Well, tomorrow is February 14. Happy almost Valentine’s Day to all the beloved lovebirds out there.
And, if you’re single, you can get all warm and fuzzy that, in about a single month, NFL free agency begins.
The Falcons tend to ebb and flow when it comes to acquiring free agents. Some years, the team has the money and motivation to go out and score big name guys. Some years, they don’t. Some years, it goes swimmingly (2016 – Alex Mack, Mohamed Sanu, re-signing Adrian Clayborn, Derrick Shelby, Aldrick Robinson, Courtney Upshaw, LaRoy Reynolds, Matt Schaub, Tom Compton), some years…it very much does not (2014 – Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai – who was fine, Jon Asamoah – still the strangest whiff in Falcons’ recent history, others I quite frankly can’t remember, which isn’t a good sign).
Ok, Dwight Lowery was ok – I’ll give you that, 2014. I’ll give you that.
Free agency is what you make it – the Falcons would not be where they are right now without stable center play. Alex Mack is the most important move the Falcons have made in the Dan Quinn era, and don’t let a soul tell you otherwise. The only non-winning seasons Matt Ryan has under his belt involve centers not named Alex Mack and Todd McClure. That move was made in March.
The foundation of this team was built in the draft, certainly, but the Falcons aren’t what they are without savvy free agent acquisitions.
Sometimes, March helps transform a pumpkin into a prettier pumpkin (see how Philly has used free agency to boost their defense over the years), and sometimes, you get the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles…or always the Miami Dolphins. You don’t win games in March, but then again, you also do win games in March when you play the cycle the right way.
Winning free agency doesn’t always mean throwing the most money at the most attractive players. For some teams, the most exciting thing they get all year is that tweet from Adam Schefter saying which big fish their team caught. Just how it works.
Bolstering your depth with good veteran players, and nabbing that occasional big name that fits your system perfectly? Now, there’s the winning ticket.
So, what do the Falcons need to do in 2018 free agency?
Something. Really, really…something.
A cap space question
The Falcons don’t have a lot of cap space right now – Spotrac estimates they’ve got $12.7 million to work with at the moment, and that doesn’t take into account the tenders they’ll have to extend to their restricted free agents like Ricardo Allen, Ben Garland and Terron Ward.
So, that’s not a lot of wiggle room, and if you haven’t checked, the Falcons have a lot of free agents on the horizon – 16 UFAs, 4 RFAs and 2 ERFAs, to be exact.
That’s about 41% of the season-ending 2017 53-man roster.
So, I don’t know how recognizable the names are going to be, but without a doubt, you’re going to see some new Falcons in 2018.
They’re going to retain some guys, for certain. They’re also going to have to make some tough roster decisions with guys currently on contract – not only is Andy Levitre entering 2018 with a high number. TE Levine Toilolo, DEs Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby, reserve QB Matt Schaub – they’re all mighty pricey heading into the new season, and none of those guys play as major a role as the money would dictate. Their status is unknown.
The Falcons also have extensions to make with QB Matt Ryan, LT Jake Matthews and FS Ricardo Allen the first up to bat with the team’s grocery lists of contracts to take care of over the next few seasons.
There are also decisions to make with those free agents the team must worry about re-signing. DT Dontari Poe, WR Taylor Gabriel, DE Adrian Clayborn and K Matt Bryant are the marquee attractions, and sadly, you’re probably going to see at least one of those guys head elsewhere in 2018. The price of success, sadly.
So, the Falcons have a ton of decisions to make, and not a lot of money to make them with.
What’s a Dirty Bird to do?
Something. They need to do something. Very much something.
Speculating about guys losing their jobs is kind of weird and sad, but you figure the Falcons are going to clear a little bit of the space from the costly reserves. If not clear, then restructure a deal or two. That will open up space, as will extending Ryan and Matthews. By extending those two deals, they could push the cap as far it will go and open up the space for the rookie contracts to file through (and have enough for Thomas Dimitroff’s rainy day fund).
Who will they re-sign? I haven’t a clue, but let’s think about it.
