NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2020 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from Bill Barnwell. The new league year begins at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, which means free-agent signings can be made official after that. The first round of the 2020 NFL draft begins April 23.
Todd Gurley, running back
What it means: The Falcons needed to find a way to bolster one of the league’s worst running games after parting ways with two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman. In Gurley, they get a player who could not only be a fan favorite as a former University of Georgia star, but a guy who is likely to play with a big chip on his shoulder based on concerns about his left knee. The three-time Pro Bowler can break the big run and catch the ball out of the backfield. The Falcons have great weapons already in receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, and traded for a tight end who can stretch the field in Hayden Hurst. Gurley doesn’t have to be the star, but the Falcons obviously want him to be productive and pick up the tough yards. Expect more screen passes with Dirk Koetter known for his pass-heavy approach.
What's the risk: There have been many questions about Gurley’s left knee, whether there’s an arthritic condition going on and how it affects Gurley’s explosiveness and ability to change direction. One source said, “It ain’t ever getting better." But the Falcons, with a new team doctor, need to find a way to manage Gurley’s knee and reps so it’s not an issue, if that’s possible. There were concerns about Freeman’s injury history, which eventually led to a parting of ways. Gurley, at 6-foot-1 and more than 220 pounds, is bigger than Freeman and can run the power game. The one-year contract means it’s a prove-it deal, so it’s somewhat of a low risk for the Falcons. But remember, this is a make-or-break year for coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff as they have to make the playoffs.
Dante Fowler Jr., defensive end
The Falcons have filled a major need by agreeing to terms with Fowler on a three-year, $48 million deal, a source told ESPN on Wednesday.
What it means: The Falcons sorely needed a pass-rusher to pair with disruptive defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. In Fowler, they get an instant-impact player. As ESPN’s Matt Bowen pointed out, Fowler is a “twitchy" edge rusher who can really bend to the quarterback. Once Fowler gets that edge, his hands and bend take over. Securing such a player was imperative for the Falcons, especially after word circulated of NFC South foe Tampa Bay getting Tom Brady. The Falcons generated just 28 sacks last season and need to consistently put pressure on Brady, Drew Brees, and now Teddy Bridgewater if they hope to win the division.
What's the risk: In talking to numerous sources about Fowler, he loves to live life and get out to party -- a lot. But when Fowler comes to work, the word is he can be a great teammate and hard worker. He’s had some off-the-field issues stemming back from his days as the No. 3 overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, including a misdemeanor arrest for assault against a police officer where the charges were dropped. He had a one-week suspension with the Jags during training camp for a fight with teammate Yannick Ngakoue, and suspended for a season opener after pleading no contest to charges of battery, criminal mischief and petty theft in his hometown. The Falcons certainly hope Fowler has matured from those days. If he hasn’t, there could be some issues. Fowler’s previous relationship with Dan Quinn at the University of Florida could help keep him calm. Having a steady veteran like Jarrett on the defensive line should help, too. Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, in a make-or-break year, obviously were willing to take the chance.
Tyeler Davison, defensive tackle
The Falcons agreed to a three-year, $12 million extension with Davison.
What it means: The Falcons kept one of their own in place by reaching a contract extension with Davison, who proved himself to be a reliable run-stuffer last season. Davison, who spent his first four years with the rival New Orleans Saints, started 12 of 16 games last season and finished with 55 tackles, a sack, four tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery. While Pro Bowler Grady Jarrett is the standout along the defensive line, Davison is a player capable of doing the dirty work on early downs. As new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris tries to put his stamp on the unit, he’ll need a tough guy like Davison up front to help limit running backs of division opponents such as Carolina's Christian McCaffrey and New Orleans' Alvin Kamara when they try to run up the middle.
What's the risk: Really, it’s a low-risk signing at four years and $12 million with $4.5 million guaranteed. He’s still relatively young at 27. He’s not really a pass-rusher, but Davison can push the pocket with his strength, allowing others such as Jarrett and whomever is coming off the edge to clean up for sacks in those situations. The Falcons really haven’t had what you would call great success in signing free agents as of late, but Davison and fellow defensive lineman Allen Bailey are good values when you consider how effective they can be against the run.
Keith Smith, fullback
What it means: By bringing Smith back, the Falcons hope they have part of the solution to their running-game woes. They averaged just 85.1 rushing yards per game to rank 30th out of 32 teams and averaged 3.76 yards per rush, which ranked 26th. If you look at the tape closely, Smith certainly appear to throw some punishing blocks at times, even if the running backs behind him didn’t pick up yardage. Smith also was the team’s best tackler on special teams, forcing two fumbles in the process. Not to mention he can pick up a tough yard or two. It always helps when the fullback can run or catch for the element of surprise.
What's the risk: None. The Falcons signed Smith to a one-year, $805,000 deal last season and brought him back because he has value, without having to overpay. The fullback position is not a glorious one in the first place, but this is the first true impact fullback the team has had since Patrick DiMarco left. Smith just goes about his business in the locker room and works hard every day, which is a good example to the other players.
Sharrod Neasman, safety
The Falcons and Neasman agreed to a one-year deal.
