ATLANTA — On Monday, the Atlanta Falcons finally showed what the “next phase” of their rebuilding process would look like.
That’s how general manager Terry Fontenot described this offseason, where the Falcons would have money to spend for the first time since he and Arthur Smith were hired in January 2021.
“We’ve had a plan from the beginning and now we’re in the next phase of that,” Fontenot said. “This is going to be a different offseason than we’ve had in years past.”
The next phase means being competitive in free agency and not having to wait for opportunities.
Between the hours of 11 a.m. to six players.
While real money to watch is often the guaranteed part of the deal, it’s still a far cry from having to restructure and cut players just to break the cap.
Here’s how they did it:
Traded the No. 245 pick in this year’s draft for Jonnu Smith ($21 million in base salary remaining between 2023 and 2024)
Gave Pro Bowl right guard Chris Lindstrom a five-year contract extension ($105 million, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter)
Agreed to terms with safety Jessie Bates III on four-year deal ($64.02 million)
Agreed to terms with defensive tackle David Onyemata on three-year deal ($35 million)
Re-signed punter Bradley Pinion for three years ($8.65 million) and fullback Keith Smith for one year according to his agent (undisclosed)
Later Monday night, the team agreed to terms with former Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss (undisclosed).
So the Falcons’ actual spending will be higher because of Elliss’ contract, the potential $2 million in roster bonuses on Jonnu Smith’s contract and the unknown nature of Keith Smith’s contract, but potentially more manageable because a source said to ESPN that Jonnu Smith’s contract will be reworked.
The moves set up a potential franchise-changing day, perhaps entering as a contender in the NFC South.
What do the offers mean?
The Falcons needed to upgrade their defense. Last season, they were No. 29 in defensive efficiency (41.23) and defensive expected extra points (-71.8), last in sack percentage (3.5) and No. 31 in third down defense (45.9%).
By agreeing with Onyemata and Bates, they resolved several issues.
While Onyemata is 30 years old, he has been remarkably durable — playing in fewer than 15 games in a season just once — and has familiarity with new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen. It will be a tone setter on the line.
Pair him with Grady Jarrett and Ta’Quon Graham and it automatically creates problems for opposing offensive lines and run plays. Onyemata had an interior run-stop winning percentage of 26.8 percent — No. 58 in the league, 20 spots behind Jarrett — and had 118 run stops against double teams, No. 14 in the league.
Onyemata was pressured on 5.0% of his pass rushes — by comparison, Jarrett was on 5.6% — and when pressured first, opposing quarterbacks had just 2.55 yards per attempt.
In Bates, Atlanta got an elite 26-year-old playmaker in the backfield to partner with star AJ Terrell.
In three of Bates’ five seasons in Cincinnati, he had an opponent rating below 78, according to Pro Football Reference. Last season, PFR had Bates allowing a 51.4 opponent completion percentage. In a small sample size, Bates showed proficiency against the run with a 40.7 run stop win percentage — No. 40 among defensive backs.
He will be part of the defensive core with Jarrett and Terrell.
Elliss may be the biggest unknown of the group. While playing for the Saints, so there is familiarity with Nielsen, he had one season as a productive NFL linebacker, with 74 tackles and seven sacks last year. It was his first year playing more than a quarter of New Orleans’ defensive snaps. He had a pass rush win percentage of 12.1% and a run stop win percentage of 31.4%. PFR had the opposite completion percentage of 61.3% with no touchdowns allowed in coverage.
By extending Lindstrom, Atlanta did two things: It made the talk of taking care of its own players a reality, making him the highest-paid average annual guard in league history, and it gave the offensive line a player to build around for the next half-decade .
Lindstrom is rarely penalized — his first pro call came in his fourth NFL season — and is a quality presence in the locker room.
Trading for Jonnu Smith gives Atlanta insurance as Kyle Pitts returns from injury. Smith had his best seasons with Falcons head coach Arthur Smith as either position coach or offensive coordinator when both were with the Tennessee Titans.
If his production as the No. 2 tight end is similar to what he did at Tennessee — 41 receptions, 448 yards, eight touchdowns — that will be a boon.
Pinion’s re-signing kept the special teams continuity together, and Pinion had one of his best punting seasons last year with a 45.9-yard average. Keith Smith is a key special teams contributor and can line up at multiple spots offensively.
The key to every move Atlanta made Monday is this: There was familiarity with the player beforehand. Lindstrom, Keith Smith and Pinion were already with the Falcons. Jonnu Smith worked with Arthur Smith in Tennessee. Nielsen coached Onyemata and Elliss in New Orleans, and new secondary coach Steve Jackson coached Bates for two seasons in Cincinnati.
When the Falcons give money, they want to learn as much as they can, so it’s no surprise the players they targeted and landed.
For what Atlanta spent, they still have a long to-do list.
While the exact remaining cap space remains fluid, the Falcons still have their own top free agent, right tackle Kaleb McGary, unsigned. This will be a situation to watch. There are also questions at left guard, where last year’s starter, Elijah Wilkinson, is a free agent. The best option on the roster is Matt Hennessy, who showed ability there when he started.
By adding Elliss and Onyemata, the Falcons did bring in seven front linemen along with the re-signing of Lorenzo Carter last week, but it’s possible Atlanta still has some defensive line and linebacker work to do.
There’s the possibility of a No. 2 cornerback — veteran Casey Hayward will decline a season-ending stint — and the overhaul of a big receiver room with just Drake London, Frank Darby, Jared Bernhardt, Josh Ali and Ra’Shaun O Henry under contract.
Additionally, Atlanta will add a quarterback in addition to Desmond Ridder and Logan Woodside.
“We will add to [quarterback] position, whether it’s free agency, the draft or both,” Fontenot told the scouting combine.
Considering Ridder’s relative inexperience, a veteran pick could make sense.
So even though Atlanta took a lot of steps to be a contender Monday and passed like they never have, there’s still a lot of work to be done.