After the first week of free agency, the Falcons have added five new players to their 2021 roster — Erik Harris, Brandon Copeland, Lee Smith, Mike Davis, and Barkevious Mingo. Each player has addressed a position of need for Atlanta — safety, EDGE/ linebacker, tight end, and running back. This roster is still far from complete and could look very different depending on how the rest of free agency and April’s draft play out, but until then, we will look at the obvious holes that need filling before the start of the season.
Signing Harris gave the Falcons two safeties under contract as Jaylinn Hawkins is the only other player at the position. In a defense that plays as much nickel as Dean Pees’ scheme does, safety has to be one of the critical priorities this offseason. Harris plays best in the box and closer to the line of scrimmage but is versatile enough to drop into coverage.
That leaves a running mate on the backend; the best fit would be a free agent or prospect who is able to drop deep, cover man to man, and support the run in the box. Obviously, that is a lot of boxes to check, but whoever fills the void doesn’t have to be elite in all of these areas, just serviceable. The fact that Duron Harmon is still available in free agency is a crime and would be a cost-effective short-term solution for Terry Fontenot. Drafting a versatile safety like Richie Grant could provide the Falcons with a cost-effective long-term answer but shouldn’t be expected to be as effective as a veteran like Harmon would be.
I believe Isaiah Oliver can provide solid production as a nickel cornerback, but Fontenot would be a fool to start him or Kendall Sheffield on the boundary opposite AJ Terrell. That would essentially leave the depth chart CB2-4 Terrell, Oliver, and Sheffield. Fontenot could get a stop-gap in free agency by signing a veteran like Gareon Conley or invest more into the market by reuniting Malcolm Butler and Dean Pees — though the latter would command considerably more per year and total years.
The draft has four cornerbacks that I would feel confident in starting on the boundary the moment they put on a Dirty Birds uniform: Greg Newsome Jaycee Horn, Patrick Surtain II, and Caleb Farley. It’s possible the new regime assessed the cornerback room differently than I did, and they are higher on the in-house talent.
It is unclear whether the front office and Arthur Smith will give Matt Hennessey the starting center position or bring in a free agent to compete for the spot. Depending on that decision, Hennessey could slide over to guard, but that still wouldn’t be enough to warrant the starting job — unless there are some massive steps forward from his rookie year. Matt Gono could step in and start opposite Chris Lindstrom, but that too wouldn’t be enough. Drafting someone like Quinn Meinerz, Landon Dickerson, or Kendrick Green could provide a starting-caliber rookie at either guard or center.
This will be a good exercise to revisit and see how Fontenot chose to address the holes I deemed most important. There is always the possibility the people in the building believe in some of the players we are overlooking.
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