Of the pressing UFAs – the ones you worry about signing early – let’s say Bryant’s back. The team would be foolish to risk a hole at kicker while they’re contending for home Super Bowl. That’s $3-4 million of Money Matt you can take to the bank.
After that? Well, it’s hard. Gabriel feels gone – someone deserving of a bigger opportunity and a coaching staff that knows how to use him. Clayborn feels…iffy. He’s approaching 30 and has an extensive injury history to consider, but he’s also a great rotational rusher and, really, only a Michael Bennett or an Ezekiel Ansah could really give you what Clayborn can from the March men available (or potentially available in Bennett’s case).
Poe? Well, depends on who you ask. The Falcons’ run defense was spectacular for franchise standards by the end of the season but could still get better. If Poe gets away, that’s not something you can immediately replace, no matter who the team drafts (those guys take time to develop, unless they’re Aaron Donald). Losing Poe is not good for the run defense, unless a top-flight run-defending defensive tackle is waiting in the wings for the team’s first round pick.
If the Falcons lose more than two of those four names, and don’t find suitable replacements in the free agency/strike gold again in the draft, it’s not good — new roster holes open up.
There’s your DT2, WR3, your second-best edge rusher and your franchise kicker.
The best path forward for Atlanta this March might, sincerely, be keeping their own guys.
It’s not attractive, but it’s wise. Maybe extending both Poe and Clayborn, and figuring the money out later, isn’t the worst idea — keep things how they are. Get a Gabriel replacement in the second or third round of the draft, and, I suppose, make a decision about one of the guard spots with the first round pick.
There are a lot of good rotational guys like Upshaw, Ahtyba Rubin, LaRoy Reynolds, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Kemal Ishmael that need deals, too. Help-you-have-a-winning-season depth guys. Those deals are important to be extended – if they can!
But, those guys could get away! Rubin could get more money from a team with poor run defense, Upshaw could just get more elsewhere in general, Reynolds could get a larger role on a worse roster, Wreh-Wilson could get looks as a low-cost CB2/3 after rebounding in Atlanta, and Ishamel could wish to revert back to strong safety full-time and start somewhere.
The Falcons need to take care of their own guys, but their own guys could get more money/better opportunities elsewhere.
Now what? So little money!
The team drafts well, and you can figure to get at least two day-one players out of this new crop. How good those guys are up front, though, is always suspect. You don’t want to have a roster that’s always waiting for that one position to shore up because the rookie is still learning on the job. The 2017 Falcons didn’t have consistent play at weakside linebacker with Duke Riley struggling at times and saw second-year guard Wes Schweitzer take his lumps in his first at-bat at right guard. Both points of growing hurt the Falcons at unfortunate times in the season. Sometimes, that’s the cost of doing business/being better for the future.
But sometimes, a veteran really is the best way forward.
That’s where March comes in.
Look, I’m far more bullish on this cycle than most for Falcons moves, but I don’t think a bunch of high-ticket guys are about to walk through that door. Andrew Norwell, Jimmy Graham, Trey Burton, *sigh* Tyler Eifert…those guys probably aren’t comingr (I hate myself for writing that last one – you have no idea how bad I want that one to happen).
Really, only Michael Bennett stands a big name the team could reasonably add this offseason. The Quinn connection is strong there. Those two guys love each other. It’s very possible. Stop staring at me like you want to break my face.
But, you’re going to see a few new faces come in the door in March. They may not all be starters, but they could serve valuable roles come game day. We didn’t know much about a guy like Aldrick Robinson two years ago – look at what he did!
The Falcons won’t sit on their talons and not sign anyone, and at the end of the day, after all our fretting and wondering, they’ll add at least a couple of new faces.
So, if you like March for all the frenzy, don’t worry – you’ll see a few fun Twitter updates come your way regarding the Falcons. Just don’t expect them to go haywire like they did in 2016. Going haywire, sometimes, doesn’t pan out, and there’s no Alex Mack this time out, and no Alex Mack money in the offing.
But, they do need to address the areas of concern that are there, and part of that work, can, and will, and should, be done in March. Behind the scenes, that work has already begun.