With the start of free agency less than two weeks away, that means each of the NFL’s 32 teams have less than 14 days to become salary cap compliant. For most teams, that won’t be an issue, but for some teams, like the Atlanta Falcons, it’s definitely going to take some work to get under the cap.
As of Thursday, the Falcons are projected to be $7.3 million OVER the salary cap and one big reason for that is because of Matt Ryan’s contract. After kicking the can down the road for multiple years, the Falcons finally have to pay the piper this year and they owe the piper a lot of money: The 2016 NFL MVP is set to have a cap number of $48,662,500 in 2022, which, if it doesn’t get reduced, would be the largest cap hit for any player in NFL history.
The decision on Ryan’s future is going to be in the hands of Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith, who have both been on the job in Atlanta for barely a year.
One easy way to fix this problem would be to restructure Ryan’s contract. Although that would give the Falcons some financial breathing room in 2022, it would once again be kicking the can down the road. Another option would be for the Falcons to move on from Ryan and that’s an option that both Smith and Fontenot were asked about this week at the NFL combine.
Although both seemed confident that Ryan would be back with the team for the upcoming season, neither guy was ready to definitively go on the record and state that Ryan would be the team’s starting quarterback in 2022.
As a matter of fact, Smith admitted that the Falcons would likely be open to trading Ryan if someone blew them away with an offer they “can’t refuse.”
“I anticipate Matt being a part of the team, but you don’t ever back yourself into a corner,” Smith said, via NFL.com. “Somebody gives you an offer you can’t refuse — Matt knows how we feel about him. I think Matt’s got a lot of good football left in him.”
Smith did also note that the Falcons would trade almost anyone if they were sent an offer that blew them away.
“Depends what the offer is,” Smith said. “It’s like the old Don Corleone: They give you an offer you can’t refuse, I think you’ve gotta take it. But that’s with everyone. You can ask Terry, if somebody wanted to give a bag of balls for me, they’d push me out the door.”
As for Fontenot, he basically sidestepped the question when asked about Ryan’s future in Atlanta.
“I’m not going to say anything about any particular player or any … because if I answer that question, we can go through the entire roster and talk about who they are,” Fontenot said, via the AJC. “But I would say we’re going to look to add to every position and try to improve this roster.”
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As the general manager, Fontenot is very aware of Ryan’s cap hit and the fact that it’s scheduled to eat up nearly 23.4% of the 2022 salary cap, which is projected to be $208.2 million.
“(That’s) the elephant in the room, right?” Fontenot said. “We have some big numbers associated with four players, particularly our quarterback. We have a big cap number, and all those players with the big cap numbers, it’s not their fault. They’re just good professionals that come in and do their jobs. I want to be clear with that.”
The Falcons still have roughly two weeks to get things figured out, but Fontenot admitted that it’s definitely going to be a challenge.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a problem,” Fontenot said. “I would say it’s a challenge.”
Trading Ryan before June 1 would free up $8,137,500 in salary cap space this year, but it would also involve the Falcons taking a $40.5 million dead cap hit, which wouldn’t be ideal. Of course, the flip side is that they would save $28 million in cap space in 2023, according to Over The Cap. If the Falcons were somehow able to get a post-June 1 trade done this year, it would save them $23.75 million in cap space for 2022, which is a substantial number.
One thing the Falcons need to figure out is if they’re building for the future or if they’re trying to win now. If they’re building for the future, then trading a 36-year-old quarterback — who turns 37 in May — would make sense. However, if the team feels like it has the talent to win now in a wide-open NFC South, then holding on to Ryan would probably be the right move.
The bottom line is that the Falcons have a big decision to make and they don’t have much time left to make it.