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Upbeat Falcons have plenty of room to grow heading into ’23

Jan 8, 2023; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Tyler Allgeier (25) runs the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons finished with a 7-10 record, but optimism abounds entering the offseason.

They’re expected to have roughly $75 million in cap space according to OverTheCap.com, with effective cap space hovering around $60 million.

If those numbers hold, it would give Atlanta the second-most cap space in the league entering 2023.

Armed with a talented young roster and riding a wave of momentum following a two-game winning streak to close the season, general manager Terry Fontenot said he and head coach Arthur Smith are moving to the “next phase of the plan” to mold the Falcons into a championship-caliber team.

“We had a plan from the very beginning, and now we are in the next phase of that,” Fontenot said at the end-of-the-season press conference Wednesday.

“This is going to be a different offseason that we’ve had in previous years. And yet, we are still going to be smart and handle things the right way. We are still going to set parameters and have discipline with everything we do.

“And yes, decisions we made before, we knew exactly what we were stepping into. We knew what the challenge was. And we knew early on in Year One, we are going to have a lot of young players, but we have to sign some veterans because we want to establish the culture and we want to establish our identity. And we want to make sure we’re setting a foundation the right way. So, we had some veterans on one-year deals.

Referring to defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who retired Monday after 50 years in coaching Smith said Pees “was here for two years, and yet Dean laid a foundation that’s going to continue to pay dividends moving forward.”

Smith said the team would be in no rush to hire a defensive coordinator. The versatility Atlanta currently has on its roster, however, could lead to a hire with a 3-4 background.

“Obviously we’ll miss Dean,” Smith said. “I’m glad he got to talk to everybody on Monday. That was important. So, we’ve cast a really wide net. We are going to take our time, which I think is important. Certainly, there is familiarity with certain schemes, but we are not going to be close-minded about anything.”

Atlanta’s 2022 draft class produced four starters — quarterback Desmond Ridder, tailback Tyler Allgeier, wideout Drake London and linebacker Troy Andersen — and key backups in defensive end Arnold Ebiketie and linebacker DeAngelo Malone.

Allgeier set the franchise rookie record for rushing yards in a season with 1,035. London led the team in receptions (72) and yards (866) and tied for the team lead with four scoring receptions. Andersen had 69 tackles, including three for a loss. He also forced a fumble and blocked a kick.

But the million-dollar question remains this: Did Ridder do enough to earn become the team’s quarterback of the future?

“We are still early in the offseason, but we are certainly encouraged by the progress he made,” Smith said. “But there’s a lot of work ahead of us before we are ready to declare anything like that right now.”

Marcus Mariota is still under contract through the 2023 season, with a cap hit of $12 million. If the Falcons choose to cut Mariota, the team’s cap number could balloon to over $80 million.

Atlanta holds the No. 8 pick in the NFL draft, and the Falcons’ staff was selected to coach in the East-West Shrine Bowl. Fontenot and Smith say they will be hard at work to build on the “culture” they have established since taking over the franchise a couple of years ago.

“One thing that we have here is a very strong culture,” Fontenot told reporters. “And you guys know because you see practice, you’re around the building and you see the players so you see the culture that we have here. And on Sundays, you look at the way every game, the way the guys fought and competed for the entire game, and it’s a credit to coach and the staff and the players and the leadership … the way they really attack everything: the meetings, the practices, the weight room, everything. And so, we have to make sure we always prioritize that. And that’s critical.

“Whether we are looking at players, we are going to go through an assessment of every player on the roster, whether they are under contract or not under contract. And it’s always going to start with the makeup, the character, the personal character, the football character, what’s their fit, what’s our trust level with them in the building, outside the building. It’s always going to start with the culture.”

–Field Level Medias