Falcons working to get under NFL salary cap

Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot poses for a portrait during his first visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday January 21, 2021. (Photo by Dakota Williams/Atlanta Falcons).
Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot poses for a portrait during his first visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday January 21, 2021. (Photo by Dakota Williams/Atlanta Falcons).

Credit: Rob Foldy/Atlanta Falcons

Credit: Rob Foldy/Atlanta Falcons

Chris Olsen, the Falcons’ new director of football administration, has less than a month to get the team under the NFL’s salary cap.

The league and the NFLPA agreed to a floor of $180 million for the 2021 salary cap, but the final number will not be set until just before the new league year starts March 17.

Last season, the salary cap in 2020 was $198.2 million. A drop to $18.2 million would be the steepest in NFL history.

The final cap is tied to the ongoing negotiations for various new TV contracts and calculating losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which kept more than 17 million fans from attending games in the 2020 season. League-wide, 13 teams did not allow any fans to attend.

After releasing safety Ricardo Allen and defensive end Allen Bailey on Thursday, the Falcons are now $20.2 million over the cap, according to OverTheCap.com. The team now has $11.5 million in dead money against the cap from contracts from players they’ve already cut like Allen, Bailey, cornerback Desmond Trufant, lineman Jamon Brown and cornerback Jordan Miller.

The NFL is looking to move to 17 regular-season games in 2021, which could increase TV revenue and attendance. That additional revenue could push the salary cap higher for 2021.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan ($40.9 million) and wide receiver Julio Jones ($23.05 million) have the highest salary-cap numbers on the team for 2021.

“I wouldn’t touch Matt Ryan or Julio,” said Joel Corry, a former agent who hosts the “Inside the Cap” podcast, on Friday. “Matt has, for now, the second-highest cap number in the NFL. It’s going to be No. 1 once something is done with (Pittsburgh’s) Ben Roethlisberger. Jones has the No. 1 wide receiver cap number.”

Corry believes that Ryan’s and Jones’ days are numbered with the Falcons.

“If you’re going to use the No. 4 pick on a quarterback, there is no point in doing anything with Matt Ryan because you’ve already restructured it three times, which is why it’s so high,” said Corry, who received his bachelor’s degree in finance from Emory.

Jones is coming off an injury-plagued season that saw him play in only seven games.

“We found out with Jones being hurt this year that Calvin Ridley can be a No. 1 receiver,” Corry said. “So, I wouldn’t restructure him either. Most likely, these two guys are playing their last year with the Falcons. They are probably getting traded next year.”

To get under the cap, the Falcons will need to make more cuts. Veteran guard James Carpenter could save them another $4 million, according to Corry.

The Falcons also could restructure the final three years of left tackle Jake Matthews and linebacker Deion Jones to create cap space. They could convert their base salaries into guaranteed signing bonuses and spread the cap hit over 2021, 2022 and 2023.

The Falcons also could grant two-time Pro Bowl player Grady Jarrett a contract extension. His contract is set to run out in 2022. The Falcons could convert his base salaries for 2021 and 2022 into a signing bonus and extend him a year and spread the bonus over 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Jarrett’s base salary is $13.5 million for 2021 and $16.5 million for 2022, with cap umbers of $20.3 and 23.8.

“They have to do something with those guys because Matthews has the largest offensive line cap number ($20.2 million),” Corry said. “Grady has the No. 4 (highest) defensive tackle cap number ($20.8 million). They are not keeping those the same. (Deion) Jones will probably get restructured as well.”

Matthews, Jones and Jarrett would have small base salaries with large signing bonuses spread out over the terms of their deals instead of packing them into 2021. The key premise is that they all would continue to play at a high level and that the salary cap would increase beyond the 2021 levels once the pandemic is over and the new TV deals are signed.

Also, the Falcons could get some additional cap relief from defensive end Dante Fowler, who has a $18.5 million cap number.

