Not a lot of news happened this past week involving the Atlanta Falcons. This week, the team will start and finish their mandatory three-day minicamp, which will be open for public viewing.
The Falcons smartly managed to get top pick Vic Beasley under contract before minicamp begins on Tuesday, him being the last of the team’s 2015 NFL Draft class to sign on the dotted line. But other than that, there wasn’t a ton going on for the Falcons this past week.
Perhaps the biggest news involved another team releasing a player and the possibility that the Falcons could sign him. That would of course be former Philadelphia Eagles left guard Evan Mathis.
Mathis was cut late last week after skipping thee Eagles’ voluntary offseason activities while trying to ask for a raise. The Falcons just signed Chris Chester to fill the hole at left guard little more than two weeks ago, but the addition of a player like Mathis would be a huge find.
As I’ve noted in previous takeaways columns, Chester is certainly an upgrade over the likes of Mike Person, who the team had plugged into the starting lineup for most of the offseason at left guard. But Chester is a downgrade from the likes of Justin Blalock, the player the Falcons released in February that opened the hole at the position that Person was attempting to fill.
However, Mathis would be the sort of player that the Falcons could sign and would instantly be a significant upgrade over Blalock. Mathis has been one of the league’s premier offensive guards for the past four years that he’s played with the Eagles. He’s one of the most athletic guards in the league and a sound technician, making him an excellent fit in the Falcons’ new zone-blocking scheme that requires more movement up front.
Signing a player like Mathis would be a virtual coup for the Falcons. His age, 33, means that he won’t be a long-term fixture for the Falcons, but would be a massive upgrade as a stopgap for the immediate future. Mathis’ presence could potentially stabilize the left side of the Falcons offensive line, where left tackle Jake Matthews needs to have a big year.
Would Falcons Sign Mathis So Soon After Chester?
Adding Mathis makes perfect sense for the Falcons, except there is a slight problem: money. The Falcons just paid Chester $2.8 million to be their starter this season. Are they going to be willing to cough up at least twice that number to make Mathis the starter? Is Chester now going to become one of the league’s mostly highly paid utility linemen? Right now, only a handful of blockers are projected to be backups and will cost as much as Chester does this season.
It would make sense to relegate Chester to the bench rather than rely on him being a starter. He is a perfect candidate to be the team’s sixth offensive lineman. His experience at both guard spots and center make him a valuable backup, coupled with the fact that he played tight end in college, meaning that there should be minimal issue if the team uses him as an extra blocker in certain sets.
But if the Falcons envisioned Chester to be a backup from the start, why is his cap hit triple what Person is set to count against the 2015 cap? The Falcons clearly signed Chester to be a starter and suddenly relegating him to the bench thanks to adding Mathis would be a very quick change of heart.
Thus, whether or not the team pursues Mathis will be an interesting litmus test for the new coaching staff and regime helmed by head coach Dan Quinn. Mathis’ release was unexpected. While it was no secret that the Eagles were looking to move him all offseason long, the fact that no move occurred up until now was likely an indicator that the Eagles’ asking price was too steep. After no trade was worked out and the Eagles failed to procure a replacement in the draft, one could have assumed that the Eagles were going to just keep a disgruntled Mathis for another year.
But the Eagles threw a curveball and Mathis was released this past Thursday. Now, he is free to go to whichever team he so chooses.
Age and Asking Price Could Keep Mathis Out of Atlanta
Again, the chief issue surrounding the Falcons signing Mathis is cost. Mathis reportedly turned down a contract offer from the Eagles a year ago that would have seen his base salaries increase by $1 million over the next two years. Mathis was due base salaries of: $5.15 million (2014), $5.5 million (2015) and $6 million (2016) for a total of $16.65 million. When Mathis wanted to accept that same offer this year, the Eagles opted against it thanks to the front-office changes the team underwent earlier this offseason.
Presumably then, Mathis is probably seeking a contract payout that would be roughly around $19-20 million payout over the next three years.
The problem is that Mathis turns 34 in November of this year, and teams are less willing to give out substantial contracts to older veterans. There isn’t a high precedent for offensive linemen playing much beyond age 35.
Since 2008, only six non-centers have started at least 12 games in a season where they were 35 or older. None have done so at age 36. The oldest guard to start an NFL game over that same time span is Brian Waters, who at 36 years and 251 days started for the Dallas Cowboys during Week 8 of 2013.
That of course makes teams wary of signing a soon-to-be 34-year old to a multi-year contract, especially if it comes at a premium. The Falcons are unlikely to be much different. Even if one assumes that Mathis plays this year and the next, he’ll be less than two months from his 36th birthday when the 2017 season begins.
