The Falcons are in a critical year. We all know that after the team cleared out all three coordinators and endured a disappointing 2018, and the team’s success or lack thereof in 2019 could be the difference between a multi-year run under the current regime and a (very mild, given Matt Ryan) sort of retool.
It’s also a critical year because of what’s looming in March 2020. Because of their massive success in the 2016 NFL Draft, and because of the number of quality players on short-term deals, the free agency period next season promises to be one of the more challenging ones in recent memory.
Heading into 2020, the Falcons will have to re-sign or lose:
- Deion Jones
- Justin Hardy
- Austin Hooper
- Wes Schweitzer
- De’Vondre Campbell
- Adrian Clayborn
- Vic Beasley
- Jack Crawford
- Tyeler Davison
- Grady Jarrett (as it stands today)
- Matt Bosher
There are other names on the list the Falcons would probably prefer not to lose, like Kemal Ishmael and a recuperating Steven Means, but I think this list does the scope of the task justice. Atlanta’s going to have to hand out massive deals to Jones and Jarrett (again, assuming they don’t get that done), likely quite large ones to Hooper, Beasley and Campbell, and good money to Crawford, Bosher, Schweitzer, and maybe Clayborn/Davison if they want to keep their current group together. Creative cap management will go a long way, but there’s no question that the Falcons are going to have to let some players walk and ultimately replace them. They don’t project to be among the league leaders in cap space, not with the large contracts they already have.
That will be made more difficult if the guys on this list—and by extension, one hopes, the Falcons—perform well this year. For example, a true bounceback year by Beasley would likely have teams lining up to give a mid-20s pass rusher with a pair of monster sack years a big contract, one that the Falcons may not be able to match. Ditto Crawford, who put together a terrific season in 2018 and would command a nice contract in a league that increasingly prizes interior pressure. Heck, Hooper belongs on this list as well, given the dearth of tight ends with his combination of receiving skills and blocking ability out there in the open market.
What might the Falcons do? It’s impossible to declare that they will, say, let Crawford and Davison walk without seeing how John Cominsky and Deadrin Senat develop this year, since they’re the most logical replacements on the roster. They have no alternatives on the roster today to Beasley, Clayborn, and Means, which would force an extensive overhaul of the defensive end position in one offseason if they were to let even two of those guys walk. And there simply isn’t the talent on hand—unless Duke Riley is ready to blossom in his third season—for the departure of De’Vondre Campbell, to say nothing of Deion Jones. They more or less have to re-sign Debo.
In light of that, this season will serve dual purposes for the Falcons. The first will be an evaluation of whether this current team (and in particular, coaching staff) can get the job done, something that will be evaluated by the powers that be in terms of win-loss record, playoff success or lack thereof, and to a lesser extent quality of play in those wins and losses. The second will be a close evaluation of the roster, as the team does every year, with a particular focus on the impending free agents and their potential replacements on the roster, if any exist.
To be a contender over the long haul, the Falcons need to hold on to their best players and most valuable role players, because as well as they’ve drafted it’s not going to fill every gap through their April savviness. How the Falcons prioritize their upcoming free agent class—and how they ultimately handle it—will play a key role in their future success, regardless of how 2019 goes.