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Atlanta’s ability to find value in free agency matters now, but it matters a lot more in the future

If the Falcons hit on some of their low-priced acquisitions, it will be validation for the front office.

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Most of the signings this front office have made thus far in March have been about helping a leaky team be a little more seaworthy in 2022. Maybe the Falcons have a massive surprise in store for us, but more than likely we’re headed for one more tough year while the team bides its time, moves its biggest contracts, and sets up for a cap windfall in 2023 after what we hope are a pair of productive drafts. The chances of anyone the team has signed becoming the next Cordarrelle Patterson—a true breakout star who seemingly came out of nowhere—seem slim.

Because Falcons fans—fans of any stripe, but we’re focusing on us here—love to fight about anything and everything, there’s a developing rift over whether we should be celebrating Terry Fontenot, noted Bear lover Ryan Pace, and the rest of the front office crew for solid low-priced signings or rolling our eyes at this team once again puttering through a season with stopgaps and bargain bin pickups. Anyone in the former camp should deliver that praise with the full knowledge that the chances of this team absolutely taking off this year are slim, and those in the latter camp ought to remember that...well, it’s not like they were going to be in on any huge names, right?

I think it’s worth widening the scope of the argument a bit here and focusing on what’s going to matter a lot more for those of us sick and tired of losing and griping about it: The 2023 offseason.

Next season, the Falcons are going to have the largest amount of cap space I can remember in my 16 years of covering this team, albeit with only 30-some odd players under contract. Over the Cap has them at $96 million next year, but that’s not including a variety of factors, including 2022 rookie contracts that have yet to hit the books. The important thing is that they can pretty easily get to over $100 million, and even if they “only” have in the $75-80 million range, it’s huge money compared to what they usually have to work with. That gives them an opportunity to keep whoever they want and add significant talent to the roster, especially because their free agent class next year is a quiet one outside of Chris Lindstrom, Grady Jarrett (who will be either traded or extended before then), and Kaleb McGary.

In addition to the cap space, the Falcons will be coming off of back-to-back draft classes where they’ve had extra selections (including five picks on the first two days this year), and a couple of really good players who they can hang on to thanks to multi-year deals (Cordarrelle Patterson and Casey Hayward spring to mind). They are going to be well-positioned, in other words, to finally drag themselves our of the marshes of mediocrity and onto the playoff plateau, but they need to nail multiple team-building challenges to ensure they get there.

The first, obviously, is drafting well. The jury is still out on a 2021 draft class that I think will still end up producing, but there’s no question the Falcons need to get more impact starters in 2022 given that only Kyle Pitts looks like a surefire one from last year.

The second, of course, is getting the quarterback situation right. There are teams who have gone two-to-three decades without nailing that—think the Jets, the Browns, the Buccaneers until they recently took a shortcut—and the Falcons probably won’t be a great team unless they can nab their next franchise guy via the draft or some other means in the next couple of seasons. Marcus Mariota is a fine bridge, but this is a hurdle that deserves its only article, given the difficulty.

The third is Terry Fontenot’s wheel house: Free agency. With that much money, the Falcons will be well-positioned to retain key players they’ve been bleeding in recent seasons, but they’ll also be able to add genuinely great players to the roster via the open market. It’s where the low-key moves of 2021 and 2022 in free agency come in.

While some of the harshest invective directed at him will soften with time, especially after he salvaged the franchise’s hopes and chained together years of winning, one criticism of Thomas Dimitroff that’s going to resonate for a long time concerns his free agency miscues. For every savvy signing from Dimitroff’s front office—Michael Turner is way at the top of that list—there were multiple examples of the Falcons throwing money after players like Todd Gurley, Osi Umenyiora, Steven Jackson, and James Carpenter who had already played their best downs of football but were nonetheless tied to the team for multiple seasons in their twilight years. That and the woes of 2018-2020, which are still very fresh on our minds right now.

Thus far, the newish front office has structured deals so they have easy outs (Marcus Mariota, Cordarrelle Patterson) for older players or has targeted players who have yet to break out and thus will join up affordably (Auden Tate, Lorenzo Carter), an approach that maintains long-term flexibility while stabilizing key positions and giving you potential lottery tickets at others. And yes, they’ve signed a lot of former Bears.

Obviously, signings like Tate aren’t very exciting and are at least partially a product of limited cap space. Fontenot’s love for bargains and his eye for players who may have their best football ahead of them seem like character traits rather than an aftereffect of penny-pinching, though, and that’s what bodes well for 2023. You don’t want to be shelling out massive money for players you’re not sure are going to hit—I’m looking at Christian Kirk here, even though I like him—or those past-their-prime guys who are earning a lot more due to their reputation. You don’t want to be setting money on fire just because you have it lying around, or because you know your fans will freak out for a few weeks in the spring over the big names.

The Deshaun Watson trade attempt and the way the trade of Matt Ryan happened (not the fact that they made a trade, which was inevitable at some point between March 2021 and March 2023) were a mess, a cascade of decisions that lacked the careful vetting and eye for value this front office harps on, and you won’t hear me defend either. What I will defend is Fontenot’s philosophy in free agency, which isn’t going to produce many wins this year but does suggest a front office focused on needs, obsessive about digging one layer down to find players more likely to break out than get a big payday past their prime, and not crushing their long-term flexibility if they can help it. There are front offices in this league who get a cap windfall and squander it, but based on what we know about this one and what we’ve seen to this point, Atlanta won’t be one of them. Yes, I am certainly hoping this ages well and every free agent the Falcons signed this offseason don’t wind up looking like mistakes by November.

Ultimately, none of these signings are likely to produce a hugely successful 2022, but they still indicate to me that Atlanta has a front office that will use its dollars wisely in free agency when they have a lot of them in 2023. If they can get their quarterback situation sorted out over the long haul, I like their chances of building a quality team up around that player, and the focus on value in free agency is a big reason why.