For the third consecutive off-season, the Falcons aren’t expected to be overly aggressive in free agency. It doesn’t come as a major surprise given their cap situation. With Grady Jarrett receiving the franchise tag and Julio Jones’ imminent contract extension, the front office needs to assure fans that their franchise cornerstones are staying long-term. Deion Jones is the next player on their priority list, as discussions have already started about a long-term extension. This is a tricky situation for a team clearly needing to upgrade at several positions.
Thomas Dimitroff is aware of the challenges that lie ahead. Managing a tight salary cap will take “legitimate creativity” as the eloquent general manager put it. They can’t be solely reliant on the draft to address the flaws on their roster. With major questions at both guard spots and right tackle, one free agent will surely be signed to provide some type of stability. Adding an edge rusher or interior tackle must be considered as another priority. It’s no secret that the Falcons were regularly bullied in the trenches last season. How they use free agency to bolster both lines will play a significant role in regaining their status as one of the top teams in the NFC.
The annual free agency wish list started in 2015. Other than Derrick Shelby in 2016, the Falcons haven’t signed any other player featured on the list. It should be noted they were largely quiet in 2017 and 2018. Although their limited cap space is well documented, it would be surprising if the weren’t active to some extent. These are the top five positions that should be addressed in free agency.
Dream Signing: Rodger Saffold
All indications are pointing towards the Falcons not making a major splash for the second consecutive year. If they decide to change their approach, the focus should be on addressing their biggest personnel flaw. When assessing the roster, guard is undoubtedly the most unsettling position. There isn’t a player on the current roster that can be considered as an average starter, let alone an above-average one. With both starting positions needing serious improvement, the front office must be weighing their options. Pursuing the best available guard in Saffold would be a welcoming addition.
Although Saffold is already 30 years old, there is no denying what he offers as an all-around talent. The powerhouse left guard helped anchor one of the most productive running games in the league last season. His ability to get out in space and take linebackers out at the second level meshes well with the amount of athleticism on the Falcons’ offensive line. A trio of Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, and Saffold would give opposing front sevens’ nightmares. Age shouldn’t play a major factor in determining his value. Mack was paid handsomely in 2016, despite already being 30 years old. The front office isn’t shy about giving Matt Ryan the protection he needs. Signing one of the best left guards in the league, who has allowed 25 pressures or fewer in the last three seasons per Pro Football Focus, would be a huge step in the right direction.
Mid-Level Signing: Nick Easton
Saffold is going to be in high demand, which makes it highly unlikely the Falcons are going to strongly pursue him. They aren’t in a great position to win any sort of bidding war. That will leave them looking for a more attainable route in adding much-needed talent at guard. Easton is one of the more intriguing available free agents based on his background. The 26-year-old guard is recovering from a season-ending neck injury. Before suffering that devastating setback, he was one of the few bright spots on a dreadful Vikings’ offensive line.
Easton’s frame and athletic ability makes him an ideal fit for how the coaching staff wants their guards to play. While some alterations are expected with Dirk Koetter, there isn’t going to be a dramatic shift from having a zone-blocking scheme to a more power-based system. Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith are best suited to run behind zone blocking concepts. That makes signing someone like Easton logical. While it’s important to find a guard who fits with the running scheme, they also need someone who can pass block effectively. The former undrafted free agent showed his capabilities in 2017 by allowing only three hits and nine hurries on 401 pass blocking snaps per Pro Football Focus. Easton is the type of player worth taking a one-year flier to see if he can get back to playing at a high level.
Dream Signing: Za’Darius Smith
There are certain “dream signings”’ that almost certainly won’t happen. Whether it’s because of the current roster structure or limited cap space, some players on this list are included because they would simply be the best addition for a position in need of talent. Smith falls into that category. There is no secret that the Falcons are in dire need of another edge rusher. Between Takk McKinley’s troubling inconsistency and Vic Beasley’s inability to evolve, there were large of spells last season where no pressure was being generated off the edges. Investing a long-term contract in Smith is one way to make sure opposing quarterbacks feel less comfortable.
