Unlike Kyle Smith and Dwaune Jones, who joined the Falcons in top personnel-facing roles from Washington and Baltimore respectively, Chris Olsen isn’t necessarily coming in with hand-picked favorite players from his days in Houston that he’ll be stumping for. Olsen’s role in Houston was similar to his new role in Atlanta, in that he’ll chiefly be keeping an eye on the salary cap and managing contract negotiations alongside Terry Fontenot.
That doesn’t mean that Olsen won’t have a few suggestions in mind for worthwhile free agent additions while the Falcons are sniffing around, however. The talent hitting the market from Houston is not as robust as it is from Baltimore, which is loaded with intriguing pass rushing options, or even Washington, where a few interesting defenders may shake loose. If Atlanta’s looking to add depth at a few key positions, though, the Texans are set to offer up some options.
If you’re looking for upside at a potentially affordable price, Conley has to at least pique your interest. The soon-to-be 26-year-old cornerback missed the entire 2020 season as he rehabilitated from an ankle injury, but in 2018 and 2019 he was a solid player who was particularly effective in man coverage. He offers solid size for the position (he’s listed as one inch shorter and 5 pounds lighter than A.J. Terrell) and is quick and fluid in coverage, even if he’s not always as physical as you’d like. Given that he’ll only be 26 in 2021, a good coaching staff can likely get more out of him than we’ve seen to this point.
Atlanta doesn’t have a lot of proven, locked-in options at the cornerback position, as we’ve said repeatedly, and adding someone like Conley to the mix to compete for a starting job with the likes of Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield could bear fruit for them. If he’s fully healthy, Atlanta should at least pick up the phone and see what he’s looking for.
Houston’s 2020 Walter Payton Man of the Year winner has started 33 games in his career at safety but only was able to suit up for 9 games last year due to a season-ending injury. If and when he’s healthy, Thomas offers veteran leadership, a history of durability and quality special teams play (before 2020, the last time he played under 60% of the special teams snaps in a given year was 2014) and is a solid reserve safety. Given Atlanta’s lack of depth at the position and likely desire to give new special teams coordinator Marquice Williams useful players, Thomas could be a good fit for the Falcons.
The Falcons have little in the way of depth under contract along their offensive line, something they’ll be able to solve with a combination of draft picks, bringing back Matt Gono, and potentially sniffing around affordable free agents. Johnson could fit the bill here.
The 25-year-old started three games and played 3/4ths of another for the Texans last year and fared pretty well, allowing just one sack and earning a solid 64.5 grade from Pro Football Focus. The former Browns draft pick is a good athlete who would slot in well as a reserve with a little upside for Atlanta, as he’s had some experience in the NFL at both guard and tackle.
A pure flier, Hargreaves has been a bust since joining the Buccaneers as the 11th overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft. Still just 25 years old, Hargreaves has the athleticism and aggressiveness to be a useful player, but rarely picks passes, misses his fair share of tackles, and has his misadventures in coverage.
Having washed out with the Bucs and possibly the Texans this offseason, he’d be an addition only if you felt you had a coaching staff that could get him back on track and take advantage of his potential. The Falcons, who have built an experienced staff and don’t have a ton of depth at cornerback, could be one team looking to kick the tires on a deal light on guarantees and heavy on incentives.
Of course, the team could just go with solid veteran depth at cornerback personified. Gaines has filled in to start a couple of games in every year of his career dating back to joining Kansas City in 2014 and gives you decent coverage and underrated tackling, as well as an ability to fill in on special teams in a pinch. The Falcons need to fill out the back end of their roster with draft picks and players like Gaines, and he might be worth keeping an eye on for the team’s fifth cornerback if Atlanta doesn’t elect to re-sign Blidi Wreh-Wilson.
As I said, this isn’t the most inspiring list, but Conley could be worth adding to the competition at cornerback and Thomas, Johnson and Gaines could all be fits as reserves. Who else would you add to this list, bearing in mind that J.J. Watt was released and thus does not count as a Texans free agent?