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Falcons free agency preview: Breaking down the needs, replacements - The Athletic


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by Tori McElhaney for The Athletic

 

The reigning Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers if you needed a refresher, offer a good example of how winning the offseason means a team has a good shot of winning the season. The team the Bucs won a Super Bowl with was not the team the Bucs ended the 2019 season with, nor was it the roster they started the year with. Tom Brady aside, it was a different team with a different identity, all founded on moves the front office made during the offseason.

That brings us to the start of the offseason, or better yet, the free-agency extravaganza that follows a Super Bowl.

There are teams that already have jumped right into the offseason. With the Matthew Stafford trade to the Los Angeles Rams basically old news at this point, teams are well on their way to making lofty decisions. The Falcons are not likely to be big-time players in the free-agent market this year, but how much they are willing to do depends on how many risks new general manager Terry Fontenot wants to take.

The Falcons’ season has been over for more than two months. While we’ve already discussed free agency a little during those months, the Falcons have been quiet. But that probably has more to do with the fact that the front office and coaching staff have changed than it does the Falcons not wishing to do much in free agency. They’ll be active in the free-agent market simply because they have a lot of decisions to make and a lot of needs that the draft can’t fill completely. Still, it will be a challenge, and they likely will make smaller moves to address the roster needs. But it will be important to look at what they do in free agency for the sake of the organization’s future. So, let’s break down the Falcons’ situation heading into their first offseason with a new general manager and coach.

Areas of need 

Edge rusher: This position has come up quite a lot for the Falcons in recent years, and it’ll be the same story heading into this offseason. The Falcons went into 2020 hoping for a turnaround at this position, but that didn’t happen. To say the Falcons’ pick of Takk McKinley in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft was a letdown is the understatement of the year in Atlanta. He should have been relieved of his Falcons helmet before 2020 even began seeing as he was never healthy enough to play and then took his displeasure to Twitter before being released during the middle of the season. Then, there’s Dante Fowler, who had a really good year in 2019 with the Rams. That success didn’t translate with the Falcons, however, and Fowler and the coaches have said the Fowler the Falcons got in 2020 was not the one they thought they were acquiring. They needed a lot more from him, so the Falcons will go back to the drawing board with this position.

Running back: This position is tricky, more so than the other two positions on this list just because of the lifespan of running backs in the league. Like Fowler, Todd Gurley didn’t really pan out in his one year with the Falcons. It’s hard to imagine that the Falcons will keep Gurley after Ito Smith was the go-to back during the final few weeks of the season. With that in mind, the Falcons wouldn’t have a lead dog in the race of the running game. They will have to find one, and it may be more difficult to find one in free agency than in the draft. Both are a gamble in different ways, but that’s a gamble the Falcons will have to take to find someone to help better establish the run.

Safety: The secondary needed help before the 2020 season and before this free-agency period, but now the Falcons perhaps have the means of finding someone to help out, and it may need to be a few players. An interesting notion here is that the Falcons could clean house in this unit if they so choose. Damontae Kazee is coming off a season-ending Achilles tear. He’ll be a free agent. While Keanu Neal looked as good as he has in years — he finally was fully healthy after two season-ending injuries — he’ll be a free agent, too, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be resigned. Then, there’s Ricardo Allen, who is entering the final season on his contract. He could be a casualty if the chips fall a certain way. The Falcons could be looking at a brand new group of safeties in 2021, and trying to fill much-needed unity would fall greatly on the shoulders of those signed in free agency.

