Falcons winners early in free agency

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There were questions about how Terry Fontenot would approach his first free agency with money to spend. Some thought he might sit back and wait for value to emerge, much like he did in his first two offseasons as general manager of the Falcons. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. There might not have been a busier team over the first 24 hours of NFL free agency, and the Falcons, who came into the offseason with a plethora of holes to fill, are already beginning to look like a competent team heading into 2023.

Let’s begin with the side of the ball that needed the most work. Defensively, the Falcons had to bring in players at all three levels, and they’ve already accomplished that. It started with the signing of David Onyemata, who will be the best running mate Grady Jarrett has had on the interior in quite some time.

The forward momentum continued in a big way a couple of hours later when the Falcons signed the top safety on the market in Jessie Bates II. He’s a durable All-Pro that should step in and immediately be the leader of the back-end of the defense. Paired with Richie Grant, the Falcons now have a viable safety duo for the forseeable future.

The Falcons then ended last night by inking one of the most underrated free agents to a three-year deal in Kaden Elliss. Terry Fontenot and new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielson are familiar with Elliss from their days with the Saints, where he burst on the seen as a starter last season in his fourth year. Elliss does everything well from the linebacker position — defends the run, is above average in coverage, and was a sneaky good pass rusher, racking up seven sacks in 11 starts. He’s a versatile chess piece, and Nielson should know exactly how to best utilize him in the Falcons defense.

Those three players have Atlanta’s defense, which was arguably the worst in the league last year, already looking much better, and Fontenot still has money left to upgrade that side of the ball, along with a full slate of draft picks.

Offensively, the Falcons were more quiet, but not by much. They kicked off yesterday by acquiring tight end Jonnu Smith of the Patriots for a seventh-round pick. He reunites with Arthur Smith, who helped him to the best years of his career when he was with Tennessee. The move also frees up Kyle Pitts to be utilized more as a versatile chess piece, rather than strictly a tight end.

Not long after that, the Falcons made arguably their biggest move of the offseason to this point, locking up Chris Lindstrom to a mega-extension, keeping him in Atlanta for the next six seasons. Lindstrom is now the highest-paid guard in the league, which rightfully raised some eyebrows. However, he just turned in an All-Pro season and is entering his prime. The Falcons had little choice but to cut the check. There’s no way they could let him walk in free agency.

Finally, Terry Fontenot’s latest move was the acquisition of Taylor Heinicke. The former Washington Commanders quarterback will serve as worthwhile competition for Desmond Ridder in the preseason. It wouldn’t shock me if he won the job outright, although, the hope is Ridder can take a stranglehold of the position and not look back.

It’s already been one of the busiest offseasons for the Falcons in recent memory, but we’re just getting started. Terry Fontenot has plenty of room to maneuver, and there are plenty of holes that need to be patched. I’m expecting at least a couple of more signings over the coming days, and we still have an entire NFL Draft ahead of us. There remains a long way to go before this team can be seriously considered contenders, but to say they are on the right track is an understatement. The Falcons will be a real threat in the NFC South and are building the roster the right way. If they figure things out at quarterback, they’re going to be a problem.

Photo: Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire

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