Falcons: First day frugality could be sign of what’s to come in 2021

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The new league year starts tomorrow, and the legal tampering period began yesterday at noon. While other teams like the Patriots are going on a shopping frenzy, the Falcons have stayed put, tendering only one internal free agent — Matt Gono.

A second-rounder tender will be $3.384 million, so it shows exactly what the organization thinks of Gono. I wouldn’t imagine Fontenot paying a backup that amount of money; he clearly thinks Gono will push to start at either the open guard spot or at tackle. But this conservative approach could be something we see the entire offseason.

It is no secret Fontenot has many holes to fill on the roster, including a complete overhaul at the safety position and a starter opposite A.J. Terrell. The Falcons would be hard-pressed to come away with two starting-caliber safeties in April’s draft without severally handcuffing themselves. Specifically, targeting a single position is a recipe for over-reaching. Running back, safety, cornerback, defensive line, and offensive line are all positions of need, but which will be allocated towards the free agency bill Fontenot racks up this offseason?

It could be none; as we saw yesterday, the Falcons were docile while other teams were writing checks. Or it could be Fontenot waiting for the markets to steady before jumping in, which is a smart decision given most early contracts are inflated. The best deals usually come the second day and beyond — the diamonds in the rough.

Expect something in the middle, where Fontenot will be incredibly frugal this offseason while signing a few free agents out of the bargain bin to give him more options come draft day. The entire point of free agency, in my eyes, is to round out rosters, while the draft is where your team’s building blocks come from. Lessening the number of holes, even if it’s addressing depth issues, during free-agency will be conducive to the Falcons nailing the NFL draft.

There are plenty of ways to sign high-caliber free agents via backloaded contracts. For instance, John Johnson signed with the Cleveland Browns on a three-year deal worth $33.75 million, which at first seems to be a hefty cap hit in 2021 if the deal is $11 million per year, but it’s not. The salary is escalating, which means it continually rises from 2021 through 2023. This year’s cap hit is only $5.25 million for Johnson — a meager price for someone of his quality.

There are ways to get around this year’s shrinking salary cap, but Fontenot will have to mortgage some of the team’s future if he is to cash in on some of these undervalued free agents. For instance, that $5 million cap hit for Johnson in 2021 turns to $11 million, then $17 million in 2023 — making it nearly impossible to move off him due to his guarantees. It is possible to acquire starting-caliber talent, but there will be a cost to pay either now or in the future.

The cheap, free-agent deals will come, but it could be at least a few days. If Falcons fans want something to look forward to, Fontenot is still $6-$8 million over the cap, so expect more restructures or transactions to get Atlanta under the $182.5 million cap by the start of the new league year.

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