With a new coaching staff and front office in place, the Falcons are going to look and operate a lot differently in 2021. New head coach Arthur Smith is bringing in a new offense, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees will be shuffling around the defense in what should be an improved Atlanta team this season. Meanwhile, new GM Terry Fontenot brings a ton of pro personnel experience with him from the Saints and is likely to emphasize free agency much more than his predecessor, Thomas Dimitroff.
However, the Falcons will have a difficult offseason ahead of them. The salary cap for 2021 is still being negotiated, with projections ranging from $180M to $185M—or perhaps a little more. That won’t leave Atlanta with much breathing room, considering the team is likely to be anywhere from $20-30M over the cap to kick things off.
I already took a look at some veteran cuts and restructures the Falcons could do to free up nearly $40M in cap space. Those moves, combined with the nearly $6M in 2020 cap they should be able to “roll over”, should be enough to get the team under the cap and sign their draft class even in the lower cap scenarios. If the cap were to end up even higher—or perhaps even match 2020’s $198M number—the Falcons would be in great shape to make a few keep moves.
To prepare everyone for 2021 free agency, I’ll be doing a series of episodes breaking down potential free agency targets. You can check out the previous episodes here:
Today, I’m continuing my look at defensive free agent targets with EDGE. The team has just two players under contract heading into 2021: Dante Fowler Jr. and Allen Bailey. Bailey is one of the most likely cap casualties on the roster, and Fowler is an incredibly expensive disappointment from 2020. Both could be gone before the start of the league year, which means Atlanta has a lot of work to do to fill out the EDGE rotation.
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2020 team: Ravens
2020 stats: 50 total tackles, 7.4% missed tackle rate, 9.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks, 32 pressures, 59.4 overall PFF grade
2021 OTC valuation: $5M/yr
One of the top EDGE players hitting free agency, Matt Judon is an interesting case because he’s coming off somewhat of a down year. Judon missed two games due to injury and had his lowest sack total since his rookie season as a result, although he still had a healthy number of pressures. His PFF grade for 2020 was also just below average. That has led to a wild swing in his valuation, as OTC has him at just $5M/yr whereas Spotrac lists him at more than $15M/yr.
Judon is likely to sign for something in between those two numbers, and his connection with Dean Pees—he was in Baltimore with Pees for two seasons, 2016 and 2017—could give the Falcons a leg up. Judon isn’t an elite pass rusher, but he’s very consistent and also makes plenty of plays against the run. If Dean Pees is looking for a familiar face to start building around at EDGE, Judon could be a logical choice.
2020 team: Bengals
2020 stats: 36 total tackles, 5.3% missed tackle rate, 4.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 44 pressures, 2 FF, 76.3 overall PFF grade
2020 OTC valuation: $11.6M/yr
One of the favorite names for Falcons fans this offseason, Carl Lawson had a sneaky-good season for the Bengals despite a relatively pedestrian sack total in 2020. The sacks don’t tell the whole story, however, as Lawson also put up 44 pressures—including 32 QB hits. It’s important to note that Lawson was languishing on one of the NFL’s worst teams, so it’s possible his lack of sack production could improve with better surrounding talent.
Lawson has never been a high-end sack producer and his 44-pressure 2020 is certainly an outlier for him. That being said, he’s been steadily improving over the last few seasons and graded out as a very good 76.3 this year according to PFF. Lawson shouldn’t be outlandishly expensive—OTC’s $11M/yr valuation seems pretty close—and he’ll be just 26 going into 2021. He’s a little bit of a gamble, but I think Lawson could be a long-term EDGE2 to pair with a future high draft pick.
2020 team: Colts
2020 stats: 25 total tackles, 7.4% missed tackle rate, 8.0 TFL, 8.0 sacks, 25 total pressures, 1 FF, 63.5 overall PFF grade
2020 OTC valuation: $5.1M/yr
Regardless of whether or not the Falcons keep Dante Fowler Jr., the team could benefit from a veteran presence on the defensive line. Fans have been trying to get former Georgia great Justin Houston to Atlanta for years now, and 2021 could provide a chance to make that happen. Houston will be 32 heading into next season and isn’t quite the game changer he once was, but he’s still plenty capable of playing a pass-rushing specialist role and putting up EDGE2 numbers.
Houston still had 8 sacks and 25 pressures in 2020, and is plenty capable of making plays against the run with 8.0 TFL. He could be a perfect mentor for a young EDGE group, and his price tag should be fairly reasonable due to his age and the fact that he’s come off somewhat of a down year. Houston may want to go to a contender—or simply return to Indianapolis—but if he’s looking for a change of scenery, the Falcons could be a good fit.
2020 team: Giants/Cardinals
2020 stats: 33 total tackles, 8.3% missed tackle rate, 6.0 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 30 pressures, 1 FF, 59.9 overall PFF grade
2020 OTC valuation: $6M/yr
If the Falcons are looking to add some nasty to their EDGE rotation, former Cardinals and Giants pass rusher Markus Golden could be an ideal candidate. Golden had an impressive 10-sack season in 2019 with New York, but struggled a bit to open 2020 and wound up traded back to the Cardinals midway through the season. He’s a physical edge rusher who wins with power and strength instead of athleticism, where he’s mostly average.
Golden has a bit of a “hot and cold” tendency, as he can be dominant in some years (12.5 sacks in 2016, 10 sacks in 2019) and forgettable in others (4 sacks in 2015, 2.5 sacks in 2018). However, despite his rather mediocre sack numbers this year, he still compiled an impressive 30 pressures. Golden will be 30 in 2021 and is a bit of a gamble, but for an estimated $6M/yr valuation, he could be a risk worth taking for a Falcons team utterly bereft of pass rushers.
Some potential depth names to keep an eye on would be other former Ravens players Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee. Both worked with Dean Pees in the past. Several Falcons free agents—Steven Means and Charles Harris—could also return to the team on cheap deals. Another free agent, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, is almost certainly returning to Atlanta on a veteran minimum deal as an ERFA.
I hope you enjoyed the sixth episode in our 2021 Falcons Free Agency series! Please leave your comments below and let me know what other types of breakdowns you’d like to see. If you haven’t already, be sure to Like the video and Subscribe to our YouTube channel!