In a lost season, our attention has rightly begun to shift towards 2020. I’ve already discussed the distinct possibility that the Falcons will wind up with a top-5 pick, and what they should do with it. Now I’m going to take a closer look at Atlanta’s cap situation next year.
At this time, it appears the Falcons will walk into 2020 with only about $1M in cap space. That includes an estimated $200M salary cap for next season, and about $6.8M in “rollover” cap from 2019. This number could easily change depending on various cuts and signings this year, but I’d expect it to stay relatively close.
However, it’s important to note that Atlanta has only 40 players under contract for the 2020 season. For those that aren’t aware, you need 53 players to fill out your roster. That $1M isn’t going to pay for more than one or two veteran minimum contracts. It also doesn’t include their draft class, which is likely to cost around $8M—and could vary depending on trades and the Falcons final positioning in the draft. Factoring in the draft class, Atlanta goes almost $7M over the cap—although the eight picks would then bring the roster to 48 players.
It’s clear that Atlanta needs to make significant moves just to sign their draft class. That doesn’t even include the expected deal for Austin Hooper, which could fall somewhere in the $8-10M/year range. Luckily, the Falcons do have options for clearing space. They’ll be eating a significant amount of dead money to make this happen, but it’ll be necessary to dig themselves out of the cap hell Dimitroff created.
Pre-June 1st Moves
These are all moves that can be completed prior to the start of free agency in March. The Falcons are unlikely to be significant players in free agency regardless of how many moves they make, but they could potentially find the flexibility to re-sign TE Austin Hooper and perhaps make a few depth additions along the way. Here are the cuts and/or trades that would make the most sense for Atlanta, with the most likely at the top and least likely at the bottom.
Cut DL Allen Bailey: $4.5M savings, $1.5M dead cap
While Bailey has been a solid contributor in a terrible 2019 season, his enormous cap savings is simply too important to pass up. $4.5M in space, particularly when compared to only $1.5M in dead cap, is huge for the Falcons in 2020. This is perhaps the most likely cut of the offseason.
Cut TE Luke Stocker: $2.6M savings, $750K dead cap
Another easy decision for the Falcons is to move on from TE Luke Stocker. Stocker was brought in to be a reliable blocker and receiver, but has largely failed in both roles. He’s been outplayed as a receiver by UDFA Jaeden Graham and has been disappointing as a blocker. His $2.6M in savings, minimal dead cap, and lack of production virtually seals his fate.
Cut T Ty Sambrailo: $3.75M savings, $2M dead cap
This cut is almost certain to happen in 2020 due to the drafting of Kaleb McGary and the presence of Matt Gono, but when it will happen is a bigger question. If the Falcons can wait until after June 1st, they’ll save an additional $1M and take $1M off Sambrailo’s dead cap. It’ll probably depend on how aggressive they want to be in free agency, as that’s not a huge difference in cap space overall. If the Falcons cut Sambrailo before free agency, they’ll still save a substantial $3.75M to $2M in dead cap.
Cut QB Matt Schaub: $2M savings, $375K dead cap
Starting with this cut, the following moves are significantly less likely to happen. We saw this week against Seattle that Schaub is a quality backup QB, particularly with this offense around him. The Falcons, however, are in desperate need of cap space. They can save $2M by moving on from Schaub in 2020, compared to only $375K in dead cap.
Trade or cut C Alex Mack: $8M savings, $2.55M dead cap
I sincerely doubt the team cuts Alex Mack in 2020—he’s an integral piece of the offensive line, and gambling on getting a good replacement center in the draft is a little too risky for my taste. However, if the team thinks they can get a Day 2 or early Day 3 pick for Mack in addition to the substantial $8M in cap savings, that may shift the calculus in favor of taking the risk on a rookie. This trade could happen before or after the draft—it doesn’t affect the cap savings/dead money—but if the team wants to use Mack’s money in free agency, it’ll have to happen in March.
Cut S Keanu Neal: $6.46M savings, $0 dead cap
I don’t believe this move will happen unless the team thinks Neal won’t be able to play in 2020. If, for some reason, the team believed that or is incredibly desperate for free agent money, Neal’s fifth-year option is worth a pretty hefty $6.46M. Much like Beasley’s fifth-year option, Neal could be cut prior to the start of the league year in March for no dead money. I sincerely doubt this will happen for various reasons, but the possibility of a new GM and coaching staff make anything possible.
