Young: The days of shopping in the bargain bin should be over for cap-rich Atlanta Falcons

AP photo by John Bazemore / Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder passes during Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Here's a not-so-bold prediction: A year from now, the Atlanta Falcons will be preparing for the NFL playoffs.

Here's another not-so-bold prediction: if they don't fulfill the above prediction — at least barring major injury issues — they will be looking for a new head coach.

Maybe that's expecting too much for a team that just won seven games and ranked near the bottom in both yards gained and allowed despite playing a relatively easy schedule. Yet, if GM Terry Fontenot and his staff do their jobs, the 2023 Atlanta Falcons will only faintly resemble the mess we've seen since Thomas Dimitrof put the team in salary cap hell.

With the NFL expected to have a salary cap at $225 million, and with the Falcons clearing the dead cap weight of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones (among others), all the shopping aisles will be open when the free agent frenzy begins.

Spotrac estimates the Falcons will have the second-most cap space available at between $70 million to $76 million (only the Bears have more, but they have five fewer players under contract). Cutting some players (Marcus Mariota most definitely) would free up more, and the team will look to re-sign a few players like Kaleb McGary, Olamide Zaccheaus, Lorenzo Carter and Rashaan Evans and extend others (Chris Lindstrom, AJ Terrell, Jaylinn Hawkins), so the actual cap space will change.

But, either way, it will be extensive, which is the opposite of NFC South rivals Tampa Bay and New Orleans, who are each $40 million above the cap with aging rosters. The Panthers, right at the cap mark, will have to be frugal.

Happy days, right?

Let's be honest, though. The Falcons have lots of holes to fill, but the 2022 season — especially the last few games — proved there are some nice, cheap building blocks in place.

One of those might be at quarterback, where rookie Desmond Ridder showed enough in four starts to at least believe he's got a future. Yep, more snaps would have been ideal, but it is what it is, as they say, and those kinds of decisions are partly why head coach Arthur Smith will enter 2023 on a bit of a hot seat.

But, if just to have fun, let's say the team goes in a different direction at QB. How does Lamar Jackson sound in the ATL? The former MVP is about to be a free agent. Yes, the Ravens are surely going to keep him via the franchise tag, but that doesn't mean Jackson has to accept it.

That tag would cost Baltimore upwards of $45 million, which would eat up all the team's projected cap space, so the Ravens might consider trade options. Do the Falcons bite? They did just try to get Deshaun Watson (thank you Cleveland!), so owner Arthur Blank isn't going to blink if the opportunity arises.

OK, that was fun, but back to reality.

Elite free agents are pricey and several teams will be after the same few guys, so the plan will be, hopefully, to get aggressive but stay smart. Here are a few targets to consider, with the reasonable goal of adding two top players and several more who will at least be upgrades.

Remember, this is a team that can easily afford a pair of $15-to-$20 million contracts. The days of digging through the clearance aisle better be over.

Improvements are needed on every level of the defense, two spots on the offensive line and at receiver, where a weapon or two is on the shopping list to pair with rookie Drake London. Bringing in a veteran quarterback is a must (assuming Mariota won't be welcome back) and there will be several options, with Jacoby Brissett standing out as a perfect fit.

Getting tight end Kyle Pitts back will help offensively, but investing in a receiver would be good use of cap space and there's plenty of depth, if not starpower, in this class. New England's Jakobi Meyers or Kansas City's JuJu Smith-Schuster could thrive opposite London and there are several less expensive options in Greg Dortch, Darius Slayton and former UGA star Mecole Hardman.

The line has to be addressed. Jake Matthews isn't going to last forever and McGary might cost more than the team thinks he's worth after one good season, so why not upgrade with Orlando Brown, one of the game's top tackles at just 26 years old. Center has been a revolving door of mediocrity since Alex Mack left, so let's invest in a veteran like Jason Kelce or Rodney Hudson.

Defensively, start with former UGA star Roquan Smith. The Ravens can't afford both Jackson and Smith, and the linebacker would immediately provide an impact (and he might sell a few tickets).

Former Bama star Daron Payne would look good next to Grady Jarrett, and maybe add a couple of edge rushers among a free agent group that includes Yannick Ngakoue, who has 65 sacks in seven seasons, the Saints' Marcus Davenport and the ageless Brandon Graham, who is having his best season in Philadelphia.

A cornerback is a must. There is talent and depth in this class, including the Eagles' James Bradbery. Want some safety help? Bring former Ridgeland High School star Vonn Bell in.

At least a couple of those needs will be met in April's draft, where the Falcons will pick eighth. Early mocks have them selecting, among others, UGA stud tackle Jalen Carter (not gonna happen), Penn State corner Joey Porter Jr., Texas Tech edge Tyree Wilson and receivers Quentin Johnson from TCU and Jordan Addison from USC. And, yes, I'm ignoring the ESPN-driven love of Kentucky QB Will Levis. If you're an SEC fan, you know why.

Add six or seven upgrades this offseason and there's no reason this team can't win 10 games, especially with another favorable schedule that includes 14 games with teams that had losing records in 2022 (yep, that includes you Tampa).

Want even more reasons to be giddy about the team's future? With more dead money coming off the books in 2024, Spotrac estimates, with the NFL cap rising to $303 million, the Falcons could have upwards of $200 available. With some of the above upgrades and logical extensions, $100 million is reasonable.

The Bucs and Saints will still be digging themselves out of a deep cap hole.

Sound familiar?

Contact Lindsey Young at