Looking ahead: Falcons 2021 salary cap

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After dropping the first two games of the season, this 2020 Falcons team looks eerily similar to the 2019 squad that was so wildly inconsistent. The season is long and strenuous; anything can happen in the NFL over the course of 17 weeks. Though, I do feel safe in assuming that Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff will do little to convince Arthur Blank to return the current coaches and front office for 2021. Based on that assumption, a total overhaul of the front office and coaching personnel will leave a vacancy with a difficult task to maneuver the roster under the 2021 salary cap while simultaneously improving the talent.

Before contemplating complete roster turnover, every avenue to get this team under the 2021 cap while also deliberately competing for a Super Bowl is necessary. Therefore, I will explain the effects of a decrease in the salary cap and coordinating roster options for the Falcons.

The inevitable drop in the NFL’s salary cap is due to revenue loss because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The NFL and NFLPA reached an agreement in July for the 2021 salary cap to have a $175 million floor after projections for the 2021 cap were $210 million. The two agreed to spread the revenue loss over the course of three years. The 2021 salary cap could always be higher if league revenues are higher than expected. This year’s salary was set at $198.2 million, and I will use the floor number of $175 million for 2021 to discuss potential roster effects. The top 51 Falcons are accounting for approximately $221 million of 2021 cap space.

Franchise tag numbers are certainly going to decrease at every position in 2021 due to the method of calculation. To determine each position’s number, take the sum of the average of the top five salaries for the previous five seasons then divide by the sum of the actual NFL salary cap amount for the prior five seasons. According to the CBA, the result is called the cap percentage average, which is then multiplied by the actual salary cap for the upcoming year. Unless the NFL and NFLPA agree to freeze transition and franchise tag numbers, there will be a drop in figures.

There are few Falcons, if any at all, that could potentially be franchise-tagged this coming offseason. Alex Mack, Keanu Neal, Todd Gurley, Takk McKinley, Damontae Kazee, and Younghoe Koo are all the starters set to become free agents in 2021. The only reasonable recipient (which is still irresponsible) for the 2021 tag would be Younghoe Koo. Koo has been a bright spot in a mostly dark last couple of seasons in Atlanta. McKinley and Kazee might prove to be ascending talents this year but are not deserving of making the kind of money a franchise tag would garner. 

Realistically, no player on this team is worthy of the franchise tag in 2021.

The reduction in salary cap will result in a frenzy of player releases due to organizations letting go of more players than usual to comply with the lower cap number. One-year prove it deals for the 2020 season could result in lost compensation for the following year if performance is not at a high level. 

Todd Gurley and Brian Hill are the most notable one-year contracts currently on the roster. Gurley will more than likely sign a new deal this offseason, which leaves Hill. He is a quality running back that the Falcons could seek out at a discount.

Restructuring contracts is a good way to create cap space. There are infinite ways to do this, but the most common approach is to convert salary into prorated signing bonuses. This allows players to stay with the current team at their current figure but gives instant relief for the team by backloading the contact, “buy now, pay later.” 

Players that carry the highest percentage of the team’s cap will be candidates for this method. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Jake Matthews, and Grady Jarrett are all Falcons through and through. Therefore, these players would be the most effective avenue in maintaining talent while reducing the cap in 2020. If all were to restructure, there would be an immense debt lifted off the 2021 salary cap.

Cap space created by cuts is a useful way to drop a team’s cap number quickly. Unfortunately, this process entails the possibility of a reduction in talent. The three prospective cuts for the 2021 season are Ricardo Allen, James Carpenter, and Allen Bailey. If cut, (Allen) Bailey would save the team $4.5 million; (James) Carpenter would save the team $4.7 million, and (Ricardo) Allen would save the team $6.25 million. The total savings for these three would be over $15 million and would leave minimal openings.

With the current roster value of $220 million in 2021 and the expected salary cap of $175 million, the team is approximately $45 million over the cap. The Falcons are in one of the worst financial situations in the league and must make drastic changes to the current roster to be deemed ‘under’ the cap. 

Thomas Dimitroff knows that the situation is fluid, “I’m not worried,” Dimitroff said, via the AJC. “I’m only really, really focused on how we would adjust. We can only project so much. I don’t want to get caught up in worrying about it over and over and spending so much time on something that far out in the future because we really don’t know what it’s going to be.”

Unfortunately, he might not be allotted the time to figure this situation out. If Arthur Blank decides to fire Dimitroff, the new general manager and the new salary-cap specialist will be tasked with maneuvering the team within the salary cap. Dimitroff eludes to having to use every option at his disposal to align the team’s numbers with the leagues. “I think we’ll have to use all of our tools moving forward, given where we are right now,” Dimitroff said. Whoever is in charge will have to knock on every door in order to see the options.

The Falcons are in an enviable position as far as their top earners being team-first individuals who will more than likely work with the front office to help in whatever way they can. “The great thing here is that we have people that are very open and mindful in talking about it. I understand that it’s not easy for a player to talk about restructuring and potentially (take a) pay reduction. That’s not ideally where we want to be, but at times those discussions can occur, of course, because they have to. That’s all of our responsibility.”

A new general manager could rework Matt Ryan’s, Julio Jones’, Grady Jarrett’s, and Jake Matthew’s contracts, creating much-needed cap room. There will be releases, and anyone, except those aforementioned players, could be a potential victim. A new general manager might be more willing to release a player that Dimitroff would not because of the personal commitment that comes from signing or drafting a player.

Regardless of if the team decides to keep the current regime or not, whoever is in charge will be tasked with one of the most difficult offseasons of any team. No single method will suffice alone. Only a combination of restructures, pay-cuts, releases, and free-agent acquisitions will get this team in the green for 2021.

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