We’re getting really close to the offseason, given that the 14th Falcons game is Sunday and the end of the calendar year is a little over two full weeks away. That means it’s time to gingerly dip our toes into what lies ahead. The good news is that we have months to absorb it and the Falcons have all the draft capital they need to put together a great class. The bad news is...well, potentially the rest of it, given that Atlanta’s cap space is limited, they could lose some key players this offseason, and the rest of the division is in better shape on paper.
What kind of cap shape are these four teams in, though? This seems like a great time to check in.
Candidly, before we get into these brief writeups, the Falcons look to be in the worst spot here by a mile. In one sense that’s because they have locked up elite players at positions that matter—the Panthers, Bucs and Saints could all consider a quarterback change in 2020, which isn’t always easy to get right—but in the other sense they simply don’t have all that much space and have looked like a bad team throughout most of this season. The Bucs can splurge, the Panthers can re-tool and the Saints have enough talent on hand to contend with or without Drew Brees. I’m not quite so sure the Falcons have a path to the playoffs next year without absolutely nailing their offseason, something they haven’t managed in the last few years.
But that is all in the future, and all we can do is hope for the best. Let’s talk cap figures for the Falcons and their three rivals as things stand today. All estimates are based off of Spotrac contract figures.
Atlanta Falcons - $1 million...over the cap
As the Saints have shown us time and time again, this isn’t fatal. It is going to require some smart moves to get under the cap with enough room to make the moves they need to make, especially if they fancy themselves contenders in the near term.
The biggest problem for Atlanta is that none of their top five players on the cap offer significant relief if released. Matt Ryan has a dead money hit of $63.4 million, Julio about $59 million, Jake Matthews $19 million, and Grady Jarrett $27 millon. Desmond Trufant is the only guy that even gets you any space at all, and then it’s just $5 million against over $10 million in dead money. None of those guys except Trufant are going anywhere anyways, but all four (or five) need to be close to elite next year if the Falcons are going to contend.
There are options, but none of them are super palatable. Releasing Keanu Neal would save $6.46 million because he’s on his fifth year option deal, but it would deprive the team of a potentially tremendous safety if he’s healthy for 2020. Ty Sambrailo would give Atlanta $3.75 million, Devonta Freeman $3.5 million, Luke Stocker $2.6 million, Allen Bailey $4.5 million, and Ricardo Allen $3.1 million. Sambrailo and Stocker make quite a bit of sense, but Bailey and Allen are very useful defenders at worst and Freeman is a player the team still loves.
The Falcons can restructure some deals to free up space, too, but that carries penalties for down the line. Atlanta’s toughest decisions this offseason will concern who they’re willing to let walk—Austin Hooper, De’Vondre Campbell, and Wes Schweitzer are among the names up for free agency—and to what extent they’re willing to hamstring themselves down the line by pushing to win in 2020. It may be wise for this team to hold its nose a bit and make next year a retooling year, but with Ryan and Julio getting older every year (funny how that works) that might not actually be palatable to Arthur Blank and company.
Carolina Panthers - $42.5 million
You can see why new owner David Tepper was ready to make a move with Ron Rivera. Carolina can either rebuild the team a bit around Cam Newton or move on from him and start a rebuild flush with cap space. That fork in the road gives them real flexibility.
Their biggest contracts heading into 2020 are Cam ($21 million, but only $2 million in dead money) and Kawann Short (who can’t be released). If they did move on from Newton and Dontari Poe (who can be cut for about $10 million in savings), they’d be sitting on over $70 million in space. Given that they have a young stud running back, two terrific receivers, and some pieces along the offensive and defensive lines to build on, it might make sense to push to contend with a healthy Cam next year.
More importantly for Carolina, though, they have some money to fix what ails them. Their defense has gone into the toilet, the offensive line has not done a great job of protecting Kyle Allen, and they’ve learned the hard way that you can’t build a team with defensive tackles along. If they’re savvy in the offseason, the Panthers could be back to contending in a year or two.
New Orleans Saints: $18.57 million
There are a lot of moving parts here. Drew Brees accounts for around 11% of the Saints cap, but his contract automatically voids on March 18th. The bad news for the Saints is that they’re taking that $21.3 million cap hit in 2020 right now regardless of whether Brees comes back or not, which is not ideal when you have roughly $18.6 million in space left.
As always, the Saints will wriggle out of that particular jam, but the decision to push the chips in even more in 2018 and 2019 does carry some costs. The Saints have a nucleus of terrific players, but unless they’re content to largely stand pat, they’re going to need to part with some useful cogs. Larry Warford would save them $8.5 million as a cut this coming year, Jared Cook $5 million, Malcom Brown $3 million, and Nick Easton $4 million. With the exception of Easton, who hasn’t been all that useful for New Orleans this year, those guys are all contributors.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a big contract for Sheldon Rankins on the way in 2021 to account for. The Saints will unfortunately still have a good team in 2020, but they’re going to need to decide whether it’s their last gasp championship push with Brees or consider pivoting to Teddy Bridgewater. Unfortunately for the rest of the NFC South, they’re unlikely to sink back into mediocrity for at least another season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $93.2 million
Bruce Arians and company have a chance to really remake a perennially disappointing roster. Big free agency spenders rarely translate into great teams and the Bucs would be wise to heed that lesson, but even so there’s a lot they can do to improve this team.
The first order of business will be addressing quarterback. Jameis Winston is heading for a huge volume season, as he’s on track to throw for over 5,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, but he’s also within reach of 30 interceptions. The Bucs simply aren’t going to turn into a perennial winner unless he takes a massive step forward, and through five seasons he’s yet to do so. Tampa Bay won’t be in an ideal position to draft a top quarterback, but they could try to snag a veteran bridge and draft a developmental guy, or bank on Winston improving in year two with Arians. Either approach carries risk and will be a huge subplot of the offseason.
Otherwise, the Bucs can focus on what ails them. Their offensive line is still all over the place, the pass rush isn’t a finished product by any stretch of the imagination, and the secondary is young but fraught with problems that need to be addressed in the draft and free agency. No matter how they want to approach those problems, they’ll have the funds on hand to paper over cracks and put themselves in a position to win. Given that those big free agency classes don’t often lead to immediate results, though, the Bucs are still probably one more year away from being a juggernaut. The needle’s at least pointing up.
Timing is everything, isn’t it? The Falcons have to consider the real possibility that the Saints will be hitting whatever version of their own personal cap hell is to come in 2021, but the Panthers and Bucs may have re-tooled and be pushing to contend by then. There is no course the Falcons can take this offseason that doesn’t carry risk, but the likeliest is still that they attempt to make a quick rebound by re-structuring contracts, cutting players that haven’t performed up to their contracts, and counting on a new coaching staff being able to get more out of what they have.
Speculate wildly about the team’s offseason moves here, if you will.