Falcons at pivotal point early in rebuild of roster

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith discuss the teams offseason plans at the NFL scouting combine. (By D. Orlando Ledbetter/dledbetter@ajc.com)

Combined ShapeCaption
Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith discuss the teams offseason plans at the NFL scouting combine. (By D. Orlando Ledbetter/dledbetter@ajc.com)

INDIANAPOLIS – The next two weeks are pivotal for the Falcons’ front office, which has to manage being over the salary cap, enter free agency and try to improve a roster that’s devoid of talent.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Falcons

The NFL’s new business year starts at 4 p.m. March 16.

Before then the Falcons must get under the projected $208.2 million salary cap. They currently are $7 million over the cap and have 24 players set to become free agents.

The Falcons will use all of the traditional avenues, which include restructuring contracts, extending some contracts and moving away from some contracts all together in what’s knows as a “salary-cap casualty.”

In addition to interviewing prospective players, the Falcons held meetings with several player representatives.

“If we get this player back, we may have to make a corresponding move because of that,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “If we don’t get the player, we may not have to touch a contract or whatever.”

The Falcons top free agents are running back Cordarrelle Patterson, linebacker Foye Oluokun, wide receiver Russell Gage, kicker Younghoe Koo and long snapper Josh Harris.

“It is a puzzle,” general manager Terry Fontenot said.

The Falcons could have a plan for Patterson, but his agent may think he can get more money on the open market. Oluokun’s agent may feel the same why.

“We have to adapt,” Fontenot said. “We don’t just have this strict, rigid (process). ... It’s all fluid.”

Things will start to move quickly after the Falcons return from the combine.

“There are certain timelines with certain players,” Fontenot said. “And with certain contracts, obviously the start of the league year is important because you have to get to a certain point. So, there are some time lines.”

Fontenot noted that they’ll look to the four highest salary-cap numbers for relief. Matt Ryan ($48.6 million), Grady Jarrett ($28.8 million), Jake Matthews ($23.6 million) and Deion Jones ($20 million).

There’s also the matter of Calvin Ridley, who’s on the books for $11.1 million. A trade for draft picks would create $11.1 million in cap space and put them $4 million under the cap.

“We’re working through it, we’ll continue to work through it,” Fontenot said. “We don’t live in a perfect world. They’re going to be variables throughout that process. … It’s obviously not ideal, but we’re going to continue to work through it.”

The Falcons want to re-sign some of their players, but are bracing for losses.

“They have a say in it, too,” Smith said. “Terry and his staff have done a great job in communicating with them. ... We have a Plan A. Certainly, there are guys that we want back.

“But if they decide that they want to go somewhere else. That’s their prerogative. So, we’ve got to have a contingency plan. That’s where you’re at right now.”

However the Falcons adjust things financially, they’ll will not be major players in free agency.

“We have to find value,” Fontenot said. “On Day 1 (of free agency), you’re not going to see a lot of splashy moves that (reporters) can tweet about. That’s not going to happen.”

So, look for more value moves like last season when the Falcons added a lot of aging veterans, such as Fabian Moreau, Duron Harmon, Erik Harris, Brandon Copeland and Patterson on low-budget deals.

“We have to be patient,” Fontenot said. “We have to find players that really fit here that can help us.”

The Falcons believe they have an attractive situation for value free agents.

“There are opportunities here,” Fontenot said. “We have a coaching staff that’s going to maximize the players. It’s a great place to live. I think we just have to be patient and challenge ourselves to find value.”

The Falcons don’t want to clean the books and not sign any players.

“We want to have some discipline, and we’re trying to build a championship roster,” Fontenot said. “We’re not trying to win one more game next year. We’re trying to build a championship roster. So, long-term, a team that will continue to compete. So, with that, we want to help our roster this offseason, but we also need to look at the future. We want to have balance.”

Patterson is a priority for the Falcons.

“The first thing we have to do is create low cap space,” Fontenot said. “Then, No. 1 is our players, and we have a lot of players. … Evaluate the player and look at the parameters of the type of contract that we can sign. What makes sense for us.”

What makes sense for the Falcons and what a player can get in free agency could lead to divergent numbers. The Falcons are not flush with cash and in a position to get into any bidding wars.

“We have to stay disciplined with that because we’re not trying to sign one player,” Fontenot said. “We’re trying to build a team. So, we have to make sure we assess the value and stay within our parameters with every player.”

The Falcons remain optimistic.

“There are going to be some players that we’re going to be able to re-sign,” Fontenot said. “Some players are going to move on, and we understand that.”

The Falcons noted that Patterson was signed a month into free agency last season. Patterson wasn’t receiving the offers he wanted and signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Falcons.

“We had a clear vision for him,” Fontenot said. “It says a lot about him and the success that he had because he’s a great man that we added, on and off the field. And it says a lot about our coaching staff and that they were able to find what he does well. He had the most productive season of his career as an offensive player.”

The Falcons will try to re-create some of those value situations this offseason.

“I think CP is an example of what we have to do especially with constraints we have here this year,” Fontenot said.

Losing Gage would leave Olamide Zaccheaus, who was an undrafted player, as the top receiver on the roster.

Like all of our guys that are up for free agency, Russell did a terrific job,” Fontenot said. “He got injured (high ankle sprain) early in the season. Came back, and I thought was really productive late in the year and helped us.”

Ryan’s contract has been adjusted three times to help the team in previous years. The team can do another extension because they can’t add voidable years because there would be no benefit if he has a good season.

Matthews and Jarrett are in line for extensions, while Jones appears headed for a downward restructuring.

“We just watched in our division Tom (Brady) played until he was 44,” Smith said. “He certainly he didn’t look his age. Matt is a lot younger than Tom. I understand that there is only one Tom Brady, but it certainly feels good where he’s at.

“We anticipate Matt being a part of the team, but you know, I think you don’t ever back yourself into a corner. ... I think Matt’s got a lot of good football left him.”

The AJC at the NFL scouting combine

» Ex-Georgia Bulldog Zamir White ready to flash his hands and speed in NFL

» Ex-Georgia wide receiver George Pickens ‘a volcano ready to erupt’ entering NFL

» Ex-Georgia Bulldog James Cook discussed his arrest with NFL teams

» Ex-Georgia guard Justin Shaffer: ‘It’d mean a lot’ to play for Falcons

» Ex-Georgia Bulldog Jamaree Salyer happy to be back in Indianapolis

» NFL draft deep with offensive linemen, running backs

» Cade Mays has no regrets after transferring from Georgia

» Ex-Falcon Ricardo Allen joins Miami Dolphins’ coaching staff

» Quarterback Malik Willis just wants to score points in the NFL

» Cedar Grove grad Jelani Woods finds home after move to tight end

» Connor Heyward watching videos of his dad, Craig ‘Ironhead’ Heyward

» Drake London’s size, versatility make him ‘exceptional’ prospect

» Terry Fontenot addresses Falcons’ decision to release Fowler, Gono

» With Ryan Pace, Falcons have three ex-general managers in personnel department

» Falcons’ Terry Fontenot on the Georgia Bulldogs at the NFL combine

» Receiver-needy Falcons meet with top names at NFL scouting combine

» Falcons’ Arthur Smith: ‘We’ve got a lot of needs’

» Falcons’ Terry Fontenot: ‘Working to build a championship roster one player at a time’

» Poll: Which UGA player will be first selected in NFL draft

» A look at the 38 local players invited to the NFL scouting combine

» Georgia could have four first-rounders as NFL scouting combine set to open

The Bow Tie Chronicles