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Falcons defensive investments are the right move, but they mean tight cap years to come

Locking up stars is good! Not having any money is bad.

NFL Combine - Day 1

The Falcons have been a team built to score, not prevent scoring. Throughout Matt Ryan’s tenure with the team—and in particular in the Dan Quinn years—the majority of the team’s cap has been tied up on his side of the ball, with the team designed to outgun opponents and hopefully keep them from going nuts with an interesting mix of solid veterans and young players.

Now the bill on the defense is coming due, and the Falcons are entering a new and likely challenging era in cap management. Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett have already gotten new deals, with Keanu Neal, De’Vondre Campbell, Takkarist McKinley, Vic Beasley and others coming up in the next couple of years. To keep that group together and try to build on the incremental gains the Falcons have made on defense—and hopefully actually put together a great one as Matt Ryan reaches the twilit years of his career—they’ll need to get creative.

In a recent piece by Robert Mays at The Ringer, the veteran NFL writer breaks down what the Falcons are facing as they try to keep their title window propped open over the next few years. While Atlanta has long had a reputation as a canny organization when it comes to the cap, Mays makes it clear how easy it is to misstep a bit, as they may have done by signing both James Carpenter and Jamon Brown to deals they can’t wiggle out of in 2020.

As it stands, the Falcons are projected to have just $6.3 million in cap space in 2020, and that’s before the numbers for Deion Jones’s extension kick in. Looking at Atlanta’s roster and the structure of the team’s cap, there aren’t a ton of obvious ways that the Falcons can trim salary. The team’s largest positional logjam comes on the interior of the offensive line, which is ironic considering that might have been the roster’s weakest area entering the offseason. To address their needs at guard, the Falcons signed both Jamon Brown and James Carpenter to deals in March that included salary guarantees in the second year. About a month later, Atlanta used a first-round pick on Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom. So, with the team on a shoestring budget, Atlanta will likely have three starting guard salaries on their books in 2020, and releasing either veteran would save the Falcons next to nothing on next year’s cap.

At the same time, the Falcons can’t very well pivot away from locking up their defensive stars, now that they have them. A defense featuring the likes of Jarrett, McKinley, Jones, and Neal is a defense with a fighting chance, and Atlanta will have to supplement them with excellent rookies, affordable veterans, and the random lucky undrafted free agent signing. They won’t have the money to do anything else.

Mays goes on to detail where the the Falcons might be able to find money next year, and it’s all on offense. They could cut ties with Mohamed Sanu and/or Alex Mack, both of whom would be difficult to replace with options on the open market or in the draft, and look to Ryan’s huge contract for some relief. Whatever painful route they ultimately go, it’s obvious that the Falcons are going to have to look to the offense for ways to keep their rising defense around, assuming that defense keeps rising.