What it means: The Falcons re-signed Neasman for depth at a need position. He was listed as the backup strong safety to Ricardo Allen last season. There were times when Neasman was on the field in the red zone defense, which showed the coaches had confidence in him. Plus, Neasman flashed on special teams with a couple nice tackles and a fumble recovery. With strong safety Keanu Neal coming back from an Achilles' tear and Allen having offseason shoulder surgery, the Falcons always could use capable bodies at the safety position.
What's the risk: None. Neasman is a low-cost signing, and he made $720,000 last season. The Falcons have done a solid job of retaining some key role players with bargain deals, such as kicker Younghoe Koo, punter Ryan Allen, and defensive end Steven Means. Neasman falls into that category. He continues to prove himself valuable every year on these types of contracts.
Laquon Treadwell, wide receiver
What it means: The Falcons are looking to stock up with as many offensive weapons as possible as they strive to make the playoffs. They already added running back Todd Gurley and tight end Hayden Hurst. In Treadwell, they get a guy who could potentially be a nice complement to Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley at wide receiver. He’s not the fastest receiver out there, but he’s got some size and length. If Treadwell can recapture some of the hype that made him a first-round pick coming out of college, it’s a win for the Falcons.
What's the risk: The Vikings cut Treadwell last season because he underperformed, then brought him back due to injuries. It’s never a good sign when a team gives up on a first-round selection (23rd overall in 2016). So, the risk is once again he might not reach expectations. But the expectations aren’t that high when considering he signed a one-year deal and is coming in as, at best, a third option behind Jones and Ridley. The Falcons seem willing to take gambles on prove-it guys to see if it will enhance the roster enough to save coach Dan Quinn’s job.
Justin McCray, offensive guard
What it means: The Falcons might have found someone capable of improving the interior of the line immediately. McCray (6-3, 315) will likely have a chance to compete for a spot at left guard with James Carpenter, who signed as a free agent last season but dealt with some injury issues. If McCray doesn’t prove himself starter-worthy, he is capable of playing any of the five positions on the line, so that would provide much needed depth after the Falcons let backup guard/center Wes Schweitzer walk (to the Redskins) and cutting backup tackle Ty Sambrailo. Even with the addition of McCray, the Falcons probably will need to draft an offensive lineman, although returning player Matt Gono could be an option at a number of positions.
What's the risk: If McCray, 27, is indeed a player the Falcons consider for a starting role, he hasn’t been a regular NFL starter. In fact, his long journey, which started as an undrafted player with the Tennessee Titans, also has taken him to the Arena Football League. So maybe he’s not ready to be put in the spotlight just yet. But with just a one-year contract, the Falcons can see what they have in McCray and determine if he’s an upgrade at guard or as the swing tackle or whatever. It’s not like they paid top dollar to sign him, making the risk low.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson, cornerback
What it means: The Falcons figured to bring back Wreh-Wilson for depth, particularly after cutting veteran defensive back Desmond Trufant. Wreh-Wilson started two games at left cornerback when Trufant went out injured last season. He’s been with the Falcons for 26 games in the last four seasons and has played a role on special teams. Wreh-Wilson is unlikely to compete for a starting role, as the Falcons are focused on developing young corners Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver and could perhaps draft a starting-caliber outside corner early in the draft.
What's the risk: None. It’s just a one-year deal for Wreh-Wilson, and he’s a guy that just comes to work every day and doesn’t say much in the locker room. He’s not a big playmaker, but can help in a pinch. If the Falcons have to rely on him as the regular starter, that might be a little risky. But that’s not the role for him in Raheem Morris’ defense.
LaRoy Reynolds, linebacker
The Falcons and linebacker Reynolds agreed to a one-year deal.
What it means: The Falcons needed depth at linebacker with Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun the lone returning players with experience at the position and leading tackler De'Vondre Campbell signing with Arizona. Reynolds, 29, started three games with the Falcons during the 2016 season and played two years in Atlanta before spending time with Philadelphia. Reynolds is a no-nonsense tough guy who can be an intimidator. He's familiar with the scheme, so linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich won't be afraid to throw him out there. And Reynolds brings some value on special teams. The Falcons are likely to add a linebacker or two in the draft, especially if they can find a taller, athletic guy who can be in Campbell's mold.
What's the risk: Reynolds is more suited for a backup role, so you really don't want him starting. That's the primary risk, if he happens to be thrust into such a position. But the Falcons, who already made a handful of low-cost, low-risk signings with players such as cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson and defensive end Stephen Means, just made another one on defense in Reynolds.
Khari Lee, tight end
Lee and the Falcons agreed to a one-year deal.
What it means: The Falcons plucked Lee from the XFL’s DC Defenders, where he caught eight passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Hill, at 6-foot-4 and 253 pounds, might have to find a niche as a blocking tight end if he hopes to make the Falcons roster. The Falcons need someone to fill that void, which was supposed to be handled by Luke Stocker. But Stocker was released. The Falcons traded for former first-round draft pick Hayden Hurst to be a pass-catching tight end.
What's the risk: Although his XFL highlights might catch the eye, Lee was in that league for a reason. He wasn’t able to make a real impact in previous NFL stops with the Texans, Bears, Lions and Bills. He played in 16 games with Chicago in 2015, with seven starts. He was viewed more as an inline tight end while there. True, Lee beat the odds by even making in to the NFL out of Bowie State. But fans can’t expect him to be a difference-maker. The Falcons signed him to a low-risk, one-year deal, hoping he can contribute as a role player. If that happens, it’s a win.