The Falcons have elected to lock up a fair number of their own free agents. With new deals for right tackle Kaleb McGary, punter Bradley Pinion, outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter, and fullback Keith Smith among the re-signings, the Falcons clearly believe some key contributors for 2022 can be factors on an improved 2023 squad.
That said, there are still several free agents the Falcons have not re-signed who also haven’t landed with other teams. With the initial wave of free agency over, it’s a good time to consider whether some of those players who had major roles last year might still be in line to return to Atlanta, or if they’ll seek their fortunes elsewhere.
I still think it’s a strong possibility. The former undrafted free agent has picked up his production each year he has been in the NFL, with 2022 ranking as Zaccheaus’ finest season yet as he was pressed into a significant role. He finished the season with 40 grabs for 533 yards and three touchdowns, playing in all 17 games and handling about 70% of the offensive snaps, and proving to have an enduring rapport with Marcus Mariota.
With Desmond Ridder expected to start, maybe the Falcons will go in a different direction at receiver, but Zaccheaus has filled in admirably over and over again in Atlanta. If OZ is met with a fairly cool market, the fact that he can be a valuable special teams contributor and would make for a quality high-end reserve who is very familiar with the offense should see him returning to the Falcons.
The signing of Kaden Elliss does not necessarily mean Evans is out in Atlanta, given that Elliss is expected to move around the formation a bit as a chess piece for defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen. Evans, who did fine work against the run last year and was a starter the coaching staff likes quite a bit, could get early down work if he’s brought back, and would be at worst a proven high-end reserve who could step in at a moment’s notice.
Like Zaccheaus, Evans is a question mark because we don’t know what his market will be. The linebacker will want a better contract than he received last year after being a full-time starter and holding his own, but the linebacker market is fairly flooded and Evans may not get the deal he’s looking for. If that’s the case, don’t be surprised to see him back.
There are three guard options on this list for the Falcons, but it would not be stunning if they didn’t bring a single one back.
Wilkinson likely has the best chance. A multi-game starter in 2022, Wilkinson dealt with injuries but was solid throughout his time in Atlanta, which was particularly impressive given that he had never played left guard in the pros before last season. As an affordable stopgap at left guard who would be a great, versatile reserve at worst—remember, Wilkinson has started games at both right guard and right tackle before joining Atlanta—he’d make a ton of sense if he doesn’t get a better offer elsewhere.
A Dwayne Ledford favorite, Gossett was scooped up off of waivers from the Browns in 2021 and has made repeated spot starts at left guard since. The Falcons do have Matt Hennessy, Jalen Mayfield, Justin Shaffer, and Ryan Neuzil potentially poised to compete at left guard, so the team may think they no longer need Gossett as an insurance policy. I wouldn’t expect him back unless they sour on those guys and don’t sign Wilkinson or Edoga.
Acquired off waivers from the Jets at the end of last summer, Edoga served as Jake Matthews’ backup and made a spot start at left guard, where he looked pretty good. Like Wilkinson, Edoga’s solid play and versatility should make him attractive for one of the final spots on the offensive line unless they’re intent on rolling with their young in-house options. Edoga may need to wait until the Falcons figure out whether they can bring Wilkinson back if he’s hoping to return to Atlanta.
One of the most impressive fill-in players a year ago, Pruitt did excellent work as a blocker and was a dangerous red zone option out of nowhere for Mariota and Desmond Ridder late. The addition of Jonnu Smith likely means he won’t return—the Falcons have several options at the position, including second-year blocker John FitzPatrick—but if injuries crop up in the summer he’s a proven blocking option and receiver the team should keep on their emergency list. I’d welcome him back right now if the Falcons would do it, as he’d be the best fourth tight end in the league.
Signed for his special teams work, Hodge was an effective gunner for the Falcons last year and an occasionally useful pass catching option. With Mike Ford headed to the Browns and the Falcons’ receiving depth chart still unsettled, Hodge feels like a nice, affordable re-signing for his special teams value and ability to pinch hit as a receiver in dire straits. I still expect this one to get done.
The veteran right tackle was signed as competition and/or insurance for Kaleb McGary, but with the latter having a career year and then re-signing with the Falcons, it’s unclear whether the team will bring Ifedi back or try to bring on a young successor to groom. At the moment, I’m not expecting that he’ll return to the Falcons in 2022.
The upshot is that once the market settles a bit and the Falcons sort out who they’re adding, I could see Zaccheaus, Evans, Hodge, and one of the Wilkinson/Edoga/Gossett group returning for the 2023 season. It’s likely that they’d all be returning to smaller roles than the ones they inhabited in 2022, but they would have value for a Falcons team that still very much needs depth and experience.
Who would you re-sign from this list, if anyone?