Cover 9@9: Falcons building up through the middle in free agency

Former Bengals safety Jessie Bates III will help fortify the Falcons' secondary after signing with the Falcons as a free agent. (AP file photo/Jeff Dean)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Former Bengals safety Jessie Bates III will help fortify the Falcons' secondary after signing with the Falcons as a free agent. (AP file photo/Jeff Dean)

1. The no-spin zone: The Falcons seem to be borrowing from Tampa Bay’s old defensive strategy during this free-agency period.

Back in the 1990s, the Bucs turned around their fortunes when they added Warren Sapp up front (1995 draft), Derrick Brooks (1995 draft) at linebacker and John Lynch (1993 draft) at safety.

The Falcons added defensive tackle David Onyemata, linebacker Kaden Elliss and safety Jessie Bates III to fortify the middle of their defense in free agency.

OK, no one is comparing Onyemata with Sapp, Elliss with Brooks or Bates with Lynch, but you get the concept: The Falcons have to be stronger through the middle of the defense.

Onyemata and Grady Jarrett have the potential to be a formidable tandem when the Falcons use four-man fronts in their nickel packages. Ta’Quon Graham was trending in the right direction before he sustained a knee injury. If he can make it back, he will give the Falcons three stout tackles.

Also, Timothy Horne wasn’t a pushover inside as an undrafted rookie last season.

Elliss has a small sample size as a one-year starter. We’ll have to give new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen the benefit of the doubt on the former seventh-round pick from Idaho. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports thought the Falcons overpaid for Elliss.

His father, Luther Elliss, worked in the trenches for 10 seasons with the Lions (nine) and Broncos (one). He was a two-time Pro Bowl selection and Jamal “Dirty Bird” Anderson’s college roommate at Utah.

Bates was an All-Pro in 2020. On his highlight reel, you see him roaming from sideline to sideline tracking down balls and ball carriers.

He’ll lay the wood on ball carriers, and that’s a good thing.

There’s more to come.

The Falcons haven’t run out of cash, but they’ve gotten off to a fine start in free agency.

2. Free-agency tracker: Here’s an easy way to keep track of the moves:

EXTENDED

– G Chris Lindstrom gets $105 million extension

– RT Kaleb McGary gets $34.5 million extension

NEW FREE AGENTS

– S Jessie Bates, four years, $64 million

– DT David Onyemata, four years, $35 million ($24.5 million guaranteed, $12 million signing bonus)

– LB Kaden Elliss, three years, $21.5 million ($11 million guaranteed)

– QB Taylor Heinicke, two years, up to $20 million

RETURNING FALCONS

– P Bradley Pinion re-signed, three years, $8.65 million

– FB Keith Smith re-signed, one year, $2.35 million ($625,000 guaranteed)

– OLB Lorenzo Carter re-signed, two years, $9 million

– LS Liam McCullough

– TE Parker Hesse

3. Top base salaries: Here are the Falcons’ top base salaries for 2023:

Grady Jarrett, $16.5 million

Chris Lindstrom, $13.2 million

Jake Matthews, $12.5 million

Kaleb McGary, $11.1 million (average, not base)

Jonnu Smith, $10 million

Casey Hayward, $5 million

Cordarrelle Patterson, $4.25 million

Younghoe Koo, $3.5 million

Lorenzo Carter, $3.2 million

Matt Hennessy, Mykal Walker and Jaylinn Hawkins, $2.7 million

A.J. Terrell, $2.5 million

4. Set-to-be free agents: Here’s a look at the Falcons who appeared headed to unrestricted free agency at 4 p.m. Wednesday:

Rashaan Evans: The Falcons appear to have moved on.

Olamide Zaccheaus: The dependable player was the second-leading receiver with 40 catches for 533 yards and three touchdowns.

Isaiah Oliver: Several teams are still in the cornerback market.

Erik Harris: With Bates, they no longer have a need for “veteran leadership.”

Damiere Byrd: Provided a deep threat early in the season.

Germain Ifedi: He was beaten out by McGary and was the backup swing tackle.

Mike Ford: He was a key special-teams player with 361 snaps. He had seven special-teams tackles and the key block on Patterson’s record-breaking TD kickoff return.

Anthony Firkser: He played in 11 games and made one start as a quality reserve.

Elijah Wilkinson: He won the starting job, but injuries got in the way. He started only nine games.

