In January, shortly after the 2021 season had ended, Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot gave a glimpse, perhaps, into the team’s strategy for this offseason.
Yes, there would be constraints once again put on by the team’s salary-cap situation. And yes, it probably would mean difficult decisions and the potential restructuring of deals to come. But he also made something else clear.
“Ideally,” Fontenot said, “the best form of free agency is developing and signing your own players because you’re not guessing.”
With that in mind -- and with Fontenot saying at the NFL combine the team is unlikely to make a splash, with a pricey free-agent signing this offseason, it leads to the question of who from the team’s many, many free agents might end up returning to Atlanta in 2022.
Fontenot is using what happened with free-agent-to-be Cordarrelle Patterson last season as the example. Because of Atlanta’s roster, there will be opportunities for playing time. And a player like Patterson, who had a career year in 2021, took advantage.
The general manager’s goal for outside free agents? Have more scenarios like that one. But what could help shape some of those decisions is which of Atlanta’s own players it decides to bring back. With that in mind, let’s look at those players and give a "stay" or "go" analysis.
AJ McCarron, 31: McCarron was set to be the backup until he tore his ACL in the preseason. He’s a player the Falcons can probably sign late in free agency -- like they did last year, snagging him during draft weekend -- if they miss on other options.
Verdict: Go, at least initially.
Cordarrelle Patterson, 30: Patterson had the best offensive year of his career in 2021, as Smith, along with offensive coordinator Dave Ragone, found ways to utilize him with effectiveness like no other team before. He has made clear he wants to stick around, and it isn’t only about money for him. But Patterson may find teams are willing to give him more money elsewhere. How much more might be the difference between a second year in Atlanta and another season elsewhere. This feels very 50-50 at this point.
Russell Gage, 26: Gage might be a bigger candidate to be re-signed in the wake of the news surrounding Calvin Ridley. The team likely would have the money to pay Gage, who showed enough in the second half of the season to probably nab some decent offers. Having Gage as a veteran who knows the system and has proved himself in it could have increased value in a wide receiver room where there is not much talent returning at all.
Olamide Zaccheaus, 24: Zaccheaus looked like he might be a breakout player in training camp. That never happened, as he had 31 catches for 406 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s a restricted free agent, but the $2.5 million original-round tender (per Spotrac) for 2022 is unrealistic. Zaccheaus has special teams value, though.
Verdict: Stay, but on a smaller deal.
Tajae Sharpe, 27: Sharpe was a training camp addition who ended up in a bigger role than expected due to Ridley’s absence. Sharpe is the type of player who could resurface late in free agency or even in camp again, but Atlanta needs more receiver production than the 25 catches and 230 yards he provided.
Christian Blake, 25: Like Zaccheaus, Blake is a restricted free agent. Unlike Zaccheaus, Blake had next to no production as a receiver last season (4 catches, 25 yards).
Hayden Hurst, 28: The Falcons didn’t pick up Hurst’s fifth-year option and then he caught 26 passes for 221 yards and 3 touchdowns. Hurst has potential, but the Falcons have too many needs to pay him what he may command from other teams. Plus, Hurst won’t be the No. 1 tight end in Atlanta, since they have young star Kyle Pitts.
Jaeden Graham, 26: Graham missed the season after being injured in training camp. A restricted free agent, he certainly won’t be tendered, and the Falcons have depth they like at tight end in John Raine, Parker Hesse and maybe even Ryan Becker.
Colby Gossett, 26: Gossett, a restricted free agent, is unlikely to receive a tender. But he stuck around all season and does offer some depth. He’s the type of player who could get a minimum contract to fight for a position during training camp.
Jason Spriggs, 27: Spriggs was brought in during training camp last season and ended up being the team’s No. 3 tackle. Atlanta needs competition for Kaleb McGary at right tackle, and while Spriggs is a good veteran who offers value, the Falcons may try to upgrade here.
Jonathan Bullard, 28: Bullard, when he was healthy, had a role but didn’t produce all that much. He had 21 tackles and no sacks.
Mike Pennel, 30: Signed at midseason, Pennel played 10 games and had 20 tackles but no sacks. Like many other guys, this might come down to the contract. If he’s willing to play at the veteran minimum or close to it, he could be back.
Steven Means, 31: Means is everything the Falcons would want as a person – a good leader, smart, works incredibly hard, great in the community. He played a ton for the Falcons last season too, starting 14 games and playing 72% of snaps in games he appeared. But he had 43 tackles, no sacks and only two quarterback hits. Is it possible he returns? Yes. But it’s probably him or Brandon Copeland (or, perhaps, neither).
Brandon Copeland, 30: Copeland played in 16 games – starting three – and had no sacks and two quarterback hits. In many ways, he’s similar to Means, but he played 31% of snaps in games he appeared (but 45% of special teams snaps). Copeland offers more on special teams than Means does.
Foyesade Oluokun, 26: Oluokun should be Atlanta’s highest-priority free agent and has the best chance to really cash in. But going back to what Fontenot said in January about player retention – and that Smith considered him “an ascending player” during the season – it would seem likely Atlanta is able to get something done here. Oluokun manned the middle in defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ system and led the NFL in tackles (192). Unless another team indicates a massive offer for Oluokun, Atlanta should do what it needs in order to keep him.
Daren Bates, 31: Bates was signed at midseason and had a role on special teams, but he didn’t give Atlanta much else. The Falcons probably will seek out someone who can do more, considering how they need to handle the roster.
Fabian Moreau, 27: Moreau didn’t intercept a pass last season, but he defended 11 and added 61 tackles. This might come down to cost and how ready Atlanta believes Darren Hall might be and who may be available. If Moreau would agree to a similar deal in 2022 – one-year, a little over $1 million – he could end up back again. Otherwise, Atlanta probably will explore other options.
Isaiah Oliver, 25: Oliver was playing some of the best ball of his career before he suffered a season-ending ACL injury. That probably torpedoed some of his market value, but he seemed to find a home at nickel in Pees’ defense. And Pees clearly liked having him a lot – the Falcons struggled to replace him post-injury. Maybe there’s a way to work out a one-year deal that could be beneficial to both sides.
Duron Harmon, 31: Harmon played every game, intercepted two passes and provided the leadership for a young safety group. He also played on a pretty friendly near-minimum deal, which the Falcons might want to run back one more time. Atlanta needs some depth at safety and someone to push Richie Grant. This could be an either/or situation with Erik Harris (or, like Means/Copeland, neither).
Erik Harris, 31: Harris and Harmon are in similar spots. If Harris is willing to be open to a No. 3 safety role, he could be a player who returns. But Harris may also have more of a market than Harmon in free agency and might be open to testing it. Of course, the torn pec he suffered in December might play a role too.
Younghoe Koo (kicker), 27: Koo is one of the best in the NFL, and the Falcons would likely either extend Koo or tag him as a restricted free agent (a second-round tag would seem right, with a $3.986 million price tag). If a team wants Koo and goes after him there, the Falcons would be wise to take the extra second-round pick. Barring that, it feels likely Atlanta finds a way to keep Koo on the team for at minimum one more year.
Verdict: Tendered, maybe given an extension later.
Thomas Morstead (punter), 35: If the Falcons could bring Morstead back, there would be great value for them. But with so many needs and not that much cap space, Morstead may find a bigger contract on the open market. Atlanta might try to go young at the position – or maybe draft a punter – because of its myriad needs elsewhere. But if they can get him back, that would be a win.
Josh Harris (long snapper), 32: Long snappers typically go year-to-year, and Harris is coming off of his first Pro Bowl appearance. No reason to think he won’t end up back in Atlanta at this point.