The Falcons don’t have a defensive coordinator yet, so we’re not quite certain how the team’s safeties will be deployed in 2023. What we do know is that they need to add talent at the position to help Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins out, and the team seems likely to try to replace Hawkins as a starter this coming season.
We know that the Falcons have needs at every level of their defense, but it would be foolish to overlook the need at safety. Richie Grant is locked in as a starter over the long haul, but Hawkins is not and the team has no established depth under contract, with recent Canadian Football League import Jamal Peters providing the most intriguing option in an unproven group. Quality safety play is arguably more important in today’s NFL than it was in the past, and stocking the position well will go a long way toward improving an Atlanta defense that hasn’t been able to get there for a long while.
With that in mind, it’s a good time to look at some impending free agents at the safety position. Bear in mind that this is a list of some of the better safeties available, rather than one tailored to what the Falcons defense wants to do, because we just don’t know that yet.
Jessie Bates III
The name at safety, and the player likely to land the biggest deal of free agency at the safety position. He’s also a potentially game-changing defender the Falcons would love to get.
Bates has steadily improved during his years in the NFL, becoming a reliable open field tackler, capable and tenacious defender in coverage, and big-time playmaker who is coming off a season where he had four interceptions and a forced fumble. He’s heading into his age 26 season, and if the Bengals let him make it to free agency, Bates will plug in as a top starter wherever he goes. It’s difficult not to be intrigued by the idea of Bates and Grant roaming back there for Atlanta.
Poyer is heading into his age 32 season, so you’re not necessarily counting on him as a long-term solution. If the Falcons are trying to open up a contention window in 2023 and 2024 and simply want a proven high-end starter, though, Poyer does loom as an option.
Capable in coverage, very reliable at bringing down ball carriers, and willing and able to produce big plays, Poyer would be a welcome addition if the team thinks they can really make a big push these next couple of years.
He’s coming off one of his quieter seasons in recent memory, but while he’s on the wrong side of 30, Ward remains one of my favorite safeties in the league. He’s just a reliable, solid player who does everything well, and Ward would be a stabilizing force and veteran leader for a young Falcons secondary.
I know, any former Saints cause you to wrinkle your nose. Gardner-Johnson is still pretty young, is a big-time ballhawk, and has played both cornerback and safety. That versatility could be a difference maker for the Falcons, and the ability to create turnovers would certainly help.
A chess piece in Dan Quinn’s Dallas defense, Wilson is having a career year where he has been stingy in coverage, put up five sacks, and has lined up all over the place. Fast and physical (sorry) with a nasty streak, Wilson will probably command a big contract this spring, but given his youth and all-around ability, he’d find a home in Atlanta.
If the Falcons can’t land Bates, Bell is an interesting option. A terrific run defender at safety and a solid enough player in coverage, Bell overlapped with Terry Fontenot when the Falcons’ general manager was in the New Orleans front office, the kind of connection that might prove fruitful. Bell is not the player the Falcons would elect to land if they want an elite coverage option—they’d like go for Bates, Poyer, or Ward in that instance—but if they want to improve the run defense and pay a little less for a solid all-around option, they may well choose Bell.
I really liked the idea of Edmunds landing in Atlanta last year, and nothing that happened this past season dissuaded me from hoping for that this. Still pretty young, Edmunds does a bit of everything well, including rushing the passer.
If the Falcons miss out on Bates and don’t want to take a shot on an older player, I’d be very happy to land Edmunds.
A veteran safety who has been solid in every stop, Amos would push hard for a starting job in Atlanta and would likely get it. He’s just a small step below the other guys on this list, but if the Falcons choose to focus their free agent dollars elsewhere and tackle safety in the second wave of free agency, it’d be tough to argue against signing him.
You have to weigh things carefully with Joyner. After missing all but one game in 2021, he played 14 games this year, but was shaky in coverage and now hasn’t played a full season since 2015. The talent is evident and he’s still capable of putting together quality play as a starter, but you wouldn’t necessarily bet the bank on him doing so.
There are actually quite a few players who fit into this bucket, including a familiar face in Duron Harmon. Most of them can give you a season’s worth of quality snaps as a starter, but would be considered one-year stopgaps for the team until they could get a long-term, high-end option. If Atlanta whiffs on one of their top choices—or if they simply like one of these guys and want to beef up the safety group as much as possible—they’ll certainly have options.
- Devin McCourty
- Tashaun Gipson
- Nick Scott
- Eric Rowe
- Johnathan Abram
- Duron Harmon
- Kareem Jackson
- Marcus Epps
- Rodney MacLeod
- Taylor Rapp
- Ryan Neal
- DeShon Elliott
- Nasir Adderley
Depending on your perspective, this would be fun or a waste of time. Neal has gone from the future in Atlanta to a bit of an afterthought in Dallas and Tampa Bay, but when he was pressed into action this season he held up pretty well. I’d welcome him back.
After starting in 2021, Harris chiefly played special teams for Atlanta, where he was a key cog in a very good unit. Ideally he’s probably your fourth or fifth safety if you can really upgrade the group, but that special teams value and his ability to start in a pinch mean he may well be back in 2023.
- Andrew Wingard
- Justin Evans
- Geno Stone
- Daniel Sorensen
- Karl Joseph
- M.J. Stewart
- J.T. Gray
Who are you signing from this list, and/or who else do you have in mind?