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Offseason roundtable: Falcons free agency preview

It’s time to put the pieces together for a new roundtable to figure out how the Falcons should approach this crucial period as free agency approaches.

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NFL: SEP 18 Falcons at Rams Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The table has been cleared to start the off-season roundtable series. After an eventful season filled with writers making appearances, it’s time to freshen things up.

The Falcons are going to be spending serious money in free agency for the first time in years. They are going to be linked with a variety of highly-regarded free agents. Exciting times are ahead, which means a discussion is necessary about who the team should pursue and re-sign.

Kevin Knight joins me for the first offseason roundtable. If this is your first time reading a roundtable, you can check out past editions from September, October, November, December, and January. There will be more writers joining as the off-season goes on.

If you were in Terry Fontenot’s shoes, what is the one major signing that needs to be made to elevate the franchise?

Allen Strk: It’s Jessie Bates without hesitation. The former second-team All-Pro’s influence goes beyond being able to play deep safety and cover acres of space. His exceptional leadership capabilities and high-football intelligence make him the perfect fit to give the defense a true general on the back end. This defense needs all the talent it can get. It also needs someone who can take command and elevate players around him. That’s what Bates did to help make Cincinnati a championship-caliber team.

There could be trepidation about breaking the bank on a safety. It shouldn’t be when the player is entering his prime and has proven to play at an elite level. Bates possesses the range and awareness to make plays across the field. His ability to play on the back end could help Richie Grant find more comfortability by playing closer to the line of scrimmage. The value of the safety position shouldn’t be overlooked. The Falcons are in an exciting spot to be aggressive and add franchise cornerstones. Bates is the first player that should be pursued to bring defensive organization, leadership, and playmaking ability to Atlanta.

Kevin Knight: It will be a popular answer, but I’m leaning toward Bates as the “major” signing this off-season. The secondary is much closer to being a complete group than the front seven. Bates adds a young, blue-chip talent on the back end that Atlanta hasn’t had since the prime years of Willy Mo.

Safety play is really underrated these days, and having an “eraser” to cover up the mistakes of what is likely to be a young cornerback room and a big-time ballhawk to create takeaways will be a massive boon to the defense as a whole. This defense isn’t likely to jump to “good” over the course of one offseason, but I think Bates might move the needle more than any other single signing.

Which key contributing defensive player from last season should absolutely be re-signed between Lorenzo Carter, Isaiah Oliver, and Rashaaan Evans?

Allen Strk: While all three players received significant snaps, only Oliver played consistently at an NFL starter-caliber level. After a slow start returning from injury, the slot corner got back into form and played at a high level near the end of the season. His consistent open-field tackling and knack for frustrating receivers in the slot provide some solidity to an extremely young secondary. His communication skills are valuable as well, which is something Dean Pees spoke publicly about in appreciating what Oliver brought to the team.

Evans and Carter are fine players, but they are best suited as rotational pieces rather than players to be depended on to elevate a rebuilding defense. There is reported interest in Evans returning to the Falcons. How they value him will be interesting because his play declined by the end of the season. Carter showed he isn’t to be relied upon on a down-to-down basis. Re-signing both players isn’t an atrocity. Oliver is the player that must be prioritized to be their starting nickel corner.

Kevin Knight: Of these three, Carter is the most valuable. I’m not sure if he’s as good of a fit in Ryan Nielsen’s defense, but he played an absurd amount of snaps and contributed in several different ways in 2022.

Carter should be able to carve out a role here, even if he shifts to more off-ball responsibilities, and I don’t think he’ll break the bank either. In an ideal world, Oliver and Evans return too—although Evans has tended to struggle when not working in a Pees defense.

Did Kaleb McGary’s improved play spark long-term confidence in his ability as a starter, or could giving him a long-term deal go as poorly as it did with Sam Baker a decade ago?

Allen Strk: It seems like a formality that McGary will be in Atlanta next season. Whether it’s on a long-term deal or a franchise tag remains to be seen, although there is plenty of speculation he will be franchise tagged. The run-blocking excellence and chemistry with fellow 2019 first-round pick Chris Lindstrom make it understandable why the organization values him. There’s no denying the impact he made in transforming a floundering running game for years into one of the most punishing units in the league. Per Football Focus, only Hall of Famer Trent Williams graded higher as a run blocker.

The huge concern is banking on one year of high-end performance in a favorable run-blocking scheme. There are still concerns about him holding up in pass protection. The combination of having short arms and slow feet will always be a hindrance to some extent. While McGary showed more in spurts before his breakout year than Baker did, it’s still a fair comparison given how much of a liability both players were during long stretches of their respective careers. Until noticeable improvement is made in pass protection, McGary’s overall play fails to instill long-term confidence as an above-average starter in a league where passing is still imperative to sustainable success.

Kevin Knight: McGary had an awesome year as a run blocker and turned in a more consistently average performance as a pass blocker. He’s still just an average pass blocker, and that’s part of the game that generally matters the most. McGary’s run-blocking prowess and durability are huge bonuses in his favor, but I’m not comfortable giving him a long-term deal until he can get his pass-blocking to at least an above-average level with consistency.

He can continue to improve, but it should also be noted that McGary will be 28 for the 2023 season. By comparison, Lindstrom will be 26. It’s not a huge difference, but it matters when handing out long-term deals. I’d strongly consider giving McGary the franchise tag (valued at $18.2M) if he’s asking for $15M+ per year on a long-term extension. He’s earned big money, but I’m not confident enough at this point to commit to multiple years. Plus, with the Falcons likely to be big spenders in free agency this year, any compensatory pick from letting McGary walk would be nullified. It’s wiser to push that opportunity to 2024 when Atlanta could cash in on a future third-rounder.

Given the strong coaching ties to both franchises, which current or former Titans or Saints player could you envision joining the Falcons the most?

Allen Strk: Four players come to mind, although two players can’t be considered yet. Taylor Lewan would be a fascinating addition, but there is no way he joins unless McGary isn’t re-signed or something unforeseen happens to Jake Matthews. If the Jets release him, Corey Davis would be an excellent low-risk, high-reward signing. Time will tell when it comes to Smith’s strong Tennessee connections.

Nielsen should be a nice helping hand in attracting Marcus Davenport and David Onyemata. While both players are coming off down seasons by their lofty standards, they can inject much-needed power and explosiveness into the defensive line. Davenport’s frustrating injury history and inconsistency shouldn’t prevent the front office from pursuing a violent, crafty edge rusher. Onyemata has been the unsung hero of the Saints’ top-tier defenses over the past four seasons. His consistency gives him a slight edge over Davenport. Given how little support Grady Jarrett has received over the course of his career, it’s time the Falcons provide him with much-needed support to annihilate interior lines. Onyemata is the player to make the Falcons-Saints rivalry more spicey.

Kevin Knight: My favorite target is Onyemata. A consistently productive pass rusher who is also no slouch against the run, Onyemata would give the Falcons a legitimate running mate for Jarrett for the first time in his career.

He’ll also be significantly cheaper than DaRon Payne, who Spotrac has valued at nearly $20M as opposed to just $9.6M for Onyemata. I’d rather see Atlanta add multiple contributors, like Onyemata and someone like A’Shawn Robinson, than put all my chips on a single acquisition like Payne.