We’ve got a little time to kill between now and the next Falcons game, and thank goodness for that. My eyes can only take so many shutouts and blowouts, so it’s a chance to take a breather that we probably all need after the past two weeks.
Especially with the offense struggling so mightily, I thought this might be a worthwhile time to look at who is actually under contract for Atlanta next year and see a few things:
- Do the Falcons have the makings of a capable foundation for their offense in 2022, or will this be somewhat of a teardown?
- Are there players who are under contract who might not return, either as starters or to the roster more generally?
- What position should we list Feleipe Franks at?
Let’s take a closer look at the contract picture on offense in Atlanta and their expected cap hits. All information listed here comes to us via Spotrac.
QB Matt Ryan - $48.66 million
QB Feleipe Franks - $830,000
Ryan won’t have his current contract next year, one way or the other, but my working assumption is still that this team is going to extend him. Franks will have a crack at the backup job but seems more likely to be the third quarterback/fourth tight end/whatever else Arthur Smith can cook up for him.
RB Mike Davis - $3.25 million
FB Keith Smith - $1.66 million
This isn’t tenable, obviously. The Falcons will likely re-sign Qadree Ollison or Caleb Huntley if they like their ability to provide depth, and I think ideally they’d probably bring back Cordarrelle Patterson. A young back who fits the mold Arthur Smith prefers in terms of power and durability seems like a virtual lock as an addition in the draft, but I think they’ll probably share a backfield with Davis. There’s no guarantee that Davis will be back at that number, though.
Smith is a good fullback with special teams value and some utility as a runner and pass catcher, so unless the Falcons feel they’re really crunched for cap space, I’d expect him to stick around.
WR Calvin Ridley - $11.1 million
WR Frank Darby - $876,000
Atlanta is just starting to take a look at Darby, their sixth round pick in 2021, but there should be a little more urgency behind that given that the cupboard is going to be bare at this position heading into the offseason. We don’t know when Ridley will be back and what’s going to happen with his future in Atlanta, so right now at least the team literally just has Darby under contract.
Olamide Zaccheaus is a restricted free agent, and his solid work on special teams and as a receiver this year will likely make him a priority re-signing. I’m less certain about Russell Gage, a player I like who has not thrived this year both with and without Ridley on the field, and one who figures to be more expensive. I’m even less certain about Christian Blake, who always manages to hang on to a roster spot but is clearly behind even Frank Darby at the moment on the pecking order.
Receiver is a major priority for this Falcons team, regardless, as they need more players who offer physicality and yards after the catch ability than they have today.
TE Kyle Pitts - $7.48 million
You can probably bring back Parker Hesse and/or Lee Smith affordably, assuming Smith doesn’t decide to hang it up after this year as he reportedly was contemplating at one point in 2021. Hesse is actually an exclusive rights free agent and Arthur Smith appears to like him, so go ahead and pencil him in here. Jaeden Graham is a restricted free agent and Hayden Hurst is an unrestricted one, but no matter how you shake the snow globe here, things are unsettled.
The good thing for Atlanta is that they have Pitts, who is enjoying a quality rookie season despite the outsized attention he’s receiving from opposing defenses and should only get better with time. Building the depth chart after him using draft picks and affordable signings should be perfectly tenable for 2022.
LT Jake Matthews - $26.9 million
RT Kaleb McGary - $3.27 million
The Falcons have their bookends under contract for one more year, though after that they’re going to need to make a decision on McGary, who has had an up-and-down career in Atlanta. Matt Gono could be back on an affordable deal after missing (presumably) most of the 2021 season—I would like that—but unless the Falcons are planning to move on from McGary in 2021 I wouldn’t expect any addition more significant than a swing tackle.
LG Jalen Mayfield - $1.18 million
RG Chris Lindstrom - $4.67 million
G/C Drew Dalman - $1.02 million
Dalman, if he sticks in his current role as a reserve, effectively backs up multiple spots on the interior and has real value in that role. Mayfield, if the team looks back at his 2021 and thinks he’s a long-term fit, would be the presumptive starter at left guard again in 2022. Lindstrom is terrific at right guard and is likely headed for a major extension in the near future.
Given that the Falcons claimed Colby Gossett after cuts and he has ties to offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford, he seems like a decent bet to return, especially because he’s a restricted free agent after 2021.
C Matt Hennessy - $1.29 million
Like Mayfield, Hennessy will need this regime to decide he’s done enough to stick in the starting role at the end of 2021, with Dalman looming as a logical candidate to push him in 2022 if not.
As currently constructed, the Falcons have all five offensive line starters and their quarterback returning, as well as a platoon running back, fullback, a starting receiver and their extremely promising young tight end. That’s not a bad list on paper, but obviously those pieces have added up to uneven results this year, and scratching in the dirt a little bit reveals further question marks.
The green-hued elephant in the room is Matt Ryan’s contract. The Falcons simply can’t carry that massive cap hit next year and be even vaguely competitive, given the limited dollars they’ll have on hand, so they’ll either need to trade Ryan and pick up $20 million or so or extend him. My bet’s on the latter outcome, but it is something that needs to be addressed, and it certainly doesn’t look like Josh Rosen is going to be his long-term backup.
Moving beyond the contract, which will be addressed one way or the other, the Falcons have a dearth of playmakers actually under contract next year. If Ridley is back in the fold, he and Pitts give the Falcons a very good start, but that’s effectively it for this offense unless Frank Darby turns out to be terrific out of nowhere. Atlanta will need to pour money and draft capital into re-stocking the cupboard here even if they do bring back guys like Cordarrelle Patterson, Olamide Zaccheaus and Hayden Hurst, which is not a given. I’d expect a wide receiver early, as well as a running back in the middle of the draft to split time with Mike Davis and either Qadree Ollison or Caleb Huntley.
Moving beyond the skill positions, there’s the offensive line. Atlanta has one versatile young lineman who can serve as a reserve under contract, as well as all five current starters. That’s not a bad spot to be in at all if the Falcons think this up-and-down year is going to give them five battle-tested starters they’re happy to roll out in the same configuration a year from now. If that’s not the case, you’re going to need to use resources to replace one or more of Mayfield, Hennessy and McGary, who have all struggled mightily at times in 2021.
In short: The Falcons will need to effectively rebuild their offensive depth through re-signings, draft picks and free agency, and they’ll need to come out of the offseason with a starting-caliber receiver and running back, plus potentially at least one new starter along the offensive line. The state of the offense in 2021 makes it clear that a bit of a fresh start may not be the worst thing in the world, but the number of issues that need to be addressed here create a degree of difficulty for a team that was supposed to count offense among its strengths this year.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the defense.