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Bair: Free agency took desperation out of Falcons' 2023 NFL Draft outlook

Recent signings have given Terry Fontenot, Arthur Smith freedom to focus on talent alone, think big picture with first-round pick

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons had tons of salary-cap space heading into free agency. They spent it well, fortifying positions of need and filling roles across the depth chart.

Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith remade the defensive line around Grady Jarrett. They kept a stellar offensive front together. They brought in a dynamic tight end in trade. They added two cornerbacks and an elite safety, plus a heat-seeking linebacker and plenty of depth in reserve.


All that accomplished one important feat in relation to the NFL Draft. The Falcons don't have pressing needs. Go ahead and form a way-too-early depth chart. Try to find a position where they absolutely can't survive without a first-round talent. I'll wait. For crickets to break the silence.

Does that mean the Falcons are a complete team undoubtedly ready to compete for a title, division or otherwise? It does not.

It does free the Falcons up, however, to choose the talent they truly want with the No. 8 overall pick or wherever they select in the first round.

"We feel good," Smith said. "We don't feel desperate going into this and we can make some great picks to allow us to take the subjective best player available, so to speak, and allow us to move around."

That's a good place to be heading into the draft. It frees Fontenot and Smith up to take the talent they want. They aren't bound by anything. They can let the evaluations speak for themselves without concern that a pick made with the big picture in mind will severely hinder the 2023 product.

Take an edge rusher early? No sweat. A.J. Terrell, Mike Hughes and Jeff Okudah can man the cornerback spots, with experience depth behind them. Choose to focus on the secondary at 8? That's cool. Calais Campbell, Grady Jarrett, David Onyemata and Bud Dupree form a formidable front, with Arnold Ebiketie and Ta'Quon Graham ready to rotate in.

Even the receivers, which could use some reinforcements, can work with Drake London, Mack Hollins and Scotty Miller, especially with Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson able to play there regardless of how their position formally reads.

There are ways to help Atlanta's short-term goals, the first of which is to end a five-year playoff drought. The fact that isn't the main focus heading into this draft is a good thing for the franchise. Even better is that Smith is out front leading such a charge.

"It's easy for me or someone in the front office to say that we need to think long-term, we've got to think big picture and it's probably harder for coaches," Fontenot said. "You'd think it's strategic for them to be stuck in the moment, but I'll say this about Arthur. He does. He's still able to think long-term and think big picture. Even if this can help us long-term, this is what's best for us. So, he thinks that way and that makes it easy."

While the Falcons are well covered for the immediate future, they'll have some holes down the line. Campbell, Hollins, Dupree, Miller and Okudah are all here on one-year deals. You need longer-term answers there, on rookie deals if you can get them.

That's why the Falcons have options at No. 8, not beholden to taking the best [insert your position here] available when they draft. They could go cornerback or edge rusher at No. 8. They couldn't be blamed for looking hard at an offensive lineman.

That's also why they can go for a dynamic playmaker like Bijan Robinson in the first round. Or, if he's still around, a trade up for Alabama runner Jahmyr Gibbs shouldn't be out of the question. Nothing should at this point.

The road to long-term franchise health and a period of sustained success requires three things: 1. A quality quarterback. 2. Laser-guided free-agency additions. And, 3. Stacking draft classes.

The Falcons have done a good job of that last thing. They have gleaned production and depth from the 2021 and '22 classes. Doing so a few more times will provide the type of roster foundation required to weather injuries and inevitable departures. Add some star power to that and you've got a steady contender.

It also ramps up the level of competition, something Smith and Fontenot noted as a welcome development during Tuesday's pre-draft press conference. That may influence the volume of drafted players added. They might be fine with fewer, for example, allowing the decision makers to focus on more premium talents.

Fontenot said the Falcons won't "sit on our hands" if they feel they have to move around the draft board to get players they want.

"This is going to be a very competitive camp," Smith said. "I just look at it with where the numbers are and with credit to a lot of people, we've continued to add and build. I'm excited about that so that's part of the strategy too as you're moving around in the draft—how many picks do you want, future assets because we may have some guys on one-year deals, and this may be a hard 53 to make and that's a good problem to have. It's going to force us to make some really hard decisions at the end of camp. So, that's where you're really excited because you can see that's what's on deck for us."

Take a walk through Atlanta Falcons history with some of the top Falcons first round draft picks and their rookie seasons including legends like Steve Bartkowski, Michael Vick, Jake Matthews and more.

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