The Atlanta Falcons signed a pair of former New Orleans Saints defenders in David Onyemata and Kaden Elliss during free agency - just months after hiring Saints ex defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen.
The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints have one of the most intense rivalries in the NFL - and a pipeline of talent now exists that figures to add to the emotion of it all.
It all started when the Falcons hired general manager Terry Fontenot in January 2021 after nearly two decades with the Saints, and while a few players like defensive tackle Jalen Dalton followed, the well was a little dry.
But Atlanta took it to another level this offseason, beginning with the hire of defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, who was New Orleans' co-defensive coordinator this past year and spent six seasons as defensive line coach.
The Nielsen effect mattered at the start of free agency, as the Falcons signed a pair of former Saints in defensive tackle David Onyemata and linebacker Kaden Elliss, both key contributors to the front seven.
After years of adding players with ties to coaches from other destinations like the Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans, this Falcons offseason has been Saints-centric, even with the 108-game rivalry all knotted up after a New Orleans sweep this past season.
It's simple - the Falcons dislike the Saints and vice versa.
But this spring, it hasn't seemed to matter - and Onyemata shared whether he even considered the rivalry when making the decision to join the Falcons.
"Not really," Onyemata told reporters Thursday. "It's a rivalry in a sense, but at the same time, it's a job. It's another game - that's how I think about it. I don't change my approach to a game saying I'm doing this, I'm playing this, I'm playing that. I go into games with the same approach."
The Saints have won six of the last seven and nine of the last 11 games in the series between NFC South foes. Their margin of victory in two wins this past season was one and three points, respectively.
But when it came time to pick a team, Elliss had a favorite in mind - even before his agent's recommendation.
"(Atlanta) was already kind of where I wanted to go," said Elliss. "I was excited as soon as the deal, the time frame and just everything came together. I was really excited.”
Elliss added that the ability to reunite with Nielsen was a "huge factor" in his decision, putting an emphasis on how he was coached and developed during their time together.
Another common theme mentioned by many of Atlanta's offseason acquisitions has been the quality of people and overall feeling inside the organization.
And while that was certainly important to Onyemata, he's also eager to get to play in front of those from the outside - thanks in part to his past experiences at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
"The Atlanta fans always had the stadium rocking," Onyemata said. "You always hear a bit or two from behind, but it was always great, getting to play in such a great atmosphere."
The answer is in - despite the on-field tensions, the rivalry doesn't always extend off the field, especially when it comes to finding an individual's best fit and opportunity for his family.
And with the shared excitement level between the new trio of Nielsen, Elliss and Onyemata, it's possible the Falcons aren't done adding former Saints - both this offseason and beyond.
Now, the challenge becomes beating New Orleans on the field ... because free agency success alone won't break the deadlock between these long-standing rivals.
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