The triumph of the Matt Bryant contract aside, this Falcons offseason has been all about shedding. The Falcons have cut ties with Dontari Poe and Taylor Gabriel, however unofficially, and they literally cut Levine Toilolo and Derrick Shelby. With somewhere between $11-$14 million in cap space at the moment, depending on how Matt Bryant’s contract is structured, the Falcons simply will not and cannot be major players in free agency this year. That’s reality with a $177 million dollar or so cap, which the NFL just announced last night.
That’s why the Falcons will have to fully embrace playing their young stars (and potential studs) a lot more in 2018. In 2016 and 2017, the Falcons used a heavy defensive end rotation to keep Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley fresh, with free agent signings like Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed, Courtney Upshaw and Shelby taking significant snaps along the way. Clayborn and Upshaw could be back, sure, but chances are that both Takk and Beasley are going to need to play more and play quite well for the Falcons to be successful this season. That’ll be true at guard, where Atlanta’s likely going to roll with Wes Schweitzer, Sean Harlow, or a draft pick on the right side, and at tight end, where Austin Hooper and Eric Saubert are currently the only two players with any NFL experience left standing.
The good news, of course, is that Atlanta already has a head start in this regard. If the Mike Smith years were defined by a handful of young players shining on a steady veteran team, the Dan Quinn years thus far have been defined by a willingness to let young talents like Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, Grady Jarrett, and Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman shine. The team’s willingness to let go of genuinely talented, impactful players has a lot to do with cap space, but it also has to do with their unshakeable confidence in the players they draft and mold, and the players they’ll draft and look to mold in April.
So for the second straight year, you should not be surprised if Atlanta has one eyebrow-raising signing (or trade) and an otherwise quiet free agency period. This is a roster dotted with stars, but it’s also a roster that is built with an eye toward sustainable success. There’s no guarantee that will work out—we’ve seen some very good Falcons teams fall apart before—but it’s an admirable philosophy, and the team’s hit rate thus far suggests they can keep this going for a while.
The one possible path to more cap space is a Matt Ryan extension that kicks the can down the road a bit, but that’s unlikely to arrive before the Falcons need to make moves to upgrade the team. Get ready to see a lot of your favorite young players in 2018, and don’t buy those Jimmy Graham or Andrew Norwell jerseys.