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Falcons cap situation has some real challenges ahead

The team is about to find out that you can’t keep everybody.

Super Bowl LIII - New England Patriots v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In the NFL, you’re either lucky enough to be overpaying a quarterback or you’re hoping to be. For the Falcons, they are in the former camp and no matter what your opinion of Matt Ryan is, there’s little doubt he’s a franchise QB and one who will help you win games.

However, finding that QB — whether it’s Ryan or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees — also means dedicating a significant portion of your salary cap to that player. That also means that teams have to make hard decisions at other positions, and the Falcons may now be in that position as they look at 2019 and beyond.

Don’t let the internet experts fool you: This team has some tough choices to make over the next 12 to 15 months. Those choices could dramatically alter the composition of the franchise for the next six to 10 years.

Good draft classes

The Falcons are in this situation primarily because they’ve had some great success in recent draft classes and at positions that typically are paid well. For instance, left tackle Jake Matthews has grown into a steady and reliable presence on the blindside and deserved every penny of his $75 million dollar deal last year. While the 2015 draft class hasn’t turned out like we hoped it would (we’re looking at you Vic Beasley), Grady Jarrett has proven he’s a steal and is set to get paid big time this year.

The 2016 draft class is also looking like another home run, with thre Pro Bowlers coming out of that class alone in Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and Austin Hooper. The Falcons already let Tevin Coleman walk away from that class.

In the past, the Falcons have been able to manage the cap pretty well, but mostly because they whiffed on far more players in the draft. Now that they’re hitting on more and more players, it’s looking increasingly likely they won’t be able to keep everyone.

Outside factors

In the NFL, you’re only the highest-paid player for so long. Agents piggy back off previous deals to get their guys the biggest compensation package they can. For Grady Jarrett, his agent is likely looking to beat the Fletcher Cox deal of last year (six years, $102.6 million) and maybe even approach Aaron Donald numbers.

For Deion Jones, his agent will undoubtedly look at the recent C.J. Mosley deal as the starting point for negotiations (five years, $85 million with $51 million guaranteed). Keanu Neal is likely going to want the Landon Collins contract (six years, $84 million with $44.5 million guaranteed). The numbers for tight ends also appear to be escalating, which will only drive the price tag for Austin Hooper up. On top of all that, both Hooper and Jones are playing in the last year of their rookie deals. The Falcons probably don’t want to go into the 2020 offseason having to negotiate with two players at once. I’d expect Deion to get a contract sometime during the 2019 season.

Options in 2020 and beyond

Right now, the Falcons have about $13 million in cap space (come June 1) and will need about $8 million to sign their draft class. Getting Grady signed to a long-term deal could free up some space this year, but the reality is 2020 is going to be challenging.

Using Overthecap.com, the projected salary cap in 2020 will be $200 million. Right now, the Falcons only have 33 players under contract. To get to the 53, that means getting 20 more guys signed.

As it stands today, they will have just under $42 million for 2020. Assuming an average of just $1 million per player, that wipes out $20 million from the 2020 cap, and that’s without Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones and Austin Hooper on the list. If the Jarrett deal is anything like the Fletcher Cox deal, his 2020 cap hit could be $20 million by itself.

That said, there are some options - but they’re painful ones. Guys like Alex Mack ($8 million cap savings), Mohamed Sanu ($6.5 million cap savings) and Desmond Trufant ($4.95 million cap savings) are all very possible options to be cut to make room for the forthcoming big contracts. The team could also look to convert Matt Ryan’s salary to a bonus again to free up space ( up to $15 million in 2020) and could do the same with Jake Matthews (up to $7 million in 2020). However, those conversions also push significantly higher cap hits into 2021 and beyond and could just be delaying some painful decisions.

Reality

It’s not all doom and gloom. The team has a lot of options they can pursue to keep some of their star players here for years to come. Yet, with new mega-deals being announced almost daily, the team may be forced into watching some of their homegrown talent walk out the door.

The situation isn’t dire, but it is definitely challenging. The success of recent draft classes has put the team in a position where keeping everyone just isn’t possible. The decision now, then, is who to keep.