Prior to the start of last season, the Atlanta Falcons declined the fifth-year option on offensive tackle Kaleb McGary’s contract. It was the right move at the time considering McGary had failed to live up to first-round status his first-three seasons in the NFL.
But in his second season under head coach Arthur Smith, McGary had a breakout season. McGary finished as the fourth-highest graded offensive tackle in the NFL by Pro Football Focus (PFF).
McGary is set to become a free agent on March 15th, but the Falcons are going to do what they can to make sure that doesn’t happen. PFF also issued a “buyer beware” tag on McGary because he might not be a scheme fit for a pass-happy offense. That might help keep his price down around the NFL.
He’s a round peg in a round hole for what the Falcons want to do.
If the Falcons and McGary fail to come to terms on a contract extension… say three years and $45 million with $30 million guaranteed as an opener… Atlanta will almost assuredly use a franchise tag on him.
The franchise tag is a one-year contract that averages the top-five contracts at the position and pay it fully guaranteed.
The franchise tag for an offensive lineman is $18.24 million in 2023.
The Falcons would prefer to come in under that number on a longer-term deal where they can lessen the initial cap hit this season.
But Atlanta has options.
Left tackle Jake Matthews has already partially restructured his contract and could be in line to do it again. His $28.4-million cap hit is third highest in the NFL for offensive linemen according to Spotrac.
He has a dead-cap number of $36.6 million this season and is the last of the bad contracts from the Thomas Dimitroff regime. If general manager Terry Fontenot elects to restructure Matthews contract, he could come up with the money to re-sign McGary without negatively impacting the salary cap.
The Falcons currently have the second-most salary cap space available in the league. They could re-sign McGary and absorb Matthew’s huge-cap number this season and have more flexibility in 2024.
Will they do that?
It might be too tempting to come up with another $15 million or so this season by restructuring Matthews, but like Matt Ryan’s record-breaking dead cap number in 2022, it might be best to take your medicine on Matthews contract this season.
Matthews is scheduled to have a $19.4-million cap hit against $11.7-million dead cap in 2024, giving the team options with Matthews depending on his level of play in 2023.
The other piece of this equation is right guard Chris Lindstrom. Lindstrom did have his fifth-year option picked up for this season and is scheduled to make $13.2 million in 2023.
He’ll be in line for a new contract in 2024 that will make him one of the highest-paid offensive linemen in the NFL. Guards Quentin Nelson of the Colts and Elgton Jenkins of the Packers signed extensions last season that put their average salaries at $20 million and $17 million respectively.
Lindstrom may get more than both of them.
Because he’s already on $13.2 million in 2023, Lindstrom’s raise in 2024 won’t have a significant impact on the Falcons cap situation, but with McGary, Matthews, and Lindstrom all at $15 million or better, Atlanta will have one of the highest paid offensive lines in the NFL.
One might argue deservedly so.
Lindstrom and McGary were two of the best offensive linemen in the league last year. Top 10 according to PFF.
And they’re about to get paid like it.