Cover 9@9: Falcons can find pass-rush value late in free agency

New York Jets outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins (48) rushes Washington Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins (7) Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Landover, Md. (Mark Tenally/AP)
New York Jets outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins (48) rushes Washington Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins (7) Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Landover, Md. (Mark Tenally/AP)

Credit: Mark Tenally

Credit: Mark Tenally

1. The no spin zone. The Falcon sat on the sidelines during the tampering period and watched as all of the pass rushers found homes and millions of dollars.

Tampa Bay agreed to a deal with Shaquil Barrett, who played at Nebraska-Omaha, worth $72 million over five years. He was set to be the top free-agent edge rusher in free agency, according to the Pro Football Focus list of the top 200 free agents.

Barrett was signed by Tampa Bay to a one-year, $4 million contract in 2019. He went on to break the team record with 19.5 sacks. He played last season on the franchise tag, which was worth $15.8 million while helping the Bucs win the Super Bowl title.

Bud Dupree agreed to terms with the Titans on a multi-year deal that averages $16.5 million per year. Dupree, who played at Wilkinson County High and Kentucky, had 39.5 sacks over six seasons with the Steelers.

Leonard Floyd, a former Georgia standout, re-signed with the Rams. He’s set to ink a four-year, $64 million deal. After flaming out in Chicago, he broke loose for 10.5 sacks with the Rams last season.

Trey Hendrickson, formerly of the Saints, is set to sign a four-year, $60 million deal with the Bengals.

Yannick Ngakoue is set to sign a two-year, $26 million deal with the Raiders.

Carl Lawson, who played at Milton High and Auburn, agreed to a three-year, $45 million with the Jets.

The Falcons’ salary-cap situation has been well-documented. They cut veterans and then started with restructuring contracts with left tackle Jake Matthews.

The Falcons can look at the low end of the free-agent edge-rusher list and hope to find a developing player ready to blossom as Barrett did in Tampa.

Kerry Hyder, Samson Ebukam and former Georgia standout Jordan Jenkins are free agents.

Hyder has been with four teams, but had 8.5 sacks with the 49ers last season.

Ebukam started 35 games with the Rams over the past four seasons and has 14.5 career sacks.

Jenkins has played in 72 games and made 62 starts for the Jets. He has 22.5 career sacks.

Some of the other edge rushers who could possibly help the Falcons include Trent Murphy, Tarell Basham, Tyus Bowser, Deatrich Wise and Romeo Okwara.

Wise, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, has played in 62 games for the Patriots. He’s made 18 starts and has 14 sacks.

Even former Falcons draft pick Takk McKinley landed a deal. He’s headed to Cleveland for a one-year, $4 million deal.

The Falcons will have to add some one in free agency, because the draft is not fully stocked with pass rushers.

“Teams are all over the map on these edge rushers,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.

Penn State’s Micah Parson, Miami’s Greg Rousseau, Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Miami’s Jaelen Phillips, Oklahoma’s Ronnie Perkins. Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari and Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham are some of the top defensive end prospects in the draft.

“When you’re looking at edge rushers...it’s an interesting group because there’s some flaws with these guys, but there’s also a lot to like,” Jeremiah said. “I really like Ronnie Perkins from Oklahoma. I have him in kind of the 30s on my list, but I would have no problem if he went late in the first round because he just plays his butt off, man.

“He can play with his hand down or you can stand him up. He’s got speed to power. He’s got some ankle stiffness there, but real violent hands.”

2. Georgia Pro Day. Georgia’s Pro Day is set for today.

Ojulari is considered a late first-round pick. Cornerbacks Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell are projected second-rounders.

Offensive lineman Ben Cleveland, cornerback D.J. Daniel, defensive lineman Malik Herring, offensive lineman Trey Hill, safety Richard LeCounte, tight end Tre’ McKitty, quarterback Jamie Newman, linebacker Monty Rice and defensive back Mark Webb schedule to talk to the media, according to NFL communications.

The Pro Day is closed to the media, but will be televised on the SEC Network. (BTW, Georgia Tech’s Pro Day was open to the media and socially distanced.)

3. Falcons slide under the cap: In a move to get under the NFL’s $182.5 salary cap by the start of the new league business year at 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Falcons restructured quarterback Matt Ryan’s contract, according to Zach Klein, Channel 2 Action News’ sports director.

The Falcons are now an estimated $3.5 million under the salary cap, according to Sportrac.com. The NFLPA, which is slow to update numbers, still lists the team as $20.9 million over the cap as of late Tuesday night.

This is the fourth time that Ryan’s contract has been restructured since he signed a five-year, $150 million contract in May 2018.

The Falcons also recently restructured left tackle Jake Matthews’ contract by turning his $13 million base salary into a signing bonus, as previously reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Ryan was due $23 million and took $21 million that was turned into a guaranteed bonus that could be spread over the final three years of his contract, Klein tweeted and cited an NFL league source.

