In one week and several hours, the Falcons will join the rest of the NFL in welcoming a new league year. There is so much uncertainty for the team and the larger league with the new CBA still in the air, but the Falcons have their own self-inflicted cap crunch and big decisions to navigate.
To get you ready for what’s ahead, here’s a list of everything the Falcons must consider between now and next Wednesday afternoon, and what you need to know.
With the top 51 rule set to kick in shortly, the Falcons are estimated to have about $4.5 million in cap space. That’s not a lot of wiggle room, and it’s not even close to enough to sign anyone of consequence when free agency opens. It may be enough to get them started bringing back a handful of their own guys, as outlined below.
Complete list of free agents
We rounded up everyone back in December, but since then the Falcons have brought back Younghoe Koo and Ryan Allen, politely (kinda) declined to say they’ll re-sign Vic Beasley, Kemal Ishmael and Ra’Shede Hageman, and have decided to let Austin Hooper, De’Vondre Campbell and Wes Schweitzer hit the open market.
Unrestricted free agents
- QB Matt Simms
- RB/KR/PR Kenjon Barner
- FB Keith Smith
- WR Justin Hardy
- TE Austin Hooper
- OG Wes Schweitzer
- DE Steven Means
- DE Adrian Clayborn
- DT Jack Crawford
- DT Tyeler Davison
- LB De’Vondre Campbell
- LB/S Kemal Ishmael
- CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson
- S J.J. Wilcox
- S Johnathan Cyprien
- S Sharrod Neasman
- P Matt Bosher
Out of this group, only Bosher, Hooper, Ishmael, Simms and Campbell are strong bets not to return. Hooper and Campbell are going to be costly free agents who will only see their value increase in the open market, Ishmael is another guy the Falcons have indicated they don’t plan to re-sign (I didn’t even bother adding Hageman and Beasley to this list for that reason), and Simms and Bosher aren’t needed with the team stacking multiple options at their positions.
Everyone else at least has a shot to be back. I’d consider Clayborn, Davison, Wreh-Wilson, and Means to be the likeliest to be back. Add Wilcox to this list if he’s healthy.
Restricted free agents
- RB Brian Hill
- DT Mike Bennett
Both players could be back. Hill gives the Falcons a solid, well-rounded reserve and Bennett has shown flashes of real promise and would give the team solid depth along the defensive front, where they badly need it.
Exclusive rights free agent
- WR Brandon Powell
This is a minefield of tough decisions. Most of the players the Falcons could and probably need to cut in order to free up cap space are still useful players, and the space they’ll gain from cutting them is not hugely significant in 2020.
- TE Luke Stocker ($2.6 million)
- RB Devonta Freeman ($3.5 million)
- T Ty Sambrailo ($3.7 million)
- C Alex Mack ($8 million)
- DE Allen Bailey ($4.5 million)
- CB Desmond Trufant ($4.95 million)
A handful of these are no-brainers. Bailey unfortunately is coming off a lousy year, and as thin as the Falcons are along their defensive front, I’m not sure he’s that much of an upgrade over a healthy Steven Means or someone else the Falcons can get for half his cap charge. If Gono doesn’t win the left guard job outright he’s an obvious swing tackle candidate, freeing the Falcons up to cut ties with Sambrailo. As fond as I am of Freeman, who is still a useful player, the Falcons are talking openly about drafting another guy and can bring Hill back on the cheap for a deep stable of four backs.
Stocker, Trufant, and Mack are the much tougher calls. Stocker settled in after a brutal start as a receiving option to play pretty well last year, and the Falcons clearly plan to let Hooper walk. Trufant is still the team’s obvious #1 cornerback and the savings (nearly $5 million) do not overcome the dead money ($10 million) and the fact that it won’t be easy to replace him. Mack’s decline is here and real, but he’s still one of the best centers in the NFL and the Falcons don’t have an obvious replacement on hand if they did move on.
I would expect at least three of these guys to be gone soon.
Frankly, this one’s the trickiest thing to figure out, because there are so many moving pieces that...well, haven’t moved yet.
It’s fair to expect that Atlanta will have one big splash at most this season. They’ll likely target the defense with their dollars as part of an overhaul, including affordable pass rushers. We’d put the following players on the list of relatively affordable options.
- DE/DT Quinton Jefferson
- DE Benson Mayowa
- DE Emmanuel Ogbah
- DE Stephen Weatherly
- DE Markus Golden
- DE Mario Addison
Beyond that, your guess is largely as good as ours, though if cuts come in we’ll dive more deeply into potential free agency upgrades at those positions. For now, gird yourself for next week and discuss what you think the Falcons will do right here.