Vincent Taylor: He spent the season on injured reserve. Was expected to be the starter at nose tackle.

Beau Brinkley: With McCullough re-signed, it wouldn’t make sense to have two long snappers on the 90-man roster.

KhaDarel Hodge: He played 259 special-teams snaps and was a dependable reserve at wide receiver. He led the team with nine special-teams tackles.

Nick Kwiatkoski: A quality reserve who played in nine games.

MyCole Pruitt: He came on strong and caught four touchdown passes after tight end Kyle Pitts went down. Quarterback Desmond Ridder was on the same page with Pruitt.

Jaleel Johnson: The defensive lineman provided some depth along the line.

Colby Gossett: Made a start but ended the season as the fifth guard.

Matt Dickerson: He provided some late-season depth along the defensive line.

Chuma Edoga: He made one start at guard.

Rashad Fenton: The Falcons traded a conditional seventh-round pick to the Chiefs for Fenton. He played in two games and made one start.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart looks ahead to Pro Day on Wednesday. It's an opportunity for NFL scouts to evaluate former players in advance of April's NFL draft.

5. Georgia Pro Day: All 32 NFL teams are expected to be on hand Wednesday for Georgia’s Pro Day, which is set to feature the workout of defensive lineman Jalen Carter.

Carter, one of the top prospects in the NFL draft, did not participate in the workouts at the NFL scouting combine. His agent had announced that Carter wouldn’t work out before his alleged role in a fatal Jan. 15 crash was reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Carter subsequently was arrested on two charges. He left the combine to turn himself in and then returned to Indianapolis to continue interviews with NFL teams.

In addition to Carter, the back-to-back defending national champions will have several prospects on hand to work out.

“That list will be pretty long,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Tuesday. “We’ve actually got a couple of guys that left in the portal that are going to come back, work out and compete. (Defensive back) Ameer Speed is coming back. A couple other guys that are going to come back. I think (tight end) Kolby Wyatt is coming back.”

Quarterback Stetson Bennett will have another chance to impress NFL scouts. He had a strong combine workout.

“I think (former Georgia receiver) Matt Landers will be back to help Stetson with the throwing and do the throwing sessions,” Smart said. “We don’t have enough receivers.”

The vertical/bench press will be held in the weight room and will not be open to the media.

Here’s the schedule for the workouts:

10:20 a.m. – Indoor facility: Broad jump

10:45 a.m. – Indoor facility: 40-yard dash

11:05 a.m. – Indoor facility: L drill / Shuttles

11:30 a.m. – Indoor facility: Position drills

Georgia Tech coach Brent Key keeps an eye on the action as the Yellow Jackets opened spring football practice Monday.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez

6. Georgia Tech Pro Day: Georgia Tech, which has a potential first-round pick this year, will hold its Pro Day on Thursday at the Mary and John Brock Indoor Football Practice Facility.

Seven former Tech athletes will participate, including wide receiver Malachi Carter, linebacker Ayinde Eley, running back Hassan Hall, wide receiver/tight end E.J. Jenkins, offensive lineman William Lay III, linebacker Charlie Thomas and edge rusher Keion White.

With several teams looking for pass rushers, White is an intriguing prospect.

7. Calvin Ridley’s letter: Click here to look at our 6 takeaways from Calvin Ridley’s letter to the football world.

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. Updated depth chart: Here’s what the depth chart looks like with the new and re-signed players. (Players set to be unrestricted free agents Wednesday are listed in boldface, and players who ended the season on injured reserve have an asterisk):

OFFENSE

QB – Desmond Ridder, Taylor Heinicke, 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, Jonnu Smith, 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

DEFENSE

OLB – Lorenzo Carter, DeAngelo Malone, Quinton Bell

DE – Grady Jarrett, Timothy Horne, Amani Bledsoe

NT – *Ta’Quon Graham, Abdullah Anderson (RFA), Jalen Dalton, Vincent Taylor

DE – David Onyemata, Matt Dickerson, Jaleel Johnson

OLB – Ade Ogundeji, Arnold Ebiketie, David Anenih

ILB – Kaden Elliss, 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 – Jessie Bates III, 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

SPECIAL TEAMS

K – Younghoe Koo

P/H – Bradley Pinion

LS – Liam McCullough, *Beau Brinkley

PR – Avery Williams

KOR – Cordarrelle Patterson or Avery Williams