As the Falcons look to figure out the landscape of their franchise following a botched trade attempt, they are making moves in free agency to improve their roster.
We are about one week into free agency signings. After losing two key players on the first two days, the Falcons started to get active and signed a few notable veterans. It’s an encouraging step for a team that desperately needs to upgrade in several areas of their roster. There is still plenty that needs to be done, especially as the team hurries past their failed attempt to trade for Deshaun Watson and deals with the fallout, including the current uncertainty with Matt Ryan.
We’ve talked quarterback a lot of late, and some of those other moves have understandably gotten lost in the background. That’s why we’re here today, discussing everything from additions to losses to questions about potential upcoming moves. The boss man Dave Choate is joining me for this roundtable. Let’s get started.
Should the Falcons have looked to sign a younger cornerback, or does Casey Heyward fulfill the gaping hole opposite A.J. Terrell?
Allen Strk: Adding a more long-term fit would have been nice, but the Falcons would have to spend more than they would have liked on a cornerback entering their prime. Instead, they made one of the best signings they could have made to address a major positional need. Fabian Moreau played hard last season, but his limitations in man coverage proved to be costly. Signing a player as battle-tested and savvy as Hayward is a brilliant move. Hayward played an influential role in helping the Raiders exceed all expectations and make the playoffs.
The Athletic’s Vic Tafur highlighted his standout performances and leadership in pushing the Raiders to be better. That type of veteran presence is sorely needed in Atlanta. Despite turning 33 years old in September, the two-time All-Pro is still playing at a high level. His ability to play man and zone coverage will give Dean Pees more flexibility. It will also force quarterbacks to risk throwing the ball more often in A.J. Terrell’s direction. Signing Hayward opens up schematic possibilities and creates more opportunities to force turnovers. This is a fantastic move by the Falcons.
Dave Choate: I think Hayward is a great pickup. My general preference across the roster is that this team get younger and set themselves up for long-term success at as many positions as possible, so I don’t think the signing of Hayward should prevent them from picking a cornerback up in the NFL Draft this April. This team needs to practice what they’ve preached and think beyond 2022.
That said, Hayward is a really terrific player, and the best #2 cornerback the Falcons have had since prime Robert Alford. Atlanta is not going to be any better this year without actually upgrading positions on the roster, something that’s difficult to do on a budget, but Hayward is better than Fabian Moreau and the defense is considerably better with Hayward. At least for this year, it feels like a great signing.
Damien Williams adds a different dimension to the backfield as a shifty, pass-catching running back. How big of a role can you see him playing?
Allen Strk: Williams is likely best suited as a change-of-pace back. Since he won the Super Bowl with the Chiefs, he hasn’t played much football. The Super Bowl hero opted out in 2020 and barely featured for the Bears in 2021. That should mean he isn’t as worn down as most running backs usually are when they turn 30 years old. Williams could potentially handle third-down duties, along with receiving four to six carries a game.
His explosive, one-cut style is a refreshing change from the power running of Mike Davis and Qadree Ollison. There will be ways for Williams to be a positive contributor. It’s just a matter of managing expectations for a player who hasn’t played much in the past two seasons, along with having only one season of running the ball more than 100 times.
Dave Choate: I think we’re talking about a small but important role, though the continued presence of Mike Davis and the re-signing of Cordarrelle Patterson makes me wonder exactly how this backfield is going to shake out. If the team keeps this group as is—if there’s no rookie coming and Patterson isn’t going to take on a larger role as a traditional receiver—I would see Williams slotting into a similar role as he did in Chicago. That would see him getting a small handful of carries per game and a handful of targets as the nominal third back, and gives the Falcons a player they presumably like and trust to do that job all year, rather than cycling through options as they did in 2021.
Given how old this backfield is—everyone’s 30ish—I can’t see them passing up the chance to add young talent to this group, and I’m still not sure they hang on to Davis. Williams will be a solid addition regardless, and quality insurance in case injuries crop up here.
Who is one wide receiver you think the Falcons should make a priority to sign?
Allen Strk: Julio Jones would be the answer by default. That clearly isn’t going to happen. Considering he hasn’t been signed yet, I’m going to stick with my free agency wishlist selection and pick Will Fuller. The Falcons are in dire need of a deep threat at wide receiver. Fuller’s ability to stretch the field makes him a threat at all times. How he can get behind the defense will help open space up in the short and intermediate areas.
