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A quick look ahead at a pivotal 2024 Falcons offseason

Here’s what we’ll be thinking about in a few short weeks.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons are playing out the string. Yes, they could win two or three games and make the playoffs, especially after the Saints were embarrassed by the Rams on Thursday Night Football in Week 16. No, I don’t think that’s particularly likely, and their fortunes the rest of the way are secondary to what they can and will do to fix an underachieving, frustrating team.

Given that, this seems like a logical time to take a brief look at what’s ahead this offseason for the Falcons. Let’s do so now.

Cap space

The Falcons currently are set to have $37 million in cap space, which is good for 19th in the league and will give them enough room to sign a major name and fill out the roster. There are avenues to clear more space, should they want to.

The likeliest is probably cutting Taylor Heinicke. The veteran quarterback doesn’t figure to be in the team’s plans as their 2024 backup—I’m expecting that to be Desmond Ridder—and the Falcons save $7 million with just $2 million in dead money to move on. I view that as a virtual lock.

They can save a further $6.5 million by cutting Jonnu Smith, and his fate may depend on whether Arthur Smith is still here in 2024. Extending or restructuring that deal is likely a must if Smith returns, given that he has been valuable for Atlanta this year, but if Arthur Smith is gone, he may no longer fit what the new coaching staff wants. Those two moves alone would get the Falcons close to $50 million, and there’s another no-brainer transaction in cutting cornerback Mike Hughes that will save them $3.2 million.

If they want even more space, moving on from Lorenzo Carter gets them $3.75 million, though Carter is a very useful reserve. DeAngelo Malone and Ade Ogundeji, who don’t appear to be fits for what Ryan Nielsen wants on defense, could both be cut for just shy of a million each. It’s likely the Falcons will make at least a handful of these moves to ensure they can be active in free agency again, given how well Terry Fontenot and company did last year and given that so many defenders were on one-year deals.

One move that is possible but I can’t see the team doing is cutting Grady Jarrett, who is coming off a major injury. That would save the team close to $12 million; I can see them instead attempting to re-work the deal if they want to free up money. That should be an option of last resort, both because Jarrett is the heart and soul of this team and because he can still play at a high level.

Free agents

Here’s the quick list, with players I expect them to re-sign bolded.

  • QB Logan Woodside
  • QB/TE Feleipe Franks, RFA
  • RB Cordarrelle Patterson
  • FB Keith Smith
  • WR Van Jefferson
  • WR Scotty Miller
  • WR Mack Hollins
  • WR KhaDarel Hodge
  • TE MyCole Pruitt
  • OL Ethan Greenidge, RFA
  • OL Matt Hennessy
  • OL Ryan Neuzil, ERFA
  • DL Calais Campbell
  • DT Albert Huggins, RFA
  • DL Joe Gaziano
  • DL Kentavius Street
  • EDGE Bud Dupree
  • ILB Nate Landman, ERFA
  • CB Jeff Okudah
  • CB Tre Flowers
  • LS Liam McCullough, ERFA

There are only a couple of major priorities here. Landman is one, but he’s an exclusive rights free agent and will be extremely affordable as a result. The team needs to make a call on Calais Campbell—if he wants to come back, I’d love to have him—and Jeff Okudah. The former would presumably return as more of a reserve, given the building I expect this team to do along the defensive line, while Okudah has mostly played well this year but appears to be in danger of being passed permanently by Clark Phillips over the final few games. I expect the team to prioritize a new deal for A.J. Terrell and roll with Terrell, Phillips, Dee Alford, the versatile Flowers, and a draft pick or free agent signing, but I’d welcome Okudah back.

Otherwise, there are nice-to-have players but not must-haves. Expect the wide receiver corps to be almost entirely rebuilt outside of Drake London, with Hodge returning if Arthur Smith does owing to his special teams value and utility on offense.

Draft picks

  • Round 1
  • Round 2
  • Round 3
  • Round 3 from Jaguars, Calvin Ridley trade
  • Round 4
  • Round 5
  • Round 6

The team’s third from the Jaguars will escalate to a second if the Jaguars sign Ridley to a long-term deal this offseason. That’s not a guarantee at the moment, given Ridley’s up-and-down season and the way that Jacksonville offense is scuffling. Still, the Falcons have an additional day two pick to work with.

This is a solid set of picks, and I will say the team’s draft this past spring was stronger top to bottom than their previous two. The long-term questions about whether Bijan Robinson was the right selection given the team’s needs will linger for a long time, but Matthew Bergeron is well on his way to becoming a quality starting left guard, Zach Harrison is turning the corner as a useful member of the defensive front, and DeMarcco Hellams and Clark Phillips look like potential long-term starters in the secondary. Only seventh rounder Jovaughn Gwyn is getting the mothball treatment year one, and he may still prove to be a useful reserve on the interior of the offensive line.

The Falcons may need to package some of these picks to move up, however, because...

Roster needs

...Atlanta badly needs a quarterback.

My working expectation is that Atlanta will land one in the draft, though you can’t rule out Ryan Tannehill being added as Smith’s security blanket or Kirk Cousins as the team’s short-term savior. Any list of Falcons needs has to start with the position, given that not addressing it will likely result in another disappointing season in 2024.

From there, the pass rush is at the top of the list and must be addressed with impact picks or signings, both at EDGE and along the defensive interior. This team badly needs to rebuild their receiving corps to add more speed and skill and have to essentially start from scratch outside of London, and from there, I’d expect them to target another starting safety if they don’t think Hellams is the guy long-term, and then their depth needs are significant more or less across the roster.

Get quarterback right and add to the pass rush while upgrading receiver, though, and you’re already in pretty good shape for next year.

Major questions

The first is whether Arthur Smith will even be the head coach here. Terry Fontenot’s New Orleans ties and Ryan Nielsen’s strong work in year one may keep him in Atlanta even with a new coaching staff, but if Smith goes that’s not a guarantee and everyone else except maybe special teams coordinator Marquice Williams will also be gone. If Arthur Blank pushes down the plunger on that particular stick of dynamite, the new coach will get to start with a likely franchise quarterback addition, three compelling weapons in Kyle Pitts, Bijan Robinson, and Drake London, and a pretty good offensive line. There are worse situations to step into, especially if you can coax Nielsen to stay.

Every other question is secondary to that one, but most of them concern whether the team can address the major roster needs I listed above. The team also has to decide if they’re picking up Pitts fifth-year option and determine if they’ll let Terrell play out his without a new deal.

Overall, though, there’s a pretty solid foundation in Atlanta, with the contours of a good defense (minus needed help for the pass rush) and the bare bones of a good offense. The problem is that with the uncertainty around the coaching staff and the major question at quarterback, this is a team that has chaos and shakiness to grapple with at critically important spots. Getting those right will be the difference between 2024 being the breakout season 2023 should have been and Atlanta’s continued stay in the mires of mediocrity.