The 2021 Atlanta Falcons were an improvement over the 2020 Atlanta Falcons.
Even so, the 2022 Atlanta Falcons might look a lot different than the 2021 Atlanta Falcons.
That’s the conundrum that posits itself for Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith, who survived the bridge year into their new regime and will finally get a substantial opportunity to shape the future of the franchise in the direction they pitched the front office on when they got hired.
With the cap starting to open back up and some gargantuan decisions looming, will the Falcons just try to push up what’s already working or will they bring down the sledgehammer and start the renovations? It’s hard to tell, but it’s not hard to understand why the latter might be the direction we’re going.
The direction we’re going might lead to things like this: Grady Jarrett might not be a Falcon this fall. That’s the painful growth teams like Atlanta must make to get back to the top of the pecking order — looking at a cornerstone player who counts a lot against the cap, has an easy out on their contract, is entering a contract year and is going to be about 30 around the time he’s negotiating his next deal.
It’s the precarious nature of a rebuild (which, make no mistake, the Falcons are pretty much in and have been in since 2021). Jarrett is still a very good player and the best player in the Falcons’ front seven (if not defense, with only A.J. Terrell to give him a run for his money). He’s the kind of guy you want to build around in theory, but he’s also the kind of guy that you could fetch a high draft pick for via a trade and clear money out for other needs.
The Falcons might be making this decision with Dan Quinn-era guys like Deion Jones (a once-star who’s struggled a bit in recent memory), Calvin Ridley (the talk of trade interest these days), Foye Oluokun (who is a free agent and is no lock to return), Russell Gage (ditto) and Tyeler Davison (who was reliable for a bit but will likely be a cap casualty this winter). One day, tough decisions will loom for Matt Ryan and Jake Matthews.
A day will come when we won’t have any players who were on that NFC Championship team. It might not be tomorrow, but it’ll come. Part of this new regime will be airing out the past and shuttling in the future.
Even 2021 additions like Cordarrelle Patterson (a sensational free agent signing) and Mike Davis (who had mixed results in his first year as a Falcon) are not guaranteed to return, if only because Patterson might be too expensive and cutting Davis saves money.
The Falcons’ grand plan will involve a lot of maneuvering with existing parts — knowing who to keep, who to trade and who to let walk in free agency. The team could be itching to press the big red button and blow up the remaining core of this team that is flammable — right now, the only two people who look safe to return from the good ol’ days are Ryan and Matthews. Everyone else who wasn’t a 2021 draft pick has to be considered fair game, even underperforming 2020 guys like Marlon Davidson and Matt Hennessy.
From here on out, the Falcons might be wise to just go ahead and start fresh. While the cap might not seem like much now, they’ve got ample ways of freeing up space that don’t necessarily involve just pushing money downhill. With the overall cap rising in the NFL, the team really can open up as much cap as it’d like, with a plan likely in place to spend that money elsewhere.
The painful part would be to see a player like Jarrett getting moved to a contender, or seeing Ridley traded elsewhere after tantalizing flashes of long-term dominance. It’d be the possibility of watching the team draft a new quarterback and seeing the team scribble Ryan’s writing on the wall; ditto the team drafting a long-term replacement for Matthews. It’d be watching Patterson or Oluokun sign with another team for high dollars because the Falcons aren’t willing to invest in their future to put money elsewhere.
The difference in this offseason and the last will be movement. Anyone expecting this team to just sit on its hands will be pretty surprised; the Falcons will and must be active to begin the revitalization this roster desperately needs. They have avenues to open up cap, and they’ll more than likely use them. Rebuilds don’t just focus on drafting players. That’s a huge part of it, but doing the hard work in March helps make drafting the best guy available, the team’s preferred strategy, much, much easier than reaching for needs.
Will the Falcons blow up the remainder of the roster in 2022, or at least some of it? You can’t rule it out at this point. There is a lot that is left to be done, but it won’t get left undone. The Falcons should be plenty busy this offseason, but just like when the team traded Julio Jones for a second-round pick, it may not always be pretty, popular or painless.