There isn’t much risk in signing him. While he has struggled to stay on the field and doesn’t have the most reliable hands, it wouldn’t hurt to take a chance on an explosive wide receiver with a solid resume. The wide receiver market is mostly filled with aging veterans and lackluster players. Fuller offers something different with his big-play ability. As long as he is healthy and ready to re-establish himself as a productive wide receiver, the contract offer should be made.
Dave Choate: I’m surprised to be saying this because I’ve had my criticism for him over the years, but Jarvis Landry. The Falcons badly need to add someone with a proven track record of handling volume short-to-intermediate targets given that Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage are now gone, and Landry’s been doing that forever. He’s not the most enticing option out there, but he’d be a reliable addition to soak up targets in this passing game.
I’d like to see the Falcons also explore Tre’Quan Smith (who I think just needs a change of scenery), Julio Jones if he’ll come back (the recent injury history means he can’t be your relied-upon #1), and Jamison Crowder, among others. The reality is they need more than one addition, but Landry’s reliability would make him a nice target for Matt Ryan or whoever else is under center in 2022.
Who will the Falcons miss more between Russell Gage and Foye Oluokun?
Allen Strk: At this time last year, if both players left, Oluokun would have been my pick without hesitation. His performance in 2020 was that special. Unfortunately, he fell short of high expectations in 2021 despite the gaudy tackle numbers and late-season turnovers. Oluokun is still a good player, but Gage gets the slight nod over him as the more valuable player. There were times that Gage carried the passing game last season.
His ability to create separation, make plays after the catch, and embrace the physical aspects of playing wide receiver makes him such a unique playmaker. Oluokun will certainly be missed, but Gage played more at a consistent level and developed into a dependable weapon. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him post career highs in all major statistical categories next season playing with the greatest quarterback of all time.
David Choate: Right now, I’d say Gage. The Falcons have been shedding reliable receivers, and for all Gage’s frustrating inconsistency in the early going in 2021, he had a good rapport with Matt Ryan and delivered plenty of big efforts in the second half. The Falcons simply don’t have in-house replacements for him, and that’s a big problem. I do think they can if they’re savvy this offseason, rebuild the receiving corps in such a way that they can make up for his loss without huge heartbreak.
With Oluokun, so much hinges on Mykal Walker. I personally think Walker is good enough to step in and start, though you should expect some hiccups along the way, and that he’s physical enough and aggressive enough to force some of the turnovers the Falcons relied upon Oluokun for in 2021. Obviously, Oluokun delivered some huge games last year the team will miss, but between Walker and a quality draft class, I think they’ll be able to make up for his loss.
The bottom line is that both players will be missed, but if the Falcons play their cards right, neither one should be a fatal loss.
Besides wide receiver, what is one position that the Falcons should look to address and sign a quality player this week?
Editor’s Note: This was written before the Falcons signed Lorenzo Carter, so obviously we like that.
Allen Strk: They must sign an edge rusher. The Falcons can’t solely rely on the draft to build a competent pass rush. It doesn’t matter that they can land an All-Pro caliber player. What they can do is sign legitimate contributors to start putting together a respectable defense. How they failed to sign one last year proved to be devastating. Opposing quarterbacks were able to stand tall in the pocket and pad their numbers when facing Pees’ defense. That can’t happen again. Action has to be taken.
Signing Jadeveon Clowney (sorry, Dave) and Za’Darius Smith won’t likely happen due to cap constraints. If they could pursue Trey Flowers or Derek Barnett, it would make a significant difference in adding an actual threat off the edge. Both players are nasty, violent, and can overwhelm opposing tackles with power. That type of edge rusher has been sorely lacking since Takk McKinley fell out of favor in Atlanta. The front office has to strike a deal with an edge rusher at some point. It will help the defense and should make a difference in helping the development of the high-round pick they use on an edge rusher.
Dave Choate: I think you have to add a capable edge rusher or two, even if they’re not world-beaters. This team is urgently short on quality options there a year after posting one of the saddest pass rushes in NFL history.
I like Adetokunbo Ogundeji, but he’s got work ahead of him to become a real force as a pass rusher. James Vaughters is a quality rotational option and John Cominsky still has the talent to become one, but it goes without saying that even if they add a really high-upside pass rusher in the draft, they’ll still be well short of having a great stable of options on the edge.
If I’m the Falcons, I’m looking hard at adding someone like Barnett or Jordan Willis, pass rushers with some flaws but have youth and some upside on their side, instead of trying to paper over with durable, reliable veterans who don’t offer much of anything as pass rushers. The Falcons can’t afford to repeat last year’s pitiful pass rush performance.