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What would it cost to bring a top free agent EDGE to the Falcons?

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The Falcons could be dramatically reshaping their defensive line this offseason. We take a closer look at what contracts for top free agent EDGEs like Trey Flowers or Brandon Graham might look like, and whether or not Atlanta can afford them.

Minnesota Vikings v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

With the NFL Combine and the official start of the 2019 NFL league year approaching, we’ve been spending a lot of time talking about potential draft picks and free agents. Mostly, we’ve been focusing on the Falcons’ own free agents—which makes sense, seeing as we’ve already seen several cuts and could definitely see more in the next few weeks. But what about some additions that Atlanta could make?

With the cut of Brooks Reed and Vic Beasley’s future with the team cloudy at best, the Falcons have a major need at EDGE. They could use a starter across from Takk McKinley—who they’ll be hoping takes a significant step forward in 2019—and more depth in the rotation. This year’s free agent class at EDGE could actually be pretty good, with names like DeMarcus Lawrence, Trey Flowers, Frank Clark, and Brandon Graham all potentially hitting the open market. Some of those players will end up retained by their team or franchise tagged (sorry, those of you who want Lawrence), but a few will be out there for a team like Atlanta to pursue.

It’s difficult for rookie EDGE players to make a big impact in year one—even first round picks—so it makes a lot of sense for the Falcons to attempt to fill the need for a starter through free agency. It should go without saying that despite Atlanta having a fair amount of cap space right now, none of these moves will be possible with Beasley taking up $12.8M of the cap. They’ll need to move on or significantly reduce his cap hit to make these contracts possible.

Below are example contracts for Lawrence, Flowers, Clark, and Graham. Those aren’t all the possible free agents, but consider Lawrence’s deal a good analogue for Jadeveon Clowney, and expect Preston Smith’s deal to fall somewhere between Flowers and Graham. Let’s get into some cap analysis!

DeMarcus Lawrence

Spotrac Estimated Market Value: $19.6M/yr

Estimated Real Value: $20M/yr

Example Contract: 5 years, $100M, $20M signing bonus, $75M guaranteed

DeMarcus Lawrence Example 5-year Contract

Year Age Base Salary Signing Bonus Cap Hit Guaranteed Dead Cap
Year Age Base Salary Signing Bonus Cap Hit Guaranteed Dead Cap
2019 27 $10M $5M $15M $15M $75M
2020 28 $15M $5M $20M $20M $60M
2021 29 $16M $5M $21M $21M $40M
2022 30 $17M $5M $22M $14M $19M
2023 31 $17M $5M $22M $5M $5M

By far the top free agent pass rusher in the 2019 class, DeMarcus Lawrence probably doesn’t stand much of a chance of actually leaving Dallas. If he did leave, though, it would probably be because Lawrence wanted to play elsewhere—and because Dallas might not want to take the $20M+ cap hit that would come from the second consecutive franchise tag.

Still, Lawrence’s position as the top EDGE free agent will mean that he could command a very high price. Spotrac’s “Estimated Market Value” is a new stat that is based on production and comparison to other similar players and the contracts they received. It doesn’t always seem to be accurate, but in Lawrence’s case, it’s pretty darn close. I think Lawrence will demand at least $20M/yr on the open market, which is almost identical to Spotrac’s projection of $19.6M/yr.

$20M might sound like too much for the Falcons to afford in 2019, and it almost certainly is. However, with some crafty contract structure, Atlanta could probably get Lawrence’s actual cap hit this season down to a manageable number—in exchange for bigger cap hits down the road. The Falcons manage this with a big signing bonus of $20M in exchange for a low base salary in 2019 of only $10M, bringing Lawrence’s cap hit down to $15M for 2019. This number will escalate to $20M in 2020, $21M in 2021, and $22M in both 2022 and 2023.

The best way to attract players is with a lot of guaranteed money, and the Falcons do so with this contract. 75% of the deal is guaranteed in this example deal, and Lawrence is essentially unable to be cut until the final year (his age 31 season). Still, Lawrence is young and has proven himself as one of the NFL’s premier EDGE pass rushers over several seasons. The risk here is low, and if the Falcons want Lawrence, they’ll probably have to offer him guarantees like this to beat the competition.

Trey Flowers

Spotrac Estimated Market Value: $15.3M/yr

Estimated Real Value: $17M/yr

Example Contract: 5 years, $85M, $15M signing bonus, $60M guaranteed

Trey Flowers Example 5-year Contract

Year Age Base Salary Signing Bonus Cap Hit Guaranteed Dead Cap
Year Age Base Salary Signing Bonus Cap Hit Guaranteed Dead Cap
2019 26 $7M $3M $10M $10M $60M
2020 27 $12M $3M $15M $15M $50M
2021 28 $15M $3M $18M $18M $35M
2022 29 $18M $3M $21M $10M $17M
2023 30 $18M $3M $21M $7M $7M

I believe Trey Flowers is much more likely to become a free agent than someone like Lawrence or Clowney, mainly because the Patriots have a habit of simply not paying players we all expect them to. If Flowers breaks free, I also believe he’s the most likely of the bunch to end up in a Falcons jersey. There are several reasons for this: Flowers is young, has a spotless off-field record (unlike Frank Clark), and offers a well-rounded skillset at EDGE that would pair well with Takk.

