Ranking free agent targets if the Falcons free up salary in a Julio Jones trade (Front Seven)

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Reports are coming out that in addition to getting a first-round pick, the Falcons are looking for a team to absorb the $15.3 million in salary that isn’t guaranteed to Julio Jones. Some may scoff at this notion, but I think this is a perfectly reasonable request for the best receiver in football when healthy. I laid out some defensive players the Falcons could target, as well as some potential trade partners in a Jones deal. However, if the Falcons do relieve themselves of $15.3 million in salary obligations, not only will they be able to sign their rookie class — they have a golden opportunity to add some veterans that can help the defense. Most, if not all of these, will be one-year deals. This will be split into two parts, with the next edition focusing on the secondary. Here are a few guys that I like for Atlanta to pursue if they get a little jingle in their pockets.


7. EDGE Ziggy Ansah

Ziggy Ansah used to be a top-tier pass rusher in the NFL, but injuries have slowed him down in recent years. I’m not sure if he’s the only guy you can come away with if you consider some of the names below, but if you can add more pieces besides Ansah, I like the upside of the move. I could see him going for veteran minimum, which would be fine with me. Even though Ansah missed almost all of 2020, he has 50.5 career sacks, including 12 in the last season in which he played more than ten games.


6. IDL Sheldon Richardson

Richardson was a cap casualty on a Browns defense that saw a lot of massive upgrades, and while his numbers weren’t eye-popping — his consistency and durability are. Richardson was credited with 7.5 sacks, seven passes defended, and four forced fumbles over 31 games (two seasons) with the Browns. He isn’t a perfect scheme fit, but the Falcons could see his value as an interior edge rusher.


5. IDL Kawaan Short

The former Purdue Boilermaker has experience with Falcons defensive line coach Gary Emanuel, and I wrote about Short’s potential fit with Atlanta here:

Kawann has only appeared in five games over the past two seasons, but he could still provide a lot of value for the Falcons. He does a lot of the dirty work that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, creating a lot of interior pressure and stuffing the run, even if he isn’t the same 11 sack player from 2015. Coming off of two injury plagued seasons, I think the need Atlanta has up the middle is well worth giving Short an inexpensive, prove-it contract to see what he has left in the tank.


4. IDL Geno Atkins

Atkins is another guy that I talked about already, and I’m surprised the former All-Pro is still on the market. I expect that to change shortly after June 1st, but I think he would work very well with the Falcons. From my profile on Atkins:

There’s no guarantee that he won’t command a big contract, but at this point in his career — I don’t see it. Regardless, Atkins would provide immediate pass rush up the middle for a Falcons team that’s hoping to carve out a new defensive identity. With so many other quality players signing one-year deals, Terry Fontenot could persuade him to come home on a prove-it deal. The former Georgia Bulldog could show the rest of the league exactly how much he still has in the tank in hopes of attracting his last major multi-year deal in the 2022 offseason.


3. EDGE Melvin Ingram III

Ingram had a career-worst year in 2020, mostly due to injuries. From 2015 to 2019, Ingram notched 43 sacks, ten forced fumbles, and two interceptions. If healthy, he could be a force for the Falcons — especially as a stand-up edge rusher. On top of providing a veteran presence at a position of need, Ingram could be a game-changer.


2. IDL Jurrell Casey

I’ve been on the Jurrell Casey train since February, and his familiarity with Dean Pees could make him a logical fit. From my profile on Casey:

Jurrell Casey was one of the best interior defenders in the entire NFL during his time with the Titans, and new Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees oversaw a lot of that success. Casey is no spring chicken for a defensive lineman, but he is looking like a steal for the Broncos after sending a seventh-round pick to Tennessee to acquire his services.

He made his fifth straight Pro Bowl in 2019, and it was more of the same in 2020 before he suffered a torn bicep and was done for the year. Casey isn’t the player he used to be, but his well-rounded ability, trade cost, relationship with Dean Pees, and a need for a starter next to Grady Jarrett could make him a very intriguing fit for the Falcons.

It’s worth noting that in an interview last summer, Casey didn’t hold any punches when talking about Titans management. He said they “discarded him like trash,” and I have to admit — trading him for a 7th round pick was kind of wild, big contract or no big contract.

There’s no telling if there’s bad blood there, but Arthur Smith was the offensive coordinator, and Dean Pees was retired when the move was made. When Pees was in Tennessee from 2018-2019, Casey notched 12 sacks, made 16 tackles for a loss, forced three fumbles, recovered three fumbles, and of course, made two straight Pro Bowls. Also, Casey ate opposing offensive linemen alive in the 2019 playoffs. Casey forced a fumble and a tackle for a loss to go along with his two and a half sacks.


1. EDGE Justin Houston

Justin Houston isn’t the same terror he used to be, but he could still provide some value to Atlanta’s defense. Even at 32, the Statesboro native put up eight sacks for the Colts in 2020. On top of being a decent scheme fit and a veteran with high character, he just makes way too much sense for a Falcons defense that could badly use eight sacks from a single edge rusher.


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