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How can the Falcons get under the salary cap?

With the salary cap for the 2021 NFL season now officially set at $182.5M, the Falcons are currently $14.2M over the cap. We take a closer look at two strategies Atlanta can take to get under the cap: focusing on the future, or trying to win now.

NFL: DEC 27 Falcons at Chiefs Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After months of negotiations and rumors, we finally know the salary cap number for the 2021 NFL season. The NFL announced that the cap would be $182.5M, slightly higher than the recently-negotiated floor of $180M but a little less than recent rumors suggested ($185M or possibly more). It’s still a significant drop from the 2020 salary cap ($198.2M) and, as you might expect, has put a lot of teams in cap trouble. Ten teams are currently over the cap, with the New Orleans Saints in the worst shape (-$47M).

The Falcons already made a few preemptive cuts, moving on from veteran safety Ricardo Allen, defensive lineman Allen Bailey, and guard James Carpenter. These cuts, combined with the $182.5M cap announcement, currently put the team at -$14.196M per Over The Cap. That’s a lot, especially considering Atlanta has just 39 players under contract.

The Falcons will have to find a way to not only get under the cap within seven days, but also to fill out their roster and sign their 2021 NFL Draft class this summer. Luckily, the team has a variety of options at their disposal and shouldn’t have much trouble making it work. Much depends on the strategy of new coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot, however.

Do Smith and Fontenot want to focus on the future and potentially rebuild with a young QB or 2022 or 2023? Or do the duo think this roster is better than projected, and they want to try and win now with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones?

Let’s take a closer look at these two strategies and how the Falcons can get under the cap in each of them.

Strategy A: Build for the future

Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot take a long, hard look at the roster and decide the best course of action is to rebuild and focus on the future. That means keeping their options open with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in 2022, and trying to have as much cap flexibility as possible in future seasons. However, they’ll still need enough space to fill out the roster and sign the draft class. In this scenario, the Falcons are likely to draft a QB at 4.

CUTS

EDGE Dante Fowler Jr. (Post-June 1st): $7.875M savings

DT Tyeler Davison: $2.236M savings

CB Isaiah Oliver: $2.183M savings

TOTAL SAVINGS: $12.294M

There are only a few players the Falcons can realistically cut to create meaningful cap savings. In the future-focused scenario, Atlanta elects to move on from free agent bust Dante Fowler Jr. with a post-June 1st cut designation. This means the team will not see the savings from Fowler’s cut until June 1st, but they will save an additional $4.667M over a traditional cut. This money should be able to cover the team’s draft class and will arrive right when they need it. There could also be additional free agents available after the draft who Atlanta may be interested in pursuing.

Tyeler Davison and Isaiah Oliver are two solid contributors, but the team desperately needs the money from their contracts. In what is likely to be an overloaded free agent market, Atlanta won’t have any trouble finding veteran minimum replacements.

RESTRUCTURES

DT Grady Jarrett: $6.75M savings

OT Jake Matthews: $8.666M savings

LB Deion Jones: $5.466M savings

TOTAL SAVINGS: $20.882M

The future-focused strategy seeks to keep Atlanta’s options with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones completely open in 2022 and beyond by refusing to restructure their contracts. Atlanta could still opt to restructure Ryan if they need a little more money for a big signing, but the team should make it as small as possible. Instead, the team opts to restructure several key veterans that are likely to stick around over the remainder of their contracts.

Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews, and Deion Jones are all logical restructure candidates. All are relatively young, cornerstone pieces of the team. These max restructures will send the cap hits for these players to extremely high levels in future years, but with the cap likely to begin skyrocketing in 2022 this is not as big of an issue as it seems.

TOTAL CAP SPACE: $19.262M

The Falcons will walk into free agency with approximately $11.387M in cap space. It’s not much, but it should be enough to fill out the roster with some cheap veterans and possibly a bigger addition on a backloaded or incentive-heavy contract. After June 1st, the team will receive an additional $7.875M in cap space from Fowler’s post-June 1st cut to sign the draft class and an additional free agent or two.

Remember, this strategy is focused on 2022 and having flexibility in future years. This iteration of the Falcons should still be better than 2020—it would be hard to finish worse than 4-12—but isn’t likely to be competing for a Super Bowl. However, the team would be heading into next year with nearly $45M in cap space (projected off a $203M salary cap) and could easily clear another $20-35M with trades or post-June 1st cuts of Ryan and Julio.

Strategy B: Maximize Ryan and Julio’s window

Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot have decided that the team is a lot better than the 4-12 record would suggest, and the duo think they can mold this team into a contender immediately. To do it, they’ll need as much cap space as they can find without losing key talent to cuts. In this scenario, the team is probably either trading down from 4th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft or taking a non-QB.

CUTS

DT Tyeler Davison: $2.236M savings

CB Isaiah Oliver: $2.183M savings

TOTAL SAVINGS: $4.419M

Since the Falcons are focused on winning now and in the next few years, they elect to stick with Dante Fowler and hope he can have more success in Dean Pees’ defense. It’s entirely possible they could convince him to take a pay cut to stick around and clear even more space, but it’s hard to predict what that would look like. I’d expect Pees to want a more traditional 3-4 NT than Davison, and the savings from Oliver’s cut are simply too good to pass up.

RESTRUCTURES

QB Matt Ryan: $15.333M savings

WR Julio Jones: $10.2M savings

DT Grady Jarrett: $6.75M savings

OT Jake Matthews: $8.666M savings

LB Deion Jones: $5.466M savings

TOTAL SAVINGS: $46.415M

With the team committed to Ryan and Julio over the next few years, Atlanta adds as much cap space as they can by doing max restructures on both of their contracts. This creates over $25M in savings for 2021, but it adds a ton of money to 2022. Don’t be surprised if the team elects to add void years to Ryan’s contract in this scenario to spread the prorated bonus out even further.

The team also restructures the contracts of three cornerstone players to maximize their space this season. It’s the same story as in Strategy A: Jarrett, Matthews, and Deion Jones are not likely to be leaving the team before the end of their contracts. They’re also all young and good, so it makes sense to commit to them in exchange for cap flexibility this year.

TOTAL CAP SPACE: $35.487M

The benefits of this strategy are clear: the Falcons have a lot more cap space to play around with, and they’d have it all available immediately. That $35M could allow the Falcons to bring in several impact free agents—like guard Joe Thuney, edge rusher Carl Lawson, and/or safety John Johnson—and would also give them plenty of space to sign the draft class. In a year where a ton of veterans are going to be hitting the market, Atlanta has an opportunity to stock up on mid-range players who will probably be forced to take less money than they deserve.

I hate it for the veterans, but the NFLPA backed themselves into this corner by agreeing to a lower salary cap. That means teams like Atlanta will get to take advantage of the abundance of talent and lower cap number, which will lead to a lot of veteran minimum deals for guys who deserve a lot more. The flip side, however, is that the team has very little flexibility in 2022: Ryan and Julio will be difficult to trade or cut over the remainder of their contracts, and Atlanta would be projected to have just $18.7M in space next season. They’ll be forced into this cycle of restructures and cuts again next year.

What are your thoughts on these two strategies for the Falcons? I think I’m currently leaning more towards Strategy A, but B could also make sense.