Editor's note: This is the first installment of a three-part series focusing on how the Falcons proceed through free agency. We open things up with a look at how the Falcons got right with the salary cap in just two years, creating a level of financial flexibility not experienced in Atlanta in some time.
For many, buying your first brand new car is a luxury, a success and a process that often requires months (if not years) of work. You save the money. You cut back on expenses. You wait and wait until the funds are there for you to drive to the dealership to make a deal.
You've done your research. You know what you're looking for. You await its availability for a test drive. You know your price point. You hope they negotiate with you. Ultimately, you plan to drive that car off the lot the moment you purchase it, reaping the benefits of a plan seen all the way through. You relish in the opportunity to finally put miles on it.
For Kirsten Grohs – the manager of football administration for the Falcons – this is the analogy she'd use to describe where Atlanta finds itself with the start of the new league year a week away.
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On March 15 at 4 p.m., the 2023 league year will begin, as will free agency. Right now, the Falcons enter into this period of the offseason with the second-most cap space amongst all 32 teams in the league. According to OverTheCap.com, the Falcons have $62.92 million in cap space, as of Thursday morning. This accounts for the release of Marcus Mariota during the week of the NFL Combine, which amounted to $12 million in cap savings, and the re-signing of Lorenzo Carter.
That figure is more than 50 percent what owner Arthur Blank said he has ever seen his organization have in his 21 years of ownership. That figure is one that was two years in the making, and that's why Grohs uses the analogy of buying a new car to describe where the organization finds itself in 2023.
"There have been a lot of hard decisions that have been made in the past to get us to this point," Grohs said. "Now, it's finally like, 'OK, let's reap the reward of that and go out and get what we need to build this roster.'"
This process of getting the salary cap to a healthy level began the moment Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith were hired in January 2021 to be the next general manager and head coach, respectively, of the Atlanta Falcons. They knew right away what type of situation they were walking into. They knew they had an uphill battle to get into a good spot.
"I feel they understood the reality of where the roster was, what they had to do to get it where we need it to be and that it was going to take a year or two to do it," Blank said last month. "I think that's exactly [where] it has taken them. I think they're on schedule. If anything, I'd say they are ahead of schedule."
How did they get here, though? What did they have to do to get right by the cap? Well, let's break it down into three important phases of this process:
1. The Falcons quickly, and efficiently, shed expensive contracts for veteran players
This process began with the Falcons cutting out a few medium-sized contracts within the first month of Fontenot and Smith's time in Atlanta. The release of these players and their contracts brought the Falcons capital to below the line it needed to be in regards to the cap by the start of the 2021 league year, especially after the cap went down due to lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a note, the league's cap has only risen since then and typically goes up, by varying levels, each year.
The Falcons got below the cap in '21, but just barely. They needed to make more moves to be in the position to even sign their draft class, which would include the likes of the No. 4 overall pick, Kyle Pitts. In order to do so, they had to part ways with a fixture in Atlanta: Julio Jones.
In June 2021, the Falcons traded Jones to the Tennessee Titans. Because of the move, the Falcons created enough cap space to sign their draft class plus a few free agents (more on that in the next section). Though they had to take on over $23 million in dead money over two years, per OverTheCap, the Jones trade would bring cap relief and draft capital, too, which the Falcons coveted while trying to build a strong, young foundation under Fontenot. It was a trade many believe the Falcons won, as the Titans would release Jones a year later after playing just 10 games for Tennessee in 2021.
At the same time Jones was being released from the Titans in March 2022, the Falcons were gearing up to shed another massive contract. Veteran quarterback Matt Ryan's deal was one, among others, Fontenot inferred to as an “elephant in the room” when he held his press conference at the 2022 NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Less than a month later, it was Ryan holding a press conference in Indianapolis, now the quarterback for the Colts after the Falcons traded him for a third-round draft pick in 2022.
On top of this, the Falcons had to take on over $40 million in the dead money hit, per OverTheCap, that Ryan's trade to a new team produced. With dead money still lingering for the Falcons from the Jones trade as well as other releases, they ended up holding onto $86 million in dead money by the end of the 2022 season, per OverTheCap. The dead cap hits for Ryan and the Falcons as a team in 2022 stand as the largest in NFL history, but they helped set things up well for the future.
"We're taking it on the chin this year," Fontenot said March 23, 2022. "But where that leaves us next year is significant."
