The Falcons are chasing an NFC South title and playoff positioning, but that hasn’t stopped them for looking much farther into the future.
With an eye toward 2017 free agency, the Falcons recently reached contract extensions with right tackle Ryan Schraeder (five years, $32 million) and cornerback Robert Alford (four years, $38 million) in order to keep them from reaching the open market.
“I think that’s a real example with Ryan and Robert, knowing that this is the spot for me, I don’t want to go anywhere else,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “I want to play my football here with these guys. That was a real factor, too.”
The deals were both team friendly and were done before the league informed teams at the league meetings on Tuesday that the per-team salary cap for 2017, according to USA Today, is projected to be between $166 million and $170 million.
It represents another record and a leap from the $155.27 million cap for 2016. The final cap is normally set just before free agency begins in March.
The team has other potential key free agents in linebacker Paul Worrilow, safety Kemal Ishmael, tight end Levine Toilolo and fullback Patrick DiMarco. But there is no sense of urgency as those deals can be made in the offseason when the market value is set at their positions.
Worrilow, who led the Falcons in tackles from 2013 to 2015, was demoted this season. He signed a $2.5 million second-round tender along with Schraeder last offseason.
Worrilow has been a professional in helping rookie Deion Jones learn the position at the NFL level. The team has rewarded such loyalty in the past, but Worrilow may want to return to the field with another team.
He has played just 61 defensive snaps (6.7 percent) this season. Jones has logged 704 (77.4) defensive snaps.
Toilolo, a fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft, has developed into a solid blocker. He has made some plays in the passing game this season. At 6 feet 8, he was projected to be a red-zone threat when he was drafted, He has 10 catches for 206 yards and two touchdowns.
“I haven’t put much thought into that,” Toilolo said. “I’ve talked to my agent a little bit this year and the best thing for me to do is just play well. I’m just focused on doing my job here and being the best I can be here.”
Ishmael, who’s currently out with a shoulder injury, has been a valuable reserve as a hybrid safety-linebacker.
Before being injured, he played 310 defensive snaps (34.1 percent) and helped the team through a rash of injuries at the linebacker spot. He appears destined to hit the open market.
DiMarco has helped to power the rushing attack over the past two seasons and went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2015. He’s a solid lead blocker and dependable pass catcher.
“We hope to have a number of them here long-term as part of it,” Quinn said. “When you go around the locker room, it’s a place where people want to be. That’s important to me knowing how bad they want to be here and play here.”
In addition to the young talent, the Falcons have a couple of veteran defensive linemen in Jonathan Babineaux and Dwight Freeney, who are headed for free agency.
Babineaux, 35, who was taken in the second-round of the 2005 draft, wants to return. He has played 38.6 percent of the defensive snaps this season, second to Grady Jarrett among interior linemen, while recording 19 tackles and one pass batted down.
“I don’t feel like I’m at a point where I want to retire or anything yet,” he said. “My body feels great. I’m looking forward to the journey we are on right now, getting into the playoffs and seeing how far we can go.”
It’s unclear if Freeney, one of the top pass rusher over the past 15 seasons, wants to return. He has had a positive influence on second-year linebacker/defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. and it couldn’t hurt to keep him around for another season if he wants to carry on.
Other free agents include:
Quarterback Matt Schaub, offensive guard Chris Chester, tight end Jacob Tamme, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, defensive tackle Courtney Upshaw, special teamer Eric Weems, linebacker Philip Wheeler, offensive tackle Tom Compton, linebacker LaRoy Reynolds, wide receiver Aldrick Robinson and cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson.
Schaub, who will turn 36 in June, is a valuable veteran backup. He knows the intricacies of the offense and will likely want to return. Quarterback Matt Simms is on the practice squad and the team must determine if he’s ready to serve as the full-time backup.
The Falcons attempted to replace Chester last season, so he’s likely playing his last season with the team. Weems had been a dependable special teamer. Wheeler, who played at Georgia Tech and is from Columbus, has been a valuable reserve linebacker. He has played 298 defensive snaps (32.7 percent).
“When we get into the offseason, there is still more work to do,” Quinn said. “There are more guys to hopefully bring back in.”
Quinn, who has final say over the 53-man roster, is looking forward to working with general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who received a three-year contract extension on Nov. 8.
“We’ve spent a lot of time together over the last year and a half evaluating players both on college guys, pro free agents, and of course our team and putting that together,” Quinn said. “Both personally and professionally, we spent a lot of time together to make sure we both shared the same vision of the team. Much like we ask the players to do in the locker room with how connected they are and better in the locker room and then on the field it carries over.”
Quinn is clearly pleased with the players the Falcons have added to help turn the franchise toward a playoff team and title contender.
“What I can tell you is that as an evaluator, (Dimitroff) does a fantastic job,” Quinn said. “He’s very thorough along with the entire personnel department. I’ve been nothing but impressed since the time I got connected with him.
“We don’t always agree, but we put the tape on and we watch it together until we come up with an answer. It’s been a good fit from my end for sure.”
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JuliaKate E. Culpepper contributed to this story.