With the obvious need to sign a pass-rusher or two, the Falcons could see some of the top available players at the position locked down due to the franchise tag, which has to be executed before 4 p.m. ET Monday. Some of the candidates to be tagged include Kansas City's Justin Houston, Buffalo's Jerry Hughes and Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants.
The Falcons are projected to be armed with more than $30 million in cap space, which gives them room to spend. But that doesn't necessarily mean they would invest top dollar if a guy such as Pierre-Paul or Hughes reaches free agency. Houston will be tagged for sure, so he can't even be in the conversation.
Last year, the Washington Redskins tagged a player the Falcons would have targeted, pass-rusher Brian Orakpo, at a price of $11,455,000. The Falcons proceeded to invest $25 guaranteed to secure big run-stuffers Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, a move that essentially backfired.
New Falcons coach Dan Quinn has a plan, so don't expect the Falcons to be discouraged if the franchise tag keeps them from pursuing one of the top-tier pass-rushers in free agency.
And by the way, the secret is out now on Baltimore Ravens' reserve Pernell McPhee, who might have been a great option for the Falcons as an under-the-radar pass-rusher, but now is being mentioned as a top-dollar player.
Maybe the Falcons will have another shot at Orakpo, if he doesn't get re-signed. But Orakpo could be a concern based on his injury history, including a season-ending pectoral injury last year. Maybe they'll have to turn their attention to guys such as Derrick Morgan from Tennessee or Brandon Graham from Philadelphia.
We should get more clarity on what options are out there for the Falcons by the end of the day today.
As it turns out, Massaquoi will have to develop his talent elsewhere.
Waiving Massaquoi only saved the Falcons $660,000 against the cap, so it wasn't about money. If anything, it was a testament how far Massaquoi fell out of favor with the organization.
Massaquoi has talent. He showed flashes of it last season, particularly in games against the Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens. But he rubbed some folks the wrong way with his carefree approach.
One member of the previous staff said Massaquoi was in the doghouse because he skipped treatments on the right foot he injured during a game against the Detroit Lions in London. Massaquoi was tabbed a "good kid who made some poor decisions and needs some structure."
Massaquoi saw his playing time diminish throughout the 2014 season and was even benched. He spoke out about his lack of snaps to ESPN.com, which didn't rattle the coaches as much as some thought it did. In fact, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said at the time that he admired a player willing to express such confidence in his abilities.
Still, there was a disconnect between the Falcons and Massaquoi, who ended up playing 311 defensive snaps, finishing the season with two sacks and seven quarterback hits.
New coach Dan Quinn retained defensive line coach Bryan Cox, so Cox no doubt relayed his thoughts about Massaquoi. At least one player told ESPN.com he believed Massaquoi had all the talent in the world but needed to tone down his attitude.
We will see if Massaquoi develops his talent with another team.
As for Quinn and the Falcons, they obviously have a plan to fix a non-existent pass rush. It will be interesting to see how that plan unfolds.
Weatherspoon, a first-round pick in the 2010 draft, missed all of last season with an Achilles' tear suffered while rehabbing a knee injury. During the 2013 season, Weatherspoon played in just seven games after suffering a Lisfranc ligament sprain in his foot.
Quinn was asked if he was concerned about Weatherspoon's injury history.
"I think you always are," he said. "But at the same time, what's the rehab like? You can tell when a guy is going for it in that way, too. All that factors in.
"By the same token, he hit a string of bad luck. Can he come back and play at a level that he's capable of? That's what we're excited to find out."
General manager Thomas Dimitroff was adamant about needing to have Weatherspoon, a guy he drafted, back on the team. But the final decision on the 53-man roster is Quinn's. It is likely to come down to how much money Weatherspoon is willing to accept from the Falcons, who are unlikely to overpay based on Weatherspoon's health issues. He averaged more than $3 million per year in his first contract, which included $10.45 million guaranteed.
If deemed to be healthy, Weatherspoon should attract attention on the open market if he reaches free agency. If so, at least one AFC team is interested in pursuing Weatherspoon.