TOTAL POTENTIAL PRE-JUNE 1ST SAVINGS: $27.31M
TOTAL REALISTIC PRE-JUNE 1ST SAVINGS: $12.85M
By making some or all of these moves, the Falcons can save a significant amount of money heading into free agency. Personally, I believe the cuts of Bailey, Stocker, Sambrailo, and Schaub to be the most “realistic”. If the Falcons make those moves, they’ll save an estimated $12.85M against the cap. Which, when combined with our estimated figures for their 2020 cap space, would put them at $13.85M in space at the kickoff of the league year. That should be enough to get a deal done with TE Austin Hooper and make a few depth signings, but that’s about it.
If Atlanta is very aggressive in clearing space—which has to be considered a possibility with the presence of a new GM and/or HC—they could clear up to $27.31M headed into March. That’s enough for a high-profile move or two and plenty of depth signings. But they’d be creating some pretty significant roster holes by moving on from Alex Mack and Keanu Neal.
Post-June 1st Moves
These are moves that the Falcons can make by either waiting until after June 1st, or by using their two Post-June 1st “designations”. By cutting/trading a player after June 1st, teams can spread out the dead money over the remainder of the contract—which usually leads to a more significant savings in the current year. However, the cap space gained from these cuts does not appear until June 2. That means that any post-June 1st cuts don’t provide cap relief until after free agency has ended. So, these cuts could potentially help the Falcons pay for their draft class, but not for any big-name free agents in March.
Cut RB Devonta Freeman: $6.5M savings, $3M dead cap
The writing is on the wall for Freeman, who has an expensive contract and simply hasn’t been able to produce in 2019. Much of the blame likely rests with Dirk Koetter’s atrocious rushing scheme and the play of the offensive line, but Freeman’s contract and the presence of three young RBs on the roster all but guarantee his release. Freeman must be a post-June 1st cut, however, as his dead money is simply too high otherwise.
Cut FS Ricardo Allen: $5.25M savings, $2.125M dead cap
The Falcons made Ricardo Allen much more difficult to cut in 2020 by restructuring his deal this season. Previously, he could’ve been a significant savings as a Pre-June 1st cut. After the restructure, there’s simply no affordable way to move on from Allen until after June 1st. However, the savings is still pretty big: $5.25M compared to just $2.125M in dead cap. Allen has struggled mightily this season, and the next coach may want to save money and move Damontae Kazee back to FS.
Cut G James Carpenter: $2.5M savings, $2.7M dead cap
James Carpenter has been a pretty big disappointment in 2019. I don’t think any Falcons fans expected Carpenter to be a world-beater at guard, but he’s been frequently injured and hasn’t played well even when healthy. Atlanta is almost certain to continue their offensive line rebuild in 2020 with another high pick, and fellow 2019 free agent signee Jamon Brown is impossible to cut due to his guarantees. That makes Carpenter expendable, despite the team basically breaking even on his savings and dead money. I’d expect him to be cut after June 1st if the Falcons add a young interior OL player in the draft.
POTENTIAL POST-JUNE 1ST CAP RELIEF: $14.25M
The Falcons could get a potential windfall after June 1st based on these cuts. $14.25M is more than enough to sign their draft class, and could give them the space to round out the roster with a few low-price free agents either before or after training camp.
As you can see above, the Falcons do have some options for clearing space for both free agency and their draft class. They could potentially create over $41M in cap savings by taking the most aggressive route, but I doubt that will actually happen. More likely, the Falcons will take the “realistic” route that I laid out above to clear about $12.85M prior to free agency, and an additional $14.25M after June 1st. This won’t be painless, however: the Falcons are going to be incurring about $12.45M in dead cap this season—and a significant portion of that will linger into 2021 and 2022.
It’s still not much room to work with, but it should be enough to take care of the following priorities:
- Sign TE Austin Hooper to a long-term extension (with a hefty signing bonus to reduce his 2020 cap hit), averaging approximately $9M/year
- Re-sign a few choice veterans prior to free agency, such as DT Tyeler Davison, and tender RFAs/ERFAs (RB Brian Hill & LB Jermaine Grace)
- Sign the draft class for approximately $8M (may require waiting until after June 1st for some players)
- Fill out the remainder of the roster with low-priced veterans before, during, and after training camp
Obviously, it isn’t ideal for a reloading (or rebuilding, if you prefer) team to have basically zero cap flexibility. That’s the bed the Falcons have made, however, and it’ll likely take a few seasons before Atlanta can be a serious player in free agency again. The team will have to nail their 2020 draft class to have any hope of returning to relevance, as they’ll have to depend on the rookies to fill out much of their depth.
However, their situation isn’t as catastrophic as some have made it out to be. The Falcons aren’t in danger of not being able to sign their draft class, or being forced to cut players with obscene amounts of dead money to get under the cap. It’ll take some careful maneuvering, but Atlanta can dig themselves out of cap hell in 2020. The bigger question is: can the roster they put together actually compete?