Falcons: If Atlanta goes all in on one free agent, who should it be?

williams leonard 2020

After the Dante Fowler Jr experiment flopped in year one, questions remain about handing out a big deal to a singular free agent with limited cap space. Atlanta has already restructured Matt Ryan with more moves surely to come, so I think they can free up a decent chunk of change if guys like Jake Matthews and Julio Jones get their cap hits spread out some more. I wrote about plenty of guys who may be cut as well, so there are some savings to be had in other areas too. Regardless, there are some impact players in this free agent class that can help Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith make a big splash immediately.

11. Shaq Barrett (EDGE)

This guy bet on himself and will be handsomely rewarded for it. The 2020 NFL leader in sacks is due for a massive payday, and the Falcons may shy away after some buyers remorse with Fowler’s contract. Regardless, Barrett can straight up get to the quarterback — a need the Falcons will be heavily targeting in the draft as well. This is a weaker EDGE class, but I like a lot of guys in the draft and cheaper options like Carl Lawson & Jadeveon Clowney in free agency.

10. William Jackson (CB)

Jackson was a late bloomer, but he exploded playing on his fifth year option. After one of the best years by a corner in recent memory in 2018, a down 2019 led to a bounceback 2020 season. Jackson probably won’t get big corner money, but he’s very solid and when he’s in rhythm — he is a shutdown corner that would pair nicely with AJ Terrell. With all of Cincy’s cap space, I’m willing to wager they pony up to keep him.

9. Lavonte David (LB)

Hands down one of the most underrated players in FOOTBALL, David has only made one pro bowl and been selected as an All-Pro once. Those were in different seasons. It’s hard to find a better complete player who works in space and leads a defense. While he would be another WILL linebacker in the fray, you can never have enough rangy athletes at the linebacker position. Adding him to Deion Jones, Mykal Walker, and Foyesade Oluokun would give Atlanta elite athleticism at the position and dangerous looks out of nickel packages.

8. Corey Linsley (C)

Here’s your Alex Mack replacement. Like Mack, Linsley is as dependable and steady as they come. He’s very well rounded, he’s a force in the run game and an upper echelon pass defender — especially for a center. With Green Bay’s future cloudy at best, I think Linsley demands a big contract on the open market. Matt Hennessy struggled as a rookie, so it may be best to actually give him a non-COVID full offseason of development before pulling the plug.

7. Marcus Williams (S)

Maybe a reunion with old friend Terry Fontenot? Williams may never live down the Minnesota Miracle, but even as a Saint, I have to admit he’s a fantastic player. He is fantastic playing as a rover or as a high safety in coverage. He consistently forces incompletions and would instantly be an upgrade in the Atlanta secondary. Since Williams came into the league as part of that insane 2017 draft class, Williams has 13 picks and 30 pass breakups. He’s only this low because I favor a few other safeties in this class likely at a lower cost, and Williams will likely get a fat five year deal.

6. Joe Thuney (G)

Thuney is sort of Scherff-lite (see below), and he’ll likely be a consolation prize for whoever misses out. Still, Thuney is insanely consistent and hasn’t missed a snap in five years since he became a day one rookie starter. He’s pretty solid in the run game, but he’s highly regarded as one of the best offensive linemen in pass protection in the entire NFL. He is an immediate upgrade on the Falcons offensive line in a spot at left guard that has been marred by inconsistency during the Ryan era.

5. Leonard Williams (IDL)

I actually wanted to trade for Williams before the Giants snagged him, and he has paid dividends on the other side of the Meadowlands. Another late bloomer, Williams thrived away from the Jets. Even with a pretty steady performance since a rookie, he exploded for 13 sacks in 2020. His pressure rate was a little low, but playing next to Grady Jarrett — Williams should still have plenty of opportunities to avoid doubles and get to the quarterback. He would be one of the safer options in this class.

4. Justin Simmons (S)

This is a guy would instantly upgrade the Falcons secondary and defense as a whole. After a pretty solid rookie season, Simmons notched 4 picks and 11 PBUs in 2019. He took a small step back in 2020, but he’s still an elite safety in the NFL. Paying big money to a safety is a risky move, but Simmons is absolutely one of the best playmakers in the NFL. On top of his exceptional ball skills, Simmons is an enforcer in the box and can play high or low. With a deep safety class, adding Simmons and a rookie could work if Damontae Kazee & Keanu Neal walk, especially if Ricardo Allen is cut to free up cap space. It was a tough choice to slot him this low, but it’s because of the price tag. He will be handsomely rewarded for his elite play this offseason.

3. Brandon Scherff (G)

Another big money guy at a position that isn’t a premium, Scherff is still one of the three best guards in the NFL. Outside of Quenton Nelson and Zack Martin, Scherff is probably the next best. He’s mean as hell as a run blocker and is consistently one of the best offensive lineman overall in pass protection. Scherff is as dependable and steady as they come, so I’d be pretty comfortable with cutting James Carpenter and paying him handsomely. I don’t think this would turn into an Andrew Norwell situation where Scherff falls off, but he would command a similar massive contract. Adding Scherff would give Atlanta one of the best guard duos in the entire NFL next to Chris Lindstrom, and would undoubtedly help out Hennessy at center.

2. John Johnson III (S)

I absolutely love Johnson, he is a criminally underrated player. Injuries derailed his 2019 season, but he was back to his 2018 form in 2020 and is an elite safety in coverage. Positional value dings him a bit, but he’s worth every penny to a contender looking to solidify the backend. He’s perfectly capable in the box, and he is as complete of a player as you will find in free agency. Not to mention, he picked off Drew Brees in overtime to put the dagger in the heart of the Saints in the 2019 NFC Championship. He would likely command less than Justin Simmons, but I think he’s equally or just slightly less as elite at the same things Simmons does.

1. Desmond King (CB)

Maybe a reunion with Arthur Smith? King is especially tantalizing due to his incredible ball skills and versatility. King can play box safety, high safety, and is an exceptional slot corner — all three are positions of need for the Falcons. He wasn’t that great with the Titans, but their front seven rarely got to the quarterback. In their game against the Ravens in the playoffs, they almost got half as many sacks in the first half as they got all season combined.

King is one of the best slot defenders in football, and perhaps a permanent move to that role with sparse looks at safety would be best for him. It was a close call between King and Johnson III, but I think King can come on a reasonable contract and wear three hats at three positions of need, which gives him the edge.

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