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Why injuries are the Falcons’ greatest threat in 2021

As a new season kicks off, we’ll find out just how much depth the Falcons have

NFL: AUG 29 Preseason - Browns at Falcons Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the absolute best part of sports – all sports – is hope. The hope that any given year could be the year. Hey, there’s a dark horse team or two every year, why can’t it be us this year? You know, that kind of hope.

With the start of the Atlanta Falcons’ 2021 season less than a week away, I’ve slowly noticed optimism creeping back into the hearts of fans. And who can blame them, right? Kyle Pitts could be awesome! A.J. Terrell looks poised for a sophomore leap. Matt Ryan and Arthur Smith could be a perfect match.

All of that could very well be true, and the Falcons could still have a lackluster season.

The purpose of this piece isn’t to trample any of the enthusiasm surrounding the team—maybe this year is one of those years—but more to interject a little bit of objectivity and sobriety into the construction of this roster. There’s no need to rehash the oft-discussed financial limitations surrounding the Falcons, but they are crucial to the matter at hand.

Atlanta has several starters who should be well known to the wider football audience. Grady Jarrett, Calvin Ridley, Deion Jones, Pitts, Terrell and Jake Matthews are quality players who highlight the starting lineup for the Falcons. Here are some of the second-string players on the team’s first regular season depth chart: Jason Spriggs, Colby Gossett, Brandon Copeland, Dorian Etheridge and T.J. Green.

There likely aren’t too many people familiar with that second group of names.

And therein lies the problem for Atlanta. It’s not a matter of if but when those players will be called upon to see significant action, and that’s when the Falcons will truly be tested this year. Championship teams are often as deep as they are talented, because depth is often critical to regular-season and post-season success.

The Falcons enter the 2021 season with an average cap hit of $4.28 million for their starting lineup, according to Spotrac.com. That’s actually about smack dab in the middle of the league, so not such a big issue. But here’s the kicker: 43.14 percent of their cap space is taken up by Atlanta’s five most expensive players. That’s a staggering amount of the cap to be invested in so few players.

Just take a look at the chart below. It shows each team that made the 2020 postseason, their average starter cap hit and the percentage of cap space taken up by their five most expensive contracts on the roster for the 2020 season, according to Spotrac.

2020 Playoff Teams Cap Numbers

Team Avg. Starter Cap Hit Pct. Cap Invested in Top 5 Players
Team Avg. Starter Cap Hit Pct. Cap Invested in Top 5 Players
Chiefs $5.91 million 38.24%
Bills $4.94 million 26.18%
Steelers $5.46 million 32.96%
Titans $5.87 million 29.47%
Ravens $4.40 million 30.70%
Browns $4.84 million 25.07%
Colts $5.86 million 41.53%
Packers $5.4 million 38.95%
Saints $4.49 million 28.82%
Seahawks $5.03 million 40.46%
Football Team $3.34 million 30.16%
Buccaneers $5.78 million 38.64%
Rams $5.02 million 38.27%
Bears $5.26 million 35.38%

Sure, there are some teams that come somewhat close to the Falcons in their top-five investments, but each is pretty explainable, whereas Atlanta has nothing to show for that money.

The Chiefs have some of the most talented players, so it’s understandable a lot of money is at the top of the roster, but they are also getting a great return with multiple Super Bowl appearances and one ring. The Colts had two high-paid quarterbacks on their roster last season which inflated their top five number, but they have a well-balanced roster. The Seahawks and Packers have high top five numbers, but each team has an elite veteran quarterback which eats up the cap space. Both teams have figured out ways to build around that big contract, however.

Atlanta hasn’t been able to find that success after investing in some of the homegrown players who had played such a big role in helping it reach the Super Bowl. These second contracts, along with massive deals for Julio Jones and Matt Ryan, are part of the reason the Falcons had to make a lot of the decisions they did this offseason.

While the Jones trade understandably was the departure of the offseason for Atlanta, a lot of the real damage done was to the rotational talent on both sides of the ball. Not the top-tier starters, but the guys who saw action on game day and were one injury away from a real meaningful role. Players like Damontae Kazee and Blidi Wreh-Wilson, both of whom have started multiple games each of the last two seasons, are no longer around.

That isn’t to say the depth the Falcons have tried to cultivate via free agency and the draft this offseason won’t be sufficient. Coaching absolutely matters, and we should give the benefit of the doubt to this staff until enough information is available to determine otherwise. But, on paper, the depth does seem concerning.

“Our roster right now certainly will look different in the coming months and that will always change during the season,” Arthur Smith said during his very first press conference as Falcons head coach. “You have to adapt, 100 percent in this league, there are going to be injuries and we have to adapt to that and that’s what the really good teams do.”

Both Smith and Terry Fontenot spoke about the injuries that inevitably take place throughout the course of an NFL season. With one more game, those will likely only increase. Smith is completely correct that the best teams are able to adapt as they lose key contributors, but that also assumes they have the requisite talent to adapt correctly.

So far, the Falcons have avoided any season-altering injuries. That likely won’t remain the case as the fall progresses. Fontenot has proven to be among the best at hitting on undervalued players in free agency, and perhaps he’s done so once again in his first year with the Falcons. Maybe that’s just one more reason for optimism.

It’s somewhat difficult to get a read on what the future holds for this team. There is enough talent to win games on Sundays, and if the coaching is truly upgraded things could get interesting. However, there’s also a chance the floor with this team is seriously low. If the Falcons get the wrong side of the injury coin, this could be another long year.

As we prepare to go on yet another journey with the Falcons, it’s important to stare that possibility in the face.