Ryan, who had the highest cap number in the NFL at $40.9 million, now has a cap number of $26.9 million.

Credit: AJC

Here's a quick look at some key stats for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for the 2020 season and his 13-year career.

Credit: AJC

The Falcons veterans Ricardo Allen, Allen Bailey and James Carpenter to help get them under the cap.

Strong safety Keanu Neal did not receive the franchise tag and is headed to free agency. Free safety Damontae Kazee’s agent told the AJC that he was moving on. Center Alex Mack is said to have opted to join former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco.

Kazee has drawn some interest from the Cowboys, who hired former Falcons coach Dan Quinn to be their defensive coordinator.

On Thursday, the Falcons signed four of five exclusive-rights free agents in Pro Bowl kicker Younghoe Koo, defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, cornerback Tyler Hall and wide receiver Christian Blake. The fifth, tight end Jaeden Graham, signed Friday.

The Falcons on Monday placed the $3.384 million second-round tender on restricted free agent Matt Gono, an offensive lineman.

The Falcons are 18-30 since Ryan signed his contract in May 2018. The Falcons went 7-9, 7-9 and 4-12 because they struck out in the NFL draft and in free agency.

When Ryan signed his extension in 2018 it was the richest contract for a quarterback. More than a handful of deals have been signed since that surpass the former NFL MVP’s annual $30 million salary.

Recently, the Cowboys signed Dak Prescott to a $160 million, four-year contract with $126 million guaranteed and an NFL-record $66 million signing bonus.

At $40 million per season, Prescott ranks second in the NFL in annual salary to Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, who is at $45 million annually in a $450 million, 10-year deal that eventually could exceed $500 million in value. Houston’s Deshaun Watson is third at $39 million annually.

Ryan, who becomes a free agent in 2024, now falls to ninth on the list of top moneymakers.

The Ryan move will help to pay for the Falcons’ nine-member rookie class, which is slotted to receive $12.55 million.

4. Davison takes a pay cut. Defensive tackle Tyeler Davison took a $2 million pay cut, according to Klein.

Buffalo Bills tight end Lee Smith (85) celebrates a touchdown against the Denver Broncos during an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Buffalo Bills tight end Lee Smith (85) celebrates a touchdown against the Denver Broncos during an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

5. Tight end help. The Falcons acquired veteran tight end Lee Smith in a trade for a late-round 2022 draft pick from the Bills on Tuesday, according to ESPN. A person familiar with the deal confirmed it as a planned move.

The Falcons would not confirm the trade and noted that NFL trades can’t be official until the new league year starts at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Lee, 33, played at Tennessee and Marshall. He was drafted in the fifth round (159th overall) by New England in 2011.

Lee, 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, is a blocking tight end. He has 64 catches for 458 yards and 10 touchdowns over his career. He played in 10 games and made two starts last season for the Bills. He caught six passes for 35 yards and two touchdowns.

He has played with Buffalo (2011-14, 2019-20) and with Oakland (2015-18).

The Falcons currently have two tight ends on the roster in Hayden Hurst and Jaeden Graham. Luke Stocker was the third tight end last season, but he is set to become an unrestricted free agent Wednesday.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith, who was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator last season, had four tight ends with at least 200 offensive snaps in their run-heavy attack that featured running back Derrick Henry.

Jonnu Smith played 719 snaps (69.9%), Geoff Swaim played 339 (33%), Anthony Firkser played 328 (31.9%) and MyCole Pruitt played 251 (24.4%) were Smith’s tight ends in 2020.

Georgia Tech punter Pressley Harvin (27) is all smiles while participating in the school's Pro Day for NFL scouts Tuesday, March 16, 2021, at Rose Bowl Field and the Mary and John Brock Football Practice Facility in Atlanta.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Georgia Tech punter Pressley Harvin (27) is all smiles while participating in the school's Pro Day for NFL scouts Tuesday, March 16, 2021, at Rose Bowl Field and the Mary and John Brock Football Practice Facility in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

6. Falcons go check out Harvin: Georgia Tech punter Pressley Harvin, an NFL combine invitee, drew a crowd from more than 20 NFL teams, including Falcons coach Arthur Smith, to the school’s Pro Day on Tuesday.

The NFL scouts knew that Harvin, the reigning Ray Guy Award winner, could blast punts. He set Tech and ACC single-season records with a 48-yard punting average in 2020.

In the NFL, though, it’s more of a finesse game. Could Harvin directionally place his punts outside of the numbers?

“I knew directional (punting) was going to be one of the most important parts of it because that’s what gets you paid in the NFL,” Harvin said. “That’s what keeps you on teams. Can you place this ball in this one position that we need you to, to take the returner out of the game.”

Here’s the rest of the story.

