Unbelievably, we’re only five weeks and four games away from the end of the 2022 season. Atlanta’s close to heading into one of the most pivotal offseasons in recent franchise history, one where they’ll finally have money to spend and a chance to significantly upgrade a roster that has essentially been treading water for two years.
Part of the picture—and some of that money—concerns the team’s own impending free agents. The team has a ton of one-year deals expiring, but how many of those players will return to Atlanta? Who has been good enough and important enough to be part of a re-built squad in 2023, and who will be looking for a new home?
We don’t know the answers to those questions yet, but with 13 games down, we can start developing some guesses. Today, let’s look at which players appear to be trending to return, those who feel like true toss-ups and need to have a big impact in the final four weeks, and those who seem unlikely to be Falcons next year.
We’ll check back in on this after the season is over.
Trending to come back
WR Olamide Zaccheaus
The case for Zaccheaus is pretty obvious. Even as a reserve, he had value on special teams, where he was a willing tackler and could fill in as a returner in a pinch. Now that he’s shown he can be a weapon, the Falcons should be interested in bringing him back as their third or fourth receiver even after inevitable upgrades this offseason.
Zaccheaus is third on the team in targets, but he’s second in receptions, first in yardage, and tied for second in touchdown grabs, and has the second-best catch rate of any player with at least 10 targets. Part of this is a function of Zaccheaus getting less defensive attention and having a much better rapport with Marcus Mariota than Drake London or Kyle Pitts, but given that he’s young, should still be relatively affordable, and offers a lot to this offense, he should be back.
FB Keith Smith
Atlanta finally has a ground game worthy of Smith’s talents. The hyper-physical fullback is one of the league’s better blockers at the position and is a significant special teams contributor, and I can’t see Atlanta giving that combination up when they’re starting to put their stamp on the league as a run-first, run-you-over attack. Smith should be back on a new deal.
P Bradley Pinion
A solid punter who is under 30 years old, Pinion is a tick below average in terms of his punting numbers this season, but also handles kickoffs for Atlanta and has been among the more effective players in the league in that regard, with the seventh-best yardage per kickoff average. It’s not hard to imagine the Falcons, who haven’t had continuity at punter since they cut ties with Matt Bosher, getting Pinion back on a relatively affordable two or three year deal.
RB Caleb Huntley
A no-brainer. Huntley has been a tremendous runner this season, routinely powering through contact and producing big plays, and he’s an exclusive rights free agent. That combination of youth, talent, and affordability means he should be back.
LS Liam McCullough
After a little shakiness over the summer and early fall, McCullough has settled in and has by all accounts and eye tests done a new job. Because stability at long snapper is nice to have and the position isn’t a major expense, I’d expect him to be back.
DL Abdullah Anderson
Along with rookie Timothy Horne, Anderson has been a pleasant surprise as a solid-enough player who has a handful of big plays under his belt this year. The veteran shouldn’t be counted on as more than a reserve next year—the Falcons will get Ta’Quon Graham back and should add at least one impact player—but he’s played well enough to stick as a reserve and the Falcons should make sure they bring him back. Anderson is also listed as a restricted free agent by Spotrac, meaning he should have a pretty reasonable contract at the original round tender level.
OL Ryan Neuzil
An exclusive rights free agent the team clearly likes, Neuzil cross-trained at center this past summer and has been called up to the roster as a versatile reserve with injuries piling up. When he has played in preseason he’s looked damn good—albeit against deep backups—and given his affordability and versatility he’ll certainly be back.
CB Isaiah Oliver
I’d think the Falcons would try to get Oliver back, but in his return from injury he has not quite been the same player he was in those heady few games where he dominated on Dean Pees’ defense in 2021. If the team believes that’s partly just because he’s working his way back from a significant injury—a very reasonable belief—getting him back and having him lock down that nickel spot makes a ton of sense. If they think he’s perfectly healthy and they’d like to shop for an upgrade over what they’re getting, he’ll be seeking a new team.
LB Rashaan Evans
Much depends on Troy Andersen’s progress and what the team thinks of Mykal Walker. That would be my presumptive starting duo at inside linebacker in 2023, and Evans shouldn’t lack for suitors as a starter given his solid work against the run this season. If the Falcons aren’t sold on Walker as a long-term starter and don’t think Andersen is ready to run with it, Evans’ familiarity with Dean Pees and experience as a starter this year will likely bring him back.
WR Damiere Byrd
The Falcons figure to add at least one starting-caliber receiver, which is likely to push one 2022 contributor off the roster entirely. That’s before you even add in Frank Darby and Jared Bernhardt, both of whom might have 2023 roles after having very little to do thus far in 2022.
If the team prioritizes speed—or if Marcus Mariota returns as the starting quarterback—Byrd will likely get another look. His production has been inconsistent and he couldn’t get on the field in the early going, but Byrd has been a truly explosive playmaker at times, cashing in a couple of the team’s longest passing plays of the season. Unless the Falcons add a speedy option elsewhere, he’s a legitimate possibility.
WR KhaDarel Hodge
I do think Hodge is more likely to return than Byrd. He’s had a couple of drops along the way, but Hodge plays significant special teams snaps and is quite good, and he’s a lightly-used but fairly reliable short-to-intermediate option as a receiver. The special teams value might carry the day for him, but I don’t think the team brings back both Hodge and Byrd.
