For the first time in what feels like a lifetime, the Falcons were able to participate in free agency without financial limitations.
Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot inherited a mess of a salary cap, taking a record-breaking number of dead money on the chin, primarily from Matt Ryan’s bloated contract. The result was the second most cap space to begin this past offseason, which the Falcons spent mostly on the defensive side of the ball.
Atlanta’s big three, which inked deals on the first day of free agency, have provided an immediate impact. Jessie Bates III had one of the best debuts of any free agent signing ever, notching three turnovers against the Panthers.
David Onyemata might not be a spring chicken, but he hasn’t lost a step. In fact, he’s maybe off to the best start of his career, proving to be one of the most disruptive interior defenders in football.
Kaden Elliss has proven to be the Swiss Army Knife he was cracked up to be, notching a couple of quarterback pressures and a sack in two games to go with some more than solid run defense.
The Falcons seemingly hit on all three of their long-term free agent deals this offseason, so it’s no surprise that all three were featured on PFF’s list free agent additions with the biggest impact through Week 2.
Onyemata was coming off a down 2022 season that started with a six-game suspension, but he’s off to an incredibly fast start in 2023. His 91.5 overall grade trails only Kansas City Chiefs superstar Chris Jones among interior defenders, and he’s one of two interior defenders with 80.0-plus grades against the run and as a pass rusher (Philadelphia Eagles interior defender Jalen Carter). Onyemata’s 28.9% pass-rush win rate is also second to Chris Jones.
Bates made a major splash in free agency by signing a four-year, $64.02 million contract, and thus far he’s been worth every penny. Bates’ 93.3 overall grade sits atop the safety position through two weeks, as does his 91.4 coverage grade. His 83.1 run-defense grade ranks fifth. Bates snagged two crucial interceptions in a Week 1 win over the Carolina Panthers but has also allowed just one reception for four yards into his coverage through two games. As a run defender, he has added a forced fumble and defensive stop.
Elliss is a Swiss Army knife talent who was buried on a deep and talented New Orleans Saints depth chart throughout his rookie contract, which made his three-year, $21.5 million free agent deal with the Falcons a bit of a surprise. Then-Saints defensive coordinator and now-Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen knew the talent Elliss possessed, and it’s already showing up in a full-time role in Atlanta.
Elliss has registered a quarterback pressure in each game thus far, including a sack in Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints, all on just 10 pass-rush reps. In coverage, Elliss has earned a 74.0 grade with four receptions allowed for 27 yards. Finally, he has been stout as a tackler and run defender, with three defensive stops and 12 tackles while missing zero tackle opportunities.
The Falcons comprised 30% of the entire list from Pro Football Focus, but I want to dive into some of these stats from PFF.
Bates was heralded for his well-rounded skill set, and it’s showing with his 91.4 coverage grade and 83.1 run defense grade. These grades aren’t the end all be all, but it is hilarious to see him rank atop his position after critics said the Falcons overpaid for his services.
The same could be said for Onyemata. Those who criticized (Seth Walder) the signing noted his age. Well, he’s in the same conversation as Chris Jones, and though it might not be sustainable, it seems to be working out alright for the Falcons right now.
Kaden Elliss was the one that not many Falcons fans knew but are quickly learning to love. He’s so versatile but needs more pass rushing snaps. He’s logged a pair of quarterback pressures in just 10 pass rushing snaps! That’s an insane rate!
Terry Fontenot, Arthur Smith, and Arthur Blank are reaping the rewards of their investment.
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