INDIANAPOLIS -- The Falcons simply must free up salary-cap space before remodeling their roster through free agency and the NFL Draft. Terry Fontenot was candid about that fact during his press conferences here at the NFL Combine.
The second-year general manager was asked if he had a specific plan to do so. The answer was two-pronged: Yes. Several of them.
They have ways to create space through trades, cuts, contract restructures or even extensions. Some come with a dead money cost and the loss of a real talent. Others come with cap repercussions simply kicked down the road, with future time bombs like those they’re presently facing with Matt Ryan, Deion Jones, Jake Matthews and Grady Jarrett. Some include a prolonged relationship, possibility beyond a player's prime years.
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Each move, as you're surely catching, comes with a cost. The Falcons would rather minimize them when possible, enacting cap savings moves when necessary for roster reconstruction or the team's long-term cap health.
It is not simple or straight forward. The Falcons are [and must be] prepared for developments out of their direct control.
"It is a puzzle, Fontenot said. "…there is a cause and effect. There's an if/then. We may have a plan for how we want to handle this, but it could be months from now that changes something and we have to adapt. We don't have something strict and rigid like, 'this is what we're doing.' It's all fluid."
It's that way due to another topic openly discussed at the combine about the prospect of a complete Falcons rebuild. Fontenot doesn't want to do that. Never has. He said Tuesday he’s trying to “have our cake and eat it, too.”
That adds complexity to their situation. If they chose to go through a scorched earth rebuild, making cuts without concern for dead money or imbalanced trades aimed at taking dollars off the books, this whole process would be a bit easier to execute but much harder on the on-field product.
The Falcons are trying to maintain a delicate balance of being both competitive and disciplined with their spending in the short- and long-term. So, until they're right with the cap and have the financial flexibility they covet but don't yet have, concessions must be made.
You want to re-sign Player A? Gotta cut/trade Player B. Can't re-sign a guy? Gotta keep someone you might've otherwise shipped. Want to extend a prized veteran while creating short-term cap relief? That player must agree to terms and contract structuring the team requires.
"If we don't get a player back, we have to make a corresponding move because of it," head coach Arthur Smith said Tuesday. "If we don't get the player back, we may not have to touch a contract or whatever. You have to plan for all that."
While the Falcons will have to adjust to what comes as it comes, there is a bit of a ticking clock to this process. The team is $7.316 million over the 2022 salary cap, per overthecap.com, with several holes to fill on the roster and a draft class to sign in the coming months
"There are certain timelines with certain players and certain contracts," Fontenot said. "Starting the league year [on March 16] is important because you have to get to a certain point. Yes, there are timelines with some of these [situations]."
That's another complicating factor in all this, but the right moves must still be made.
Those executed will be as important to this franchise as any free agent signed this offseason. It will go a long way working out of cap constraints. It will also go a long way in determining the strength of this talent base, one designed to be competitive.
"We have some big numbers associated with four players, particularly our quarterback," Fontenot said. "All those players with big cap numbers, it's not their fault. They come in and work and do their job. I want to be clear with that. I wouldn't say it's a problem; I would say it's a challenge we have to work around. It's important to make sure we go through the right ways to open up cap space. We have to add players and improve this roster.
"When you're at different points, you'll handle the salary cap and contracts a different way. Some teams may feel like they're one player away and may spend a lot of money. We're not in that point. We have to be patient, selective and cost effective. Where we are with our team, we have to figure out the right ways to spend money and make sure we find value."
There are no easy answers to a complex problem with little margin for error to achieve a goal of remaining competitive. Saying all this isn't meant to paint a picture of doom and gloom. Fontenot and Smith are trained to do what is hard, under immense pressure. There are ways out of this spot over time and the Falcons will get there eventually.
Charting the best course, however, allows Fontenot, Smith and the Falcons to have that slice of cake, take a bite and start to chew.
"We're working through it," Fontenot said. "We don't live in a perfect world and there will be variables throughout that process. It's not ideal but we're going to continue to work through it."