This contract is structured similarly to Lawrence’s, with a large signing bonus to bring Flowers’ cap hit down significantly in the first year and a lot of guaranteed money. The cap hit gradually ramps up to $15M in 2020, then $18M in 2021, before hitting a pretty substantial $21M in 2022 and 2023. In theory, this gives the Falcons the flexibility to go after another mid-tier free agent this offseason (perhaps an OL) and then some breathing room in 2020 when they’ll have to deal with the Deion Jones and Austin Hooper contracts.

My thought is that a slowly accelerating cap hit makes a lot of sense with the salary cap continuing to rise every year. By the time 2022 rolls around, $21M might actually be a fair price for a very good EDGE—or perhaps even somewhat of a bargain. However, with the guaranteed money as high as it is, this example contract does come with a fair amount of risk. Flowers will essentially be locked in for the Falcons until 2023—his age 30 season and the final year of the deal. Still, with Flowers’ youth and consistent play over several seasons, he’s about as safe a bet as you can make in free agency.

Frank Clark

Spotrac Estimated Market Value: $12M/yr

Estimated Real Value: $17M/yr

Example Contract: 5 years, $85M, $15M signing bonus, $60M guaranteed

Frank Clark Example 5-year Contract

Year Age Base Salary Signing Bonus Cap Hit Guaranteed Dead Cap
Year Age Base Salary Signing Bonus Cap Hit Guaranteed Dead Cap
2019 26 $7M $3M $10M $10M $60M
2020 27 $12M $3M $15M $15M $50M
2021 28 $15M $3M $18M $18M $35M
2022 29 $18M $3M $21M $10M $17M
2023 30 $18M $3M $21M $7M $7M

Frank Clark’s example contract is the same as Flowers’, as I expect both to end up at around $17M/yr on the open market. So, all the same stuff I said above applies to this contract too. However, I do want to say that I don’t think the Falcons will be all that interested in going after Clark because of his off-field history. This franchise has been burned repeatedly in recently years by similar issues and I think the risk will scare them off from giving Clark big money. Some team certainly will, though—and whether the Falcons were justified or wise in avoiding him will be an open question.

Brandon Graham

Spotrac Estimated Market Value: $15.8M/yr

Estimated Real Value: $10M/yr

Example Contract: 3 years, $30M, $6M signing bonus, $15M guaranteed

Brandon Graham Example 3-year Contract

Year Age Base Salary Signing Bonus Cap Hit Guaranteed Dead Cap
Year Age Base Salary Signing Bonus Cap Hit Guaranteed Dead Cap
2019 31 $8M $2M $10M $10M $15M
2020 32 $8M $2M $10M $3M $5M
2021 33 $8M $2M $10M $2M $2M

Perhaps the biggest fan favorite for the Falcons to bring in at EDGE, Brandon Graham is a bit puzzling to me. Spotrac thinks he’s worth a whopping $15.8M/yr on the open market, on par with Trey Flowers and ahead of Frank Clark. That makes zero sense to me—but the formula for determining market value is based on an algorithm, not on subjective interpretations of the player. It seems pretty clear to me that Graham is a tier below those other players in terms of production—and he’s also significantly older than any of them.

That will impact his deal, which I expect to fall somewhere in the $10M/yr range but could end up going higher if a lot of teams are interested. That’s personally the max that I would consider paying, but a team with a ton of cap space (like the 49ers or Browns) might not care as much about “value”.

With Graham being on the wrong side of 30, the risk of his abilities declining has to be considered in any contract. So for this deal, the Falcons decide to give him a relatively small signing bonus and half the money in guarantees. That makes the cap hit an even $10M for each year of the deal, but the dead money evaporates quickly. You can break just about even in the second year of the deal if Graham faceplants, and you can move on for just $2M in dead cap (an $8M savings) in 2021.

Graham is a well-rounded EDGE and I do like what he brings to the table, but he’s a #2 at best and is probably better suited to a rotational role going into his early 30s. He did have that 9.5 sack 2017 season, but otherwise Graham has only been a 5-7 sack player throughout his career. He does play well against the run and his experience will be valuable for the young players around him, but he shouldn’t be overvalued by the Falcons or by fans.


Based on these example contracts, which do player do you think is best suited for the Falcons? Beyond that, which player—if any—do you think could actually wind up in Atlanta?