback
The free agent class of 2013 will be highlighted by Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, who will likely receive a long-term extension from the Ravens that will vie with the Falcons own Matt Ryan for the biggest contract of the off-season. After Flacco, the crop of free agents that will receive interest grows invariably thin. Matt Moore (Dolphins) and Jason Campbell (Bears) are the next best starting candidates. But both are in the same realm as players such as Chad Henne and Matt Flynn a year ago, where they are good enough to compete for a starting job, but not quite good enough to hand over the reins of a team to.
That could mean the Falcons pickings at the position could be slim if they wish to bolster competition this summer for the top reserve behind Matt Ryan. The Falcons might decide to re-sign Luke McCown and add another veteran to the mix to compete with him and Dominique Davis for the position.
Probably the player that makes the most sense is David Garrard. Like McCown, Garrard has experience in Dirk Koetter’s offense. And unlike McCown, Garrard possesses enough skill that he can potentially win a game for the Falcons if Ryan was to be out of the lineup. Garrard is a good vertical passer, something that McCown struggles to do. That means if/when Ryan is out of the game, the Falcons can still attack defenses vertically with wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White, rather than being forced to rely on a steady running game (which they currently lack) and a dink and dunk attack to score points. But the main question with Garrard is going to be price tag. Garrard hasn’t played a meaningful snap since the 2010 season, but may feel that he’s still worth a starting position. He’s not likely to settle for a lower-level backup contract. Players like Henne, Campbell, and Kyle Orton signed deals that averaged between $3.5 and $4 million last year. That is the going rate for a quality backup with extensive starting experience. It would be likely that Garrard’s rate will approach or begin there. He signed a one-year, $2.25 million deal with the Dolphins last year. If the Falcons could get him for a similar price tag, it would be a relative bargain. But that may ultimately be more than the Falcons are willing to spend on the position.
Another option on the open market could be Rex Grossman (Redskins). Like Garrard, Grossman is also comfortable throwing the football downfield and with the emergence of Kirk Cousins in Washington, likely won’t be in their future plans. Grossman isn’t likely to draw as much money as a player like Garrard could since it’s doubtful any teams will look for him as anything more than a backup. But again, that doesn’t mean he’ll be cheap. McCown could likely be re-signed by the Falcons for a one-year deal worth less than $1 million. Could Grossman be had at that price? Possibly, but it’s by no means a slam dunk.
There may also be a number of veteran players released this upcoming off-season. Notable names include Alex Smith (49ers), Mark Sanchez (Jets), and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Bills). Smith and Flynn are likely to get dealt to a team looking for a starter (New York Jets?). Sanchez’s contract is such that he’ll be hard to dump this off-season, but it’s possible that the Jets opt to cut their losses and start fresh with another player. Fitzpatrick is due a significant bonus in March, and if Doug Marrone & Co. feel that he is not the future starter of the team he could be cut. Fitzpatrick has had his moments over the years in Buffalo, but is an erratic passer with questionable decision making, accuracy, and sloppy mechanics. Due to his experience, he also will likely command the higher dollars available to backup quarterbacks if signed by another team. Other players that could find themselves cut or traded this off-season include Colt McCoy (Browns), Matt Hasselbeck (Titans), Matt Cassel (Chiefs), and John Skelton (Cardinals).
Of those players, Skelton is the only one that has potential as a vertical passer. Skelton has a strong arm, but his accuracy leaves a lot to be desired which is why he has not been particularly effective when throwing downfield over the years. He’s also a virtual statue in the pocket, which is not a great fit behind a mediocre Falcons offensive line. Hasselbeck could be a good fit, as he shares a wealth of similarities with Matt Ryan starting with his hailing from the same college (Boston College). Both are more precise pocket passers that win pre-snap as opposed to being blessed with great physical tools. But he, like Cassel and McCoy struggle to throw the ball downfield. Cassel is an effective game manager when he has a steady ground attack, but in a strict, dropback offense he tends to struggle with his decision making. McCoy is comfortable working a wide-open spread system, but struggles to read defenses due to his short stature. Interior pressure really gives him fits and he doesn’t have the arm strength to drive the ball downfield.
Overall, the best fit/candidate if the Falcons want to significantly upgrade the competition in camp remains Garrard. He’s by no means a perfect quarterback. He’s a gunslinger that will force some throws downfield, which can lead to turnovers. But unlike McCown or Chris Redman before him, Garrard can win games with his arm because he’s not going to be afraid to challenge defenses downfield. And given his starting experience (76 starts), he’s not going to be gunshy if/when the pressure is on. The same cannot be said for McCown.
If the Falcons simply want a backup quarterback that will manage the game and minimize mistakes, they will have plenty of options to choose from. If the Falcons are looking to save money, then they can simply settle for what they usually do and pick up a fourth arm via an undrafted guy after the draft. But if the Falcons want to get the most out of the backup quarterback position in 2013, then Garrard probably is the best option available.