Key names to target

(with notes from Sheil Kapadia’s 2021 NFL Free Agency Rankings)

Bud Dupree, Edge (Steelers)

“It’s possible that Dupree settles for a one-year deal and then tries to cash in next offseason. But given his age, production and versatility, it would be no surprise to see Dupree land a long-term deal that pays him north of $15 million per year.” — Kapadia

This is what the Falcons need: someone versatile and productive and someone they can get for a quick, good price. As Sheil wrote, there’s a chance that Dupree could land a longer-term deal, which is not something the Falcons may be in the position to do. But if the Falcons can cut him a one-year deal that is intriguing to the edge rusher, this could be a good fit. Plus, he’s from Georgia, so …

Leonard Floyd, Edge (Rams)

“The change of scenery served him well. The Bears released Floyd, and the Rams signed him to a one-year, $10 million deal. Floyd finished ninth in the league with 10.5 sacks and tied for 19th with 19 QB hits.” — Kapadia

What the Falcons don’t need is a repeat of 2020 with Dante Fowler, another Rams cast-off. Fowler underperformed in 2020 after the best single-year performance of his career in 2019. While he won’t be likely to go anywhere in 2021, the pressure is on for him to produce. What does this have to do with Floyd? Well, for starters, the Falcons won’t want to be burned by another Rams one-hit-wonder if that is indeed what Fowler and Floyd are. Floyd is a gamble in much of the same way Fowler was. Are the Falcons willing to roll the dice again? Oh, and Floyd is also from Georgia …

Trey Hendrickson, Edge (Saints)

“Teams will have to weigh his 2020 production against previous years to determine whether Hendrickson is a one-year wonder or an ascending player.” — Kapadia

Whether Hendrickson could be a good fit with the Falcons may fall on the shoulders of Fontenot. Fontenot would know Hendrickson well, coming from the Saints, himself. What does Fontenot see when he looks at a player like Hendrickson? His word may carry a lot of weight in regards to whether or not the Falcons would look Hendrickson’s way in free agency.

Marcus Williams, S (Saints)

“Williams should be among the more attractive starting-caliber free safety options available on the open market.” — Kapadia

Another potential Saints up-and-comer the Falcons could grab a hold of with the help and keen eye of Fontenot. If the money is there (which is a big if for every name on this list), Williams could be a solid piece to begin filling the safety position.

Richard Sherman, CB (49ers)

“If healthy, Sherman can still be effective. But given his age, he might be looking at another incentive-laden deal or a one-year contract.” — Kapadia

Let’s just add this name for kicks and giggles, shall we? What if the Falcons feel as though they need more help in the secondary, more experienced, veteran talent? What if all they can offer someone is a one-year deal? Could Sherman be a good fit, even given his age? Perhaps, if the Falcons think he can remain healthy. Sherman thinks so, saying just recently that he planned to play two more years before retiring. Is that a risk Atlanta would be willing to take?

Desmond King, CB (Titans)

“King will likely be viewed by most teams as a nickel or a hybrid defensive back who can also be an option in the return game.” — Kapadia

The Falcons may be looking for someone just like King to fill certain needs the team will have this year. There’s no guarantee that Darqueze Dennard and Blidi Wreh-Wilson return, and they were two of the primary options the Falcons used at nickel. Would new coach Arthur Smith and defensive coordinator Dean Pees see to it that a former Titans player follows them to Atlanta? It seems likely.

Key names who might leave

• The aformentioned: Gurley, Neal, Kazee, Dennard and Wreh-Wilson

• Alex Mack at center

• Defensive ends Steven Means and Charles Harris

It will be a successful free agency if the Falcons … 

Hit on mid-level free agents: The Falcons are working within the confines of a tight salary cap. Anyone who even remotely follows the Falcons knows they’re almost always working in tight spaces in regards to the cap. That will not change for Fontenot and Smith as they take over. This means that it will be important that the Falcons find some mid-level free agents who actually work out, which is not really something the Falcons have been known for in recent years. Fortunately for the Falcons, that’s what Fontenot is really good at. Take a look at what The Athletic’s Jeff Duncan wrote when Fontenot was hired by the Falcons:

“Terry also has a keen eye for talent and understood how to find players who fit the vision of the Saints’ coaching staff and scheme. Demario Davis is by far his best free-agent signing. Few people had ever heard of him when the Saints brought him in, and he’s become a team captain, a leader and an All-Pro. But even more impressive has been Terry’s ability to beat the bushes and find mid- and veteran-minimum-level players to bolster the team’s depth and fill out the roster. Players like Malcom Brown, Latavius Murray, James Hurst, Nick Easton and Ty Montgomery have come in and played key roles and allowed the team to withstand attrition and injuries, which is so critical in today’s game.”

