ATLANTA — With little money to spend on the free-agent market this offseason, the Atlanta Falcons hope 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 has also signed linebacker Brandon Copeland and acquired tight end Lee Smith from the Buffalo Bills for a seventh-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft.
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 them to cut ties with established players such as safeties Riccardo Allen and Keanu Neal and center Alex Mack. Atlanta only got under the greatly reduced cap when veteran 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 quarterback 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 Lee Smith, the 33-year-old tight end 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," said Smith, who was a fifth-round draft pick of the New England Patriots in 2011 but wound up with the Bills after being cut. "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 counting on Davis to bolster a running game that ranked 27th in the last season 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 Chicago Bears in 2020, and Moreau, expected to contribute mainly on special teams after four seasons with the Washington Football Team.
Davis is coming off his best season, having rushed for 642 yards and six touchdowns for the Carolina Panthers in 2020. He also had 59 receptions out of the backfield while filling in for injured Christian McCaffrey. Notably, Davis turned in his top performance in Atlanta: 89 yards on the ground and nine catches for 60 yards and a touchdown 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 the running back's seven-year NFL career, which raises some red flags. The Falcons believe he finally found his niche during that breakout season with the Panthers, though, and they hope the Stone Mountain native's homecoming will spark even more production.
On the other side of the ball, Harris will lead a revamped secondary that no longer has Allen, Neal and Damontae Kazee on the back end.
The 30-year-old Harris has a great backstory: He walked on at a Division II school (California University of Pennsylvania), 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. Did that for 11 hours a day for a whole summer. I do not miss that job, but I am thankful for that job."
Like Harris, Copeland was not drafted after his college career. He's been cut several times and bounced around the league — the Falcons are his sixth team in nine years — but has never lost confidence in his abilities.
"My work ethic hasn't changed," Copeland said. "This is a great opportunity to build a foundation, build a culture, start from the ground up but start fast."
Harris finally earned his place in the league, starting 26 of 30 games for the Raiders the past two seasons. He never forgets where he came from.
"It's all part of my brand," Harris said. "The journey has been amazing."
The Falcons hope that journey includes another unexpected chapter: A winning team in 2021.