Terry Fontenot and the front office have built the Falcons roster with one hand tied behind their backs. When the new regime took over following the 2020 season, the team’s salary cap was infested with bloated, overpriced contracts that Fontenot has slowly but surely unloaded. Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, Deion Jones, Dante Fowler and most recently Calvin Ridley were all traded away. It’s come at a price, though.
The Falcons are currently operating with more dead money than any organization, except for the Bears, who just recently took the bottom spot following the trades of Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith. Atlanta began the season with the fewest cap dollars allocated to active rostered players yet sits atop of the NFC South with a 4-4 record. And they’ll have as much cap space as anyone this offseason.
For the most part, they’ve completely surpassed preseason expectations, which were as pessimistic as predicting the Falcons to pick No. 1 overall in the 2023 NFL Draft. It’s come in unorthodox ways, but the Falcons are winning games. Arthur Smith deserves a bulk of the credit for the culture he’s instilled in Flowery Branch and the way he’s navigated a shaky quarterback situation.
For the most part, the Falcons are doing it with inexpensive free agent rentals and drafted players on rookie deals. The contracts Fontenot has handed out have been predominantly one-year pacts, meaning there will be a ton of turnover this offseason. There are exceptions; several have received multi-year deals — Mike Davis, Cordarrelle Patterson, Casey Hayward, and Marcus Mariota. Outside of them, it’s been mostly drafted players and free agents on one-year contracts.
With all of that turnover, the Falcons will surely bring back a few of their own free agents while looking to the open market to improve in other areas. Below is the complete list (26) of all the team’s impending free agents and who have already earned another contract with the team. Since there are so many, I’ll place them into categories based on how likely they’ll be re-signed.
OLB Lorenzo Carter, WR Olamide Zaccheaus, LG Elijah Wilkinson, WR Damiere Byrd, CB Michael Ford, RB Caleb Huntley
RT Kaleb McGary, LB Rashaan Evans, P Bradley Pinion, S Erik Harris, DL Vincent Taylor, LS Beau Brinkley, WR Khadarel Hodge, TE MyCole Pruitt, OL Colby Gossett, DL Matt Dickerson, DL Abdullah Anderson, LS Liam McCullough, CB Rashad Fenton
RB Damien Williams, OL Germain Ifedi, TE Anthony Firkser, LB Nick Kwiatkoski, OL Chuma Edoga
Carter gives the EDGE unit a veteran, and if the Falcons don’t get a premier pass rusher this offseason, the Atlanta native will be back on a similar one-year deal. Zaccheaus gives the Falcons offense a different type of pass catcher than Drake London and Kyle Pitts. Wilkinson’s presence in place of Jalen Mayfield has been a revelation for the offense’s overall success. He’s still just an average player, so the Falcons could easily get better if they want to spend the money. Huntley has been the most outstanding out of the bunch who are very likely to return in 2023. In the absence of Cordarrelle Patterson, the second-year pro has been impressive.
The 50/50 is closer to 75/25 in some instances and 25/75 in others. I think Evans, Harris, Taylor, Brinkley, McCullough, and Gossett are the most likely to return of this group. But many of these guys are just rotational players. The two biggest names here are McGary and Evans. Troy Andersen should be able to take over for the veteran linebacker, but assuming he develops into a starting-caliber player in one full offseason isn’t exactly reliable. I could see the Falcons bringing Evans back, just in case. McGary is having the best season of his career in a contract year. I could see a one-year deal happening if the team can’t find an adequate replacement, but there’s no chance McGary gets a multi-deal.