The positive for Mathis is that his limited usage over the first six years of his career means that he doesn’t have quite the wear and tear that most blockers his age. Mathis started just 22 of 58 games during his first six seasons in the NFL. Perhaps Mathis will be able to play until he’s 36, 37 or older because of that. But no team signing him should be expecting that.
Any team that signs him has to be smart about their spending. Even if a team is willing to fork up $19 million over the next three years to sign Mathis, that last year should be a “dummy” year where the team can cut or move on from him with minimal cap consequences.
Despite being one of the league’s premier guards the past four years, how much does being a one or two-year stopgap make Mathis worth? And in the case of the Falcons, how much is that worth on top of the contract they already gave Chester?
The positive is that any team signing Mathis is not expected to be imminent. It appears Mathis is going to weigh his options between now and training camp and probably won’t settle on a new team for a couple of weeks.
That is probably “agent speak” for no team is bending over backwards right now to pay him maximum dollars, thus there’s no reason for Mathis and his agent Drew Rosenhaus to strike immediately.
Julio’s Contract Extension Likely to Mirror Megatron’s
Right now, Mathis is unlikely to be a priority for the Falcons. Instead, their focus appears to be on getting Julio Jones a contract extension. But that extension is another reason why the Falcons probably won’t be looking to pay Mathis the sort of premium money he may think he deserves.
Jones, along with receivers Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and A.J. Green are all on the verge of getting paid a lot of money. While Bryant makes a stink about his contract in Dallas, the others are looking to see who sets the market. The smart money suggests the Falcons might be the first to pull the trigger if Thomas doesn’t get signed before July 15.
It will be interesting to see how much the extension for Jones costs the Falcons. In 2012, Calvin Johnson signed a seven-year extension worth $113.5 million with $48.75 million of it fully guaranteed, representing the crème de la crème of wide receiver contracts
The summer before, Larry Fitzgerald signed an extension with the Arizona Cardinals that was worth $113 million over seven years. Those two deals are the biggest ever signed by wideouts, and gives us a rough upper end to where Jones’ contract could be. An annual average of $16.25 million would make Jones or any of the aforementioned receivers the highest-paid receiver ever.
However, Johnson’s contract is somewhat misleading because the last two years of his seven-year deal are voidable. Excluding those years, his contract averages about $15.65 million per year. That potentially sets the lower-end parameter for Jones’ deal which should be somewhere in the ballpark of $15.5 million per year.
What is also notable about Johnson’s contract is that his three-year payout is $51.75 million, which is a significant increase over that which the Cardinals gave to Fitzgerald ($45.5 million). The Falcons showed two years ago when they gave a huge extension to quarterback Matt Ryan, that they were willing to give out the highest three-year payment among quarterbacks as Ryan’s $63 million over the first three years of his deal eclipsed that of Aaron Rodgers ($62.5 million) and Joe Flacco ($62 million).
There may be a similar give and a take with Jones’ negotiation. The Falcons might pay Jones less than $16 million on annual basis, but perhaps make his three-year payout the most ever for a receiver, reaching $52 million or higher.
It’ll be interesting to see how much guaranteed money Jones gets. The Falcons gave Ryan an initial guarantee of $42 million as part of his extension, which increased to $59 million after one year once injury guarantees kicked in.
I’d be surprised if the Falcons gave Jones more than $42 million in initial guarantees just for the sake of presenting that Ryan is still the highest-paid player on the roster. But there may be some back-end guarantees that kick in a year or so from now similar to Ryan’s deal. Johnson had a similar clause in his contract, where a second-year option bonus restructured how his injury guarantees were paid out.
Jones Isn’t Only Falcon Expected to Earn Big Contract in Coming Years
The reason why the Jones contract potentially deters the Falcons from paying a premium for Mathis is due to the sheer volume of top-tier contracts that the Falcons may be compelled to pay over the next several summers.
Jones’ impending extension could set a new precedent that the Falcons will extend their first-round picks after their fourth seasons. The next contract on deck will be that of Desmond Trufant, who could now be set to receive an extension during the summer of 2017. Matthews could then follow suit in 2018 with Beasley’s second contract coming in 2019.
Trufant is already considered one of the league’s premier cornerbacks and could get a max contract. Darrelle Revis’ contract just set the new gold standard for cornerbacks this past offseason with a deal that averages over $14 million per year with $39 million guaranteed.
Left tackles aren’t cheap either as Tyron Smith recently signed an extension with the Cowboys, averaging $12.2 million per year. Robert Quinn just got paid as one of the league’s premier pass-rushers, netting a four-year extension that averages $14.25 million from the St. Louis Rams last September.
