The 2022 NFL season is over. While it didn’t bring much joy to Atlanta Falcons fans, it was an interesting step in the right direction for a franchise in the middle of a multi-year rebuilding plan. 2022 was a “clean up the mess” season, where the front office finally dealt with the consequences of years of reckless spending by former GM Thomas Dimitroff.
Current GM Terry Fontenot elected to take on almost all the bad contracts in one season, and while it didn’t result in a good roster this year, it did clear over $80M in dead cap from the books. The only remaining dead money of note heading into 2023 is from linebacker Deion Jones ($12.1M), and Atlanta will be entirely free of his contract in 2024.
The Falcons now head into 2023 with a drastically better financial situation. But just how much money will Atlanta have to spend this offseason? What kind of savings can the team create from potential cuts, and how much will they need to re-sign priority free agents? That’s the topic of discussion for today.
I broke all the numbers down in great detail on The Falcoholic Podcast. You can find the audio in the player below or in your favorite podcast platform. For those that prefer a written version, I’ll be providing a summary of my findings here as well.
You can also watch the recorded video version on our YouTube channel, or by using the embed below. I’d recommend this version, as it has graphics which spell out the numbers a bit more clearly.
To start, let’s take a look at the overall salary cap situation for the Falcons and the NFL at-large.
Most sites are predicting a $225M base salary cap. This is the overall amount of cap space that every team starts with. Keep in mind some reports have predicted a $228M (or higher) salary cap for 2023, but this $225M number is a good floor to start with. If the cap ends up being higher, it will only benefit the Falcons and bolster these numbers further.
The next number is active cap spending. This is the amount that the Falcons are spending on players currently on the active roster. It’s also worth noting that this number includes the 18 reserve/futures contracts that Atlanta signed with players recently, bringing the total number of players under contract to 57. So if you’re wondering why this number is a bit lower than you thought, that’s why.
It does, however, engage the top-51 rule for the Falcons. For those unfamiliar with this rule, it’s very simple: only the top-51 most expensive contracts count against the salary cap until the end of the preseason. This is because NFL teams can carry up to 90 players from the start of the league year through the end of training camp, and the salary cap is only designed to accommodate 53 players. At the end of the preseason, the team will need to have enough cap space in reserve to afford the final two contracts. This is generally only $1.5-$2M at most.
Atlanta is also carrying $13.09M in dead money, almost all of it from the aforementioned trade of Deion Jones.
If you tally all this up, along with some other numbers that I won’t touch on here (like the remaining “rollover” cap space from 2022), you end up with a total cap space number of $61.78M. For reference, that number is the second-highest mark in the league behind only the Chicago Bears (who have a comically high $108.7M in space).
However, the Falcons do still need to sign their draft class. As of right now—and this could change based on trades in the 2023 NFL Draft—it is expected that Atlanta will need $5.13M to sign their rookies. Subtract that number and you get the effective cap space that Atlanta has: $56.65M. That number is also second-highest in the NFL.
That’s not all, however, as there are two potential cut candidates that could create even more cap space for the Falcons.
The first name is an obvious and oft-discussed one: quarterback Marcus Mariota. Mariota filled in admirably as the starter to begin the season, but struggled mightily in his final stretch of games before being benched for rookie Desmond Ridder heading into the late bye week. As a result, the Falcons are almost certain to release Mariota in the coming weeks to realize a massive $12M in cap savings (and just $2.5M in dead money).
The other name on the list is a defender who I had high hopes for coming into the year. Cornerback Casey Hayward was a solid starter for Atlanta, but wound up missing 11 games after an injury in Week 6. He’ll be 34 in 2023 and it’s not hard to see the Falcons electing to move on, considering that the team can realize $5M in cap savings alongside just $2M in dead cap.
Other than Mariota and Hayward, there really aren’t any other potential cuts that realize any significant savings.
Neither of these moves is guaranteed, but both are likely. If the Falcons make these moves, the team will realize $17M in salary cap savings.
With the $17M in cap savings from the releases of Marcus Mariota and Casey Hayward, the Falcons now enter the 2023 offseason with a potential effective cap space of $73.65M. Not enough to put them in range of the Bears, but enough to put them miles ahead of the third place New York Giants.
That $73.65M is the total amount that Atlanta will have to spend on free agents, both internal and external. It’s a lot of money! However, before we get to calculating how much to throw at exciting names like Jessie Bates III and Da’Ron Payne, there are a number of priority free agents for Atlanta to re-sign.
This is my personal list of “priority” free agents for Atlanta to bring back, and I didn’t bother adding anyone who is likely to get less than $2M to return. Here’s a list of the players I think are likely to get re-signed for close to vet minimum:
FB Keith Smith
OL Elijah Wilkinson
OL Colby Gossett
OL Chuma Edoga
WR Damiere Byrd
WR KhaDarel Hodge
CB Mike Ford
CB Cornell Armstrong
DT Abdullah Anderson
DT Jaleel Johnson
TE Parker Hesse (ERFA)
LS Liam McCullough (ERFA)
Since the Falcons have already engaged the top-51 rule, most of these players will count for very little against the salary cap. Some (ERFAs, for instance) probably won’t count at all. Keep them in mind, but they’re unlikely to have a major effect on the salary cap.
That brings us to the list of priority free agents. The two big ones are both offensive linemen, and the first isn’t a free agent at all: Chris Lindstrom. Just named to his first All-Pro team, Lindstrom is technically entering 2023 on his fifth-year option at $13.2M. I strongly believe that Atlanta will give him a significant extension in the $20M/year range, which could either increase or decrease his cap hit in 2023. For now, I’ll assume it increases to $20M.
The other is, of course, Kaleb McGary. After struggling mightily early and dealing with inconsistency for the majority of his rookie contract, McGary hit his stride in 2022 and emerged as one of the best overall right tackles in the NFL. Take PFF grades with a grain of salt, but he finished as the fourth-best offensive tackle in the NFL with a borderline-elite grade of 86.6. McGary is in line for a massive extension—either from the Falcons or someone else. I believe Atlanta will either extend McGary on a 2-3 year deal, or give him the franchise tag. In an extension, I think McGary winds up around $15-17M/yr, but the franchise tag would cost $18.26M. Either way, he’ll be expensive.
The rest of these players are key contributors with experience in the scheme who I believe should be offered reasonable contracts to return. All in all, I’d expect these players to cost approximately $35M to re-sign, factoring in the top-51 rule.
Tallying up everything we’ve covered so far, including: the 57 players currently on the roster, the dead money, the potential savings from cuts, the estimated cost to sign the draft class, and the estimated cost to re-sign priority free agents, the Falcons should be left with about $39M in remaining cap space to sign outside free agents.
I won’t get into speculating about who Atlanta could target with that money in this piece, but it’s a very good chunk of change. For reference: the Falcons, after re-signing or extending every key free agent and signing their draft class, would still have the seventh-most cap space in the NFL. Talk about a complete turnaround after a year with 40% of the entire salary cap spent on players who weren’t even on the roster!
I hope you enjoyed this article and found it helpful for your own offseason planning. It’s important to me to make sure our loyal readers aren’t left out when I’m making video/audio content! If you wouldn’t mind also clicking on the podcast and YouTube video and leaving us a like, we’d appreciate it.
Stay tuned for more offseason, free agency, and draft coverage here at The Falcoholic.