The versatile pass rusher brings a heavy dosage of speed, violence, and power. His knack for being effective off twists could work well alongside Jarrett and McKinley. Although some may be concerned about him being a “one-year wonder”, Smith has shown considerable improvement every season since entering the league in 2015. Pro Football Focus credited him with ten sacks, 17 hits, and 34 hurries. That’s the mark of a consistent edge rusher entering his prime. Most of the top edge rushers are either franchised or (in Trey Flowers’ case) going to receive enormous contract offers. It leaves Smith as the best pass rusher available, who will command plenty of interest but won’t be someone teams will break the bank for.
Mid-Level Signing: Shaquil Barrett
Signing an edge rusher entering their prime that can push Beasley and McKinley should be a major priority this off-season. With the amount of talented edge rushers on the market, there is no reason why the front office can’t take their chances. Barrett’s name emerges amongst a crowd of enigmatic players, who are clearly talented yet haven’t put it all together on the field.
The former undrafted free agent showed flashes of brilliance during his time in Denver. His explosive first step and impressive bend gave opposing tackles fits. As the coaching staff tried to get Shane Ray more involved, Barrett would continuously outplay him. Unfortunately for him, the Broncos couldn’t pass up on Bradley Chubb in last year’s draft. That forced Barrett into a massively reduced role. After playing only 275 snaps, he will be itching to remind teams why he was considered a rising star back in 2016. This is the type of edge rusher the Falcons should look to pursue, as other teams overpay for edge rushers with a bigger profile and former first round pedigree.
Dream Signing: Christian Covington
With Jarrett earning $15.2 million this season, it’s practically impossible for the front office to sign a high-priced defensive tackle. They may still opt to sign another player to add much-needed depth on the interior. Terrell McClain isn’t likely going to be re-signed, while Jack Crawford only has one year left on his contract. To sign a promising player like Covington could greatly benefit a notoriously light defensive line.
The former sixth round pick is coming off the best season of his career. It was difficult for him to garner much recognition on a star-studded defensive line. That didn’t stop him from making a real impact at times during the season. Covington produced a career-high 3.5 sacks to go along with playing a key role for one of the NFL’s top run defenses. Injuries have hindered his career, as he has only played 1,115 snaps over the past four years. Signing Covington is still a risk worth taking based on his ability as a run-stuffer to go along with providing some explosiveness as a pass rusher. Dan Quinn’s heavy rotational system meshes well with his skill set. A one-year “prove it” deal could work for both sides.
Mid-Level Signing: Danny Shelton
Similar to Covington, Shelton is another young defensive tackle that shows great promise in a limited capacity. Unlike Covington, Shelton doesn’t possess the versatility that most coaches want from defensive tackles. The former first round pick is your prototypical nose tackle. Whether it’s being matched up right across the center or slightly shifting into lining up as a one-tech, he is a player built to clog space and stop the run. What makes him such a fascinating talent is how he can still cause havoc at his size. Not many players at 345 pounds can explode into the backfield and disrupt opposing running games quite like him.
Shelton is coming off a strange season in New England. Despite playing 13 games, there were times he was a healthy scratch. Bill Belichick couldn’t get the most out of him, which must concern teams to some extent. If the greatest coach in NFL history can’t get the most out of a former first round pick, what does that say about the player? Shelton is still young and talented enough to warrant a decent payday. Teams will simply need to be wary of his limitations as a pure run stuffer. A team in desperate need of adding size up front could use a mammoth presence like Shelton. The Falcons certainly fit the bill as one of the most undersized defenses in the league.
Dream Signing: Ja’Wuan James
James is another player that can be considered as a dream signing. After re-signing Ty Sambrailo to a surprising long-term deal, it would be shocking to see them make a major investment at right tackle. Ryan Schraeder’s unclear roster status further complicates what the Falcons plans are at right tackle. Regardless of how you view both players, one thing is for certain. Neither player can be considered as a starter you feel comfortable with. That’s what makes right tackle one of the biggest flaws on the roster.
