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Falcons can place franchise tag starting Tuesday

Can and will are, of course, two drastically different words.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Falcons are tight on cap space and have very few players worth giving extensions. So, of course, they can designate a franchise player starting on Tuesday. New general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith are looking up and down the roster, likely finding little to discuss considering the retracted salary cap space thanks to COVID-19.

This is not anything new for the Falcons. The team has historically paid (or overpaid) their core players before they hit free agency. Some players have been hit with the franchise tag, such as Grady Jarrett, only to sign a long-term extension within a matter of weeks. Others, like Brent Grimes, never saw that long-term deal from Atlanta after getting tagged.

More often than not, the tag goes unused. Will 2021 be any different?

For starters, the Falcons are somewhere between $10 million to $20 million over the projected cap. We can narrow that down once the cap is actually set. Suffice it to say, the Falcons can’t be big spenders without, for starters, reworking the deals Julio Jones and Matt Ryan received from the old regime.

Atlanta’s list of free agents is full of players who almost made it. The guys who could be great. Even the ones who never got it all together.

The two who should warrant some discussion are at two different spots in their career.

Alex Mack

Mack, the team’s Pro Bowl center since 2016, finishes out his contract injured during another losing season. He has earned the right to pick his next home at age 36 in the hopes of winning a Super Bowl. If the Falcons wanted some consistency for the offense, they would keep Alex Mack. Matt Ryan’s biggest problem has been dealing with pressure up the middle. The biggest problem for the Falcons is the projected tag for an offensive lineman is an immense $13.6 million.

The Falcons do have Matt Hennessy as a backup, however, he was hand-picked by the former regime and remains unproven. Falcons should not chance another Peter Konz situation at center.

Keanu Neal

Neal looked to be on the way up. Just like the Falcons. Then things didn’t look so well. Just like the Falcons. Then Neal finished out the season exceptionally strong. Unlike the Falcons.

On many other teams, Neal would be a sure-fire franchise candidate. He came back slow in 2021 after two injury-shortened seasons. We wondered if he was done. Robbed of his elite talent by multiple injuries. Instead, he finished out the year by flashing his top-five potential. Neal was returning to form with sticky coverage and those tone-setting tackles. Teams with cap space would absolutely give Neal another one-year rental on the chance to be a top defenders.

For the Falcons, Jaylinn Hawkins is waiting in the wings while some gymnastics would be required to pay Neal the project $10.5 million it would cost to retain him. Hawkins had some impressive plays in 2021 and Dan Pees may not be relying so much on a safety as much as Dan Quinn did.