That is what the Falcons desperately need. And with the Falcons not hitting on those kinds of players in the past, it will be the best-case scenario if Fontenot continues to find these undervalued free agents and turn them into must-haves for Atlanta in much of the same way he did for New Orleans.

Get one big player who can come in and make a difference immediately: The Falcons don’t need to gamble in the same way they did with Fowler in 2020. Fowler had a really great year with the Rams in 2019, but his track record prior to that one year wasn’t impressive. The Falcons were hoping that one year wasn’t a fluke, and it still may not be. Fowler may come out in 2021 and be the player the Falcons need him to be, but he hasn’t been that player yet.

What the Falcons need is someone with a track record, preferably on defense, and they need experience. They need someone known for getting the job done consistently throughout his career. They don’t necessarily need the biggest of big names because their cap space will not allow for that, but they do need a proven veteran. As Pees said in his introductory news conference, he likes how young the Falcons are. But Pees wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to get a veteran with experience in there to help.

Escape the cap situation with minimal setbacks: Things are tight. It’s a challenge to work around that margin, but Rich McKay said the people who interviewed for the GM job didn’t see it as a constraint. In his own introductory news conference, Fontenot said as much.

“We understand where we are as a team,” Fontenot said. “We understand the salary cap, and we understand that, hey, we are going to make decisions to have sustained success. We are not going to be prisoners of the moment. We are not going to make decisions that are going to help us in 2021 but they are going to hurt us in ’22 and ’23. We are going to think big picture and do the right things because the goal here is to build the team the right way and have sustained success.”

Free agency is a workaround for the Falcons right now. They need to use it in a way that makes sense, and not breaking the bank in free agency will be the way to do that. The Falcons may have to sign more players to shorter deals to get the team to a point where it can start thinking about the bigger picture with the likes of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in the future. The organization has to get to that point first where it can consider bigger contracts, so by being frugal in this year’s free agency, perhaps that gets the Falcons to a better spot in the future. They certainly don’t look to have the means to be big-time movers and shakers in free agency right now, but in a couple of years, that may be a different story.

 

 

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The article acts as though the Bucs weren’t a very talented team in 2019 which is not the case. The Bucs were absolutely loaded but had a QB that chunked 30 interceptions. The single biggest thing that transpired was acquiring TB12. Sure they added some pieces but they had a great core of players in ‘19 and a much better roster than the Falcons have going into ‘20. It’s not fair to compare the two rosters. The Falcons are no where near as close as the Bucs imo 

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So this idea that Dupree is better for us on a one year deal is nonsense.  If he's the guy, you sign him multi year and back load it because of cap issues.  If he isn't, you move along.

He should have added Rico to the list of guys we might move on from.  There's cap savings there we can apply to a FA contract for another S.  The other option is to extend him, and I think that probably depends on what Dean Pees sees on tape.

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11 minutes ago, Atl Falcon said:

The article acts as though the Bucs weren’t a very talented team in 2019 which is not the case. The Bucs were absolutely loaded but had a QB that chunked 30 interceptions. The single biggest thing that transpired was acquiring TB12. Sure they added some pieces but they had a great core of players in ‘19 and a much better roster than the Falcons have going into ‘20. It’s not fair to compare the two rosters. The Falcons are no where near as close as the Bucs imo 

Some pieces?  lmao.  Those some pieces played a huge part in their year and superbowl win.

