A breakdown of the Atlanta Falcons' 2018 free-agent signings.
Justin Bethel, CB/ST
The Falcons agreed to a one-year contract with cornerback and three-time Pro Bowl special-teams player Justin Bethel, last with the Arizona Cardinals. Here's a closer look at the signing:
Grade: B-plus. The Falcons sorely needed bodies on special teams and got one of the best in the business in Bethel, a two-time All-Pro on special teams. He should make an immediate impact on a special teams unit that struggled in many areas last season, particularly tackling and just overall discipline. Bethel led the Cardinals in special-teams tackles for five consecutive seasons.
What it means: The Falcons have been bargain shopping throughout free agency and did so again here with a one-year deal for Bethel. The 6-foot, 200-pounder instantly becomes one of the guys who special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong will rely on to make plays. Last year's leading special-teams tackler, fullback Derrick Coleman, wasn't re-signed immediately. And Kemal Ishmael, another guy capable of making tackles on teams, hasn't been re-signed just yet. So again, the expectations of Bethel as a special-teams player will be high. The last time the Falcons had a Pro Bowl-caliber special teams player was Eric Weems.
What’s the risk: The word is Bethel still wants a legit chance to play cornerback after starting 14 games the past three seasons with the Cardinals. But Bethel struggled in the starting role, so don't expect to see him much in the Falcons' defense. It's always good to have experienced depth, but the Falcons probably won't want to risk having to play Bethel too much. Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel likes his starting corners in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, while Brian Poole and Damontae Kazee are expected to compete at the nickel back spot.
The Atlanta Falcons re-signed defensive lineman Derrick Shelby to a one-year, $3.25 million contract ($2 million guaranteed) after releasing him before the start of free agency. Here's a closer look at the signing:
Grade: C. The Falcons needed to address depth along the defensive line, but the re-signing of Shelby is somewhat puzzling. He was released with two years remaining on a four-year, $18 million contract as he was due to make $4.5 million in 2018. Although Shelby isn't earning as much money upon his return, one figured the Falcons would try to find another capable body after making Shelby a cap casualty. However, the Falcons have limited options and minimal cap space, so they need to target low-budget players right now, even if that means resurfacing familiar faces.
What it means: Bringing back Shelby won't turn the defense around. He's a solid role player when healthy. And depth along the defensive line continues to be a concern after the loss of defensive tackle Dontari Poe (Panthers) and defensive end Adrian Clayborn (Patriots). Shelby is more of a run-stopper who will beat up on tight ends while playing the six technique (aligned between the tackle and tight end). He doesn't really have the size to be effective inside, although the Falcons tried him out as a three-technique (outside shoulder of guard). But again, this is more of a depth signing. Shelby averaged 23.4 snaps per game last season while starting 14 contests and had 30 tackles with one sack.
What’s the risk: Shelby, who turned 29 earlier this month, played in just six games during his initial season with the Falcons after suffering an Achilles' tear. The health of an older player is always something to monitor, and the Falcons have seen one of their defensive lineman go down seemingly every year. Shelby is strong enough to hold his own on the line, but he's not a difference-maker type. He won't wow anyone with his pass-rush moves. But he could be a serviceable backup and, in turn, a low-risk re-signing.
Logan Paulsen, TE
Grade: C-plus. At this stage of free agency, you're not getting the top-of-the-line player. That's just reality. But Paulsen could be a plus if he fulfills the inline blocking role. That's what the Falcons need from him after releasing Levine Toilolo. Austin Hooper is more of a passing-catching threat, and the Falcons expect Hooper to rebound after a down 2017 season. Paulsen, a seven-year veteran who played for the 49ers, Bears and Redskins, is familiar with the Falcons' offensive system after playing for former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan both last year in San Francisco and while in Washington. Based on what those familiar with him have to say, Paulsen will be an asset as a teammate as well as a solid mentor for Hooper.
What it means: Like the signing of former 49ers offensive guard Brandon Fusco, the Falcons addressed a position of need while bargain shopping. More than likely, tight end now becomes a low priority in the draft, although the Falcons had a formal meeting at the combine with the draft's top tight end, South Carolina's Hayden Hurst. Folks have to understand the 6-foot-5, 268-pound Paulsen is a role player, so he's not expected to come in and be a downfield or red zone threat. Paulsen has 82 career receptions for 816 yards and six touchdowns through 105 games. He had two targets on 32 routes last season with no catches and one drop.
What’s the risk: It's a low-risk signing with the one-year contract that includes just $200,000 guaranteed. Paulsen won't come in having to live up to big expectations. He just needs to do his job and block well. And if he's called upon to catch the ball, he better be ready after drops plagued the Falcons last season. Paulsen, who missed all of 2015 with a toe injury, apparently is healthy. He's had some issues with penalties in the past with both Washington (nine in 2014) and Chicago (six in 2016) but seemed to have those under better control last season.
The Falcons agreed to a three-year, $12.75 million deal ($5.5 million guaranteed) with offensive guard Brandon Fusco, who played this past season for the San Francisco 49ers. Here’s a closer look at the signing:
Grade: B-minus. The only way this was going to be an A is if the Falcons had signed top guard prospect Andrew Norwell. Let's call it above average for now because Fusco has plenty of starting experience, with 80 starts in 83 career games. On tape, he moves well and gets to the second level when blocking and appears to have good handwork. But there also have been concerns about his pass protection. Pro Football Focus said he surrendered just eight QB pressures in the final eight games of 2017 after surrendering 21 through the first half of the season.
What it means: A guy who has played 4,731 career snaps isn't coming in to sit the bench. Although the Falcons liked Wes Schweitzer's effort last season in his first year starting at right guard, Schweitzer is viewed more as a quality backup. The 6-foot-4, 306-pound Fusco, who started at right guard for the 49ers last season, can step right in and help upgrade the run game. Now the Falcons likely will address another need, such as defensive line, wide receiver or perhaps tight end, in the early stages of the draft.
What’s the risk: Again, the concern with Fusco has related to pass protection, although it appears he has become better at that discipline. Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP, didn't have the same type of year last season in part because he was under more duress. The Falcons hope solidifying the interior of the line will help keep the pressure from getting into Ryan's face. Fusco also has had some injuries in the past, with a torn pectoral muscle and concussion causing him to miss games during his time with the Minnesota Vikings from 2011 to 2016. But Fusco played 1,042 offensive snaps last season, 12th most among all offensive linemen.