ATLANTA — With little money to spend in free agency, the Atlanta Falcons are looking to make a splash with overachieving players who don’t take a big chunk out of the budget.
That includes a guy who once worked in a potato chip factory.
Safety Erik Harris epitomizes a low-cost, low-risk class of free agents that grew Thursday when the team finalized deals with well-traveled running back Mike Davis, linebacker Barkevious Mingo, and cornerback Fabian Moreau.
Atlanta also signed linebacker Brandon Copeland and acquired tight end Lee Smith from the Buffalo Bills for a 2022 seventh-round draft pick.
This group is unlikely to stir much excitement among a fan base turned off by three straight losing seasons.
But the Falcons had few options because of salary cap woes that forced the team to cut ties with established players such as Riccardo Allen, Alex Mack and Keanu Neal.
Atlanta only got under the greatly reduced cap when quarterback Matt Ryan agreed to restructure his massive contract. And there are still major holes to fill including a backup for Ryan, who is the only QB on the roster.
Even though the Falcons appear to be in full rebuilding mode with a rookie coach (Arthur Smith) and general manager (Terry Fontenot), the newest members of the team view it differently.
“I don’t look at this as a no-hope rebuild — not with the talent we have on this roster,” said the 33-year-old Smith, who considered retirement until the Bills worked out a trade to send him to a team closer to his Tennessee home. “We have elite starters in certain positions.”
That starts with Ryan and longtime star receiver Julio Jones, who battled injuries while playing just nine games last season.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that without a quarterback, it’s going to be a long year,” Smith said. “When you walk into a locker room with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, it doesn’t matter who you put around them. If you do things the right way, you’re going to score some points.”
The Falcons are hoping that Davis will bolster a running game that ranked 27th in the league a year ago with Todd Gurley carrying the load.
On Thursday, the team completed a reported two-year, $5.5 million contract with Davis that includes $3 million in guaranteed money — the team’s biggest outlay in free agency.
The Falcons also announced one-year deals with Mingo, who made three starts for the Bears in 2020, and Moreau, expected to contribute mainly on special teams after spending the last four seasons with the Washington Football Team.
Davis is coming off his best season at Carolina, where he rushed for 642 yards and six touchdowns and added 59 receptions out of the backfield while filling in for injured Christian McCaffrey.
Notably, Davis turned in his top performance in Atlanta: 89 yards rushing and nine receptions for 60 yards and a TD in a 23-16 victory that was followed a few hours later by the Falcons firing coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff.
Atlanta is the fifth stop in Davis’ seven-year career, which raises some red flags. But the Falcons believe he finally found his niche during that breakout season with the Panthers, and hope the chance to play in his hometown will spark even more production.
The 30-year-old Harris has a great backstory: He walked on at a Division II school, was passed over initially by every NFL team, and played three years in the Canadian Football League.
He even spent a summer working at the Utz chip factory in Hannover, Pennsylvania.
“It was the worst job in the whole plant,” Harris recalled. “I worked above 600-degree ovens and it was about 110 degrees in there every day. I had to wear pants. So I would take 50-pound corn flower bags and dump it into a dry hopper. Send it up into a mixer. Mix it up. Pour it down to the fryers underneath of me. Did that for 11 hours a day for a whole summer. I do not miss that job, but I am thankful for that job.”
Harris finally earned his place in the league, starting 26 of 30 games for the Raiders over the last two seasons, but he never forgets where he came from.
“It’s all part of my brand,” Harris said “Having faith in yourself, having faith and confidence in your surroundings and what your goals are. The journey has been amazing.”
The Falcons hope that journey includes another unexpected chapter.
A winning team in 2021.