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A supersized Falcons free agency wish list

After working under stringent conditions for two years during free agency, Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith are finally ready to make significant upgrades to their roster by signing experienced, top-tier talent.

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NFL: SEP 29 Dolphins at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been a long time coming for the Falcons. They are finally in the position to pursue some of the top free agents on the open market.

Following two years of trying to work out the most accommodating deals for aging veterans and role players, they are out of the cap mire left by the previous regime and ready to make their mark on the roster without having to mostly depend on the draft.

The Falcons’ free agency wish list became a yearly tradition for me from 2015 to 2019. The feature returned last year, albeit under extremely difficult circumstances, with the team being significantly financially constrained. This year will be much different, given that they have the second most cap space in the league.

As is the case with this feature, the free agency wish list will be broken down into five positional needs on the Falcons’ roster. It will include two players categorized by who would be a dream signing and a solid keeper. A dream signing is considered one of the best available players at their respective position. A solid keeper is a player who would nicely fit onto the roster and potentially make a considerable difference. Here are the ten free agents I believe the Falcons should look to pursue to build a playoff-caliber team in 2023.

Syndication: The Enquirer Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Free Safety

Dream Signing: There have been plenty of breakdowns of why Jessie Bates would be the biggest dream signing for the Falcons. My recent roundtable expresses why Kevin Knight and I believe he would be hugely influential in elevating the defense. Bates is the complete package as a safety. His on-field intelligence, anticipation of throws, angle pursuit, mental processing, and positional flexibility makes him a defensive coach’s dream at the heart of the defense.

Bates is as durable and battle-tested as it gets. Cincinnati’s defense doesn’t make the leap they did without him. There aren’t many safeties who possess better ball skills than him. There isn’t a free agent who would make the Falcons better than him for the long term. The defense needs playmakers and leaders. Bates has proven to be both over the past three seasons. Ryan Moran of Empire Sports Media produced a terrific piece on the former second-team All-Pro’s skillset, indicating how he is such a tremendous player. To quote my colleague Adnan Ikic, the Falcons haven’t made a true franchise-changing signing since Alex Mack in 2016. The time is now for them to do it by making Bates the centerpiece of their defense.

Solid Keeper: If they fall short in the Bates’ sweepstakes, the Falcons need to move promptly to sign a deep-lying free safety. There is too much talent available not to sign one to address a gaping positional weakness. Similar to Bates, Juan Thornhill is about as battle-tested as it gets. The versatile safety has played over 750 snaps in each of his four seasons in the league, along with numerous playoff games and three Super Bowls. On a defense without much big-game experience, his situational awareness and command on the back end could be vital for the defense’s progression.

Thornhill hasn’t quite been the same player since his terrific rookie season. That said, he’s bounced back nicely these past two years after a difficult 2020 filled with coverage busts. He can also provide positional flexibility by contributing as a slot corner. With his length and instincts, he can frustrate opposing offenses and bait quarterbacks into making costly errors. Thornhill tends to be inconsistent in coverage and as a tackler, but his high-end play can launch a secondary into forcing more turnovers and being more organized.

NFL: NFC Championship-San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Tackle

Dream Signing: Besides Chris Jones, no defensive tackle was more disruptive last season than Javon Hargrave. On a defensive line filled with great talent, Hargrave was the dominant presence that elevated them into becoming the most feared front four in the league. How he overpowers interior linemen consistently creates panic for opposing quarterbacks and opportunities for his teammates to finish his destruction caused in the trenches. It would be a major statement signing if the Falcons managed to acquire him.

Age shouldn’t be a deterrent in pursuing him. Despite being 30 years old, Hargrave’s skillset should translate well for the long haul. His durability should be valued as well. He has only missed three games in his seven-year career. To be disruptive and able to take on double teams is a tremendous asset, particularly on an undersized defense that has been overpowered over the past several seasons. Similar to Bates, any team that signs Hargrave is getting a player that will significantly change their defense. Top-tier defensive players don’t hit the open market often. Capitalize on the moment in getting a real tone-setter and playmaker.

Solid Keeper: If past connections to the Saints or Titans are going to be utilized, the best player to pursue is David Onyemata. The power, hand usage, and balance he possesses make him a force to be reckoned with. On an ultra-talented New Orleans’ defense, the disruptive defensive tackle didn’t receive the national recognition his performance warranted. His capabilities are well-known by coaches and scouts across the league. Opposing offensive lines know how much of a handful he is, especially the Falcons.

There is naturally going to be concern about spending significant money on players 30 years old or older when your team is nowhere near being a Super Bowl contender. It takes identifying which veterans can make a drastic difference as leaders in the locker room and talent to address the biggest positional flaws. Onyemata’s familiarity working with Nielsen would mesh with the rebuilding of the defense.

The chaos he can create with Grady Jarrett on twists must immediately get the coaching staff salivating. With many available talented defensive tackles, the Falcons must prioritize signing one of them. Onyemata would be the most sensible addition, based on his productivity and relationship with the coaching staff.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Edge Rusher

Dream Signing: It’s been some time since the edge rusher market was so depleted. It’s largely comprised of aging players and one-dimensional pass rushers. As exciting as his highlight reel is, breaking the bank to sign Marcus Davenport doesn’t seem like a memorable dream. His inconsistency and injuries could result in another disappointing, nightmarish attempt to solve the incessant pass-rushing woes. This isn’t the time to go above and beyond for an edge rusher in free agency. It’s best to take a chance on someone intriguing from an outstanding defensive unit like Charles Omenihu.

