Ideally, cap space is gained by releasing unproductive players. Ridley was a very good starter in 2020 with the potential to be even better. The $11.1 million salary he forfeited for 2022 is the going rate for a good No. 2 wide receiver. The Falcons won’t have that sum available to use for a replacement. Their payroll was over the $208.2 million cap, so Ridley’s suspension gets it about $4 million under.
Fontenot and Smith have limited options for improving the roster at wide receiver or any of the many positions that need it. The salary-cap situation was awful last year and only a bit better now. The collective showing of the 2021 Falcons draft class doesn’t suggest a breakthrough is coming in Year 2. The Falcons haven’t fielded a good defense in years, and there’s little reason to think that’s changing for 2022.
All of that points to a fifth straight losing season for the Falcons. The NFC South should be weaker, but that only goes so far. The Falcons managed to finish 7-10 last season with one-score victories over opponents that also didn’t make the playoffs. The Falcons require an inflow of player talent to be good enough to take luck out of the equation and win some games by large margins.
Instead, the talent is outflowing. Things wouldn’t look so dire for the Falcons if Ridley hadn’t decided to gamble on football games. At minimum, they could have traded him for another draft pick. Yes, the NFL is being somewhat hypocritical by punishing Ridley for legally gambling while it partners with legal gambling companies. That’s beside the point.
The prohibition against gambling by league personnel is clear. The motivation is legitimate: to prevent trading on inside information or outright fixing games (Ridley is not accused of doing either). If players want the rule changed, they could make it a priority in labor negotiations. I’m guessing that’s low on their list of priorities behind other topics like, say, the share of league revenues that go to player salaries.
Ridley has the right to appeal the suspension within three days. He doesn’t have much of an argument. He already admitted to placing wagers on football games. If the suspension holds, Ridley will have to apply to the NFL for reinstatement. Maybe the Falcons will be able to trade Ridley if that happens.
Meanwhile, Fontenot and Smith will look to build the 2022 roster without him. They have a lot of work to do.
The Falcons have just 28 players under contract for 2022 (not counting “future” deals for players not on an NFL roster to end 2021). That’s not many for a talent-deficient team with little cap room. There are 28 Falcons players about to hit the free-agent market. Those worth re-signing are likely to get offers elsewhere. The Falcons won’t have much cap room to use for bidding.
The Falcons could gain some relief via contract extensions or restructurings. Doing so comes with the risk of keeping them on a perpetual treadmill of cap problems. Trading defensive tackle Grady Jarrett would create significant cap space. He’s one of the four really good players inherited by Smith and Fontenot. Trading Jarrett would leave them with Ryan, Kyle Pitts and ... who else?
This is the hand dealt to Smith and Fontenot. They didn’t create the salary-cap problems. The decline of the wide receiver room isn’t on them. Smith and Fontenot have to clean up those messes. This is what it can be like working for the Falcons. Nothing has gone right for the team since Ryan, Jones and Co. failed to score on first-and-goal at Philly in the 2018 playoff game.
Add Ridley’s suspension to the pile of things that have gone wrong.