If the Falcons want to make a serious upgrade, James is the best option on the market. The talented right tackle has developed into a reliable starter after enduring some growing pains in his first two seasons. In a league where tackle play is extremely volatile, James’ recent emergence will earn him a well-deserved payday. According to Pro Football Focus, James has only allowed 38 total pressures in 799 pass blocking snaps over the past two seasons. His overall improvement may have gone unnoticed in the media’s eyes, but it certainly won’t be neglected on the market. If the Falcons want an immediate starter who is entering their prime, they don’t have to look further than James.
Mid-Level Signing: Joe Barksdale
If the front office chooses to sign a serviceable right tackle at a relatively low price, Barksdale can be considered as a potential starter. The massive right tackle has floated around the league in recent years. Multiple serious knee injuries affected his play, as the Chargers were forced into cutting ties with him. Barksdale did perform fairly well after signing with Arizona. He was the only bright spot on what many considered to be the worst offensive line in the league.
At 30 years old, he can still be a competent starter in an era where tackle play hasn’t been worse. A training camp battle between Barksdale and Sambrailo could be a good showcase in testing what both players can offer. While both players struggle containing speed rushers, Barksdale is better at using his hands and making combo blocks. It’s yet to be decided how much (or if at all) Koetter will move away from a zone-blocking scheme. A player like Barksdale is more suited to a power-blocking scheme. That doesn’t rule him out of being able to acclimate at this stage of his career. He would also be much cheaper than Schraeder, which is something that must be considered, especially with the current financial limitations.
Dream Signing: Bryce Callahan
It was announced nearly a month ago that Brian Poole was going to hit the open market. The front office decided not to tender him, which many viewed as a surprising move. Poole is known as one of Quinn’s favorites. For all his limitations in man coverage, the slot corner brought a physical edge to the secondary. His terrific awareness was a vital asset in the Falcons’ Cover 3 scheme. With his departure and Isaiah Oliver’s lack of experience, it leaves them with more uncertainty on a defense lacking depth. That makes slot corner a position that could use a difference-maker.
Callahan’s emergence as one of the top slot corners in the league went somewhat unnoticed last season. On a ridiculously talented Bears’ defense, the diminutive slot corner played an integral role in covering the likes of Adam Thielen and Randall Cobb. A season-ending foot fracture won’t prevent teams from pursuing him. It’s hard to find many slot corners that can run step for step with receivers, consistently anticipate routes, and play big for someone listed at five-foot-nine. As much as the Falcons should be interested, the price tag will likely steer them away. Tavon Young recently received a contract extension from Baltimore, which essentially set the market for top slot corners. Unless Quinn is desperate to add more talent in the secondary, Callahan will fall under the category of dream signings not on the Falcons’ radar due to cap constraints.
Mid-Level Signing: Captain Munnerlyn
Given the lack of capable slot corners on the market, the front office may decide to draft a player to compete with Damontae Kazee for the open spot. If they want to prioritize on signing a veteran corner, Munnerlyn is someone who should receive consideration. The long-time Panther was recently released after seeing his role reduced last season. Despite not being the quickest player, he makes up for it with his physicality and awareness. Affecting swift slot receivers coming out of their release is something Munnerlyn does quite well.
From playing in zone-heavy schemes for the majority of his career to being used in a variety of ways, Munnerlyn could be the perfect low-cost solution for Quinn. There is some concern about him turning 31 years old in April. His tendency of getting too grabby and committing cheap penalties will bring unwelcoming flashbacks of Poole. Signing Munnerlyn isn’t exactly a low-risk, mid-reward signing. Compared to other available slot corners who won’t command a hefty salary, he is the best option based on his overall experience and coverage ability. Whether the receiver is a short clever route-runner or massive physical player who specializes in making contested catches, Munnerlyn can hold his own against all types of slot receivers.