Depending on your resource and whether you’re considering the team’s likely draft pool, the Falcons have somewhere between $2-$7 million left to spend under their salary cap at the moment. That’s either basically no money or very little money, and either way, you’re not looking at any hugely impactful free agents joining this team until Atlanta addresses the situation.
That’s been the source of considerable consternation to a significant portion of the fanbase, which does not seem to believe that this is still a good football team despite its holes. I share some real concerns here—the defensive line looks weaker and thinner at the moment, and I don’t know what the plan is to replace Levine Toilolo or Taylor Gabriel—but this is a mostly top-shelf roster in need of some patchwork. It would be nice if the Falcons could address a couple of holes in free agency, but they’ve shown minimal interest in doing so outside of tight end and guard.
But there’s a larger conversation to be had about why the Falcons have so little space. It chiefly concerns a small handful of contracts the team would like to re-visit, but has not been able to complete just yet. The team’s long-term situation will have to be carefully managed for the Falcons to stay in contention as their young, borderline elite players come up for larger deals, which is part of the reason Atlanta’s not making the kind of short-term contractual moves some contenders are to land big fish right now. The Falcons have also been said to feel tepid about the market at the moment, but that’s not really germane to this discussion.
So how did we get here? Let’s take a closer look and talk cap situation.
The headliner here is Matt Ryan, whose $21.65 million cap hit is less than some other elite quarterbacks but is soaking up almost 13% of the team’s total space. A re-structured contract would give the Falcons immediate, likely considerable relief, though if they’re serious about not spending much in free agency they might as well put a larger hit up front to help them navigate the later years of his new contract.
Ryan’s followed by Julio Jones ($12.9 million), Desmond Trufant ($12.9 million), Jake Matthews ($12.46 million, and a candidate for an extension), and Alex Mack ($11.05 million). No one else on the team is making $10+ million this year, and besides Robert Alford and Mohamed Sanu, nobody’s even making over $7 million. A sizable chunk of the cap is therefore tied up in a handful of players, which makes the Falcons look like every other team in the league that doesn’t have a rookie quarterback or hasn’t recently purged its roster.
An instructive example of this would be to compare the Falcons to the Saints, who have 30% of their cap tied up in just three players (Drew Brees, Cam Jordan, and Terron Armstead) and are paying way too much money to Coby Fleener ($8 million this year). The Saints are staying active in free agency, though their wiggle room will soon run out, because they’re willing to re-structure and cut and fill non-critical positions with inexpensive players of questionable quality to get the job done. When Drew Brees leaves, they’ll likely be carrying $20-plus million in dead money, but they’re playing for right now.
The Falcons are trying to balance right now with tomorrow, as the more splashes they make this year, the harder they’ll find it to re-sign Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett, De’Vondre Campbell, and Takkarist McKinley down the line. It’s rough to watch in the here and now, but it’s an approach I support if they execute it properly.
Unlike in years past, the Falcons aren’t really dealing with a ton of dead money, which is good. Derrick Shelby is carrying $2.5 million in dead money, Jalen Collins clocks in at $550,000, and Brian Hill, Jermaine Grace, and Josh Perkins each have small amounts of money hitting the cap.
The infuriating thing is that the ghost of one of the last, disastrous times the Falcons splurged in free agency is still with this team. Tyson Jackson is costing Atlanta $1.6 million this season, a relatively small amount of money in the grand scheme of things but nearly 1% of their total cap space in a tight year. That’s where bad free agent contracts can come back to haunt you, though obviously the Falcons aren’t dealing with, say, the Saints’ $11+ million in dead cap space.
Freeing Up Space
There are a handful of obvious things the Falcons can do to free up space if they want to be players in free agency down the line, or if they’d like to make an impactful trade this summer. Here, in no particular order, they are:
- Re-structure Matt Ryan’s contract. Even if you choose to take a larger hit in the first year with Ryan nearing his mid-30s, you can shave at least $5 million off his 2018 salary to give yourself some breathing room.
- Extend Jake Matthews. He’ll average $10-plus million on his new deal, I’m sure, but in year one you could probably free up $4-$5 million easily if you structure the thing well.
- Cut Matt Schaub. Getting rid of the team’s veteran backup would free up $3.25 million right now, leaving just $1.25 million in dead money for this year. The fanbase is pretty sharply split on what Schaub has left, but it’s fair to say that I come down on the side of him not being good enough to warrant his salary if he ever has to get in the game, and I’d prefer a young backup worth grooming.
- Re-structure Mohamed Sanu. This one’s a bigger stretch than everything else on this list, but Sanu becomes much easier to cut in 2019 and certainly in 2020, when his dead money dips to $2.8 million and then $1.4 million. The team could offer him more guaranteed cash the next couple of years in exchange for some 2018 relief, if they got really desperate.
Atlanta’s not in dire straits. Once they get Ryan and Matthews re-structured, they should have $10-plus million in additional cap space to work with, which will allow them to be active in their pursuit of worthwhile free agents and guys other teams cut. That’s assuming those deals are done by the summer, because if they’re not, the situation is a little more worrisome for 2018.
The important thing here is that Atlanta’s currently going to be fairly quiet in free agency, and they’re going to make every single move the rest of the spring and summer with their long-term cap situation in mind. That’s frustrating when there’s an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl in Atlanta at stake this year, but it fits with this team’s stated desire to be a contender long after Brees retires and Dirk Koetter becomes an offensive coordinator in the AFC East, and they truly believe they have a Super Bowl-contending roster in the here and now.
Time will tell if they’re correct about that one, or if we’ll look back at this particular moment of cap crunch and quiet as a huge missed opportunity for the Falcons.