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How the Falcons have capitalized on their long-awaited opportunity to spend in free agency

Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith were finally able to pursue the top free agents to rebuild the roster after two long years of financial restrictions.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Inheriting an organizational mess to the extent of the one the Falcons were in three years ago was always going to be difficult for Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith. After multiple years of trying to convince themselves they could contend in 2019 and 2020, the franchise needed a full reset after failing abysmally in both seasons.

Enough was enough attempting to convince themselves they could put the pieces together to revive the Super Bowl aspirations of 2017 and 2018. It was time for the new regime to work towards creating a new era of Falcons football.

They knew multiple years of patience and working around cap constraints were required before being able to put their complete stamp on the roster. The horrific cap situation meant experimenting with veterans and role players willing to take one-year deals. It became evident that they had to work hard to field an NFL-caliber roster with how little financial resources they had.

The coaching staff worked wonders to identify playmaking talent like Cordarrelle Patterson and construct one of the most punishing running games in the league in two years. What could have easily been two dark seasons transpired into two promising if uneven years of developing a team identity and organizational foundations.

The lingering effects of the financial disaster left by the previous regime finally ended in 2023. That meant having the second-most cap space in the league going into the free agency period. With numerous positional needs in a wide-open division, the front office knew they had a fantastic chance to build a playoff-caliber roster.

The time was right to identify who could elevate the defense, become tone-setters in a young locker room, and develop into long-term starters. It was also imperative to make the right decisions on which free agents to re-sign to establish a solidified roster ready to compete with the best for the long haul.

A major defensive investment plan comes to fruition

When assembling the dream dominant defense, the first two positions that should be valued are edge rusher and cornerback. Having a devastating edge rusher creates instant mismatches and opportunities to derail opposing passing games. It’s somewhat similar to having a shutdown cornerback, where quarterbacks will likely be cautious about targeting that side of the field. Turnover possibilities are increased, while offensive coordinators have to structure their game plan around being productive without being derailed by the elite edge rusher or cornerback.

Not all terrific defenses can be assembled like that, depending on the pieces you have and the pieces that are available. Sometimes, you have to focus on the middle of your unit. Interior line play is becoming more integral than ever in terms of generating significant pressure and controlling the line of scrimmage. Being versatile with your linebackers in utilizing different blitz designs and coverage looks can force the opposition into committing self-inflicted mistakes. When it comes to defending the middle of the field, you can’t be successful at doing it without rangy, savvy, and positionally disciplined safeties.

The high-profile signings of Jessie Bates and David Onyemata, along with the intriguing addition of Kaden Elliss, represent how the Falcons are looking to become more solid and schematically flexible within the base of their defense. Safety and defensive tackle were the biggest positional needs going into free agency. The linebacker position could have used another capable player, following Mykal Walker’s disappointing season and Rashaan Evans being more of a stopgap starter than a long-term solution. For the Falcons to move with urgency in making those three signings on the first day of the legal tampering period indicates they know where the problems lie and who the best available players were for their squad.

As much as an edge rusher is needed, there is a scarcity of capable difference-making players on the open market that aren’t past their prime. Instead of taking unnecessary risks of spending that new money on risks, the attention was dialed in on acquiring one of the most complete safeties in the league and the unsung hero of one of the most consistent defenses in the league over the past five years.

Bates is the type of rangy, ball-hawking, and commanding safety every coach would want to have on the back end of their defense. He consistently puts himself in a position to negate big plays and capitalize on poor decisions made by the opposing quarterback. Per Pro Football Reference, Bates only allowed a 51.4% completion percentage on throws targeting him last season. In three of the past five seasons, the opposing passer rating when targeting him was below 78. What he offers in coverage will provide much-needed assurances in closing down throwing lanes and producing turnovers for a defense severely lacking in the playmaker department.

Reuniting Onyemata with Nielsen felt like a foregone conclusion. Just like Bates, the former Saint was on my free agency wishlist of players the Falcons should prioritize signing. They instantly did that to add juice to an interior line filled with holes. From his ability to take on multiple blockers to generate a violent pass rush to dependability in playing a high number of snaps, Onyemata is exactly the type of enforcer who could elevate this defense. Aligning him with Grady Jarrett seems like a match made in heaven with how explosive and technically proficient both players are.

Onyemata’s ability to eat up space against the run further elevates his value as an all-around interior tackle. According to TruMedia, the Falcons had the second-worst defensive rush success rate in the NFL. It will take more than hitting the quarterback to help improve this defense. Onyemata is a multi-dimensional force that can create space for his teammates against the run, along with eviscerating guards on passing downs.

Bates and Onyemata were the two crucial signings that had to be made to bolster the defense. Acquiring Elliss is the type of chance you take when your defensive coordinator has valuable connections.

