Throughout the tumultuous Falcons offseason, analysts here and otherwise kept pointing to a Grady Jarrett extension as one of the most logical moves the team could make to clear cap space. It turns out that the blockbuster move the team was locked in on was the Julio Jones trade, and they would otherwise clear room through cuts, restructures and the like. That left them with enough money to pilot a modest free agent period and eventually sign their draft picks, but not enough to have significant financial flexibility for unexpected events.
Once we learned that Julio wanted out and the team was hellbent on accommodating that, the big push from the fanbase for a Jarrett extension died down a bit. Post-trade, it disappeared entirely, but we’re undeniably at a point where the Falcons are once again operating with little financial flexibility and some obvious, identifiable needs on the roster.
That leaves the Falcons with a decision still to make. Do they scrape through the rest of this summer with 1-2 cheap additions and perhaps a few modest cuts to free up space, or do they consider extending Jarrett now to make a run at free agents who could actually help them win in 2021? I’m betting on the extension coming in 2022, personally.
Let’s back off the timeline for a moment to say this: There are many, many reasons to get an extension done. He’s Atlanta’s sole elite defender—Deion Jones has stretches and I’ll keep the lantern burning for A.J. Terrell, but that’s it at the moment—and Dean Pees has already made it clear that Jarrett will fit his defense perfectly. Jarrett’s cap hits this year and next are north of $20 million each, and significantly reducing that number is one of only on a handful of big, logical moves the Falcons can make to clear significant space in 2022, the other that springs readily to mind being a long-term deal for Calvin Ridley to replace his 5th year option.
If the Falcons could get a deal done in the next month or two—and to be clear, there’s no evidence they’ve approached Jarrett’s camp about this—the opportunities are obvious. They could acquire someone like Justin Houston to immediately upgrade the pass rush, sign Brian Poole to give them a proven high-end nickel cornerback or just add depth and talent at multiple spots where it’s sorely needed. A move like that would indicate the Falcons want to try to really contend in a shaky NFC South (minus the Bucs, but even they may face more injuries this year) and would be willing to spend to that end. It would make this season more watchable and likely more successful to go that route.
The argument against doing so at the moment is this: A restructure now would be difficult to achieve given the lack of momentum to this point, and any real savings the Falcons realize this year would mean lesser savings in 2022 and 2023, given the need to deliver a massive deal to Jarrett and his representation. The team has not come out and said they don’t plan to contend in 2021—I earnestly believe they think they can at least make a playoff push—but they have been clear that they won’t make moves they believe will hurt their chances at future success. If they don’t think they can move the needle significantly on the team they’ve built, whether internally they believe that’s a 6 win team or a 9 win team, they’ll likely wait until 2022 to maximize their savings for offseasons where they can stretch their free agent dollars a bit further.
What shouldn’t happen—what can’t happen—is the team electing to let Jarrett walk without a laundry list of good players to replace him. I recognize that he’s getting closer to 30. but the history of the Falcons replacing great defenders with players anywhere near that talent level is the kind of thing you could make a horror movie out of. My working expectation is that this isn’t a real concern so long as Jarrett once again delivers a strong year, but it is a third path the Falcons could consider taking. I just have a hard time envisioning them doing so.
My sense is that we won’t see it until the coming offseason, because Terry Fontenot has repeatedly made it clear this team isn’t going to sacrifice future success on the altar of squeezing an extra win or two out of 2021. The only huge surprise here would be if the given that they need him and they need the cap flexibility an extension could help to provide.