Falcons release benched QB Marcus Mariota in cap move

The Atlanta Falcons released quarterback Marcus Mariota on Tuesday in a move to both free up more salary cap space and move on from a player who had lost his starting position.

Mariota started the first 13 games of the 2022 season for the Falcons before being benched at the bye for rookie Desmond Ridder, who started the final four games.

Mariota then left the team to have a procedure done on his knee and was placed on injured reserve. By cutting the 29-year-old, Atlanta saved $12 million on its cap for 2023 -- the Falcons already have the second-most cap space in the league at a little over $56 million before the move.

Mariota's release will incur a $2.5 million dead-money hit on the Falcons, but considering he was not going to be in line to compete for the starting job this fall, moving on before the team had to pay him a $3 million roster bonus on the fifth day of the 2023 league year made sense.

"When we did his contract originally, it was structured in that way to where we would make a decision after the season and the way that the [salary cap] number was going to go up," Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said Tuesday at the combine.

He signed with Atlanta last season on the same day the team traded Matt Ryan to Indianapolis after a failed pursuit of Deshaun Watson. It was Mariota's second chance at a starting gig after losing his starting job with the Tennessee Titans in 2019 and spending the next two seasons as Derek Carr's backup with the Las Vegas Raiders.

Mariota completed 61.3% of his passes last season for 2,219 yards, 15 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He also had career highs as a rusher with 85 carries for 438 yards, scoring four touchdowns, the second-most rushing touchdowns in his career. He also knew it was likely his last opportunity to show he could be a starting quarterback in the NFL, acknowledging his past in Tennessee -- where he was the No. 2 pick of the 2015 draft only to lose his job to Ryan Tannehill in 2019 -- and what he had been through in his career.

"When I was going into free agency [last year], I kind of understood that if I got a chance to play again, it was really going to be probably my last shot," Mariota said. "Most guys don't even really get a second shot."

Mariota had shown some promise early in the season, including completing 92.9% of his passes in a win over the San Francisco 49ers, a game in which he was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week. Mistakes and inaccuracy led to Mariota's benching in December. He threw for over 250 yards in just one game last season -- 253 yards in a 37-34 overtime win over the Carolina Panthers in which he also threw two interceptions that could have cost the Falcons the game -- and threw for under 200 yards in each of his last five games as a starter. He also threw interceptions in three of his last four games.

Mariota has played in 87 games -- with 74 starts in his eight-year career between Tennessee, Las Vegas and Atlanta. Teams have gone 34-40 when he has started games, and Mariota has completed 62.6% of his passes for 15,656 yards, 92 touchdowns and 54 interceptions. He has also rushed 349 times for 2,012 yards and 17 touchdowns.

The Falcons have Ridder and Logan Woodside, who was signed to be Ridder's backup after Mariota was placed on injured reserve, on the roster for 2023.

"We're going to add to the position, and we've been really clear with how we feel about Desmond Ridder and what he's done to this point in his career," Fontenot said. "His makeup and just the way he's handled every role that he's been in and what he did over the last four games of the season. He dealt with adversity. he kept fighting. So, Desmond's done some good things and we know he's going to continue to improve this offseason."

ESPN's Stephen Holder contributed to this report.