So have you heard? The Falcons are in control of their own destiny. It’s true. They also were in control of their own destiny before they lost to Green Bay, and before they lost to Pittsburgh, and before every game they’ve played this season, which to this point has resulted in a 5-9 record.
I think we can agree on this: “We’re in control of our own destiny” is a bit frayed at the edges.
One thing has changed this week: If the Falcons lose at New Orleans on Sunday, they won’t be in control of their own destiny. They will be dead. They will have missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, and the focus officially will turn to a potential new head coach (likely), a potential new general manager (less certain), an early first-round draft pick (currently seventh overall) and the impending systematic destruction and rebuilding of a flawed roster.
In fact, regardless of what happens the next two weeks, that last thing is a certainty.
The Falcons will make major changes to their roster. They have no choice. Their offensive line was marginally improved this season with the potential of significant success largely undone by injuries. But they need defensive ends and linebackers. They need to elicit even a trace of fear, not lampooning, with their defense. Opposing quarterbacks are too comfortable. The continuing failure by this administration to acquire and develop pass rushers has led to increasingly embarrassing results. More than 20 teams have at least double the Falcons' league-worst sack total of 16.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith arrived together in 2008. They have been largely on the same page in personnel decisions. For that reason, I’m convinced that the decision to use two new defensive tackles, Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, to occupy space in hopes of collapsing the middle of opposing offensive lines and turning ends Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann into some semblance of a pass-rush threat is on both of them.
It didn’t work. So enough with the fantasies.
The good news for the Falcons, whether it’s Dimitroff or someone else running the show, is the team will have enormous flexibility with roster changes. The front office will have $25 to $35 million in salary-cap space, given expiring contracts, potential cuts and a league-wide increase in the ceiling.
The roster’s five active players with the biggest salary-cap hits this season — quarterback Matt Ryan, guard Justin Blalock, wide receiver Roddy White, Soliai and wide receiver Julio Jones — almost certainly will be back. Jones is scheduled to enter the final year of his contract and likely will receive an extension this offseason.
The next five largest cap hits among active players all may exit (with this year’s base salary):
Umenyiora ($2.5 million): He has failed to improve the pass rush and his contract expires. Gone.
Running back Steven Jackson ($3 million): Don't expect the team to pick up the last year of his deal ($3.75 million). Offensive line struggles notwithstanding, Jackson hasn't shown enough to lead anybody to believe he's better than cheaper options on the roster or in the free-agent market.
Biermann ($3.05 million): His a three-year, $9.15 million extension in 2012 was a debatable decision, at best. He hasn't produced. Gone.
Wide receiver Harry Douglas ($2.75 million): He's a solid No. 3 receiver. But he's due a salary of $3.5 million in 2015 and that's a lot to commit for that salary slot. Likely gone.
Kicker Matt Bryant ($2.75 million): He has earned every penny of his salary. But his contract is up, and he might be too rich of a luxury for this team to carry with other needs. Possibly gone.
Two other big salaries also may come off the books: oft-injured and maligned tackle Sam Baker ($3.25 million this year, $4.5 million next year) and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon ($2.83 million).
Baker (out with a torn patellar tendon) is only two years into a six-year, $41.1 million extension, which includes $18.2 million in guarantees. The deal has blown up in the Falcons’ faces. If they cut him after June, the cap hit won’t be as significant (but still big). But it’s reasonable to believe Baker might just take his money and retire, which could reduce the cap hit further. Weatherspoon’s deal is up, but since he’s coming off another major injury (torn Achilles), he potentially could be re-signed at a non-guaranteed lower salary.
The bottom line: The Falcons have financial flexibility to significantly improve the roster if the right decisions are made. But if they had made better decisions the past two years, they wouldn’t be 5-9 this week.