ATLANTA -- On Monday, the Atlanta Falcons finally showed what the “next phase” of their rebuilding process was going to look like.
It’s how general manager Terry Fontenot described this offseason, where the Falcons would have money to spend for the first time since he and Arthur Smith were hired in January 2021.
“We had a plan from the very beginning and now we’re in the next phase of that,” Fontenot said. “This is going to be a different offseason than we’ve had in the previous years."
The next phase means being competitive in free agency and not having to wait for bargains.
Between the hours of 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., through a trade, a contract extension, re-signing their own players and agreeing to terms with free agents, the franchise spent at least a reported $233 million in life-of-the-contract money on six players.
While the real money to watch is often the guaranteed portion of the deal, this is still a long way from having to restructure and cut players just to get under the cap.
Here's how they did it:
Traded pick No. 245 in this year’s draft for tight end Jonnu Smith ($21 million base salary remaining between 2023 and 2024)
Gave Pro Bowl right guard Chris Lindstrom a five-year contract extension ($105 million, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter)
Agreed to terms with safety Jessie Bates III on a four-year deal ($64.02 million)
Agreed to terms with defensive tackle David Onyemata on a three-year deal ($35 million)
Re-signed punter Bradley Pinion for three years ($8.65 million) and fullback Keith Smith for one year according to his agent (undisclosed)
Later Monday night, the team agreed to terms with former Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss (undisclosed).
So the Falcons' true spending will be higher because of Elliss' contract, a potential $2 million in roster bonuses in Jonnu Smith’s contract and the unknown nature of Keith Smith’s contract, but potentially more manageable because a source told ESPN that Jonnu Smith’s contract will be reworked.
The moves created a potential franchise-altering day, perhaps inserting themselves as contenders in the NFC South.
What the deals mean
The Falcons had to upgrade their defense. Last season, they were No. 29 in defensive efficiency (41.23) and defensive expected points added (-71.8), last in in sack percentage per dropback (3.5) and No. 31 in third down defense (45.9%).
In agreeing to terms with Onyemata and Bates, they solved multiple issues.
While Onyemata is 30, he has been remarkably durable -- playing in less than 15 games in a season just once -- and has familiarity with new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen. He’ll be a tone-setter on the line.
Pair him with Grady Jarrett and Ta'Quon Graham and that automatically causes issues for opposing offensive lines and run games. Onyemata had an interior line run-stop win rate of 26.8% -- No. 58 in the league, 20 spots behind Jarrett -- and had 118 run stops against double-teams, No. 14 in the league.
Onyemata got pressure on 5.0% of his pass rushes -- for comparison, Jarrett was at 5.6% -- and when he got the first pressure, opposing quarterbacks had only 2.55 yards per attempt.
In Bates, Atlanta got an elite 26-year-old playmaker in the back end to work with star cornerback A.J. Terrell.
In three of Bates’ five seasons in Cincinnati, he had an opposing passer rating below 78, according to Pro Football Reference. Last season, PFR had Bates allowing a 51.4 opposing completion percentage. In a small sample size, Bates showed proficiency against the run with a 40.7 run stop win rate -- No. 40 among defensive backs.
He’ll be part of the defensive core with Jarrett and Terrell.
Elliss might be the biggest unknown of the group. While he played for the Saints so there's familiarity with Nielsen, he had one season as a productive NFL defender, with 74 tackles and seven sacks last year. It was his first year playing more than a quarter of New Orleans' defensive snaps. He had a pass rush win rate of 12.1% and a run stop win rate of 31.4%. PFR had his opposing completion percentage of 61.3% with no touchdowns allowed in coverage.
By extending Lindstrom, Atlanta did two things: Made the talk about taking care of its own players into a reality, making him the highest-paid average annual salary guard in league history, and provided the offensive line with a player to build around for the next half-decade.
Lindstrom rarely gets penalized -- his first pro holding call came in his fourth NFL season -- and is a quality locker room presence.
Trading for Jonnu Smith gives Atlanta insurance as star tight end Kyle Pitts returns from injury. Smith had his best seasons with Falcons head coach Arthur Smith either as his position coach or offensive coordinator when both were with the Tennessee Titans.
If his production as a No. 2 tight end is similar to what he did in Tennessee -- 41 receptions, 448 yards, eight touchdowns -- that’ll be a benefit.
Re-signing Pinion kept special teams continuity together, plus Pinion had one of his best punting seasons last year with a 45.9-yard average. Keith Smith is a key special teams contributor and can line up in multiple spots offensively.
The key with every move Atlanta made Monday is this: There was familiarity with the player beforehand. Lindstrom, Keith Smith and Pinion were already with the Falcons. Jonnu Smith worked with Arthur Smith in Tennessee. Nielsen coached Onyemata and Elliss in New Orleans, and new secondary coach Steve Jackson was Bates’ position coach for two seasons in Cincinnati.
When the Falcons give out money, they want to know as much as they can, so it’s not surprising the players they targeted and landed.
For all Atlanta spent, they still have a long to-do list.
While the exact cap space left remains fluid, the Falcons still have their own top free agent, right tackle Kaleb McGary, unsigned. That will be a situation to watch. There are questions at left guard, too, where last year’s starter, Elijah Wilkinson, is a free agent. The best on-the-roster option is Matt Hennessy, who showed capability there when he started.
In adding Elliss and Onyemata, the Falcons did bring in some front seven help along with re-signing Lorenzo Carter last week, but it's possible Atlanta still does some defensive line and linebacker work.
There’s the possibility of a No. 2 cornerback -- veteran Casey Hayward is coming off a season-ending torn pec -- and the remaking of a wide receiver room with only Drake London, Frank Darby, Jared Bernhardt, Josh Ali and Ra'Shaun Henry under contract.
Plus, Atlanta will add a quarterback beyond Desmond Ridder and Logan Woodside. (Editor's note: The Falcons agreed to terms with quarterback Taylor Heinicke on a two-year deal worth up to $20 million Tuesday, sources confirmed to ESPN's Adam Schefter.)
"We're gonna add to the [quarterback] position, whether it's free agency, the draft or both," Fontenot said at the scouting combine.
Considering Ridder’s relative inexperience, a veteran option could make sense.
So even though Atlanta took multiple steps toward being a contender Monday and spent like it never had, there’s still a lot that needs to be done.