1. The no-spin zone: After reviewing their roster, projecting who must be retained and who may be available in free agency, the Falcons will arrive in Indianapolis next week for the NFL combine with a keen focus on the 319 prospects on hand.
For a seven-win team that was 5-8 in one-score games, the Falcons have room for improvement across the board. But they will scout heavily the defensive tackles, cornerbacks, quarterbacks, offensive tackles and wide receivers.
They must place a priority on finding help up front for Grady Jarrett, improving the interior pass rush and thereby helping the outside rushers. Stopping the run always is the No. 1 priority.
I’ve been told to gather information on Baylor defensive tackle Siaki Ika, who’s a 6-foot-4 and 358-pound wrecking ball. He started his career at LSU and was on its national championship team in the 2019 season.
In the secondary opposite of A.J. Terrell, the Falcons need some help. They already know if they are bringing back Casey Hayward, who will turn 34 in September, and nickel Isaiah Oliver, who spent some time at safety.
The quarterbacks will be heavily scrutinized. The Falcons most likely will add to the quarterback group in the form of a veteran free agent. They must still do their due diligence with regard to the draft class, just in case one of the top-tier quarterbacks slips to No. 8. Or if a second- or third-tier quarterback slips to them later in the draft.
Right tackle Kaleb McGary could be an unrestricted free agent. The Falcons could draft his replacement with the eighth overall pick. Ohio State’s Paris Johnson, Georgia’s Broderick Jones or Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski could be available in the first round.
The Falcons need a playmaker opposite Drake London. Olamide Zaccheaus, Damiere Byrd and KhaDarel Hodge are headed for free agency. The team has spent time developing Frank Darby and Jared Bernhardt. Josh Ali and Ra’Shaun Henry were signed to reserve/futures deals.
The Eagles reached the Super Bowl after trading for dynamic wide receiver A.J. Brown and pairing him with speedy wide receiver DeVonta Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert.
The Falcons have London to play the Brown role and Kyle Pitts at tight end. The other spot is open.
While the Falcons are scouting the college players, the wheels of free agency will start to churn a little faster.
“There are going to be some players that you want to bring in on one-year deals and some that you have more multiyear deals, but we have to make sure that we know exactly who they are as human beings that we’re bringing into this building. That’s important,” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said.
The Falcons have to get strong in the trenches on offense and defense.
“The trenches and the line of scrimmage, you look at our games this (past season), and I thought we really grew on our offensive line,” Fontenot said. “We value that. Establishing the offensive line of scrimmage. That (and) the quarterback position is a very important position, and yet you (must) have the offensive line. It’s a complementary game. The lines of scrimmage are always going to be a priority for us.”
New defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen’s reputation for developing defensive line talent should be helpful.
“Absolutely, that’s a part of it, but not just the defensive line,” Fontenot said. “He has a plan for the whole defense, whether we are talking about the back end, the interior, the edge, everything. He has a clear plan for how we want to continue to build the team. We are going to always prioritize the front. ... In the trenches, that’s where games are won and lost.”
It must be noted that one of Nielsen’s prize pupils, Marcus Davenport, has registered only 21.5 sacks over five seasons. The Saints mortgaged part of their future to get him in the 2018 draft.
Davenport never has played a full season. He recorded nine sacks in 2021.
2. Value shoppers: The Falcons will have $56 million in salary-cap money to spend when the new league year starts March 15. The Falcons can add another $17 million if they release quarterback Marcus Mariota ($12 million) and Hayward ($5 million).
So, they could enter free agency with $73 million to spend under the cap for 2023. Fontenot plans to continue looking for value deals.
“You always want to work hard to find value,” Fontenot said. “We have a scouting staff that does an outstanding job. It’s not just about the first round or second round. It’s about finding depth throughout the draft, and it’s about undrafted free agency. It’s a 24/7, 365 process, so it’s all important.”
The Falcons haven’t had a lot of resources over the past two offseasons.
“Even if you don’t have a lot of resources to go spend a lot of money in free agency, there are a lot of good players out there,” Fontenot said. “We have to just go find them.”
