Falcons: Who is deserving of the first extension from the new regime?

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Terry Fontenot is orchestrating a huge and complex orchestra that is the Atlanta Falcons organization. The most painful thorn in his side has been the league’s $182.5 salary cap. Atlanta has been over the cap for the majority of the offseason, but after a flurry of pay cuts and restructures, Fontenot has been able to acquire a few veterans for cheap. 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.

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. He signed Erik Harris and Brandon Copeland last week to one-year deals, whose cap hits are $1.35 million and $900K, respectively. Then a couple of days ago, Fontenot signed the pair of Mike Davis and Barkevious Mingo, whose cap hits are $2 million (approximately) and $1.025 million, respectively. Davis’s two-year, $5.5 million contract with $3 million guaranteed in the first year makes me think it is more of a one-year deal with a $2 million cap hit in 2020 and $1 million of the guaranteed accounted for a signing bonus.

As the roster stands today, the Falcons have approximately $1.5 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. $2-3 million in 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 some players could make more sense than a restructure, which could simultaneously reduce their cap hit and ensure their time in Atlanta is prolonged. 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 selection, that figure could increase depending on the haul of picks Fontenot receives. There have to be more moves to account for this draft class, and here are some Falcons that could be extended, killing two birds with one stone.

Grady Jarrett

As Jeff Schultz of The Athletic noted, the Falcons haven’t approached Grady Jarrett with a restructure, but they don’t necessarily need to, and the new regime could be waiting for other dominos to fall before pulling this particular trigger.

An extension seems in order, though a long-term deal may be difficult for a first-year regime with so many other moving parts. Jarrett’s deal is always something they can reevaluate if need be. The former Clemson Tiger is clearly going to be a part of whatever Fontenot and Arthur Smith have in store for this franchise, so it’s not a matter of if, but when they choose to restructure or extend him.

Deion Jones

All of these extension candidates are those who will be around Atlanta for a long time. I don’t normally advocate for allocating this much money to the inside linebacker position, but Debo is a game-altering player. Extending the former LSU Tiger would essentially end any speculation about extending or signing Foyesade Oluokon to a new deal, but Jones is still the superior player. Dean Pees needs athletic linebackers who can defend the run, rush the passer, and drop into coverage — a jack of all trades, i.e., Debo.

Jake Matthews

Matthews was given a max-restructure earlier in the offseason that saved the Falcons $8.6 million and dropped his cap to $12.3 million. Since his rookie year in 2014, the former Texas A&M Aggie has only missed one game, which ironically came in his first season; he’s been the healthiest player over that time. Entering his eighth year in the league, Matthews is signed through the 2023 season, which makes him 32 entering the 2024 offseason. His cap hits are $12.3 million, $23.6 million, and $22.4 million for the next three years. Extending him wouldn’t create that much more room in 2021 but would lessen his cap hits over the next three years, which would give Fontenot more flexibility elsewhere.

Other players deserve an extension like Calvin Ridley and Chris Lindstrom, but since they’re still on their rookie deals, it wouldn’t save much money this year. Like what the Packers did with Davante Adams, paying Ridley as soon as possible provides value in the future as he continues to ascend while the wide receiver market continues to inflate. Signing both of these players to long-term deals has to be a priority, but it will likely come next offseason. Ridley’s $11 million club option next year is a bargain for someone of his caliber, but if Fontenot waits till after that season to start negotiations, the price will surely be higher than it would this offseason as he continues to build off his All-Pro season.

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