Gronk

AB

Fournette

Wirfs

Winfield

Suh

And that's off the top of my head.  Brady was a huge piece for sure but to dismiss their draft and signings as some pieces is a bit disingenuous.  I could easily make the argument that any QB that didn't turn the ball over like Jameis would have succeeded on this team, in this system with that roster.

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21 hours ago, JDaveG said:

So this idea that Dupree is better for us on a one year deal is nonsense.  If he's the guy, you sign him multi year and back load it because of cap issues.  If he isn't, you move along.

He should have added Rico to the list of guys we might move on from.  There's cap savings there we can apply to a FA contract for another S.  The other option is to extend him, and I think that probably depends on what Dean Pees sees on tape.

We are 100% more likely to target multi year deals since our cap space opens up significantly in 2022

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3 minutes ago, athell said:

Some pieces?  lmao.  Those some pieces played a huge part in their year and superbowl win.

Gronk

AB

Fournette

Wirfs

Winfield

Suh

And that's off the top of my head.  Brady was a huge piece for sure but saying to dismiss their draft and signings as some pieces is a bit disingenuous.

Of that group, only Wirfs and to a lesser degree Winfield had a significant impact on the year as a whole.  They all balled out in the SB though.

 

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56 minutes ago, JDaveG said:

So this idea that Dupree is better for us on a one year deal is nonsense.  If he's the guy, you sign him multi year and back load it because of cap issues.  If he isn't, you move along.

He should have added Rico to the list of guys we might move on from.  There's cap savings there we can apply to a FA contract for another S.  The other option is to extend him, and I think that probably depends on what Dean Pees sees on tape.

He did mention Rico as someone we might move on from depending on how the chips fall. 

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1 minute ago, JohnnyFranchise said:

safety, edge, running back ..... draft, draft, draft.

but seriously, a FA safety would be a nice pickup. edge i'd draft and see what pees can do with it. RB is a no-brainer, i'm drafting 2 of them and udfa another 1 or 2.

I agree, i would resign means and draft heavy at dt/de ( do I  hear barmore?), but my big fa splash would be a vet safety.

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2 minutes ago, JohnnyFranchise said:

safety, edge, running back ..... draft, draft, draft.

but seriously, a FA safety would be a nice pickup. edge i'd draft and see what pees can do with it. RB is a no-brainer, i'm drafting 2 of them and udfa another 1 or 2.

And necessary unless we're drafting 3 safeties. I agree edge is deep enough to draft and also figure out how to use Fowler. He's pretty key I think considering it's too much dead money to just dump him.

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2 hours ago, JDaveG said:

So this idea that Dupree is better for us on a one year deal is nonsense.  If he's the guy, you sign him multi year and back load it because of cap issues.  If he isn't, you move along.

He should have added Rico to the list of guys we might move on from.  There's cap savings there we can apply to a FA contract for another S.  The other option is to extend him, and I think that probably depends on what Dean Pees sees on tape.

For the love of... Rico... oh man here we go again... for crying out loud please get rid of this guy!

Sad Cry GIF by SWR3

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9 minutes ago, HASHBROWN3 said:

For the love of... Rico... oh man here we go again... for crying out loud please get rid of this guy!

Sad Cry GIF by SWR3

I like Rico, but I think we can upgrade the position given his cap hit.  If he made less money I'd want to keep him.

Also, if we run more cover 2 he's a little less exposed.  His range and speed are his downfalls in cover 3/cover 1.

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1 minute ago, JDaveG said:

I like Rico, but I think we can upgrade the position given his cap hit.  If he made less money I'd want to keep him.

Also, if we run more cover 2 he's a little less exposed.  His range and speed are his downfalls in cover 3/cover 1.

I get all that & I too really appreciate him as a man, but for me, every year we had him back there as our S, meant another year of just blah blah blah mediocrity.  

If our other guys are too stupid to know what to do out there & we needed Rico to show them every year, then it's nothing but a continuous circle jerk of failure.  

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