6 things we learned about the Falcons’ new regime in free agency

Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith (right) watches the players from Georgia Tech during the school's Pro Day workout Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith (right) watches the players from Georgia Tech during the school's Pro Day workout Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith have been busy this offseason trying to get their franchise set up to return to a championship level.

The Falcons were faced with a salary-cap quandary, and the new coaching staff had to evaluate the roster and decide which players they could keep and which ones they couldn’t afford to keep.

Now, that things have settled in free agency, we can take a look at the moves.

Smith was set to start the team’s offseason program Tuesday, but now that has been delayed to April 19, while the NFL and NFLPA work to settle their dispute over how much of the offseason should be done virtually or in-person during what both sides hopes is the final stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

Smith, who’s in his first year as the head coach, can’t wait to get started with the players.

“You just have to have contingency plans,” Smith said recently. “So, here’s the calendar if we have a perfect situation if we have the normal offseason. If we don’t, here’s Plan B and here is Plan C.”

Smith, who was offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, said that was the best lesson he learned last season.

“Everybody says that, and then you actually had to apply that to last year,” Smith said. “We felt we did that for the most part in Nashville. We’ll do the same thing here. That’s the only way I know how to do it.”

With the draft approaching (April 29-May 1), here’s a look at six things we learned about the new regime during free agency:

1. Offensive line: The weakest link on the offense is undergoing a makeover.

Center Alex Mack, who helped the Falcons reach Super Bowl LI, left after his contract expired. He signed a three-year, $14.5 million deal with the 49ers.

That deal might have been too rich for the Falcons, who drafted Mack’s replacement last year in Matt Hennessy.

In addition to Mack, backup utility lineman Justin McCray was not re-signed. He signed with the Texans, and backup tackle John Wetzel was not re-signed.

The Falcons elected to place a second-round tender ($3.384 million) on backup swing tackle Matt Gono. The new staff was impressed with his work last season at right tackle and left guard over four starts.

Also, veteran center/guard Josh Andrews, who played at Oregon State, was signed to a one-year, $1.27 million deal.

Andrews, 6-foot-2, 298 pounds, played last season with the Jets and has made four starts in 40 career games. Andrews, 29, also has played for the Eagles (2014-15) and Colts (2018-19).

The Falcons also cut left guard James Carpenter to help get under the salary cap.

There’s still a gaping hole along the line that could be filled if the Falcons take Oregon tackle Penei Sewell with the fourth overall pick.

2. Trades: The Falcons traded for veteran tight end Lee Smith. They sent a seventh-round pick to Buffalo for Smith, who essentially is a replacement for Luke Stocker.

Just call Smith, Mr. Phone Booth.

“This is my 10th season, and I have 50 or 60 catches in my whole career,” Smith said. “Something tells me that my role will be the same thing it has always been. I’ll put my hand in the dirt right beside the tackle and get in a phone-booth fight. That’s kind of my deal.”

This move showed the Falcons will make a trade.

3. Rushing attack: The Falcons didn’t re-sign running back Todd Gurley or Brian Hill, who was his backup for most of last season.

The Falcons added to the rushing attack by signing Mike Davis to a two-year, $5.5 million deal, which included a $1.5 million signing bonus. A total of $3 million of the deal was guaranteed.

He likely will get some company after the draft.

4. Defensive line: The Falcons re-signed defensive ends Steven Means and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. They also added defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard in free agency.

Means played in all 16 games and made 11 starts last season.

Means had single-season career-highs in tackles (38), sacks (3), quarterback hits (6) and forced fumbles (2) last season.

Bullard, who’s 6-foot-3 and 296 pounds, played in six games for Seattle last season. He has played in 61 NFL games with the Bears, Cardinals and Seahawks. Bullard, who played at Florida, was drafted in the third round (72nd overall) by Chicago in the 2016 draft.

Tuioti-Mariner played in all 16 games last season and was named the NFC defensive player of the week after helping to wreck the Raiders’ offense in the 43-6 win in Week 12.

Defensive tackle Tyeler Davison took a pay cut to stay with the team.

The team elected not to re-sign defensive end Charles Harris, who signed with Detroit. They also cut veteran Allen Bailey in a salary-cap move.

5. Linebackers: With the anticipated switch to the 3-4 alignment under new defensive coordinator Dean Pees, the Falcons needed some outside linebackers and signed Brandon Copeland and Barkevious Mingo in free agency.

The team did not re-sign linebackers LaRoy Reynolds or Edmond Robinson.

Copeland was signed to a one-year, $1.04 million deal, and Mingo, who played 390 snaps from scrimmage last season for the Bears, signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal.

“The work ethic hasn’t changed, and I’m excited to go to battle with these guys,” Copeland said. “These coaches they have believed in me. I think it’s a great opportunity to build a foundation, to build a culture and start from the ground up. But start fast.”

6. Revamped secondary: The new administration took a blow torch to the secondary.

They released free safety Ricardo Allen in a salary-cap move, and they elected not to re-sign free safety Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal.

Allen signed with the Bengals, while Neal and Kazee followed former head coach Dan Quinn to Dallas.

The Falcons also did not re-sign cornerback Darqueze Dennard, safety Sharrod Neasman and cornerback Blidi-Wreh Wilson.

In free agency, the Falcons added safety Erik Harris and cornerback Fabian Moreau, both on modest one-year contracts with guaranteed money.

“I’m a physical corner. I like to get up and press,” Moreau said. “I like to get in the receiver’s face and just disrupt them the best way that I can.”

Falcons’ 2021 draft position: Here are the top nine picks in D. Led’s Mock Draft 3.0:

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence (QB, Clemson)

2. New York Jets: Zach Wilson, (QB, BYU)

3. San Francisco 49ers: Trey Lance (QB, North Dakota State)

4. Denver Broncos (trade with Falcons): Justin Fields (QB, Ohio State)

5. Cincinnati Bengals: Penei Sewell (OT, Oregon)

6. Miami Dolphins: DeVonta Smith (WR, Alabama)

7. Detroit Lions: Ja’Marr Chase (WR, LSU)

8. Carolina Panthers: Mac Jones (QB, Alabama)

9. Falcons (trade with Broncos): Micah Parsons, (OLB, Penn State)

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