FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Since Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith took over as the newest general manager and head coach duo in Atlanta, they've been fighting a serious fight to get right with the salary cap.
When they got to Atlanta in 2021, the Falcons had very little money to work with as large chunks of the salary cap were taken up by mammoth contracts, like that of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and a few players who just weren't producing enough to match their contract's value. For the last two offseasons, the Falcons couldn't be movers and shakers in free agency. Outside of their pursuit of Deshaun Watson last year and the shedding of Ryan, Jones, Calvin Ridley and Deion Jones over the course of the last two years, the Falcons haven't been major contenders in trade discussions where they are the recipient of a big-name player, either. Majority of their limited resources went to the draft and extending players like Jake Matthews and Grady Jarrett.
To fill out their 2021 and 2022 squads, the Falcons signed a vast majority of mid-level, veteran free agents on short-term deals.
That's where they were. However, it's not where they are now as the 2022 season comes to a close.
Meeting with the media for their annual end-of-season press conference, Fontenot and Smith made that clear.
"We're in the next phase of the plan," Fontenot said. "We had a plan from the very beginning, and now we're in the next phase of that. This is going to be a different offseason than we've had the previous years."
Different, how? Well, for starters they have a lot more money to work with. And we all know money talks.
The Falcons are currently projected to have around $75 million in cap space in 2023, according to OverTheCap.com, with effective cap space landing around the $60 million mark. At this point, that would put the Falcons with the second-most cap space in the league in 2023. It should also be noted that these figures could increase if the Falcons were to cut Marcus Mariota before June 1. Considering that hypothetical move, the overall cap space number could jump to well over $80 million, with Mariota carrying a $12 million cap hit into 2023.
That (theoretical) $80 million in cap space is a night-and-day difference from where Fontenot and Smith found themselves when they took over in Atlanta.
When looking back, Fontenot agreed that the only reason the Falcons are to this point is because of the moves they made over the course of the last two years to finally get right with the cap. For the first time since they took over, they're not in the red. Moves that got them here included parting ways with Julio Jones and Deion Jones. It includes allowing Ryan to pick Indianapolis as a trade destination. Because of these moves and a few more, the Falcons took over $80 million in dead money on the chin in 2022. It may have hurt then, but in 2023? They're likely thankful they did that.
"Yes, decisions we made before, we knew exactly what we were stepping into," Fontenot said. "We knew what the challenge was, and we knew, 'OK, early on in Year 1 we were going to have a lot of young players, but we have to sign some veterans because we want to establish the culture. We want to establish our identity. We want to make sure that we are setting the foundation the right way.'"
That foundation has been set. Keeping it secure during significant turnover is where they find themselves now.
"We can't bring players in who are going to take away from that," Fontenot continued.
Because yes, they are going to bring in new faces, faces who will come with a higher price tag. However, even in saying that, if you took nothing from Fontenot and Smith's press conference, take this:
"Just because we have more resources this offseason, we still have to have discipline," Fontenot said. "We still have to set parameters. We're trying to put together a puzzle."
Priorities have to be set because the last thing this regime wants to do is go back into the cap hole they inherited. They want to keep the cap at a healthy level. This means they can't throw caution to the wind and pick up more long-term, big-money deals than they can handle. They have to prioritize.
That means taking a hard look at the players they have on their current roster, too. If you're re-signing players from the 2022 team, who do you prioritize? Chris Lindstrom, A.J. Terrell and Kaleb McGary come to mind. But can they cut a deal with all three when there are other needs elsewhere, too? Maybe not.
"It kind of depends on what the market dictates," Fontenot explained. "We have to make sure that we are looking at the total picture."
That total picture includes a young core of foundational players, too.
Fontenot and Smith spoke on the youth of the 2022 team and how there is hope for what that youth 1) provided them this season and 2) what they can provide in the future. However, both Fontenot and Smith made it clear that still, no spot is truly safe as moves are made.
"We do have a young core, but they have to take another step this offseason because we are going to continue to work hard to build this program," Fontenot said. "Everyone has to look at this offseason and take on that challenge."
In layman's terms?
"There's not a position that we can look at on the roster and say, 'OK, we're all set. We don't need to add there.'" Fontenot said. "We need to add to every position."
After two years of living in salary cap hell, the Falcons may finally be able to do exactly that in some capacity or another over the course of this offseason and next offseason. If you've been following the Falcons at all since 2021, you know that is a far cry from where they were then.
Fontenot and Smith said last year that they could see a light at the end of the proverbial salary cap tunnel. That light is brighter now, which signals that they're almost out. It's not enough to be out of the tunnel, though. The Falcons still have to be smart in the next phase of their journey. And that's where we find them in 2023.
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.