With the Atlanta Falcons hiring Saints defensive assistant Ryan Nielsen as the new defensive coordinator, it’s fair to wonder what players he might bring with him.
After all, a new coaching hire is usually the starting point for connecting dots for players who fit the new system. Nielsen will undoubtedly want to bring along a handful of players who he has familiarity with, which would be buffeted by Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot’s New Orleans ties.
With the Falcons set to have one of the highest open cap numbers in the NFL this spring, it’s going to be easier for them to sign some of Nielsen’s better players in New Orleans. With the Saints struggling in the cap space department (sound familiar?), they might not be able to retain some of their defensive linemen that Nielsen coached.
Which players would make sense for the Falcons to sign to help the new defensive coordinator feel more at home? Let’s take a look.
DE Marcus Davenport
The most likely player to join Nielsen also happens to be one of the top defensive free agents available.
Davenport only had a half sack this past season, but he’s known for getting pressures when healthy and had nine sacks in 2021. The fact that he’s coming off the weakest season of his career and New Orleans fans seem eager to part with him suggests that he’ll leave the Saints like his former coach. With the links to Nielsen and Fontenot, he’s a very likely target for this regime. He’s only 26 and has plenty of room to grow.
Two things could be prohibitive, unfortunately. Davenport hasn’t played a fully healthy season in his five-year NFL career, and Spotrac estimates that he’ll command an average salary of $23.2 million a season. That’s a lot of cheddar for a guy you can’t necessarily count on for an entire season. However, the Falcons need all the pass rushing help they can get.
The team might bite its tongue and pay Davenport what he’s owed to get what he can give them: high-upside pass rush ability from a player young enough to deliver for several years.
DT Shy Tuttle
The Falcons need more of a run-stuffing defensive tackle that can play in the middle of their line. While Nielsen will undoubtedly incorporate more 4-3 looks as he did in New Orleans, Tuttle is the versatile type of player the Falcons tend to covet.
Tuttle earns his living playing against the run, but he can provide some pass rushing help. He had three sacks last season, which could be enticing given how hard the Falcons have found it to get that production on the interior. He can play nose tackle alongside two defensive ends, which the Falcons could use help with after cutting Anthony Rush midseason last fall.
Only 27, he adds to the younger profile the team tends to look for historically in the Arthur Smith/Fontenot regime, and would be a solid rotational piece at worst.
DT David Onyemata
A feisty defensive tackle who has certainly given Atlanta problems over the years, Onyemata could pair with defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and give the Falcons a heck of a one-two punch in the interior of the defensive line.
He had five sacks to go along with 25 tackles last season and has played an integral part in the Saints’ defensive line rotation since entering the league in 2016. While he’s 30, the team might be greatly enticed to throw a multi-year deal his way for what he’s been able to accomplish in New Orleans and what he could offer Atlanta as a ferocious presence on the interior.
OLB Kaden Elliss
Elliss had a breakout season last fall for the Saints, notching seven sacks playing on the outside at linebacker.
He’s the kind of player with tons of upside that you might not need to break the bank for, and he’s got the versatility in coverage that could help, too. He had two pass breakups last season and 78 tackles.
If Elliss can add some competence to the linebacker group and chip in to the pass rush, he’d be a major boost to what the Falcons need. The Nielsen/Fontenot connection can only help here, and if we’re skeptical Elliss will offer seven sacks again, he could be very useful.
DEs Kentavius Street/Tanoh Kpassagnon
After spending three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Street signed with New Orleans last season and played a valuable role as a rotational defensive lineman.
He gave the Saints 3.5 sacks and 29 tackles and could be a low-key/high-reward depth signing that follows Nielsen to Atlanta after blossoming under the coach’s watch.
As for Kpassagnon, he’s been a Saint for the past two seasons and has given New Orleans 6 sacks and 26 tackles in that timespan. He’s a reliable veteran who would know the system pretty well and has high familiarity with Nielsen.
It feels like one of these guys will likely sign with the Falcons, given their affordability and familiarity with the new scheme. I would tend to doubt they’d sign both.
DE Cameron Jordan
Jordan is not a free agent and is, well, one of the Falcons’ true archenemies. However, Over the Cap estimates he could save the Saints nearly $15 million dollars if cut post-June 1.
Would Jordan, undoubtedly one of the better defensive ends of his generation, actually follow Nielsen to Atlanta if he’s released? Would he be able to live with himself wearing a Falcons jersey? Well, money talks, and Jordan spoke highly of Nielsen after the Falcons hired him. The issue is whether Jordan will continue to be the fearsome presence he has been as he ages, but on a short-term he still might have more to offer.
Falcons fans might be bewildered at the idea of a longtime rival like Jordan playing in Atlanta, but anything is possible.
It’s hard not to hold your nose thinking about all these former Saints joining the Falcons, but good players are good players, and poaching useful ones from our favorite team’s biggest rival seems enticing. Who would you hope the Falcons sign?