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Falcons have the fewest players under contract heading into 2021

Alongside a very tight salary cap situation and an aging roster, the Falcons have another problem on their hands: they currently have just 31 players under contract for 2021, the fewest in the NFL.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

You’ve probably heard this already, but the Falcons are in a difficult position heading into the 2021 offseason. The team is in the midst of a search for both a new head coach and general manager for the first time since 2008. In terms of the salary cap, it could be a total nightmare if the NFL drops the cap down to $175M (unlikely) or just a pretty-tight-but-workable situation if the cap stays flat at $198M (probable). The good news is the team has the 4th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and should be in line for 3 compensatory picks (two 5th rounders and a 6th rounder)—which would put them at 10 in total.

If you haven’t checked it out yet, I recently did my first piece in a series about how the Falcons can navigate a dicey cap situation in 2021. Another aspect of their difficult cap situation, however, is that the team still needs to sign a bunch of players to get to a full roster of 53. By a bunch, I mean 22, because Atlanta has just 31 players under contract heading into 2021—which is the fewest in the NFL.

There are a few things to note about these numbers, however. First of all, the Falcons did recently sign 11 former practice squad players to reserve/future contracts. These contracts don’t technically take effect until the new league year starts, but that gets them halfway to the number they need. Second, with 10 draft picks coming, Atlanta also has a path to a significant infusion of cheap young talent. Obviously, filling out a roster with 11 practice squad players and 10 rookies is not the most ideal situation—but it would at least get them right up to the minimum they’d need to play.

Here are the current players under contract in 2021, along with the players the team recently signed to reserve/future contracts.

Falcons players under contract in 2021 (31)

QB Matt Ryan

RB Ito Smith
RB Qadree Ollison
FB Keith Smith

TE Hayden Hurst

WR Julio Jones
WR Calvin Ridley
WR Russell Gage
WR Olamide Zaccheaus

LT Jake Matthews
LG James Carpenter
C Matt Hennessy
RG Chris Lindstrom
RT Kaleb McGary

EDGE Dante Fowler Jr.
EDGE Allen Bailey
EDGE John Cominsky

DT Grady Jarrett
DT Tyeler Davison
DT Marlon Davidson
DT Deadrin Senat

LB Deion Jones
LB Mykal Walker
LB Foyesade Oluokun

CB A.J. Terrell
CB Isaiah Oliver
CB Kendall Sheffield

S Ricardo Allen
S Jaylinn Hawkins

LS Josh Harris
P Sterling Hofrichter

There are some notable players here to build around. The offense, outside of RB, remains almost entirely intact. On the OL, Matt Hennessy will be expected to step in for Alex Mack, but James Carpenter could easily find himself cut due to the aforementioned salary cap issues. K Younghoe Koo is an ERFA, or Exclusive Rights Free Agent, which means he has to stay with Atlanta for the veteran minimum unless the team declines re-sign him.

On defense, things are more questionable. DT and LB are in good shape, but EDGE could be a wasteland with Dante Fowler and Allen Bailey both potential cap casualties (Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, a bright spot, is likely to return as an ERFA). CB is also in need of help, with Terrell the only player you’d legitimately want to start on a weekly basis. At safety, Ricardo Allen is perhaps the most likely cap casualty of all after a down year, and Keanu Neal is a free agent.

Reserve/Future Contracts (11)

CB Delrick Abrams
OL Willie Beavers
QB Kurt Benkert
RB Tony Brooks-James
WR Greg Dortch
K Elliott Fry
DB T.J. Green
WR Chris Rowland
DT Chris Slayton
DB Chris Williamson
OL Willie Wright

If you recognize these names, it’s because they’re the majority of the practice squad Atlanta had going into the final week of the season. Some of these guys should be strong candidates to challenge for the roster, like WR Chris Rowland, QB Kurt Benkert, and RB Tony Brooks-James. The rest are probably camp competitors with some upside, like DT Chris Slayton, OL Willie Beavers, and WR Greg Dortch.

Heading into 2021, much depends on what the NFL decides to do with the salary cap. If it does remain relatively flat and the team makes some savvy moves, the Falcons could have the flexibility to re-sign some cheap veterans (CBs Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Darqueze Dennard, EDGEs Steven Means and Charles Harris, S Damontae Kazee) and perhaps a starter like Keanu Neal.

Either way, Atlanta will be asking a lot from their new GM and head coach to field an improved team this season. Let’s hope the new staff is up to the challenge.