The 2020 NFL season didn’t go the way the Atlanta Falcons had hoped. Between the number of injuries and inability to win games they should, the Falcons finished with a 4-12 record, earning themselves a top-five draft pick for the first time since 2008. Despite rumors earlier this offseason, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will be back with the Falcons next year. However, the Falcons are in salary cap hell and have several critical decisions to make this offseason.
Pending Free Agents
According to Over the Cap, the Falcons project to be $20.3 million over the cap. To make matters worse, they have 26 players heading to free agency in a few weeks. However, none of the free agents are critical and can be replaced if needed. Part of the Falcons’ cap problems is at the top. They have five players with a cap hit of $18.5 million or more this season, including $40.9 million from Ryan. The five players combine count for $131 million in cap space, leaving only $54 million for the rest of the team.
Alex Mack, Center
Mack has flirted with retirement the past two offseasons, and at 35 years old, the Falcons will not offer him a new deal. The Falcons have used multiple draft picks on the offensive line over the last few years, including a 2020 third-round pick on Matt Hennessy. He projects to get the first crack at replacing Mack at center.
Damontae Kazee, Safety
In the first three years of his career, Kazee never missed a game. However, he got bit by the injury bug in 2020, missing 12 games. Over the previous two seasons, Kazee had 10 interceptions, including a league-high seven in 2018. Given the number of safeties set to hit the open market, Kazee might have to wait for some of the bigger name players to sign deals before getting one himself. However, if one free agent the Falcons should try to re-sign, it’s Kazee.
Todd Gurley, Running Back
After five years in Los Angeles as arguably the best running back in the league, Gurley signed a one-year deal with the Falcons last offseason. Gurley hoped to revive his career in Atlanta. However, he had a career-low 678 rushing yards and failed to go over 1,000 scrimmage yards for the first time in his career. Gurley won’t be back with the Falcons next season, and depending on his contract demands, he might not have a new team till after the draft.
Keanu Neal, Safety
During his five years in Atlanta, Neal has hit by the injury bug, missing 29 games over the last three seasons. However, when on the field, Neal has played well. In the three seasons he played 14 or more games, Neal averaged 107 tackles per season. Given his injury history and the number of safeties set to hit the open market, Neal will have to wait his turn before getting signed. However, if Neal agrees to a team-friendly deal, he could be back with the Falcons next season.
Younghoe Koo, Kicker (ERFA)
One of the few bright spots in the Falcons’ disappointing 2020 season was the emergence of Koo. He made a league-high 37 field goals this season. Furthermore, he only missed two of his 39 field goal attempts while making all eight of his kicks from 50 or more yards. As an exclusive rights free agent (ERFA), the Falcons control his rights for next season. Koo might be the only free agent the Falcons re-sign before free agency begins.
Potential Cap Casualties
While the Falcons are $20 million over the salary cap, they don’t have many potential cap casualties. Therefore, the best way for the Falcons to create cap space is by restructuring some contracts. Potential restructure candidates including Ryan, Julio, Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews, and Dante Fowler Jr.
James Carpenter, G ($4 Million Saved)
In his two seasons as a Falcon, Carpenter has started in 24 of 32 possible games. While he had zero penalties in 2020, he had six in 2019, including a career-high four holding penalties. The Falcons don’t have much depth along the interior of the offensive line. However, they can find a cheaper replacement in free agency or on day three of the draft.
Tyeler Davison, DT ($2.2 Million Saved)
Last season, Davison had only two tackles for loss despite starting 15 games. With Jarrett and 2020 second-round pick Marlon Davidson on the roster, keeping Davison isn’t critical. If the Falcons release him with a post-June 1 designation, they can open up $3.5 million in cap space.
Dante Fowler Jr., DE ($3.2 Million Saved)
Fowler was the Falcons’ big-name free agent pick-up last offseason, signing him to a three-year deal worth $45 million. However, after a career-high 11.5 sacks with the Los Angeles Rams in 2019, Fowler had a career-low 3.5 sacks in 2020. If the Falcons decide to release Fowler instead of restructuring his contract, expect them to make him a post-June 1 designation. By doing so, the Falcons can open up almost $8 million in cap space. Moving on from Fowler one year after signing him to a massive contract may seem drastic, but his play in 2020 might be enough for the Falcons to move on.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
Given the Falcons’ cap situation, fans shouldn’t expect them to be very active on the open market. Instead, the Falcons will target third-tier free agents, many of which will sign one-year prove-it deals, hoping to improve their value in 2022.