“I might approach Dante Fowler for a pay cut because it doesn’t really benefit you to cut him because of the guarantee,” Corry said. “He has a $6 million base salary guaranteed, and the other $7 million becomes guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year. I’d approach him for a pay cut where he could make the money back if he produces.”

Fontenot comes from the Saints, who have been the masters of pushing salary-cap hits down the road. For years, they banked on the cap going up as money from the TV contracts escalated. But the Falcons and the Saints now are in bad spots because no one could foresee the loss of revenue from the pandemic.

Fontenot was not overly alarmed by the Falcons’ salary-cap situation.

“That is going to be important, that decision-making process because … there is always a way to make it work for this year,” Fontenot said Tuesday on NFL Media’s “Huddle and Flow” podcast hosted by Steve Wyche and Jim Trotter. “At some point, you’re kicking it down the road. At some point it’s going to come back and you’re going to have to pay those prices.”

Fontenot said the Falcons will take a “big picture” approach to getting under the cap.

“We have to, again our goal is to have sustained success, so we are going to work hard to do the right things,” Fontenot said. “We want to get the most competitive team on the field this year.”

Even with the potential cuts, restructures, extensions and pay cuts, the Falcons will have some younger and lower-salaried talent. Players such as kicker Younghoe Koo, defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and cornerback Tyler Hall are exclusive-rights free agents with a great chance to make the final roster.

“We don’t want to make decisions in 2021 that are going to hurt us in 2022, 2023 moving forward,” Fontenot said. “So, we’re going to have that big-picture mindset and make sure that we’re going to make decisions for sustained success.”

Fontenot stopped short of contending that the Falcons would be silent in free agency.

“There are always ways to work your hardest to make things work and to make sure that you’re able to add good players (over) the offseason,” Fontenot said.

There’s no money for any marquee free agents such defensive end J.J. Watt, who recently was released by Houston.

“(They) probably are not going to be players in free agency,” Corry said. “You have to account for the fact that most teams are going to be in the same position. They will be cutting more guys than usual. It’s a simple economic equation where supply exceeds demand. It’s a definite buyer’s market.”

A lot of players, as in 2012 and 2013 when the cap slightly increased, will sign one-year deals.

“If you’re not a marquee free agent, I would not want to be a free agent this year,” Corry said. “If the team offers you to take a pay cut, I would take it this year. Unless you are someone who has played really, really well for multiple years and last year was just an anomaly. I wouldn’t want to be out there in free agency this year.”

While Ryan and Jones are expected back for 2021, Fontenot wouldn’t call them “untouchables.” He must not have been made aware that owner Arthur Blank called both players, and Jarrett, “Falcons for life” during their previous contract negotiations.

“I don’t think you’d ever be in a situation where you’d say somebody is untouchable,” Fontenot said. “That’s not the right culture, right. If you’re building a culture of competition, then that doesn’t make sense to say this a person can’t be touched.”

The coaches are wrapping up their self-scout of the current roster. The defense is done, which led to the release of Allen and Bailey. With the retirement of Matt Schaub and the release of Kurt Benkert, the Falcons will add quarterbacks behind Ryan.

The college scouts are in town and have started their pre-combine draft meetings. The combine would have started Tuesday, but is not being held this season. Teams are looking at the individual college Pro Days as the combine for 2021.

The pro personnel scouts are getting ready for free agency.

“I believe we have a lot of good people in this building right now,” Fontenot said. “A lot of good players that have the right mindset, and we’re going to supplement this roster and add to the roster. We are working to build this team for sustained success.”

Falcons’ 2021 draft position: Here are the pick’s in D. Led’s Mock Draft 1.0: Top five picks

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

2. New York Jets: Ja’Marr Chase, (WR, LSU)

3. Dolphins: Penei Sewell (OT, Oregon)

4. Atlanta Falcons: Justin Fields (QB, Ohio State)

5. Cincinnati Bengals: Devonta Smith (WR, Alabama)

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