The Falcons are expected to check into veteran linebackers bound for free agency such as David Harris from the New York Jets, Mason Foster from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Malcolm Smith from the Seattle Seahawks. Ex-New Orleans Saints player Jonathan Casillas could be in that mix as well.
The Falcons so far have signed three players to contract extensions before they hit free agency: kicker Matt Bryant, defensive lineman Cliff Matthews and fullback Patrick DiMarco.
Here is how Bryant's contract breaks down:
Signing bonus: $1 million
Base salaries: $1,350,000 (2015), $1,550,000 (2016), $1,200,000 (2017)
Cap numbers: $2,483,333 (2015), $3,183,333 (2016), $2,833,334 (2017)
Roster bonuses: $50,000 per game active, $800,000 max value (2015); $81,250 per game active, $1,300,000 max value (2016); $81,250 per game active, $1,300,000 max value (2017)
Douglas took to Twitter to thank the organization and its fans.
Following a breakout 2013 season, Douglas played in a career-low 12 games last season due to a bruised foot in 2014. He finished with 51 catches for 556 yards and two touchdowns for an underwhelming Falcons team that finished 6-10.
By releasing the veteran, the team will save $3.5 million off the salary cap.
New Falcons coach Dan Quinn addressed the release of both Douglas and running back Steven Jackson while appearing at a community event on Friday. He said both were tough decisions to make.
"Especially guys that you hold in such high regard," Quinn said. "Coached against them both a bunch and know how tough and competitive both are. So again, it's always hard."
Defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux expressed his respect for Douglas.
Jackson had one year left on his contract. By cutting him, the Falcons saved $3.75 million in cap room.
Factoring in Jackson's release and Friday's release of receiver Harry Douglas and guard Justin Blalock -- moves that saved another $7.29 million against the cap -- that would take the number to $34,203,843, which is a good amount of room for a team in dire need of an impact pass-rushers, a solid receiver or even pass-catching tight end, not to mention help at linebacker, defensive backs and perhaps even running back.
Then you have to subtract kicker Matt Bryant's 2015 cap number of $2,483,333 after he signed a three-year, $8.5 million contract extension. That would put the cap space at $31,720,510.
Lastly, the Falcons waived defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi late Friday, a move which provided a cap savings of $660,000. That would bump the current cap-space number to $32,380,510.
Blalock had the third-highest cap figure going into the 2015 with Jackson seventh and Douglas' was ninth. Now, the Top 10 are the following:
1. Matt Ryan -- $19,500,000
2. Julio Jones -- $10,176,000
3. Sam Baker -- $7,300,000
4. Roddy White -- $5,540,625
5. William Moore -- $5,525,000
6. Paul Soliai -- $4,400,000
7. Jon Asamoah -- $4,300,000
8. Joe Hawley -- $4,000,000
9. Tyson Jackson -- $3,850,000
10. Jake Matthews -- $3,733,977
Jackson, who turns 32 in July and had one year left on his contract, originally signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Falcons that included $4 million guaranteed. Jackson spent his first nine seasons with the St. Louis Rams after entering the league as the 24th overall pick of the 2004 NFL draft.
The decision to release Jackson was far from a surprise as the Falcons figure to reshape their roster significantly under new coach Dan Quinn.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan brings with him a zone-blocking scheme where running backs are expected to thrive with a one-cut-and-go mentality. Although Jackson still runs with power, his older legs are not the ideal complement for such a system.
In a post on his personal website, Jackson thanked the fans and the organization, but acknowledged he fell short of his ultimate goal with the Falcons.
"In terms of what we hoped to accomplish as a team on the field, my time as a Falcon was a disappointment," Jackson said, "but I will always be grateful for how the city and franchise treated me while I was there."
Jackson gained 1,250 yards on 347 carries with 12 touchdowns in 27 games with the Falcons. He averaged a career-low 3.5 yards per rush in 2013, his first season in Atlanta.
Kiper obviously is a big fan of Florida's Dante Fowler, a guy he believes will be off the board when the Falcons pick. Remember, Fowler was recruited to the Gators by Falcons coach Dan Quinn when Quinn was Florida's defensive coordinator.
