The Falcons haven’t always stuck to their stated plan the past two offseasons, but they’ve been pretty consistent about at least one thing: Stocking the roster with affordable veterans at perceived positions of need. The idea, as Terry Fontenot has made clear more than once, is to avoid going into the draft with any roster holes you have to address just to be able to put a competent team on the field. The 2022 offseason, with its many signings, has been a good example of that approach.
Of course, when your roster doesn’t have many long-term building blocks, virtually everything is already a need beyond this season. What the Falcons are trying to do in the here and now is simply go into the draft without 2022 needs that would force them to do something they might not want to do, like select a receiver at pick 8 because their receiving corps is decimated and that’s not survivable heading into the season. Ideally, you’re picking the most talented player on the board with an eye on having their dominance fuel future greatness, not plugging in a player because they’re the difference between four and five wins in 2022.
We don’t have to love the moves the Falcons have made to this point to see that they’ve been following that blueprint pretty closely. The team has alternatives for Jalen Mayfield (Colby Gossett, Ryan Neuzil), Kaleb McGary (Germain Ifedi, Elijah Wilkinson), and Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins (Erik Harris, Dean Marlowe). They’ve added veterans at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end to give themselves a bridge option at the helm of the offense and add some weapons for Marcus Mariota to work with, and they’ve been stocking help at linebacker and in the secondary. While they let two very good players walk in Thomas Morstead and Josh Harris, they have Dom Maggio and Beau Brinkley available, and have prioritized adding a couple of players with a strong background as gunners on special teams in Mike Ford and KhaDarel Hodge.
All of that slow and steady roster building matters for the draft, where the team is hopefully going to prioritize talent and fit over position. It also sets up the Falcons to save their biggest remaining roster decisions for after the draft is over, something we saw play out last year.
In 2021, the Falcons plugged holes heading into the draft and went for a class they obviously felt was high on long-term upside, but the team lacked the cap space after the draft to even properly sign their class. They got that space and then some by trading Julio Jones in early June last year, allowing them to bring Kyle Pitts and company aboard. While the cap situation overall isn’t as dire this year as it was in 2021, the Falcons still won’t be able to sign their rookies without making moves to free up cap space.
With five picks in the first three rounds, OverTheCap is estimating the Falcons need $12.2 million in cap space to sign their rookie class, assuming they don’t wind up trading picks around, and they definitely don’t have that today. OverTheCap has the team sitting on about $3.4 million in space today,
There’s more than one way to get there. The cleanest is to extend or trade Grady Jarrett—again, I prefer the former—but a post-June 1 trade of Deion Jones would also accomplish that in one fell swoop. The team could once again kick the can down the road with Jones by re-structuring his deal to save nearly $6.6 million, which would leave them then cutting ties with Mike Davis, Kendall Sheffield, or both to save between $2.5 and $5 million. It’s also theoretically possible that the Falcons could cut Olamide Zaccheaus to get $2.43 million in cap relief, but given the state of the receiving corps and the fact that they just signed him, that seems really unlikely.
The upshot here is that there are major moves still yet to be made, and they’re ones the Falcons are likely to save until after the draft. There’s no point in cutting Davis now if you’re not certain you’re going to add to the running back group and/or you know you’re going to be making the kind of move with Jarrett or Jones that makes saving $2.5 million meaningless, especially if it costs you a back the coaching staff clearly likes. Trading Deion Jones now is pointless when it has to be a post-June 1 move to save you any real money, and when you’re not sure if you’re going to snag at least additional depth for inside linebacker to replace his loss. And moving Jarrett really doesn’t make sense now if you end up striking out at adding an impact defensive lineman, given that he’s an extremely difficult player to replace. You get the picture.
The big influx of cap space next year will mean the Falcons don’t have to save these big decisions for after the draft—or even to make them, since they won’t be scrimping to save up for their draft class—but Atlanta choosing to keep the roster as well stocked as possible until they see who they get in the draft feels like something that will continue into 2023 and beyond. If you truly believe in going into the draft with options at every position, even if some of those options aren’t exactly inspiring, a boatload of money isn’t going to change your philosophy.
The Calvin Ridley suspension and Ryan trade are somehow far in the rear view now, but they won’t be the last significant moves this football team makes between now the start of the season. Barring a welcome pre-draft extension for Jarrett, you can look for the team to see what the draft brings in and then make the moves they’ll need to sign what we all hope proves to be a promising rookie class.