In a crucial off-season, the Falcons couldn’t have done much more in their proactive approach to address vital positional needs and add talent across their roster. It was the type of offseason that should spark legitimate optimism for what Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot are doing to build a consistently winning team.
With the big signings happening over two weeks ago, it would be wise to dive deeper into the front office’s decision-making. There were more recent moves that fell under the radar, yet these are players who can make a sizable impact in their respective roles. While Jessie Bates and David Onyemata are essential to the team’s progress, the success of this off-season goes beyond their overall production.
Kevin Knight and Cory Woodroof join me to discuss how the Falcons bolstered their roster and must continue to improve going into the 2023 season. This is the second roundtable of the off-season following its recent return.
Does Mack Hollins instill confidence that he can be the dependable alternative third option behind Drake London and Kyle Pitts?
Cory Woodroof: I think he could be, but I don’t think he will be. His 2022 season certainly showed that he has the ability to be a featured player in an offense. However, one wonders if another addition at wide receiver, either through a trade or the draft, would scoot Hollins down the depth chart. Regardless of exactly where he figures in, he seems destined to play a role in the offense’s success.
Allen Strk: It’s how you define dependable in Smith’s run-first offense. In most instances, targets and receptions would be used as strong indicators to determine if a pass catcher was productive. That won’t be the case here for Hollins, given his success comes from a limited number of targets across the middle of the field and in contested catch scenarios.
He isn’t going to catch five passes per game. There will be instances where Ridder may only target him three times. How Hollins uses those targets will be the deciding factor in assessing his value. The confidence should be there, but it would be wise for the front office to add a quicker, sharper route-runner to supply the passing game a different dimension in what is otherwise the land of the giants.
Kevin Knight: I think “dependable” is the right word to describe Hollins. He’s a very interesting player, the rare wide receiver who is hitting their stride heading into their age 30 season. Obviously, he fits the size profile Smith likes from his receivers and is an outstanding blocker—that alone will get him a lot of snaps, even if he isn’t a frequent target. Hollins is more of a good third receiver who has added value to Atlanta’s offense due to his blocking ability.
If Drake London and Kyle Pitts are healthy, He is a good third or fourth option (Jonnu Smith is in that conversation). The issues will appear if Hollins has to step into a primary role as the first or second option in the passing game. I still think the Falcons will add two receivers (Editor’s Note: They added Scotty Miller Tuesday) and they’re still waiting to see what happens with Corey Davis. At least one receiver is likely coming in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Which most recent addition is more intriguing between Mike Hughes and Eddie Goldman?
Cory Woodroof: Hughes has untapped potential, but the Goldman reinstatement from retirement really intrigues me. He’s only played one season since 2019, which could mean he’s both got a lot of gas left in the tank and could be quite rusty.
If he’s able to somewhat recapture his 2019 form, he’ll be a major boost to the run defense. Although, he might still be the best nose tackle Atlanta has had in a bit, even if it’s clear that he hasn’t played much football in recent seasons. That’s been a roster sore point for some time.
Allen Strk: Hughes’ experience and positional importance give him a slight edge over Goldman. Both veterans could play key roles in elevating the defense into a respectable unit. The difference is Hughes will be in a prime position to earn his place as the slot corner. As Kevin wrote in his piece covering the signing, an opportunity is there for the former first-round pick. He’s played consistently in recent seasons and found his niche after crashing out in Minnesota.
If Goldman manages to get back into playing football at a high level, it’s unlikely he would play more than 25 snaps. That lowers the intrigue compared to a slot corner who could be counted on to play 45 or 50 snaps per game.
Kevin Knight: Goldman’s return was the most surprising, but Hughes is probably the safer bet to be a major player on the defense in 2023. Hughes said that Atlanta “likes him in the slot,” which sort of portends that he’ll be the nominal slot starter heading into training camp. It’s interesting because while Hughes has the ideal build for the slot and brings high-level blitzing and run support ability, he hasn’t been very effective in coverage on the inside. Instead, his best season in coverage came playing on the outside for the Chiefs in 2021.
I’m not going to hold his 2022 season on the Lions—who had arguably the worst secondary in the NFL—against him because it’s hard to play well when everything else is collapsing around you. Jerry Gray does have experience with Hughes from his days with the Vikings, so I imagine he has confidence that Hughes can be coached up into the role Atlanta needs him to play. His two-year deal certainly suggests that the Falcons view him as a potential multi-year piece instead of just a potential rental.
