Thursday was the sigh of relief day. The Falcons really did get Jessie Bates III, David Onyemata, Kaden Elliss, and Taylor Heinicke. All of those moves were confirmed by the team, meaning one of the most successful-seeming starts to free agency in recent memory proceeds apace.
It’s worth taking a step back and considering what the Falcons have hauled in from free agency, trades, and re-signings now. They locked up their elite right guard, got their right tackle back on a very team-friendly contract, and brought back their punter and fullback as well. Then they snagged an experienced, proven interior pass rusher in Onyemata, the cycle’s best free agent safety in Bates, an intriguing linebacker fresh off a breakout season in Elliss, and a fine backup quarterback with starting experience in Heinicke. It’s a good haul, and this team isn’t and shouldn’t be done quite yet with some major holes at wide receiver, left guard, edge rusher, and cornerback still remaining, among others.
The net effect of all those moves is a better football team on paper. It’s within the realm of possibility that all of these players are worse than anticipated and virtually a guarantee that not all of them will be stellar, because that’s the kind of fortune that’s mighty rare with free agency in the NFL. But the team addressed weaknesses, landed players Nielsen knows and loves, and upgraded the talent level. A year ago they were reliant on Jaylinn Hawkins (a fine player I hope still has a role, but far from an elite starter) at safety next to Richie Grant, a rotating cast of hurried additions where Onyemata will be, and a raw-as-cookie-dough Troy Andersen, struggling Mykal Walker, and solid Rashaan Evans where Elliss and a hopefully improved Andersen will be. They simply have more upside now, and Bates by himself could be a transformative addition given how good he is at almost everything you want your safeties to do.
Even in the early days of the new league year and with major additions still to come, there’s some real optimism around this team right now, and it’s much more justified than the frenzied talking-ourselves-into-it we endured in 2021 and 2022. Terry Fontenot and company have been waiting to get here and start spending money to acquire talent, and already it appears the wait was worth it.
A couple of notes, while we’re here.
Tough in the middle
One phrase that has has been rattling around in my skull since the day I first saw it is “toughness crusade,” D. Orlando Ledbetter’s hilarious summation of Atlanta’s doomed 2014 offseason and season. That year, the Falcons signed Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson to try to beef up the middle of a porous defense, signed Jon Asamoah to add power and size to the middle of their offensive line, and added veteran safety Dwight Lowery to give themselves some help at a position that was a real weakness. That last Mike Smith year went extremely poorly and saw Smitty fired, but the Falcons’ intent was to get tougher and better up front. They just chose the wrong additions and had too many other problems.
This offseason the Falcons found themselves with a similar desire to improve up front and stop getting pushed around so easily, especially after their run defense wilted and their pass rush was Grady Jarrett, Arnold Ebiketie, Lorenzo Carter, and a prayer for much of last year. The team’s approach has been much more nuanced than “who are two big guys with good reputations against the run we can plug in here,” partly because new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen wants to put his stamp on the team.
So you get Onyemata as the early addition up front, providing the Falcons with a player who can rush the passer and help out against the run. You get Kaden Elliss behind him, a player who can move around the formation but proved to be a deadly pass rusher lurking behind a typically terrific New Orleans interior defensive line, as well as a capable player in coverage. And you add Bates, who joins with improving safety Richie Grant to provide the Falcons with better coverage and better run stopping ability in the middle of the field. Teams spent last season with time to spare in the pocket and an ability to pick Atlanta apart over the middle, something that suddenly doesn’t feel like it’ll be as easy to do.
The conclusion isn’t just that the Falcons are trying to do something up front. It’s that they want the middle of their defense to be a nightmare, and for that interior pass rush to make teams miserable on Sunday. That’s a worthy goal we hope they can live up to, and no mere toughness crusade.
Taylor Heinicke expects to be the backup
I’ve been fairly loud about the fact that I expect Desmond Ridder to get his shot to be the team’s long-term starter in 2023, but I also expected the Falcons to sign a player they felt could push Ridder hard in training camp. When the Falcons brought aboard Taylor Heinicke, a quarterback who has made over 20 starts the past two seasons, it seemed as though they had found their man.
Curiously, though, it appears that Heinicke was told before he ever joined the team that Ridder will be the starter. Maybe a camp competition brews in the coming months, but at the moment, that would be the strongest indication yet (and by a wide margin) that Ridder is locked in under center in 2023.
Taylor Heinicke says his mindset is to come in and to be the best backup he can be for Desmond Ridder with the Falcons. He says Atlanta was up front with him about his role with the club.— William McFadden (@willmcfadden) March 16, 2023
Heinicke is quality insurance for Ridder if so, but it’s striking just how much faith the Falcons seem to have in their second year quarterback. I’m someone who believes Ridder can be a good quarterback in the NFL and that the Falcons can put together a dynamic offense with him at the helm, but I assumed there would be a veteran push. Instead, it appears the Falcons are so confident in Ridder’s ability and progression that they’re going to hand him the keys, something Aaron Freeman argues is a good thing.
Whether that’s a stroke of brilliance for a team that needs one or a big mistake that will lead to another high pick remains to be seen, but the Falcons seem ready to dive in headfirst.