The Complete Guide to the Atlanta Falcons Free Agency
NFL free agency begins March 12, which means teams have already begun negotiating behind the curtains with their soon-to-be free agents.
This week will be full of a lot of suspense for Atlanta Falcons fans, who undoubtedly have their faith in the hands of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who took over the franchise's personnel in 2008 and immediately turned a doormat team into a perennial power.
Here's a complete guide to how Dimitroff will likely shuffle the deck this offseason.
All salary cap and player contract numbers are via Spotrac.com.
The 2013 NFL salary cap has been set at just over $123 million.
Atlanta was hovering at $117 million in owed cash for the coming year until veterans Michael Turner, Dunta Robinson and John Abraham were released.
Dimitroff's decision to dump three veteran contracts helped free about $16 million in cap space, giving the Falcons about $23 million to work with.
UFAs and RFAs
Unrestricted Free Agents: Sam Baker (LT), Mike Cox (FB), Tony Gonzalez (TE), Brent Grimes (CB), Chris Hope (S), Todd McClure (C), Luke McCown (QB), William Moore (S), Chris Owens (CB), Mike Peterson (LB), Garrett Reynolds (G/C), Lawrence Sidbury (DE), Will Svitek (OL), Vance Walker (DT).
Restricted Free Agents: Michael Palmer (TE),
Exclusive Rights Free Agents: Robert McClain (CB)
Sam Baker, Brent Grimes and William Moore are the biggest priority players from the 2012 roster. Baker and Moore just came off cheap-ticket rookie deals, while Grimes made over $10 million under a franchise tag he took last year. Grimes injured his Achilles in the opening game against Kansas City and did not play another snap for the year. His market value has arguably dropped, while Baker should be able to leverage some cash as a left tackle, arguably the most important position other than quarterback, after having a breakout year.
Todd McClure and Mike Peterson are not intended to be resigned and could both retire, while Tony Gonzalez should make his decision to return to the team public before free agency opens.
Franchise Tag Situation
Dimitroff elected not to place a franchise tag on any of the key free agent targets on the Falcons departing list.
Moore would have made about $7 million as an exclusive rights tag. Unexclusive tags would have put significantly low numbers on the dotted line for Baker and Moore, which would have meant they easily would have been lured by other team's offer sheets.
With the release of Robinson, it appears that Dimitroff is confident that a deal will get done with Grimes. Grimes would have been a major market piece had it not been for his season-ending injury. He will have to prove his health has improved, which means signing a new deal with Atlanta is a safe bet.
Players Already Re-Signed
In true Falcons fashion, the first announced signing agreement by the Falcons was on a third-string, special teams player.
Antone Smith, who was a restricted free agent heading into market week, agreed to a 2-year extension with the Falcons on Tuesday.
Atlanta still has tailbacks Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling under contract. Both could become key contributors this year.
In fact, most Falcons fans would argue Snelling and Rodgers were the best tailbacks on the roster in 2012. Furthermore, some might have proclaimed Snelling was the best all-around back on the team.
Smith's signing is simply an insurance move for depth. He's been a solid special team contributor since being signed by the Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2009.
If Tony Gonzalez decides to return for one more run at a Super Bowl, the Falcons will be pretty set at the tight end position. If not, the position will be one of Atlanta's biggest concerns, as only Chase Coffman will be returning as a starting-caliber player at the position (he's not a reliable blocker, but a talented pass catcher).
Here are the major positions where Atlanta could use a free-agent signing. Of course, the draft will be an option to fill spots in these positions, as well as other positions not listed. But, here's the big three.
Tight End ('12 starter: Tony Gonzalez)
Tailback ('12 starter: Michael Turner)
Defensive End ('12 starter: John Abraham, Ray Edwards)
Matt Ryan will see a new contract, and some are suggesting it could flirt with the yearly salary Joe Flacco is going to see after signing a deal to be the highest paid player in NFL history. Remember, Ryan is in the final year of his contract, and is scheduled to make $10 million in the final deal of his contract.
Ryan's contract restructure, if it happens this offseason, could really limit what the Falcons can do in terms of signing key free agents. Don't expect more than one or two, as the team will likely do what Dimitroff has always done—build through draft.
Signing Option No. 1: Michael/Martellus Bennett
Martellus Bennett was never productive in Dallas behind Jason Witten, and although he only caught 55 passes on 90 targets with the Giants this past year, he's got a lot of upside and could immediately make an impact for the Falcons at tight end.
Curiously enough, Martellus (6'6, 265 lbs.) has reportedly said he wants to play with his brother, Michael.
Michael Bennett had nine sacks and 41 tackles for the Buccaneers in 2012.
If these two brothers, neither seen as blockbuster free agents, came to the same team the Falcons could make quite a bargain.
Don't expect this to happen if Tony Gonzalez comes back, but these two brothers would fill two position needs for the team. Plus, Atlanta has already brought Jacquizz and James Rodgers together. As well, the Atlanta Braves signed Justin and B.J. Upton this year.
City of brotherly love? Philadelphia better watch out.
Signing Option No. 2: Steven Jackson
Jackson, who will turn 30 this summer, still has gas in the tank. He eclipsed 1,000 yards for the Rams last year despite playing behind an awful offensive line.
Jackson would bring between-the-tackle explosiveness as well as versatility to Atlanta's backfield. Turner was the antithesis of that package as he wore down and the offense evolved under first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Jackson will want to sign with a team that can reach the playoffs, which is why it makes sense that a guy who has not played in a postseason game since losing 47-17 in the 2005 playoffs (ironically, in Atlanta) would want to suit up in the red and black.
However, if Jackson gets more money offered from other clubs (okay, he probably will) Atlanta will want to find another option.
Chris Ivory, the former Saint, as well as Ahmad Bradshaw seem like a really nice fit as well. Again, though, it call comes down to the money.
Ivory would be super cheap. Don't be surprised if his dreads come to Atlanta, instead.
What's More Likely to Happen
Dimitroff built the nucleus of this Falcons team through the NFL Draft. Need evidence?
2008: Matt Ryan, Sam Baker, Harry Douglas, Thomas DeCoud, Kroy Biermann,
2009: William Moore, Chris Owens, Garrett Reynolds, Vance Walker
2010: Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters, Mike Johnson, Joe Hawley
2011: Julio Jones, Akeem Dent, Jacquizz Rodgers
2012: Peter Konz
All of those names are young players who are considered key elements of a team that has only been outplayed in terms of regular season wins and losses by the New England Patriots since 2008.
Dimitroff helped sustain the dynasty in New England before he came to Atlanta, to boot.
In essence, Ryan is going to get a new deal, and it's going to be huge. Arguably, Ryan is the most valuable player to ever play for the Atlanta Falcons.
In fact, some might argue this would be an 8-8 team every year without him. In a league where the quarterback is considered more important than the head coach, Ryan's existence, as well as smart draft pieces will continue to drive the Falcons towards success.
Expect a new deal for Ryan, as well as some very blue-collar moves this offseason. The good news, Dimitroff will be hard pressed to make a bad move. He rarely does.