FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Before we get into the figures, let's get one thing straight here: The numbers that you see when you read this on Thursday, Jan. 12, will be different as we get closer and closer to the official start of the 2023 league year, which is exactly 4 p.m. on March 15.
The NFL will reportedly set a new league record with the salary cap "exceeding $220 million" in 2023. That figure was first reported by NFL Network's Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport on Dec. 4.
In fact, more and more clarity on how much money each organization will have is being revealed.
For this article, all figures and numbers will be attributed to OverTheCap.com, which has set the salary cap at $225 million in 2023. It should be noted that the official salary cap has not been officially set or publicized. Therefore, the numbers that we break down are theoretical based on the cap point of $225 million, which could or could not be what the 2023 salary cap is actually set to.
The Falcons are projected to have $75.4 million in cap space in 2023 with 39 contracted players, according to OTC on Jan. 11.
(As of Jan. 12, that number dropped to $58.6 million because the contracts of the 18 players who signed reserve/future contracts on Jan. 9 were added to OTC. However, it should be noted that those contracts will be inconsequential to cap space once the Falcons begin signing their top 51 players. OTC calculates the salary cap based on the top 51 players on the roster. With the Falcons only having 39 players under contract, the reserve/future contracts were included. This is why the figures differ from one day to the next, and why the figure we are using in this article differs from what you see on OTC).
When looking at their effective cap space - which is the cap space a team will have after signing at least 51 players and its projected rookie class - that number rounds out to about $61.3 million. The Falcons are projected to carry about $13 million in dead money. This is money used to pay a player who is no longer on the team's roster, so think Deion Jones, who the Falcons traded to the Browns during the 2022 season. He will carry a $12 million dead money hit into 2023.
The Falcons are currently projected to have the second-most cap space in the league in 2023. Only the Bears are ahead of them, with Chicago holding a whopping $101.5 million in projected, effective cap space.
So, working off of this hypothetical $75.4 million cap space in Atlanta, how could it change from now until the middle of March? A lot of the changes stem from the decision of what to do with Marcus Mariota.
As of Wednesday, Jan. 11, Arthur Smith said that a decision about Mariota's future in Atlanta has not been made.
Mariota signed a two-year deal with Atlanta worth a total of $18.75 million in March 2022 after the Falcons traded Matt Ryan to Indianapolis. That deal was back loaded, though, with Mariota earning a base salary of $1.75 million in 2022 and $9 million in 2023. Therefore, Mariota's cap hit in 2023 is quite larger than it was last season. If the Falcons were to cut Mariota prior to June 1, they would save $12 million in cap space. Mariota would then carry a $2.5 million dead money hit into 2023, so the Falcons would essentially save $9.5 million with Mariota off the roster.
If the Falcons are looking for more savings toward the cap, one of the only contracts that could yield any significant cash would be that of Casey Hayward. The veteran cornerback also signed a two-year deal last offseason. He suffered a season-ending shoulder injury a few weeks into the 2022 season and did not return. However, Hayward is likely more beneficial on this roster than off of it.
The Falcons would only save about $3 million in total if they were to cut Hayward prior to June 1. Even though we didn't see much of Hayward in 2022, his value could still be high for the Falcons in 2023 because of the current state of the Falcons cornerbacks room. The plays he did make for the Falcons when he was healthy shouldn't be overlooked, either. That, and Hayward said on Monday that he would like to play another year and he'd like to do so in Atlanta. He is originally from Perry, Ga. There should be incentive from both sides to keep him on the roster in 2023.
Now onto where that money could go.
Of the players who could re-sign with the Falcons or see their current contracts extended, the best options to do so are Chris Lindstrom, A.J. Terrell and Kaleb McGary.
As one of the best guards in the league, a long-term deal for Lindstrom would likely take up a large chunk of the Falcons salary cap in 2023 if they choose to keep him in Atlanta. But Lindstrom's track record would be worth the money. According to Pro Football Focus, Lindstrom was the highest graded guard in the league in 2022 with a 95.0 grade. His 93.1 run-blocking grade was the highest by any offensive lineman in the league, regardless of position.
As for Terrell and McGary, any contract potential could be less concrete.
Terrell will be entering into his fourth year in the league, and he's not getting any cheaper. He's still on his rookie deal, but with his third year in the books, the door is open to begin negotiating a deal to keep Terrell in Atlanta longer. It'll be something to monitor. As will McGary's status.
The age-old saying is that you don't want to put too much money into one singular position group (quarterback usually notwithstanding), so with the Falcons already paying Jake Matthews well and (hypothetically) prioritizing Lindstrom, will there be an incentive to cut a deal with McGary, too? The Falcons did not pick up McGary's fifth-year option last offseason like they did with Lindstrom, but McGary put together by far his best season in 2022, one that showed there could be value in keeping him around since he plays a premium position like right tackle.
However, with so many needs elsewhere, the Falcons have to be strategic (and "disciplined" as Terry Fontenot said on Wednesday). This means that signing all three this offseason may not be something that ultimately works out. After all, the expectation for the Falcons is to be more active players in the first waves of free agency in March. And that first wave? It's expensive.
Fontenot was clear in his Wednesday press conference with Smith that just because the Falcons have more money than they have had in the last two offseasons that doesn't mean they can go crazy and give out massive contracts to everyone. They'll make significant moves, yes. But we're still not looking at a complete overhaul. So, set expectations accordingly. Though players like Rashaan Evans and Lorenzo Carter have played well for the Falcons, and may have earned a longer deal than one-year (which is what they signed to come to Atlanta in 2022), the market may dictate something different.
"Just because we have more resources this offseason, we still have to have discipline. We still have to set parameters," Fontenot said. "We're trying to put together a puzzle. So, sometimes what's best for an individual player isn't what's best for the team."
And that's what the salary cap is: A puzzle. One that shifts and changes every year and with every new addition and subtraction to the roster. But for the first time since Fontenot and Smith took over, the puzzle is a bit more fun to figure out.
Don't forget, though: All of this that you just read will change. So, don't get attached. Moves are coming.
View of the Falcons from the heights of Mercedes-Benz Stadium during the Sunday afternoon match-up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Game 18.
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