Terry Fontenot’s work building the Falcons roster has Raheem Morris set up for immediate success.
Unlike his predecessor, Morris inherits a team that is ready to compete right away. The roster is in good, not great shape, but Terry Fontenot has the resources needed to fill the few holes.
None are more pressing than the quarterback position. The Falcons weren’t held back by Arthur Smith nearly as much as they were by Desmond Ridder. Morris and Fontenot have already signaled the end of the Ridder experience in Atlanta, leaving every option to acquire his replacement on the table.
Beyond the most important position in sports, the Falcons need to fill several other premium positions. The defense hasn’t had a reliable double-digit sack, pass rusher since John Abraham. That has to be a priority. And though Arnold Ebiketie is an exciting player, the Falcons can’t rely on just him.
Moreover, the only other two positions that have to be addressed are those who catch passes and those who defend them. A.J. Terrell needs a running mate, even if Clark Phillips and Mike Hughes are under contract. Much like pitchers in baseball, a team can never have enough cornerbacks.
Drake London also needs some company. With Zac Robinson in the fold, the Falcons seem primed to use more 11 personnel sets, placing an emphasis on receivers. The Falcons could bring back someone like Scotty Miller to satisfy the need at receiver and Bud Dupree at edge defender.
Or, the Falcons could go much bigger. They could dip into the high-end free agent market. Bleacher Report’s list of free agents who could become superstars with their next team features several targets for the Falcons.
Jonathan Greenard, EDGE, Houston Texans
Jonathan Greenard has been one of the more polarizing pass-rushers of the last half-decade. A third-round pick in 2020, Greenard failed to make much of an impact and tallied just a single sack for the Houston Texans as a rookie. He bounced back nicely, though, raising his sack total to eight the following year while establishing himself as one of the more promising edge talents in the league.
Another disappointing campaign would follow in 2022, however, as Greenard struggled with health and consistency—ultimately starting just four of the eight games he was active for—while recording a meager 1.5 sacks. Desperately needing to raise his game in a contract year, Greenard answered the call in 2023 by becoming one of the most stalwart defenders in Houston’s lineup.
Greenard thrived in new head coach DeMeco Ryans’ system. He not only tallied a whopping 12.5 sacks—leading a dangerous Houston pass-rushing unit that also featured No. 3 overall pick Will Anderson Jr.—to go along with 52 tackles (including 15 for loss) and 22 quarterback hits, but also proved to be highly effective against the run as well. The 26-year-old, who was named a Pro Bowl alternate, is now hitting the open market for the first time after showing he has what it takes to be a complete defensive end.
With Spotrac projecting Greenard to earn $13.4 million annually on his next deal, expectations will be high for his strong play to continue into 2024 and beyond. As long as the 26-year-old can stay healthy, there’s no reason to expect regression from a player who has a relentless motor and high football IQ to complement his plus athleticism and stable of rushing moves.
Greenard’s modest contract projection of $13.4 million shouldn’t fool Falcons fans. This guy can play. No, he’s not in the same conversation as Brian Burns, Josh Allen, and Danielle Hunter; however, he’d be an excellent addition to Atlanta’s defense.
Tee Higgins, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Tee Higgins has been one of the NFL’s most intriguing wideouts since he entered the league as a second-round pick in 2020. He’s made a name for himself by amassing 3,684 yards and 24 touchdowns on 257 catches over his first four seasons.
Those numbers could be even more impressive if Higgins hadn’t been relegated to a second option in the Cincinnati Bengals’ passing attack for the bulk of his career. As a rookie, Higgins quickly showed his potential by racking up a team-high 908 yards and six scores through the air despite seeing fewer targets than veteran Tyler Boyd. It seemed he would become Cincinnati’s No. 1 receiver the following season, but the selection of Ja’Marr Chase in the first round of the 2021 draft kept Higgins entrenched in the No. 2 role.
Although he’s had to contend with Chase for looks over the last three seasons, star quarterback Joe Burrow has done a good job keeping Higgins fed. The wideout had back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns before coming back down to earth slightly in 2023—a season in which both Higgins and Burrow missed a significant amount of action due to injury—with a career-worst 42-catch, 656-yard, five-touchdown campaign.
While the Bengals do have the option of franchise tagging Higgins to keep him for at least one more season—which seems to be a likely outcome of his first free-agency foray—there’s still a chance that Higgins will be allowed to walk on the open market.
Expect Higgins’ modest 2023 statistics to skyrocket if he exits Cincinnati and becomes a No. 1 receiver elsewhere. He’s projected to earn star wideout money—Spotrac estimates his next deal will ring up around $18.6 million annually—if he’s not tagged and clearly has the talent to make good on that type of payday thanks to an elite ability to stretch the field and come up with contested catches.
Tee Higgins is likely to garner the top contract among the wide receivers hitting free agency, and he deserves it. The Falcons need another pass catcher to pair with Drake London, but Higgins would cost considerable cap space. However, the timelines of Higgins’ contract and London’s rookie deal will run consecutive, so the Falcons would be able to pay London when Higgins’ deal comes off the books.
Jaylon Johnson, CB, Chicago Bears
Jaylon Johnson finally broke out this past season, emerging as a shutdown corner for the Chicago Bears. This revelation seemed overdue for a 2020 second-round pick who showed so much potential earlier in his career, but injuries and inconsistency held him back from becoming a star during his initial three years in the league.
Johnson, who just appeared in his first Pro Bowl, displayed outstanding coverage capabilities in 2023. He limited opposing passers to just 32 completions on 58 targets, conceding 279 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the year while recording a career-high four interceptions. Quarterbacks posted a meager 50.9 rating when targeting the 24-year-old, a vast improvement over the 94.6 rating that Johnson gave up last year and the triple-digit marks from his first two NFL campaigns.
Pro Football Focus’ metrics also show the incredible value Johnson provided the Bears. He recorded an elite 90.8 grade for his efforts, the highest score of any cornerback this season. This was a massive jump up from the 62.9 grade Johnson earned in 2022 and well above his previous career-high mark of 64.2 in 2021.
Johnson is now heading toward free agency primed to secure a bag of cash. After failing to get a contract extension worked out with Chicago’s brass last year—an issue that led to Johnson requesting a trade near the deadline—the corner recently revealed that his “mind’s definitely on the money” as he prepares for his first big NFL payday.
Despite having a hefty valuation of $15.7 million annually according to Spotrac, Johnson should have no shortage of suitors on the open market. He’s poised to become one of the game’s next great corners and should emerge as a bona fide star at his next stop.
Unlike the situation with Tee Higgins and Drake London’s respective contracts ruining together, that wouldn’t be the case for Jaylon Johnson and A.J. Terrell, both of whom are expected to receive lucrative new deals this offseason. For that reason, it may be a bit presumptuous to call Johnson a Falcons free agent target. Still, there’s a lot to like and he’s proven to be a reliable cover man. If he continues on this pace, less than $16 million for a starting cornerback is a bargain in some league circles.
Photographer: William Purnell/Icon Sportswire