After back-to-back offseasons of crippling cap restrictions and offloading expensive veterans, Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith finally had some money to cook with. The team should look a lot different in 2023, thanks to a slew of new free agents on defense and some fresh rookies on offense.
We aren’t certain how it will shake out. The Falcons added some slam dunks like Jessie Bates at safety, but are still short elite talent at a few premium positions like EDGE and quarterback, seemingly comfortable bucking trends and focusing on a stout run game and growth from their in-house options. It is a bold move when so many other teams are building around elite passers.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell doesn’t see the vision. He looked at each team’s offseason and gauged how “wisely” each team approached its plan for improvement. The Falcons were apparently unwise in his eyes, landing far down the list at the 26th best offseason.
While Barnwell likes signing Bates, and thinks the defense should improve, he runs out of positive things to say extremely quickly. A number of the new defenders are on the older side, or for Atlanta’s newest corners Jeff Okudah and Mike Hughes, played poorly in 2022. Outside of Bates, Barnwell doesn’t see talent that can stick around long enough to be considered the team’s building blocks. Instead, he believes Atlanta will be stuck continuing to add new defenders in future years.
Barnwell spends most of his focus not on the defense, but on Desmond Ridder. While he briefly qualifies that Ridder needs more time, Barnwell is not a fan. While Ridder had some wins, Barnwell thinks they were against poor competition. He even says Ridder feels like a “David Mills” situation, referencing the Houston Texans rolling with a good but not great quarterback en route to a 3-13-1 record. Failing to provide more competition is apparently a red flag for Barnwell.
Oh, and he hates the Bijan Robinson pick.
Did the Falcons botch it?
From my perspective, the team needs to show it can win running “the piss out of the ball,” as head coach Arthur Smith once put it. The Falcons ran it more last year than any team and ended up 7-10. The Bears were second and ended up 3-14. The Eagles were third and ended up in the Super Bowl. I don’t know exactly what to take from that, but the Eagles surprised everyone in 2022 with some elite play by Jalen Hurts... and a heavy dose of the run game. Perhaps some teams are heading into a run-centric offense, but most around the league still view running the ball as a waste. I think winning, while utilizing Robinson effectively, can create some believers. It’s on the Falcons to do it and show their bet on Ridder and the run will pay off.
For the defense, Barnwell has a point. For great and young players, the Falcons added only Bates. However, for those non-Bates deals, the Falcons kept them shorter with less guaranteed money, continuing to audition players for long-term deals while targeting short term fixes. The team didn’t go out and make what I’d call a Thomas Dimitroff type of overpay.
Taking a look at the final contract numbers from free agency, there was a notable lack of top players at positions fitting Atlanta’s needs. The top guaranteed contract for an EDGE? That was Zach Allen, who had 5.5 sacks in 2022. Second and third were Dre’Mont Jones and Demarcus Walker with 6.5 sacks and 7.0 sacks last season, respectively.
Defensive tackle David Onyemata is 30, which is on the older side, but it is the same age as the top defensive tackle free agent Javon Hargrave, and one year older than the second-highest-paid defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. Shy Tuttle was the only young defensive tackle among the higher-paid at his position — but I don’t think it is clear he is good, let alone great.
Assuming the Falcons wanted to focus on offense early in the draft, I don’t know how else the team could have approached an uneven class of free agents. What defender should the Falcons have added that fits Barnwell’s own criteria of a young and great player? This is just an underwhelming group of free agents. Perhaps it’s a good thing the Falcons didn’t leverage the future to overpay some guys because they were there once the cap space returned.
Lastly, riding with Ridder is certainly a risk. I was critical that the team kept trotting out Marcus Mariota when it was clear he was not even a stopgap. We saw so little of Ridder that it is impossible to know what you are getting with him in 2023. Had we seen 8 or 9 games I think you can better gauge his possibilities and limitations.
However, similar to defenders in free agency, what were the options at quarterback? Atlanta signed Taylor Heinicke, who received the third highest total value contract and fourth highest annual average of quarterbacks in free agency. Those above him are Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, and, for the latter category, Jacoby Brissett. All are over 30 without much upside. I’m not convinced signing Carr to a $150 million deal would be the right answer for Atlanta, especially when you have a younger player in the wings with some upside and a cheap contract. Perhaps your best option would be trading the farm for Lamar Jackson? Whether right or not, no team in the NFL publicly expressed interest in that before he re-signed with Baltimore.
Did Atlanta have any good options in the draft? It missed out on the draft’s top three quarterbacks before its first pick. While it could have traded around, should it have grabbed Will Levis at 8? Hendon Hooker at 38? The only quarterback the Falcons could have drafted before Ridder was Kenny Pickett. Atlanta’s best option would have been drafting Justin Fields in 2021 if they wanted a player with sky-high potential. It says something that they targeted Ridder.
So dialing back to the original question: did the Falcons botch it? I don’t think the Falcons missed out on any clear solutions for defensive building blocks or quarterback competition. The money finally freed up but the combination between fits and talent weren’t all there. Instead of trying to force it, Terry Fontenot add multiple mid-tier signings behind Bates, aiming at lifting the roster and seeing who steps up this year.
I think it all circles back to if the Falcons can win running the ball. The team is going to run the ball. Arthur Smith can do that effectively, and with the addition of Robinson, he needs it to be the best in the league and put up points. Further, the run game should take some pressure off of both the defense and Ridder. It’s not difficult to see the formula here; it’s just that Barnwell and others don’t think the formula will work.
He’s outlining the worst case scenario for the Falcons here, where Ridder doesn’t pan out and the defense doesn’t make significant strides. You could probably simplify it even further without mentioning the defense or quarterback by looking ahead a little: draft a running back early and spend all that money and win only a few games, then you botched it.