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Recapping Falcons free agency through the initial spending frenzy

Atlanta’s putting together a team.

Miami Dolphins v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons were expected to spend this March, and they have. The team entered free agency with about $63 million in cap space and are sitting here a week-and-a-half later with just over $20 million in remaining space and have signed or re-signed 15 players since shortly before free agency opened. It’s a better football team on paper than it was at the end of last year, as low of a bar as that is, and the team is likely to sign a handful of players before they hit the 2023 NFL Draft.

Given that the team appears to be taking a breather to let the market settle rather than wrapping up—they really need to add depth, perhaps a left guard, and definitely another edge rusher—it’s a fine time to stop and take stock of what they’ve done thus far. Here’s who the Falcons have added and re-signed through March 26.


S Jessie Bates: 4 years, $64.02 million

Linked to the Falcons for many weeks before legal tampering opened, Bates ended up being the crown jewel of their free agent class. A playmaker who does almost everything well and should be an impact starter next to Richie Grant immediately, Bates gives the Falcons the makings of an incredibly strong secondary with A.J. Terrell, an improving Grant, and potentially a high-end draft pick at cornerback. Ryan Nielsen grew accustomed to have terrific safety play in New Orleans, and the potency of the back end should help a still-building defensive front seven fare better against the run and at getting after the quarterback.

In short, while the Falcons paid a hefty price to get him, Bates should be worth every penny and is easily the best player they added this offseason.

DT David Onyemata: 3 years, $35 million

A fair number of outlets have questioned the wisdom of giving a player on the wrong side of 30 a hefty deal like this, even though it functions essentially as a two year pact with a fairly easy out in 2025. Onyemata is coming off a down year by his standards, but remains an effective interior pass rushing presence who generally plays the run well. He’s a player Nielsen loves, the best interior pass rusher the Falcons have paired with Grady Jarrett to date, and a durable and aggressive defensive tackle for a team that badly needed help along the line, so as long as his production doesn’t drop off a cliff I don’t think Atlanta will mind the dollars.

LB Kaden Elliss: 3 years, $21.5 million

Fresh off his breakout season, Elliss hopped over from New Orleans with Onyemata. A versatile player who made his name for the Saints on special teams until he received an extended opportunity in 2022, Elliss will likely player inside and outside linebacker at times in Atlanta. He’ll be counted upon to help generate pressure wherever he is after putting up 7 sacks last year, and his athleticism, strength, and production suggests Elliss could be lethal for the Falcons in a year-long full-time role. Atlanta ponied up with the expectation that 2022 was a sign of things to come for Elliss, and hopefully they’re correct.

QB Taylor Heinicke: 2 years, $14 million

Washington’s part-time starter the past couple of seasons, Heinicke has proven he can start games and play fairly well when called upon—and has shown a willingness to go deep, something Arthur Smith’s offense values—but told reporters he’s joining the Falcons to back up and mentor Desmond Ridder. Heinicke will see game action if Ridder falters or is hurt and should be able to hold down the fort, but this is essentially structured as a one-year deal with the expectation that he can either be brought back as a relatively affordable backup to Ridder or cut or if Ridder falters and the Falcons want to bring in a new starter and demote the third-year quarterback to the #2.

LB Tae Davis: 1 year, $1.23 million

Essentially this year’s Nick Kwiatkoski or Daren Bates, Davis is a quality special teamer and break-in-case-of-emergency linebacker reserve. He’ll get plenty of run on Sunday on special teams and is a reliable tackler.

WR Mack Hollins: 1 year, $2.5 million

A steal at this price. One of the better blocking wide receivers in the NFL last year, Hollins finally got a chance to start a full season and put up a solid line with 57 receptions, 690 yards, and four touchdowns. If the Falcons make major additions at wide receiver he’ll be a top-flight reserve who will get significant run owing to his blocking, but I’d pencil him in as the #2 receiver opposite Drake London at the moment and the fourth option in the passing game overall behind London, Kyle Pitts, and Jonnu Smith.

CB Mike Hughes: 2 years, $7 million

This is another deal that’s essentially a one-year pact, as the Falcons can get out of it next year easily. Hughes knows prominent assistant defensive coach Jerry Gray from their time in Minnesota, is just 26 years old, and has had some success as a boundary cornerback and as a nickel. The Falcons apparently view him as Isaiah Oliver’s replacement for 2023 and he’ll compete with Dee Alford for that role. Coming off a shaky season, Hughes is not my favorite signing of this group, but he’s young and perhaps the Falcons will prove to be an excellent fit for him.


LS Liam McCullough: 3 years $2.285 million

After a slow start to the season, McCullough settled in and proved to be a reliable long snapper. He’s young and capable and should hold down the position for the life of his contract and perhaps much longer, as teams tend to keep reliable long snappers around.

TE Parker Hesse: 1 year, $980,000

A no-brainer re-signing for a team that loves to run, Hesse is a terrific blocker who occasionally chips in as a receiver when needed. Hesse, Pitts, and Jonnu Smith will get a ton of run at tight end this season, with Hesse pulling early down work for his ability to open lanes for Tyler Allgeier and company.

OLB Lorenzo Carter: 2 years, $9 million

A solid all-around player, Carter proved to be pretty reliable against the run, occasionally useful as a pass rusher, and capable of the occasional big play on defense and special teams. He’ll likely have a smaller role in 2023 with new additions set to come and Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone expected to take steps forward, but his reliability will ensure a role.

FB Keith Smith: 1 year, $2.35 million

A solid blocker at fullback, Smith is re-joining the team both for his role in the run game and his outsized role on special teams, where he’s consistently one of Atlanta’s leading tacklers. He’ll have an early leg up on the starting job over reserve/future signing Clint Ratkovich, and should figure in prominently on special teams again.

P Bradley Pinion: 3 years, $8.65 million

Fresh off a fine season where he hit his stride late in the year, Pinion proved capable of pinning teams deep in their own territory and also handled kickoffs capably for Atlanta. The Falcons paid him a handsome contract to continue to punt and kick off at a high level, which he should be able to do. The Falcons kept their specialists from a terrific 2022 special teams season together.

T Kaleb McGary: 3 years, $34.5 million

He’s back on a smaller contract than I would have anticipated, one with an easy out in year three. McGary had a career year in 2022 as one of the better run-blocking tackles in football and a solid enough presence in pass protection, and the Falcons will be counting on him to deliver similar (or better) results again in 2023. The team clearly wants to run the ball effectively—no surprise in an Arthur Smith offense—and McGary will help.

CB Cornell Armstrong: 1 year, $1.15 million

In a decimated Falcons cornerback group, Armstrong actually started a few games down the stretch last year. The team will bring him back to compete for a reserve role after liking what they saw from him in those starts, and he should have an inside track for a job.

T Germain Ifedi

Still waiting on the official terms of this one, but Ifedi is back to serve as McGary’s backup and an emergency option at right guard behind Chris Lindstrom. There’s always the possibility he serves as the team’s swing tackle, but he has very little pro experience at left tackle, so I’m penciling him in as the team’s top depth on the right side of the line.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk a little more about what might be next for the Falcons in free agency. What’s your impression of the team’s free agent haul to this point?