Cover 9@9: Falcons don’t plan to tank for the NFL draft

1. The no-spin zone: With the Falcons eliminated from the playoffs, they can start preparing for what will be a highly active offseason.

The new administration will be released from the NFL’s salary-cap jail as it will have nearly $70 million under the projected $232 million salary cap.

The Falcons legally can begin negotiating with players and their agents at 10 a.m. March 13, two days before the official start of the free-agency signing period.

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The Falcons will finish the season by hosting the Cardinals on Sunday and the Bucs the following weekend.

Then it will be time to get busy.

The Falcons currently hold the sixth pick in the draft. They are projected to take Clemson edge rusher Myles Murphy in the 33rd Team’s mock draft.

The Falcons want to win out and are not worried about trying to improve their draft status.

“When you take a job like Terry (Fontenot) and I took over, there is precedent,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “There are some things that you try to study that people have had success doing. Certainly, Seattle in their first two years with Pete Carroll and John Schneider. I believe they went 7-9 those first two years.”

The Falcons also have studied how Buffalo has rebuilt under general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott.

“They took a dip knowing what they were trying to do,” Smith said. “They certainly competed, and now they (are) winning.”

The Falcons also have studied the 49ers under general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan.

“There’s usually a common thread there,” Smith said. “They had a plan. Trying to get the right people in there. Trying to build it the right way. You’re competitive. You’re trying to learn what it takes to win in those situations.”

Smith believes the team, which has been undermanned because of the salary-cap situation, can lay the foundation for the future by building a winning culture.

“Your objective is to win,” Smith said. “To go in there not to win, that’s disrespectful to this game, to the players in that locker room.”

Selecting higher in the draft is not as important as trying to win.

“There’s also a graveyard of some horrendous draft picks just because you’re up there high,” Smith said. “You have to get that right – and some of it is luck. Yeah, if there’s a no-brainer top pick. Usually history will tell you that’s not the case.”

Smith advised folks to go back and study the drafts.

Some quick recent examples include the New York Jets taking Zach Wilson with the No. 2 overall pick over Justin Fields and Mac Jones. The Browns picked Baker Mayfield over Josh Allen, who went to Buffalo in the 2018 draft.

“We’re trying to build a culture of winning and winning the right way,” Smith said. “Again, we’ve come in a lot of these close games with a young team. We’ve been charging back, but we haven’t gotten over the hump the last four weeks. We need to do that.”

2A. 2023 opponents: In addition to the six NFC South games, the Falcons are set to play the NFC North (four teams), AFC South and currently are set to play the last-place teams in the NFC East, NFC West and AFC East.

Here’s a look at the Falcons opponents:

Falcons Home Opponents:

NFC South: Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers

NFC North: Vikings and Packers

AFC South: Texans and Colts

NFC East: TBD (Commanders are currently in last place)

Falcons Road Opponents:

NFC South: Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers

NFC North: Bears and Lions

AFC South: Jaguars and Titans

NFC West: TBD (Cardinals are currently in last place)

AFC East: TBD (Jets and Patriots are currently tied for last place)

2B. J.J. Watt to retire: One of the NFL’s better defenders, Cardinals defensive lineman J.J. Watt, announced that he plans to retire at the end of the season.

Watt, 33, played for the Houston Texans from 2011-20 and for the Cardinals last season and this season. He is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, five-time All-Pro and former Walter Payton Man of the Year.

Watt, 6-foot-5 and 288 pounds, has amassed 111.5 sacks and was selected 11th overall in the 2011 draft. He has 9.5 sacks this season and 14.5 tackles for loss.

Watt posted pictures of his wife and family on social media with a message that stated: “Koa’s first ever NFL game. My last ever NFL home game. My heart is filled with nothing but love and gratitude. It’s been an absolute honor and a pleasure.”

Watt and his wife, Kealia, became parents in October. Koa is the name of their son.

3. Cards have lost five consecutive: The Cardinals are coming off a 19-16 loss to the Bucs in overtime Sunday night and will play without safety Budda Baker, who sustained a season-ending shoulder injury.

The Falcons are expecting a tough battle from the Cardinals, who are hoping to get quarterback Colt McCoy back from the NFL’s concussion protocol. McCoy has posted a 1-2 mark as a starter this season.

