Every NFL general manager has a salary cap expert on their front office staff, but ultimately a team’s standing with the cap is tied to the GM. Everything a team does from a roster construction standpoint is percolated by the salary cap. Since its introduction in 1994, organizations and their GMs have steadily found new ways to circumnavigate the hard cap of the NFL. Early in its existence, building through the draft and signing young players to team-friendly deals, then acquiring veterans to fill short term holes was the most effective way to generate playoff rosters consistently, but there is no single “correct” way to navigate the cap successfully.
The Atlanta Falcons’ front office and fan base have already begun looking ahead to 2020. Despite almost certainly securing a top 10, potentially top five, draft pick, Thomas Dimitroff and company have a disconcerting offseason ahead. To effectively and efficiently rectify what was once a Super Bowl contender, the front office must cut bait on some of their aging stars as well as “role players.”
Presently, the Falcons will enter 2020 with approximately $1 million in cap space. This number is in anticipation of a 2020 NFL salary cap of $200 million, while also accounting for $6.8 million the team will roll over from 2019. Atlanta’s current 2020 roster has 41 players signed, but it can be presumed that eight players will be added via the draft. That draft class will cost between $9-11 million, which already puts the team in bad standing with the cap before even getting to the final 53-man roster. Therefore, cap casualties will occur, and dead cap will have to be absorbed. The team will make unforeseen cuts, trades, or extensions before the 2020 roster is finalized. Putting aside the possibility of extensions and trades, I will present probable scenarios for cutting players.
All statistics are referenced from Spotrac and represent 2020 figures
(OT) Ty Sambrailo: $5.75M cap hit – $2M dead cap = $3.75M in savings
Sambrailo is more than likely getting cut due to his low cap hit and the team’s investment in Kaleb McGary. The Falcons must cut off all the fat, and the depth behind Sambrailo is sufficient if the team decides to split with him. Assuming a pre-June 1st cut date, the savings are just under $4 million.
(TE) Luke Stocker: $3.35M cap hit – $750K dead cap = $2.6M in savings
Stocker has proven to be less than reliable in both the passing and rushing game. If his disappointing performance is not enough motivation for the front office to move on, his 2020 dead cap figure is minimal and should more than guarantee his departure. On top of that, UDFA Jaeden Graham has proven to be more reliable than his higher-paid teammate.
(DL) Allen Bailey: $6M cap hit – $1.5M dead cap = $4.5M in savings
Unlike the previous two candidates for cuts, Bailey has proven to be consistently productive in an underachieving defense. Though his play may cause Dimitroff to hesitate, I believe the potential savings are too valuable for the front office not to cut.
(QB) Matt Schaub: $2.375M cap hit – $375K dead cap = $2M in savings
Schaub has been one of the most reliable backup QBs in the NFL. Though competing every week, even without a starting QB, is expected, most teams are dramatically less effective offensively with backup QBs. Carrying veteran backups is common among NFL teams. Schaub would prove valuable if the team is in striking distance of the playoffs this time next year, but assuming Atlanta doesn’t complete a full 180, next season will be similar to this. With those expectations, saving $2 million is useful.
(FS) Ricardo Allen: $7.375M cap hit – $4.25M dead cap = $5.25M savings
Allen’s contract might be too expensive to move off of, but his play this season has deployed a convincing argument in why he should be let go. The team will more than likely not move off Allen, but giving Damontae Kazee starting reps could prove fruitful. Gaining positive safety play at a discounted price isn’t likely but possible.
(LG) James Carpenter: $5.2M cap hit – $4.125M dead cap = 3.1 M savings (post-June 1st cut)
James Carpenter has been one of the biggest disappointments in 2019. His frequent injuries and poor play are huge factors in the consideration of his future, and the scariest part about it: Carpenter is due to make even more money over the next three seasons. The Falcons won’t save a lot of cash next year by letting him go, but by making him a post-June 1st cut, they will save over $3 million and won’t have to worry about it much in the future. This seems like the obvious choice given his abysmal play.
(RB) Devonta Freeman: $9.5M cap hit – $6M dead cap = $6.5M savings (post-June 1st cut)
Devonta Freeman is a cornerstone player for the Falcons. However, his production doesn’t correlate to his hefty contract. With a stable of young and hungry running backs behind him, Freeman would generate 6.5 million in savings if cut after June 1st. Dirk Koetter’s offense isn’t doing him any favors, and the offensive line isn’t much better, but this seems like a necessary move – even if the Falcons held off on trading him at the deadline.
Total savings $27.7M
(C) Alex Mack: $10.55 M cap hit – $2.55M dead cap = $8 million savings
Alex Mack has been the best player on Atlanta’s offensive line for years, but he’s taken a step back this season. Perhaps that has to do with the injured elbow he’s been playing through, but either way, he’s going to be 34 in 2020 and is not getting any younger. The front office will have to evaluate if his best days are behind him, and if so, they could save quite a chunk of change by letting him walk.
Total savings: $35.7M
Yes, as things stand now, the Falcons would be in salary cap hell if 2020 free agency started tomorrow. Luckily, it does not. All of Atlanta’s cap “problems” really mean they are going to have plenty of gut-wrenching decisions this offseason. By making these moves, the Falcons would have enough money to ink their entire draft class, plus a little extra to meddle around with in free agency. On top of this, Atlanta can also restructure some of their lucrative contracts, like Matt Ryan’s, opening up even more room for potential additions. Things may look bad on paper now, but a quality GM should be able to navigate this rather seamlessly. The Falcons won’t be the biggest spenders in 2020 free agency, but they should be able to create enough space to sign their rookies, make a bid at Austin Hooper, and still have enough money to fill out the rest of their roster with quality players.