No cap math in this one. This time, the arithmetic isn't that complicated.
The Falcons have 53 players on the roster. Not counting prospect Adam Nissley, there are 7 more on the Injured Reserve list. Atlanta will receive at least one, probably three, and possibly four compensatory picks in April's draft. I'm guessing three, giving us a total of 10 draft picks.
That puts 70 players on the table. And that's not counting whatever free agents we might add in March, the guys currently on our practice squad, other injured prospects (such as Andrew Jackson, Darrin Walls, or Matt Hansen) who might return for camp next year, futures contract signings or next April's crop of undrafted free agents.
So there's no need even to bother counting them all. The bottom line is that the Falcons will have a bit of a roster shakeup next year.
It's not about this weekend's lackluster performance or last week's loss. It's just the way the math works out. We can only keep 53 players. Even without all the fringe prospects, there will be a whole lot of people left without chairs when the music stops.
I started making my own list of likely candidates even before the bye week. My list has changed a bit since then, as Ray Edwards, Terrance Johnson and Lousaka Polite were all rather obvious cases and were sitting at the top of the discard pile.
Never mind next season. They didn't even make it to Thanksgiving. But there are many more who are in danger. Here's a list:
1) Michael Turner. Everyone is down on him this year, but give the guy his due. He has been the workhorse of the offense since the day he arrived. Mike Mularkey simply used him up and wore him out. When he's gone, he'll hold the top spot among the franchise's best all time rushers. But he WILL be gone. The cap savings would be $5.5 million. That makes his release a complete no-brainer.
2) Tony Gonzalez. He says he's "95% sure" that he's retiring after this season. No one wants him to go. Matt Ryan is working as hard as he can to expand that other 5%, and Julio and Roddy will certainly do their best to persuade him as well. But the odds are still working against us. And so is his wife, who is telling him it's time to hang up the cleats.
4) Mike Peterson. Uncle Mo wasn't even in the team's plans for this year, never mind next year. But the injuries to Lofa Tatupu and emerging prospect Matt Hansen left the team with a glaring void in the linebacker corps, paving the way for Mo Pete to get a curtain call. Enjoy him while you can. He turns 37 next June, so this is almost certainly his swan song.
5) Brent Grimes. I'll go ahead and throw out there that the chances of Grimes returning are actually better than many people might think. It's going to come down to his asking price. The Falcons will have a boatload of their own free agents to resign, and the cap is going to be extremely tight. Grimes is likely to be the most expensive of the bunch, making him the most difficult to afford. If other teams throw money at him, we lose him. It's that simple. But if his injury scares off the big spenders, we might be able to bring him back.
6) Dominique Franks. He didn't make the final roster cut this year, but Tim Toone's hamstring injury prompted the team to bring Franks back for the punt return role. (Side note: GM Thomas Dimitroff originally traded up to take him in the 2010 draft largely because of his skills as a potential return man.) The injury to Brent Grimes put him back on the radar in the secondary as well. But he's still marginal as a defender, and the moment the team has a viable alternative in the return game, which could be as early as this week, Franks will once again be expendable.
7) Peria Jerry. Put an asterisk on this one, as it depends entirely on one detail that isn't certain yet. His base salary for next season is cheap enough to keep him around even as a backup. The catch is that his contract has an escalator clause based purely on playing time. If he hits certain playing time targets, his 2013 salary will jump to $2.9 million. I don't know what the targets are, but note that the injury to Corey Peters has made Jerry a starter this season. If it's possible to reach the target based on this year alone, he'll hit it. In that case, he'd be too expensive to keep around as a backup. He'd either have to win the starting job outright or he'd be gone.
8) Todd McClure. Forget team needs, the salary cap, and any other roster considerations. Mud Duck turns 36 in February. He has made it through his career with far fewer significant injuries than the average lineman. Let's hope for his sake that he has the common sense to hang it up while his body is still in good enough shape to let him enjoy the rest of his life.
9) Robert James. Let's get one misconception out of the way. The eternal prospect has NOT been on the roster all these years. He spent his rookie year on the injured reserve list (major concussion) and the next three seasons using up every last bit of his practice squad eligibility. This year is the very first time he has made the 53-man roster, as he finally beat out Spencer Adkins for the last LB spot. But he's still on the outer fringe, and Mike Nolan hasn't been playing him on defense in spite of the injuries to Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas. He turns 29 next month, so there isn't exactly a lot of upside potential left to be tapped. Any real competition in camp next year would probably leave him as the odd man out. And between the draft, free agency, and Pat Schiller coming up from the practice squad, he's going to have real competition.
10) Kerry Meier. In case you've forgotten about him, "Sunshine" is still in the organization. But he has spent two of his three seasons on injured reserve and was extremely limited in his other season while still recovering from his 2010 ACL injury. Can a big, slow, often-injured guy with good hands and a good understanding of the game beat the odds and make the roster? Brian Finneran did. Unfortunately, Meier faces tougher competition for a roster spot than Finn ever did.