"Fowler could be gone because he had a solid workout and he has the ability to play ... I mean this kid is as productive; when he lowers that pad level, he has unbelievable strength," Kiper said. "He is a guy that is awesome in terms of power. Dante Fowler, forget the reps he did, I think 19. He plays like someone who did 35 reps. He's as powerful with the pads on as any defensive end you've seen in a while. So he's going to go high."
Kiper also praised Clemson's Vic Beasley, a Georgia native who dominated the combine workouts.
"Beasley's going to go, I think, top 10," Kiper said. "When you put the combined production -- 25 sacks the last two years, 33 the last three years, 44 1/2 tackles for loss last year -- [and] he had a phenomenal workout. I can't see him getting out of the top 10."
Kiper said Nebraska's Randy Gregory, projected as a top-5 pick by some, will slip a little because he came in light. And Missouri's Shane Ray didn't participate in the combine due to a toe injury, so he still has work to do before the draft.
"Gregory's got to get stronger," Kiper said. "So Gregory is more of a bit of a developmental type. Ray's pro day is coming up. He should test very well coming off a year where he was outstanding and tremendously productive."
Kiper said all four players will be impact pass-rushers and, thus, safe bets for the Falcons as they try to add a disruptive force up front.
They are both minimum-salary deals, and the contracts don't guarantee them a spot on the team. But new coach Dan Quinn obviously saw something in both. Plus Matthews and DiMarco have earned praise from special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong for their work on special teams.
Here is how their extensions break down:
Years of experience: 4
Signing bonus: none
Base salaries: $745,000 (2015); $760,000 (2015)
Cap number: $745,000 (2015); $760,000 (2015)
Escalator: Can earn $100,000 toward 2016 base salary
Years of experience: 3
Signing bonus: $75,000
Base salaries: $660,000 (2015); 760,000 (2016)
Cap number: $697,500 (2015); $797,500 (2016)
Escalator: Can earn $150,000 toward 2016 base salary
Terms of the deal were not immediately available but he did tweet this:
Signed my deal 2 stay around 4 possibly 3 more years. I will try to be the best because that's what I expect. Thanks for all the kind words!— matt bryant (@Matt_Bryant3) February 26, 2015
Bryant, who turns 40 in May and was set to become a free agent, will enter his 15th NFL season in 2015 after beginning his career with the New York Giants in 2002. He's been with the Falcons for the last six seasons.
Bryant obviously was a priority for new Falcons coach Dan Quinn. Last season, Bryant made 29 of 32 field goals, including a long of 54 yards. He carries a streak of 38 consecutive field goals from within 50 yards, dating back to 2013.
Wednesday marked the second consecutive day the Falcons signed one of their own impending free agents to a contract extension. On Tuesday, they signed defensive lineman Cliff Matthews and fullback Patrick DiMarco to contract extensions.
Players such as linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, wide receiver/special-teamer Eric Weems and running back Antone Smith appear to be priorities for the Falcons.
The free-agency negotiating period begins March 7 with contracts set to expire on March 10 at 4 p.m, the start of the new league year.
The diminutive running back, who has averaged 49 yards per scoring play on seven career touchdowns, continues to patiently wait for news on a new a contract. While nothing has been relayed to Smith personally just yet, word at the NFL combine last week was Smith indeed is one of the players with an expiring contract the Falcons have prioritized to bring back. But there also were whispers in Indianapolis about the New York Giants being interested in Smith. Not to mention former Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is now in Tampa and knows how special a talent Smith is.
New Falcons coach Dan Quinn has emphasized the need for speed, which is Smith's biggest asset when he's healthy. Plus, owner Arthur Blank previously expressed a desire to keep Smith around for years to come.
"Who wouldn't want to be a Falcon?" Smith said. "Heck yeah, I want to be here."
There is one obstacle Smith has to overcome, however. He is still in the process of rehabbing the broken right leg that prematurely ended his 2014 season.
"I can't do too much right now," Smith said. "It's about getting strength back in the leg. It was a broken tibia. I have no idea when I'm going to start running again. But my thought is, I'm always going to be confident in myself. I'll be back to full strength."
