Coming into the offseason, the Falcons had an incomprehensible number of holes on the roster. Thankfully, they were armed with the second most cap space in the league… and boy, did they spend it.
Not only did they ink Chris Lindstrom to the most lucrative deal for a guard in league history, but the Falcons were also one of the most active teams in free agency, agreeing to deals with several impact players.
So, which free agent addition will have the biggest impact in 2023?
By far the most surprising acquisition of the cycle was the future Hall of Famer Calais Campbell. In the twilight years of his career, many expected him to join a Super Bowl contender. In fact, he chose Atlanta over several other clubs within reach of a Super Bowl, which is the only thing missing from his trophy case.
Campbell is assuming a more traditional defensive end role in Atlanta, one that he played with the Jaguars, which is subsequently where his most productive seasons came. He will be a force to be reckoned with along the interior, giving the Falcons a ton as a run defender and pass rusher. Moreover, his impact off the field might be even more profound than on the field.
He’s set to mentor Zach Harrison, Ta’Quon Graham, and other young defenders. He’ll be invaluable in that aspect, but I don’t think the 36-year-old will have the biggest impact among the free agents.
Onyemata is still in his prime, so he should be able to contribute more on the field than Campbell. However, he should also be able to provide a certain amount of knowledge and leadership for some of the youngsters. His on-field production has been great over the last few years. From 2018 to 2020, he recorded 14 sacks, 54 pressures, and 17 tackles for loss.
He had a down year in 2022 but came on strong to end the season. He recorded a sack in three straight games from Week 8 to 10, adding 1.5 more in the final three weeks, including 33 tackles over the last nine contests, bringing his total to 5.5 sacks and 5.0 tackles for loss.
More than anything, he should free up Grady Jarrett to make more impact plays, like tackles for loss and sacks. Onyemata was the most expensive addition along the defensive front, but he still isn’t going to be the biggest difference-maker, in my opinion.
Elliss joins Onyemata in coming over from New Orleans. The former Saints defender has primarily been a reserve and special teamer since entering the league but burst onto the scene last year.
Current Falcons defensive coordinator and former Saints co-defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen used him in many ways, including as an off-ball linebacker and along the defensive front. The versatile Elliss was asked to do a little bit of everything, posting 68 tackles, seven sacks, two forced fumbles, and two pass deflections.
I would expect on early downs that he will play next to Troy Andersen as a traditional off-ball linebacker, but things will get exotic on third downs.
For a team that has spoken ad nauseam about positionless football, the sky is the limit for Kaden Elliss in Atlanta. I actually think he could be a dark horse to be the most impactful free agent, but he’s not my favorite.
Jessie Bates III
Safeties aren’t generally the most valuable defenders on a team, but Jessie Bates is my pick for the most impactful free agent addition.
Not that any of the other guys are fragile, but Bates is extremely durable. Last season marked his fifth-straight 1,000+ snap season, only missing two games across five years with the Bengals. Moreover, unlike Onyemata and Campbell, Bates is just entering his prime and will only be 26 years old by the time the 2023 season rolls around.
On the field, Bates is an All-Pro, able to play centerfield on the backend, quarterbacking the defense. He’s got elite range and produces as well as any at the position — 43 passes defended and 14 interceptions. The ability he possesses will cover up a lot of deficiencies underneath, so his impact will go further than just his own stats.
However, the most important facet of the signing is his ability to make others around him better. The veteran will provide valuable experience for the young second-round pick that will play next to him — Richie Grant. That impact cannot be understated. Grant’s development should accelerate more rapidly under the wing of Bates.
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