Cover 9@9: Are the Falcons losing ground in the NFC South?

Feb. 27-March 5: NFL Scouting Combine starts in Indianapolis March 14: 2018 league year begins. Free agency period starts March 25-28: Annual league meetings in Orlando April 16: Falcons offseason workout programs begin April 26-28: 2018 NFL Draft in Arlington, Texas Falcons hold the 26th pick in the first round May 4-7 or May 11-14: Post-draft rookie minicamps May 21-23: Spring league meetings in Atlanta July 15: Preseason training camp begins Sept. 1: Deadline for final roster cuts Sept. 6, 9-10: Regul

Good morning! Welcome to The Cover 9@9 blog. It's our weekly blog of nine things at 9 a.m. Wednesday that you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons are working on Matt Ryan’s contract extension and are preparing for the draft. They are expected to have a large group over here today for Georgia’ s Pro Day. Enjoy!

The Falcons are counting on their players improving in 2018.

The only holes they needed to fill last season – right guard and fullback – are the same key spots this season along with the loss of defensive tackle Dontari Poe.

Wide receivers Reggie Davis and Marvin Hall will get a shot to replace Taylor Gabriel.

Defensive end TakkMcKinley will be expected to step up and replace Adrian Clayborn.

They also don’t have a returner on the roster, unless Justin Hardy is ready to take over that role.

At the outset of free agency, NFL teams had more than $1 billion in salary cap money to spend. By taking care of their own players, the Falcons were in the bottom third of teams with money to spend and said they planned to take care of quarterback Matt Ryan and other players already on the roster.

While the Falcons were holding the fort, the Saints, Panthers and Buccaneers arguably all got better in the NFC South.

Here’s what the Falcons have done:

Players retained/added -- kicker Matt Bryant, cornerback Leon McFadden, cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, tackle Austin Pasztor and guard Brandon Fusco.

Players lost – wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, defensive tackle Dontari Poe and defensive end Adrian Clayborn.

The key addition is Fusco, who signed a three-year deal worth $12.75 million. He’s being paid like a starter, but the fact is that two teams have basically fired him over the last two years.

The Vikings released him after 2016 and the 49ers, one of the teams that had more than $60 million in salary cap space, didn’t bother to match Fusco’s offer.

Here’s a quick look around the NFC South:

Saints: The defending division champions retained their quarterback Drew Brees and added some quality veteran help for their young defense.

Players retained/added – Brees, defensive end Alex Okafor, defensive end George Johnson, offensive guard Jermon Bushrod, cornerback Patrick Robinson, linebacker Demario Davis, safety Kurt Coleman and quarterback Tom Savage.

Players lost – Quarterback Chase Daniel, safety Rafael Bush, offensive tackle Zach Strief and offensive guard Senio Kelemete.

Panthers: The Panthers are retooling the offense with the addition of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

Players retained/added – Kicker Graham Gano, center Greg Van Roten, defensive end Julius Peppers, tackle Zach Banner, defensive tackle Dontari Poe.

Players lost Defensive tackle Star Lotuleli, running back Jonathan Stewart, cornerback Teddy Williams and offensive guard Andrew Norwell.

Buccaneers: The Bucs have moved on from running back Doug Martin and currently have Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers as the top two running backs. Tampa Bay looks like a good landing spot for either of former Georgia running backs Sony Michel or Nick Chubb.

Players retained/added – Linebacker Adarius Glanton, cornerback Brent Grimes, tight end Cameron Brate, safety Keith Tandy, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, defensive end Will Clarke, wide receiver Adam Humphries, defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, defensive tackle Beau Allen, defensive end Vinny Curry, center Ryan Jensen, linebacker Cameron Lynch and kicker Chandler Catanzaro.

Players lost – Running back Doug Martin, defensive tackle Chris Baker, defensive edge Robert Ayers, safety T.J. Ward, center Joe Hawley, kicker Nick Folk and kicker Patrick Murray.

2.  COMP PICKS. With the Falcons losing Poe, Clayborn and Gabriel and signing just one free agent, Fusco, the team is in position to receive additional compensatory picks for the 2019 NFL draft.

3. QUINN TO ATTEND UGA'S PRO DAY. Falcons coach Dan Quinn is slated to attend Georgia's Pro Day today. The Falcons have heavily scouted former Georgia offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn, who's projected to be a guard in the NFL.

4. WHAT'S MATT RYAN'S VALUE. Riddle me this: If Jimmy Garoppolo is worth $27.5 million per year and Kirk Cousins is worth $28 million per year, then what is Matt Ryan worth?

Here's how Joel Corry of CBSSports puts it:

A new contract for (Green Bay’s Aaron) Rodgers is on the horizon this offseason. At the very least, (Minnesota’s Kirk) Cousins has given Rodgers and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who is entering his contract year, the ammunition to become charter members of the $30-million-per-year club. The Jets reportedly made Cousins a $30-million-per-year offer.

