The Falcons filled a gambit of needs and secured a few AP All-Pro players. However, not every move made was unquestionable. Some players got paid more than anticipated; others maybe shouldn’t have been signed, regardless of the money. We’ll examine the most questionable and unquestionable signings that kicked off the Falcons 2023 free agency.
Questionable – LB Kaden Elliss 3-year $21.5M ($10.16M gtd)
I promise this has nothing to do with him being from the Saints, although that is highly questionable. It’s about Elliss’ contract. Elliss had a very productive 2022 season, and when ex-teammate Pete Werner went down with an ankle injury, he successfully filled in for him as the WILL linebacker. Elliss recorded seven sacks, being used as a blitzer and lining up across the line.
Nevertheless, this is the first and only productive season in Elliss’ four-year career. Elliss suited up for 31 of 49 available games in his first three seasons, and recorded just one sack and four pressures. In my opinion, the Falcons overpaid for a player lacking consistent production and with the linebacker market price being as low as it is.
Elliss played for new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, so the impression with this signing is he’ll be able to use him in the same effective manner as the 2022 season. If he does, this signing could be worth the price.
Unquestionable – RG Chris Lindstrom 5-year $105M Extension ($63M gtd)
This extension was a no-brainer for Atlanta. The offensive line was an area of focus for the Falcons 2023 free agency plans, and the team wasted no time securing Lindstrom with a five-year extension. Those unfamiliar with Lindstrom’s game will balk at seeing a guard with an AAV of $21M, but he has earned every penny.
In 2021 Lindstrom was the only OG to play all 17 games and not allow a sack. Most recently, the 26-year-old got voted to the AP All-Pro Second Team. In his young career, Lindstrom has already cemented himself as an elite player while having the type of character you want in the locker room. Additionally, Lindstrom was Atlanta’s 2022 Walter Payton Man of the Year.
Lindstrom isn’t a free agent until 2029; he’s an authentic foundation piece already leaving an impressive legacy in Atlanta.
Questionable – QB Taylor Heinicke 2-year $14M ($6.32M gtd)
Of all the Falcons 2023 free agency critiques, this one may feel the most like nit-picking, but Taylor Heinicke got overpaid for a quarterback of his caliber. Heinicke got paid nearly double the guaranteed money that Gardner Minshew and Sam Darnold did, and he’s by no means twice the player.
Like the two aforementioned QBs, Heinicke is an ideal QB2 and does add value to the roster in his own right, but there’s no reason the Falcons needed to pay him what they did.
When the contract details broke, many thought it signaled that Desmond Ridder would at least be competing with Heinicke in some fashion come training camp. We quickly learned that wasn’t the case.
Heinicke said he was brought in to back up Ridder, uttering the most powerful public statement on Ridder’s status as QB1. A $3M overpay isn’t the end of the world, but it indicates that Terry jumped the gun a bit on this signing.
Unquestionable – RT Kaleb McGary 3-year $34.5M ($16M gtd)
This is the best value signing of the Falcons 2023 free agency period. After being a volatile player in his first three years, Kaleb McGary had a career year. In his fourth year, McGary put together his best performance as a pro.
By the end of the season, the question on everyone’s mind was what kind of contract a player with such inconsistent production should get. Fontenot elected not to use the franchise tag on McGary and let the market decide. That decision paid dividends almost immediately.
Teams sought the services of other right tackles, which allowed the Falcons to re-sign McGary well below market price at $11.5M AAV. Also, the contract is structured so the team has an easy out after year two that would save them $14.5M in cap space, as insurance for potential regression.
This deal was indeed a masterclass in GMing by Terry Fontenot, who never blinked during this challenging process
Unquestionable – DT David Onyemata 3-year $35M ($24.5M gtd)
Grady Jarrett finally gets some help. David Onyemata joins a Falcons defensive line that desperately needs bodies. Like Elliss, Onyemata comes from the Saints to play for his former defensive line coach and new DC, Ryan Nielsen. Onyemata recorded the second most sacks, TFLs, and QB hits of his career last season, so don’t let his age worry you; he still has plenty in the tank.
On top of filling a desperate need and having scheme/coaching familiarity, Onyemata signed a deal similar to Kaleb McGary’s. While Onyemata is getting more guaranteed money, the contracts are structured similarly, giving the Falcons some insurance. The team can move on from Onyemata after year two if he disappoints and save $10.5M against the cap — another excellent example of Terry Fontenot’s contract savviness during the Falcons 2023 free agency.
The Atlanta Falcons 2023 free agency is up to 12 moves and counting, and they haven’t all been perfect. Elliss and Heinicke will have to prove that their contracts aren’t questionable deals and are more than worth the value. While other moves, like the addition of Onyemata and re-signings of Lindstrom and McGary, feel like unquestionable signings regardless of what happens.
Truthfully though, I don’t think the Falcons made any moves that will hurt them long-term or create the kind of cap-strangling issues from years past. One can only get a complete grade on a free agency class once they see the players transition to the field, and fans and analysts alike will have plenty of moves to evaluate.