Could Falcons Keep Matt Ryan & Draft 'Electrifying' QB at No. 8? Mel Kiper Jr. Thinks So

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated

Last week, long-time NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. released his first mock draft. He had the Atlanta Falcons taking cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. out of LSU to give the Falcons (with A.J. Terrell) possibly the best young corner duo in the NFL.

In his comments he hedged his bets that the Falcons could still take a quarterback.

“I thought hard about a quarterback,” wrote Kiper Jr. last week. “My buddy Chris Mortensen, though, says the Falcons are committed to Matt Ryan for 2022, which means this might be too high to take a QB who's not going to play right away. This is not a class full of surefire starting QBs.”

Arguably the quarterback with the most upside in this draft is Atlanta native Malik Willis of Liberty. Willis went to Roswell High School before signing with the Auburn Tigers. He transferred to Liberty and played his way into strong consideration to be a first-round pick.

Drafting Willis doesn't necessarily mean the end of Matt Ryan in Atlanta.

The Falcons can still ride out Matt Ryan’s contract for one more season while getting the most talented quarterback in the draft. Kiper thinks it’s a good possibility. When speaking of Willis, Kiper thought Atlanta could be the destination.

“Maybe he’ll end up in that top 10, maybe Atlanta,” said Kiper Jr. on ESPN’s First Draft podcast. “That’s the one team I thought about giving [the quarterback] was the Atlanta Falcons at eight.”

“They passed on quarterbacks last year, (on getting) the heir apparent to Ryan. If Willis is really strong in this draft process over the next 94 days leading up to the draft, I think Malik Willis could end up an Atlanta Falcon at pick No. 8.”

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Malik Willis started the season at Liberty on fire before cooling off. He threw 11 touchdowns against zero interceptions his first five games, but he threw 12 interceptions across his last eight games.

As the season wore on, his draft stock dropped a bit, but as Kiper Jr. mentioned, he has three months before the draft to raise it during the evaluation process.

General managers and coaches are likely to fall in love with the raw tools Willis possesses. He has a quick release, strong arm, and is fleet of foot. Willis threw for 27 touchdowns last season, but he also ran for 878 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Ryan has a dead cap hit of $40 million heading into the 2022 season. Meaning best case if Ryan was moved, the Falcons could spread his salary cap number across two seasons and take a $20 million hit in 2022 and 2023.

If the Falcons ride out Ryan for one more season and move on in 2023, his dead cap number drops to $15.6 in 2023. That number is almost identical to the $15.6 million Julio Jones counts against the cap in 2022.

The Falcons would like to have all of that cap money back, but Atlanta could swap Jones’ dead money for Ryan’s dead money in 2023 and be no worse for wear.

Atlanta could also spread that money across two seasons like they did with Jones and cut Ryan’s number in half, though it would count on 2023 and 2024.

The Falcons passed on one Atlanta native in Justin Fields with the No. 4 pick in 2021 and took tight end Kyle Pitts. Malik Willis could be an ideal long-term replacement to groom for a year behind Ryan while time works the finances in the Falcons favor.

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