FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Preparation for the 2018 season is underway, and the Falcons are focused on perfecting their roster for another shot at a title.
Before attention can be paid to players who may be added to the roster during free agency, the Falcons must decide how their own free agents fit into future plans. Free agency officially begins on March 14 at 4 p.m. ET, which also marks the start of the new league year. All unrestricted free agents can begin signing with clubs at that time.
As those decisions will be made in the coming weeks and months, it's good to become familiar with the Falcons who are on the verge of entering the open market. Here's the list of Falcons players, sorted by unrestricted, restricted and exclusive rights free agents:
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (15)
Matt Bryant, K –The 42-year-old kicker just completed the three-year contract he signed with the Falcons in 2015. During those three seasons, Bryant converted 82 of his 94 field goal attempts (87.2 percent) and has proven to be one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff recently spoke with the *AJC's *D. Orlando Ledbetter about Bryant.
"Matt had a very good season for us this year," Dimitroff told Ledbetter. "We continue to be very proud of how he continues to kick into his age. … He's done a very nice job and we will definitely continue to talk to him about next season."
Adrian Clayborn, DE –Clayborn recorded a career-high 9.5 sacks in 2017, including a franchise-record six sacks in the Falcons' win over the Cowboys – one shy of the NFL single-game record. Clayborn is a versatile defensive lineman who can play both on the edge and in the interior. He signed a three-year contract with the Falcons in 2015.
Derrick Coleman, FB –Coleman signed a one-year deal with the Falcons prior to the start of last season. The fullback position isn't nearly as prominent in today's NFL as it was in previous decades, but the Falcons have often been among the teams that utilize a lead blocker in the backfield.
Taylor Gabriel, WR –Signed by the Falcons as a free agent in 2016, Gabriel was one of the main surprises on one of the most potent offenses in NFL history. The 26-year-old receiver was re-signed prior to the 2017 season, and he once again proved to be a unique part of Atlanta's offense. In his two seasons with the Falcons, Gabriel caught 68 passes for 957 yards and seven touchdowns.
Kemal Ishmael, LB –After his rookie contract expired following the 2016 season, Ishmael re-signed with the Falcons on a one-year contract in 2017. A versatile defender who has transitioned between safety and linebacker during his career, Ishmael started one game for the Falcons in 2017 and recorded 13 tackles with one sack.
Leon McFadden, CB –McFadden was signed to a one-year contract by the Falcons midway through the 2017 season. He did not appear in a game for the Falcons, but he has played in 34 games during his six-year career and recorded 34 combined tackles.
Austin Pasztor, OL –The Falcons signed Pasztor to a one-year deal during the preseason to help fortify their offensive line depth. The 27-year-old tackle was active for seven games in 2017, providing depth behind starting tackles Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder. Pasztor has played six seasons in the NFL with 43 career starts.
Dontari Poe, DL –One of the primary free-agent signings for the Falcons last offseason, Poe agreed to a one-year deal with Atlanta for the 2017 season. A two-time Pro Bowler, Poe operated mostly under the radar during his one season with the Falcons, taking on double teams and allowing his teammates to roam freely and make plays. Poe recorded 23 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2017.
LaRoy Reynolds, LB –Reynolds returned to the Falcons on a one-year contract for the 2017 season. A leader in the locker room, Reynolds began the season on injured reserve but was a key figure on special teams when he returned and recovered two fumbles on punt coverage during the postseason.
Andre Roberts, WR –The Falcons signed Roberts to a one-year deal last offseason to serve as the team's primary kick and punt returner. Roberts led the league with 38 kickoff returns in 2017 and his 860 kickoff return yards were the third-most in the NFL.
Ahtyba Rubin, DL –Rubin was signed to a one-year contract with the Falcons in October to provide depth on the interior of the defensive line. The 31-year-old defensive tackle was active for 10 games during the 2017 season, recording 15 tackles and two tackles in the playoffs.
Jordan Tripp, LB –After Reynolds was placed on injured reserve to start the 2017 season, the Falcons signed Tripp to a one-year contract. Tripp was active for three games while battling injuries of his own. The 26-year-old linebacker has two starts in his four-year NFL career with 11 tackles.
Courtney Upshaw, DL –Upshaw was signed by the Falcons to a two-year contract prior to the 2016 season. In his two years with Atlanta, Upshaw started five games and was active for 26 contests, primarily providing depth on the defensive line. The 28-year-old recorded 32 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles in his two seasons with the Falcons.
Sean Weatherspoon, LB –Weatherspoon spent his first five seasons in Atlanta after the Falcons selected him with the 19th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. He returned to Atlanta in 2016 on a one-year contract, and was then re-signed to another one-year contract in 2017. Another vocal, veteran presence in the locker room, Weatherspoon was active for two games in 2017 and recorded one tackle.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB –The Falcons signed Wreh-Wilson to a one-year deal late in the 2016 season, and he returned to Atlanta in 2017 on a similar one-year contract. The 28-year-old cornerback was active for eight games last season and made one start, recording four tackles and defending one pass.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (4)
Ricardo Allen, S –The Falcons' fifth-round draft pick in 2014, Allen has spent his entire career in Atlanta. During that time, he's become a leader on the back end of a surging defensive unit. Allen was signed to a one-year contract as an exclusive rights free agent for the 2017 season, and he will be a restricted free agent this offseason. Allen started 45 games for the Falcons over the past three years, recording 212 tackles and six interceptions in that time.
Ben Garland, OL –Arguably the most versatile lineman the Falcons have, Garland has played on both the offensive and defensive lines during his time in Atlanta. Garland signed a two-year contract with the Falcons before the 2015 season, and he was signed to a one-year deal as an exclusive rights free agent for the 2017 season. Garland started five games for the Falcons last season, including both playoff games, and he was a primary contender for the vacant right guard position prior to the season.
Terron Ward, RB –Ward signed with the Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2015, and he signed a two-year contract prior to the 2016 season. A reliable third running back during his time in Atlanta, Ward was active for 14 games in 2017 and gained 129 yards on 30 carries.
Nick Williams, WR –After spending his past three seasons with the Falcons, Williams will be a restricted free agent this offseason. The 27-year-old receiver played in one game during the 2017 season, catching three passes for 30 yards.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (1)
Sharrod Neasman, S –Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016, Neasman played in 11 games for the Falcons in 2017 and forced one fumble. As an exclusive rights free agent, Neasman will only be free to sign with another team if the Falcons decide to release him.
Still not sure of what the difference is between the three types of free agents? Here's a very basic definition of each:
- Unrestricted: A player can sign with whatever team he chooses.
- Restricted: A player can be offered three pre-determined one-year contracts. Now, another team can come in and beat the offer, but the original team can match it (and can get a draft pick if the player is signed away).
- Exclusive rights: A player can be offered a low-cost, one-year contract by his current team. The player has to accept it and cannot be signed away from other teams if offered the deal – so he's not really what you'd call "free."