Matt Ryan is hands-down the most underappreciated quarterback in the National Football League, and it’s not even close.
Nick Wright of FoxSports, who I am fond of, has a thing called the “Matt Ryan line,” which essentially sets Ryan as the baseline for QBs that he would build a franchise around. Doesn’t sound too bad on paper until you realize he puts 10-15 quarterbacks ahead of him. It’s a disgusting display of ineptitude when it comes to judging production, but he’s far from the only one who hasn’t been able to recognize one of the greatest QBs of this generation. In 2012, Ryan turned a corner establishing himself as an elite quarterback, and since 2016, I can argue he has been the best quarterback in all of football.
But I’m not going to do that here; I’m merely going to explain why Ryan could be in line for the best season of his career, and possibly, another MVP Trophy.
One thing Ryan has always been blessed with over his career is a bevy of pass catchers. When he arrived in Atlanta, he had Roddy White, then Thomas Dimitroff added both Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones. As White and Gonzalez road their white horses into retirement, Jones blossomed into the best receiver in the NFL. Before the 2016 season, the Falcons brought in Mohammed Sanu and drafted Austin Hooper, who have since established themselves as cornerstones of the offense. But it was the selection of Calvin Ridley in the first round of the 2017 draft that made this pass-catching unit arguably the best in football. Mix in a healthy Devonta Freeman, and Ryan has more weapons at his disposal than ever.
The Falcons have also made a change at offensive coordinator. The Steve Sarkisian era never took off as Atlanta had hoped, and he was unsurprisingly fired soon after the final game of the season. To fill his position, Atlanta brings back a familiar face – Dirk Koetter – who served as the OC for the Falcons from 2012-2014. Remember when I said Ryan’s career took a turn for the better in 2012? Yeah, that was under Koetter. He aided Ryan to his first three seasons of 4,500 yards passing, 86 total touchdowns, and two Pro-Bowls – but this a much more mature Ryan than Koetter coached in his early years.
In 2016, Matt Ryan went from a borderline elite quarterback to arguably the best in the league. The most notable difference: holding onto the ball. He only threw seven interceptions on his way to the MVP award three years ago. That number was upped to 12 in 2017, but a lot of that had to do with poor luck like dropped and tipped passes rather than poor choices. Pro Football Focus reported that Matt Ryan threw the least amount of interceptable balls with a percentage of under one that should have been intercepted. That goes along with Football Outsiders adjusted interception rate that discovered Ryan was the most unlucky quarterback in 2017.
“We mentioned Ryan’s terrible luck with tipped interceptions last year, and that most quarterbacks end up with significantly more adjusted interceptions than actual interceptions,” Vincent Verhei of Football Outsiders writes. “Well Ryan’s luck was so bad that he actually threw three fewer adjusted interceptions than actual interceptions, the first quarterback to do that since Tom Brady in 2013.” So even though Ryan’s 2017 didn’t scream MVP; it was one of his better seasons as a pro. Pro Football Focus rated him the second-highest among all QBs behind only Tom Brady.
However, last year might have been Ryan’s best season to date. He threw for the second-highest amount of yards in his career, completing 69.4% of his passes for 35 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. His 108.1 rating was second only to his 2016 rating of 118.1. The difference, however, is that Ryan was playing behind one of the best offensive lines in football when he won the MVP. Last year, he played behind one of the worst in his career. He was sacked 42 times – the second-most of his career – and pressured even more. That led to the Falcons investing nearly all of their offseason resources on protecting their franchise quarterback.
Atlanta spent their first three picks bolstering the right side of the line. Chris Lindstrom was drafted 14th overall and will be a plug-and-play starter from week one. Then they traded their second and third-round selections to the Rams to move back into the first round and take Kaleb McGary – a right tackle out of Washington. Unfortunately, McGary had a heart procedure a few weeks ago and might not be ready for the first week of the season, but the Falcons didn’t stop revamping their line with the draft.
Thomas Dimitroff spent the bulk of the free agency dollars he had on two offensive guards and a right tackle. James Carpenter and Jamon Brown will compete for the left guard position. I’m not overly impressed with either, but competition should bring out the best in them, and either one of them will be an upgrade over Wes Schweitzer, who took over for Andy Levitre. Ty Sambrailo was signed to a three-year deal to compete for the right tackle spot with Kaleb McGary but will have to start early on due to McGary’s injury. He was an upgrade over Ryan Schraeder after taking his job late in the season. However, the Falcons would ideally like McGary to start whenever he is deemed healthy enough to return. Atlanta knows what they have in Pro-Bowlers Alex Mack and Jake Mathews. Given the depth of this entire group, it could be the best line Ryan has played under in his entire career; even if it has not looked like it over the first two weeks of the preseason.
As a whole, I don’t think Ryan has had better personnel around him since joining the Falcons in 2008. Calvin Ridley is in for a monster second season across from Julio Jones. Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper serve as the ideal safety blankets on critical third downs and in the red zone. But more than anything, Ryan himself has been on a different level since 2016. If the Falcons did indeed patch up their offensive line sufficiently, their superstar quarterback will find himself in the running for a second MVP trophy.