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ESPN projects Falcons to franchise tag, work out long-term deal with Kaleb McGary

Coming off the best season of his career, McGary’s getting paid by someone. Bill Barnwell believes it will be Atlanta.

Atlanta Falcons v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Falcons could turn over three-fifths of their starting offensive line in 2023, if they want to. Drew Dalman is a solid bet to start at center but hardly a lock, the team’s starting left guard in 2022 is not currently under contract, and Kaleb McGary is also a free agent.

Then again, maybe they’ll run it back after an encouraging season where the line was elite paving the way for Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson. If so, Elijah Wilkinson would be an affordable re-addition to compete with a few young guard options, and Dalman would be counted on to improve in his second year as a starter. The Falcons wouldn’t have to break the bank for either option.

They will have to for McGary, however. One of the team’s two first-round selections back in 2019, McGary had a deeply uneven first three seasons, allowing 13 sacks in his rookie year, improving to put forward a solid 2020 where he allowed just 4 sacks and appeared to take a significant step forward as a tackle, and scuffled again in 2021 with a new coaching staff, allowing 9 sacks. He came into 2022 needing to prove himself in the worst way to land a major deal in 2023, especially after the Falcons declined his fifth-year option, and to his credit McGary did just that.

Pass protection will never be McGary’s greatest strength, but he improved in that regard somewhat last year and was one of the better run-blocking tackles in football, credit with just 3.5 sacks (6 per Pro Football Focus, I”ll note). That makes him a good fit for Arthur Smith’s run-happy offense if that’s the level of play he can sustain going forward. The question has been whether the Falcons will look at last year versus his body of work and think McGary can be a good-to-great right tackle for, say, the next 3-5 seasons.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell tackled that exact question and tried to forecast what the Falcons will do with their soon-to-be 28-year-old free agent. He calls McGary the Daniel Jones of the right tackle position—depending on your estimation of Jones, an apt comparison or a grievous insult—in noting that he’s the pick of a prior regime with just one great year under his belt, which complicates Atlanta’s decision.

Ultimately, though, Barnwell thinks the Falcons will elect to keep McGary around. The route he’s anticipating is initially unpalatable but ultimately pretty good, with the Falcons franchise tagging their right tackle and then working out a long-term deal at a seemingly below-market rate of $12.5 million per season. The final deal? Barnwell pegs it at 4 years, $50 million.

While tagging McGary would tie up over $18 million for a while, taking a huge chunk out of Atlanta’s considerable cap space, the team might consider doing so if they really want McGary back. They can cut Marcus Mariota and free up $12 million, offsetting quite a bit of that at the moment, and it would give them time to work out a much more palatable contract. I have my doubts they’ll manage to get it done at the number Barnwell’s projecting—that would be the 7th-highest annual average for a right tackle deal in the NFL, a fair mark but not one McGary’s representation is likely to be excited about—but they should be able to come in well under the franchise tag price and can frontload or backload the deal as they see fit. The contours of Barnwell’s educated guess here seem right, in other words, even if the specifics are unlikely to be.

The alternative? Likely drafting a right tackle to try to give Atlanta an affordable, young option with Chris Lindstrom about to get a mega-deal. There are some compelling options in this draft class who might entice the Falcons to let McGary walk, so I wouldn’t dismiss that idea out of hand. With Jake Matthews’ contract potentially coming off the books at the same time Lindstrom’s would be added and no great expenditures elsewhere on the line, though, I think the Falcons will be comfortable paying up for McGary for the sake of continuity and his ability to spring Atlanta’s backs for big gains.

If McGary is set to return, the hope should be that they get a reasonable deal done before that becomes an issue, allowing them to go into free agency with a key need resolved and still plenty of money to spend in order to improve the team. We’ll know within a couple of weeks what route Atlanta intends to take.