On Wednesday evening, news broke that Falcons inside linebacker Deion Jones had signed a four-year, $57 million extension to remain with the franchise. As a singular happening in the NFL world, the signing isn’t all that notable. Jones is just 24 years old, a perfect fit for Atlanta’s scheme, and one of the league’s top linebackers. And now he’ll get paid like one: The average annual value and guarantees in Jones’s new deal rightfully place him among the top three off-ball linebackers in the league.
The real significance of Jones’s extension, though, is that it came just two days after Atlanta signed defensive tackle Grady Jarrett to a four-year, $68 million deal just before the deadline to extend players on the franchise tag. In less than a week, Atlanta committed $76.5 million guaranteed to two players who hadn’t been under contract past 2019, and in doing so, have shifted how the franchise allocates its money. The Falcons’ latest spending spree is a telling example of how quickly teams’ identities can change as they try to prop open their championship windows, and it also provides plenty of insight into the difficulties of maintaining a contender’s roster.
When the Falcons went to the Super Bowl after the 2016 season, no team featured a wider gap in how it distributed its resources on offense and defense. That season, Atlanta spent 45.9 percent of its cap on offense, the fourth-highest mark in the NFL, and just 20.4 percent on defense—the league’s lowest figure. Most of that offensive total was tied up in the nearly $40 million in total cap hits for Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but three of the team’s six largest cap hits also belonged to offensive linemen. On the flip side, Atlanta’s minuscule defensive payroll was fueled by a disproportionate reliance on young talent. Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, and safety Keanu Neal all started as rookies. Jarrett and starting free safety Ricardo Allen made less than $600,000 each. In all, the Falcons had just one defensive player—defensive end Tyson Jackson—with a cap hit north of $3.5 million.
Over the past few seasons, the Falcons have taken advantage of those cheap defensive contracts, using their excess cap space to retain homegrown offensive players like left tackle Jake Matthews, former right tackle Ryan Schraeder, and running back Devonta Freeman. And in 2018, the organization signed Matt Ryan to a record-setting $150 million deal, with $100 million guaranteed. During that span, the Falcons operated like the Eagles, Patriots, Steelers, and other smart teams, locking down their own draft picks before those players ever hit the open market—and ensuring locker room harmony in the process. More than just about any other franchise, the Falcons’ front office and owner Arthur Blank made a point of taking care of their own. But even with all the benefits of that plan, the bill is coming due, and the team will face some tough questions over the next couple seasons.
As it stands, the Falcons are projected to have just $6.3 million in cap space in 2020, and that’s before the numbers for Deion Jones’s extension kick in. Looking at Atlanta’s roster and the structure of the team’s cap, there aren’t a ton of obvious ways that the Falcons can trim salary. The team’s largest positional logjam comes on the interior of the offensive line, which is ironic considering that might have been the roster’s weakest area entering the offseason. To address their needs at guard, the Falcons signed both Jamon Brown and James Carpenter to deals in March that included salary guarantees in the second year. About a month later, Atlanta used a first-round pick on Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom. So, with the team on a shoestring budget, Atlanta will likely have three starting guard salaries on their books in 2020, and releasing either veteran would save the Falcons next to nothing on next year’s cap.
Atlanta also has to figure a possible Julio Jones extension into the equation. But even if general manager Thomas Dimitroff does extend his star receiver (who has two years remaining on his deal), that raise wouldn’t make or break the team’s cap situation. Jones’s cap number for 2020 is slated to be $12.9 million, and any uptick in his 2020 and 2021 cap numbers likely won’t be all that significant, even if his average annual value jumps north of $17 million per season. Atlanta would be motivated to do a Julio deal to get him more cash over the next couple seasons as he creeps into his 30s.
The Falcons could seek some cap relief from their other big-ticket item on offense—their quarterback. Ryan will have a base salary of $20.5 million in 2020, but if the Falcons do try to free up cap space by converting some of that into a signing bonus, it would be the second time they’ve pulled that move in two years. When other teams like the Eagles decided to re-sign a slew of their own players, they did it while their quarterback was still in the early days of his rookie deal. Atlanta has done it with one of the most expensive quarterbacks in the NFL.
There are two realistic ways that Atlanta could open up space in 2020: By releasing wide receiver Mohamed Sanu ($6.5 million in cap relief if cut) or center Alex Mack ($8 million). But the thought of losing either points to the predicament that a team like the Falcons—with a $30 million QB and a growing number of second-contract players—has to face. Considering the explosion of the center market in recent years, Mack’s $10.6 million projected salary in 2020 is perfectly in line with his production, and he’s played a pivotal role in the Falcons’ success; finding an adequate replacement, either in-house or in free agency, would be next to impossible. Sanu’s role within the Atlanta offense isn’t quite as significant, but there’s no ready-made successor on the roster. Previous versions of the Falcons would have leaned more on a receiving back like Tevin Coleman or tight end Austin Hooper, but Coleman was allowed to walk in free agency this spring, and Hooper is set to become a free agent after this season. As teams pay more of their young players, elements like depth and versatility tend to disappear.
The need to free up cap space goes beyond just fitting new deals for both Joneses onto the books. Defensive end Vic Beasley and Campbell are slated to hit free agency next season. Even this year, Atlanta doesn’t have a true slot cornerback, and that search may have to continue next spring. The Falcons already have their backs against the financial wall for 2020, and there are still plenty of roster holes to fill—including at starting edge rusher. Atlanta could plug next year’s draft picks into some of those roles, but desperation to find starting-caliber talent in the draft leads to risky moves like the one Dimitroff made this year when he traded his second- and third-round picks to the Rams to draft right tackle Kaleb McGary 31st. The Falcons’ most reasonable route to filling those roles will likely be another meager free-agency haul that reflects their tight cap situation. Landing big names and quick fixes would require a financial nimbleness that might be tough to pull off.
Atlanta’s approach in re-signing its own players has led to a few questionable choices: Freeman missed 14 games last season after inking a five-year, $41 million extension in 2017, and the Falcons offense hummed along just fine for most of the season. And with McGary now on the roster, Ty Sambrailo will likely spend the 2020 season as a swing tackle, despite making $5.8 million. But for the most part, the team’s financial predicament isn’t the result of crippling decisions. The Falcons correctly see themselves as contenders, and they’ve done all they can to maintain the core players who have gotten them to that point.
But with increased salaries comes increased expectations. With Deion Jones, Neal, and Allen out with injuries for much of the year, Atlanta was 25th in adjusted games lost on defense, resulting in a 31st-place finish in defensive DVOA, ahead of only the Buccaneers. That group is a prime bounce-back candidate this season, and if the Falcons are going to contend in 2019, it will need to be. The team has never finished higher than 22nd in defensive DVOA during Quinn’s tenure, which began in 2015. That may have been acceptable when Atlanta was in the bottom third of the league in defensive spending, but this year, it will rank 19th in percentage of the cap allocated to defense. And next year, that number will likely rise again with Jones’s deal on the books and Jarrett’s cap hit going from $11 million to $16 million.
The top NFL teams keep their championship windows open by becoming different versions of themselves every few years. Now Atlanta is following suit, as it shifts from an offense-centric model to a more well-rounded one—and the results have to follow accordingly. That’s likely part of the motivation for installing Quinn as the team’s de facto defensive coordinator and play caller for 2019. Dimitroff and Quinn know they can no longer be patient with their young, inexpensive core—because it no longer exists. This will be the final season of rookie deals for the young nucleus that looked so promising three years ago, and that makes 2019 a crucial year.
Gone are the days of the Falcons as the team with the loaded, flexible offense and a discount defense. The sheer amount of talent on Atlanta’s roster (and the presence of Ryan and Julio Jones) ensures that this team will never be too far away from the league’s elite. But as more of the recent extensions kick in, the margin of error shrinks. If Atlanta is going to keep pace in the NFC for years to come, it will be as a different sort of team than we’ve seen in years past.