Falcons can quickly build like Bucs with small, smart moves

The Bucs signed linebacker Shaquil Barrett on the cheap in 2019.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The Bucs signed linebacker Shaquil Barrett on the cheap in 2019.

Tom Brady saved the Buccaneers. They were an underachieving outfit until he decided to leave New England for Tampa Bay and replace Jameis Winston. Now the Bucs are in the Super Bowl because Brady took them there. That’s been one of the main stories for Sunday’s big game.

If it’s true, then there’s no way for the Falcons to replicate Tampa Bay’s turnaround because there’s only one Brady. He’s obviously a big reason for their success, but I see the Brady-as-Bucs-savior storyline as too simplistic. Look at the full picture of how the Bucs went from 5-11 two seasons ago to NFC champions. There’s an outline for how the Falcons can engineer a quick climb from losers to contenders.

The Bucs replaced Dirk Koetter with Bruce Arians for the 2018 season and improved from 5-11 to 7-9 in 2019. After a rough start, the Brady-Arians partnership has flourished. The Falcons hired Arthur Smith to succeed Dan Quinn as head coach (Raheem Morris had the job in the interim). Smith is installing an offensive system like the one Matt Ryan flourished in during his MVP season.

The Falcons can replicate some of the rest of Tampa Bay’s blueprint despite their tight salary cap. Signing Brady was the big move for Arians and general manager Jason Licht, but several smaller ones fortified the roster. The Bucs drafted well with later picks than the Falcons own for 2021 and found value in players who’d been cast off by other teams.

The Bucs signed Shaquil Barrett for $5 million in 2019. He’d been a part-time pass rusher for the Broncos, but became a Pro Bowl performer for the Bucs. Tampa Bay signed running back Leonard Fournette for $2.5 million in September after the Jaguars cut him. He’s averaged five yards per touch with seven touchdowns during Tampa Bay’s six-game win streak (including playoffs). Tampa Bay re-signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for $8 million last year and got another solid season from him.

New Falcons GM Terry Fontenot will have to find thrifty deals like those to fill the holes on the roster. He inherited a bad salary-cap situation, so there won’t be any big spending on free agents. Fontenot made his name as a pro scout and personnel executive in New Orleans. Now he’ll look in the free-agent bargain bin as Falcons GM.

The Bucs did splurge on salaries after last season. They signed Brady (two years, $50 million guaranteed) and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (two years, $25 million guaranteed). They took on tight end Rob Gronkowski’s $9 million salary when they acquired him in a trade. The Bucs placed a $15.8 million franchise tag on Barrett (he’s still a bargain after they paid him just $5 million in 2019).

The Falcons already did their big spending with contract extensions for several players: Ryan, Julio Jones, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, left tackle Jake Matthews and linebacker Deion Jones. They need more from Ryan and Jones, whose salaries are set to take up about 34% of the 2021 cap space. Cutting or trading them, especially Ryan, would just accelerate the cap mess.

The draft is the best place to get talented players at a relatively cheap price. The Bucs hit big on their top two picks in 2020: offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs (No. 13 overall) and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (No. 45). Both were among the NFL’s best rookies. The top two Falcons picks in the 2021 draft are Nos. 4 and 36.

Maybe the Falcons will select Ryan’s successor with their first pick. Or maybe they take an approach like Tampa Bay’s in 2019. The Bucs passed on the QBs available at No. 5 overall in that draft, kept the pick and used it on linebacker Devin White. He’s come on strong during their late-season run.

With some shrewd moves the Falcons can add enough talent on offense and defense to win with Ryan. Consider that Brady’s last season in New England was statistically worse than Ryan’s 2020 season. In 2019 Brady had a 88.0 quarterback rating and an 55.7 QBR. In 2020 Ryan had a 93.3 rating and 66.9 QBR.

The Patriots didn’t have enough playmakers for Brady in 2019. They went to the playoffs with an elite defense and good rushing game compensating for the weak passing game. The Falcons had enough playmakers for Ryan in 2020, even though injuries slowed Jones. They went 4-12 because their defense was just OK, their pass blocking was shaky and their running game was bad.

Ryan had stretches when he made poor decisions with the ball and was too indecisive in the pocket. Those were issues in 2019, too. Ryan finished this season strong, though. That’s evidence to support his earlier proclamation that he has plenty left in the tank.

The offensive scheme won’t work as well as it did for Ryan in 2016, or for Smith in Tennessee, if the offensive line doesn’t improve. Ryan needs to trust his protection. Running the ball more effectively would help the Falcons be better in the red zone and set up manageable down and distances.

Fontenot has some decisions to make there. He inherited two offensive linemen who were selected in the first round of the 2019 draft. Right guard Chris Lindstrom was good once he got healthy. Right tackle Kaleb McGary has struggled for two seasons, especially in pass protection. Does Fontenot try to replace him? Can he do that while also making sure the Falcons are adequately covered at center and left guard?

The Falcons were incrementally better on defense this season. They went from 17th to 14th in Football Outsiders defensive efficiency (adjusted for opponent and game situation). The Falcons were 19th in scoring defense 2020 after they were 23rd in 2019.

Jarrett is a great interior pass rusher. The Falcons have needed a good edge guy for years. They signed Dante Fowler for $23 million guaranteed last year. He flopped and can’t feasibly be cut. Can Fontenot find an effective pass rusher on the cheap? Can he do that and also find more cover guys for the secondary?

It won’t be easy for Fontenot to improve the roster substantially in a short time. The Bucs showed it can be done. The Falcons won’t be adding a QB like Brady, but unlike the Bucs in 2019, that position isn’t among their biggest problems. The Falcons can quickly start winning again if, like the Bucs, they find undervalued players in free agency and hit on their draft picks.