Quiet Falcons free agency is no big deal. Draft is best way to build.

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot gestures as he talks during the jet ride to Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday January 21, 2021.
Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot gestures as he talks during the jet ride to Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday January 21, 2021.

Credit: Rob Foldy/Atlanta Falcons

Credit: Rob Foldy/Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons mostly stayed on the sidelines during the first days of NFL’s free-agency period. They traded for a blocking tight end. They signed a safety who may not be a starter and a linebacker they hope can be one. The Falcons re-signed some of their own guys. Kicker Younghoe Koo as the name you know.

It’s always bummer for fans when their favorite team is idle in free agency while others are active. That’s especially true when the team isn’t good and has a lot of open roster spots. That describes the Falcons, but don’t say general manager Terry Fontenot didn’t warn you.

Fontenot wasn’t slow-playing when he said the Falcons would have to add low-cost veterans to quickly improve the roster. They had to restructure contracts just to get under the salary cap. Quarterback Matt Ryan’s altered deal means more cap pain spread out for longer when the Falcons eventually say goodbye to their best-ever player. Fontenot surely wanted to avoid that, so the move indicates the scope of the cap mess he inherited.

It got that way mostly because of bad drafting by the old regime. Good drafting by the new one is the main way to fix it. Fontenot might find some stop-gap free agents who can help the Falcons be competitive in 2021. The GM’s bigger task is finding talented draft prospects, whose salaries are capped well below market by the rookie scale.

The Falcons own the No. 4 pick in the draft in addition to a pick in each round from two through six, including two supplemental picks in the fifth round and one in the sixth. It’s not easy to draft the right players. That’s why I say the Falcons should trade down if they get a good offer. And they probably will with so many teams looking to draft one of the top quarterbacks.

Collect enough picks, and Fontenot can build a core of talent by hitting on some of them rather than most. He’s noted that getting good players in free agency usually means overpaying. The Falcons couldn’t do that even if they wanted to, so Fontenot’s roster-building really begins with the draft at the end of April.

Until then Fontenot is looking for bargains on the market. There should be more of them available once the market cools. The salary cap contracted after the lower league revenues during the pandemic season. At some point the marginal free agents are going to have to accept offers on the table.

Fontenot already added one such player, safety Erik Harris. The Falcons need safeties because four from 2020 are free agents. Harris started for the Raiders in the past two seasons, but they were looking to replace him before last season. Fontenot worked with Harris in New Orleans. The GM is taking a shot that a player he knows will play above his $1.35 million salary for 2021.

Fontenot traded a 2022 seventh-round pick for Buffalo for tight end Lee Smith. That was a low-cost move to get a tight end for Falcons coach Arthur Smith. He deployed multiple tight ends frequently as Titans coordinator. That’s part of his philosophy of running the ball and making passing plays look like runs.

Smith, Harris and linebacker Brandon Copeland are the only outside players the Falcons added early in free agency. The Falcons hope they are the kind of undervalued role players they need around their high-priced stars. It’s a feasible way for the team to be significantly better after it was 4-12 in 2020 because it’s not as if the Falcons employ a lot of overpaid players who aren’t producing.

The Falcons players with the top six salary-cap figures for 2021 are, in order, Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett, Dante Fowler, Deion Jones and Jake Matthews. Collectively their contracts take up about 62 percent of the team’s cap space, according to Spotrac. But Fowler is the only player among that group that had a salary well above his value last season, and he recently accepted a pay cut.

Ryan’s $23 million in salary and bonuses for 2021 was eight-highest among NFL quarterbacks as of Friday. Look at the list of QBs not playing on their rookie contracts, and Ryan’s pay probably reflects his true market value. That’s also the case for Julio Jones, Jarrett, Deion Jones and Matthews. They rank seventh, sixth, sixth and eighth in 2021 total pay at their respective position.

That core of good, veteran players is a reason I believe the Falcons aren’t far away from competing for a playoff spot in 2021. Ryan will be 36 years old by the start of next season and Jones turned 32 in February. Their play will decline with age, but I doubt it will be enough to make their contracts dead weight in 2021.

The multiple narrow losses for the Falcons in 2020 also suggest they can be decent in 2021. If those defeats were mostly a matter of bad luck, that tends to even out over time. If the close losses were because of bad coaching, then the Falcons now have a top offensive play-caller in charge. I suspect the most important factor in the close losses is that the Falcons just didn’t have enough good players.

The Falcons have a chance to change that. A silver lining for them is that, by the end of the week, center Alex Mack was the only good starter to depart. He signed with the 49ers. The Falcons have second-year pro Matt Hennessy as a potential replacement.

Safety Keanu Neal is another solid Falcons starter who likely will sign elsewhere. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard was a bargain for the Falcons in 2021. Losing him would be a blow for a team lacking good pass-coverage guys. Charles Harris showed something as a situational pass rusher in 2020, but signed with the Lions. The Falcons should hope they can re-sign Steven Means on the cheap to be part of the pass-rush rotation again.

Fontenot will have to replace productive guys who leave with veterans making minimum salaries or close to it. That’s the reality of the salary-cap squeeze. Teams that draft well have good, young players as replacements. The Falcons haven’t done that, so their weaknesses correlate with their draft misses.

Takk McKinley and Vic Beasley were supposed to be bookend pass rushers. If things went as planned Duke Riley would be a dynamic linebacker playing alongside Deion Jones. Isaiah Oliver would be a No. 1 cornerback. Kaleb McGary wouldn’t be a liability at right tackle for an offensive line that hasn’t been good in a while.

The Falcons would be a better team by now if more of those players panned out. The Falcons got into their current mess mostly because of bad drafting. Good drafting by Fontenot is the way to get out of it.

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