One of the most exciting periods of the NFL off-season is approaching. While the Falcons have been mostly outsiders in the big-spending free agent frenzy in recent years, the front office will be hard at work looking to make the necessary personnel upgrades across the board.
Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith have told us they will be value shoppers in free agency. The hope is that it won’t be as bleak as last year when the majority of the moves were one-year deals to journeymen and aging veterans. They can’t simply bank on a magical breakout year from a 30-year-old player like Cordarrelle Patterson, even though they’re sure to look for similar breakout candidates.
From 2015 to 2019, I put together a free agency wishlist for the Falcons. The only player to be signed from a specific wishlist was Derrick Shelby in 2016. This free agency wishlist edition is going to be different from past editions.
Instead of highlighting a dream signing at a position of need, it’s best to be realistic and highlight two legitimate signings. The Falcons can’t afford to sign a rising star like Michael Gallup or Carlton Davis. Given the cap constraints, let’s focus on ten players at five different positions that can make a sensible difference on the Falcons.
After suffering a season-ending fractured ankle injury in Week 4, teams could be cautious of offering a long-term deal to Chark. His body of work only features one impressive season in 2019. That doesn’t take away from how intriguing of a player he is. The Jaguars’ instability held him back from truly flourishing as a wide receiver. A big-framed vertical threat who has blistering deep speed and explosiveness to make players after the catch should be averaging over 1,000 yards per season, and that’s the upside Chark possesses.
The Falcons desperately need a consistent deep threat, as Olamide Zaccheaus couldn’t be that player once Calvin Ridley stepped away from the sport. Chark could be a huge difference-maker with his ability to make plays downfield. For all the struggles in 2020, he still finished fifth in most air yards in the league. With the right quarterback and infrastructure, Clark has all the capabilities to be a top-tier wide receiver.
When it comes to one-year gambles, there aren’t many players more worth the risk than Fuller. His ability to take the top of defenses makes him the modern-day DeSean Jackson, albeit without the production. The biggest issue for Fuller used to be his infuriating tendency of dropping passes and wasting big-play opportunities. His inability to stay on the field has surpassed that.
For all his issues, the dynamic playmaker will attract plenty of attention, particularly from teams in dire need of a deep threat. Not being able to stretch defenses was one of the biggest reasons behind the Falcons’ offense inefficiency. Matt Ryan’s deep ball accuracy and arm strength have clearly declined in recent years. He still needs the resources to have an opportunity to produce big plays. Fuller would be worth the gamble if Chark signs for more money elsewhere, because the upside he offers is tantalizing.
There is no way the Falcons can go into the season with Jalen Mayfield as the default starter at left guard. Whether it’s signing a starting-caliber guard in free agency or using another high-draft pick on an offensive lineman in the draft, they can’t be complacent in addressing a problematic area of the roster. It’s either signing a player to replace Mayfield or bringing in competition to push him (and likely replace him). Williams would represent an immediate replacement.
The former second-round pick’s effectiveness as a run blocker will intrigue Smith, especially considering how much he wants to run the ball and how shaky that effort was a year ago. What will concern outside viewers was how Williams got torn apart in pass protection in nationally-televised games. It seemed like when Dallas faltered offensively, Williams would be on the turf or in Dak Prescott’s lap. He’s still nowhere near the liability Mayfield is. Williams is a terrific run blocking guard and still developing as an overall player entering his prime, and he could take another step forward in Atlanta.
It was not too long ago when Norwell was the highest-paid guard in the league. In typical Jacksonville fashion, they didn’t waste time in signing him to a lucrative deal to help solidify their offensive line. Norwell hasn’t quite met expectations, much like most of the players Jacksonville has signed or drafted in the past four years.
He is still a solid starter who can provide much-needed stability. The left guard position has been a significant weakness since 2018. If the front office wants to focus more on pass protection than run blocking, Norwell would be the left guard to sign. Ryan would be looking less like this if the front office signed the veteran guard.
Signing a free agent pass rusher is incredibly difficult when your ability to spend is limited. Bringing aboard a player like Harold Landry is practically impossible, given Landry’s huge season and the demand for productive edge rushers. The Falcons have no choice but to assess the second-tier of pass rushers.
