After the 2022 season concluded, the Atlanta Falcons could breathe a sigh of relief. They finally emerged from the depths of financial turmoil, reminiscent of a bankruptcy scare after setting an NFL record for dead cap space last season. Their decision to trade Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts in 2022 and Julio Jones to the Tennessee Titans the previous year was in large part because of that. Therefore, Falcons' GM Terry Fontenot was left in a precarious position, having to then purge the team for two years, paying off over $60 million in dead cap space, while making minimal moves in free agency.
While the Falcons still have a little debt left to pay off, $18 million was a lot more manageable this offseason than in previous years to venture deeper into the free agency market.
This offseason, the Falcons didn't have to be penny-pinchers settling for veterans long past their prime or untested, inexperienced newcomers. With their bank account replenished some now, the Falcons were able to make some significant free-agent signings that they hope will benefit the team in 2023. However, as always, free-agent signings can come with a risk. Luckily, it seems that Fontenot was precise in his signings, carefully choosing what seemed to be not only good scheme fits for the Falcons, but financial ones as well. With that being said, though, there's really only player that could pose a potential risk out of the Falcons free agent signings, that being highly acclaimed safety Jessie Bates III.
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Jessie Bates III
While the Falcons have regained their financial stability, allowing them to be more active in free agency, their signing of Jessie Bates III could be seen as their best and their riskiest move this season. The 26-year-old safety is undoubtedly a versatile player, adept at both coverage and run defense. With an impressive track record of 14 interceptions, 43 passes defended, and 478 tackles, Bates possesses the potential to become a cornerstone for the Falcons under new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, and a likewise-minded coaching staff that places great emphasis on versatility.
However, the risk lies in the magnitude of the contract given to Bates, making him the fourth-highest-paid safety in NFL history. Bates signed a four-year, $62.04 million contract to come to Atlanta, making his contract the largest in the Arthur Smith/Terry Fontenot era.
Anytime a player receives such a substantial financial commitment, there is always a degree of risk involved. The Falcons are banking on Bates playing at the level expected of one of the league's premier safeties. While Bates has remained relatively healthy throughout his career, missing only three games, there is still the inherent unpredictability of injuries that could affect his performance like any other player in the league.
Nevertheless, there is a silver lining in the form of familiarity. Bates and the Falcons' new secondary coach, Steve Jackson, share a history as Bates' position coach during his time in Cincinnati in 2020 and 2021. This existing relationship could provide a level of comfort and a smooth transition for Bates within the Falcons' defensive scheme. Plus, if nothing for nothing else, Bates can only help a Falcons defense that allowed the eighth-most passing yards (231.9) in the NFL last season.
Ultimately, the signing of Jessie Bates III represents both great potential and inherent risk. The Falcons are hoping that his talent, durability, and existing relationship with some on the coaching staff will outweigh any potential drawbacks, solidifying him as a valuable asset for the team's future success.