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Why didn’t the Falcons pick up Takk McKinley’s 5th year option?

Worried about his health and perhaps the specter of the last 5th year option they picked up, the Falcons will make McKinley play for his next big contract.

NFL: DEC 30 Falcons at Buccaneers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yesterday, Takk McKinley announced that the Falcons would not be picking up his 5th year option. Predictably, that kicked off a spirited debate about whether that was the right move or not.

It’s fair to say that Takk has been one of the team’s most polarizing players ever since he was drafted in 2017, something that owes a lot to what he likes on Twitter and a lot to his lack of sacks, a topic Aaron Freeman addressed thoughtfully on his podcast today. The perception that Takk doesn’t want to be in Atlanta and those 3.5 sacks last year have combined to make many think the Falcons made the right move declining the option.

Why did the team make the move? It’s apparent it’s been a consideration for a long time now, given that Dan Quinn said way back in February that the team wasn’t doing it before he realized he had contradicted Thomas Dimitroff and walked it back. They gave us a stated rationale yesterday, too.

The Falcons have felt a bit of a cap pinch each of the past two offseasons, which led to a quiet 2019 and a 2020 that saw multiple contributors walk and contracts re-structured before Atlanta could make some noise. There’s certainly an element of truth to their statement, then, and their unwillingness to bet on Takk stems from a variety of legitimate factors. Let’s look at why declining the option both did and did not make sense.

Why it made sense

Vic Beasley is the first name that comes to mind here, and for good reason. While Beasley finished the year with a respectable number of sacks and pressures, he finished behind McKinley in pressure numbers per Pro Football Reference (which combines sacks, hurries, and knockdowns) and just ahead of him per Sports Info Solutions charting, as laid out below.

Let’s preface this by saying that neither one put up truly impressive totals, but it’s obviously not a great look that Takk basically ginned up as much pressure as Beasley despite being injured, missing games, and rushing the passer on fewer snaps. The Falcons look at what Beasley did last year and the inconsistency he showed, especially in the first half of the season, and do not want to face the fanbase-enraging and flexibility-reducing impact of having a middling pass rusher carrying a big cap hit again. That’s probably reason number one.

Reason number two must concern injury. Takk has only missed three games over the past three seasons, but he’s dealt with injuries more or less constantly throughout that span, which has had an impact on his ability to contribute at times. If the Falcons lock themselves into a 5th year option—one that’s no longer guaranteed just for injury—and McKinley is limited or misses time, that’s a $10-plus million investment the team isn’t getting much out of.

There may well be reasons beyond that that we’re not fully aware of. Takk has not been the kind of elite performer that would make this a no-brainer option, of course, and we don’t know if there are dynamics between McKinley and the coaching staff that would complicate the picture further. Former Falcon Chuck Smith tweeted and then deleted something about “under-coached” pass rushers not getting their fifth year options picked up, which hints at something, but I wouldn’t care to push further than that without knowing more. Ultimately, it’s more about financial flexibility, the specter of options past, and McKinley’s health.

Why it didn’t make sense

This is probably damning with faint praise, but McKinley has consistently been one of the team’s best pass rushers during his time in Atlanta. That’s not true in terms of sacks—though he had 7 in 2018—but in terms of things like pressures, actually hitting the quarterback, and winning his matchups to get into the backfield. McKinley’s production is tragically reminiscent of Jonathan Babineaux, a player who impacted a lot of plays but rarely got the credit he was due because he didn’t pile up sacks.

The consistent pressure and ability to win with McKinley means his actual sack production has the potential to increase dramatically. If he’s healthy in 2019 and the Falcons defense is improved around him, as I’m cautiously optimistic it will be, he could hit double digit sacks this year without significantly changing his game. If he does, chances are that fifth year option is going to be a more cost-effective solution for 2021 than the eventual contract McKinley gets, or he’ll simply be priced out of the team’s preferred spending range.

Takk’s solid all-around play makes him a useful defender for a Falcons team that has been quietly bleeding defensive line talent the last couple of seasons, and losing him would put the Falcons in a spot where they once again either have to pony up for a defensive lineman or invest an early pick in his replacement, something they obviously have a spotty track record doing at defensive end. That uncertainty is probably worth hedging against, even if Takk doesn’t have the kind of sack total that has fans applauding the option.

At the end of the day, not picking up Takk’s option gives the team some flexibility heading into 2021 that they otherwise wouldn’t have had. If Takk does have a bounceback year and put up enticing sack totals, though, there’s a solid chance the Falcons won’t save much money if they do re-sign him, or that they’ll be drafting his replacement early in the 2021 NFL Draft. Time, as it always does, will tell.