Can the cap-strapped Falcons do more with less?

The Falcons tend to make headlines at the NFL combine. In 2016, this organization had to apologize twice for its conduct in Indianapolis, once because then-assistant coach Bryan Cox shoved an Arizona staffer, again because a Falcons rep asked Eli Apple of Ohio State if he "liked men."

Four years later, two holdovers from that administration met the assembled-in-Indy media to discuss their latest grand design. Thomas Dimitroff, still the general manager, said the Falcons had not decided whether to exercise their fifth-year option on Takkarist McKinley, draft bust. Dan Quinn, still the head coach but no longer the defensive coordinator, said the Falcons had decided not to exercise that option. Asked about this discrepancy, DQ said to go with what TD said. Thus are the 2020 Birds off and winging.

On the morning after the latest Super Bowl – in which they played no part and had no lead to blow, though their former offensive coordinator did and did – they announced they were bidding adieu to Vic Beasley, draft semi-bust. Teams don't usually issue news releases to reveal non-negotiations, but the focused-on-message Falcons doubtless saw a way to score points with a fan base that has begun to stay away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium in conspicuous force.

Quoth Dimitoff: “As we continue to craft our 2020 roster, we’d like to thank Vic for five years of effort on behalf of our organization.” Subtext: “Forget that we paid $12.3 million for a fifth year of this same Vic and he didn’t bother to show for OTAs.” (Major props for “craft,” though.)

Apart from the back-and-forth re: McKinley, the Falcons' big combine news – though we stipulate that it's early – concerned three players who will, repeat WILL, be allowed to become free agents. They are, in descending order of importance: tight end Austin Hooper, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and guard Wes Schweitzer. Said Dimitroff: "We're going to let them get to the market and find out where they are in the market."

Losing Schweitzer is no biggie. Campbell was a rookie starter on the Super Bowl team who hasn’t rendered himself indispensable. Hooper has twice made the Pro Bowl. In a perfect world, the Falcons would pay to keep him. The Falcons’ world has become imperfect because they spent so much to re-up Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Jake Matthews, Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett.

Dimitroff: “We have a salary-cap situation that we are monitoring closely.”

There’s a chance Hooper won’t find what he wants elsewhere. There’s also a chance he will. The trouble with letting a player go to market is that someone might buy him. (Two words from a different sport: Josh Donaldson.) There’s also the issue of timing. Hooper isn’t one of the NFL’s three best tight ends – George Kittle, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz comprise that podium – but this Super Bowl matched Kittle’s 49ers against Kelce’s Chiefs. The Super Bowl before that turned on two catches by Rob Gronkowski. The Super Bowl before that was won by Ertz’s Eagles. This is high tide for tight ends.

On Dec. 27, the day Arthur Blank announced that this regime would return, in all its fading glory, Dimitroff dismissed the notion that his team was in cap hell. "It's not the case at all," he said. The Falcons then restructured the contracts of Ryan and Jarrett to free $12 million. (Cap purgatory, maybe?) If they had money to burn, they'd have thrown it Hooper's way by now. Here was the tight end, commenting Tuesday on that noted bargaining platform Instagram: "lol they ain't offered me." 

There’s still the option of slapping him with a franchise tag, but that would cost $10 million, which is a lot for a team that has 21.8 percent of its cap space devoted to two players (Ryan, J. Jones) who’ll begin next season at ages 35 and 31. It’s still not certain that Freeman, briefly the NFL’s highest-paid back, will be retained. Difficult choices must be made across the breadth and width of this roster, and the upshot surely will be that the 2020 roster isn’t as imposing as its immediate predecessors.

The question, then: Do you trust a front office that has lately done less with more to do more with less? Do you trust the Falcons, who’ve exercised their top pick on pass rushers twice in five drafts under DQ/TD but still finished next-to-last in sacks in 2019, to find someone better than Beasley/McKinley? At this late date, do you trust this crew to get anything right?

The Falcons are 25-25 since they last played in the Super Bowl. Their over/under for 2020 is eight wins, the ninth-highest total among NFC clubs and 16th-best in the league. They’re no longer the NFL’s next great team. They’re not even very good. They went 7-9 in 2018 and fired three coordinators. They went 7-9 again and fired nobody of consequence. They’ve had three offensive coordinators in five seasons. They’re about to start on their fourth defensive coordinator, Quinn included, since 2016. The new DC is Raheem Morris, who four months ago was an offensive assistant.

After Blank stayed his hand, the Falcons’ corporate watchword became #continuity. Truth to tell, they’ve been rather consistent. They start horribly but finish on a four-game winning streak after winning no longer matters. Then they vow to do better next year. But as Ryan and J. Jones age, every next year dawns with a deeper sense of desperation. If they can’t win a Super Bowl with the best quarterback and best receiver in franchise history, will they ever?

A more grounded organization might have seen this offseason as a time to retreat and retrench, but that’s not possible here. These Falcons have too much invested in Ryan/Jones. They must keep trying to maximize those two, even as the talent around them grows more minimal. Maximization, however, would require coaching somebody up, which hasn’t happened since Kyle Shanahan left. Not sure that’s the kind of #continuity Uncle Arthur had in mind.