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Atlanta Falcons free-agency overview: Bolstering the edge rush an expected priority

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Who will be the second QB drafted, Fields or Wilson? (1:58)

Mel Kiper Jr. outlines who could be the second quarterback selected in the 2021 NFL draft and how it would affect Falcons QB Matt Ryan. (1:58)

The Atlanta Falcons enter 2021 NFL free agency coming off a 4-12 season in 2020 and have 18 unrestricted free agents.

It’ll be hard for the Falcons to do much other than add some value free agents because they’re roughly $22 million over the projected salary cap in 2021 -- and that’s after the release of safety Ricardo Allen and defensive lineman Allen Bailey. New GM Terry Fontenot is going to have to navigate this season carefully before getting some cap relief.

Here’s what to expect from the Falcons when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17:

QUARTERBACK

Under contract: Matt Ryan

UFA: Matt Schaub

Game plan: With Schaub retiring the Falcons have to find a backup to Ryan -- and, at some point, his eventual replacement. The latter could come from this draft with the fourth overall pick. There are plenty of veteran QBs available -- such as Mike Glennon or Andy Dalton -- if the Falcons want to add one as well.

RUNNING BACK

Under contract: Tony Brooks-James, Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison

UFA: Todd Gurley, Brian Hill

Game plan: The Falcons could certainly go the committee approach, but they do need to find a primary back to handle the early downs. Depending on how much the Falcons are willing to spend there are some intriguing unrestricted free agent options -- such as James Connor, Leonard Fournette and Wayne Gallman, for example -- or they could opt to fill in here in the draft.

WIDE RECEIVER

Under contract: Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Christian Blake, Greg Dortch, Chris Rowland

UFA: Laquon Treadwell

Game plan: This is a pretty good group even with the 32-year-old Jones coming off an injury-plagued year that limited him to nine games. The Falcons likely won’t be players in free agency at this position.

TIGHT END

Under contract: Hayden Hurst

UFA: Luke Stocker

Game plan: Atlanta has to find Hurst some help but may opt to do it in free agency instead of the draft. There are a load of available free agents that wouldn’t cost much that could supplement Hurst as a pass catcher or be mainly used as a blocker.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Matt Hennessy, James Carpenter, Chris Lindstrom, Jake Matthews, Kaleb McGary

UFA: Alex Mack, Justin McCray, John Wetzel

Game plan: Four of the five starters return, with the exception being Mack, so the Falcons are in good shape here. Restricted free agents Matt Gono and Brandon Powell could be brought back and Hennessy could step in as the starting center.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Dante Fowler Jr., John Cominsky, Marlon Davidson, Tyeler Davison, Grady Jarrett, Deadrin Senat, Chris Slayton, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner

UFA: Charles Harris, Steven Means,

Game plan: The Falcons had 29 sacks last season (ranked 23rd) and only seven came from their defensive ends, so upgrading the edge rush is a priority. Hard to do that without spending a lot of cash in free agency because good edge rushers aren’t cheap, so this is likely an area the Falcons address in the draft. Regardless, Fowler has to be much better than he was in 2020. He had just three sacks in his first season of a three-year, $45 million contract that he signed after posting 11.5 sacks in 2019.

LINEBACKER

Under contract: Deion Jones, Foyesade Oluokun, Mykal Walker

UFA: Edmond Robinson, LaRoy Reynolds

Game plan: Oluokun should have been a Pro Bowler in 2020 and along with Jones gives the Falcons one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL. Walker had a very good rookie season, too, so the Falcons are in good shape here. Some depth/special-teams signings can help.

CORNERBACK

Under contract: A.J. Terrell, Tyler Hall, Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield, Chris Williamson, Delrick Abrams

UFA: Darqueze Dennard, Blidi Wreh-Wilson

Game plan: With Terrell as the No. 1 corner, the Falcons need to solidify the other spot. Dennard could be a good option for the right price and Wreh-Wilson returning would add some solid veteran depth. There are some intriguing free agents, including Desmond King and Sidney Jones, who wouldn’t cost a lot to sign.

SAFETY

Under contract: T.J. Green, Jaylinn Hawkins

UFA: Keanu Neal, Sharrod Neasman, Damontae Kazee

Game plan: The Falcons could use the franchise tag on Neal, who started 15 games last season after missing most of the previous two seasons because of injuries. Kazee is coming off an Achilles injury but before he was hurt he solidified himself as a playmaking safety. He’d be worthy to re-sign, especially since the injury likely makes him more affordable. A free agent to watch is D.J. Swearinger, who played last year in New Orleans, which is where Fontenot spent the past 18 years.

SPECIALISTS

Under contract: Elliott Fry, Sterling Hofrichter

UFA: Josh Harris

Game plan: Younghoe Koo, who made the Pro Bowl last season after making 37 of 39 field goal attempts, is an exclusive rights free agent that the Falcons will almost assuredly bring back.