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2018 NFL free agency: Potential Falcons options after the initial wave

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Which guys out there could catch the Falcons’ attention as they look for lesser deals to be made?

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Well, the first big push of free agency is about over, even though it literally just started. That’s legal tampering for you.

The Falcons made the unexpected move of addressing their right guard battle in March by nabbing ex-49er and Viking Brandon Fusco to man the spot between Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder, and they’ve still got a little money to play with. Considering Matt Ryan’s and Jake Matthews’ eventual contract extensions will hit sometime before or during the season if all goes according to plan, and Levine Toilolo’s $3.5 million in cap relief will filter in after the first of June.

So, even though the cap is tight right now, they’ve still got enough wiggle room to get a couple of deals done to fill out the bottom half of the roster (unless, by some fascinating stretch of chance, they get Adrian Clayborn back in here).

There are in-house options like Ahtyba Rubin, LaRoy Reynolds, Andre Roberts, Sean Weatherspoon, Courtney Upshaw, Kemal Ishmael and Jordan Tripp, who would fill spots on the roster and know the system. But if they want to upgrade/move on at those spots, there are plenty of other fish in the sea.

So, which guys could the team take a gander at as the market begins to settle?

I think you look at these positions – wide receiver, tight end, fullback, defensive end/tackle, linebacker – to find your potential suitors. The OL looks pretty full at the moment, and the team isn’t going to go out and get another quarterback right now with Matt Schaub around.

Let’s eye a few suitors who could fill the spot at each open area.

Fullback

Keith Smith (Dallas Cowboys)

Smith was the lead blocker for Ezekiel Elliott and has garnered praise for his abilities there. He wouldn’t likely be as well-rounded as Patrick DiMarco was as a pass catcher, but he’d upgrade the spot from likely-departing FB Derrick Coleman. The team was linked to him previously as having interest.

Zach Line (New Orleans Saints)

Line was PFF’s third-best fullback last season and helped New Orleans’ dynamic duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram set the league ablaze. New Orleans could opt to bring back the stalwart John Kuhn over Line, as the team had both on the roster last season.

Mike Tolbert (Buffalo Bills)

Tolbert joined DiMarco with the Bills last season to help pave the way for LeSean McCoy. The Falcons are familiar with Tolbert from his days as the destructo bowling ball leading the way for Jonathan Stewart, but that was long ago (ok, like, as recent as 2016). He might could be had on the vet minimum, as he’s 32 now.

Wide Receivers

Jeremy Maclin/Mike Wallace (Baltimore Ravens)

Maclin and Wallace are both well into their careers and couldn’t cut it with a team quite literally starved for their position. But, with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, the team might want to get a deep threat like Maclin or a vetted threat like Wallace in on a one-year deal to improve the offense. If either of those guys wanted to play for a contender, they could do worse than helping out Matt Ryan and company.

Markus Wheaton (Chicago Bears)

Wheaton is a speedster who had a disastrous season in Chicago after signing a one-year deal with the Bears last March. But, he’s got two strong seasons with the Steelers under his belt (644 yds./2 TDs in 2014, 749 yds./5 TDs in 2015), though he missed all but three games in 2016 with injury. He’d had two choppy years after that strong ’15 campaign, but he could come to Atlanta to reclaim his momentum on a cap-friendly prove-it deal. He could be the deep threat the team desperately needs.

Kaelin Clay (Carolina Panthers)

A young journeyman who was most recently with the Panthers, Clay has experience as a returner, taking one to the house late in the season for Carolina. If the Falcons want to go younger at the returner spot, Clay could be an option. He also chipped in with a few catches on offense.

Jeff Janis (Green Bay Packers)

At one time a dangerous receiving threat who helped the Packers win a playoff game, Janis has fallen off a bit since his surprising 2015 campaign. But, he’d give the offense a reliable depth receiver, and someone with proven returning abilities, likely on the cheap.

Bennie Fowler (Denver Broncos)

Fowler’s an underrated receiver in the league, quietly posting up 350 yards and three touchdowns with the plethora of quarterbacks Denver trotted out in 2017. If he’s just waiting for a bigger opportunity, Atlanta could give him one. It’d also be worth it to see what he could do with returning. He’s also got new QBs coach Greg Knapp as someone who would know his game.

Eli Rodgers (Pittsburgh Steelers)

Rodgers played the slot in Pittsburgh and has put up some solid numbers in a depth role for Big Ben and friends since 2016.

Harry Douglas (Tennessee Titans)

Bring him home, TD.

Tight End

Ed Dickson (Carolina Panthers)

The guy we all kind of thought would be signed already, Dickson has been linked to Atlanta for quite some time. He’s visiting the Seahawks and could very well sign there. But, Atlanta’s pretty good about getting their guy, so they might overpay a bit to get him here. He’d contribute immediately as a pass catcher and blocker.

Brent Celek (Philadelphia Eagles)

The veteran tight end is an excellent blocker, and still has a little gas left in the tank as a weapon on offense. If the team wants blocking, Celek’s the guy to go to.

Benjamin Watson (Baltimore Ravens)

Watson is enjoying a quietly fruitful career, and if the team just wants a guy to come in for a year and help out in the passing game, Watson’s not a bad option, coming off a 522 yard/four touchdown season. He’s a great locker room presence who could also help Austin Hooper and Eric Saubert along.

