The Falcons have approximately $500K-$600K in salary cap space, which means Terry Fontenot will have to find himself some breathing room to sign the 2021 draft class. Atlanta doesn’t have to make any moves just yet, but these transactions are imminent. There isn’t just one answer to the Falcons’ salary cap woes; Fontenot may have to use a combination of cap relieving moves to afford the approximately $7 million rookie class.
The most efficient way to create that much-needed cap space would be to restructure Grady Jarrett, which would generate almost exactly the amount needed to sign the rookies. Maybe Fontenot knows this option is always on the table; therefore, he’ll use it as a last resort. The first-year general manager could also be looking to hand out the first extension of the new regime, and both sides could be entering negotiations now that the draft has ended. There is a clause in Jarrett’s contract stating the team has the right to restructure without approval from Jarrett’s camp, so we may not hear about anything until it already happens.
Seeing as Jarrett should be a part of Arthur Smith and Fontenot’s long-term plans, there is no reason to believe a restructure or extension isn’t coming in the next few months. But there are other ways Fontenot can give himself more cap space too. There have already been trade rumors circulating around Julio Jones, but his contract could be restructured too. Giving Jarrett a max restructure is much different than max restructuring Jones’ contract because of their age and future with the team. A partial restructure is much more likely for the All-Pro wideout — a $4.225 million restructure from his $14.225 million base salary creates just under $3 million in cap space.
Beyond restructures and extensions, Fontenot has already shown a willingness to cut players from the past regime he doesn’t see fit the bill. Friend of the site, Ito Smith, was cut in what made little sense given the financial ramifications. Right now, there are two options to cut, but both for wildly different reasons.
Isaiah Oliver is an obvious choice as he’s struggled to find his niche in the league after being drafted in the second round of the 2018 draft. Each year, he seemed to take one step forward and then two back. The former Buffalo found success last season in the slot where he could play closer to the line and support the run more, but with a new regime, the merit he built with Raheem Morris is rendered useless. Cutting Oliver would save the Falcons around $1.5 million, and he would carry a $363K dead cap figure. Using those savings on the rookie class or a veteran corner like Brian Poole or Darqueze Dennard for around $1 million would be a much smarter allocation of precious cap dollars.
The last option might ruffle some feathers, but I think it’s possible, so I want to explore the idea of cutting Russell Gage. Disclaimer: I am an LSU alumnus, so this pains me just as much as any of you. Wide receiver is one of the Falcons’ strongest position groups, but cutting Gage would only save Atlanta around $1.5 million against this year’s cap. A similar amount as Oliver, but the difference is Gage’s career trajectory is much more encouraging than his counterpart. It would sting a bit to see Gage go — who has established himself as the team’s third wide receiver — because he would likely go on to be another team’s second option. But Arthur Smith runs more multiple tight end sets than anyone in the league, which inherently means fewer snaps for Gage — possibly making him expendable.
I listed these scenarios in order of probability, from most likely to least likely to happen. Jarrett’s extension or restructure is all but guaranteed; Julio’s base salary could use a partial restructure; Oliver has been disappointing thus far, but a new scheme could do wonders for a young player; Gage’s cap savings make it tempting, but the value he provides as a third wide receiver far outweigh his cap hit. In any case, Fontenot will have to find a way to create more cap space.
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