Doesn't it seem like the Falcons foray into free agency looks a lot like last season?
Sure, General Manager Terry Fontenot and Coach Arthur Smith are no longer rookies in their roles. Other than that, Fontenot said at the NFL combine they'll have to be smart creating some cap space. Even in doing that, it might only be enough financial wherewithal to go shopping a few miles away from Tiffany's.
"Last year, when it came to being able to spend, it was closer to a zero on a scale to 10," GM Terry Fontenot told me. "This year, it's closer to a three."
Ok, there's that. With the moves they could make to clear space; it might be better than that.
Yet, for a team with areas of need at nearly every position, the ability to add talent and be competitive while building for the second straight year might be as challenging as 2021, when Fontenot and Smith managed to field a roster that finished above expectations at 7-10.
Besides not having a boatload of money to make a run at multiple top-shelf free agents, other teams will be in on several of the same players as the Falcons and Atlanta must make things as attractive as possible.
That will take some work.
The way the roster is constructed – a 36-year-old QB in Ryan – no real skill position game-breakers on offense and a defense that needs help at every level; salaries, the city, opportunities, and the trust that Smith and his staff can capitalize on as key lures, even with Tom Brady coming back to an otherwise diminished NFC South.
By having to find players at cornerback, safety, edge rusher, interior offensive line, wide receiver(s) and running back(s), Atlanta plans to spread its free-agent money wisely.
So don't expect the Falcons to be active early in free agency, when big-money signings of top-tier players like cornerback J.C. Jackson and pass rusher Chandler Jones. That's nothing new as Atlanta, for years, has waited days for the market to settle then pursue players who over-valued their worth or see opportunities to play more valuable roles on a diminished roster.
Running back Cordarrelle Patterson and Bucs edge rusher Shaquille Barrett are examples the Falcons use for the type of player they hope to add in free agency. Both were delayed free-agent signings when each was a free agent. Both took one-year deals and took advantage.
Barrett singed a one-year contract with Tampa Bay in 2019 after five seasons in Denver. He led the league in sacks (19.5) in his first year with the Bucs, received a $15.8 million franchise tag in 2020 and a four-year $72 million deal ($36 guaranteed) last season.
Patterson signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Falcons last season and was their best offensive player. As a 31-year-old running back/receiver/returner, he won't get the type of big money Barrett did, but he likely will earn more than last season – and the Falcons hope it's with them, at the right price.
Again, this was the strategy last season. More and more players have been taking short-term deals with hopes of flipping their value into a bigger deal. Atlanta is hoping to be that type of fixer-upper for some players.
The Falcons also would like to keep linebacker Foye Oluokun, wide receiver Russell Gage and kicker Younghoe Koo among their own free agents. Oluokun is expected to have a sizable market, but with the cap space Atlanta has created, it could be within range to retain one of their key defensive building blocks.
The needs, if prioritized, are edge rusher, a corner to pair with A.J. Terrell, interior players on the offensive line, wide receivers, speed at running back and a backup quarterback.
The edge rusher market is top heavy and not that deep, with Chandler Jones being the big catch and out of Atlanta's price range. This is a position where some potential difference makers available should the Falcons keep the No. 8 overall draft pick.
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People I have spoken to with the Falcons know they have to get more speed at the skill positions. If you can add game breakers, it takes the pressure somewhat off the offensive line, which likely will remain a work in progress because affordable free-agent talent on the OL isn't in abundance.
We also know that Smith likes bigger wide outs and there are some, like JuJu Smith Shuster, Zay Jones and Rashard Higgins set to hit the market. They're not necessarily speedsters, but the Falcons need wideouts.
With the cap situation being what it is and the roster so in flux, the Falcons once again are going to have to have a strong draft. They must get a difference maker at edge rusher, wide receiver, offensive line, or corner with the No. 8 selection should they keep the pick.
What they do in free agency will impact how they draft to some degree, but not fully.
The most important thing that Fontenot has said multiple times, is they must be smart. They can't break from the process they've set in motion in terms of spending, and they must address the anchor positions where foundations can be established.
It's a message that was preached last year, just like it is this year. There's nothing wrong with that – as long as owner Arthur Blank remains patient and has faith in the people he's entrusted to build and coach his roster.
Blank knows Smith and Fontenot took over a salary-cap situation that couldn't be cleared up right away. Blank knows Matt Ryan's replacement has to be found soon, too, even though Ryan is still playing at a fairly high level.
Blank has shown patience before.
What Blank doesn't particularly care for though, are excuses.
If Smith and Fontenot build on what they put in place last season, maybe not even in wins, but in structure, then the potential of what's to come with more salary-cap latitude in future years could be enough. Everyone with the Falcons knew there would be challenges.
That's why overcoming them could one day make everything they're dealing with now feel worthwhile.
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