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Key takeaways, themes from Falcons approach to 2023 NFL free agency 

Arthur Smith, Terry Fontenot discuss their approach to signing period when, for the first time, they had plenty of salary-cap space

Editor's note:The statements and opinions regarding players and/or potential future players in the article below are those of the editorial staff and are not of the Atlanta Falcons' football personnel unless noted in a direct quote.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Draft, develop and then reward.

That's the ideal scenario after identifying a seemingly perfect prospect. It doesn't always work out that way. In fact, it rarely does. There are too many mines along the way.


When fit and health and talent and drive combine to form a sturdy piece of young foundation, it's time to back up the Brinks truck.

It's in situations like that where teams don't mind writing a big, fat check.

The Falcons have been talking about those moments since Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith took over. The GM and head coach, respectively, have made no secret of wanting to reward their own.

Lots of teams say that. Not all of them follow up, for various reasons.

Fontenot and Smith backed up such talk twice this offseason, giving big-money extensions to two vital pieces of their offensive line.

Starting guard Chris Lindstrom signed a five-year extension worth a reported $102.5 million shortly before free agency began. Then Kaleb McGary was formally brought back into the fray after he signed a deal worth a reported $34.5 million over three years on March 30.

This comes an offseason after the Falcons extended defensive lineman Grady Jarrett and left tackle Jake Matthews.

"We want to prioritize two things," Terry Fontenot said last month in an exclusive interview with "We want to prioritize the front, so you see a year ago when we extended Grady and extended Jake, and this year to be able to do that with Chris and extend Kaleb, and also [defensive lineman] Lorenzo Carter. It's important to prioritize the front and prioritize our players."

Head coach Arthur Smith was as passionate about the re-signings as anything he discussed last week at NFL owners meetings, and actually took it a step further when addressing culture fits from outside the organization. In other words, if you work hard and lead well and produce, the Falcons will pay you.

"I wholeheartedly believe in this," Smith said. "This was a little bit strategically why we wanted to pay Chris. He's somebody who has been in our program. We're thankful he was on the roster when we got here, but he's what we stand for. We were able to extend Grady and Jake last year. I always think this – the institutions get the behavior you reward. When you reward guys like Chris Lindstrom, you feel pretty good.

"When you reward guys like Jessie Bates and David Onyemata, that matters. It matters to the young guys and shows this is what we think our standard is. There's living proof of it. That's what makes you feel really good about where you're at with your program and that's why you make sure you reward the right players. We feel like we've done that."

Rewarding some of their own, and culture fits from outside the organization, was a clear objective from this stretch of veteran signings, where the Falcons committed significant funds to several.

There were other themes and takeaways from what the Falcons did in free agency that should be considered important, however, coming from the first offseason where the Falcons could buy more of what they wanted and less of what they could afford.

Now that the signing period as officially settled down, let's take a look at a few key learnings.

Building up the middle

Fontenot stated earlier in this story that the offensive and defensive lines were prioritized. You could see that with investments made in Lindstrom and McGary, and Onyemata and Calais Campbell on the defensive front.

There's another theme here, and that was building up the middle. In addition to the defensive linemen, the Falcons added star safety Jessie Bates III and versatile linebacker Kaden Elliss, who lined up a ton on the interior during his breakout 2022 season. I would count top-level backup Taylor Heinicke as an up-the-middle play, adding depth to the core of the offense.

There were perimeter players added to areas of need, including cornerback Mike Hughes and receivers Scotty Miller and Mack Hollins.

It seems important to the Falcons, however, that they got stronger up front and through the middle, especially on defense.

"We added those players because we felt really good about who they were and what they could add to the team," Fontenot said in an interview at NFL owners meetings. "We never want to say, 'this is exactly what we want to do,' but it kind of worked out that way."

Versatility, familiarity is key

I promise this section won't turn into a treatise about position-less football. But it was clear Smith and Fontenot prized players who can do a bunch of different things well, which allows the Falcons to become unpredictable.

That's not something new we learned about this group, but its importance was emphasized timed and again with these Falcons signings.

Bates can play all over the place. Onyemata cam move across the line depending on the situation. The Falcons say Hughes can play inside and out, and that they like him in the slot.

Tight end Jonnu Smith and linebacker Kaden Elliss are probably the best examples of players the Falcons can freely move between positions.

Smith has the size to line up at in-line tight end as a blocker or pass catcher. He can move into the slot or even out wide. And we've all seen some hard-nosed work from him as a fullback. Arthur Smith knows how to use him well, with proof from their time working together in Tennessee.

Elliss played a lot on the interior with New Orleans, but was a college edge rusher who can create havoc outside. He can also blitz through the middle and be a tough run defender shooting through gaps. And, P.S, he's a decent cover man. And, in a similar situation to the Smith-Smith duo, Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen knows as well as anyone how to maximize Elliss' talents after working with him in New Orleans.

The Falcons welcome such versatility, which that clearly prized.

"We want good football players," Fontenot said. "Everybody says that but what does it mean? You're smart, technically sound and can wear a bunch of different hats. … With all players, we believe versatility is key. Then you can keep adding good football players and keep making your overall team better as opposed to helping in one area. You want to get guys who are versatile."

Familiarity was another theme that regularly popped up.

Nielsen has connections with Onyemata and Elliss. Smith has a connection with Smith. Assistant head coach Jerry Gray has worked with Hughes. Secondary coach Steven Jackson has experience coaching Bates. Such overlap provides confidence that the Falcons know what they're getting with these new players and how to use them well.

Disciplined, yet not afraid to spend

We heard a ton from Fontenot and Arthur Smith about Falcons' desire to be disciplined and operate within set parameters during the free agency window. That didn't mean they were afraid to spend. They went big for Bates. They set a record with the Lindstrom contract. McGary is getting a significant sum. Onyemata was another aggressive play.

The Falcons entered free agency with the second-highest amount of salary-cap space and added several bigger contracts, yet remain in good cap standing in 2024 and beyond. That's as key as anything in this whole process, to not fall back into bad standing with the cap after inheriting such a situation two years ago. Sure, they had to spend this offseason after freeing up all that dead money. They also created some outs in these deals that could prevent them from incurring massive amounts of dead cap down the line.

And, even after committing significant funds within the early stages of free agency, the Falcons still left room to secure Calais Campbell on a one-year deal reportedly worth $7 million, with up to $2 million more in possible incentives. That, in my opinion, was a huge get. Campbell's older but can still play. His size and strength, when combined with Onyemata and Grady Jarrett, gives the Falcons a massive front. He also brings leadership to the locker room and will help captain this group.

While they must go prove that they've improved, the Falcons feel their operation went well and that they executed efficiently during an important time adding players they coveted.

"Going into this year in free agency, we said this would this would be a different offseason," Smith said. "It was. We finally had some cap room. You don't want to go crazy and spend it all on three deals. There were a lot of areas we need to improve. You have to make sure you play the right players."

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