11) Chris Hope. He's this year's rent-a-player, here on a one year deal. He'll be 33 next September. The team is hoping that Charles Mitchell will be ready for the #3 safety role, and the #4 spot is typically inactive or only plays special teams. Odds are the Falcons will want a younger prospect for that spot.
12) Shann Schillinger. He might still be the one to fit that #4 safety spot. The question with him is whether the team thinks he has a future in the secondary or if they see him as nothing more than a special teams fill-in. He was absolutely horrid in the 2011 preseason, simply bouncing off of people he attempted to tackle. He added a little bulk for 2012 and played better this preseason - but he got hurt and is spending the year on injured reserve. He'll have to keep adding upper body strength if he's ever going to see action on defense. Rafael Bush got plucked away from the practice squad last year, and Suaesi Tuimaunei and Mark LeGree apparently washed out of the system this year. But expect at least one more safety prospect to be in the picture next year, which will likely be enough to push Schillinger off the roster.
13) Chris Owens. Owens is a free agent after this season. He's not going to be a priority signing. Yes, he's playing better this season than he has at any time since he showed such promise in his rookie year. But he still hasn't decisively stepped ahead of Dominique Franks, and Robert McClain has clearly moved ahead of both of them. Even with Grimes likely going elsewhere via free agency, there might not be room for Owens. Expect the team to draft at least one cornerback and add at least one marginal prospect via a futures contract or free agency. The team might resign Owens, but even then his job would be far from secure.
14) Tommy Gallarda. He was a fringe prospect even this year and ended up with the #3 TE job virtually by default. If Gonzalez does retire, the Falcons will likely draft or sign a potential starter to replace him. The versatile Michael Palmer is virtually assured of returning as the #2. Gallarda will have to win the #3 spot all over again. He has shown his skill as a pure blocker, but that may not be enough. The team thought highly enough of prospect Adam Nissley to put him on IR. Chase Coffman will also be in the hunt for that spot - and will have the rest of this season to help make his case. It's not unusual for this team to have six TEs in camp, so expect at least one more prospect to be in the mix.
15) Antone Smith. I know many fans here at The Falcoholic are pretty big on Smith. For those who don't know, he had a monster pro day coming out of college, putting up a 4.37 in the 40 and a surprising 31 reps in the bench press. The downsides? Injury history. Inconsistent (and that's being kind) with catching passes and route running. Not stout enough to run inside. Marginal in pass blocking. That combination makes it hard to get him on the field, which is why he has a whopping ONE rushing attempt (for negative three yards) and zero receptions in his three years on the roster. I'm among those hoping the team will find a way to get him some reps and see what he can do. If nothing else, I'd hate to see his career end with a negative rushing total. Otherwise, if you don't have enough faith in him to use him on offense, then there's not much point in keeping him on the roster. We have one alternative (Josh Vaughan) already on the practice squad. Expect others to come aboard next spring.
Other noteworthy players that are also at risk:
Many fans are down on Dunta Robinson and would like to see the Falcons go another direction. The salary cap suggests that the team would probably bring him back for one more season. You'll get your wish and be rid of D-Rob, but you'll probably have to wait until 2014.
McCown's return isn't set in stone by any means. But he qualifies for a loophole that would give the Falcons a nice discount on his salary cap figure. If Dominique Davis can step up and take over the #2 role, McCown's experience and cheap cap cost would still make him a great choice for the #3 spot.
Six months ago it seemed almost certain that Baker would not be resigned. This season, he appears to be playing his way back into the team's long term plans. The price tag should be fairly cheap. If so, he's back. If not, someone else will get a shot at becoming the starting LT.
Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley will enter their final contract years in 2013. Babineaux may be at risk due to his age and cap figure, but his production and his starting role certainly justify his $4.7M base salary. The others are dirt cheap on the cap.
I'm not freaking out over Joe Hawley's suspension... yet. Not until more details emerge. If he's taking Adderall under proper medical supervision, then it's just a flub with the league's required paperwork. If it turns out he doesn't have a prescription at all and is abusing the stuff to stay alert and focused, then his future with the team is in serious jeopardy.
Kevin Cone will be on the fringe and may find himself in Thunderdome with Meier in training camp next year: two banged up WR prospects go in, one comes out.
Drew Davis and Cone can also play the gunner and jammer (gunner blocker) roles on special teams. Chris Owens and Antone Smith have played those roles for Atlanta in the past. If Owens and Smith don't return, Cone and Davis would have an edge purely because of special teams.
Chase Coffman will have better opportunities in practice the remainder of this season than he did as a practice squad member, and he'll have a full offseason with the team (minicamp, OTAs and training camp) next year. He's the current frontrunner for the #3 TE spot next year behind Palmer and Gonzalez/starter to be named later.
Philipkeith Manley will be a long shot to make the team. But he's certainly a strong candidate to return to the practice squad if he doesn't make the 53-man roster, so his chances of sticking around in 2013 are quite good.