The Falcons have been busy early in free agency, adding four outside players and bringing back several contributors from 2018. Outside of franchise tagging DT Grady Jarrett and extending the contracts of EDGE Steven Means and LB Bruce Carter—two depth players who will be competing for roster spots in 2019—Atlanta made absolutely no outside moves to shore up the defense.
That fact brings up an interesting discussion: just what do the Falcons’ free agent signings tell us about their 2019 plans? It seems clear that this is part of an overall strategy, but what could the team’s overall goals be? To find out, let’s dig a little deeper on their free agent additions and what they might mean for the roster and the 2019 NFL Draft.
Gs James Carpenter and Jamon Brown
One of the biggest needs for the Falcons coming into 2019 was to fix their interior offensive line woes—namely, LG and RG. C Alex Mack is still very good, but he can only do so much when the players on both sides of him are badly outmatched. Most of us expected the Falcons to add a guard either via free agency or the draft, but the Falcons surprised us by adding two guards via free agency. The 321-pound James Carpenter and 340-pound Jamon Brown represent a significant change from the ~300-pound guards that the Falcons preferred under Shanahan and Sarkisian.
Carpenter, 29, is a physical and technically-sound pass blocker that hasn’t been a consistently good run blocker throughout his career. Brown, 26, is a versatile OT-convert that has great size, athleticism, and experience all over the offensive line. The Falcons signed both to multi-year, mid-range starter contracts, which means that the team expects them to win the LG (Carpenter) and RG (Brown) positions in training camp. Both should be clear upgrades over Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer, but 2018 free agent addition Brandon Fusco will likely get an opportunity to compete for his spot once more.
These signings free up a Day 2 pick for the Falcons that many of us expected would be spent on the interior offensive line. That could allow more resources to be spent on the defense early in the draft, or could make it easier for the Falcons to trade up.
TEs Luke Stocker and Logan Paulsen
We thought Atlanta might go after a rookie blocking TE in the 2019 NFL Draft after initially not re-signing Logan Paulsen—and Dimitroff mentioning using their compensatory picks to address the position—but that changed quickly with the addition of not one but two blocking TEs in Paulsen and ex-Titan Luke Stocker. We all know Paulsen as a good blocking TE that can serve as a reliable short-area receiving option, and his leadership and mentoring ability was apparently very valuable in Austin Hooper’s development.
Stocker is a bit more interesting, with experience as both an in-line blocker and a FB. He’s also shown some limited receiving ability, with 15 receptions for 165 yards (11.0 YPR) and 2 TDs in 2018. These signings likely take TE off the Falcons’ draft board, and could also free up an additional roster spot by having Stocker play FB instead of Ricky Ortiz. It’s also worth noting that Atlanta is likely to carry 4 TEs on the roster for the first time since 2016.
RB Kenjon Barner
The Falcons had a serious void at returner after letting Justin Hardy walk in free agency and refusing to pick up Marvin Hall’s ERFA option (which was weird). Dimitroff remarked that returner was a position that they could use one of their compensatory picks to address, and so we naturally thought that’s where the Falcons would choose a replacement. With the addition of Kenjon Barner, it appears that the search for a returner is over.
Barner has never been an overly productive RB, with only 96 career rushing attempts for 388 yards and 3 TD. He’s been a much more interesting returner, however, averaging 7.8 yards per punt return and 23.2 yards per kick return. Barner isn’t a game-changer, but he’s reliable depth and a capable return option. His addition could free up a Day 3 draft pick for the Falcons to address other needs, or possibly include in a trade package.
The Falcons focused on the offense in free agency, freeing up Day 2 and Day 3 draft resources for the defense—or perhaps for a trade-up at some point. The most important signings were clearly at guard, where James Carpenter and Jamon Brown provide substantial upgrades over Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland. The addition of Luke Stocker and the return of Logan Paulsen at TE seem to also signal an emphasis on improving the team’s blocking—especially if Stocker can provide an upgrade over Ricky Ortiz at FB.
It’s unclear if Kenjon Barner is looked at as a potential RB3 as well as the favorite to win the punt/kick returner job. If he is, that also gives the Falcons additional flexibility with their Day 3 draft picks. One thing is clear: with no free agent resources directed towards the defense, Atlanta will be depending on several rookies to make an impact in 2019. Outside of an OT in the first three rounds, I think we can expect the Falcons to go defense-heavy in the 2019 NFL Draft.
To me, these moves signify that Atlanta is planning to package some of their early-Day 3 picks into a trade up. When that trade up will occur is an open question, but my gut is telling me that they plan to either move up from their second pick, or back into the second round. The Falcons need to walk away from the draft with 1-2 DL starters, plus LB, CB, and WR depth.
What are your thoughts on the Falcons’ free agency moves thus far? How do you think they affect the team’s draft plans in 2019? Are there are other free agents you’d like Atlanta to pursue?