Atlanta’s in a tricky spot for this free agent cycle. Only the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams, and Philadelphia Eagles are projected to have less cap space coming into the 2021 season, and across those four rosters, the Falcons’ has the least talent by a pretty significant margin. Entering the 2021 season, the Falcons are losing their starting center, running back, and box safety, and are somehow on the books to tie up $18.5 million of cap space in Dante Fowler in 2021. It’s not great.
The road for new general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith is a long and steep one. As such, I’m looking for cheap free agents to plug the gaps as best as possible in the short term, while draft picks are made to hopefully take over those roles over the next season or two. It’s not gonna be pretty, but they’re the best short-term options they’ve got.
Nick Easton, iOL, New Orleans Saints
The Easton-Falcons connection isn’t a tough one to draw. Easton was initially signed by Fontenot in New Orleans after only 17 career starts. It was a decent deal, too: $24 million over four years. Easton has been a rotational player for the Saints over two years of his deal, but with draft picks in Erik McCoy and Cesar Ruiz ready to take over starting roles, Easton doesn’t have a starting spot left.
Easton’s health has also been an issue. He fractured his right ankle in the 2017 season, missed the 2018 season with a neck injury, and dealt with concussions last season. Spotty availability may drive Easton’s price down in the open market, which is an advantage for Fontenot if he wants to bring Easton to Atlanta. The Falcons’ light cap space will make it difficult to find substantial improvements in free agency, but any healthy games they get from Easton will be big for an interior offensive line about to lose Alex Mack.
Geoff Swaim or MyCole Pruitt or Anthony Firkser, TEs, Tennessee Titans
This is pretty simple: Smith needs a lot of tight ends to run his offense and literally every single Titans tight end is a free agent. No, really: starter Jonnu Smith will likely command a good price on the free agent market, but Pruitt and Swaim are also approaching unrestricted free agency, and Firkser is a restricted free agent.
So the Titans are going to bring at least some of them back, and Jonnu Smith may get priced out of Atlanta’s range. But whoever’s left will know Arthur Smith’s system and have a decent amount of experience in it. With only Hayden Hurst secured beyond 2021 in the Falcons’ tight end room, I’d be stunned if no ex-Titans tight ends make their way to Atlanta come March.
Personally, I’d be hoping for Swaim, who took the TE2 role over Firkser by the end of last season. He can be the primary blocking tight end, which lets Hurst play more of a receiver role. Pruitt also fits that bill.
Jerick McKinnon, RB, San Francisco 49ers
McKinnon’s free agency profile is tough to figure out, largely because… well, he took his first snaps of the last three years in 2020. McKinnon tore his ACL before the 2018 season and suffered a setback in the 2019 preseason so severe that he missed that season as well. McKinnon was available for the majority of the 2020 season, but only filled a rotational role for the 49ers as they cycled through a committee backfield. So ended McKinnon’s $30M deal with San Francisco...
When McKinnon was at full health, he was a quality zone runner. Those days have likely passed, but the Falcons were willing to take a gamble on an injured runner in Todd Gurley last season. Now, with Gurley and Brian Hill both approaching free agency, the Falcons have to make a similar gamble on McKinnon.