In a perfect world, the Atlanta Falcons would pursue some of the top names on the free-agent market to bolster their roster and help build toward a Super Bowl return.
The reality is, they don't have the cap space to go crazy.
The latest NFLPA numbers have the Falcons at just over $13.5 million in cap room. That number doesn't appear to include the reported restructuring of outside linebacker Brooks Reed's contract, with Reed previously carrying a $5.44 million cap charge into 2018.
The Falcons created some space with the release of tight end Levine Toilolo and defensive lineman Derrick Shelby, although the full $3.5 million in savings from the Toilolo transaction can't be felt until later with the post-June 1 designation. Shelby's release cleared $4.5 million in cap space, while $4.5 million represents Toilolo's cap charge until June 2. The team did provide $2.5 million in cap savings for now by "restructuring" left guard Andy Levitre's contract, with Levitre's cap number shrinking from $8.375 million to $5.875 million. Meanwhile, kicker Matt Bryant occupies more than $2.8 million in cap room after signing a three-year extension.
The Falcons are one of 10 teams with under $20 million in cap space heading into the official start of free agency on Wednesday. That's far from enough room to be major players, so expect the Falcons to go in with the mindset of a bargain shopper.
It's unclear if the team will get a new deal done with quarterback Matt Ryan before the start of free agency. Ryan has one year and $19.25 million left on his current deal and carries a $21.65 million cap charge into 2018. An extension most likely would reduce that '18 cap number, based on what's historically occurred with Falcons extensions. So getting the extension completed in the next few days could benefit the team now as it looks to fill some needs, although there's a chance Ryan's cap figure could go even higher. The upcoming Kirk Cousins deal could factor into the equation.
Even if the Ryan deal gets done, that doesn't mean the Falcons will have enough room to go on a spending spree. At the same time, they could choose to invest in an impact player. They did so a couple of years ago when they signed five-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to a five-year, $45 million contract ($28.5 million guaranteed). Mack's cap number for his initial season was just $4.05 million. Then, last season, the Falcons signed two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dontari Poe to a one-year contract that counted $8 million against the 2017 cap.
The Falcons' biggest need right now is an impact defensive lineman capable of bringing pressure from the interior while also standing up to the run. They definitely had their sights set on Michael Bennett from Seattle, as one team member said, "I wanted him so bad. He's really one of the best defensive lineman in the league. He's so smart. That's why nobody can block him." But Bennett was traded to Philadelphia Eagles instead, a trade that will become official this week. Fans would like to see the Falcons go after another Seahawk defensive lineman in Sheldon Richardson, but he won't be cheap. The Falcons might be better off looking at guys such as Bennie Logan, Tom Johnson or DaQuan Jones.
Offensive guard is the other pressing need, and general manager Thomas Dimitroff implied that the Falcons would be better off going the free-agent route for a solution rather than the draft. But pursuing top guard Andrew Norwell likely isn't in the budget unless the Falcons plan to focus on just one impact player.
Tight end, wide receiver and defensive back all are positions the Falcons could upgrade. But again, don't expect a big splash.