It’s going to be better than it was. That much, general manager Terry Fontenot said, is pretty clear.
Will everything be easy to deal with for the Atlanta Falcons this offseason? Probably not.
That’s the truth for almost every NFL team and absolutely one with the salary-cap conundrums the Falcons have.
But it should be more flexible than last season, which saw Atlanta needing to restructure, trade, pay cut and outright cut players just to be able to sign its rookies and field a roster.
“Still some constraints,” Fontenot said. “But we just have to look at every player and every contract and do the best job we can. We know we have to bring in competition and continue to work to improve this offseason.
“There are going to be challenges every year with the cap, but we just have to make the right decisions, and the players we bring in, make sure we have clear visions for them and do the best job we can.”
That worked in some cases last season (Cordarrelle Patterson, Erik Harris, Duron Harmon) and didn’t work as well in others (Mike Davis, Jonathan Bullard). But the Falcons must evaluate what this team will look like -- and in doing so, make critical decisions for the future of the franchise heading into 2022.
Find a pass rush
Atlanta could go in almost any direction and see improvement this offseason. The most glaring issue is in the front seven -- particularly the pass rush.
No player had more than Dante Fowler Jr.’s 4.5 sacks and only one, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, had double-digit quarterback hits (12). The Falcons’ 18 sacks were worst in the league -- by 11 sacks -- and made contact with the quarterback 135 times. Too often, opposing quarterbacks had clean pockets and ample time to dissect the defense.
Change probably consists of a combination of everything, from jettisoning current players to investing in both veterans and rookies. The only edge rusher who seems like a lock to return is Adetokunbo Ogundeji -- who started 11 games but had only one sack, one fumble recovery and one pass defended.
Every other edge rusher is either a pending free agent and on a contract the Falcons could choose to move on from, including Fowler. On the defensive line, it’s not much clearer. Jarrett remains a cornerstone, but even his future is in question as the team, and Jarrett, have to start to consider whether they want to extend the relationship beyond 2022, the final year of his contract.
Rookie Ta’Quon Graham started playing more as the season went on, but what he can bring remains a question. Marlon Davidson is on a reasonable contract (just under $1.9 million cap hit) but has no guaranteed money remaining. Tyeler Davison played less and less as the season went on, and Atlanta could save $3.8 million by releasing him.
A lot of veteran edge rushers could be available from high-cost options such as Haason Reddick and Emmanuel Ogbah to older options who might not be as costly to sign but offer an upgrade like Akiem Hicks and K.J. Wright. Then there’s the draft, where a player such as Purdue’s George Karlaftis or Michigan’s David Ojabo on the edge or Texas A&M’s DeMarvin Leal on the interior could make a lot of sense for Atlanta in the first round.
However the Falcons solve it, if Atlanta reaches training camp without a clear direction in the front seven, it would be a very big surprise.
Figure out Matt Ryan’s contract situation
The key to a lot of what Atlanta might do this offseason ties into how it handles quarterback Matt Ryan. While it makes sense for the Falcons to keep him for next season, his almost $49 million cap hit is not sensible for the Falcons unless they strip the roster down everywhere else.
Without an obvious plan for the future behind Ryan -- AJ McCarron, Josh Rosen and Feleipe Franks were his backups last season -- it’s tough to see Atlanta looking elsewhere at this point. Which means the Falcons will need to decide whether to restructure his contract, extend him, add voidable years to spread out the cap hit (but putting Ryan on future books) or live with his current number.
How much space the Falcons free up could help determine which of their own free agents they bring back and which possible outside big names, if any, they choose to pursue.
Ryan has a $7.5 million roster bonus due the third day of the new league year, so one would think any decision on how to handle him would be figured out, at least in part, by then.
The receiver position
Falcons coach Arthur Smith, when talking about Ryan, mentioned how he has performed without the typical level of talent he had on the outside in prior seasons, when the team had Roddy White, Julio Jones and/or Calvin Ridley.
The receiver position -- maybe as much, if not more than edge rusher -- could be in for a complete overhaul. Ridley’s situation -- he stepped away on Halloween to work on his mental health -- remains the biggest question. Fontenot and Smith offered no answers there, perhaps because there are none to have yet.
The Falcons have given Ridley the space he has needed. That should be commended. When it comes to 2022, Ridley and Frank Darby, who ran 12 routes last season, are the only members of this year’s 53-man roster under contract. Atlanta signed practice squad receivers Chad Hansen and Austin Trammell to futures contracts. While both have potential, neither looks like an immediate breakout star.
