After the Deshaun Watson trade either goes through or falls through, after the Falcons address how and why they brought him on or at least tried so hard to, there will be a roster to build. Atlanta came into this offseason with zero proven NFL receivers, a questionable offensive line, and zero specialists under contract on special teams. They then saw Foye Oluokun and Russell Gage sign elsewhere while they cleared cap space and—we know this now—geared up to pursue Watson. That news understandably took over everything else, but the reality is that no matter who is under center for Atlanta in 2022, this is a roster that needs substantial improvement in order for the Falcons to contend.
Quietly, the team got started on that yesterday. They made their biggest free agent signing of the Terry Fontenot era without much fanfare at all, but Casey Hayward is a proven quality starter at cornerback and an upgrade on Fabian Moreau opposite A.J. Terrell. They added a complementary back for Mike Davis and/or a rookie by signing former Chicago Bear Damien Williams. They added a key reserve in the secondary in Teez Tabor, a potential swing tackle candidate in Elijah Wilkinson, and re-signed reserve offensive lineman Colby Gossett and valuable defensive lineman Anthony Rush. They’ve also had visits with free agent wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Tre’Quan Smith, and I’d fully expect at least one of those players to sign in the coming days. They can’t exactly get through free agency without signing multiple receivers unless they’re thinking Olamide Zaccheaus can be a #1 receiver in the NFL.
None of those moves were splashes, though Hayward was the closest thing to one we’ve seen from this team in the past two offseasons. All of them fit neatly with what Terry Fontenot and the front office have said they were going to do and what they did last offseason: Try to find value and plug holes with short-term contracts. The Falcons are still not in a position to be the subject of breathless Adam Schefter tweets on the first day of legal tampering, so this is how they’ll make improvements in 2022. Aside from the big change potentially coming at quarterback, it’s going to be about bringing in a handful of key pieces in free agency for this year and next year, counting on these two rookie classes to be fully mature and ready to contribute by 2023, and setting the team up to be potential world beaters next year when Tom Brady may re-retire and they’ll potentially have well north of $100 million in cap space for the first time in a very, very long time.
It’s also a testament to how influential Ryan Pace is going to be in this Falcons front office, which might give many of you pause given his very up-and-down tenure in Chicago. Wilkinson, Tabor and Williams are all players Pace was involved in bringing to the Bears, and chances are we haven’t seen the last Pace-connected player join the roster. The methodical approach to free agency, which will eventually see the Falcons at least sign somebody to every position of need on the roster, is still the product of Fontenot’s philosophy. It’ll be interesting to see what he does when this team is finally in a position to spend a year from now.
The story of this offseason isn’t written yet for the Falcons, who may also have to be more active in free agency if the compensation get for a Matt Ryan trade doesn’t do a lot to make up for the picks they surrender for Watson. At least until next offseason, though, you should expect Fontenot and company to stick with the theme of patience and value that will still define free agency even if they do make one of the biggest splash trades in franchise history.