Is there a position you wish the Falcons would have addressed by signing a player in an attempt to fulfill that need?
Cory Woodroof: Ideally, you’d like to see some veteran rusher added to the roster via trade or free agency. It doesn’t have to be a double-digit sack guy, but someone with some proven experience playing on the outside would help add some security to Atlanta’s defensive line overhaul. The interior looks mighty fine, but the edge position could use some help.
These aren’t “sexy” names, but Rasheem Green, Kentavius Street, Shaq Lawson, Trey Flowers, Matt Ioannidis, and Isaac Rochell are all out there. Signing any of them makes you feel slightly better than you did the day before.
Allen Strk: Considering upgrades are needed at left guard and center, it was surprising to see the front office not sign one player yet. They will draft at least one guard or center within the first four rounds. It’s hard to imagine them starting two rookies at some point in 2023.
The left guard position has to be considered the biggest hole on the roster. Drew Dalman’s pass protection woes and below-average awareness make him a liability at center. Dalton Risner and Connor McGovern are two available players that bring quality starting experience. Signing a veteran to compete to start at one of those positions should be prioritized before the draft.
Kevin Knight: The looming vacancy right now is at left guard. Elijah Wilkinson, who was a solid starter when healthy in 2022, has not been re-signed. Neither has Colby Gossett, who filled in for multiple games. The only addition has been 2020 seventh-rounder Kyle Hinton, who is almost certainly here to compete for a depth role. That leaves Matt Hennessy as the only player on the roster who started games at left guard last season.
Hennessy did grade out well according to PFF, with a 75.4 overall grade, 69.0 pass-blocking grade, and 82.6 run-blocking grade—but he also allowed two sacks and committed three penalties in just 157 snaps. Right now, his competition is the aforementioned Hinton, Jalen Mayfield, and Justin Shaffer. Not exactly a group that inspires a ton of confidence. Offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford deserves some praise for coaching up essentially every lineman on the roster from 2021-2022, so possibly, we should be slightly more bullish on the development of Hennessy or one of the other young players. But I’d feel much more comfortable with a veteran on the roster, like Risner or A.J. Cann.
Outside of Jessie Bates and David Onyemata, which off-season acquisition will make the biggest impact? It can’t be strictly free agent signings because of the trade for Jonnu Smith.
Cory Woodroof: Kaden Elliss might wind up being a steal in a year or two. If the end of his 2022 season is a predictor of what’s to come, the Falcons just snagged a young, promising linebacker that can rush the passer and doesn’t have much mileage on him. I’m endlessly curious to see what his exact role will be in Ryan Nielsen’s defense and how he helps enhance fellow linebacker Troy Andersen’s potential.
Allen Strk: Versatility is something the Falcons desperately needed on their defensive front. The undermanned group was largely comprised of players that only fit one particular role. Adding Elliss provides an invigorating feel to a unit in desperate need of talent.
To go from being an edge rusher to a strongside linebacker is common for hybrid players in the NFL. For the player to be equally productive against the run and generate pressure as a pass rusher isn’t ordinary in the NFL. Elliss has all the tools to make a significant difference, especially with playing under Nielsen’s scheme. It will be exciting to see how he factors into the alignment to stop the run while being utilized in various ways to get after opposing quarterbacks.
Kevin Knight: Elliss will surprise some folks. His pass-rushing production immediately pops, as he piled up seven sacks and 20 total pressures on just 103 pass-rush snaps, per PFF. That is absolutely ludicrous productivity that isn’t likely to repeat itself, but Elliss is a talented blitzer who even has some edge rush ability. There’s been a lot of questions about where Elliss will play. Does he play as a more off-ball linebacker or more of an edge defender?
My thought is that he will primarily play as a linebacker for the Falcons. Atlanta didn’t bring in any other linebacker starters in free agency, suggesting they view the position as relatively settled outside of the draft. Elliss also had his best games at linebacker. Four of his top five came while playing primarily at MIKE or WILL, according to PFF, including both of his elite games (91.3 overall in Week 11, 90.1 overall in Week 10). His 2022 season was exceptional, as Elliss graded out above-average or better in every single area: overall (81.5, excellent), run defense (81.1, excellent), pass rush (75.8, very good), and coverage (67.5, above-average).
Elliss has been one of the most underrated signings of the offseason. It feels like he’ll establish himself as a very good linebacker starter in a familiar scheme alongside Andersen.