The Atlanta Falcons return in 2020 following back-to-back losing seasons and continuing to struggle to fully recover from their Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots. Their long-time starting quarterback had an MVP 2016 season, but since then, he lost in the NFC Divisional Round in 2017 and finished with a 7-9 record the past two campaigns. The team could look for replacements for Matt Ryan in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The Falcons struggled to run the ball last season, ranking 30th in total rushing yards, and they swapped Devonta Freeman for Todd Gurley this offseason in hopes of solidifying their rushing attack. If the Falcons struggle through another sub-par season in 2020, Dan Quinn could be on the hot seat in Atlanta.
With any coaching change comes the potential for a change in personnel. The long-time quarterback just turned 35, and it is unlikely that he would stick around for a rebuild with the Falcons. Therefore, Atlanta could be looking for some decent long-term replacements for Ryan as early as the 2021 NFL Draft.
Three long-term replacements for Matt Ryan
Brock Purdy – Iowa State
The first option on this list may not be the prototype at the position like Ryan, but Iowa State’s Brock Purdy is an outstanding NFL quarterback prospect and a potential first-round pick. The Cyclones’ signal-caller is currently in the mix to be the third passer taken after Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
Purdy stands only 6’2″, but is a dangerous dual-threat option that could give the team a decent balance on offense between the run and the pass. He has a quick release and can be extremely accurate, fitting balls into tight windows throughout the field. That accuracy does slip at times, as Purdy can get lazy with his mechanics during games.
While Purdy lacks consistent accuracy and top-end arm strength, he makes it up with his improvisational skills in and out of the pocket. He rushed for eight touchdowns for this Iowa State team in 2019 and would help kick-start a struggling running game alongside Gurley. While he may not have the elite arm strength, his ability to get out of the pocket and score with his legs could be invaluable to this Falcons’ team.
Let's discuss. How much of a boss Brock Purdy is here. One, the fake. Two, the strut into the end zone. pic.twitter.com/wzhzjaPo1V
— Matthias (@MatthiasWRNL) October 7, 2018
With the Panthers and Saints also looking for a long-term replacement soon, the Falcons would be wise to snatch up a talented quarterback like Purdy to build around.
K.J. Costello – Mississippi State
In terms of the prototype for the position, the Falcons’ current starter at quarterback fits that mold very well. Another player that fits that mold and would be a tremendous fit and replacement for Ryan in this Atlanta offense is Mississippi State trigger man K.J. Costello.
The former Stanford transfer is in his first season under new coach Mike Leach in Starkville. Costello has a ton of potential as a player that can make all the throws on the field and makes plays with his legs as needed.
At 6’5″, Costello offers a similar body type to Ryan and could be a replacement option for the team in the middle rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft. The talented Bulldog is a player I offered back in April as a potential big-time sleeper at the quarterback this season.
Costello should be able to show his full ability as a passer under coach Leach in this Air Raid-type offense. He missed a big chunk of the 2019 season due to injury but tied for third all-time in Stanford team history with 3,540 yards with 29 touchdowns through the air. Those numbers could see an even more significant spike this season, and that would put Costello among the best quarterbacks in the entire Southeastern Conference.
Costello will share the backfield in 2020 with a very talented runner in Kylin Hill. The Bulldogs’ top rusher from 2019, Hill looks primed to showcase himself as a top-5 college back in 2020. With Gurley’s best seasons behind him, the Falcons would be wise to double down on this Mississippi State backfield. Regardless, grabbing Costello in the third or fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft would set this team up nicely for 2021 and beyond.
Zerrick Cooper – Jacksonville State
One player that no one seems to be talking about is small school gem and Jacksonville State quarterback Zerrick Cooper. Another former transfer on this list, Cooper started his career at Clemson before deciding to transfer and seek playing time elsewhere.
PFN draft analyst Nick Farabaugh recently discussed Cooper as a player that “has slowly gained steam” and has also “put himself on the radar of NFL teams heading into his senior season.” Cooper is a Georgia native, and one of those teams could very well be the Falcons.
When I watch Cooper play, I see Vince Young a little in the slippery way that he can avoid pressure consistently and play with both his feet and his arm. He is a tall quarterback that runs hard and is extremely tough to bring down, mainly when he uses those long arms to stiff-arm defenders.
Zerrick Cooper pic.twitter.com/dTzUdHm2qu
— ClemsonEditz (@ClemsonEditz_) August 26, 2018
Cooper has plenty of arm strength to make plays down the field, but he will need to improve his accuracy and mechanics under center.
While he may not remind Atlanta fans of former starter Michael Vick, he is still extremely dangerous running the ball and is a solid prospect. Last season, the elusive thrower passed for 28 touchdowns and ran for six more. If Cooper can cut down on the interceptions and turnovers, he will hear his name called in the 2021 NFL Draft.
At this point, it’s anyone’s guess as to how early Cooper will hear his name drafted in the 2021 NFL Draft. He is a sleeper and true draft wild card as we approach the college season. Cooper would be a solid developmental replacement for Ryan and this Falcons team with the potential to be a decent long-term starter in Atlanta.
Scott Gorman is a writer for PFN covering the 2021 NFL Draft. You can follow him @sgormanPFN on Twitter.