How the Falcons can have an ideal offseason building around Matt Ryan (Part 3)

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This is part three of our three-part series on what an ‘ideal’ offseason could look like to get the Falcons back to the playoffs in 2021. Check out part one and part two if you have not already. 

In the first part of the series, I presented a different way of interpreting Matt Ryan’s disappointing past couple of years. I used Aaron Rodgers’ “down years” as reference points instead of isolating Ryan’s statistics and taking them for face value. What it showed was Ryan’s past two years were eerily similar, statistically, to Rodgers’ “down years” — 2017 and 2018 under Mike McCarthy. Following ahead with Green Bay’s timeline, Rodgers has returned to an MVP-caliber quarterback this season due mostly to a change in offensive philosophies.

In the second part of the series, I gave my choices and reasoning for the general manager and head coach. I chose the Saints’ vice president/assistant general manager of pro personnel to be my general manager — Terry Fontenot. I chose Titans’ offensive coordinator to be my head coach — Arthur Smith. I gave my rationalization in great detail as to why I believe Smith and Fontenot are the right choices, so be sure to check out part two

For the last part of this series, I will attempt to act as Fontenot and Smith would together and build my roster. I used the tools offered on Spotrac and OverTheCap to construct the most talented roster possible while abiding by the 2021 salary cap. When envisioning the roster, I also kept in mind Uncle Arthur’s vision to compete immediately and sustain success. The NFLPA and NFL this past summer agreed for the salary cap floor to be $175 million for 2021. Still, the estimated cap — which will double as our imaginary cap number — would be around $186 million, according to CBS. 

The Falcons currently have 32 players under contract for the 2021 season that total over $203 million, which is $17 million over the projected cap. Restructuring or extending the costly contracts is the most efficient way to sustain the talent level while reducing the current cap hit. The top-earning players for 2021 are Matt Ryan, Julio JonesGrady JarrettJake MatthewsDante Fowler, and Deion Jones, who account for over 50% of the Falcons’ estimated salary cap.

I wrote about this topic similarly in early November. Much of the transactions I noted of the higher-earning players will remain true. Where there are the most discrepancies is outside the top ten earning players. Check the November article out to see the differences!

“My candidates for a restructure are Matt RyanJulio Jones, and Jake Matthews. In a restructure, a team converts some of a player’s non-guaranteed base salary or bonuses into a guaranteed signing bonus, which is prorated through the remaining years of a player’s contract. Restructuring is a common maneuver to gain room for the current cap year at the cost of adding liabilities against future cap years.”

These three would save a hefty percentage of the cap if they agreed to the restructures. I could see Julio and Matt being easier to convince than Matthews would be. If Matt and Julio had it their way, they would be lifelong Falcons. Whether they are willing to take a slight modification in salary or not is something different entirely. It would be on the new regime to convince the two cornerstones of this offense it is worth it. I believe it is reasonable to convince two of the three to restructure — Julio and Matt being the most probable.

“Restructuring the maximum amount of base salary for all of the aforementioned players (Minus Matthews) would reduce Atlanta’s salary cap from $203 million to $179 million. The change in cap hit for each player in 2021 would be $40 million to $26 million (Matt Ryan) and $23 million to $13 million (Julio Jones).”

Another quick fix to save money is extending players. Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett are the most logical choices. Both are young and just entering their primes. The only issue is both have recently signed extensions and might choose to revisit a third contract to get an adequate market price. There would have to be language in the contract that resets their annual salary based on the average earnings of players at their positions, similar to how the franchise tag works. Extending both players would save the Falcons a total of $16 million ($5.8–Jones;$10–Jarrett) and drop Atlanta’s cap sheet to $163 million, $25 million under the cap.

Where the problems start to present themselves is with Dante Fowler Jr. and many other lesser earning players. Fowler’s play this season was downright embarrassing, but I will say he is a freak and can probably turn it on whenever he wants if healthy. I would think the new regime will give him another year in a new system, and if he does not fit in the new system, cut him and take the losses.

Choosing Arthur Smith, I know exactly the personnel needed to fit his system. What is more difficult is determining the defensive coordinator and their system. Most of the fringe players are on the defensive side of the ball as well. I would cut Dante FowlerRicardo AllenAllen Bailey, and Tyeler Davison due to their lack of production. But a new defensive coordinator could utilize their talents better in a different system, so they will survive another year. That is 32 rostered players, roughly $25 million under the 2021 salary cap. The rest of the 32 players signed through the 2021 season will be untouched because they are either on a team-friendly rookie contract or a reasonably priced veteran contract.

Moving onto the 2021 draft class. Using OverTheCap’s total rookie pool, it is estimated that the entire rookie draft class will cost the Falcons $10 million. The rookie pool is the total cost in cap dollars that a team needs to sign its rookies in the summer. The cap space required to do this is less than the rookie pool. This is because every draft pick signed will replace a player already counting against the cap. The effective cap spaced needed is equal to: Rookie Pool – ($660,000 x number of picks). Using this method, the $10M rookie pool minus the $6.6M of replaced players brings the 2021 draft class’s actual cost to $3.4 million.

Unless you take a quarterback (Justin Field or Zach Wilson) or Penei Sewell, the best decision is to trade down in the draft. Be on the lookout for my mock draft edition of this series to see what rookies I think will have the biggest impact. But to continue with the roster numbers, I should point out I accounted for ten picks instead of seven. This indicates a trade-down scenario and brings the roster number to 42 with $22.5 million left to spend in free agency.

The only thing left to do is sign a couple of veterans to round out the roster. Due to the familiarity from New Orleans between Fontenot and Sheldon Rankins, I have the Falcons signing him to a deal worth two years, $13.5 million ($6.75M APY). This will give Jarrett a running mate inside and eliminate the possibility of depending on a rookie. With Dante Fowler’s poor play, the most important free agent brought in this offseason will surely be a defensive lineman.

At safety, the Falcons are thin and only have Ricardo Allen signed for next season. Jaquiski Tartt has missed a chunk of this season due to injury but is extremely reliable and can play next to anyone. So regardless if it is Allen or a rookie, Tartt for two years, $8 million ($4M APY) is a win-win situation for a safety in a crowded free-agent class. To bolster a thin secondary even more, signing Jason Verrett for two years, $9.5 million ($4.25M APY) — a supremely talented player that has finally proven it on the field after being riddled with injuries for much of his career — would be tremendous. With those three signings, there are 45 players now rostered and $7.5 million left in the salary cap.

There are many current Falcons players set to hit free agency this offseason. Bringing back a select few on reasonable deals is a smart move. Re-signing Damontae Kazee ($990,000), Blidi Wreh-Wilson ($1.075M), and Younghoe Koo($850,000) provides cheap depth at positions of need. 48 rostered players, $4.5 million left to spend. With just three more players until the top 51, I will reserve those spots for the undrafted free agents who always fill out the roster.

Atlanta still has the frame of a good roster. Some holes need drywall patching, but with the right finisher, this team is instantly competitive again. A 4-12 record is bad, bottom five bad, i.e., #4 overall pick. But finishing an abysmal 0-7 in one-score games suggests the roster is significantly better than their record. In one swift offseason, this team can get back to nine or ten wins and compete for the playoffs. With an additional offseason, the Falcons could be following the same blueprint for “rebuilds” that the Packers are currently writing.

For this all to work, the draft class must be a success… Be sure to look out for my mock draft, which will wrap up our perfect offseason. 

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