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Why the Falcons are built to contend in 2020 and more or less have to

Next year’s cap crunch and a confluence of other factors make 2020 a particularly critical season for Atlanta.

NFL: SEP 06 Falcons at Eagles Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Falcons have been re-tooling, however slowly and steadily, over the last couple of seasons. They’ll get to move forward with players like A.J. Terrell, Chris Lindstrom, and Marlon Davidson, players who could be part of the next great Falcons squad and potentially franchise greats we’re crowing about in 2030. That will need to continue if Atlanta’s not going to crater in the final years of Matt Ryan’s career, to say nothing of what’s going to come after.

While that’s a positive, though, there’s a reality we need to acknowledge that’s uncomfortable, especially if you’re like me and skeptical that this will be an elite football team this year. That reality is that 2020 is probably the best opportunity for the Falcons to make a deep run in the immediate future, due to circumstances both well within their control and well outside of it.

This team is built to win now

Set aside the super young cornerback group for a moment and the youngish offensive line for a moment. This is a team with a great veteran quarterback, one of the best receivers in football, one of the best backs on a one year deal, and high-priced veterans dotting both lines and the defense. This is a team that the Falcons themselves would tell you (and have told you) should be a contender.

Coming into this year, it was obvious it’d be a critical season for Atlanta, because Arthur Blank kept Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn, the Falcons were going to head into next year already a bit short on cap space, and Matt Ryan and Julio Jones aren’t getting any younger. With all those factors, the Falcons were always going to be under a lot of pressure to win.

But as I mentioned above, they also should be a contender based on the talent on this team. For all the roster’s question marks, it’s loaded with talent, including a literal boatload of former first round picks, and playing in a division where one team is re-tooling and two others are relying on ancient quarterbacks to carry them to the playoffs. This is the year.

Next year is going to hit Atlanta hard

No NFL team is going to be immune to the impacts of a potentially significant reduction in cap space. It’s just that the Falcons are already so deep in the hole that there’s almost no way they can avoid cutting ties with useful players, potentially capping their upside in 2021 significantly.

Right now, the Falcons look like they’ll be $20 million or so over the reduced 2021 salary cap, which per the AJC is coming in at about $175 million. This comes after an offseason where they moved on from Desmond Trufant, Austin Hooper, De’Vondre Campbell, and Devonta Freeman, not to mention the immortal Wes Schweitzer, which means there’s already been an exodus of veteran talent from this squad. Another offseason of squeezing the juice out of a recently-pulped roster is going to mean the Falcons are going to struggle unless they absolutely nail another draft, get almost all of our their young players contributing at a high level, and coach at a level we simply haven’t seen from them to this point. That seems...unlikely.

For all those reasons, the cancellation of the 2020 NFL season should be a uniquely terrifying proposition for Atlanta. They simply have to contend in 2020, because circumstances will make that job much tougher in 2021 and beyond.