Trace McSorley, who played at Penn State, made his first NFL start against the Bucs. McSorley completed 24 of 45 passes for 217 yards and no touchdowns, but he threw an interception. He finished with a passer rating of 57.4.

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray suffered a season-ending knee injury against New England on Dec. 12. He is set to have surgery on his knee Jan. 3.

Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, signed a $230 million deal this past offseason.

4. DeAndre Hopkins is top weapon: The Cardinals have a talented wide receiver group.

The Cardinals’ top offensive weapon is wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who has caught 64 passes for 717 yards and three touchdowns. He caught only one of 10 targets for 4 yards against the Bucs. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown had a 47-yard reception, and Greg Dortch caught 10 of 11 targets for 98 yards.

Running back James Conner is the Cardinals’ top rusher. He has 167 rushes for 703 yards and seven touchdowns.

5. On the officiating: Smith has been in contact with the league office regarding questionable calls in the 17-9 loss to the Ravens on Sunday.

“Those are private conversations,” Smith said. “There is not a lot to talk about. ... There is nothing I can do to change that regardless of how I feel.”

6. Missed tackles: The Falcons have 49 missed tackles (4.4%).

Cornerback A.J. Terrell, safeties Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins lead the team with seven missed tackles each.

Here are some other teams: Cowboys 54/5.2%; Panthers 62/5.7%; Saints 74/6.9%; Bucs 57/5.4% and Eagles 64/6.2%.

7. Series history: This will be the 32nd meeting. The Cardinals lead 16-15. The Cardinals won the last meeting 34-33 after Matt Bryant missed a potential game-tying extra point with 1:53 left in the game Oct. 13, 2019.

8. Tale of the tape: Here’s how the Falcons and Cardinals match up statistically:

Falcons Cardinals

21.0 (18) Pts/Game 20.5 (21)

315.8 (27) Total Offense 327.0 (22)

160.8 (3) Net Rush Yds/Game 112.4 (20)

155.0 (31) Net Pass Yds/Game 214.6 (18)

29:18 (21) Possession Avg. 30:17 (11)

23.3 (24) Opp Pts/Game 26.1 (30)

373.0 (28) Opp Tot Offense 354.8 (22)

133.5 (24) Opp Rush Yds/Game 114.3 (12)

239.5 (25) Opp Pass Yds/Game 240.5 (26)

-3 (22) Turnover Differential -2 (20)

9. Depth chart: Falcons tight end Feleipe Franks is in the concussion protocol and guard Chuma Edoga is battling a knee injury, Smith said Monday.

“Chuma didn’t make it to the game,” Smith said. “We have to figure out what’s the best plan for him. Feleipe is in the protocol.”

Guard Matt Hennessy and tight end John FitzPatrick are in their activation period from injured reserve.

Here’s the Falcons’ latest depth chart:

OFFENSE

QB – Desmond Ridder, Logan Woodside, Feleipe Franks

RB – Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier, Avery Williams

FB – Keith Smith

WR – Drake London, Damiere Byrd, Frank Darby

TE – Parker Hesse, MyCole Pruitt, Anthony Firkser, Feleipe Franks

LT – Jake Matthews

LG – Elijah Wilkinson, Chuma Edoga, Colby Gossett

C – Drew Dalman, Ryan Neuzil

RG – Chris Lindstrom

RT – Kaleb McGary, Germain Ifedi

WR – Olamide Zaccheaus, KhaDarel Hodge

DEFENSE

OLB – Lorenzo Carter, DeAngelo Malone

DE – Grady Jarrett, Tim Horne

NT – Abdullah Anderson, Jalen Dalton

DE – Matt Dickerson, Jaleel Johnson

OLB – Ade Ogundeji, Arnold Ebiketie, David Anenih

ILB – Rashaan Evans, Nick Kwiatkoski

ILB – Troy Andersen, Mykal Walker

CB – A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, Mike Ford, Rashad Fenton

FS – Jaylinn Hawkins, Jovante Moffatt

SS – Richie Grant, Erik Harris

CB – Darren Hall, Dee Alford, Cornell Armstrong

SPECIAL TEAMS

K – Younghoe Koo

P/H – Bradley Pinion

LS – Liam McCullough

PR – Avery Williams

KOR – Cordarrelle Patterson or Avery Williams