Free agency can be a very touchy subject. Some fans get their hopes up - almost every year it seems - that this will be the year that their team will land a "big name" free agent. For the Falcons, that hasn't been the case in recent years. The team has favored a more tempered approach to free agency, including last year. While many agree that over-spending in free agency rarely pays off, that shouldn't mean that a team shouldn't turn to free agency at all.
This year is different. It's time for the Falcons to go after some significant names in free agency, and that's going to mean they will need to pull out the check book. Here are some reason why I believe this is the year to buck the trend.
The talent pool in free agency is shallow
The Falcons have many needs to fill and unfortunately, this free agent class doesn't look like it's going to be particularly deep. Don't get me wrong, there are likely going to be several very good players available. The issue is that the quality at each position is relatively shallow.
For instance, when you look at the WR free agents, the biggest name is already off the list: Alshon Jeffery. The drop off after Jeffery is pretty steep. Guys like Marvin Jones and Travis Benjamin could end up in small bidding wars that will drive their price up.
While that would certainly seem like an argument against free agency, there's only so long you can avoid paying players. If you want a guy - and he can improve your roster - you're likely going to have to pay him more than his market value to get him. It's a reality the Falcons need to face and fans will need to get comfortable with.
Now, this doesn't mean you have to overspend on just anyone. Positional value needs to be weighed into the decision as well. In fact, Matt wrote about that very thing earlier this month regarding the draft, but the same principle applies here. Overpaying for a 2-down run-stopper is far worse than over-paying for a pass rusher or a 3-down inside linebacker.
If the team is going to over-spend, it's time for them to overspend on a position that will net a big impact. No more overpaying run-stopping defensive ends, please.
With only 5 picks, there are too many holes to fix with the draft
Having traded away a 6th rounder for Andy Levitre and losing a 5th rounder due to the noise-gate fiasco, the Falcons are going into the draft with only 5 picks. While it is very difficult to find quality starters in the 5th and 6th rounds, that doesn't negate the need to have those picks. Often, those picks can turn into quality depth players or trade-capital that can move you around on day two. Every now and then, you do find a diamond in the rough - but you can only find those if you have the picks to begin with.
If we're honest about the Falcons needs right now, it's a pretty long list. We need quality starters at any/all of these positions: Left Guard, Center, Right Guard, WR2, Strong Safety, Inside Linebacker, Outside Linebacker, Defensive End. That's just for starters - we could also afford to upgrade the quality and depth at positions like tight end as well. By my count, that is 8 positions in need of new starters with a need for even more depth.
If the Falcons are going to make a return to the playoffs, it's going to require spending in free agency to help fill those holes.
The cap space is there
The Falcons currently have somewhere between 28 to 31 million in cap space right now, depending on who you ask. With a couple of additional likely cuts (Hester, Tyson Jackson), the team could have as much as 38 to 40 million in space for just this year. That's with key guys like Ryan and Julio already under contract. There are no other significant free agents that the team needs to lock up in 2016, giving them more "real" cap space to spend in free agency. When you take into account that the Falcons are looking at somewhere around 65 to 75 million in space in 2017, now is an ideal time to get guys signed. The team can sign guys now, and delay their bigger cap hits into 2017 and 2018 when they'll have far more room.
With 40 million in space, the team will need to reserve roughly 5 to 7 million for the rookies. They will probably also need between 3 to 5 million to lock up restricted free agents like Ryan Schraeder, Ricardo Allen and Nate Stupar. With a buffer of about 8 to 10 million to carry during the year, that means the team could theoretically spend between 18 and 23 million in free agency. There's no reason that type of spending couldn't net the Falcons a top pass rusher and/or linebacker this year. And with guys like Danny Trevathan and Mario Williams likely to be available, the quality is there as well.
Though this front office has historically stayed away from multiple big free agent signings in one year, there's no reason that can't change this year. The team needs to be smart about how it spends, but cap space is not an issue. When you consider the needs we have, and who is likely to be available, it's time for the Falcons to spend - and spend big.