FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2023 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began at 4 p.m. on Wednesday. The first round of the 2023 NFL draft begins April 27 on ESPN.
The Falcons' first move was to re-sign one of their own 25 free agents, defensive end Lorenzo Carter, after he finished second on the team in sacks (four).
Kaleb McGary, offensive tackle
The Falcons hung on to right tackle McGary with a deal that will pay $34.5 million over three years, a source told ESPN's Dianna Russini.
What it means: In addition to agreeing to terms with a bunch of free agents from other teams, Atlanta managed to keep its own top free agent around by re-signing McGary to a reasonable contract. This means the Falcons could have continuity on their line for the next few years with right guard Chris Lindstrom and left tackle Jake Matthews inked to long-term deals and center Drew Dalman under contract the next two seasons. Atlanta's run game was one of the league's best last season and often the Falcons ran behind McGary.
What's the risk: McGary essentially had one good season and three questionable ones, so it's worth some concern about which McGary the Falcons will get -- and the Falcons should hope he continues to improve in pass protection. If it's the one who played last year, this will be a good deal. If it's not, there's risk involved. But it once again shows Atlanta is willing to treat its own free agents well while not overpaying to keep them.
Taylor Heinicke, quarterback
Heinicke agreed to terms on a two-year deal worth up to $20 million, according to sources.
What it means: A lot, actually. A source told ESPN that Heinicke is expected to enter camp as the backup to Desmond Ridder, meaning the second-year pro is expected to be Atlanta's starting quarterback. Heinicke is a veteran who can start games if needed -- he completed 64% of his passes during his time in Washington and went 12-11-1 as a starter the past two seasons there. This gives Atlanta a high-end backup in case Ridder were not to progress as anticipated but also provides some competition in a 29-year-old who can play.
What's the risk: There's not much. The thought was always that the Falcons would at least bring in some competition for Ridder and Heinicke makes perfect sense. He's from Atlanta, has starting experience but also understands the role of a backup if that ends up where he is. At worst, he's a starter who you know you can win games. At best, Atlanta's belief in Ridder is proven out and Heinicke becomes a sensible backup who can help a young player develop.
Jessie Bates III, safety
The Falcons and Bates agreed to a four-year deal worth $64.02 million, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter.
What it means: The Falcons continue to be big free agency spenders now that they have the means to do so, and bringing in the 26-year-old Bates is likely the splash of their class. In Bates, they get a versatile safety who can both cover and handle the run. He has 14 career interceptions and 43 passes defended along with 478 tackles. He could be a centerpiece for new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen and a coaching staff that believes wholeheartedly in versatility.
What's the risk: Any time you give a player a massive contract -- the fourth-highest-paid safety ever, there's risk if he doesn't play up to the level of one of the league's top safeties. But Bates has been healthy throughout his career -- he has played in all but three games -- and there's familiarity with him and defensive backs coach Steve Jackson, the team's new secondary coach who was Bates' position coach in Cincinnati in 2020 and 2021.
David Onyemata, defensive tackle
The Falcons have agreed to terms with former Saints lineman Onyemata on a three-year deal worth $35 million, with $24.5 million guaranteed, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
What it means: Onyemata is reuniting with his former defensive line coach, Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, in Atlanta. The Falcons had to improve their defensive line -- it has been an offseason priority for head coach Arthur Smith -- and in Onyemata they get someone familiar with the coaching staff and a player who can take pressure off defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Jarrett has faced consistent double-teams (and sometimes triple-teams) the last two seasons. With Onyemata, opponents won't be able to do that.
What's the risk: There's not a lot of risk here. Onyemata has familiarity with some of the staff and has been largely healthy in his career, playing under 15 games in a season just once. If Atlanta wants him to be a high-level pass-rusher, that would be a concern, but his 23 career sacks from the interior are a reasonable number. He has averaged about 60% of snaps in his career, too, so he has shown he can play a lot on the inside as well.
Germain Ifedi, offensive tackle
Terms of Ifedi's deal have not yet been disclosed.
What it means: Ifedi returns to the Falcons for a second season, likely as a depth option at tackle behind starters Kaleb McGary and Jake Matthews. Atlanta signed Ifedi last offseason to compete for a job at either guard or tackle, but he ended up as a reserve playing in every game.
What's the risk: None. Atlanta has its two starting tackles and having someone with 83 games of starting experience as a backup is not a bad luxury to have. That Ifedi was willing to come back is a good sign for Atlanta. If the team wants him to compete at left guard -- the only spot on the line seemingly open at the moment -- that would be a bit more interesting as he played right guard in Chicago in 2020.
Mack Hollins, wide receiver
The former Raiders wideout agreed to terms on a one-year deal, per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.
What it means: The Falcons needed to find a reasonable No. 2 receiver to pair with Drake London who would also understand he's really the No. 3 or No. 4 option in the passing game behind London, Kyle Pitts and perhaps Jonnu Smith. Hollins had the best season of his career with the Raiders last year, catching 57 passes for 690 yards and four touchdowns. He'll provide another big target for QB Desmond Ridder.
What's the risk: If they count on him too much. Hollins' 57 catches last year was one more than he had in his first six seasons in the league between Philadelphia and Miami. Hollins is a tall, blocking receiver so if he's able to do that and contribute on the level he did in Las Vegas, he's a strong signing. If he's more like he was in Miami and Philadelphia, where he never had more than 16 catches in a season, it could get dicey if too much is expected of him.