The rest are a combination of free agents, both unrestricted (Russell Gage, Tajae Sharpe) and restricted (Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake). Gage and Sharpe are the guys to watch here. Sharpe is a fine option as a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver, and Gage is too because of his final eight games, where he had 611 of his 770 yards and 50 of his 66 catches.
Gage said if Atlanta is interested in him returning he would be open to the conversation. Whether that happens could depend on what occurs with Ridley. If Atlanta decides it needs to add a No. 1-type receiver, then it might not be able to afford that player and Gage. If not -- or if the Falcons target a receiver early in the draft as a potential No. 1 -- then Gage could make sense to try to bring back.
The free-agency class is strong here, potentially headlined by Davante Adams, Allen Robinson II, Chris Godwin and Mike Williams. The tier below that, including Christian Kirk, DJ Chark Jr. and, maybe, Gage, could be where Atlanta looks.
The Falcons will almost certainly be watching the depth receivers considering their roster at the moment. The draft should be deep at receiver as well, where a pick in Rounds 1-3 could have an instant impact. The top names here are Alabama’s Jameson Williams (who has a torn ACL), USC’s Drake London and the Ohio State duo of Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave.
Offensive line competition
In terms of bodies, Atlanta has a lot of those. But competition? That's what the Falcons need. Chris Lindstrom is set at right guard, and unless the Falcons decide to move on from Jake Matthews’ $23,689,200 cap hit (where they wouldn’t save that much before June 1), he’s set at left tackle. Matthews played well enough there to keep him. Why create more problems on a roster already full of them?
Everywhere else? They need help. Jalen Mayfield had a rough first year pass protecting at left guard. The hope is he grows with a full offseason and true understanding of inside versus outside. Matt Hennessy was inconsistent at center. Can last year’s fourth-round pick, Drew Dalman, push or supplant them? Maybe. But they need another interior lineman, and it would make sense to look in free agency.
The Falcons would not receive much relief cutting right tackle Kaleb McGary, and with his base salary ($1,894,875) fully guaranteed, it makes more sense to keep him and bring in someone to push him. Worst case, McGary becomes Atlanta’s swing tackle this year. Best case, who they bring in helps him improve.
Free agency is another area here -- although, again, cap constraints could cause issues -- so this might be a spot for a midround draft pick. If Atlanta is intent on adding a tackle high in the draft, there will be options (although it would be unlikely Alabama tackle Evan Neal would fall to No. 8) where a player such as Mississippi State’s Charles Cross or a player with positional flexibility, such as N.C. State’s Ikem Ekwonu, might fit what Atlanta wants.
Their own roster decisions
So much of this for Atlanta will be dictated by its own roster.
“The best form of free agency is developing and signing your own players, because you’re not guessing,” Fontenot said. “We know exactly who they are in the building. So that’s important.”
But a combination of market value, how the Falcons value positions and the cap will make decisions difficult. Atlanta’s top free agents are Gage, linebacker Foye Oluokun, kicker Younghoe Koo and Patterson. Koo is a restricted free agent, and the Falcons would be wise to either give him a tender (perhaps a second-round tender) or negotiate a long-term deal with one of the NFL’s top kickers.
The rest are a bit in question. Patterson has expressed a desire to return in both his words and on his cleats, but he might be in line for a payday bigger than what Atlanta could offer. Oluokun, who indicated a desire to return, could also have many suitors.
Beyond that, the Falcons are looking at a bunch of players who are not obvious decisions. It could be easy to see Atlanta bringing back one of Harmon or Harris at safety to pair with Jaylinn Hawkins and compete with Richie Grant. It would be easy to see Atlanta bring back cornerback Fabian Moreau if the price was right -- same with any of the rotational outside linebackers.
The tougher moves might be who to move on from. Davis, signed to be Atlanta’s top back, had 138 carries for 503 yards and three touchdowns. He has a cap hit of $3.25 million; but the Falcons would save $2.5 million if they released him. Cornerback Kendall Sheffield barely played last season and has almost a $2.8 million cap hit -- with $2.54 million in savings if he were let go.
Linebacker Deion Jones has a cap hit just over $20 million, but don’t expect him to go anywhere unless Atlanta trades him (and even then, that might be unlikely). His $9.64 million base salary is guaranteed, and even after June 1, the Falcons would save only a little over $1 million on next year’s cap.
None of these decisions are easy. Fontenot and Smith have a tough few months ahead. How they navigate the offseason following their first season together will tell a lot about Atlanta.