Falcons have a lot of holes and cap space. Here’s how they can make a splash – Trending News

Falcons have a lot of holes and cap space. Here’s how they can make a splash


NFL free agency is barely a week away — players can start talking to new teams next Monday and can begin signing contracts with new teams one week from Wednesday, at 4 p.m. ET on March 15 — and the Atlanta Falcons have the second-most salary-cap space of any team with about $67 million available.

So while the Carolina Panthers have made the biggest splash in the NFC South so far this offseason with the hiring of new coach Frank Reich and a star-studded cast of assistants, the spotlight should now shift to Atlanta, which will be the division’s big spenders in the next few weeks. The other three NFC South teams are all currently over the cap — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers more than any other team in the league — so their spending will be limited. The Falcons have money to spend but must also be careful.

“Clearly we have a lot of cap space and clearly we have a lot of flexibility, but we have to be cautious,” general manager Terry Fontenot said at the combine last week. “We are not trying to win a press conference. We want to make sure we are bringing in the right types of players for our building. When you have a lot of cap space, that means you have a lot of work to do. We have to add to every phase. We just want to make sure we have the right discipline. We have to set parameters because if we don’t, we could get ourselves in a bind. We need to add a lot. We just want to make sure we go through the process the right way.”

The Falcons also have the No. 8 pick in next month’s draft, which should allow them to address one glaring need in a big way, perhaps benefiting from a run of three or even four quarterbacks in the seven picks ahead of them. They have major questions to answer in the next few weeks, including how prominent a veteran quarterback they’ll sign to compete with second-year pro Desmond Ridder, whether they keep tackle Kaleb McGary and how they upgrade a pass rush that had 23 fewer sacks than any other NFL team over the past two seasons.

First priority: Which free agents do they keep?

Atlanta has 23 unrestricted free agents, but of those, only truly four were what you’d consider full-time players: McGary, linebacker Rashaan Evans, outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter and receiver Olamide Zaccheaus. The rest were part-time or role players, unlikely to command high-dollar contracts on the open market, so the decision is just how much of your returning depth do you want to bring back on modest deals.

We’ll start with McGary, one of Atlanta’s most improved players in 2022. The Falcons last spring declined to exercise his fifth-year option, which would have paid him $13.2 million in 2023, and it made sense then, as he hadn’t ranked among Pro Football Focus’ top 50 graded tackles in any of his first three seasons. But he was their No. 4 tackle in 2022, so he’ll command even more than that option salary on the open market. Spotrac estimated his market value at four years, $71 million, or $17.7 million per year.

Keep in mind Atlanta has tackle Jake Matthews, 31, making good money at one tackle spot, and his guaranteed salary is up after this season, and the Falcons are paying Pro Bowl guard Chris Lindstrom $13.2 million on his fifth-year option, so he’ll be commanding another big contract next spring. So any long-term decision on McGary will impact how easily the Falcons can keep the other two top linemen beyond this season. If they don’t re-sign him, they might be tempted to use the No. 8 pick on a prospect like Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski, to address the position solidly now, at the expense of their pass rush.

The other in-house decisions are much less expensive. Evans, who led the team with 159 tackles, was a steal last year at $1.75 million and at 27 could triple his salary and still be reasonable. Zaccheaus, stepping in as a No. 2 receiver with Calvin Ridley’s suspension, had underwhelming stats (40 catches, 533 yards, 3 TDs) and could be back for as little as $3-4 million a year. Carter, 27, had similar production to his last year with the Giants and shouldn’t cost much more than the $3.5 million he made this past season.

Lindstrom and McGary are the Falcons’ only remaining 2019 draft picks, so there aren’t many core young players to worry about losing. Corner Isaiah Oliver, 26, was limited over the past two seasons by a torn ACL, but could be brought back inexpensively as the nickel corner. Most of the rest are special-teams players who might not be seen as more than that, though one to watch is defensive lineman Abdullah Anderson, a restricted free agent at 27 who had 40 tackles and his first real NFL success playing for his fourth team in as many seasons.

Trade for Allen Robinson

The Falcons could use a proven playmaker to add to their young talents in receiver Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts. We’ll make a suggestion: Trade for Rams receiver Allen Robinson, who is available via trade as Los Angeles looks to shed expensive contracts. The Rams are said to be willing to pay part of Robinson’s guaranteed $15 million salary. Let’s say they pay $5 million and the Falcons give up a sixth-round pick, basically a team with cap space and a need helping out a team seeking flexibility.

