Good morning! Welcome to The Cover 9@9 blog. It's our weekly blog of nine things at 9 a.m. Wednesday that you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons, who are well into the offseason with the scouting combine, draft and free agency upcoming.
1. Salary cap moves. It’s salary-cap casualty season around the NFL.
The Falcons and other teams have had ample time to review what happened during the 2017 season and have made some initial assessments for 2018.
In year’s past, the Falcons have been ruthless during this portion of the offseason.
In 2013, running back Micheal Turner, sackmaster John Abraham and cornerback Dunta Robinson were released. The Falcons saved $15.9 million in salary-cap space.
Last season, the Falcons elected not to re-sign defensive tackles Jonathan Babnineaux and released Tyson Jackson in order to clear room to add Dontari Poe.
Already this offseason around the league, the Bucs released running back Doug Martin (saving $6.75 million) and the Texans released linebacker Brian Cushing (saving $7.65 million) on Tuesday.
Martin was no Falcons’ killer as a division rival.
He was 4-3 against the Falcons since being drafted in the first round (31st overall) out of Boise State in 2012. Overall, he rushed 131 times for 500 yards and four touchdowns against the Falcons.
He only rushed for more than 100 yards against the Falcons in one game. Martin rushed for 142 yards on 28 carries in a win over the Falcons on Dec. 30, 2012.
Last season, he played in the Nov. 26 game and rushed seven times for 33 yards.
In 2013, when Martin was out, Bobby Rainey, the former Western Kentucky back from Griffin, rushed 30 times for 163 yards and two touchdowns against the Falcons in a 41-28 Tampa Bay win on Nov. 17.
Peyton Barber led the Bucs in rushing last season with 423 yards. Martin rushed for 406 yards.
The Falcons have some salary-cap casualty candidates. But they’ll like try to re-negotiate with them before showing them the door.
Left guard Andy Levitre, who ended last season on injured reserve with a torn triceps, is a salary-cap casualty candidate. So is defensive end Brooks Reed. The Falcons can save $7 million by cutting Levitre and $3.6 by cutting Reed.
The $10.6 million in savings would give the Falcons more room to sign Poe, Adrian Clayborn and Matt Bryant and also leave room for other lower level signings.
Other cap casualty candidates include quarterback Matt Schaub (3.25 million), defensive tackle Derrick Shelby ($3.2 million). wide receiver Mohamed Sanu ($3.1 million) and tight end Levine Toilolo ($2.5 million) .
With the current roster of 51, the Falcons are 12.7 million under the cap. If all of those moves are made the Falcons could save $22.65 giving them $44.35 million under the cap before the expected increase to $178 million.
That’s also before extending quarterback Matt Ryan’s deal, which could also reduce his salary cap number from $19.25 million to between $9 million and $12 million depending on the structure of the deal.
So, the Falcons can be in pretty good shape to go after any desired free agents and to retain any key players.
2. Free Agency picture. Here’s the Falcons’ free agency group as it currently stands:
Unrestricted free agents: Matt Bryant, kicker; Adrian Clayborn, defensive end; Derrick Coleman, fullback; Taylor Gabriel, wide receiver; Ben Garland, offensive guard; Kemal Ishmael, linebacker; Leon McFadden, running back, Austin Pasztor, tackle; Dontari Poe, defensive tackle; Andre Roberts, kick returner/punt returner; Ahtyba Rubin, defensive tackle; Jordan Tripp, linebacker; Courtney Upshaw, defensive tackle; Sean Weatherspoon, linebacker; Nick Williams, wide receiver; Blidi Wreh-Wilson, cornerback.
Restricted free agents: Ricardo Allen, free safety; Terron Ward, running back; Terrence Magee, running back.
Exclusive rights free agents: Sharrod Neasman, safety; Jamil Douglas, offensive guard.
3. Background check on Vea: Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea, who’s 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds, is a popular pick for the Falcons in some pre-combine mock drafts.
At this juncture in the offseason, Vea makes sense because the Falcons may not be able to re-sign Poe.
Poe played last season on an incentive-laden $8 million contract. His market value is at $10-12 million a year, according to CBS Sports NFL business analyst Joel Corry.
“Even with (Dontari) Poe, Grady Jarrett is going into a contract year,” Corry told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently. “Poe is going to try to get the going rate for a run-stuffer which is $10, 11 to 12 million per year. Can you really do that and also pay Grady Jarrett? There may be a choice between the two.”
With the Falcons committed to a contract extension for Ryan, they may not be able to financially compete for Poe.
With so many teams out there with a lot of salary-cap room, it would be agent malpractice by Jimmy Sexton to not let Poe test the open market.
In one mock draft by CBS Sports, the Falcons take Vea with the 26th pick.
“Vea would give Dan Quinn a Brandon Mebane- or Red Bryant-type of mammoth nose tackle who can two-gap when needed or get upfield in obvious passing situations,” Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports wrote.
In another three-round mock draft, the Falcons trade up with the Seahawks to 18 to guarantee that they get Vea.
“The only projected trade that doesn’t target a quarterback, the Falcons make a move to secure one of their few glaring needs,” Luke Easterling of USAToday.com’s draftwire wrote. “The Falcons have a track meet on the edge with the talented tandem of Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley, but they need a young presence in the middle to replace the likely departing Dontari Poe. With the Cowboys and Lions both in need of a massive, athletic nose tackle like Vea, the Dirty Birds move up just ahead of them to get their man.”
4. Vea on the field. Vea started all 13 games for the Huskies last season and was named first-team All-Pac-12. He also won the Pac-12 Pat Tillman defensive player of the year award.
He made six tackles against Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Like most college players, he has some issues.
Here’s what NFL.com’s draft profile has to say abour Vea: “Vea's tape can be frustrating because he flashes star potential one series and then looks average the next. With that said, he's still very raw and should be judged by his ability rather than just his results as he should unlock his potential with more coaching. Vea has the size and power to play nose in an odd or even front, and he could be targeted by 3-4 teams looking for dominant run defender on the end. He should work into a defensive line rotation immediately and has the ability to become a good NFL starter for years.”
5. Coaching carousel. For those keeping track at home, here’s the summary of the coaching staff moves this offseason.
Gone – Bush Hamdan (quarterbacks), Keith Carter (running backs), Charlie Weis Jr. (offensive assistant) and Eric Sululovich (assistant special teams).
Hired – Greg Knapp (quarterbacks), Bernie Parmalee (running backs), Chad Walker (offensive assistant) and Mayur Chaudhari (assistant special teams coach).
Chaudhari replaces Sutulovich, who had worked with special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong for the past nine seasons.
6. Stay or go. Who should the Falcons keep and who should they send packing?
7. Get ready for the combine. The combine starts next week and runs through March 5. Here’s a primer on the athletic testing and how it translate to actual football skills.
8. Offseason caledar. The Falcons have a number of offseason priorities, among them singing Ryan to a team-friendly long-term deal.
Here are 10 key dates to know as the team heads into the offseason.
9. So you want to be cheerleader? The Falcons held their first preparation class on Feb. 18. The next one will be on March 10. The Falcons are looking for enthusiastic ladies with a dance/cheer background, a positive attitude, a winning smile and dedication to be the best.