With a new coach on board, and a good bit of cap space available this off-season, the Falcons looked like a team that would be a player in free agency. Fan speculation ran rampant, as some dreamed of landing guys like Suh, while others speculated on what the offense would look like with Julius Thomas. And while the rumors on twitter seemed to link the team to almost every free agent, the actual results have been nowhere near those dreams and speculation.
With the team having finished 6-10 the year before with one of the league's worst defenses, it was more than reasonable for fans to want the Falcons to invest in fixing some of those defensive issues - particularly at pass rush. But with guys like McPhee and Graham going off the board early, and Orakpo and Morgan both going to the Titans, the Falcons signed an "underwhelming" class of Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed and O'Brien Schofield. Not exactly an intimidating trio, for certain.
That said, fans should remain patient with this process - and with free agency in general. Here are a few reasons why.
Managing the Cap
As it stands right now, the Falcons have a little over 21M in cap space for 2015. While that sounds like a lot - and it is a healthy number - there are some realities we need to face when looking at this number.
First, you need between 4-6M to sign your draft class. That immediately puts the the real cap number closer to 15M - still a healthy number, but not as eye-popping as it was before.
Second, cap management isn't just about this year - it's about the future as well. And with the existing contracts the Falcons have on the books, the 2016 cap space is projected to be around 36M with 48 players under contract. Again, this sounds like a big number, but the following point is critical.
Third, the Falcons have two young players who are going to get big contracts in Julio Jones and Desmond Trufant. Based on the Calvin Johnson deal, Julio is likely going to be looking for around 18M per year on average, with around 60M guaranteed. Looking at the Patrick Peterson deal, Tru will likely look for about 14M per year with somewhere around 48M guaranteed. As you can see, those two contracts alone would account for nearly 32M/yr on average. With the cap space the Falcons currently have, the team could extend Julio and take some of the cap hit up-front (a bigger roster bonus versus a signing bonus). This would mean the existing 15M of cap space could be used to help keep Jones cap hit reasonable into future years and would make keeping Trufant much easier.
Finally, every team should enter the year with some free cap space. For one - when injuries hit, that cap space gives you flexibility in signing free agents or even orchestrating a trade. Additionally, teams have to account for escalators and in-year bonuses, and that space is critical for end of year accounting.
So, don't let the raw numbers fool you - the Falcons cap space is not wide-open, but it is being managed well.
Depth and value over splash signings
It's easy to get caught up in the big names in free agency and this year was no different. Guys like Suh and Julius Thomas got big deals in the opening days of free agency. But NFL history cautions that splash does not equal success.
Take last year as a prime example. The team that most analysts agreed "won" free agency? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They signed guys like Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins, and secured a "starting" QB in Josh McCown. They finished 2-14 and all three of those players have been cut from the team. It's easy to look at it now and say "well those signings weren't really that great" but the reality is that all three were considered great signings last year.
Do I even need to mention the "dream team" Eagles of a few years back? That also didn't end so well.
Now, that doesn't mean that teams that are active in free agency are doomed to failure - but the idea that splashy signings will fix a team is overstated. More often than not, the teams with the most success are the ones who find the "right" guys that fit their system, and guys that are not just handed a starting job because of the size of their contract.
These value signings rarely elicit excitement, but there's the added benefit of being able to move on if the signing doesn't work out. It's much easier to walk away from a 3M/year contract than it is a contract with 60M fully guaranteed.
Free Agency isn't Over
I can't stress this one enough - free agency is far from over. While the "big" names and coveted players have all mostly found a new team, there are still quite a few veterans available. Likewise, teams are likely to cut players during their training camps as they begin to realize what kind of talent they've brought in from the draft. This second wave of free agency is often when teams find good role-players and quality depth - something the Falcons have lacked in recent years. Again, these signings aren't exciting, but they're often the signings that keep a team stable and financially sound while upgrading talent - even if only slightly - across the roster.
So, while the Falcons haven't made any splash signings this year, there is still time for the team to continue to shore up the roster. It's frustrating to go through the process, but fans should be patient as Quinn works to build his roster.