The Atlanta Falcons have a salary-cap situation which will allow them to be huge spenders in free agency. When March 11, 2014 rolls around and free agency starts, Atlanta has some of the best cap flexibility in the league and could truly transform its roster.
The Falcons also have a very favorable situation when it comes to their leadership, franchise quarterback and overall talent situation. They have quite a bit of cap room in 2014 and beyond, but the Falcons need to make sure they bring back guys who are currently free agents.
Additionally, they have two key extension targets and quite a few targets in free agency they need to focus on. Speaking of their talented franchise quarterback, Matt Ryan's contract will also be examined, as it holds a tremendous impact on the cap through 2018.
Matt Ryan's Contract
With the first big jump in Ryan's 2013 extension being 2014, it was somewhat shocking to see Atlanta with over $26 million in cap space with very few free agents from the Falcons and a need for a couple of key offensive line, defensive line and depth signings.
The reason for the massive amount of space despite a jump of just under $8 million in his cap hit from 2013 has to do with understanding how to plan cap hits for the future. As we showed earlier, the Falcons have a ton of cap in 2015 and beyond.
It will make it easier to continue to surround Ryan with the talent needed to win a title. More than that, any criticisms of the contract being cumbersome to a potential championship will be quashed due to the Falcons' exceptional cap management.
|Atlanta Falcons Cap Situation 2014-to-2018|
|Year||Cap Obligations||Projected Salary Cap||Projected Cap Space||Players Under Contract|
|2014||$107 million||$133 million||$26 million||51|
|2015||$70 million||$140 million||$70 million||30|
|2016||$58 million||$150 million||$92 million||13|
|2017||$42 million||$150 million||$108 million||3|
|2018||$29 million||$150 million||$121 million||2|
Current Cap Room for 2014 and Beyond
As you can see in the table above, the Falcons have one of the best planned cap situations right now through 2018. Their franchise quarterback in Ryan is locked up through then. They also have a ton of ability to develop and acquire talent both long and short term because of that cap space.
With over $26 million in cap space in 2014, the Falcons could make some excellent signings to solve some issues they have at premier pass-rusher, defensive tackle, offensive guard and even some depth players who could upgrade some current roster members
The thing that makes the team's cap situation look even better is the ridiculous amount of cap space it has starting from 2015 and continuing indefinitely. With over $70 million in projected cap availability each season starting in 2015, the Falcons could easily bring in some high-level talent in 2014.
The Falcons would just have to structure the contracts to make sure they absorb the largest part of the hit in the 2015 season or later. They can also make sure to lock up their biggest names who should be coming up after the 2014 season ends.
On top of that, Atlanta needs to make sure it retains at least one of its starting defensive tackles and potentially even replace its starting free safety Thomas DeCoud with an elite one. Finally, the Falcons should spend quite a bit of money on their weak offensive and defensive lines.
Players Who Deserve Extensions
Two players come to mind as ones more than deserving of extensions, and all three of these men have contracts that end after the 2014 season. Julio Jones and Roddy White are these ideal extension candidates who need to be taken care of before the 2014 season.
Jones has shown that he is a top-five wide receiver in the NFL when he's healthy. The biggest issue is that he's not going to play all 16 games in every season. And that's OK. However, the Falcons need to make sure they lock up Ryan's No. 1 receiver long term.
Jones has brought himself from a high-level No. 2 wide receiver to the Falcons' go-to option over the past three seasons. Before he got hurt in early 2013, Jones was on pace for a season that would have surpassed the NFL's league leader in both receiving yards and catches.
The Falcons need to make sure that they lock up the man with potential to break Calvin Johnson's single-season receiving record. They need to make it an extension that kicks in starting in the 2015 season. When it comes to value, they need to look no further than Johnson's contract structure for Jones:
|Julio Jones Contract Extension Structure|
|Year||Salary||Signing Bonus Proration||Option Bonus Proration||Total Cap Hit|
|TOTAL||7 Years||$17,000,000||$10,000,000||$116,000,000 Total Contract|
|Based on Calvin Johnson's 2013 extension|
White has expressed interest in finishing his career with the Falcons, and the team has already begun negotiations with his camp, according to Michael Silver of NFL.com. Atlanta should definitely do the right thing and extend White.
However, the team doesn't have any reason to go overboard with any extension. White is going to be on a decline, as he's 32 years old and will only continue to lose speed and explosion. The Falcons need to make his next contract reflect that with the following structure:
|Roddy White Contract Extension Offer|
|Year||Salary||Signing Bonus Proration||Current Bonus Left||Total Cap Hit|
|Total||4 Years||$8,000,000||$1,325,000||$22,325,000 Total Contract|
|Contract Idea Based around Roddy's previous deal.|
|Atlanta Falcons 2014 Free Agents|
|OG||Garrett Reynolds||Cap Casualty||26|
|LB||Stephen Nicholas||Cap Casualty||30|
|CB||Asante Samuel||Cap Casualty||33|
Impending 2014 Free Agents
As you can see in the table above, Atlanta has 16 total free agents in this year's pool—two restricted and 14 unrestricted or cap casualty-types. The Falcons are in an extremely good cap situation to address their 16 free agents with their $26.28 million under the cap.
Of the unrestricted free agents, Tony Gonzalez is retiring. Omar Gaither, Peria Jerry, Sean Locklear, Stephen Nicholas, Jeremy Trueblood, Garrett Reynolds and Asante Samuel should all be allowed to leave with no attempt to even bring them back. So, then there were just eight free agents to focus on.
Due to injury situations, restricted free-agent status and lack of playing time, it would be shocking if Kevin Cone, Robert McClain, Chase Coffman, Mike Johnson and Dominique Franks cost more than the minimum qualifying offers.
That leaves just three free agents to make tough decisions on—veteran starting defensive tackles Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux, as well as center Joe Hawley. All three of these veterans would retain starting roles on the interior of their respective lines if re-signed.
Peters is a tough one because of his Week 16 Achilles injury. While some players have come back and looked exactly the same as before, there's no guarantee that Peters will. His next contract being over $1.5 million for one season would be surprising, as the NFL is notoriously stingy for injury scenarios.
As far as Hawley is concerned, he looks like the perfect Mike Tice center. He's nasty, tough and intelligent. Atlanta should try to lure him back with a three-year, $5 million deal. Hawley would have to retain his starting role, but if he does, he'd be a steal of Todd McClure proportions.
The toughest decision rests in the camp of Babineaux. While the Falcons would love to bring back their longest-tenured roster member outside of White, there's no reason to overspend for a 32-year-old defensive tackle. If Babineaux wants more than three years and $7 million, he should be told to walk.
Unrestricted Free-Agent Targets
There are a plethora of free-agent targets Atlanta should go after this offseason. However, five names stand out as the best of the bunch. They need a starting offensive guard, a true pass-rusher, a starting 1-technique defensive tackle and a replacement that upgrades DeCoud at free safety.
The top names available are Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah at right guard, B.J. Raji at 1-technique defensive tackle, Brian Orakpo as a premier pass-rusher and Jairus Byrd as the ideal replacement over the overpaid DeCoud.
In the end, what is cap space if you decide not to use it?
It'd be completely pointless to not have at least one big-name free agent with how bad the Falcons looked in 2013. If they don't decide to bring in at least one of Byrd, Orakpo, Raji, Asamoah or Schwartz, then it will be tough to believe the team wants to win.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, College Football, NFL and the NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.