The Falcons have been one of the busier teams this offseason. The club was active on all fronts, making Chris Lindstrom the highest-paid guard in the league and acquiring a once highly sought-after free agent in Jonnu Smith via trade. And, of course, Atlanta spent plenty of cap space on free agents.
The headliners were on defense. Terry Fontenot found versatile difference-makers on all three levels, which is no accident. Jessie Bates III will quarterback the defense from the backend; David Onyemata will move up and down the line of scrimmage, and Kaden Elliss will play all over, on and off the ball. That was just the beginning, though.
The Falcons would go on to sign Calais Campbell, Scotty Miller, and Mike Hughes, who will have prominent roles in 2023. That doesn’t even include the likes of Eddie Goldman returning from retirement, Kaleb McGary re-signing at a team-friendly rate to have a sense of continuity along the offensive line, and Mack Hollins coming over from Las Vegas after a career year with the Raiders.
There were plenty of other critical moves that bolstered the depth of the roster and the lesser thought about positions like fullback, punter, and long snapper. It’s been a successful offseason, but not everyone is as high on it as Falcons fans.
The folks over at Football Outsiders aren’t impressed at all. In fact, they’re extremely bearish, giving the team a D+ grade overall thus far, which is the lowest mark in the division.
Improved Roster: B-
Used Resources Well: D-
Coherent Plan: D
Overall Grade: D+
For years, the Falcons were playing with one hand financially tied behind their backs, hamstrung by massive contracts for Julio Jones and Matt Ryan. Finally free and clear from those sunk costs, Atlanta is third in effective cap space, and with that cash they have done … um, what have they done exactly? Well, they signed a stud safety in Cincinnati’s Jessie Bates III, and added three more potential starting defenders in Carolina cornerback Mike Hughes and a pair of ex-Saints: lineman David Onyemata and linebacker Kaden Ellis. They also found a pair of weapons for Desmond Ridder in wideout Mack Hollins and tight end Jonnu Smith, who played for Arthur Smith in Tennessee and should allow Kyle Pitts to do less blocking and more receiving. Finally, they signed ex-Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke to back up (compete with?) Ridder.
That’s all fine, and the Falcons are better on paper than they were at the end of 2022, but it’s also underwhelming. Teams with quarterbacks on rookie contracts—especially third-round rookie contracts—are supposed to go on spending sprees. Was Mack Hollins really the best wide receiver they could find? There was no way to upgrade an offensive line that ranked 27th in adjusted sack rate? And how is it possible that a defensive front that has ranked last in ASR for two years in a row hasn’t added a single edge rusher? The NFC South is there for the taking, but the Falcons don’t seem particularly interested.
We can go point by point. The Scotty Miller signing came after the piece, but I imagine it still wouldn’t move the writers at Football Outsiders. Mack Hollins isn’t Jakobi Myers, who was the consensus top free agent receiver, but he fits what the Falcons want to do on offense. He’s a willing and effective run blocker, while giving Desmond Ridder a big-bodied target. Atlanta will never be a pass heavy offense, especially with what will essentially be a rookie quarterback. Investing heavily in the position will never be the Falcons’ MO. Moreover, Arthur Smith runs as many multiple tight end sets as any offense in the league. With Kyle Pitts and Jonnu Smith in the fold, the receiver position becomes less important.
The offensive line was admittedly shaky in pass sets, and it doesn’t help the team re-signed Kaleb McGary, who is still bad in that area of the game, but continuity along the offensive line is an often forgotten facet of successful units. It makes a difference. Also, Smith’s offense is predicated on running the ball, with the pass game bleeding off it. The offensive line will rarely be asked to drop into pass sets and hold a rusher one on one for seven seconds.
The Falcons did add Lorenzo Carter, which isn’t exactly inspiring, but he does all of the little things right that don’t show up on the stat sheet. He’s also a high character individual, which is very important to this regime. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and the Falcons addressed its pass rush by signing multiple starters in the secondary as well as the defensive line additions of Campbell, Onyemata, Elliss, and Goldman.
The edge group might not be scaring many teams, but the interior defensive line and coverage on the back end should be much improved from a season ago. There also weren’t many inspiring pass rushers available. Arnold Ebkietie and DeAngelo Malone should improve and become bigger parts of the defense as well. Ta’Quon Graham had virtually no impact as a rookie and became one of the defense’s best players in 2022. Internal development is key; it can’t just be external improvement.
The plan might not be coherent from where they sit, but it’s very clear from where I am. The Falcons brought in versatile players with the right intangibles to build a roster around Desmond Ridder. If he doesn’t work out, the team will have a roster ready to go quarterback hunting.
Photographer: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire
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