Falcons: Recapping free agency and the salary cap outlook

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Going into the legal tampering period, the Falcons were around $10-$15 million over the $182.5 million salary cap. Reworking Dante Fowler, Tyeler Davison, Jake Matthews, and Matt Ryan’s contracts created a total of $32.6 million in cap space —  $8 million from Fowler’s pay cut, $2 million from Davison’s pay cut, $8.6 million from Matthews’ restructure, and $14 million from Ryan’s restructure. This flurry of moves got the Falcons under the salary cap before the new league year started on March 17th.

In his first outside acquisition, Terry Fontenot struck a deal with Brandon Beane of the Buffalo Bills that sent a conditional seventh-round pick to Buffalo in exchange for tight end Lee Smith, who comes with a $2.25 million cap hit in 2020. Lee isn’t much of a threat as a receiver, though he does have reliable hands; the 33-year-old is a sixth offensive lineman the way he blocks in the running game — something Arthur Smith’s offense benefits greatly from.

Fontenot then made his first “splash” in free agency by signing veterans Erik Harris and Brandon Copeland to one-year deals. Harris is on a one-year, $1.35 million contract, and Copeland is on a one-year, $900,000 contract. Harris will be the de facto starting safety purely based on the lack of competition thus far, but I would expect Fontenot to bring in at least a few more safeties through the draft and free agency. The former Raider has been praised for his exceptional leadership and communication, providing value on special teams as well — somewhere he can always contribute if Fontenot brings in superior safeties later in the offseason.

Copeland will have more of a rotational role in Dean Pees’ defense, which deploys many subpackage personnel. Harris will see the field regardless of additions at safety because of how much nickel and dime the Falcons will play. Copeland is a versatile off-ball linebacker who can stand up and rush the passer on the outside — another calling card of Pees’ defense. He isn’t spectacular in any area, but he’s serviceable in all areas — solid against the run, rushing the passer, and defending the pass. A connection to Dean Pees and Frank Bush, too, makes more sense of the move.

Harris and Copeland signed cheap contracts, which seems to be the new regime’s first offseason trend. As the roster stands today, the Falcons have approximately $4 million in cap space before accounting for a $1.78 million rollover from the prior year — according to Spotrac. Against the $182.5 million cap, the Falcons have approx. $5-$6 million in cap space. Fontenot said that he didn’t really have a choice but to restructure Matt Ryan’s contract. However, there are other moves on the table he will consider to create more cap space.

Restructuring Grady Jarrett, Julio Jones, and Deion Jones would open up around $23 million in cap space. Jarrett would save about $8 million in space this year, while Debo would save a little over $5 million. Julio’s $10 million savings is hard not to consider this year but makes it more difficult to part ways with him in the future. Doing the same thing with Jarrett and Debo would increase their cap hits in 2022 and limit other options this year and potentially next.

Extending Jarrett and Debo makes more sense than a restructure, which could simultaneously reduce their cap hits and ensure their place in the defense. It isn’t black and white; Fontenot could extend while also restructuring some of their money; he could do the same with Julio as well, converting only a portion of his base salary into a signing bonus rather than the entire base.

Regardless of how Fontenot chooses to go about it, they will need to create more cap space. The 2021 draft class will cost approx. $12.5 million if the Falcons make no trades and come away with nine players at their current picks — according to Spotrac. If the Falcons trade back from the fourth overall pick, that figure could increase depending on the haul of picks Fontenot receives.

Atlanta was rumored to be interested in David Andrews, who resigned with the Patriots. But there were even rumors that Fontenot is still firmly in the free-agent market for a center, revealing how the new regime feels about Matt Hennessey. The roster is beginning to take shape, but one thing is clear, the Falcons will be relying on in-house players. The starting offense is essentially set outside of center and guard. The defense has great foundational pieces in place, with some rotational players that showed well in limited time last year.

The coaching and scheme put in place will be the difference from a season ago as most of this roster will look the same as 2020. The offense will surely take a step forward in a superior scheme to Dirk Koetter’s primitive system, but the defense is the question mark. Dean Pees fielded some pretty good groups in Tennessee, so if he can maximize the talent afforded to him, the Falcons don’t really need to spend any serious money on free agents this year.

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