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Atlanta’s shaky cap situation will loom over the 2021 season

The Falcons think they can contend on a budget, and we hope they’re right.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Arthur Blank believes this team can contend this year. Rich McKay believes it. Terry Fontenot believes it. Arthur Smith believes it. Perhaps they’re drinking from the fountain of wishful thinking. Perhaps they’re savvier about this team’s fortunes than we are from the comfort of our couches. Perhaps they’re putting a brave face on a potentially tough year. We’ll know soon enough.

The uncertainty for the Falcons fanbase is all-encompassing, and as kickoff against the Eagles looms, it’s reasonable to feel that familiar buzz of anxiety underneath everything we talk about. Atlanta is coming off three losing campaigns and bottomed out spectacularly last season in a supposedly win-now year where they started 0-5 and finished 4-12, so a mediocre season would not shock most of us. But we’ve also seen very little of the starters on this football team, and the team’s moves this offseason were ones that may prove to be brilliant but were not major needle movers on paper.

While I expect the team to at least be competitive this year, the relatively quiet free agency period happened for a reason we’re all aware of: what I’ve charitably called the cap heck the Falcons found themselves in this offseason. Expensive extensions, an increasingly urgent push to win now as the team foundered and costly free agent signings that didn’t pan out dominated the 2017-2020 offseasons, and now the Falcons are trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Regardless of whether Atlanta’s successful in 2021, their cap picture is going to be lurking in the background like the masked slasher in a low budget horror film. Jeff Schultz alluded to it in a piece about Matt Ryan—focusing specifically on the difficulties the team will have fitting Ryan’s cap number for 2022 under the vault ceiling if they don’t restructure, extend or move on from him entirely—and this morning Over The Cap made it clear that they think Atlanta’s in one of the worst spots cap-wise in the entire NFL, if not the worst. I’ve written before that nobody would have particularly blamed Terry Fontenot if he said “well, fans need to be patient because we’re in a tough spot,” and the fact that he hasn’t taken that out is a remarkable statement of confidence in and of itself. That’s especially true when you consider that the team does not appear to have a clear path to...well, clearing any cap space if the need arises.

Because of the financials, then, this year will by necessity be a proving ground. It will be an opportunity for Matt Ryan and Grady Jarrett in particular to make it clear to the powers that be that they need extensions and will be foundational pieces for the next few years for Atlanta. It’s an opportunity for the likes of Duron Harmon and Brandon Copeland and (eventually) Josh Andrews to make it clear they should be back and not just one year rentals for a retooling team. It will be Arthur Smith and company proving that this team’s primary problems were deep-seated coaching and culture issues that the team is at least making progress toward erasing. Failing all of that—really, failing even some of it—will make for another forgettable year and another offseason of tough questions.

My earnest hope is that this team surprises everyone and kicks ass this year, making it clear that they have the talent base and the brain trust in place to get this thing upright and walking on two legs again. Nothing about this year has been easy so far, though, and win or lose fretting over the team’s ability to both make this year successful and build on this year in 2022 is going to be inescapable thanks to the cap.