The Atlanta Falcons cut safety William Moore and linebacker Justin Durant last Monday, marking them as the first moves made as the team continues to transition and reconstruct their roster in the image of head coach Dan Quinn in this all-important second offseason.
The Falcons will likely seek upgrades for both positions via the draft, intent on getting younger and building towards the future. But there will be candidates to fill both the vacated strong safety and weak-side linebacker spots in free agency, so the team certainly won’t turn a blind eye to them come March.
Moore’s loss will be felt given his physical style of play, leadership and underrated coverage abilities. While Moore’s limitations in man coverage were well known during his time in Atlanta, he was very effective in zone coverage, two areas that his potential replacements in Kemal Ishmael and Robenson Therezie still need more work in. Both young players have shown to be capable during short stints in the starting lineup, but are a far cry from being proven 16-game starters.
Without Moore’s presence in run support, free safety Ricardo Allen might also get exposed a lot more there. Allen missed a number of tackles when trying to come up and defend the run last season, and having a roving enforcer like Moore to do the dirty work in that role could force Allen to have to spend more time trying to fill that void rather than playing to his strength, which is roving the back end as a center fielder.
Moore not being there to help fill against the run also puts more emphasis on the play of the Falcons linebackers to get better there as well. That’s where the absence of a player like Durant will be felt as well.
Durant certainly missed his fair share of tackles in his lone season in Atlanta, but was a much more physical presence than his companion Paul Worrilow was at middle linebacker. Worrilow is a restricted free agent and has served as a defensive captain the past two years, but it’s time that the Falcons prepare to move on. Not in the sense that Worrilow no longer should be on the roster, but in the sense that this defense’s potential only continues to stagnate with every game that Worrilow starts.
Before Durant’s release, upgrading the middle linebacker spot seemed to have been one of the defense’s biggest priority heading into the offseason. But now with an emerging hole on the weak side, the team has now created two holes that need to be filled. That opens up the possibility that Falcons fans are forced to experience another season with Worrilow in that starting lineup, which would be disheartening to say the least.
Cap Space Indicates More Falcons Cuts on the Horizon
Releasing Moore and Durant were the team’s first forays into cutting players this offseason, but they may not be the last. The Falcons currently sit at about $25 million in cap space by my best estimate using data from sites like Over the Cap and SpoTrac, assuming that the 2016 salary cap hits the high-end estimate of $153.4 million. The actual cap limit won’t be finalized until the end of this month.
That current amount of cap space puts the team exactly where they want to be according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but it doesn’t mean that they will stay there when free agency opens about three weeks from now.
Over the past two offseason the Falcons have spent about 20 percent of their salary cap space in free agency to bring in new players and re-sign their own guys. In 2014, the team devoted about $25.55 million (or 19.2 percent) of the $133 million salary cap to free-agent signings. Last year that figure was about $29.2 million (or 20.4 percent) of a $143.28 million cap, spent on all their signings made before the draft, which doesn’t include post-draft signings like Chris Chester and Tyler Polumbus.
If that 20-percent figure holds true in 2016 that would be about $30 million in cap space spent this offseason.
Oddly enough in both years, the team spent 12.3 percent on new additions. Based on a $153.4 million cap in 2016, that percentage would equal about $18.87 million spent to add new players this offseason. The team could spend the remainder, little more than $11 million, to re-sign current players.
Limited Falcons Draft Picks Increase Odds of Ample Free-Agent Spending
Of course that $30 million figure is higher than their current estimated salary-cap space allows, suggesting that more cuts are potentially on the horizon to make up the difference. While it’s certainly possible that the Falcons could opt to spend considerably less than $30 million in free agency this offseason, it appears doubtful considering that the team has numerous holes and a finite number of draft picks (five) as things stand today.
It’s quite likely that at some point on the first or second day of the 2016 draft, the Falcons will attempt to trade back in one of the early rounds to try and pick up additional mid and late-round picks, but that possibility is unknowable today.
The Falcons may want to move back in the first round, but they can’t say that with much conviction as things sit today. They simply don’t know who will be available when they come on the clock with the 17th overall selection on April 28. It could easily be a player that is at or near the top of their draft board, making him too good to pass up at the point even if they wanted to trade back.
Also it needs to be pointed out that it “takes two to tango,” meaning that regardless of the Falcons desire to move back in the draft, they still need another team to partner with them to make it a reality. It’s possible that any trade offers the Falcons get at the top of the draft is paltry, thus prompting the team to decide to stick with their current selection rather than get fleeced in an offered deal. The same potentially applies to the second and third-round picks as well.
So if the Falcons intend to plug their numerous holes, then they can’t completely rely on the draft to do it all, thus putting more emphasis on spending during free agency.
Which begs the question, what would spending $30 million, including $19 million on new free agents, look like?
Past Falcons Free-Agent Signings Can Be Broken Down Into Three Tiers
Last year the 2015 cap hits of Durant, Brooks Reed and Adrian Clayborn at signing was about $9.8 million combined, according to ESPN’s contract figures. The previous year, the combined 2014 cap hits of Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson and Jon Asamoah cost about $11.3 million towards the cap that year.
Therefore the average first-year cap hit of all six players is roughly $3.5 million. All six players had cap hits exceeding $3 million, with Soliai having the highest at $5.4 million. We might consider a first-year cap hit north of $3 million as “first-tier” signings for the time being.
In 2015, a quarter of the Falcons’ cap space for new additions was also devoted to seven players that each had cap hits of $1 million or less. They were Leonard Hankerson, Mike Person, Allen Bradford, Tony Moeaki, Phillip Adams, Nick Williams and Jared Smith. We could call these “third-tier” free-agent signings.
