FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons knew they would have an offseason like this. They didn’t necessarily know when, but if they were going to reset their salary cap and construct the roster in general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith’s vision, it was going to come.
It showed up in March, when the team sent quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts. Doing so added more than $40 million in dead cap money to the team’s ledger -- a total number nearing $63 million.
In eating all that space, it meant the Falcons were going to be, as Fontenot said, “taking it on the chin.”
Whatever word they want or don’t want to use, the Falcons are in the midst of a rebuild -- or their preferred word, transition. It means the same thing: This is going to take a little while to get right.
Now that a lot of the player acquisition process is mostly complete what does this roster look like, and what does it mean for the long-term future of the Falcons?
What they have
The Falcons have begun to identify the core they want to build around. Atlanta gave out two three-year extensions this offseason -- one in March to 30-year-old left tackle Jake Matthews and one this week to 29-year-old defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.
In doing this, they established two in-their-prime veterans as leaders at spots Smith deems important. Jarrett is one of the better interior linemen in the NFL, and Matthews became the longest-tenured Falcons player when Atlanta traded Ryan and long-snapper Josh Harris signed with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Atlanta’s talented youth starts with cornerback A.J. Terrell, offensive guard Chris Lindstrom, kicker Younghoe Koo and tight end Kyle Pitts. In 2021, Pitts had one of the best seasons in NFL history for a rookie tight end. Lindstrom’s 2021 campaign was overshadowed by overall poor offensive line play, but his fifth-year option was picked up. Koo is one of the NFL’s most consistent kickers.
Atlanta can look at those six players as its long-term core. The Falcons hope some of their 2022 draft picks -- receiver Drake London (first round) and edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie (second round) are candidates -- join them.
The rest of the roster is a combination of players who fall into one (or more) of these categories: Players with something to prove on short-term deals, inexpensive veterans not likely to be here for the long haul and young players they hope to develop.
Two exceptions might be the players with a decade of NFL experience: offensive weapon Cordarrelle Patterson and cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. Patterson broke out last season, setting career highs in rushing yards and receiving yards. Hayward returns home to Atlanta this season to potentially finish his career, mentor Terrell and become an immediate starter at the team’s strongest position, cornerback.
Where they are
The Falcons are closer to the beginning of the roster reclamation than the end. Some of that is by necessity. Most of the past two offseasons have been about fixing the team’s salary cap, forcing difficult cuts, contract restructures and a bevy of small, one-year deals in free agency. Some of it, because of the cap, is by design.
The Falcons probably will have more than $100 million in cap room next offseason, so they could be in the market for talented free agents or secure their own guys -- Lindstrom and Terrell would be eligible for extensions by 2023.
The Falcons attempted to address needs in the draft. They doubled down on edge rusher in Day 2 with Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone while also drafting London as a potential No. 1 wide receiver. Fifth-round pick Tyler Allgeier is a possible impact running back, and second-round pick Troy Andersen could eventually play next to or replace Deion Jones at linebacker.
If some of the rookies pan out, this core is a reasonable start.
What's happening at QB?
How the Falcons handle the quarterbacks -- veteran Marcus Mariota and third-round pick Desmond Ridder -- could provide the key to what the rebuild looks like. If Mariota, 28, resurrects his career, the possibility of drafting a quarterback early in 2023 would lessen. If Ridder beats out Mariota at some point this season and shows potential, it might cause a similar ripple.
That would potentially change how the Falcons build their team.
If Atlanta believes it can get good quarterback play beyond 2022 out of either Mariota or Ridder, the Falcons can then take a model of the Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and even the Los Angeles Rams rosters. Get as many other positions on the roster set with high-level talent and then add the quarterback later.
With more quarterbacks on the move the past half-decade, a young, talented Falcons roster could be intriguing to a veteran quarterback looking for a playoff contender in 2023 or 2024.
The proof of this formula is the last two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford won with Bucs and the Rams in their first years with the franchise, in part because the roster was already well constructed.
What they need
The Falcons still need a talent infusion at so many positions because of the amount of ifs and unknowns. Name a position other than kicker and it exists.
Receiver? If London becomes the No. 1, the team still is in need of a No. 2, and the depth is unproven other than Olamide Zaccheaus and, maybe, Damiere Byrd. Both of them are on one-year deals. From a long-term perspective, who knows what will happen with Calvin Ridley and his suspension for at least the 2022 season for gambling. Edge rusher? The draft was a good start, and the Falcons have high hopes for free-agent signee Lorenzo Carter, but it’s unknown how he’ll fit in the scheme.
Cornerback? There is talent with Terrell and Hayward, but Hayward’s age is a factor. Isaiah Oliver, probably the team’s starting nickel, started to prove himself in the role last year but is coming off a torn ACL. Everyone else is on a one-year deal or has a lot to show, including last year’s fourth-round pick, Darren Hall, who could be a breakout candidate.
Safety? If Jaylinn Hawkins continues to ascend, he could become a foundational player, but last year’s second-round pick, Richie Grant, remains a question mark. Erik Harris and Dean Marlowe are veterans on one-year deals.
The front seven is in flux. Other than Jarrett there are a lot of unknowns. That includes Jones, who needs to have a rebound season in 2022. The offensive line, other than Matthews and Lindstrom, has questions. McGary’s fifth-year option wasn’t picked up, and both center Matt Hennessy and left guard Jalen Mayfield were inconsistent last season. Drew Dalman, last year’s fourth-round pick, possibly Ifedi and sixth-round pick Justin Shaffer can push them during training camp.
Even tight end has questions behind Pitts, as only Anthony Firkser has extensive NFL experience.
\The Falcons have had a reasonable start, but digging out of four straight losing seasons will take some time.