Barnett isn’t exactly a glamorous name. It’s evident that he wore out his welcome in Philadelphia with his careless penalties and lack of discipline against the run. The pass-rushing production wasn’t increasing either.
That said, Barnett can still make an impact with his power and bend off the edge. The former first-round pick is accustomed to playing a ton of snaps, never letting up against opposing left tackles, and playing with the nastiness that the Falcons sorely lack defensively. Signing Barnett would be the start towards building a competent defensive line, and he’d be a considerable upgrade over what the team had last year.
San Francisco is known for being able to bring the best out of pass rushers. That’s what made Key’s resurgence unsurprising.
Talent was never a question for him. It was a matter of being in the right place and maximizing his opportunities. DeMeco Ryans did a fantastic job of utilizing Key as a rotational pass rusher in different spots, allowing him to rush inside and explode past guards in a way that made the ferocious 49ers’ pass rush even more dangerous.
Although Key only has one year of production, teams will be intrigued when watching his tape as an edge and interior pass rusher from last season. The burst, get-off, and sheer violent hand usage make him a pass rusher worth signing. With the front office known for offering one-year deals, they should take a chance on Key to see if he can replicate what he did in 2021.
Interior Defensive Lineman
As frustrating as the insipid pass rush has been, the Falcons have also struggled mightily at stopping the run. Tyeler Davison’s performance level has rapidly declined over the past two seasons. The glimpses of promise shown by Anthony Rush and Ta’Quon Graham aren’t enough to feel secure about the defense’s ability to win upfront in the trenches. There should be a real shot of initiative in the direction of adding a true commanding force inside.
Fatukasi is the type of player entering his prime that the front office should look to pursue. The unheralded defensive tackle has been disrupting running games in silence on terrible Jet teams. By tying for third in defensive tackle run stop win rate per ESPN, Fatukasi consistently overpowers interior offensive linemen and gets into the backfield. Adding a presence like this could help Grady Jarrett rebound from the previous disappointing season.
Joseph-Day is another young run-stopping option who can overwhelm offensive lines and free up space around him. Before tearing his pectoral in November, he was growing into one of the unsung heroes on those notable Rams’ defenses. Joseph-Day produced a tackle on 26.3% of his snaps against the run in 2021, per The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia.
Doing the dirty work and eating up space is something he’s fully embraced on a star-studded defensive line. To have more freedom on a defense line with one star and mostly unknowns would present more opportunities to make his presence felt.
Unlike Fatukasi, the former sixth-round pick can collapse the pocket and help edge rushers clean up the chaos. There are usually a few underappreciated gems that hit the open market. Joseph-Day is one of those players. After missing the Rams’ Super Bowl run, he will have even more incentive to prove his value no matter where he lands.
When a young player continuously improves every season, you have to be salivating if the player hits the open market. Ward has made impressive strides with his sticky man-coverage and consistent open-field tackling. Despite going undrafted and being considered replaceable, Ward has surpassed expectations and rose up to the challenges in front of him.
Covering the opposing team’s best wide receiver gives him ample experience to handle the responsibilities of lining up opposite A.J. Terrell. While Ward is strictly an outside corner, he is a player that would immediately make the Falcons more solid and imposing on the back end. According to Pro Football Focus, Ward was the most improved player on the Chiefs last season. Being improved player on a Super Bowl-caliber team speaks volumes of how much he’s blossomed, and he’d offer the Falcons an upgrade opposite Terrell.
If the Falcons decide to pursue a slot corner over a pure outside corner in free agency, Callahan would be the best option. With Vic Fangio losing his job in Denver, the savvy nickel corner will likely be heading elsewhere. Callahan is as smooth and disciplined as it gets. His fluidity and ball skills give slot wide receivers fits. How he never gets penalized (none since 2018) makes him incredibly efficient.
The only real concern about him is his durability. His inability to stay healthy left a lasting mark on Denver’s talented yet underachieving defense. Similar to Fuller, it would be risky to bring in an injury-prone player. The reward is too great to disregard. If Pees wants Smith and Fontenot to focus on bringing in a nickel corner to improve his defense, Callahan is the player to sign.