Even after the Ryan trade, the Falcons kept addressing big-time contracts Fontenot and Smith inherited. There was also the likes of Deion Jones and Calvin Ridley, players the Falcons traded to the Browns and Jaguars, respectively, in 2022. There was also Jake Matthews and Grady Jarrett, two players who the new regime felt inclined to keep by working to restructure and extend them both to free up more cap space to fill out their team. Those moves were successful on and off the field, retaining to top performers and team captains for a longer term.
All of this brings us to the next way the Falcons got right by the cap (i.e. how they fielded their 2021 and 2022 teams).
2. The Falcons signed free agents to cap-friendly, short-term deals
The best way to preserve any future cap space is to not spend it, and that's what the Falcons did for the last two years.
In Atlanta, the 2021 and 2022 teams were constructed with a vast majority rookies and veteran, mid-level free agents who signed deals that didn't exceed two years. The deals were cap friendly, not just in their respective years signed but for the future health of the cap. Think players like Lee Smith, Brandon Copeland and Fabian Moreau in 2021. Think Carter, Rashaan Evans and Elijah Wilkinson in 2022. Think Cordarrelle Patterson, Marcus Mariota and Casey Hayward, too.
All of these players held significant, starting roles during their time in Atlanta (with a couple still keeping a firm grasp on those spots). Not even one of them originally signed a deal in Atlanta beyond two years' time. Now, we know Patterson would remain in Atlanta, but again, on another deal that didn't diminish the Falcons limited salary cap funds. The Falcons were disciplined in their spending, never putting forth a large contract to a high-end free agent. They couldn't afford to do so if they wanted to have the money to build what they wanted to in Atlanta in the not-so-distant future.
For two years, they relied on their core of rookies as well as veteran players like Erik Harris, who would help lead the locker room and play a rotational role as the Falcons worked to fill two teams with very limited resources. According to national media, Atlanta exceeded expectations despite their cap limitations in both years.
It's not just national media who feel this way, either. Those within the walls of the Falcons facility in Flowery Branch feel a certain sense of contentment with the work they've done, too, understanding there's more work to be done.
"I think everybody is happy with where we are as an organization, as a team, with the last couple years of drafting a couple core players, some of the free agents that we've brought in under some of the challenging circumstances that we've been under," said Kyle Smith, the Falcons vice president of player personnel. "To see it kind of come together -- and, obviously, we are nowhere near where we want to be -- but to kind of set us up for this free agency where you have resources of both draft capital and, obviously, cap capital."
The owner of the team itself feels the shift, too.
"I'm more optimistic than I've been in many, many years," Blank said. "I don't think it's, 'Oh, you're just optimistic because you own the team.' Really, it doesn't have anything to do with that. It has to do with looking at the facts as they are and sizing up the roster the way it is and having the freedom that we've finally found ourselves in going into 2023 this year. I think it bodes well for us."
3. A belief that the outcome will be worth the wait
The Falcons were conservative in their decisions in 2021 and 2022 because they had to be. They did not have the financial capabilities to be anything else. Entering this offseason, though, they have an opportunity to be something different. They have the opportunity to be in conversations they weren't in before.
They realistically could be in several conversations for big-time free agents come the start of the new league year. They have money to spend. A lot of it, in fact.
It's a position they've been working towards for two years, but it doesn't mean the work is done. Oh, far from it.
"When you have a lot of cap space, that means you have a lot of work to do," Fontenot said at the 2023 NFL Combine last week. "We have to add to every phase. We just want to make sure we have the right discipline. We have to set parameters because if we don't, we could get ourselves in a bind. We need to add a lot. We just want to make sure we go through the process the right way."
Right now, the Falcons are in the research point of the buying-that-new-car analogy. Heck, they may be in the position to buy two or three.
"It's exciting, but there's a lot more prep work than in other years because it's been conserve, conserve, conserve," Grohs said, "to now be like, 'Wow. What are you going to do with it?' So, instead of four scenarios, there's 25 scenarios."
The Falcons have arrived at the dealership with cash and opportunity in hand. They're perusing the lot. They'll negotiate when the time is right. What they find will be a defining factor in where they can go in 2023 and beyond.
They've been saving and working and saving some more for that perfect car. And for the first time in two years, the Falcons can afford it. Finally, they are good standard with the cap, which is why this year – this offseason – could be a turning point in the Fontenot and Smith era in Atlanta.
Join us as we take a look back at our favorite photos from the 2022 Atlanta Falcons season.