Malik Hooker, SAF, Indianapolis Colts
Injuries have hampered Hooker’s NFL career thus far as he has missed 28 games in four seasons. Before the start of the 2020 season, the Colts declined Hooker’s fifth-year option, and with good reason. Hooker played in a career-low two games in 2020 and won’t receive a contract offer from the Colts. While Hooker has struggled with injuries, when he’s on the field, he has played well.
Mike Remmers, OL, Kansas City Chiefs
After a year as a stop-gap option for the New York Giants at right tackle, Remmers signed with the Chiefs as their swing tackle last offseason. However, injuries to the Chiefs’ offensive line forced Remmers to start at multiple positions in 2020. Meanwhile, the Falcons have two backup offensive linemen heading to free agency. Remmers has experience starting at both guard and tackle spots.
Ryan Anderson, DE, Washington Football Team
In 2019, Anderson played a career-high 49 percent of the snaps and had a career-high four sacks. However, when Washington selected Chase Young, Anderson’s role on the team shrunk. He played a career-low 14 percent of the snaps in 2020 and failed to record a sack. When given reps, Anderson has proven to be a good rotational defensive end. The Falcons might need two new defensive ends, depending on what happens with Fowler, and Anderson offers upside at a discount.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Detroit Lions
Even at 35 years old, Peterson is still producing. He had seven touchdowns for the Lions last season, making it the second time in three seasons where he scored seven or more rushing touchdowns. While the Lions will move on from Peterson this offseason, his veteran leadership and skillset would be a good addition for the Falcons.
Fabian Moreau, CB, Washington Football Team
Much like his Washington teammate Anderson, Moreau had the best year of his career in 2019 with three interceptions. However, last season he played only 15 percent of the snaps and fell on the depth chart. Given the play of Ronald Darby, Washington isn’t likely to offer Moreau a new contract. Despite investing several high draft picks at cornerback recently, adding a veteran with upside like Moreau is needed.
Previewing the Draft
With the Falcons selecting in the top-five for the first time since 2008, the franchise is at a crossroads. They can either start rebuilding for the future or use the top-five pick on making a Super Bowl run with Ryan under center. The question the Falcons have to ask themselves, how much gas does Ryan have left in the tank?
Round 1, Pick 4: Quarterback/Defensive End
Almost every mock draft on the internet has the Falcons selecting a quarterback with their first-round pick. Whether it’s Justin Fields, Trey Lance, or trading up for Zach Wilson, the Falcons have to consider taking Ryan’s replacement with this pick. However, if the Falcons want to make one last Super Bowl run with Ryan, they could get a bounty of picks for this selection and move down in the first round. Depending on how far they slide back, the Falcons could still be in prime position to add the top defensive end in the draft.
Round 2, Pick 35: Running Back
With the hiring of former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, many expect the Falcons to focus on running the ball next season. With that in mind, the Falcons will need a big physical back like Smith had with Derrick Henry in Tennessee. One name to keep an eye on is former Alabama star Najee Harris. He has gotten some first-round buzz lately, and the Falcons might need to trade up in order to secure him.
Round 3, Pick 68: Safety
If the Falcons re-sign both Kazee and Neal, they don’t need to add a safety in the draft. However, the likelihood of that happening is slim. The Falcons used a 2020 fourth-round pick on Jaylinn Hawkins, but he shouldn’t get a starting role unchallenged. The safety class in this year’s draft is deep, meaning the Falcons can find a starter in the third round.
Early 2021 Expectations
After a disappointing 2020 season, the Falcons are at a crossroad. If the Falcons use the fourth overall draft pick in a trade to add several assets, they could make another Super Bowl push. However, given the shape their roster is in combined with their cap situation. Falcon fans shouldn’t expect the team to make the playoffs in 2021, regardless of who is under center.