We’re a month out from the start of the 2023 NFL season, and that means it’s time to get caught up on all the biggest moves made by our beloved Atlanta Falcons.
This has been the busiest offseason in recent memory and by far the most active of the current Arthur Smith/Terry Fontenot regime. Flush with cap space after eating over $80 million in dead cap in 2022, the team was aggressive in adding talent all across the roster in free agency.
Atlanta handed out significant extensions to two pillars on the offensive line, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, before spending big on a number of players. The team also said goodbye to several contributors from 2022’s roster and had a major coaching change at defensive coordinator. That’s before even getting to the 2023 NFL Draft, where the Falcons had the eighth overall pick.
Let’s take a closer look at Atlanta’s key departures and additions this offseason and how they’re expected to impact the team.
QB Marcus Mariota
New team: Philadelphia Eagles
There was a six-game stretch to open the 2022 season where Marcus Mariota led the Falcons offense on a top-10 overall pace. Unfortunately, things fell apart quickly in the second half of the season. Mariota was benched for rookie Desmond Ridder—who is slated to start this season—during the Week 14 bye and left the team shortly thereafter.
WR Olamide Zaccheaus
New team: Philadelphia Eagles
The former UDFA was Atlanta’s No. 2 receiver in 2022 and showed off good chemistry with Mariota. He didn’t seem to have the same connection with Ridder over the final four games, and wasn’t re-signed in the offseason.
CB Casey Hayward
New team: Free agent
There were high hopes for Casey Hayward to help stabilize an extremely young and unproven secondary outside of A.J. Terrell in 2022. He got off to a solid start before ending up on season-ending IR six weeks into the season. Atlanta released Hayward this offseason, saving $5 million in salary cap space.
CB Isaiah Oliver
New team: San Francisco 49ers
Isaiah Oliver had an up-and-down season as Atlanta’s slot starter in 2022, appearing in 12 games. It’s unclear if Atlanta made him an offer or not, but he chose to sign with the 49ers this offseason instead.
DC Dean Pees
The Falcons lost defensive coordinator Dean Pees to retirement this offseason. The legendary coach helped stabilize one of the worst defenses in the NFL over the last two years, but finally decided to call it a career.
DC Ryan Nielsen
Not a player, but a very important addition nonetheless. With Dean Pees’ retirement, Atlanta conducted a thorough search for a new defensive coordinator and settled on a familiar foe: Saints co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen. Nielsen is likely to bring a different style to the defense than Pees, but in terms of the specific scheme he will run, we’re still not sure.
S Jessie Bates III
The Falcons needed a difference-maker on the back end, and got one of the NFL’s best safeties in Jessie Bates III. Atlanta signed Bates to a four-year, $64 million contract ($16 million APY), making him the fourth-highest paid safety in the league. He immediately becomes the best safety that Atlanta has had since the days of prime William Moore.
DT David Onyemata
With Nielsen coming over, the Falcons clearly wanted to add some veterans with experience in his defense. The first was defensive lineman David Onyemata, who Atlanta signed to a three-year, $35 million ($11.6 million APY) contract early in free agency. A versatile interior player who brings high-level play as both a run defender and pass rusher, Onyemata finally gives Grady Jarrett the help he’s so desperately needed for years.
LB Kaden Elliss
Another Saints convert who had a phenomenal season when called up to the starting lineup, Kaden Elliss was signed to a three-year, $21.5 million ($7.1 million APY) contract this offseason. The veteran linebacker had a career year in 2022, grading out as the seventh-best at his position according to PFF and piling up seven sacks. He’s set to play a major role in the middle of Atlanta’s defense in 2023.
EDGE Calais Campbell
One of the biggest surprises of the offseason was veteran Calais Campbell’s decision to sign with the Falcons. Campbell, a legendary defensive lineman going into his age-37 season, was expected to join an obvious contender after being released by the Ravens for salary cap reasons. Instead he chose Atlanta due to his connection with the staff and the team’s willingness to play him on the outside. While he’s no longer a double-digit sack artist, Campbell remains one of the NFL’s best run defenders and a capable technician and power rusher. The Falcons did place Campbell on the Non-Football Injury list prior to training camp kicking off, but whatever he’s dealing with is not expected to have a long-term impact.
TE Jonnu Smith
It was clear that the Falcons needed to add more receiving weapons for rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder, and the team made a rather unheralded trade with the Patriots for tight end Jonnu Smith. Smith failed to flourish in New England over the past two seasons, but has made magic in the past with Arthur Smith. In their final season together in Tennessee (2020), Smith was a difference maker with 41 receptions for 448 yards (10.9 YPR) and a whopping eight touchdowns. For the price of just a 2023 seventh-round pick, this one was a no-brainer for the suddenly salary cap-flush Falcons.
CB Jeff Okudah
The Falcons have been looking for a capable outside starter opposite young star A.J. Terrell, trying to go the veteran route in 2021 with Casey Hayward. With Hayward coming off a season-ending injury, the team elected to made a trade with the Detroit Lions to acquire former third overall pick Jeff Okudah. Okudah has dealt with his fair share of injuries and has never lived up to his draft status, but he’s still just 24 years old and entering the final year of his rookie contract. This is a low-risk, high-reward move with the Falcons sending just a 2023 fifth-round pick for Okudah.
RB Bijan Robinson
Round 1, Pick 8
After flirting with the possibility of drafting Bijan Robinson all offseason, the Falcons made it a reality by selecting the electric talent with the eighth overall pick. It’s a controversial decision based on his position, but in Atlanta’s run heavy offense, Bijan could be poised for a massive rookie season. The Falcons have also gotten him heavily involved in the passing game over the course of the offseason workouts.
OL Matthew Bergeron
Round 2, Pick 38
The Falcons went all-in on bolstering the offense at the top of the 2023 NFL Draft, following up the selection of Bijan Robinson with offensive lineman Matthew Bergeron. A top college tackle prospect out of Syracuse with a sky-high ceiling at guard, Bergeron is being moved inside for Atlanta. He’ll factor into the battle for left guard immediately, going up against veteran Matt Hennessy. Given Bergeron’s talent advantage and prowess in the run game, the expectation is for him to emerge as the Week 1 starter.
As you can see, the Falcons gained quite a bit more than they lost this offseason. Atlanta made major improvements across the roster, raising the overall talent level of the team significantly. The only remaining question is: Will it translate to success in 2023?
Given the team’s overperformance with far less talent over the past two seasons, I’d say the odds are pretty good. The oddsmakers seem to agree, as Atlanta’s win total over/under is currently set at 8.5 and the team is second in odds to win the NFC South at +215 according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
What are your thoughts on Atlanta’s moves this offseason? Where do you see the team finishing in 2023?