The Atlanta Falcons 2021 offseason, its first under the new Arthur Smith/Terry Fontenot regime, is just getting started.
This week, the team made a handful of moves, releasing longtime safety Ricardo Allen, veteran defensive end Allen Bailey and developing quarterback Kurt Benkert. These are maybe not major surprises, but reminders that the changes are just starting.
The certainty is change, as it will be in times of transition, so I sat down and thought about some of the moves that might be less likely but would qualify as surprises and could be on the table for a brand new regime.
Stuff like James Carpenter getting released, Keanu Neal being re-signed/walking, Alex Mack joining another team or Darqueze Dennard re-signing wouldn’t be surprising for various reasons. Some of these might make your eyebrows raise a bit, but could be on the table for a regime with no prior commitments.
Releasing DE Dante Fowler Jr. with a post-June 1 designation
Okay, this might not come as such a shock, as Fowler’s first year as a Falcon was one to forget. The pricey 2020 free agent didn’t make much of an impact on the field with injury taking a share of the blame, as he registered just 3 sacks and 23 tackles in 14 games after an 11.5-sack, 58-tackle breakout year with the Rams in 2019.
While it’s certainly possible Dean Pees could set Fowler up as an outside linebacker in his 3-4 defense and see if he could regain his 2019 form, the former Florida pass rusher seems to be a glaring example of an expensive guy who was well-liked by the previous regime but may not stick around for the latter. Fowler and Quinn have always been close, and he’s got virtually no ties to the new guys, who might see the $7.8 million they’d save by cutting him and designating it as a post-June 1 release (per Over the Cap).
Maybe the team could flip him for a late draft pick, a parting of the ways might help both parties. The team would swallow $10 million, but get some needed relief to help pay the rookie class this summer if it wanted to do some substantial spending in the spring and push the cap. It will also help them do some bargain shopping to fill out the roster. It’s possible Fowler returns on a changed deal, but a release is our guess.
Re-signing RB Todd Gurley to a one-year deal
I know, I know, but hear me out.
Gurley, the Georgia great who made his hotly anticipated homecoming last spring, was solid through a half season last fall before tapering out of the offensive lineup. While part of that was likely just the organic decline he’s made since reports surfaced of arthritis in one of his knees, part of that also has to be contributed to poor run blocking and a run-averse scheme run by Dirk “run it on second” Koetter.
Gurley still had nine touchdowns last year and did that in Koetter’s glacial offense. Smith had tremendous success helping Derrick Henry emerge in Tennessee as the game’s premiere running back, and part of that squarely had to do with Smith’s scheme and his ability to open up running lanes for the star RB.
Smith and Fontenot might throw a one-year, prove-it deal Gurley’s way the running back might be enticed to take advantage of as he looks at the back half of his career. If Smith can get Gurley back to double-digits in touchdowns, it could help him carve out a dangerous situational role for him with his days as a lead back likely behind him. The Falcons could draft a running back in the mid-rounds and let he, Gurley and Ito Smith help resurge the Atlanta rushing attack.
Re-signing DE/OLB Charles Harris to a one-year deal
Would the Falcons keep 2020 trade acquisition Charles Harris?
Harris, a 2017 first-round pick who struggled with the Dolphins to live up to his billing, wasn’t half bad for the Falcons in a reserve role last fall. He had as many sacks (3) as Fowler, and recorded 13 tackles.
The former Mizzou pass rusher has the versatility Dean Pees likes as an outside linebacker and a defensive end and might be tailor made to the morphing scheme Pees is bringing to Atlanta.
Harris is the exact kind of guy the cash-strapped Falcons might enjoy having around; he knows the locker room and could play at various spots in the front seven for a minimal cap hit. The team has a lot of space on the roster open, and it might like to keep around a familiar face like Harris who is young and still has room to grow.
You could insert impending free agent Steven Means’ name here, to be fair, but he’ll be 31 in September and Harris will be just 26 when the year gets started. We wouldn’t be as surprised with Means re-signing, either, hence the spirit of the article we go with Harris.
Fielding trade calls for DT Grady Jarrett and LB Deion Jones
Okay, this one would hurt like the dickens and is easily the least likely move on this list. We’ve spent so much time speculating about trade interest in Matt Ryan and Julio Jones—two moves that aren’t happening this year, by the way—but we never looked at the top players on the defensive side of the ball.
Jarrett is a perfect defensive tackle for a 4-3 scheme, make no bones about it, but he’s also one of the best defensive tackles in the league in genera regardless of how Dean Pees lines them up. He’s likely to be a building block for this current team. Trading him would require a massive haul and sure, you’re without your best player on defense, but if this team is hellbent on rebuilding this defense from top-to-bottom, perhaps they’d be willing to move his contract or explore a similar trade for Deion Jones. Debo isn’t quite the foundational player Jarrett is, but is a terrific linebacker and a player many teams would be delighted to get their hands on.
Jarrett could fetch as high as a second round or even a first round pick from a team who views him as the final piece of the puzzle to their roster, though if the Falcons at all want to compete in 2021, this would be inadvisable. Jones could likely command a second round selection in his own right with the right landing spot, with teams like the Jaguars who are sitting on a mountain of cap space and seem itchy to compete already perhaps picking up the phone.
Why would a contending team, which we expect the Falcons to be, make moves like these? If the team’s forays into free agency and best player available approach to the draft
We’ll be back with some March free agency guesses later, but for now, how many of these do you think could come to fruition?