Antonio Gates (Los Angeles Chargers)

The legendary Chargers tight end may be on his way out of the franchise for the first time in his career. He’d be perfect for what Atlanta is trying to do – coming off a 322 yard/three touchdown season, he could stand to do a bit more with the Falcons with more reps. He’d also be a great mentor.

Anthony Fasano (Miami Dolphins)

Fasano continues to chug along into his twilight years as a tight end, and would, no doubt, be a cheap alternative if the team strikes out on the guys above. He can do a little bit of everything.

Eric Ebron (Detroit Lions)

This one’s a controversial idea, for Ebron’s status as a draft bust so far and his notorious butterfingers, but he’s got potential that is untapped, and could come to Atlanta to get a fresh start. It would go against the “veteran mentor” theme here, but if Atlanta wanted to take a risk, he’s out there.

Logan Paulsen (San Francisco 49ers)

Paulsen bounced on and off the 49ers roster last season in his reunion with Kyle Shanahan, but that team was deep at the position. Atlanta isn’t, and the veteran tight end could come in and underscore Hooper/block. He knows the offense, so that’s a plus.

Defensive Linemen

DT Dominique Easley (Los Angeles Rams)

We’ve touched on Easley’s ability to rush the passer from the interior and his college connections to Quinn before, but he’d be a legitimately great addition of his health held up.

DT Bennie Logan (Kansas City Chiefs)

Logan is a tantalizing idea. He was a very good run defender in Philly, before betting on himself in Kansas City last offseason with a one-year deal and flaming out. There’s still talent to be tapped with Logan, and he could come to Atlanta to gel back into the player he was with the Eagles. His potential could make this a steal at this juncture, so if Atlanta could get this one done, it could pay off in spades in replacing Poe with a guy who was his peer in free agency just a year ago.

DE Terrence Fede (Miami Dolphins)

We’ve detailed Fede’s agent’s fascinating recent history with setting the Falcons up with defensive linemen, and for a depth piece to the edge group who is known for his special teams prowess, this could pay off. Quinn could further develop him off the edge, and the needing ST group could get an immediate boost.

DT Clinton McDonald (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

McDonald and Quinn were together in Seattle for a season before the former went south to join the Bucs. He knows Quinn’s system, and actually posted up five sacks last season, which shows he can generate interior pressure.

DE Aaron Lynch (San Francisco 49ers)

Lynch is an athletic pass rusher who has flashed at times with the Niners but has also caught himself in suspension trouble. He feels like the kind of project Quinn and his staff could work on to bolster the depth at the position.

DT Tom Johnson/Shamar Stephen (Minnesota Vikings)

Johnson and Stephen helped man one of the best defensive lines in football last season, and both could aid in run support with Atlanta, similar to how Ahtyba Rubin did. Speaking of, what’s Rubin doing these days…

DT Mike Pennel/DE Kony Ealy /DE David Bass (New York Jets)

Pennel’s earned some plaudits for his run support, while Ealy could stand to gain from Quinn’s coaching as a hot-and-cold pass rusher. The same goes for Bass, a journeyman who had four sacks last year.

Linebacker

OLB Lerentee McCray (Jacksonville Jaguars)

Quinn coached McCray in college, and he’s repped by David Canter, who is friendly with the organization. He could help special teams as a depth linebacker, and filter into the pass rush as De’Vondre Campbell’s understudy.

OLB Pernell McPhee/Willie Young (Chicago Bears)

McPhee was a prolific pass rusher in his heyday, but injuries slowed him down in Chicago. If he’s healthy, he can contribute to the defensive rotation. Limited snaps might do him some good. Young’s steady, if old. He could provide valuable depth when called upon/play special teams.

OLB Tahir Whitehead (Detroit Lions)

Whitehead is a starting-caliber weakside safety, so this one’s unlikely to happen with Duke Riley around, and Whitehead worthy of a main gig somewhere. But, if a market doesn’t materialize for his services or the Falcons aren’t quite ready to hand Riley the starting reins in 2018, Whitehead could be a solid starter, or even better depth (think Kemal Ishmael). It’s a little far-fetched, but stranger things.

OLB Paul Worrilow (Detroit Lions)

Alright, don’t laugh. Worrilow’s a smart mind who helped Deion Jones along as a rookie into what he is today, if a bit sluggish for the scheme. But, if the team wants a proven vet to back Jones up, Worrilow’s a friendly face who knows the system. Could do much worse.

OLB Marquis Flowers (New England Patriots)

Flowers is generating a little interest on the open market after being a depth player and core special teamer for the Patriots, and he could replace LaRoy Reynolds if the latter ends up elsewhere. But, if he’s got a pool of suitors, it means he won’t be cheap.

OLB Jeremiah Attachou (Los Angeles Chargers)

Attachou has the speed Quinn likes in his defenders, but he’s struggled in a young pass rusher with the Chargers. He went to school at Georgia Tech, so he knows Atlanta, and could be a fixer-upper for Quinn and company who could be groomed to back up the linebackers. Maybe he’s got talents yet to be hammered in?

ILB Michael Wilhoite (Seattle Seahawks)

Wilhoite would be a backup linebacker to Jones and a core special teamer for Atlanta.

ILB Kelvin Sheppard (New York Giants)

Ditto Sheppard.

Any you’d care to add to that list?