With the exhibition season complete, the Falcons have turned their full attention to cutting down to the 53-man roster in a season where they have an NFL record $63.4 million in dead salary cap space.
The trades of Julio Jones ($15.5 million in dead money) and Matt Ryan ($40.5 million) created the bulk of the dead cap space for the 2022 season. The release of Dante Fowler ($4.6), Tyeler Davison ($1.2), Mike Davis ($750,000), Kendall Sheffield ($189,222) and John Cominsky ($122,098) also contributed to the bottom line.
The Falcons have until 4 p.m. on Tuesday to cutdown from 80 to 53 players. Last season, the Falcons opened with a roster that included 25 players on defense and offense and three special teamers.
“The next couple of days there will be a lot of stuff going on with (general manager) Terry (Fontenot) and I,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “Every guy that we’ve got in that locker room, I appreciate their effort the entire spring, summer (and training) camp.”
The Falcons went 2-1 in the exhibition season and attempted to address several personnel issues, including replacing Ryan, the most prolific passer in franchise history.
The Falcons plan to revive Marcus Mariota’s once promising career and develop rookie Desmond Ridder as his backup. Ridder made his first NFL start in the exhibition finale and played into the fourth quarter.
The Falcons also had to re-stock the wide receiver position, fix the offensive line, try to create a pass rush, revamp the linebacker corps, get two new starting safeties ready to play and create some depth across the roster.
“We have some tough decisions ahead of us,” Smith said. “I’m always thankful for those guys efforts. Regardless that it’s pro football, they get paid. These guys have worked extremely hard.”
Rookie wide receiver Drake London, the eighth player taken overall this year, only played five plays in the exhibition season after being hit on his left knee against Detroit on Aug. 12. Behind London, Bryan Edwards and Olamide Zaccheaus, the Falcons have several options for three open roster spots. Veterans KhaDarel Hodge, Damiere Byrd and Cameron Baston have had strong camps. Frank Darby, Jared Bernhardt, Stanley Berryhill and KeeSean Johnson are also in contention.
Berhardt, the former lacrosse player, led the Falcons in receiving with five catches for 105 yards and had the game-winning touchdown catch against the Lions.
The Falcons appear set to open with Elijah Wilkinson at left guard and Kaleb McGary at right tackle. Center is down to Drew Dalman or Matt Hennessy. Wilkinson beat out incumbent Jaley Mayfield and McGary held off a challenge from Germain Ifedi.
“It’s our football staff,” Smith said of the decision-making group of coaches and personnel men. “That’s what we call ourselves. Football staff. We are a team.”
After cutting down to 53, the Falcons have until 12 noon on Wednesday to sign 16 players to the practice squad.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Smith said. “There is a lot more to transactions, the way this thing is going to go. There are a lot of mechanisms now that you can use. You are just going to have to let it play out.”
Some of the players cut may join another franchise’s practice squad. The Falcons may want to pursue other players --- especially experienced veterans – cut by other teams.
The new regime has established a pattern of getting players they know already from their former organizations: the Titans (Mariota, Anthony Firkser and MyCole Pruitt), Bears (Wilkinson and Damien Williams) and Saints (Erik Harris).
“You’re able to get more guys to the practice squad,” Smith said. “Different mechanisms, what may look like the roster on Wednesday, may look a little different on Thursday and so on.”
The Falcons, who didn’t have top running back Cordarrelle Patterson carry the ball once in the exhibition season, were pleased with the play of the running backs. It’s crowded behind Patterson with Williams, Qadree Ollison, rookie Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley on hand.
Huntley, a College Park native who played at Locust Grove High, ran hard during the exhibition season. He led the Falcons with 38 carries for 138 yards and a touchdown. Ollison had 18 carries for 77 yards and a touchdown. Allgeier had 17 carries for 68 yards and a touchdown. Huntley spent last season on the Falcons’ practice squad.
“It’s just a waiting game for me,” Huntley said. “I’m just blessed to have this opportunity to be here. Whatever decision they make is going to be the best decision. I know that God is going to work it out for me in the end.”
The Falcons have some decisions to make along the backup defensive line. Taquon Graham won the defensive end spot opposite of Grady Jarrett. Derrick Tangelo, Timothy Horne and Abdullah Anderson all played well in the exhibition finale against Jacksonville.
“A lot of it too was not just the sacks, but when you are running certain pressure packages in the game, everybody being coordinated on the same page so that you don’t open rush lanes,” Smith said. “You don’t lose contain. Guys getting the ball out.”
With their hands tied behind their back by the salary cap situation, the Falcons plan leave no stone unturned while looking to improve their roster.
“Everything is on the table,” Smith said. “It’s going to be around the league. We’ve got a great football staff. We’ll go with every contingency plan. Make sure that we get the right guys through. We’ll turn over every stone that we can to make sure we have the best roster available.”
D. Orlando Ledbetter, Esq is the award-winning Atlanta Falcons beat writer for the newspaper, has been on the staff since 2003. Every day D. Orlando strives to provide inside in the Falcons and the NFL. He finds the most joy in providing insight into the team, the coaching moves, the offseason business moves, the draft and the games.