If the Falcons once again devoted a quarter of their “new free-agent money” to these “third-tier” players, it could mean the team could afford another six or so moves to help fill out depth roles.
What would qualify as “second-tier” moves would basically be any signing costing between $1 and $3 million. O’Brien Schofield ($1.7 million), Devin Hester ($1.833 million) and Jacob Tamme ($1.3875 million) would qualify as such over the past two offseasons.
It’s difficult to speculate how things might break down until it becomes clearer which impending free agents become available. But a few players that have been mentioned as potential Falcons targets such as center Alex Mack (should he opt out of his contract as most expect him to do), linebacker Danny Trevathan, linebacker Bruce Irvin, defensive lineman Malik Jackson, tight end Jordan Cameron (if he’s released) and wide receiver Marvin Jones would all likely qualify as “first-tier” signings.
If the Falcons were to make four “first-tier” signings and a half dozen “third-tier” moves, it would potentially leave room for only one “second-tier” signing. If the team reduced their “first-tier” moves by one, then it could open up the potential for two additional “second-tier” moves. Subtracting two “third-tier” moves might also equal an additional “second-tier” signing. The Falcons can certainly play around with things depending on which players are available and what their asking prices are. But it’s realistic to think that the Falcons could add roughly a dozen players this offseason in free agency with a $30 million budget.
Restricted Free Agents Will Consume Much of Falcons Re-signing Budget
As for current players that the Falcons want to keep, a significant chunk of the $11 million that we might estimate that is devoted to that will be used on their restricted free agents.
Although the official numbers for the restricted free agent tenders have yet to be disclosed, one can make a fairly accurate guess by simply looking at the previous year’s figures and escalating them in proportion with the overall salary cap’s increase. The jump from 2015’s salary cap of $143.28 million to the estimated $153.4 million this year represents roughly a seven-percent jump. Thus, one can assume that last year’s restricted tenders will go up by the same amount.
The would mean that if the Falcons intend to keep Worrilow or Ryan Schraeder with the second-round tenders, which is likely given that they are former undrafted free agents, it would cost the team about $2.52 million each. Meanwhile linebacker Nate Stupar, who was originally drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the seventh round back in 2012, will likely get the lowest “original pick” tender, costing the Falcons about $1.65 million. Wikipedia has a pretty good explanation of how restricted free agency works and what exactly tenders are for the uninitiated.
Allen is an exclusive rights free agent, meaning he too will also get a tender this offseason, although it will be for a minimum salary around $600,000 since he only has one accrued season of experience. Altogether the Falcons’ four restricted and exclusive rights free agents could consume roughly $7.3 million in 2016 cap space.
That would mean that the Falcons might only have about $4 million left over for keeping their remaining unrestricted free agents. Thus it’s possible that none would be receiving a “first-tier” level of compensation in any potential deal.
Clayborn would probably be the only one that could be considered for such, given the potential market for him coupled with the fact that his one-year “prove it” deal already cost the team $3 million in cap space last season. Should the Falcons opt to give him a comparable amount this year, it would eliminate most of the remaining money that would be devoted to their own free agents deemed worth re-signing.
That could lower the chances that free agents like Chester, Schofield, Gino Gradkowski and Phillip Wheeler return to Atlanta in 2016. All four players are probably the better bets to get offers from the Falcons this offseason, but if the team were to pay Clayborn at a comparable rate as they did a year ago, it could leave several of them out in the cold.
It could also mean players like Adams, Moeaki, Kroy Biermann, Bryce Harris, Charles Godfrey, Jake Long and Shayne Graham will be hard-pressed to get offers from the Falcons.
This all brings us back to the earlier point that more cuts are likely going to happen before free agency kicks off on March 9.
More Cuts Likely to Happen to Give Added Cap Flexibility
With the team currently sitting in the vicinity of $25 million in cap space, clearing up another $5 or so million would be worthwhile to better facilitate an active approach on the open market. That approach will not only attract other teams’ players to Atlanta, but also help the team keep some of their very own.
The Falcons could purge up to $16 million in additional cap space if they were to cut all of the following: Jackson, Soliai, Hester, Roddy White, Andy Levitre, Matt Bryant, Jonathan Babineaux and Eric Weems.
It’s highly unlikely that the Falcons would make that drastic a decision to purge all eight players, but there’s a fairly high probability that at least three more players will join Moore and Durant on the chopping block before the month is up.
Hester ($3 million savings if released), White ($2.3625 million) and Jackson ($1.55 million) are probably the three most expendable of that group. Weems ($935,000) would also be a fairly easy cut to make. Those four cuts would free up about $7.85 million in additional cap space, clearly them of the $30 million spending limit with room to spare.
The others would be considerable losses, creating holes at their respective positions that might require the Falcons to spend more to fill them than what they’d save by cutting them in the first place.
But one never knows, as the release of Durant was a surprise given that he was one of the team’s first signings in free agency a year ago. For example the Falcons gave up two late-round picks to get Levitre last September and could part ways with him even after already cutting Asamoah with Chester on the verge of free agency. The team could decide to move center Mike Person to guard in Levitre’s absence and seek to plug holes at center and right guard this offseason.
While Levitre should be relatively safe, it’s difficult to decipher what the Quinn regime will do. Quinn’s preferences for roster management are still fairly unknown. After witnessing several years of how Mike Smith ran things, it became increasingly easy to predict what sort of roster-based decisions the Falcons would make, not only in the offseason but also during training camp and the regular season.
That isn’t yet the case with Quinn and this upcoming offseason will go a long way to deciphering whatever proclivities he might have. But until then, expect the Falcons to continue to reshape their roster with additional roster moves in the coming weeks leading up to free agency.