Let’s go back in time for a moment, to the end of a miserable 2015 season. Dan Quinn’s first year in Atlanta saw his Falcons start off hot and crash back down to earth, going from 5-0 to 8-8 and frustrating millions of fans in the process. It may be difficult to recall this now, but a not insignificant number of fans wanted Kyle Shanahan fired after 2015 wrapped up, especially after the offense collapsed and he pulled a weird stunt with franchise icon Roddy White.
Fresh off their third straight losing season and with a host of roster needs, the Falcons needed to have an all-time offseason to contend in 2016. Of course, that’s exactly what happened, with one of the most impactful free agency periods and draft classes in team history, one that propelled the Falcons to a Super Bowl berth that we’re not discussing today or perhaps ever again.
I think it would be wildly irresponsible to plan a championship parade in Atlanta for 2023, but that level of impact is clearly what this team is targeting with their shotgun blast approach to free agency. Instead of concentrating their dollars all in one or two big names, they’ve been trying to shore up weaknesses across the roster and improve a team that needs the help just about everywhere. While the two situations aren’t remotely the same, the free agency approach and the hopes behind them are actually fairly similar.
Let’s review 2016 and talk about why the Falcons are hoping 2023 will echo it.
The 2016 haul
In 2015, Leonard Hankerson was a prominent receiving option, Mike Person was high-snapping his way out of the center job, and the team’s defense was customarily shaky. Fixing that was going to take more than one signing, and it was one of the rare moments in Atlanta’s recent history where Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli had cap space at their disposal.
So they did something we’re seeing the 2023 Falcons do: They spent big on a couple of the best free agents on the market, they offered sizeable deals to mid-tier players they thought would be excellent fits, and they shored up their depth with their remaining dollars. This year’s team had more dollars and signed more players, but the ideal is more or less the same.
The crown jewel of that class was Alex Mack. The longtime Browns center was among the very best in the NFL at the position, and the Falcons ponied up to get him in the hopes of upgrading significantly on Person and giving them their first legitimate center since Todd McClure was forced into retirement. Mack would go on to be an immediate impact player and a key piece of a very good Falcons offensive line for the next several seasons.
The team also signed Mohamed Sanu, a controversial addition at the time who was coming off a down year in Cincinnati. Sanu became a fan favorite an impactful player with 225 receptions for 2,207 yards and 14 touchdowns over 3.5 seasons in Atlanta, giving the Falcons a quality second fiddle to Julio Jones, especially until Calvin Ridley arrived.
Those were the two big signings, but the Falcons added help for the defensive line with Derrick Shelby (who thanks to injury played a minor 2016 role and a larger one in 2017) and Courtney Upshaw (a useful rotational run stopper over two seasons in Atlanta). They also added a speedy receiver in Taylor Gabriel, and he proved to be a critical role player as well in the team’s NFC-winning run.
Finally, there was Dwight Freeney. He added a little bit of a juice to the team’s surprisingly effective pass rush, but he was also a terrific mentor to Vic Beasley and the team’s young defenders up front, which proved to be invaluable during a Beasley career year.
That plus the talent on hand—a still-in-his-prime Matt Ryan in an MVP season fueled by Kyle Shanahan’s brilliance, Julio Jones near the height of his powers, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman rolling—and a great draft created unexpected success. Remember, after yet another dismal season, we just wanted to see the Falcons returning to their winning ways. Instead, they dispatched the rest of the NFC.
The 2023 haul
The broader echoes are there. The Falcons in 2023 are coming off of five straight losing seasons, have real cap space to work with for the first time in years, and are fresh off a year where they started strong and wilted as time went on. Their 2016 counterparts were fresh off a third straight losing season, were able to really spend some money for the first time in a while, and were fresh off a year where they were marvelous early and terrible late.
These 2023 Falcons are coming out of a deeper hole and have far more capital to work with, but certainly the parallels are still there.
The Falcons attacked their biggest weaknesses (safety, the defensive line) with their most major additions, and tried to stock up on talent elsewhere on more affordable deals. They spent big for surefire terrific play at safety, just like the Falcons paid for it at center with Mack, and they banked on a player coming off a down season to deliver in spades, in this case David Onyemata versus Mohamed Sanu. They have their wise, lauded-for-his-leadership veteran defender (Calais Campbell instead of Dwight Freeney), their big and possibly underrated receiver addition (Mack Hollins instead of Mohamed Sanu), their speedster (Scotty Miller instead of Taylor Gabriel), and their shore-up-the-line signings (Joe Gaziano, Onyemata, and the surprise return of Eddie Goldman rather than Derrick Shelby and Courtney Upshaw).
The difference, as I noted above, is that that the roster is not what it was heading into 2016—the draft will hopefully help to change that—and the Falcons had a lot more money to spend in 2023, as well as more ground to make up to go from also-ran to contender. That means those signings will have to work and work well for Atlanta to make a serious run this year, even in a weakened NFC South, but the good news is that the sheer number and quality of signings are likely to represent real improvement. It’s just a question of degree.
Again, the Falcons in 2023 are unlikely to achieve the heights of the 2016 squad, but they’re hoping to enjoy much more success than they’ve managed over the past couple of years. To get there, they’ll need their big free agency class to have the kind of impact the 2016 group did, and then some.