Mike Hughes, cornerback
Hughes agreed to a two-year deal, according to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.
What it means: Mike Hughes provides depth for Atlanta at cornerback, a place the franchise was thin last year after a season-ending pec injury to starter Casey Hayward. Hayward is expected to return next season, but Hughes provides them some depth and a player who has starting experience -- 18 games in the league. He has three career interceptions and 20 passes defended.
What's the risk: If the Falcons decide to make Hughes a starter, that could be concerning. He's never started more than six games in a season -- and that was last year in Detroit, where according to Pro Football Reference he allowed a 73.2 completion percentage with four touchdowns. Hughes played both in the slot and outside last season, so he has a bit of flexibility, which could be helpful for Atlanta with Isaiah Oliver now in San Francisco.
Cornell Armstrong, cornerback
Armstrong agreed to terms on a one-year deal to return to the Falcons.
What it means: Armstrong is heading back to the Falcons to run it back for one more year -- last year he started four games late in the season for Atlanta with seven passes defended. Armstrong is likely coming back as a reliable depth and special teams player for Atlanta who can start in a pinch if necessary.
What's the risk: A one-year deal that's not going to be a massive contract really carries little risk for Atlanta. Armstrong was a depth corner last year. He's expected to be a depth corner if he makes the team this year. If Armstrong is Atlanta's fourth or fifth cornerback, the Falcons should be just fine with that reality.
Tae Davis, linebacker
David agreed to terms on a one-year deal, per source.
What it means: Davis is likely going to be the team's No. 3 or No. 4 linebacker -- a guy who can play a bit if necessary but primarily will be a special teams contributor. Davis has started five career games in the league but has played two-thirds of the special teams snap in the games he's played. Smart, veteran signing for Atlanta.
What's the risk: Only reason for concern would be if Atlanta is ticketing him for a larger role than what he's played so far in his career, which has sometimes happened with this staff but mostly because of necessity due to roster and cap constraints. No such issues now. So this is a fine signing as a special teams player -- think, maybe, the role Nick Kwiatkoski had a season ago.
Bradley Pinion, punter
The Falcons brought back Pinion on a three-year deal for $8.65 million, per source.
What it means: The Falcons will have continuity at punter -- and within their entire special teams unit as kicker Younghoe Koo, long-snapper Liam McCullough and now Pinion return. Pinion had one of the best years of his career in 2022, averaging 45.9 yards per punt and 41.2 net yards per punt with 23 punts inside the 20-yard line.
What's the risk: Not much. The Falcons signed Pinion last June when he was released by Tampa Bay, and he gave Atlanta everything it wanted from a punting and kickoff perspective. The money isn't massive, either, so it's not like there's a big risk. Overall, a smart signing by Atlanta to keep one of the better special teams operations in the league intact.
Keith Smith, fullback
The Falcons are bringing back Smith on a one-year deal, according to his agent. Terms were unavailable.
What it means: Smith is a special teams stalwart for the Falcons, now back for Season 5. He has been a good blocker. Atlanta used him both as a fullback and sometimes lined up in a tight end spot in both 2021 and 2022 under Arthur Smith. The Falcons are going to want to have a fullback on the roster, and Smith is one of the better ones in the league.
What's the risk: Not much. Smith has signed reasonable deals throughout his time with Atlanta, and there's no reason to believe this would be any different. The bigger question will be if Smith gets pushed for a spot this year by tight end Parker Hesse, who could be a fullback, or someone else. But Smith has clear value for Atlanta and is a solid locker room presence.
Kaden Elliss, linebacker
No terms were available.
What it means: The Falcons continue to add players their staff has familiarity with, adding their second former Saints defender on the day. Elliss, the son of former NFL defensive lineman Luther Elliss, had seven sacks last season in his first year as a full-time defensive player. He should add to an Atlanta pass rush that needs improvement after two years at the bottom of the league. There's versatility, too, as he lined up on both the left and right side of New Orleans' defense at linebacker.
What's the risk: It's always risky to sign a player after one good season -- although not knowing the parameters of the deal makes it tough to say how much of a risk. If Atlanta is looking at Elliss as a rotational player with upside, he's a good signing. Plus, if anyone will know what Elliss is capable of, it's his defensive coordinator, Ryan Nielsen, and general manager, Terry Fontenot, both of whom worked with him in New Orleans.
Lorenzo Carter, defensive end
The Falcons agreed to a two-year deal with Carter, the team announced.
What it means: Carter was the Falcons' most productive edge rusher last season -- that's not saying a ton since he had only four sacks -- but he was key in setting the edge against the run and brought a lot to what Atlanta wanted defensively even if the stats didn't always match up to it. He also brought a veteran presence to a young room where three of the top four players were rookies or second-year players. It's not surprising Carter, a Georgia native who played college ball at Georgia, is back.
What's the risk: If the Falcons view Carter as a No. 1 or No. 2 edge rusher, that could be concerning considering how unproductive Atlanta's pass rush was a season ago. But it's also a new scheme under Ryan Nielsen and how he plans to handle a front seven is not entirely clear yet. If Atlanta views Carter as a rotational edge rusher along with Arnold Ebiketie and they bring in a top draft pick or free agent signing, this is a good, sensible move.