Robinson played for Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone in Chicago, and was a huge part of the Bears offense, with more than 150 targets in 2019 and 2020. He had more than 3,000 yards and 17 touchdowns in three years working with Ragone, and his presence would take pressure off London, who was a focus of opposing secondaries for most of his rookie year. Atlanta would be essentially getting Robinson for two years and $25 million, not a bad deal if he returns to anything close to his Chicago production — he’s still only 29.

This offseason has both a lukewarm class of free-agent receivers and a lackluster year of draft prospects at the position, so this is a reasonable compromise that allows the Falcons to upgrade in the passing game for better offensive balance while not having to overpay for the otherwise mediocre talent available.

Raid the Saints defense

New Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen spent the past six years with the Saints, and given New Orleans’ cap restrictions, he should be able to pluck a few players from his former team to not only upgrade Atlanta’s defense but to help returning players understand how he likes defense to be played.

You’ll see pass-rusher Marcus Davenport mentioned here, and while he lines up with a huge need for the Falcons, he’ll be the most expensive of the Saints’ likely departures, drawing north of $20 million a year. He also had 0.5 sacks total last year, so while teams will pay him based on a nine-sack 2021 season, he might want a new scheme with a new team. It would be a loud, visible way for the Falcons to address their lack of pass rush, but maybe not the most effective use of cap space.

Instead, perhaps they pilfer a few less expensive options, like defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, who’s only 27 and saw his role steadily increase in playing time. The Falcons have a young linebacker in Troy Andersen, but if they weren’t re-signing Evans, they could look at Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss, who had a breakout season with 78 tackles and seven sacks and still should be reasonably priced. Another role player would be safety Justin Evans, a former Bucs draft pick who returned after missing three years with injury and had 29 tackles in his return.

Continue to upgrade the defense

As a default, let’s assume the Falcons use the No. 8 pick on a pass-rusher — they won’t be able to get Alabama’s Will Anderson, but if there’s a glut of quarterbacks at the top, they’d do well to score Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson or Clemson’s Myles Murphy.

They’ll want to add more proven sack production in free agency, and one potential match is Arden Key, a former Raiders first-round pick who has stepped up in the past two years with a combined 11 sacks. Jacksonville won’t be able to keep all their free agents and got Key for just $4 million last year — the Falcons could more than double that and still get value at two years, $20 million, allowing Key to return to his hometown as well.

At safety, the pie-in-the-sky signing would be the Bengals’ Jessie Bates, but he’ll be expensive and tough to get. So we’ll suggest a more familiar option: Packers safety Adrian Amos, who played the past three years with new Falcons assistant Jerry Gray. Amos turns 30 next month but is durable and consistent — he’s coming off his first 100-tackle season but could probably be available for three years and $18 million.

Still unknown at quarterback

The combination of ample cap space and no obvious starting quarterback has made the Falcons a popular target for a massive trade for Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, who remains in contract limbo with Baltimore. He almost certainly will get the franchise tag this week, which sets up the option of a trade if the Ravens convince themselves they’re not being able to work out a long-term contract. How long will teams wait to not only address quarterback with other options but also keep open the cap flexibility such a trade would require? We don’t know if this is something that will resolve itself in the next few weeks or closer to the draft.

Lamar Jackson posts cryptic tweet

Lamar Jackson posts cryptic tweet

Emmanuel Acho and LeSean McCoy discuss Lamar Jackson’s “no matter the circumstances never crack just relax” tweet amid contract negotiations with the Ravens.

Despite the room and the need, the Falcons haven’t been as active, for instance, in courting Derek Carr, as the Saints and Panthers have within the division. That could point to a confidence in Ridder, but also a desire to not use a huge portion of their cap flexibility on a veteran quarterback. It’s possible they’ll be content to approach the position much the same way they did last year in signing Marcus Mariota, a former high draft pick but on a modest budget below that of an expected starter.

Who fits that half-measure profile this year, as someone who could compete with but not eliminate Ridder as a starting option? It’s hard to know Atlanta’s specific likes and dislikes, but you could point to former Browns starter Baker Mayfield, who turns 28 next month, or Gardner Minshew, still 26 and coming off two years as a backup, much like Mariota was. The Falcons are in much the same boat as the Bucs and Kyle Trask, with a young, second-day-draft-pick quarterback they’re not ready to write off yet but can’t all-in commit to either. 

For now, it feels like quarterback purgatory, but Atlanta should have a better answer, good or bad, a year from now.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.  

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