The Falcons are very unlikely to win the NFC South this year, especially after falling to the first-place Buccaneers on Sunday 21-15. Tampa Bay’s roster is infinitely more talented than Atlanta’s, and the disparity at the quarterback position is laughable. Tom Brady is still one of the best signal callers in the league, and Tampa’s defense is littered with impressive young pieces. However, if we look into the division’s financials, nobody is better suited than the Falcons to take control of the NFC South.
Looking ahead to the offseason, the NFC South will be in a difficult spot with the salary cap, except for the Falcons. Following the Deion Jones trade, Atlanta has now parted ways with every bloated contract the team inherited from the former regime. The effects of the dead money will be felt for years, but the ball is rolling. The Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith era is starting to take shape. Following the season, the Falcons are set to have over $54 million in cap space, the fifth-most league. That is a lot of cheddar to spend on potential players like Bradley Chubb, Da’Ron Payne, and other high-end, soon-to-be free agents.
The Panthers, who just fired Matt Rhule and have looked uninspiring since he took over, are set to be $11 million over the league salary cap. The talent discrepancy between Carolina and Atlanta is much closer than some would care to admit, but as soon as the Falcons figure out the quarterback position, it won’t be if they can hit on a few free agents in this upcoming cycle. The Panthers are closer to the beginning of a rebuild than the Falcons — firing a coach after just a few seasons is never encouraging. Combine that with their lack of upcoming draft capital and… they won’t be competitive for some time.
The Bucs, who are the class of the division, are set to be $40 million over the league cap next year. And speculation surrounding Tom Brady will bleed into next season. If Tampa Bay somehow cannot convince Brady to return for his age-46 season, they could find themselves in quarterback purgatory. No amount of supporting cast can make up for poor quarterback play. With Brady out of the division, it’ll be up for grabs.
And the Saints… whew! It’s going to warm Falcons fans’ hearts to read this next bit. New Orleans has long been touted for the ability to work around the salary cap via restructures, void years, escalators, etc., but that could come to a screeching halt this year. The Saints are not a good football team. The roster isn’t nearly as talented as last year, and the coaching staff without Sean Payton is not up for the task of outperforming that lack of talent. The team has the least amount of cap space in 2023, according to OverTheCap, sitting nearly $55 million above the league salary cap.
The Falcons have remained competitive in each of their games this year. The team sits at 2-3 with a -4 point differential; compare that to last year’s 2-3 start with a -43 point differential, and that’s an improvement. To put things even more into perspective, the Falcons currently have over $77 million in dead money for 2022 following the Deion Jones trade. That is 37% of the $208 million league salary cap. It is by far the most in the league, and the Falcons are still remaining competitive in games.
It’s not all about money, though. The Bucs could very easily transition from Brady to another stable quarterback to remain a perennial playoff contender. And the Falcons could miss on several free agent signings that come back to haunt them; think back to Thomas Dimitroff’s resumé in the free-agent market. There is also the question of quarterback for Atlanta. Marcus Mariota is very clearly a backup-caliber player in this league, and nobody knows if Desmond Ridder is the long-term answer.
Still, the division is one of the worst, if not the worst, in football. If the Falcons can sign a handful of difference-making free agents and Ridder pans out, the NFC South could be theirs for the taking.
Photographer: Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire