NFL free agency starts this Wednesday. However, the Atlanta Falcons have limited cap space and will have to get creative this time around.
The Atlanta Falcons are about to enter the 2019 NFL Free Agency period with roughly $6.7 million in cap space according to overthecap.com. That number is among the lowest in the league this year. General Manager Thomas Dimitroff has said that they will need to get creative this offseason, and he is right. NFL teams need roughly $8 million to sign their rookies, and the Falcons are expected to lose some veterans. Atlanta will be bargain hunting and contract restructuring this time around.
The team has huge needs on both offensive and defensive lines. Offensive tackle and pass rushers are premium positions and cost as such. I envision the Falcons focusing on those positions in the draft while setting their sights on cheap interior linemen in free agency.
Free up cap space
Before I dive into potential targets, let’s look at how the team may free up some cap space. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett was placed on the franchise tag and is currently taking up $15.2 million of the cap. The team will look to re-sign him to a long-term deal before the season starts. Atlanta can push money into later years and guarantee a high amount to keep Jarrett happy. I imagine the new contract would be somewhere in the $16-19 million per year range. Fletcher Cox received a six-year $102 million contract ($17 million annual average) just three years ago.
The team may also look to extend Julio Jones and push money down the line. However, Antonio Brown made the Jones extension harder for the Falcons on Saturday. Brown was traded to the Raiders and received a new deal that equates to roughly $19 million a year with $30 million guaranteed. Our own Dennis Sosic wrote a piece on the ramifications of the Brown trade and deal. Jones’ money will be in that range or more. The Falcons may also cut offensive guard Brandon Fusco to free up $3.3 million. These moves could free up a few million each and allow for a cheap contract or two in free agency.
Target 1- offensive guard J.R. Sweezy
The Falcons are expected to let veteran guard Andy Levitre go in free agency and may cut Fusco as said above. They will have a gaping need on the interior offensive line. Sweezy has been a mediocre guard for most of his career according to PFF. Rumors had it that the Falcons wanted to sign him in 2016 before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ultimately gave him a five-year contract. They decided to terminate his contract in 2017. Sweezy then signed a one-year deal back with the Seattle Seahawks, where he spent his first four years.
He missed the entire 2016 season after back surgery and was placed on injured reserve (IR) in Week 15 of 2017 with a broken bone in his leg. Sweezy did play fifteen games last season. He won’t provide you with great interior guard play, but he has plenty of playing experience, and he will likely cost under $1 million for the 2019 season. Look for Atlanta to kick the tires on Sweezy and other interior offensive linemen in the coming week.
Target 2- defensive tackle Al Woods
Defensive lineman Terrell McClain is leaving, and 34% of team snaps are walking away with him. The Falcons will be looking to find a cheap rotational player to go along with Jarret, Jack Crawford, and young Deadrin Senat. Woods was a starter for the Indianapolis Colts for 24 straight games before the Colts put him on the bench in Week 9 of 2018. At age 31, he played a reserve role for the team until he was placed on IR with a foot injury in Week 14. He has been called a great leader and would come at a low price. I expect him to get around the $1-2 million per year range as he played for $4.5 million over two years for the Colts and ended his tenure on IR. Expect Atlanta to target Woods and other interior defensive linemen.
Target 3- tight end Nick O’Leary
This one may come as a surprise to most as the Falcons have pro-bowl tight end Austin Hooper and a young pass catching TE in Eric Saubert. They could use a TE that is capable of playing the H-back role. H-backs often are used as fullbacks, the motion man in kick-out or wham blocks, in-line blockers, and play-action targets. O’Leary was brought in to the Miami Dolphins early in the season last year, and he provided Adam Gase and co. with that H-back role.
He was arguably the best TE on the roster from that point on. According to PFF, he played more snaps per game than 2018 second-round selection Mike Gesicki. O’Leary played well enough to warrant a one-year extension for $1.5 million.
On Saturday, the Dolphins signed former New England Patriots backup TE Dwayne Allen to a two-year $7 million contract. The TE room is a bit crowded now. Miami invested in four players at the position in Gesicki, O’Leary, A.J. Derby, and fourth-round selection Durham Smythe. The issue for O’Leary is that the youngsters have more potential and are cheaper and Allen is a great blocker, making O’Leary redundant. I expect O’Leary to get the ax at some point this offseason if not right away. Once he hits free agency, I would look for the Falcons as a potential suitor.