Wide receiver, wide receiver, wide receiver.
As I wrote earlier this morning, the Falcons are doing a couple of things at the same time. One is hunkering down and trying to figure out how they’re going to message their failed attempt to trade for Deshaun Watson. The second is figuring out the roster, the most consequential piece of which is the return or non-return of Matt Ryan. There’s many needs beyond that, however.
I thought it would be worth spending part of your Saturday afternoon looking at the biggest remaining roster holes for the Falcons after the initial wave of free agency. Chances are good the team won’t sign anyone of consequence until they figure out whether they’re moving Ryan or not, but Terry Fontenot and the front office know they have some significant holes to patch.
Here are five that seem really urgent.
#1: Wide receiver
There couldn’t be another top option, honestly.
Olamide Zaccheaus is a fine player, but he is not a #1 wide receiver. Frank Darby is a promising young pro, but he barely got on the field a year ago. The Falcons are desperately thin at a position that was just a considerable strength two seasons ago, and they can’t go into the season with a depth chart like this (even with the addition of an early round rookie receiver) no matter who is under center.
The Falcons have met with or shown interest in Tre’Quan Smith, Jarvis Landry, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and possibly others, and getting at least one veteran in-house to provide experience and talent to this corps is going to be absolutely essential. Expect that to happen as soon as Ryan’s situation is resolved.
#2: Edge rusher/outside linebacker
This is the other absolutely gigantic need. Adetokunbo Ogundeji is a player the Falcons clearly want to feature, but he, a recently-converted-to-outside-linebacker John Cominsky and in-season practice squad callup James Vaughters are the only players with any experience rushing the passer here. The Falcons need high-end talent to add to this group, but failing that, one or two solid rotational guys would go a long way.
So far, they haven’t been connected to anyone here that I’m aware of, but that’ll have to change. There are talented pass rushers in this upcoming draft class, but the Falcons have shown they’re loathe to go into the draft absolutely having to sink a top pick into a particular position. Look for them to take a hard look at re-signing Steven Means because they seem to love him, as well as looking outside the organization for anybody with a pulse and a career sack to their name.
#3: Inside linebacker
Even if the Falcons just roll forward with Deion Jones and Mykal Walker, this remains a need because their depth is suspect. If they’re not planning to just hand Jones and Walker starting jobs, it’s much more of an urgent priority.
Again, this draft class has talent, and with Jones’ future uncertain it’s probably wise for the Falcons to bring in a young player they feel really good about for the years to come. That shouldn’t stop them from looking at the market, which has plenty of worthwhile options and more being added as teams release players like Joe Schobert and Kyle Van Noy.
I think the Falcons will add talent at both spots, but they may only add a starting caliber player at one. It’s a question of whether they are more willing to give Matt Hennessy or Jalen Mayfield a clear path to a starting job next year.
There’s plenty out there, even if top options former Bear James Daniels are gone. J.C. Tretter was released recently by the Browns and remains a very good starting center, and there are young linemen like Ryan Bates (who will not cost a pick to sign away from the Bills, who tendered him as a restricted free agent) who could be scooped up to compete at guard. Drew Dalman and Colby Gossett are in the fold, as well, but given the lack of starting experience in that group I’d expect the team to push for a veteran they feel good about pushing Mayfield or Hennessy hard this summer.
I am probably more bullish on Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins than most. Grant had his year to sit and learn and still looked like a solid enough player when he did get on the field, and the Falcons have stocked corner to the point where I think they’ll give him a real shot at starting at safety this year. Hawkins still has upside and showed flashes of being a starting-caliber player, as well.
That said, the Falcons are still thin here and will prefer to go into the year without handing either player a starting job. Perhaps Teez Tabor gets a look here, but I have to think a veteran signing is in the offing in the near future. That may be as simple as bringing Duron Harmon back, or it may be a bigger swing for someone like Terrell Edmunds or Juston Burris. The safety market is flush with solid options and there hasn’t been a lot of movement there thus far, so this may be a solid place to find a bargain starter.
This list could be ten items long or more—the tight end depth is thin, there’s no established punter or long snapper on the roster, quarterback might become an urgent priority very soon, etc.—but we’ll stop there for the moment. Who are you hoping the Falcons land to help fill these needs?