On one of the deepest defensive lines in the league, the former Texan shined in a supporting role playing across the defensive line. His ability to convert speed to power is evident. Offensive linemen have fits trying to fare with his hand usage and long arms. Omenihu’s versatility made a massive difference for the best defense in the league, particularly on wild card weekend against the Seahawks.

Weighing 280 pounds, he does fit Nielsen’s style of edge defenders from a size standpoint. Signing him wouldn’t generate initial huge buzz, but his power and agility could make him an instant fan favorite within a few weeks. The organization would need to do its due diligence to ensure he isn’t facing a long suspension following his arrest in January.

Solid Keeper: It would be wise to sign an edge rusher entering their prime than hope an aging edge rusher can jump in and possibly deliver one more ten-sack season. This is still a rebuilding process, where players must be counted on for the long haul. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is arguably the most fascinating free agent in the edge rusher market. After three-and-half seasons of playing a backup role, he had an opportunity to take on an enhanced role on a rebuilding Houston team. Okoronkwo capitalized on the chance in Week 11 against Washington and started playing 30 or more snaps a game.

Per Pro Football Focus, the former fifth-round pick had the eighth-highest pass-rush win rate in the league. That’s going to catch the interest of scouts across the NFL, where edge rushers that can win one-on-one are more valued than ever in today’s game. Okoronkwo possesses a wicked spin move, along with noticeably beating tackles inside with his get-off. His athleticism tends to catch tackles off guard because he does like to mix it up and not go 100 miles per hour frequently when rushing the quarterback.

There is only a small sample size of him being productive, which likely means he will receive only one-year offers. A team like the Falcons can make low-risk, high-reward signings. The way he wins off the edge is enough to justify taking a chance on him to bolster an anemic pass rush.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Wide Receiver

Dream Signing: When writing about the importance of signing a number two wide receiver, Allen Lazard was the first player mentioned and most highlighted in the recent feature. His large frame, ability to make contested catches, and tremendous blocking make him a perfect fit for Smith’s offense. While he doesn’t possess the speed to stretch defenses, Lazard can be a vertical threat with his impressive catch radius. Averaging over 13 yards per catch over the course of his career showcases what he can produce as an all-around wide receiver.

There is trepidation over how much he is going to demand on the open market. It’s hard to believe the price tag will be too steep. The league should know by now that Lazard is a number two wide receiver, best suited to be a strong complimentary piece. Watching the Packers continuously struggle to pass the ball last season is a prime example of why Lazard can’t be counted on as a focal point of the passing game. Not having Aaron Rodgers anymore must be considered, especially when looking at how picture-perfect the throws were on many of Lazard’s most memorable plays in a Green Bay uniform. That said, Lazard is a fine player that brings the size, toughness, and big-play ability the Falcons’ offense sorely needs outside of Drake London and Kyle Pitts.

Solid Keeper: For the first time doing this piece, there will be a repeat selection. Detroit’s wide receiver room is awfully crowded. They need to upgrade in several areas on their roster. That should mean D.J. Chark will be on the market again. In a lackluster wide receiver free agency group, Chark stands out once again as he did last season, making my list. A big-body vertical threat who can stretch defenses will attract plenty of attention.

Despite not being very physical, Chark is someone who can make contested catches and overwhelm cornerbacks with his size. He showed flashes of his best form last season in a surprisingly prolific Lions’ offense. Chark can win on the outside and instantly take the pressure off Atlanta’s young pass-catching star rising star duo. What is most concerning stems from Chark’s extensive injury history. That alone could cause the front office to look elsewhere. For all those concerns, his playmaking ability can’t be overlooked. According to Pro Football Focus, Chark caught 33 passes thrown 15 yards or more and scored 11 touchdowns on those throws over the past four seasons. His production is too good not to consider signing him.

NFL: Super Bowl LVII-Kansas City Chiefs vs Philadelphia Eagles Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Left Guard

Dream Signing: The center position is technically a more immediate need, but the available options leave a lot to be desired. No player falls under the dream category. Therefore, why not address another significant positional weakness at left guard? As competent as Elijah Wilkinson was, he isn’t someone to build with. Using the cap space to sign a certified tone-setter and valuable member of the best offensive line in the league would be a true statement of intent. Isaac Seumalo would be a stellar signing.

After losing his starting place at left guard due to injury and Landon Dickerson’s emergence in 2021, Seumalo responded by earning his spot at right guard and becoming a stalwart between two of the best players at their respective position in Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson. For all the damage done in the run-blocking department, Seumalo is equally consistent in pass protection. His experience playing left guard, and the nasty edge he brings to the table will make him the most coveted offensive guard in free agency. If the Falcons want to have the best guard duo in the league, they can make it happen with Seumalo joining forces with Chris Lindstrom.

Solid Keeper: Coming off a down season and making headlines for the wrong reasons, it will be interesting to see the market for Dalton Risner. There are plenty of teams in need of improved guard play. Organizations won’t forget about his impressive 2021 nor dismiss the turbulent environment in Denver. He has four years of experience starting and staying healthy at left guard. Given how much instability the Falcons have faced at the position, Risner would be a sensible signing to provide solidity.

How he fits in could be an issue. While he has performed well as a pass blocker, his run blocking has been subpar for the majority of his career. Can he fit into the offense’s multiple styles of run blocking in a run-first offense? Transitioning from a largely predictable offense to one of the more diverse schemes could be overwhelming.

Risner’s run-blocking inefficiency is concerning, but his value as a pass blocker and staying durable is enough to pursue him. There’s also no telling how much Smith’s system enhances Risner’s abilities. Kaleb McGary is living proof of what terrific coaching can do for an offensive lineman.