Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff did well to pluck defensive lineman Grady Jarrett out of the fifth round of the 2015 NFL draft.
Jarrett has developed into a top interior pass rusher for the Falcons. He’s played well above his contract over four seasons and will be only 26 years old next season.
Now the Falcons will have to pay big for Jarrett, one way or another. They have until Tuesday to sign Jarrett to an extension or failing that, apply the franchise tag to prevent him from becoming a free agent. The Falcons are under pressure to get a new deal done because using the tag would severely limit their options in free agency.
The tag for Jarrett is projected to be worth about $14 million, which also would be his salary-cap figure. That’s more than half of the Falcons’ estimated $24 million in cap space. They’ll need another $8 million or so for their nine picks in the next draft, should they keep them all.
Tagging Jarrett would leave the Falcons roughly $2 million of cap space to sign free agents when the negotiating window opens March 11. They could continue working on a new deal for Jarrett before then and all the way until July 15. They could shake free some cap money by signing Jarrett to a deal that prorates bonus money to make his cap figure lower than $14 million for 2019.
But if the Falcons tag Jarrett, they would run the risk of having nearly all their cap space tied up as free agents sign elsewhere. Not just the big names, which they can’t afford anyway, but the bargain-bin players. That would be a big setback for a team that needs a lot of help along both lines and depth in the secondary (and maybe a starter at cornerback).
The Falcons obviously could find some players in the draft. But it takes some luck to hit on college prospects who can make an immediate impact. The Falcons don’t pick until No. 14 and have only three selections within the top 80.
“We think we have a very talented roster here going into this season,” Dimitroff told reporters in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine. “We have a full draft with some extra compensatory picks and some opportunities to dip into free agency. We think we’ll come out with a stronger team this season.”
The Falcons do have significant talent returning, most of all quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones. They still finished 7-9 in 2018. There were coaching issues and defensive injuries but, bottom line, the Falcons need more good players.
Jarrett is one of their best. That’s why they’ll have to pay up. They’ve been doing that for a lot of players lately and, by design of the NFL system, that makes it harder to keep doing it.
The Falcons already have about one-third of their projected 2019 cap space invested in four players: Ryan, Jones, Desmond Trufant and Vic Beasley. Add Jarrett’s $14 million franchise tag, and they’d have about 40 percent of their cap dedicated to five players.
“We have a high-paid group,” Dimitroff said. “We have a group that we think deserves it. We know we put ourselves on the line with putting those type of players on our roster.”
Ryan and Jones are worth the money. Trufant and Beasley didn’t play to that level in 2018. Jarrett would be worth every penny of the $14 million franchise tag, plus more.
Good interior pass rushers are valuable because quarterbacks can’t step into their throws with the pocket collapsing in the middle. Jarrett is among the best at making that happen. He recorded a career-high six sacks in 14 games in 2018, but that doesn’t capture his full impact.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jarrett recorded 53 total quarterback pressures in 2018 and had the sixth-highest pressures on a per-snap basis. On third down he had the third-highest pressures per snap. Jarrett is an elite interior pass rusher and he’ll be just 26 years old next season.
Those are reasons why the Falcons want to sign Jarrett to a long-term deal. He probably won’t like it if the Falcons use the franchise tag to keep him off the market. The Falcons will have to do so anyway if it comes to that because they can’t allow a player of his caliber to hit the free-agent market.
The Falcons will have Jarrett for at least one more season, one way or another. It’s a lot better for them if they can make it happen without using the franchise tag. The clock is ticking until Tuesday.
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