Falcons set to explore options at quarterback

Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy is a possibility for the Falcons with the No. 8 overall pick. Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

The focus is a quarterback, and the Atlanta Falcons have been clear in their pursuit of one this offseason.

Whether that's through the draft, free agency or a trade, general manager Terry Fontenot and new head coach Raheem Morris have been steadfast in their desire to improve their roster at the premier position in the sport.

How it shakes out will start to develop in Indianapolis at this week's NFL combine. Teams will be able to watch draft-eligible quarterbacks work out and interview them. Agents for those quarterbacks -- and for potential free agents -- will also be around.

So will front-office members from around the league. There could be deals to be had.

What is Atlanta looking for in a quarterback?

The Falcons are leaving their options open, but any breakdown of what could happen at the position starts with what Morris and new offensive coordinator Zac Robinson said they want.

In his introductory news conference, Morris expressed interest in quarterbacks who are "elite processors" and can make decisions quickly. Robinson focused on having the "most competitive guy in the room" while throwing the ball with accuracy, pace and touch.

Robinson said he was open to a pocket passer or a mobile quarterback, although with his entire NFL coaching experience coming with the Los Angeles Rams under Sean McVay, the quarterbacks in that system have been pocket-first passers such as Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford.

The Falcons have two quarterbacks under contract for 2024 -- Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke. Ridder is in his third year, and Heinicke is in the last year of his deal, but Atlanta can save $7 million if it were to release Heinicke. If Atlanta moved on from Ridder, it would save $922,458 in a pre-June 1 cut and $1,192,542 in cap savings if he were a post-June 1 cut.

"They are on our roster right now," quarterback coach T.J. Yates said. "Obviously it's going to be a changing situation, an evolution every step of the way through free agency, through the draft, all those things.

"But right now they are here with us. We've got to prepare like they are going to be here with us. We're just going to look at every option that we have and obviously we all know that that position for this football team has to improve and we're going to do everything we can to improve that position."

Which quarterbacks might be available in a trade?

The name which will come up the most often is Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields, who grew up in metro Atlanta.

Last season, Fields completed 61.4% of his passes for 2,562 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 657 yards and four touchdowns, but he had 10 fumbles.

Fields has had at least 10 fumbles each of his three years with the Bears, and he has a 60.3% completion rate over his career, although that percentage has improved every year.

For comparison's sake, in a different offensive system, Ridder completed 64.2% of his passes for 2,836 yards, 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season and rushed for 193 yards and five touchdowns with 12 fumbles. Yates, who was on the offensive staff with Ridder the last two seasons, said he believes Ridder will "continue to grow throughout his career."

Fields has rushed for 2,220 yards and 14 career touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per carry -- and the Falcons would have to decide if he fits their offense. He was 29th in completion percentage last season and 29th in Pro Football Reference's passing success rate, which is defined as gaining 40% of yards required on first down, 60% on second down and 100% on third or fourth down.

It's possible other quarterbacks might be available, and many of those conversations will happen over the next three weeks.

What about the draft?

Analysts have three quarterbacks at the top of the draft, led by USC's Caleb Williams. North Carolina's Drake Maye and LSU's Jayden Daniels are also expected to be high selections, all projected to be taken before Atlanta drafts at No. 8.

Would the Falcons trade up? Atlanta hasn't done that in the first round during Fontenot's three years, but if there's a quarterback the team ends up enamored with, anything would be possible.

The next potential tier of signal-callers -- Michigan's J.J. McCarthy, Washington's Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon's Bo Nix -- could also be intriguing.

Considering Atlanta's draft position and a new offensive system, any of these quarterbacks could be in play in the first two rounds. But until meetings take place with the quarterbacks, it's tough to get a true gauge on where Atlanta might stand.

Is free agency a possibility?

It is. If Minnesota does not re-sign Kirk Cousins, he becomes the best quarterback option in free agency, even coming off a torn Achilles.

Cousins, who will be 36 when the 2024 season begins in September, has made Pro Bowls in three of the last five seasons and has a 66.9% career completion rate.

Baker Mayfield, if he doesn't return to Tampa Bay, has experience with this staff since he played for the Rams the last five games of the 2022 season. So there's familiarity there for Morris and Robinson. Mayfield is coming off the best season of his career (64.3% completion rate, 4,044 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions) and could end up with a nice contract, whether it's with the Buccaneers or elsewhere. At age 29 next season, he also has more long-term viability.

If Denver releases Russell Wilson -- it would be hard to see Atlanta trading for Wilson under his contract with a $35.4 million cap hit in 2024 and many salary guarantees -- the 35-year-old would be another veteran option with significant experience.

Beyond those three, free agent options could include Cleveland's Joe Flacco, Indianapolis' Gardner Minshew, Tennessee's Ryan Tannehill and Washington's Jacoby Brissett. From an age factor (Flacco is 39, Tannehill is 35) and skill level, all of those quarterbacks could come with significant questions and probably would be one of two quarterbacks added to an evolving room.