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What to make of the Falcons' start to the offseason

INDIANAPOLIS – Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff announced Tuesday morning that, despite wishing to retain the players and keeping negotiations open, the team would allow tight end Austin Hooper, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and offensive lineman Wes Schweitzer to hit the open market.

In recent offseasons, the Falcons have made it a priority to retain players who they consider key parts of their roster such as defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and wide receiver Julio Jones. Those decisions, however, carry with them financial implications and have put the Falcons in a tight situation regarding the salary cap.

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As such, Atlanta is opting to receive more information regarding the value of players like Hooper and Campbell by letting them reach free agency, even if that means risking losing them to another team.

"Obviously, it's never easy to let good players get to the market," Dimitroff said in an interview with AtlantaFalcons.com. "Oftentimes you have to look at what the market is to determine whether you're willing, as an organization, to step up and pay those players a certain amount of money. Right now, a number of these players we have let out into the market. Again, it was well thought out, and we need to gauge what the market is and by getting out in the market, as tough as it is, will allow us to determine whether we're true players in it."

Over The Cap, a website that tracks NFL contracts and financial numbers, currently projects the Falcons to have $4,322,104 in cap space for the 2020 season. Spotrac, a similar site, projects the Falcons' 2020 cap space to be $4,940,672. The diverging numbers is reflective of the inexact science that is projecting an NFL team's salary cap. In truth, only the front offices of each team know what their true cap space is for a given season, but those numbers do help provide a rough idea for fans.

The cap estimations also provide further context for the Falcons' strategy this offseason. Atlanta has to take a focused approach to each decision that they make, understanding that money is a factor and seeking to bolster a number of spots on their roster, including the pass rush and possibly the secondary.

"It's part of the NFL, where teams change year to year," coach Dan Quinn said. "Some of the time you get a chance to not allow a guy to get out, and other times, [they reach the market] even when you want to [keep them]. That's the big jigsaw puzzle, man. Having the chance to put together [the roster] and what you do, and you've got to dig in hard to make tough decisions."

Impact pass rushers are among the most coveted free agents in the NFL, and they carry a price tag to reflect that demand. Therefore, it comes down to a question of positional value. Is a productive young tight end or athletic coverage linebacker more valuable to a team than a pass rusher who can register double-digit sacks?

Atlanta is in the process of determining its answer to those types of questions. With limited resources, the team is striving to find the right blend of production and value to build the most competitive roster possible.

"That's an expensive position," Dimitroff said of NFL edge rushers. "I think a lot of people are looking at that trying to compare where is the worth and the value there."

With three picks in the first two rounds, including the 16th-overall pick, the Falcons can address a number of spots early in the NFL Draft, but the team will still need money to pay their draft picks. And at some positions, veteran role players are simply more effective in the short term than a first-year player adjusting to life as a pro.

The ongoing discussion within the organization about whether or not to pick up defensive end Takk McKinley's fifth-year option is yet another example of the measured approach the Falcons are taking with respect to their financial situation.

Atlanta chose to pick up Vic Beasley's fifth-year option for the 2019 season, hoping he would again attain his 2016 levels of production when he led the NFL with 15.5 sacks. Beasley registered eight sacks last season, which were the second-most of his career in a single season but not enough for the Falcons to choose to retain him moving forward.

That's a lesson the Falcons want to learn from.

"Dan and I were talking the other day, shame on us or anyone in this position as co-team builders to not learn from some of the misfires that we've had," Dimitroff said. "It's important to always look and see exactly how you approach things and learn from them."

Another aspect that will likely impact the way all NFL teams around the league approach their decision-making is the ongoing Collective Bargaining Agreement between team owners and the NFL Players Association.

It remains to be seen if a new CBA will be adopted in time to take effect before the start of the new league year on March 18, but it would likely impact financial situations for each team around the league.

These are all aspects the Falcons appear to be considering closely and informing the decisions they've made in allowing a handful of former starters to reach the open market. With some very talented core players still on the roster and a former NFL MVP at quarterback in Matt Ryan, the Falcons are still very much striving to be competitive in 2020.

To do so will require a precise and thoughtfully executed plan this offseason, and Atlanta appears to be taking that approach thus far.

"We want to make sure that we make the right decisions," Dimitroff said. "As I've mentioned before, we have a salary cap situation that we have to be really honed in on. Am I worried about it? No. Do we have to be creative with it? Do we have to be mindful in how we navigate everything? No question about it. And that's what we feel we're doing by allowing some of these players to go to the market."

Take a look back at wide receiver Julio Jones' performace at the 2011 NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis.

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