Ryan’s deal is more complicated by the signings of Garoppolo ($27.5 million per year) and Cousins ($28 million per year). If Garoppolo, who’s never started a season and only played in seven games, is worth $27.5 million per year, then what is Ryan, a former league MVP winner who’s been to the playoff six times and has one Super Bowl appearance, worth? What is Ryan worth in light of the Cousins’ signing? Cousins has never been to the playoffs.

So while the Falcons hammer out Ryan’s market value, they’ll sit up against the cap. They’ll get some relief from Levine Toilolo’s contract, as he was released with a post June 1 designation.

5. SALARY CAP UPDATE. While working on a deal for Ryan that's likely more complicated now than what the Falcons had envisioned, the team is sitting with barely enough money to handle its rookie draft class.

The Falcons are $5,633,482 million under the league’s $177.2 million salary cap. The team’s rookie class is projected to cost $5.67 million.

The Falcons could have gotten Ryan’s deal done and created some space to go free agency shopping, but did not value any players worthy of major deals. They have repeatedly said the room created by Ryan’s deal will be used for players already on the roster such as defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, left tackle Jake Matthews and possible free safety Ricardo Allen.

The Falcons have signed kicker Matt Bryant (three years, $10.5 million), cornerback Leon McFadden (one-year, $880,000), cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson (one-year, $880,000), offensive tackle Austin Pasztor (one-year, $880,000) and guard Brandon Fusco (three-year, $12.75 million).

The Falcons have lost wide receiver Taylor Gabriel to the Bears, defensive tackle Dontari Poe to the Panthers and defensive end Adrian Clayborn to the Patriots.

6. TOP TEN SALARY CAP NUMBERS. Here are the Falcons' top 10 salary cap numbers for 2018, according to NFLPA documents:

  1. Matt Ryan $21.65 million
  2. Julio Jones $12.9 million
  3. Desmond Trufant $12.9 million
  4. Jake Matthews $12.4 million
  5. Alex Mack $11 million
  6. Robert Alford $9.6 million
  7. Mohammed Sanu $7.5 million
  8. Ryan Schraeder $6.4 million
  9. Andy Levitre $5.8 million
  10. Devonta Freeman $5.0 million

7. BETHEL VISITS. Cornerback Justin Bethel, a three-time Pro Bowler as a special teams player, visited the Falcons Tuesday, according to the team.

Bethel, who was a sixth-round pick by the Cardinals in 2012 out of Presbyterian, made it to the Pro Bowl from 2013-15.

Bethel, 27, is listed at 6-foot and 200 pounds. He’s played in 96 games with 14 starts. He has four career interceptions and 116 tackles.

Bethel is represented by veteran agent Fletcher Smith and former Georgia Tech quarterback Damarius Bilbo.

8. TOILOLO VISITED LIONS. Former Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo has visited the Lions, according to NFL Media.

The Falcons released Toilolo on Friday, March 2. The Falcons saved $3.5 million in salary-cap space after June 1.

The 6-foot-8 tight end was drafted in the fourth round (133rd overall) of the 2013 draft with the hope of becoming a red-zone threat.

His hands were not very good, and he ended up becoming a blocking tight end.

Toilolo, who played at Stanford, played in 79 games and made 57 starts. He caught 74 of 114 targeted passes (64.9 percent) for 727 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Lions have elected to move on from tight ends Eric Ebron and Darren Fells. The Lions have also have had tight end Logan Paulsen, Brent Celek and Luke Wilson in for visits.

9. POST FREE AGENCY DEPTH CHART: With initial wave of free agency over, here's what the Falcons' unofficial depth chart:

OFFENSE

WR 11 Julio Jones, 14 Justin Hardy, 16 Reggie Davis

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 74 Ty Sambrailo

LG 67 Andy Levitre, 63 Ben Garland, 64 Sean Harlow, 75 Jamil Douglas

C 51 Alex Mack, 63 Ben Garland

RG Brandon Fusco, 71 Wes Schweitzer, 63 Ben Garland

RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 68 Austin Pasztor, 76 Daniel Brunskill

TE 81 Austin Hooper, 85 Eric Saubert, 89 Alex Gray

WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 17 Marvin Hall

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 9 Grayson Garrett

RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 25 Terrence Magee

FB Open

DEFENSE

DE 98 Takk McKinley, 50 Brooks Reed

DT 95 Jack Crawford, 93 Taniela Tupou

DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 77 Joe Ivey

DE 44 Vic Beasley, 55 J’Terius Jones, 96 Martin Ifedi

WLB 42 Duke Riley

MLB 45 Deion Jones

SLB 59 De’Vondre Campbell

CB 23 Robert Alford, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 39 Deante Burton

CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 34 Brian Poole, 35 Leon McFadden

NB 34 Brian Poole, 27 Damontae Kazee, 37 Ricardo Allen,

S 37 Ricardo Allen, 27 Damontae Kazee, 38 Marcelis Branch

S 22 Keanu Neal, 41 Quincy Mauger

SPECIALISTS 

K 3 Matt Bryant

KO 5 Matt Bosher

P 5 Matt Bosher

KR 14 Justin Hardy

PR 14 Justin Hardy

LS 47 Josh Harris

H 5 Matt Bosher

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