The way Elliss performed in the second half of the season as a dual linebacker and pass rusher caught the attention of many teams. His 21 run stops from Week 9 to the end of the season ranked fourth amongst linebackers, per Football Focus. Taking on blocks and maintaining gap integrity are two aspects of run defending that the Falcons didn’t get enough of last season. They also failed to get much production from their linebackers when blitzing.

Adding a unique talent like Elliss, who doesn’t have mileage on him and comes with the stamp of approval of the coach who oversaw his career year, could make a substantial difference in building a formidable defensive front. The linebacker group definitely needed a spark following largely lackluster play last season. A solid run-stopper with pass-rushing juice and positional versatility like Elliss should be vital in elevating Nielsen’s revamped unit.

Enhancing Arthur Smith’s big, physical offensive philosophy

While improving defensively was going to be the main priority in free agency, the offense certainly could use reinforcements at wide receiver and on the offensive line. Before making any potential high-impact flashy signings, they opted for ensuring solid play at two key positional areas. Acquiring Taylor Heinicke was a shrewd decision to have a capable backup behind Desmond Ridder. Heinicke is an upgrade over Marcus Mariota with his playmaking ability and fearless play style. Besides Jacoby Brissett, there wasn’t a better backup quarterback on the market. That wasn’t the only practical personnel decision to be made offensively.

After some contemplation about his future, Kaleb McGary returns on what is considered to be a team-friendly deal. The prospect of him earning 18 million per year on a long-term contract proved to be misleading. Despite his limitations and skeptics, including myself, not convinced about him building off his first above-average season as a pro, the decision to re-sign him is completely understandable

Continuity is an invaluable asset to have on a solid offensive line. The chemistry between McGary and Chris Lindstrom played a significant part in the ground game’s stunning ascendence to greatness. Mauling run-blocking right tackles aren’t easy to replace. While his short arms and sluggish feet are concerning in pass protection, his contract indicates that a massive premium price isn’t being paid to keep him. They expect solid overall performances from a tone-setting, albeit flawed right tackle that fits into Smith’s run-first, play action-heavy offense.

As Smith has worked relentlessly to manufacture the personnel group to flourish under his scheme within the draft, he finally signed a notable wide receiver coming off his best season to be a reliable complimentary piece. Mack Hollins is the quintessential pass catcher for this offense. A big-body wide receiver who makes impressive contested catches and blocks effectively will always be a potential fit in Atlanta. Hollins is exactly that player, one who is a vertical threat that can stretch the field. His style aligns perfectly with how comfortable he is running in-breaking routes.

The Athletic’s Nate Tate posted some fascinating clips and charts to illustrate how his style will mesh nicely with how the passing game is designed. This is the type of under-the-radar signing that could make an exciting Falcons off-season into an all-time special one similar to 2016. A pass-catching corps of Kyle Pitts, Drake London, Hollins, and likely one other drafted receiver on Day Two or Three should produce countless explosive plays and overwhelm defenders in the run game. Let’s also not forget another weapon that played his best football under Smith will be joining the aerial attack.

Making sharp moves outside of free agency to build a successful future

If past Tennessee connections were going to be utilized, Corey Davis or Ben Jones were going to be the likely players to join the Falcons. Trading a seventh-round pick for Jonnu Smith certainly wasn’t in the cards, yet it makes complete sense. The dynamic tight end never found his niche in New England. It’s difficult to determine whether it was due to underwhelming play or being miscast in a dysfunctional offense.

What can be assured is that Smith will have plenty of opportunities to maximize his skill set in an offense he previously shined in. His ability to make plays after the catch and down the field creates plenty of play design opportunities in a multitude of formations. The idea of running bunch sets with Pitts and London has to be tantalizing for the coaching staff to overwhelm defenses with sheer size and athleticism. Adding a versatile playmaker with familiarity and past success, like Smith, adds another dimension to the offense. His highlight reel speaks for itself.

Valuing your exceptional young players by signing them to long-term extensions is one of the primary principles of rebuilding a roster. Chris Lindstrom has firmly established himself as one of the elite offensive linemen in the league. After making tremendous strides in 2020 and 2021, he proved his capabilities as the second-best right guard in the league behind future Hall of Famer Zach Martin. What he does in the run game is extraordinary, from consistently making reach blocks to getting to the second level to eliminate linebackers. His pass protection has become stellar, as Pro Football Focus charted him with allowing just two sacks, one hit, and six hurries from 517 pass-blocking snaps.

With A.J. Terrell taking a slight step back last season, Lindstrom is the current best player on the Falcons’ roster. The front office didn’t hesitate to deservingly make him the highest-paid guard in the league. Players like Lindstrom will help drive the franchise to become a playoff team again. Having him lead an improving offensive line under a coach who wants to punish teams on the ground shows the Falcons know who they are.

The team’s identity is now being aligned with a rapidly-improving roster. The process is far from over going into another pivotal draft, but the pieces are there to take a notable leap in not only a wide-open division, but also a conference lacking surefire contenders.