This offseason will entail more personnel and administrative turnover than any previous year. The reason for such a lack of continuity is the firing of Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff, coupled with the salary cap’s response to the pandemic. I wrote about the future of the salary cap after the Falcons dropped to 0-2, where I detailed how tightly strapped the Atlanta front office would be during the 2021 offseason. There are endless strategies for the new regime to approach the 2021 offseason. The two opposing ends of the spectrum are also the most popular among fans, a total overhaul of the roster or an offseason with the 2021 NFL playoffs in mind. In this particular article, we will attempt to generate the latter by cutting, restructuring, or extending currently rostered players while taking into consideration the 2021 free agent and draft classes.
I used the tools offered on Spotrac and OverTheCap to assemble the most talented roster possible while abiding by the 2021 salary cap. The NFLPA and NFL this past summer agreed for the salary cap floor to be $175 million for 2021. Still, the estimated cap — which will double as our imaginary cap number — would be around $186 million, according to CBS.
The Falcons currently have 32 players under contract for the 2021 season that total over $203 million, which is $17 million over the projected cap. Restructuring or extending the costly contracts is the most efficient way to sustain the talent level while reducing the current cap hit. My candidates for a restructure are Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Jake Matthews. In a restructure, a team converts some of a player’s non-guaranteed base salary or bonuses into a guaranteed signing bonus, which is prorated through the remaining years of a player’s contract. Restructuring is a common maneuver to gain room for the current cap year at the cost of adding liabilities against future cap years.
Restructuring the maximum amount of base salary for all of the aforementioned players would reduce Atlanta’s salary cap from $203 million to $171 million. The change in cap hit for each player in 2021 would be $40 million to $26 million (Matt Ryan), $23 million to $13 million (Julio Jones), and $20 million to $12 million (Jake Matthews). Obviously, this is all predicated on the assumption each and every transaction is approved by the player.
While extensions are usually considered to be given to players who are (or will soon become) free agents, they can also be used to give teams cap relief. By adding years onto a player’s existing contract, a team can, like a restructure, prorate a large non-guaranteed amount more effectively.
Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett are the young building blocks of this defense, and both deserve to be extended. I extended both Jones and Jarrett an additional two years on their current deals, using the same yearly average of their current deals on their extensions. Jones’ extension drops his 2021 cap hit from $12 million to $9 million, and Jarrett’s extension cuts his 2021 cap hit from $20 million to $15 million. These two extensions lock up essential pieces for the future on an otherwise poor defense while simultaneously decreasing the cap number from $171 million to $162 million for 2021.
Deion Jones base salary: ’21- $8.2M to $5M, ’22- $9.64M to $5M, ’23- $12M to $8M; Extension: ’24- $18 M, ’25- $18M
Grady Jarrett base salary: ’21- $135.5M to $10M, ’22- $16.5M to $13M; Extension: ’23- $19 M, ’24- $19M
Evaluating the current roster for the future head coach and general manager is difficult because the offensive and defensive schemes are still unknown. Man vs. zone, 4-3 vs. 3-4, and run-heavy vs. air raid all require different personnel. I personally would cut Dante Fowler, Ricardo Allen, Allen Bailey, and Tyeler Davison due to their lack of production. But a new defensive coordinator could utilize their talents better in a new system. As a compromise, I chose to cut Allen Bailey and Ricardo Allen because of their shorter contracts. Fowler and Davison are set to become free agents in 2023, which encouraged me to keep both. Cutting Ricardo Allen and Allen Bailey saves the team $6 million and $5 million, bringing the current salary cap number to $151 million, about $35 million under the cap with 30 players signed.
The rest of the 30 players signed through the 2021 season will be untouched because they are either on a team-friendly rookie contract or a reasonably priced veteran contract. There are many current Falcons players set to hit free agency this offseason. Bringing back a select few on reasonable deals is a smart move. Re-signing Brian Hill ($990,000) Matt Gono ($920,000), Damontae Kazee ($990,000), Blidi Wreh-Wilson ($1.075M), Younghoe Koo ($850,000), and Charles Harris ($990,000) provides cheap depth at positions of need. These signings would bring the team’s salary cap figure up to approximately $155 million.
With 36 players currently under contract, we will shift focus towards the 2021 NFL draft. Using OverTheCap’s total rookie pool, it is estimated that the entire rookie draft class will cost the Falcons $10 million. The Rookie Pool is the total cost in cap dollars that a team needs to sign its rookies in the summer. The cap space required to do this is less than the rookie pool. This is because every draft pick signed will replace a player already counting against the cap. The effective cap spaced needed is equal to: Rookie Pool – ($660,000 x number of picks). Using this method, the $10M rookie pool minus the $6.6M of replaced players brings the 2021 draft class’s actual cost to $3.4 million.
Instead of using the first-round pick on a quarterback to develop, I will select a player using the best player available strategy. The Falcons have ten picks in next year’s draft, but we are only interested in the first four rounds. I do this because the dropoff from the fourth to fifth round is the largest in terms of added production in their rookie year.