3. Patience in developing talent: Part of the Falcons’ rebuilding plan involves the patience that is needed while developing their young talent.
“It just depends on where your team is,” Fontenot said. “It’s good to be patient and have a developmental plan for everyone, but some players are ready quicker at some positions. It just depends on a specific situation. It’s all about having that developmental plan.”
4. On Desmond Ridder’s development: No matter what happens this offseason on the quarterback front, Desmond Ridder must continue to develop.
“You saw how things went this year,” Fontenot said. “How Desmond got here and what we went through with Marcus. We had an offseason, and they competed. We went out, and we wanted to put the best team on the field every game. That was our whole goal.”
Mariota started 13 games before the Falcons made a switch to the rookie Ridder over the bye week in December.
“We got to a point where (coach) Arthur (Smith) made the decision to put Desmond in,” Fontenot said. “Everything we are doing is we’re just trying to win football games. That’s what this is all about. You have development plans for players, but ultimately you are trying to put the best football team out there, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
5. Free agency will be busy: Only the Chicago Bears have more money than the Falcons to remake their roster.
“You can’t even talk about players outside of your building until that specific period starting the new league year,” Fontenot said. “The only thing we can do now is talk about our own players. Any negotiating that we are doing, we are doing with our own players or players already on the street or if your phone is ringing about a trade or something like that.”
There will be some salary-cap casualties, and the Falcons will try to anticipate players who may get cut from teams with salary-cap woes.
“The process doesn’t change,” Fontenot said. “We are just trying to find really good football players. You’re not going to be reckless, spend money and bring in players that might not fit. You’re not going to be reckless. You’re going to take your time and go through the process the right way.”
6. Georgia connections: Here’s a list of 41 players from Georgia colleges or high schools who were invited to the combine:
Stetson Bennett, Georgia (Pierce County HS)
Tank Bigsby, Auburn (Callaway HS)
Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama (Dalton HS)
Kenny McIntosh, Georgia
Keaton Mitchell, East Carolina (Eagles Landing Christian)
Chris Rodriguez, Kentucky (Ola HS)
Josh Downs, North Carolina (North Gwinnett HS)
Jadon Haselwood, Arkansas (Cedar Grove HS)
Kearis Jackson, Georgia (Peach County HS)
Davis Allen, Clemson (Calhoun HS)
Payne Durham, Purdue (Peachtree Ridge HS)
Darnell Washington, Georgia
Broderick Jones, Georgia (Lithonia HS)
Warren McClendon, Georgia (Brunswick HS)
Wanya Morris, Oklahoma (Grayson HS)
Robert Beal, Georgia (Peachtree Ridge HS)
Jalen Carter, Georgia
Brenton Cox, Florida (Stockbridge HS)
YaYa Diaby, Louisville (North Clayton HS, Georgia Military College)
Thomas Incoom, Central Michigan (Stone Mountain HS)
Isaiah Land, Florida A&M (Grayson HS)
Myles Murphy, Clemson (Hillgrove HS)
Nolan Smith, Georgia (Calvary Day School before IMG Academy)
Keion White, Georgia Tech
Colby Wooden, Auburn (Archer HS)
Byron Young, Tennessee (Georgia Military College)
Will Anderson, Alabama (Dutchtown HS)
Shaka Heyward, Duke (Mill Creek HS)
BJ Ojulari, LSU (Marietta HS)
Owen Pappoe, Auburn (Grayson HS)
Charlie Thomas, Georgia Tech (Thomasville HS)
Brian Branch, Alabama (Sandy Creek HS)
Trey Dean, Florida (Dutchtown HS)
Kelee Ringo, Georgia
Jammie Robinson, Florida State (Lee County HS)
Christopher Smith, Georgia (Hapeville Charter Academy)
Terell Smith, Minnesota (South Gwinnett HS)
Rashad Torrence, Florida (Marietta HS)
DJ Turner, Michigan (North Gwinnett HS)
Jay Ward, LSU (Colquitt County HS)
Jack Podlesny, K, Georgia (Glynn Academy)
7. NFL offseason calendar: Through 4 p.m. March 7, clubs may designate franchise or transition players. I’m not expecting the Falcons to tag anyone.
