INDIANAPOLIS — It's been no secret that the Falcons are in a challenging spot this offseason when it comes to salary cap space and will continue to be for the near future. They are around $7 million over the league salary cap per OverTheCap. At the NFL Combine, general manager Terry Fontenot didn't shy away from what he called "the elephant in the room."
"We have some big numbers associated with four players, particularly our quarterback," Fontenot admitted on Tuesday.
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Fontenot referred to Matt Ryan's 48.7 million cap hit that will be the highest in the league in 2022 . What the Falcons will do with the two remaining years of Ryan's five-year 180 million deal, has been one of the biggest questions surrounding the Falcons this offseason. But Fontenot was also talking about three other players on the team with at least $20 million in salary in defensive tackle Grady Jarrett ($23.8 million), offensive tackle Jake Matthews ($23.6 million), and linebacker Deion Jones ($20 million).
"It's not a problem – it's a challenge," Fontenot said, "it's something we have to work around."
Working around that challenge means being patient. It means that this offseason the Falcons will not be a team that makes big splashes early in free agency early with large contracts on top players.
"Some teams feel like they're one player away and make a big splash in free agency and spend a lot of money; we're not at that point," Fontenot said. "We have to be patient, we have to be selective, and we have to be cost-effective."
A perfect example of that cost-effectiveness was Cordarrelle Patterson's production, after signing a one-year $3 million deal in the offseason. Outside of the Falcons is the example of the Bengals, who revamped their secondary signing players like Ricardo Allen, Eli Apple, and others to one-year inexpensive deals, who became critical contributors in their AFC Championship winning defense.
Still, Fontenot knows that building with inexpensive free agents is not the only way the Falcons will navigate their salary cap challenges. They will look at contract extensions, cut players as they have already begun doing, make trades, and convert contracts in other ways.
With all of the Falcons' salary cap constraints, another big question looming around this team is whether they are in rebuilding mode or trying to win. The Falcons won seven games in 2021 and were in the playoff race late. While they will still pick in the top ten, the 2021 season certainly did not look like a rebuild. But Fontenot knows that question is the other elephant in the room, and he thinks that the Falcons are somewhere in the middle.
"We're trying to have our cake and eat it too," Fontenot said. "We want to be smart and don't want to make decisions that will hurt us in future years, but we also want to build the best team that we can. So we're gonna work hard to be smart and calculate in our decision making, but we have to improve the roster this offseason and add competition."
The Falcons could easily be in a much more ideal salary cap situation if they traded the hefty contracts of Ryan, Jarrett, Matthews, and Jones, but that would likely make the make the Falcons a struggling team.
"What I'm saying is we wanna have some discipline, and we're trying to build a championship roster," Fontenot said. "We're not trying to win one more game next year. We're trying to build a championship roster, so long-term. A team that can continue to compete, so with that, we want to help our roster this offseason, but we also need to look at the future, but we want to have balance with that.