The battle between the grizzled veteran and the upstart young quarterback should stretch deep into the summer.
Matt Ryan is entering his 12th season as the Falcons’ unquestioned starter at quarterback, and he’ll go down as the best ever to do it in Atlanta. As usual, though, there’s a battle looming over who gets to be his backup.
For the last few years, that’s been Matt Schaub, who has fended off a series of challengers with relative ease as a coach-in-training and break-glass-in-case-of-emergency-QB. This year, Schaub’s under what’s effectively a one-year deal with a team option for 2020, and the cap hit is significantly less…significant. While he’s still the odds-on favorite to make the final roster, his competition this year is actually worth mentioning.
Kurt Benkert was an intriguing undrafted free agent out of Virginia last year, largely due to a good arm, quality mobility in the pocket, and a willingness to sling it. An up-and-down preseason led to him spending the 2018 season on the practice squad, but he has real promise and a year under his belt now.
So who wins?
Matt Schaub, 38, entering 6th non-continuous year in Atlanta
Schaub has had a tremendous career for a third round quarterback, given how infrequently players in that round at this position pan out. He’s put up 133 touchdowns versus 90 interceptions in a career spanning seven (at least part-time) starting seasons with the Texans and Raiders. Prior to and after that, he was a backup with the Falcons (who drafted him to back up Michael Vick and swapped him to Houston), the Raiders, and the Ravens before he landed in Atlanta in the 2016 season.
Since landing with the Falcons, Schaub has completed 6 of 10 passes for 36 yards, rushed three times for -2 yards, caught one pass for -7 yards, and fumbled once. In his extremely limited looks behind the hyper-durable Ryan, he’s looked thoroughly cooked, which makes sense because he hasn’t looked good on the field since 2013. Schaub is on this roster because Ryan is so hardy and because his value as a teammate and leader, as the Falcons remind us frequently, is so tremendous. Schaub is going to be a coach someday soon, and probably a damn good one.
This year, Schaub is set to make around $1 million, with dead money of $750,000, a deal that makes it possible for the Falcons to part ways with him if they want to. They also have a club option for $2 million ($375,000 guaranteed) in 2020, meaning that they have a lot of flexibility to either keep Schaub around through his age-40 season as the wise old guru of this Falcons offense or move on.
Schaub goes in as the favorite because his contract is so lightweight, his locker room and sideline presence matters a great deal to Matt Ryan and this team more generally, and if pressed into action the Falcons would be doomed anyways so Schaub’s long experience would hopefully allow the offense to at least stay afloat with so many weapons.
Kurt Benkert, 23 (24 on July 17), entering 2nd year with the Falcons
Benkert could not be in a more different spot in his career than Schaub. While Schaub is winding down and is perhaps more valuable as a presence and teacher than a player, Benkert is just getting started and is a bundle of raw potential at this point.
Benkert put two interesting seasons on tape at Virginia as a starter, displaying sometimes scattershot accuracy but also the kind of arm and athleticism that will intrigue teams until the end of time. The Falcons snagged him as a UDFA and he put one strong game and some very uneven efforts on tape in preseason last year, and Schaub cruised to the backup job. After a full season on the practice squad and with no young quarterbacks hanging around to try to knock him off, Benkert is Schaub’s sole competition for the job.
The questions surrounding Benkert chiefly concern how he holds up to pressure and how accurate he proves to be, but there’s real talent here. With Ryan reaching his mid-30s and Benkert under cheap team control through 2020, there’s potential for him to take the job if he plays really well this summer. He’ll probably have to thoroughly outplay Schaub to have a real shot at it, but that shot exists.
Who will be the winner?
You bet against Schaub at your own peril. The Falcons have shown again and again how much they value the man, and until they show a seismic shift in what they value in Ryan’s backup, Schaub will remain the guy. I still think Benkert has a very good shot of landing the backup job in 2020 and using that as a springboard to a second contract as Ryan’s clipboard holder, but he’s going to have to play at a very high level to push past Schaub this year.
Matt Schaub, once more. Do you agree?