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Atlanta’s 2024 free agent class is heavy on prove-it players

Atlanta’s roster figures to undergo plenty of churn again next year.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons Minicamp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons figure to be sitting on a metric buttload of cap space, to use the preferred European measurement, when the 2024 league year opens. That’s partly because of the lack of big ticket deals for this roster right now and partly because a number of players on short-term deals are set to hit free agency, making next year the ultimate prove-it season for many players on this roster.

In total, 29 of Atlanta’s 39 impending 2024 free agents are on one-year deals, and a handful of others are former undrafted free agents looking to make a splash before entering the market. Only Cordarrelle Patterson is a player coming off a multi-year free agent deal set to hit the open market. Both of those numbers will inevitably fall as the team trims its roster, but there are a handful of major contributors and several likely depth options on that list, including Calais Campbell, Mack Hollins, and Jeff Okudah.

That’s likely a feature rather than a bug with Terry Fontenot’s roster-building approach. The Falcons have emphasized culture and ensuring players they bring in fit what they’re looking for from that perspective, as well as their on-field fit for this team. The easiest way to do that is to see how they fare for a year and learn whether they’re a Lorenzo Carter or a Bryan Edwards, and then you can either move on or sign a useful contributor to a multi-year pact. One-year deals offer you a trial run with players, and it gives you some year-to-year flexibility with your roster if you’re not trying to juggle 22 starters on long-term deals.

Both are important factors for the Falcons, who have been dealing with cap-related pain of Fontenot and Thomas Dimitroff’s making for several seasons. Atlanta had the ability to attract terrific players on long-term deals this year, scooping up free agents like Jessie Bates and Kaden Elliss, and added long-term options in the draft like presumptive starting left guard Matthew Bergeron and human Swiss army knife Bijan Robinson. They do not have the money and draft capital to turn over the entire roster in one go, naturally, and are intent on contending this season for real after a couple seasons of trying to make it work with duct tape. To do that, you need to fill in a couple of starting spots and several key depth roles with options that are either affordable, don’t require long-term commitments, or both, and Fontenot and company clearly relish trying to find bargain options to fill those spots. Even with a healthy influx of cap space figuring to be the norm for the next couple of offseasons, I doubt that will change.

So who is likely to prove they deserve another contract for Atlanta, out of the long list of potential re-signings? I’d look to:

  • Mack Hollins. I think ideally Hollins is not your #2 wide receiver over the next few seasons, but given how well he blocks and his usefulness as a receiving option, he’ll stick in Atlanta as high-end depth if that’s what he’d like to do. I don’t expect an Edwards repeat.
  • Jeff Okudah. A change of scenery might do wonders for Okudah, who was very highly thought-of as a top five selection a few years back but has endured an up-and-down career to this point. Atlanta could use a compelling long-term option opposite A.J. Terrell, who is headed for a huge extension, and they clearly hope Okudah can be that player.
  • Matt Hennessy. The Falcons like Hennessy and he remains one of the more versatile interior offensive linemen on the team, capable of playing guard or center and with some starting experience at both positions. At some point this year we’ll likely see him in a game, and given his likely affordability and familiarity with the system, he feels like a strong bet to return.
  • Jaylinn Hawkins. I already wrote about Hawkins, but suffice to say I think he has real value as the third safety on this defense and is set to prove that in 2023. Atlanta will need the depth option and the well-rounded game that Hawkins provides next season, just as they do this year.
  • Mykal Walker. I like Walker’s chances of bouncing back from a lackluster 2022 where he was ultimately benched in Ryan Nielsen’s defense, where he may get a chance to rush the passer as a reserve inside linebacker more often. Like Hawkins, if Walker can show he offers quality depth and versatility, he’ll stick.
  • Liam McCullough. He proved to be a quality longer snapper last year, and assuming he repeats that performance in 2023, the Falcons likely won’t be interested in shaking things up at a position where reliability is critical.
  • Feleipe Franks, Tae Davis, Frank Darby, Justin Shaffer, Ryan Neuzil, and Caleb Huntley. These are players the coaching staff either already has shown fondness for or figure to, with Davis providing the quality special teams work Marquice Williams looks for. All of them are affordable and have value as young depth, so barring awful years from any of them, I’d expect a 2024 return.

That doesn’t include players like Calais Campbell and Cordarrelle Patterson who remain terrific but are getting older, and it doesn’t include mid-tier options like Eddie Goldman and Bud Dupree who figure to be quality but also likely to be replaced by younger free agents or draft picks in 2024. There will likely be surprises not on this list and disappointments on it, but that’s for the season ahead to show us.

I’ll dive into some player profiles from this list—Matt Hennessy and Mack Hollins being two key examples—as part of my pivotal season series this summer. Suffice to say that most of the free agents set to hit the open market in 2024 from Atlanta have just one year to make their case to stick around when the Falcons are once again flush with cap space next season, especially with the core of this roster largely set to be under contract in the short-term. That adds another layer of intrigue to what’s already set to be the most interesting season of Falcons football in quite a few seasons.