The Falcons didn't have much to spend in free agency. Inherited salary-cap issues handcuffed new general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith, limiting their buying power during the veteran signing period.
The duo spread somewhat limited resources around the roster, adding veterans at several spots on short-term contracts. That should help keep the trains running while the Falcons attempt to stack quality NFL draft classes and emerge from cap troubles intensified in 2021, when the salary-spending limit went down due to decreased revenues during last year's height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While there's no big-ticket item on the Falcons free-agent list, there are plenty expected to step in, start and be a real factor in 2021. Who will make the biggest impact? We've got some options, but the right answer seems crystal clear:
The feature back
Yep. We're talking about Mike Davis, he of the massive quads gone viral.
The Atlanta native comes home after two seasons in Carolina, the last one spent tallying a career-high in carries. He had 642 yards and six touchdowns on 165 yards, for a 3.9-yard average. The Falcons certainly hope that last number rises in 2021 and provides the steady churn on the ground that can create the well-balanced offense Smith prefers.
While there will be carries to go around the running back room, Davis should be a feature player taking the lion's share. That distribution would suggest things going according to plan, that Davis would be steady productive both inside the tackles and out.
The Falcons desperately need better from a ground game that ranked second-to-last in 2020, albeit using a different scheme, averaging 3.7 yards per carry over 409 attempts. That's not good enough, and the entire operation must be better. While Davis will be integral in that effort, he's part of a larger operation. Smith's play design will help the entire thing, but the Falcons can't run well without solid play from the offensive front. Center Matt Hennessy and the player lined up at left guard – Josh Andrews seems like a frontrunner at this incredibly early stage, with plenty of time for competition -- will be key in rushing improvement.
This is a grand opportunity for Davis, who has worked largely as a secondary option to this point. He was behind Christian McCaffrey in Carolina and Chris Carson in Seattle during other parts of his career, but has a chance to be the go-to guy in Atlanta.
The nature of his position will mean Davis will be featured more than other veteran imports, but he'll have a real chance to take the reins, improve the run game and put his stamp on this year's Falcons offense. The passing game has plenty of weapons. A solid run game would help balance this offense score the steady points required to keep things competitive.
The safety duo
While Davis could make the biggest individual impact, safety's the position group that'll look totally different in 2021. Free-agent signings Erik Harris and Duron Harmon could end up manning both starting spots. Experience will help them do so, especially with communication on the back end while trying to improve on the NFL's worst pass defense last season. They'll also allow second-round rookie Richie Grant to develop at a proper pace, without being forced into a major role right away. I've seen Harris work a ton while I covered the Raiders. He's a smart and capable ballhawk who provides strong leadership. Harmon has played a ton, including some big games with New England. He has also been a team captain at several turns. That safety presence should help, especially while mastering and then executing coordinator Dean Pees' scheme.
The veteran cover man
The Falcons secondary needs an overhaul after struggling last season and losing so many on the open market. That's still the case, in the long term, anyway, after adding three veterans this offseason between the safeties and Fabian Moreau. These veterans should stabilize the unit some in 2021. The cornerback will have a real chance to start and play significant snaps in 2021. He has five interceptions the past two season despite just eight starts in that span. While he hasn't been spectacular since turning pro, Moreau could provide stability on the outside opposite A.J. Terrell. That in itself would be an improvement for a secondary must be better in 2021.
Cordarrelle Patterson could fill several important roles on this team. Return man is the most obvious after years of top-flight play in that arena. The Falcons are focusing him at running back after an offensive career spent mostly as a receiver. He has experience in the backfield but should spend more time than ever there in 2021. He should be solid as a receiving back and dangerous when given the ball in space. Patterson is certainly built to be a back at 227 pounds and could carve out a significant role if he can handle the blocking responsibilities and produce when given the ball directly.
The next time the players are on this field, it will be training camp. Take a look at the best images from the final day of OTAs.