7. Gono figures in Falcons’ plan: The Falcons placed a second-round tender of $3.284 million on offensive lineman Matt Gono on Monday, according to his agents.

The tender signals that Gono is the plans for 2021 either at right tackle or left guard. Gono, appeared in all 16 games last season, making four starts, and played 337 offensive snaps. He also played 80 snaps on special teams.

The Falcons wanted to protect Gono, who started at right tackle and left guard, by placing a high tender on a formerly undrafted player.

Wide receiver Brandon Powell, who was the kickoff and punt returner last season, is the team’s lone remaining restricted free agent.

A player with three accrued years (at least six games) of service is a restricted free agent.

Other teams can sign Gono to an offer sheet, but the Falcons retain the right to match. The Falcons could allow Gono to leave and receive draft compensation based on the tender level of a second-round pick.

Gono, who was in his third season out of Division III Wesley College in Delaware, was stout at right tackle last season. He played so well starting at right tackle while subbing for Kaleb McGary early in the season, that the Falcons started him at left guard against the Chiefs in Game 15.

8. Free agency tracker: With the new business year set to start today, here’s a look at the Falcons’ free-agency situation:

CAP CASUALTIES

Ricardo Allen, FS: Released Feb. 18.

Allen Bailey, DE: Released Feb. 18.

James Carpenter, OL: Released March 9.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Keanu Neal, SS: Did not receive the franchise tag.

Damontae Kazee, FS: Has announced that he’s moving on.

Alex Mack, C: Weighing his options, which include retirement.

Darqueze Dennard, CB: Played on a one-year contract in 2020.

Todd Gurley, RB: Played on a one-year contract.

Charles Harris, DE: Played on a one-year contract.

Brian Hill, RB: Is a valuable special teams player.

Justin McCray, OL: Was backup offensive line help.

Steven Means, DE: Played in all 16 games and made 11 starts. Finished with three sacks.

Sharrod Neasman, FS: Solid backup and special-teams player.

LaRoy Reynolds, LB: Speedy special-teamer.

Edmond Robinson, LB: Provided quality depth while playing in 13 games in 2020.

Luke Stocker, TE: Blocking tight end who spent time with Arthur Smith and the Titans in 2017 and 2018.

Laquon Treadwell, WR: Played last season on a one-year contract. Made a couple of nice plays late in the season.

John Wetzel, OT: Basically has been veteran insurance at tackle.

Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB: Has provided quality depth at cornerback spot. Played in 15 games last season and had three interceptions

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Matt Gono, OL: $3.384 million second-round tender made March 15.

Brandon Powell, WR: No tender made yet. Was the kickoff and punt returner last season.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

Younghoe Koo, PK: Signed March 11.

Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, DE: Signed March 11.

Tyler Hall, CB: Signed March 11.

Christian Blake, WR: Signed March 11.

Jaeden Graham, TE: Signed March 12

9. Depth chart: Here’s what the Falcons’ depth chart looks like heading into new league business year:

OFFENSE

WR 11 Julio Jones, 13 Christian Blake

LT 70 Jake Matthews

LG 73 Matt Gono, 66 Willie Wright

C 61 Matt Hennessy

RG 63 Chris Lindstrom

RT 76 Kaleb McGary, 72 Willie Beavers

TE 81 Hayden Hurst, Lee Smith, 87 Jaeden Graham

WR 83 Russell Gage, 16 Greg Dortch

WR 18 Calvin Ridley

QB 2 Matt Ryan

HB 25 Ito Smith, 30 Qadree Ollison, 26 Tony Brooks-James

FB 40 Keith Smith

DEFENSE

DE 91 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner

DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 90 Marlon Davidson, 94 Deadrin Senat

DT 96 Tyeler Davison, 50 John Cominsky, 79 Chris Slayton

DE 56 Dante Fowler

LB 45 Deion Jones, 46 Edmond Robinson

LB 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 43 Mykal Walker

RCB 20 Kendall Sheffield, 29 Chris Williamson

LCB 24 A.J. Terrell, 44 Tyler Hall

NCB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 42 Delrick Abrahms

FS 39 T.J. Green

SS 32 Jaylinn Hawkins

SPECIALISTS

K 7 Younghoe Koo, 1 Elliott Fry

P 4 Sterling Hofrichter, Dom Maggio

LS 47 Josh Harris

KO 7 Younghoe Koo

KR 14 Chris Rowland

PR 14 Chris Rowland

Falcons’ 2021 draft position: Here are the picks in D. Led’s Mock Draft 2.0: Top five picks

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence (QB, Clemson)

2. New York Jets: Justin Fields, (QB, Ohio State)

3. Miami Dolphins: Ja’Marr Chase (WR, LSU)

4. Falcons: Kyle Pitts (TE, Florida)

5. Cincinnati Bengals: Penei Sewell, (OT, Oregon)

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