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Falcons must decide Dante Fowler’s future by March 21st

Fowler and others may be on the hot seat with Atlanta’s egregiously bad cap situation.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The final years of the Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff regime were full of moves fans wish they could get back. Hiring Dirk Koetter. Whatever that was they tried to do to fix the offensive line. Not firing Dirk Koetter. Whatever that was they tried to do to fix the defensive line. Todd Gurley.

The most regrettable of those decisions, perhaps outside of not trading Vic Beasley or rescinding Vic Beasley’s fifth-year option, may be the Dante Fowler deal. Maybe not trading Takkarist McKinley. Or signing every free agency guard the team signed in the last decade. The more you dive into these issues the more you understand why those decision makers were fired.

But back to Fowler. In 2020, the Falcons were shockingly short on cap space with several contracts ballooning in upcoming years. The smart assumption was the Falcons would sit back in free agency to not hamstring the team in future years. We know what they say about assumptions, particularly when you have a regime in place desperate to kickstart some wins.

Fowler, coming off a 3.0 sack season, has a cap hit that balloons from $6.7 million in 2020 to over $18.5 million in 2021. Fowler dealt with COVID, injury, and a few different defensive coordinators, so there is a chance he could return to form in 2021. Yet, Fowler never looked like an elite or even average talent short of only a very, very limited number of snaps. It made Beasley look like an impact player in comparison.

Now the new staff has no allegiance to Fowler. Terry Fontenot did not draft him and did not sign him. Arthur Smith has no connection to Fowler. They can look, and have to look, purely at his performance and determine if his contract is worth keeping, with an eye on determining whether the Fowler of 2019 is realer than the Fowler of 2020. If they decide he is not, they can cut him and designate him as a post-June 1st cut and free up $7.875 million in cap space.

That is a massive sum for a team with so few places to find cap space. Seriously, we have looked. The Falcons can restructure or extend four players, being Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett, and Deion Jones. Tyeler Davison is one player the Falcons could cut, restructure, or extend. The last player is Fowler. The remainder are on their rookie deals.

That’s it.

Fowler’s potential cap savings could cover the entire rookie class and provide some emergency funds for in-season injuries. The new staff would almost certainly trade 8 to 10 of their own players for Fowler.

The problem is they have a deadline. Dimitroff sometimes offset the date where base salaries guaranteed to a few days after the start of the league year. Deion Jones, a potential but extremely unlikely cut, has his $8.2 million base salary guarantee on the fifth day of the league year. The Falcons could find $8.68 by moving on from Jones as a post-June 1st cut that splits his cap hit across 2021 and 2022, however, he has been, at times, a Pro Bowl talent. This extended deadline gives the team a chance to look at other options in free agency. If they like a replacement, they can cut that veteran and enjoy the cap savings.

Fowler has the same deadline. Instead of waiting until preseason to decide if they want or don’t want Fowler, Fontenot and Smith need to decide on Fowler’s future with the team by March 21st at 4pm EST. They have to make that decision in the next few days or stick with Fowler for another year.

If Fowler repeats his 2020, the Falcons could do the same or better for far less. However, Fowler should be free from COVID, may be healthy, and should have a better chance at playing more 3-4 alignments under Dan Pees.

Ultimately, Fowler could be worth the risk. He was a top draft pick with double-digit sacks in 2019. Pees could believe he could get more out of Fowler than Quinn. We will know what they think about Fowler by Sunday.