OT Kaleb McGary
I really can’t make up my mind here. McGary has been better this season, but has he been good enough to convince the Falcons to hand him a lucrative long-term deal, the kind he’s almost certainly going to get from somebody as a durable starter and reliable run blocker at right tackle? We’ll see if he finishes strong, but I’ll likely be waffling on this one all winter and spring.
OLB Lorenzo Carter
He’s still young, quite capable, and has authored a couple of the biggest plays of the year for the Falcons on defense and special teams. For all that, he hasn’t been as impactful on a week-to-week basis over the past several weeks, has not been a hugely productive pass rusher, and would potentially have to return as a reserve with Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone likely having larger roles and the team potentially (and rightfully) prioritizing the addition of more talent.
Carter could return—he’s a solid player who has done good work this year on balance—but I’m not sure I’m expecting it.
CB Mike Ford
A physical cornerback who can play safety in a pinch, Ford has been one of the team’s core special teamers all year long. The Falcons could look for an upgrade, but as the last man up at multiple positions and with his considerable value for Marquice Williams, I would not be at all surprised to see Ford return in 2023.
OG Elijah Wilkinson
A solid starter who has battled injuries at times this year, Wilkinson has been a very pleasant surprise as the team’s starting left guard this season, and with his previous experience at right tackle and right guard, he would be a quality re-signing either as a starter or as a reserve.
The Falcons are either likely to give Jalen Mayfield real run at left guard again, open the gates for Justin Shaffer to compete with him, or simply go out and get a potential high-end starter at the position, though, so it may come down to whether Wilkinson is willing to return as a reserve or if he can land a starting job elsewhere.
OL Chuma Edoga
Edoga has only one start under his belt, but he fared well in it and showed off some positional versatility when he took over at left guard. Still young, capable of playing tackle, and a player the Falcons scooped up off of waivers, Edoga’s a decent bet to return if the Falcons don’t make big upgrades along the line.
OT Germain Ifedi
If McGary’s gone, Ifedi’s ability to fill in at right tackle or right guard would presumably make him a priority re-signing, given that he could slot in if the draft pick the Falcons would add at right tackle in this scenario faltered or got hurt. If McGary’s back, I’d expect the Falcons to at least consider re-adding Ifedi, but they may well want a developmental option instead.
OG Colby Gossett
Another question mark in a long list of them along the offensive line. Gossett has made three starts this year, holding up reasonably well in one, decently in another, and poorly in the third, and is clearly someone the Falcons feel comfortable (if not thrilled, necessarily) to plug in at guard when they need to. Much will depend on whether the team shops for upgrades.
CB Rashad Fenton
Fenton was brought in at the trade deadline, started one week and played poorly, and has been parked since. It’s possible the Falcons are going to get him acclimated and give him time down the stretch, and given Fenton’s youth they might be interested in bringing him back as a reserve in 2023. At the moment, though, I’m not betting on it.
RB Damien Williams
A victim of bad luck, Williams seemed poised to go into the season with a major role but was injured in the very first game almost immediately, and we haven’t seen him since. The fact that Cordarrelle Patterson is still rolling, Tyler Allgeier has blossomed into an all-around back, and Caleb Huntley is doing terrific work in limited looks suggests there’s probably not a lot of room for Williams.
TE Anthony Firkser
From summer TE2 hopeful to deep reserve, Firkser simply hasn’t had the impact many of us envisioned in this Falcons passing attack. With Kyle Pitts here, MyCole Pruitt and Parker Hesse playing well, and Feleipe Franks and John FitzPatrick as long-term developmental options, there doesn’t figure to be much room for a player who hasn’t gotten many looks even in a passing attack that could certainly use a sure-handed tight end.
TE MyCole Pruitt
Pruitt seems like a stronger bet than Firkser, but much will likely depend on where the Falcons think FitzPatrick is in his development and whether he’s ready to step into a significant role. Hesse is such a vital cog as a blocker that he’s not going anywhere, and with Franks around as a de facto (if frustrating) fourth tight end, it’ll likely come down to Pruitt, FitzPatrick, or a new addition for TE3 duties in 2023. I’m penciling in FitzPatrick, though I’d welcome Pruitt back given how well he’s played to this point.
S Erik Harris
I don’t think the Falcons want to keep the status quo at safety. They somewhat surprisingly shipped off Dean Marlowe, but they’ve played Marlowe and others ahead of Harris at safety at times, and he’ll be 33 years old heading into next season. Considering the Falcons seem likely to try to upgrade on Jaylinn Hawkins as a starter, potentially pushing him into a core special teams and reserve role that he’d presumably fare better at than Harris, I think he’s not likely to return even if he is clearly a Terry Fontenot favorite.
LS Beau Brinkley
Unfortunately for Brinkley, he got hurt and Liam McCullough supplanted him. Given that McCullough has done pretty well and Brinkley is an older player, I imagine he’ll be looking for a new team.
DT Vincent Taylor
He was competing for a roster spot heading into the year, and coming off a major injury with the team looking to upgrade along the defensive line, I can’t imagine he’ll return.
DL Matt Dickerson
The former Chief and Titan was picked up off of waivers, but he’s been behind Horne and Anderson on the depth chart and hasn’t made much of an impact in his chances. I can’t see him coming back ahead of Anderson.
ILB Nick Kwiatkoski
A core special teamer after spending the first few weeks of the season as an inactive, Kwiatkoski would only be back if the Falcons didn’t like Nate Landman or Dorian Etheridge to fill that special teams-heavy, defense-light role. I have to imagine they—or another young player—will take that on, and Kwiatkoski will be elsewhere.