None of these future payouts mean that the Falcons cannot afford to sign a player like Mathis. But it does mean that the Falcons can’t be as frivolous with their free-agent spending as they have been in the past.
The final year of Ryan’s contract is in 2018 and he’s set to count $21.65 million against the Falcons’ salary cap that year. If Jones receives the exact same contract as Johnson, his projected cap hit in 2018 will be about $20.6 million. If Trufant signs a contract identical to Patrick Peterson two summers from now, then his cap hit in 2018 will be about $14.8 million. If Matthews signs an extension that is the exact same as Branden Albert the following summer, his cap hit in 2018 will be about $4.2 million.
Multiple Extensions Limit Falcons Cap Spending in Coming Years
Those four players alone would total about $61.25 million in cap space in 2018 based off current projections. What the salary cap in 2018 will be is anyone’s guess, but if one assumes there’s roughly the same rate of increase between now and then as there was from 2014 to 2015 (eight percent), then the cap in 2018 will be around $180.5 million.
So four players on the Falcons roster could potentially be taking up a third of their cap space in 2018. The “Bottom 49” on the Falcons roster currently cost about $79 million in cap space. Assuming that figure goes up at the same rate of increase as the salary cap (due to the annual increases in base salary), then that figure will be about $99 million come 2018. Thus, the Falcons are projected to have about $160 million of spending towards their 2018 cap.
At first glance, that gives the Falcons a relatively healthy cushion of roughly $20 million in cap space come 2018. But that cushion could easily be eaten up. That projection doesn’t account for any dead money still lingering on the Falcons books at that point. Currently $8 million in dead money limits the Falcons’ cap space in 2015. If one assumes the team carries a similar amount three years from now, then that cushion quickly drops to $12 million.
There will be other factors, both seen and unseen that will shrink that cushion in the coming years. By 2018, Ryan should be poised for another extension that will potentially represent the final contract of his career, which is surely going to eclipse the extension he signed two summers ago.
If Albert’s contract is the template, then Matthews is likely to see his cap hit more than double in 2019 as it approaches $11 million. Jones and Trufant’s salaries are also only going to continue to increase. If Beasley is worthy of it, then his fifth-year option in 2019 might exceed $16 million.
This also assumes that the Falcons sign no major free agents over the next three off seasons that deserve premium contracts. Or at least none with contracts worth more than anybody that currently is on the team’s “Bottom 49” which includes Paul Soliai, Jon Asamoah, Tyson Jackson, Brooks Reed and Devin Hester.
This potential high cap expenditure that could be occurring three or so years down the road is likely a major cause as to why the Falcons were a lot more frugal and calculating with their spending in Quinn’s first offseason.
Simply put, the Falcons cannot really afford to make mistakes as they’ve done in recent years with paying out wasteful contracts like those to Soliai, Jackson, Sam Baker, etc. The Falcons are likely going to release Soliai following this season, and will still have to carry $4.2 million in dead money in 2016.
Two or more bad contracts like that and all of a sudden that $20 million cushion that you thought you had going in 2018 evaporates quickly. Clearly, overspending on free agents has consequences.
Future Money Limits Falcons Spending in Present
This also affects whether or not the Falcons are going to be willing to pay a premium for a player like Mathis, as they could deem him as similar overspending. The Falcons can certainly afford a contract for Mathis, but they certainly have to be more conscious of how they spend their money today to put them in a better position tomorrow.
This is a big part of the reason why the Falcons passed on some of the premium pass-rushing free agents like Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo, knowing that they would likely be gone within three seasons and didn’t want to have too much dead money lingering on future salary caps.
This spending strategy is likely going to continue over the next few offseasons, with a certain level of hesitancy by the Falcons on spending towards other teams’ free agents. Instead, the Falcons will likely hoard the majority of their dollars to spend on their own home-grown players like Jones, Trufant, Matthews and others.
Again, this doesn’t mean that the Falcons cannot afford to pay $15 million or so to Mathis over the next two years, but it does mean that they have to at least think hard about it. There is really no right or wrong to whichever choice the Falcons make.
Ultimately the Falcons decision on this matter might prove to be an indicator of how Quinn is approaching his job. Does he go for the short-term upgrade by signing Mathis in the hopes it provides a shot of adrenaline to the offense in 2015 or 2016? Or does he opt to keep an eye towards the future by passing on the veteran blocker because of the potential financial benefits down the road?
Perhaps we’ll have some answers in a few more weeks.