The Atlanta Falcons have won at least seven games in four of the last five seasons, but they haven’t made the playoffs since the 2017 campaign. The Falcons have largely been stuck in the NFL’s middle tier, failing to rise out of the doldrums to make a postseason run.
That could potentially change in 2023. The NFC South is an eminently winnable division, especially now that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are taking a step back without Tom Brady. The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers present challenges, but Atlanta can theoretically go as far as second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder takes them.
Adding talent in free agency was a must for the Falcons, who also hold the No. 8 overall pick in next month’s draft. Let’s run through Atlanta’s major signings and grade how the club performed over the first wave of the free agent period.
Overall Atlanta Falcons Free Agency Grades
The Falcons entered free agency with more than $55 million in available cap space, second to only the Chicago Bears — and they certainly flexed their financial muscle over the past week.
Through Monday, Atlanta ranks fourth in overall 2023 free agent spending, third in fully guaranteed money, and second in first-year cash. Including their extension for guard Chris Lindstrom, the Falcons have given four players at least $11 million in annual salary.
Falcons Land Free Agency’s Best Safety in Jessie Bates III
Atlanta was pegged as a likely landing spot for Jessie Bates III, who finished out his Cincinnati Bengals career on the franchise tag. The Falcons, desperate for help in their defensive backfield, made Bates the NFL’s fourth-highest-paid safety by handing him a four-year, $64.02 million deal that includes $36 million in fully guaranteed money.
MORE: 2023 NFL Free Agency Winners
Bates is an excellent deep safety who will help erase any mistakes made by the rest of Atlanta’s secondary. Still, it’s possible the Falcons misread the free agent safety market, as no other safety signed for even half of what Bates will collect on an annual basis. Vonn Bell, Bates’ former teammate in Cincinnati, was the only free agent safety to land more than $7 million per year.
Bates is still only 26, and the Falcons had plenty of money to spend. Overpays happen in free agency — that’s just the nature of the game. If a team is going to overpay, it’s better to do it with an elite player who will barely be 30 years old by the time his contract ends.
Re-Signing Kaleb McGary Lets Atlanta Keep OL Intact
Given that the Kansas City Chiefs gave Jawaan Taylor $20 million to convert to left tackle, and the Denver Broncos handed Mike McGlinchey $17.5 million per year, the Falcons’ new deal with Kaleb McGary — which pays him $11.5 million annually — looks like an absolute steal.
The Falcons had previously turned down McGary’s fifth-year option for 2023, and the former first-round pick responded by posting the best season of his career. While he still has issues as a pass protector, McGary is outstanding in the run game, and Atlanta plays to his strengths by relentlessly deploying play action.
After re-signing McGary and giving Lindstrom an extension through 2028, the Falcons will bring back the entirety of an offensive line that saw rapid improvement last season. That level of continuity can only help Ridder as he ascends to a full-time starting role.
Falcons Overpay for Familiarity With David Onyemata
David Onyemata is a fine player. He’s played between 50% and 60% of the Saints’ snaps in each of the past six seasons, can push the pocket as a pass rusher, and offers familiarity with former New Orleans and current Atlanta defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen.
But he’s also entering his age-31 season. The Falcons already have another aged interior defender in Grady Jarrett, who will turn 30 years at the end of April. It doesn’t make much sense for a team in Atlanta’s position to spend heavily on two older defenders at the same spot.
Atlanta gave Onyemata $35 million over three years, including $24.5 million guaranteed. They’ll pay him nearly 50% of the contract’s value in the first year of the contract. This is money that could have been spent better elsewhere.
Kaden Elliss Gives Atlanta Another Ex-Saint Defender
Like Onyemata, Kaden Elliss spent multiple years with Nielsen in New Orleans, where he was used in a variety of roles, including inside and outside linebacker and defensive end.
“I didn’t really want to go somewhere I’d be put into a box,” Elliss said. “[I can] do multiple things that I think allow me to impact a game in a more dominant way. So, knowing that I was going to [be reunited] with coach Nielsen, and knowing how he has coached defense, and how he has coached me personally the last four years was a huge factor.”
MORE: NFL Free Agency Tracker 2023
Elliss broke out in his first season with a full-time role, managing seven sacks in 11 starts. He’s an ascending player, and while it was a mild surprise that he received more money than more established linebackers like Germaine Pratt and T.J. Edwards, Elliss is the type of player the Falcons should be taking chances on.
Jonnu Smith Will Try To Revitalize His Career With Falcons
Elliss and Onyemata aren’t the only new Falcons who came to Atlanta thanks to a coaching connection. The Falcons also acquired Jonnu Smith from the New England Patriots, hoping that the tight end’s relationship with Arthur Smith — who coached him with the Tennessee Titans — will help him overcome a disastrous two-year stint in New England.
“[He’s] just a wonderful, wonderful human being,” Smith said of his new coach. “It’s an honor to be playing with him. Art believed in me for all of my NFL career. It’s a blessing to be reunited with him — a guy who knows how to take advantage of my abilities … I’m just grateful.”
The Falcons gave up just a seventh-round pick to acquire Smith, whom they signed to a new two-year, $15 million contract with $8.5 million guaranteed. At that price, it was well worth it for Atlanta to see if Smith can regain the explosiveness he displayed over his final two seasons in Tennessee.
Falcons Replace Marcus Mariota With Taylor Heinicke
Taylor Heinicke probably isn’t the perfect scheme fit that Marcus Mariota was in Atlanta, but he’ll likely make up for any deficiencies with his attitude. While Mariota left the Falcons after being demoted in 2022, Heinicke was well-respected in Washington’s locker room and has already said he wants to be the “best backup” possible to Ridder.
Heinicke’s $7 million annual salary comes in at the top of the backup quarterback market, just behind Jacoby Brissett and Mitchell Trubisky. It’s difficult to say he isn’t worth that total, as Heinicke played well in 26 starts for the Commanders over the past two years. Atlanta probably doesn’t want to see Heinicke under center in 2023, but if he has to play, the Falcons can be sure he’s up to the task.
Lorenzo Carter Re-Signs at an Affordable Rate
The Falcons signed Lorenzo Carter for $3.5 million last offseason and, following a productive campaign, brought him back for two years at $4.5 million each. The deal is essentially structured as a one-year, $5.25 million pact with a team option for the 2024 campaign.
MORE: 2023 NFL Free Agency Best Contracts
That’s an excellent value for Carter, who set new career highs with 17 starts and 81% playtime in 2022. Carter won’t suddenly become a star in his sixth NFL campaign, but he’s a productive player at a premium position. He’s penciled in as a starter, but he could give up snaps to promising young edge rushers like Arnold Ebiketie or DeAngelo Malone as the season progresses.
Mack Hollins is Atlanta’s No. 2 WR (For Now)
Mack Hollins nearly equaled his career receiving yardage total by posting 690 yards for the Las Vegas Raiders in 2022. To be fair, 158 of those yards came in a single game, but the fact that he was able to earn 90 targets in the Raiders’ offense is still impressive.
For the Falcons, Hollins’ ability as a blocker is perhaps even more important than his receiving production. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Hollins is more than willing to get involved in the run game. Given that Atlanta ran the ball more than any team in the league except the Chicago Bears, Hollins is a perfect fit, especially at only $2.5 million.