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Altanta’s free agency plan figures to be long on time and short on dollars

The Falcons are going to take time and largely be frugal in free agency, and that’s enough to drive any fan nuts.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If someone came to you with $10 in art supplies and offered to paint you a picture, you would not know from the money they spent or the supplies on hand how that picture would turn out. It might be a stunning work of art that moves you to tears on first sight, or it might be an abomination that makes you weep for the wasted $10 in oil paints. Given that it’s $10 in paints and you’re not familiar with the artist, your expectations are probably not sky high.

You won’t believe this, but I’m about to tie this in to Falcons free agency.

That’s because we are in a similar spot with Atlanta, where Terry Fontenot has the equivalent of less than $10 in paint, a decent brush he found on the side of the road, and a sheet of scuffed poster paper and is trying to create a masterpiece. Thus far all we have is a vague outline of a team—if I squint really hard, I see a blocking tight end!—and the knowledge that the canvas will be filled when he’s done and he will complete the work at some point. Beyond that, our expectations are clouded by our own perception of Fontenot, the roster-building artist, and the quality of what he’s working with, given that we know how affordable it has to be.

This is Falcons free agency in a nutshell. Terry Fontenot and the front office have been less sanguine about the team’s cap situation than Arthur Blank and Rich McKay, who tended to characterize the problem as more of a cap heck than a cap hell. Between Jeff Schultz’s report that Terry Fontenot felt boxed in to restructuring Matt Ryan’s deal and the simple fact that this team doesn’t have a lot of cap room to work with, it was not at all surprising that the top free agents out there went early and expensively without a peep from Atlanta. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t disappointing—I was particularly bitter over Tyus Bowser taking a relatively affordable deal to remain in Baltimore before free agency opened—but this front office has been pretty open about the need to shop affordably this offseason.

That will impact timelines, too. Atlanta’s going to sniff around free agents like Brandon Copeland right now, but unless they shake the money tree a little harder with extensions or restructures for Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett, they’re not going to be after big names right now. They’ll wait and hope a cool market helps drive prices down and then pounce, and if that doesn’t work out they’ll get players like Copeland who have a track record of playing solid ball on a budget. Again, I don’t really believe they’ll be quiet during free agency—there are simply too many holes on this roster under a general manager who believes in filling needs in free agency—but the speed and dollars spent are going to be more in line with cap-strapped teams like the Eagles and Saints, or if you’re in the mood for a more favorable comparison, with noted every year bargain shoppers like the Colts.

There may well be surprises in store, but the pace, the money available, and the move for Lee Smith suggest that Atlanta’s betting a lot on their stars and their coaching staff’s ability heading into 2021. The acquisition of Smith cost a 7th round pick in 2022—you could really not pick a less inspiring first set of acquisitions than a punter and a blocking tight end—but Fontenot and Smith clearly identified him as the very best blocking tight end they could reasonably get and made it happen, something you do if improved blocking is going to be absolutely critical to dragging your offense to bigger and better things. A focus on the trenches and paving the way for a better offense via better blocking is the sort of philosophy we’ve begged the Falcons to follow for a decade, and while they largely won’t be able to add elite talent through free agency to accomplish that, it’s my bet for the team’s focus over the next month.

There’s no guarantee you’ll consider what this front office does during the 2021 offseason art, or that it’ll make any of us remotely happy. I know that for me, starting things off with a trade for a blocking tight end (even though he’s a good one!) and a big bag of nothing else is a frustrating start to a new regime, and the restructure of Matt Ryan’s deal and the team’s lack of concrete links even to budget free agent options is understandably making us all anxious. But the idea that Atlanta, which has pried open cap space via Ryan, Dante Fowler, and Tyeler Davisons’ deals, is going to entirely sit free agency out after vowing to try to contend this year still seems ridiculous to me.

I’m not going to end this piece with an uplifting message of hope that everything will be great in the end, because the unknowns with this new front office and coaching staff still greatly outweigh our knowledge of them, and I know I’m feeling that anxiety pretty acutely myself right now. We just owe it to ourselves and our already sky-high stress levels not to panic and knock over the canvas before we see what kind of picture this new front office is going to paint us.