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Breaking down the depth chart implications of the first wave of Falcons free agent signings

Atlanta’s got a couple of surefire starters and a bunch of key reserves thus far.

Las Vegas Raiders v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The Falcons aren’t sitting on a ton of cap space at the moment, and the first wave of free agent signings has come and gone for Atlanta. They still have major outstanding needs—we’ll get to those in the next couple of days—but they also filled a few pressing ones with a mix of budget signings and a couple of legitimate starters they didn’t bring aboard a year ago.

What are the depth chart implications of those additions? We’ll focus on the new additions to the roster today as opposed to re-signings, though we’ll have occasion to mention more than a few of those here.

Marcus Mariota: Starting quarterback

The Falcons brought Mariota on to start, at least initially. Arthur Smith spent years with him in Tennessee, and while he ultimately benched him for Ryan Tannehill, he spoke about his professionalism and talent earlier this week. From a familiarity and fit perspective, the Mariota signing made a ton of sense, especially because he’s on what is essentially a one-year deal.

I can’t imagine a scenario in which the Falcons go into the year preferring to start their rookie quarterback—and yes, I am predicting they’ll draft one—over Mariota. Whether he holds on to the job for all 17 games or just a handful, he’ll go into the year as the starter.

Damien Williams: Third-string running back

Depending on whether Cordarrelle Patterson ends up taking on a larger role in the receiving corps or primarily playing running back, Williams could have a somewhat significant role or may be limited to a handful of touches per game. Either way, he’ll be listed as the third back on the depth chart, I’d wager.

Williams rounds out the depth chart with good hands, underrated speed and a well-rounded game that makes him perfectly capable of stepping in to carry a larger workload if Mike Davis falters or Patterson is lined up more frequently at receiver.

KhaDarel Hodge: Reserve wide receiver/special teams contributor

Maybe there’s some grand plan for Hodge at receiver that will reveal itself over time, but I’m not betting on it. Instead, I expect Hodge to slot in as the fourth or fifth receiver this upcoming season, with a larger role on special teams.

Simply put, the top two receivers on this depth chart aren’t on the roster yet, with Olamide Zaccheaus, Frank Darby and Hodge competing for roles behind them. If Darby is going to step into a greatly expanded role—and I’d count on that—I would expect Hodge to take a lot of his work on special teams, as he’s an experienced gunner on kick and punt returns and occupied that role for the Lions last year. He’ll reel in 10-20 catches as a part-time on offense unless injury strikes.

Elijah Wilkinson: Potential swing tackle

If Germain Ifedi ends up signing, it complicates Wilkinson’s role. If not, I’d expect Wilkinson to compete for the swing tackle gig behind Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary, potentially with a rookie.

His starting experience at both guard and tackle makes it possible that he’ll be called upon to play multiple positions as needed in 2022, but the Falcons did bring back Colby Gossett and have Drew Dalman available as well, in addition to promising 2021 undrafted free agent Ryan Neuzil. Barring some significant personnel changes, Wilkinson will probably primarily stick to tackle, and we’ll hope he can at least be as good as Jason Spriggs if he has to get into any games.

Lorenzo Carter: Starting outside linebacker

There will be draft picks invested here, but I’d expect Carter to take on a major role because the Falcons clearly bid up to grab him and he’s a young pass rusher with potential. The Falcons have been lacking those for a long, long time.

The key for Atlanta and Carter will be achieving consistency. Carter has real talent but has just 14.5 career sacks, with 5 of those coming in the final four games of the 2021 season. If he can I expect Dean Pees to ride the hot hand, but regardless Carter should be expected to be one of a handful of major players here, alongside Adetokunbo Ogundeji and a rookie.

Casey Hayward: Starter opposite A.J. Terrell

This is the signing nearly every fan is most excited about, and with good reason. When I put together my list of potential free agent targets at cornerback, I put him in the high-level starter list with this note:

Hayward technically belongs on the stopgap starter list—you’re probably not signing him to a long-term deal—but he’s good enough to make him worthy of pursuit.

Hayward’s age and his occasional issues with missed tackles are the only reasons to have qualms about him, as he remains very good in coverage and figures to form one of the league’s stingiest starting duos with A.J. Terrell. At least for 2022—and hopefully for 2023 as well—Hayward will be the strongest #2 cornerback the Falcons have trotted out since Robert Alford’s best years, and is an addition worth celebrating.

Teez Tabor: Reserve safety/cornerback

There was some mild buzz around Tabor when he first signed, and his draft pedigree has caused more than one team to fall in love with him thus far in his brief NFL career. In Atlanta, though, Tabor is likely to slot in as a fourth safety/deep reserve option at cornerback, as well as featuring heavily on special teams. It will take an injury to pry the window open for him to have a major role on this defense, but his versatility alone makes him a nice addition here.

We’ll see who the Falcons bring in next, but they snagged a couple of surefire starters and a handful of useful reserves thus far. Who are you hoping to see in Atlanta in the coming weeks?