The Falcons are facing a bit of a conundrum this offseason. They have to fill roster spots and fill them with capable players if they want to contend, but they also don’t have a lot of money with which to do so. New general manager Terry Fontenot has a pro personnel background and a reputation for shrewdly diving into free agency and coming away with players who help a team win. He’s going to be challenged to do so again with a team that is in cap heck and simply doesn’t have a ton of players under contract.
Fontenot made it clear yesterday that he knows the road ahead is bumpy and will by necessity require a lot of savvy signings.
“We’re scouts, and we’re going to have to go find players because you can’t just build your roster with overpaid players in free agency or top draft picks,” Fontenot said. “We’ve gotta really dig. We have to dig and find value in free agency and that’s working with the coaches and finding out exactly what they need and going and finding the players they need.”
Atlanta’s comfort level with evaluating pro players and their league-wide ties thanks to new executives and coaches means they’ll cast a wide net and try to take advantage of a tight cap picture league-wide to get bargains in free agency. They simply can’t sit on their hands and wait for the draft, or they’ll be left to sift through the bargain bin post-June and rely heavily on undrafted free agents, which is not a recipe for 2021 success for a team that’s shaky in several spots.
The upshot is that while Atlanta may or may not make the cuts and restructure the deals they would need to in order to take a swing at big name free agents, they’ll be finding bargains in March and beyond to fill needs on this roster. Drawing on Fontenot’s comments, what I think this team needs and their desire to fill those needs in free agency, I put together a quick projection for who Atlanta might bring on board this spring. The list is predictably light on exciting names, but would give Atlanta depth and some potential starters for the year ahead.
Unrestricted free agents
CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson
S Damontae Kazee
S Sharrod Neasman
Restricted free agents
OL Matt Gono
Exclusive rights free agents
TE Jaeden Graham
DL Jacob Tuioti-Mariner
CB Tyler Hall
K Younghoe Koo
Wreh-Wilson is an ideal deep reserve at corner, Neasman offers tremendous special teams value and has been a solid safety when pressed into action, and Kazee is worth re-signing given his ball skills and upside, even though he’ll be recovering from the major injury he suffered in 2020. This at least shores up depth at a few key positions, including a safety group that is just Jaylinn Hawkins and T.J. Green right now.
The restricted and exclusive rights free agents are largely a no-brainer. Gono is good enough to be the team’s swing tackle, and fellow RFA Brandon Powell is not on this list but could be non-tendered and then re-signed if he’s willing to come back. Graham and Tuioti-Mariner and Hall are both affordable and young, meaning they make sense for summer competition at the very least, and Koo is an insane bargain given how great he was a year ago.
This sets up you pretty affordably to go into free agency and do some bargain hunting. Here’s a potential scenario in that vein.
QB C.J. Beathard
RB D’Onta Foreman
WR Jamal Agnew
TE Richard Rodgers
OL Nick Easton
OL Jamil Douglas
We continue with the depth theme. Nick Easton would be the sole “splash” on this side of the ball, and he’d be competing to start on this offensive line, likely at left guard. Beathard is veteran competition for the backup quarterback job with decent athleticism and starting experience, Foreman is an affordable, physical addition to a backfield in need of an early down option, and Agnew would be the early favorite for the returner gigs.
Rodgers would make a fine #2 tight end, as he’s a capable pass catcher and blocker and is familiar to new tight ends coach Justin Peelle. Douglas competes for a backup gig on the interior after spending some time with Arthur Smith in Tennessee.
DL/LB Tyus Bowser
DL Brent Urban
LB/DE Pernell McPhee
LB Will Compton
CB Desmond King
S D.J. Swearinger
The most unrealistic thing about this list, when all is said and done, might be Bowser. He’s a pretty young, capable pass rusher coming off a fine year, which might price him out of Atlanta’s range. Dean Pees knows him, new assistant director of college scouting Dwaune Jones knows him, and he’d be an awesome get for a team starving for pass rush help. McPhee would come over for much the same reason, except more affordably and with considerably less upside.
Urban, who overlapped with Pees in Baltimore as well and offers the ability to play inside and outside, joins up after a solid year with Chicago to round things out, setting the Falcons up with a fairly deep line on paper that will likely be added to via the draft if the board lines up well.
Further back, Compton is someone Smith and Pees know and would be affordable depth for a linebacker group that already has a talented top three. King would have to join up on a deal that was very affordable in the first year to make this work, but would be a nice #2 cornerback addition opposite A.J. Terrell. Swearinger would compete to start at a decimated safety position and would at worst offer an affordable year of depth from a guy Fontenot was likely instrumental in signing for New Orleans last year.
Getting here requires deep cuts and a number of re-structures, and any decent-sized deal (Easton, Bowser, King) would mean the Falcons would have to do deals that have smaller initial year hits. Given the potential issues with financial flexibility going forward, the bigger names here are the things I’m less certain about, but there’s no question Atlanta can’t reasonably expect to contend this year if they can’t come out of free agency with some upgrades.
The task is difficult. Atlanta would like to contend right now, which means cuts to starters like James Carpenter and Tyeler Davison mean players already on the team have to step up or the Falcons need a ready-made replacement. They also would like to not have to max restructure Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones and Jake Matthews because of the impact to the cap in future years, when Atlanta will potentially be better-positioned to make splashier signings happen. The road they’ll likely take is one that sloughs off players Atlanta doesn’t consider absolutely essential in favor of a lot of affordable signings to keep the ball rolling in 2021 and 2022, but it’ll be fascinating to see if they can free up enough space to have this kind of free agency period, or if they’ll end up being heavily reliant on scooping up undrafted gems and potentially trading down to acquire more picks.
What kind of free agency would you put together on a shoestring budget in Terry Fontenot’s shoes?