With four touchdowns of 40 or more yards last season, Smith ranked third in the league behind Green Bay's Jordy Nelson (seven) and Washington's DeSean Jackson (five), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Smith had five touchdowns overall on 36 touches while playing in 10 games.
"He made us more explosive," former Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice said of Smith. "His percentage of explosive plays were lights out."
Smith's speed and explosion would be ideal in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's outside-zone blocking scheme, which depends on a one-cut-and-go mentality for the running backs. Shanahan, Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have raved about how second-year back Devonta Freeman could thrive in the new system. And the Falcons could add another veteran back such as Justin Forsett, with Steven Jackson expected to be released.
No matter what, there should be a place in Shanahan's offense for a dynamic playmaker such as Smith.
"That system can fit any back," Smith said. "The sky's the limit in that system. If I am a Falcon, that would be my pedigree right there."
Not to be forgotten is Smith's contribution on special teams as a gunner. He led the Falcons with 10 special-teams tackles during the 2013 season.
The humble Smith, as usual, downplayed his significance to the team.
"I feel like I'm just like anybody else," Smith said. "I just like to play football. I never really look at how valuable I am. I just want to play."
Matthews and DiMarco both played college football at South Carolina. Matthews was set to become an unrestricted free agent on March 10 while DiMarco was to be a restricted free agent.
New coach Dan Quinn, a defensive line guru, obviously saw something he liked in Matthews when watching the film. Matthews played strong late last season and also contributed on special teams. He played 110 defensive snaps and had seven tackles.
DiMarco, unfortunately, was recognized more for a key touchdown drop he had in the season finale against Carolina. He had been a reliable pass-catcher out of the backfield throughout the season. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan might see the value in DiMarco as a blocker. Plus DiMarco is a solid special-teams contributor.
The 5-foot-8, 184-pound Williams was with the Washington Redskins in 2013 when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator there.
Umenyiora, 33, just completed his 11th NFL season. The veteran defensive end's limited playing time and the Falcons' 6-10 finish in 2014 was not the way Umenyiora envisioned concluding his career.
"Zero plans to retire at this moment," Umenyiora told ESPN. "I feel like I can still play, No. 1. The way things ended last year, I'm just not going to end my career like that. That's not going to happen.
"I feel like when put in the right situation and given the opportunity to play, I would still be able to help somebody. I want to end the way it's supposed to end."
Umenyiora confirmed he is mulling a media opportunity in his birthplace of London, which was first reported by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan. But Umenyiora, who trimmed down to 245 pounds, insisted playing at least one more season of football is at the forefront of his thoughts.
"I think I'll know exactly when the time [to retire] is right," Umenyiora said. "When you're physically not able to play anymore, you've got to be honest with yourself. You have to watch tape and study yourself from when you had good years, when you had not-so-good years. You have to look at your explosion, how you're playing the game; if you still want to practice. And you have to have enough pride that you're not going to go out there and embarrass yourself. You don't want to go out there and look like a fool.
"More importantly, I think the league will let you know when you're done. Ain't no charity cases being handed out. Either they feel like you can help them or that's it for you. If you're unable to play, they'll tell you because you're not going to have a job."
The Falcons and new coach Dan Quinn are expected to go in a different direction with the addition of younger pass-rushers -- a reality Umenyiora is willing to accept.
"Do I expect to get a look from the Falcons? Absolutely," Umenyiora said. "I think I did the right things when I was there, especially last year. I did and said all the right things, and I'm in great shape. Whether or not they decide to re-sign me, that's another story. But do I expect them to look into it? I would think so."
Umenyiora signed a two-year, $11 million contract with the Falcons prior to the 2013 season. He made an immediate splash with a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown in his second game with the team. Umenyiora, starting 13 of 16 games, lead the Falcons with 7.5 sacks during the 2013 campaign but was moved into designated pass rusher role by year's end.
Last season, Umenyiora played 326 of 1,038 defensive snaps and finished with just 2.5 sacks. He didn't start a single game.
Umenyiora has 85 career sacks, including 75 in nine seasons with the New York Giants