Here’s a look at the NFL’s offseason calendar:
Feb. 28-March 6 – NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis
March 7 – 4 p.m. deadline to designate franchise or transition players
March 13-15 – Legal tampering period. Teams are allowed to contact and center in to negotiations with certified player agents of players selected to become unrestricted free agents.
March 15 – Georgia’s Pro Day
March 15 – 4 p.m., the new league year and free agency begins
March 26-29 – League meeting in Phoenix
April 17 – Falcons may begin their offseason workout program.
April 19 – Deadline for Falcons to time, test, visit, interview or conduct a physical examination with draft-eligible player at their facility
April 21 – Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets
April 27 – Deadline for clubs to time, test, visit, interview (including video and phone calls) or conduct a physical examination with a draft-eligible player at any location
April 27-29 – NFL draft, Kansas City, Missouri
May 1 – Deadline for clubs to exercise fifth-year options for players selected in the first round of the 2020 draft
May 15 – Rookie development programs can begin.
May 22-24 – Spring league meeting
8. Falcons’ position-by-position analysis: Here’s our position-by-position look at the how the Falcons performed during their 7-10 season in 2022.
Part 1: Running backs
Part 2: Quarterbacks
Part 3: Wide receivers/tight ends
Part 4: Offensive line
Part 5: Defensive line
Part 6: Linebackers
Part 7: Defensive backs
Part 8: Special teams
9. Offseason depth chart: Here’s the offseason depth chart, with the reserve/future signings. Players set to be unrestricted free agents are listed in boldface, and players who ended the season on injured reserve have an asterisk:
QB – Desmond Ridder, *Marcus Mariota, Logan Woodside, Feleipe Franks
RB – Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier, Avery Williams, *Caleb Huntley, B.J. Baylor
FB – Keith Smith, Clint Ratkovich
WR – Drake London, Damiere Byrd, Frank Darby, *Jared Bernhardt, Josh Ali
TE – *Kyle Pitts, Parker Hesse, MyCole Pruitt, Anthony Firkser, Feleipe Franks, *John FitzPatrick, Tucker Fisk, John Raine
LT – Jake Matthews
LG – Elijah Wilkinson, Matt Hennessy, Colby Gossett, *Chuma Edoga, *Jalen Mayfield, *Justin Shaffer, Kyle Hinton
C – Drew Dalman, Ryan Neuzil, Jonotthan Harrison
RG – Chris Lindstrom
RT – Kaleb McGary, Germain Ifedi, Tyler Vrabel
WR – Olamide Zaccheaus, KhaDarel Hodge, Ra’Shaun Henry
OLB – Lorenzo Carter, DeAngelo Malone, Quinton Bell
DE – Grady Jarrett, Tim Horne, Amani Bledsoe
NT – *Ta’Quon Graham, Abdullah Anderson (RFA), Jalen Dalton, Vincent Taylor
DE – Matt Dickerson, Jaleel Johnson
OLB – Ade Ogundeji, Arnold Ebiketie, David Anenih
ILB – Rashaan Evans, Nick Kwiatkoski, Dorian Etheridge
ILB – Troy Andersen, Mykal Walker, Nate Landman
CB – A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, Mike Ford, Rashad Fenton, Dylan Mabin, Javelin Guidry
FS – Jaylinn Hawkins, Micah Abernathy, Jamal Peters
SS – Richie Grant, Erik Harris, *Jovante Moffatt
CB – *Casey Hayward, Darren Hall, Dee Alford, Cornell Armstrong, Matt Hankins, John Reid
K – Younghoe Koo
P/H – Bradley Pinion
LS – Liam McCullough (ERFA), *Beau Brinkley
PR – Avery Williams
KOR – Cordarrelle Patterson or Avery Williams
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