First-round, pick #6: Patrick Surtain, CB, Alabama
Second-round, pick #37: Tyler Shelvin, IDL, LSU or Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan
Third-round, pick #70: Richard LeCounte, S, Georiga
Fourth-round, pick #106: Chubba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State
Patrick Surtain is the best cornerback in this draft and is as pro-ready as any prospect at any position. The Falcons did spend their first-round pick on a corner last year, but with AJ Terrell and Kendall Sheffield still developing and Isaiah Oliver‘s play disappointing, it is never a bad idea to add a day one starter.
At the beginning of the second round, there are a few options that might be available. Tyler Shelvin would pair nicely with Grady Jarrett as he demands double-teams and is the best run-stuffing nose tackle in the draft. Kwity Paye has jumped onto the scene after an impressive performance against Minnesota. He is a power rusher who could wreak havoc on offensive lines when combined with Jarrett’s finesse. Either would be a good selection in my eyes. Richard LeCounte could fall to the third round as he was involved in a serious car accident. But this could be where Atlanta finds the best value at a position of need. In the fourth round, it does not have to be Chubba Hubbard, but a running back is a must at this pick. A new starting cornerback, defensive lineman, and safety would vastly change the identity of this defense.
After the NFL draft, the Falcons salary cap would be approximately $160 million ($15 million under the estimated cap), with 46 players now signed for the 2021 season. The team could find seven cheap depth players, but again, the point of this article is to show fans that this team can make the playoffs with a few tweaks, so we will find quality 2021 free agent veterans to complete this roster.
Free agency will be different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic; teams will be more frugal than normal when acquiring veterans. This means that Atlanta could sign a player they normally would not be able to afford. With only $15 million left in cap space, I must find low-cost, high-yielding free agents.
On offense, the entire starting line is eerily similar to this year, with a few discrepancies. At running back, Todd Gurley will be replaced by a combination of Brian Hill, Ito Smith, and Chubba Hubbard or whichever running back selected in the draft. Matt Hennessy takes over for Alex Mack at the center position, but the rest stays the same. Austin Blythe and David Andrews would be solid replacements if Atlanta was not confident in Hennessy’s ability. Blythe carries a $3.9M APY, and Andrews carries a $3M APY, which would mean Hennessy would play a backup role yet again for center and guard. Lane Taylor and Ethan Pocic could also be brought in relatively cheaply. Taylor commands a $1.5M APY and Pocic a $1.1M APY. It would behoove the front office to rent at least one cheap veteran, possibly two. Pocic has experience at both guard and center, and Taylor has experience at both guard and tackle. These would be my preference due to positional flexibility, which brings the salary cap left to around $13 million.
The defense is clearly the main issue with the Falcons, hence the first three selections in my mock draft. Maliek Collins ($6M APY), Sheldon Rankins ($3.4M APY), Shelby Harris ($3.2M APY), and Davon Godchaux ($650,000) are all free-agent options to bolster the defensive line. This decision would be predicated on the draft selection. If with the second-round pick, the Falcons went with NT Tyler Shelvin, then adding Shelby Harris makes the most sense. If Kwity Paye is selected, then Collins, Rankins, or Godchaux would need to be signed, as they complement each other better. In my front office, I would select Tyler Shelvin and sign Shelby Harris in free agency. Harris’ APY would bring the expendable cap number down to approx. $10 million. The defensive backfield is bleak in my scenario, but signing Bradly McDougald ($4.5M APY) would help with that and leaves around $5 million for the rest of the free-agent class (3 spots left). So to recap, I will create a starting lineup for my 2021 offseason.
QB- Matt Ryan (restructured)
RB- Chubba Hubbard (draft), Brian Hill (FA), Ito Smith
WR- Julio Jones (restructured)
WR- Calvin Ridley
WR- Russell Gage
TE- Hayden Hurst
LT- Jake Matthews (restructured)
G- James Carpenter, Lane Taylor (FA), Ethan Pocic (FA)
C- Matt Hennessy, Ethan Pocic (FA)
RT- Kaleb McGary
EDGE/DE- Dante Fowler
DT- Grady Jarrett (extended)
DT- Marlon Davison, Tyler Shelvin (draft)
EDGE/DE- Shelby Harris (FA)
LB- Deion Jones (extended)
LB- Foye Oluokun
CB- AJ Terrell
S- Richard LeCounte (draft)
S- Bradley McDougald (FA)
Nickel- Damontae Kazee (FA), Kendall Sheffield
CB- Patrick Surtain (draft)
I cannot reiterate this enough when I say this article is evidence that — as they stand today — the Falcons can make the playoffs next year with one ideal offseason. Now logically, all of these things occurring and working out for Atlanta are not likely, but it is certainly plausible. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Jake Matthews are all team-first players, but the likelihood all of them restructure their contracts is slim to none. Still, they could recognize the opportunity to finish their careers in Atlanta while still competing for a Super Bowl to be more important than money. The new regime will most certainly value some players differently from me, resulting in various cuts, extensions, restructures, free agents, and draft prospects I did not mention. Instead of pointing that out, Falcons fans should take one thing with them after reading this, and that is with the right GM and HC, this team can make the playoffs next year.