Terry Fontenot cut his teeth as a scout with the Saints, spending a decade grinding away before he was promoted to the team’s director of pro scouting in 2013. In the latter role in particular, Fontenot gained a reputation for helping the team find smart signings and bargains from Demario Davis to Latavius Murray, and that track record is part of what got him hired in Atlanta.
The draft classes have been mixed bags to this point for Fontenot’s Atlanta Falcons front office, but the free agent shrewdness has been there, as the team scooped up CFL star Dee Alford, the great Cordarrelle Patterson, and useful bargain basement additions like guard Elijah Wilkinson and punter Bradley Pinion. The big question for Fontenot and company was what would happen when they finally had money to spend.
We’re only seven games into the 2023 season, but the answer is pretty clear: The Falcons crushed free agency and their trade opportunities, putting that money and draft capital to brilliant use to stock the roster with studs and significant contributors. The jury is still very much out on this front office’s drafting abilities as we wait to see how the 2021, 2022, and 2023 classes grow and impact the game for Atlanta, but any doubts about their pro personnel decisions have been decisively put to rest.
Just to recap, they brought aboard:
- Safety Jessie Bates, Pro Football Focus’s top-rated safety through seven weeks and second in the NFL in interceptions;
- Defensive lineman David Onyemata, who is the seventh-rated interior defensive lineman on PFF and has the team lead with 2.5 sacks;
- Cornerback Jeff Okudah, a roll of the dice from Detroit who is back on the field and playing at a high level thus far opposite A.J. Terrell;
- Defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who is tied for second on the team in sacks, has been an invaluable veteran leader and cheerleader for the team, and has contributed significantly as a run defender and snap eater;
- Linebacker Kaden Elliss, who has been a stone solid starter, is tied for the team lead in tackles, and is second on the team in tackles for a loss;
- Edge rusher Bud Dupree, who is second on the team in sacks with two and has been a terrific run defender for stretches;
- Tight end Jonnu Smith, who cost the Falcons little in a trade with the Patriots and is second on the team in receptions, yards, and yards after the catch;
- Wide receiver Mack Hollins, who is fifth on the team in receiving yards and has contributed as a blocker and sideline shouter;
- New addition Van Jefferson, who was acquired for a song to add speed and skill to Atlanta’s pass catching corps and may have a larger impact down the line;
- Newly signed defensive lineman LaCale London, a product of Atlanta’s scrutiny of the XFL and someone who appears to be ticketed for a large role as a defensive reserve after a pair of solid games.
These changes have transformed the defense and added useful pieces on offense, with Jonnu Smith emerging as a particularly useful player. Bates, Onyemata, Okudah, Campbell, Elliss, and Dupree have all been solid-to-massive upgrades on last year’s options at their respective positions, and that along with the decision to import Ryan Nielsen from the Saints has the Falcons playing their best defense in years. That defense, in turn, has essentially won the Falcons multiple games owing to the offense’s early struggles and growing pains, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that without these signings, the Falcons are probably near the basement of the NFC South in 2023.
Atlanta’s 38.9% red zone scoring percentage against is fifth in the NFL, their 19 points per game averaged is ninth in the league, and they boast a top five pressure rate despite the relative lack of sacks thus far. It can’t be overstated how good all of that is—Allen Strk tried to capture it earlier this week—and so much of that success is fueled by players the Falcons added by avenues other than the draft. The team had an interesting core of quality players like A.J. Terrell, Grady Jarrett, Dee Alford, and Richie Grant already, but the additions have lifted this defense to new heights. That’s they’ve done so at exactly the right time, when a talented offense is trying (and, if we’re being honest, not really succeeding) at pulling it all together.
Yet the offensive additions have been positives, too. Mack Hollins appears to be falling down the depth chart a bit, which is fine given that he’s not a high-end WR2, but he has made some tough catches and delivered some big blocks when he’s needed to, and Jonnu Smith has been a dependable, physical weapon for Ridder and the passing game with the exception of a drop and fumble. The jury’s still out on Van Jefferson, who has only been here for two games, but this team has even made its limited dollars and draft capital spent on offense count thus far in 2023.
We’re still waiting for the Falcons to pull it together and play a wire-to-wire great game in all three phases, but it feels like it’s coming. The strength of the starters and potency of the depth added, plus a fairly easy schedule, have combined to give us genuine reasons for optimism. Free agency has fueled this team’s success, and it will continue to do so with the team now sitting on a lead in the NFC South it has no interest in relinquishing.
But we all know that 2023 is supposed to be a contending year but also a bit of a figuring-it-out season, what with Desmond Ridder stepping into the full-time starting job and young players growing into significant roles on both sides of the ball. The good news is that Atlanta’s is currently sitting at over $41 million in 2024 cap space, good for 14th in the NFL, which means they will be able to replace their one-year signings and add more talent over the long haul without missing a beat. With Ridder just entering the third year of his contract next season and Jeff Okudah looming as the only one-year addition who is young enough and good enough to demand a large multi-year deal, it won’t be quite the season of splashes we saw in the spring, but should be enough to bolster an already talented roster.
After the results so far this year, where almost every single signing and trade has delivered, it’s hard not to feel confident about Atlanta’s ability to build and bolster via free agency in the years ahead. Given that they already look to be gaining steam as an NFC contender this year, another high-end free agent class in 2024 may well make this team one of the league’s most formidable.