The moment you’ve all been waiting for is here: We’re talking about how the Falcons can spend some money to potentially improve their defense. The endless spring drama about Matt Ryan and the draft (he’s here, with no replacement in sight) and Julio Jones and trades (unhappily, he’s gone) has served to overshadow the fact that this still looks like a good offense. Things are far, far less clear for the defense.
So why not add talent with the $8 or so million you’ll have left over after you sign your draft class, you being the Falcons and not you you? This team certainly isn’t a finished product on that side of the ball, with lingering questions over the strength and depth of the defensive line and secondary at minimum.
Here are some of our top free agent targets, based on connections to the coaching staff, talent, and (to a lesser extent) affordability.
DE/OLB Justin Houston
There are multiple reasons to target Houston. The first is that he can still get the job done, as he’s coming off an 8 sack, 1 forced fumble, 2 safety season that saw him finish among Indy’s most productive pass rushers. The second is that Atlanta simply doesn’t have any proven pass rushers who produce like Houston, and he should be able to pass on some very useful tips for young players like Ade Ogundeji, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, and others. The third is that we’re still mad that Atlanta’s trade for Julio Jones, while the right move in so many ways, gave them no real shot of landing Houston back in 2011.
The only reason to bet against it is that coming off a productive season, Houston won’t necessarily be cheap, and the Falcons might have to get creative or go with a multi-year deal for a soon-to-be 33-year-old pass rusher to get the job done. If the financials work out, though, Houston’s a no-brainer addition.
Other candidates: Bruce Irvin, Melvin Ingram, Trent Murphy, the immortal Adrian Clayborn
CB Steven Nelson
It’s not very often that you see an in-his-prime player released after a quality season, but the Steelers did just that with Nelson, who has yet to find a new home. A durable cornerback who would slot in opposite A.J. Terrell and figure to be an upgrade on the Fabian Moreau/Isaiah Oliver/Kendall Sheffield battle we’re expecting at that spot, Nelson is not coming off the finest season of his career but is still very evidently a good player who is extremely capable in coverage. If his market continues to mysteriously be quiet, the Falcons might make a push for a player who would improve one of the shakier spots on the defense, at least on paper.
How expensive will Nelson be? That’s a big question for Atlanta, as it is with Houston and others on this list. If he’s looking for a one year deal to help him launch into a larger, more lucrative contract in 2022 when the cap rises, perhaps the Falcons can get that done.
Other candidates: Bashaud Breeland
If the Falcons want a candidate for nickel cornerback to push Isaiah Oliver and Darren Hall instead, they’d be wise to sign...
CB Brian Poole
I don’t think I need to introduce Poole, one of the true success stories of the Dan Quinn era. The former undrafted free agent out of Florida proved to be a physical, tenacious defender for the Falcons before moving on to the Jets, where he was...also a physical, tenacious defender. His sure tackling, quality coverage and ability to blitz effectively made him a fan favorite here, and Falcons fans would welcome him back with open arms.
It’s sort of surprising he’s still available, frankly, given that he’s a proven commodity as a capable starter at the position. The only major question is whether the Falcons are interested in upgrading their nickel situation for 2021
Other candidates: Daryl Worley,
S Malik Hooker
The Falcons are guaranteed to have some trouble in the secondary and more specifically at safety, as it’s tough to turn over an entire position group and have everything go smoothly. Fontenot drafted Richie Grant in round 2 but missed his chance at adding another starting safety, so the Falcons will be leaning on Duron Harmon and Erik Harris heavily as it stands today.
They might be fine with that, but Hooker was a top-15 safety in terms of talent, but his flashy play has been sidelined by injures. He is exactly the sort of high risk, high reward player Fontenot should swing at in this point of the offseason.
Other candidates: Tre Boston, Kenny Vaccaro
DT Sheldon Richardson
There is one position on defense the team does not need help with: the interior defensive line. Dan Pees is confident he can run a lot of different fronts, and the Falcons may be in a decent spot outside of the EDGE. Surely, someone like John Cominsky, Marlon Davidson, Tyeler Davison or Ta’Quon Graham can step up to give Grady Jarrett some help. The Falcons could still use some juice. The available EDGE players, after Houston, are... limited. Maybe the Falcons could get some additional pass rush from a big body like Richardson.
Other candidates: P.J. Hall, Jurrell Casey, and only because it would be fun, Geno Atkins.
Who would you like to see the Falcons sign on the defensive side of the ball?