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Falcons free agency: How Terry Fontenot will attack Atlanta’s salary cap crunch - The Athletic


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by Tori McElhaney for The Athletic

 

The Falcons are at a crossroads right now as Terry Fontenot takes over as general manager. He inherits one of the toughest challenges in the league. The salary cap is in the red. The organization has to find some way to fill out its roster with a big chunk of its cap consumed by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Trying to manage free agency and the draft will involve a lot of finesse on Fontenot’s part (and his staff, too) to make the money work.

This is something he’s used to doing from his time in New Orleans.

For years the Saints have had a collaborative management style. Under GM Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton, Fontenot had a role in several big decisions over the years. Most notably, though, is the impact Fontenot made in free agency.

When writing about Fontenot’s role in New Orleans, The Athletic’s Jeff Duncan noted how Payton always praised Fontenot for “providing detailed, in-depth scouting reports on the Saints’ opponents.” But it was in free agency that Fontenot’s “keen eye for talent” truly shined. He understood how players fit. He saw how they connected to the overall vision of what Payton and his staff wanted to pull off. In some ways, Fontenot did that as well as anyone in the organization.

“Terry and his staff left no stone uncovered in their prep work,” Duncan wrote, “and that attention to detail was critical to the Saints’ success over the years … But even more impressive has been Terry’s ability to beat the bushes and find mid- and veteran-minimum-level players to bolster the team’s depth and fill out the roster.”

Now, Fontenot’s ability to find those mid-level free agents could play an even bigger role. The Falcons do not have the means to sign a big name in free agency right now, unless they are willing to trade a lot of collateral to clear cap space. And even then, trading some of their big names will create a lot of dead money and little cap relief, so trading Ryan and Jones just doesn’t make sense right now. So, 2021 is about just making things work. It’s about plugging and filling holes where they can to field a complete roster, but even that poses its own challenges.

Before the Super Bowl, owner Arthur Blank said he thinks everyone in the organization understands the Falcons’ salary cap situation. President and CEO Rich McKay said several times during the GM and coaching search that he didn’t see the salary cap issue being, just that, an issue. But Blank didn’t sugarcoat the situation.

“Rich has done it, been there, gotten a T-shirt,” Blank said, “so, I respect what he says, but I do think we’ll probably have some difficult decisions to make this year.”

There aren’t a lot of great options for the Falcons to handle their current bind. They can’t be too big of players in the free-agent market unless they’re willing to start blowing things up, which neither Fontenot nor head coach Arthur Smith seem keen on doing. So, that leaves those mid-level free agents that the Falcons will have to hit. The good news is Fontenot is good at finding specific talent. Fontenot had a hand in securing the Saints’ depth, and he found players who could play “key roles and allow the team to withstand attrition and injuries, which is so critical in today’s game,” Duncan wrote.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at Fontenot’s past in New Orleans and evaluate some of his free-agent signings that became big hits, and some that, perhaps, did not.

LB Demario Davis

Stats before joining the Saints (six years): 82 starts, 13.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, 386 solo tackles (38 for a loss)

Stats after joining the Saints (three years): 48 starts, 13 sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles, 234 solo tackles (32 for a loss)

The Saints’ decision to bring in Davis ended up being Fontenot’s best free-agent signing “by far,” Duncan noted.

“Few people had ever heard of him when the Saints brought him in, and he’s become a team captain, a leader and an All-Pro,” Duncan said.

Davis was taken by the Jets in the third round of the 2012 draft and signed with the Saints as an unrestricted free agent in 2018. He was well established in the league by that point in time, but the Saints saw that he still was on the rise. His last season with the Jets in 2017 was the best of his career, but the past three years with the Saints haven’t been too far off for the linebacker. And since 2018, Davis turned into a consistent piece of the New Orleans defense, one the Saints couldn’t part with as he signed a three-year, $27 million extension in September.

DT Malcom Brown

Stats before joining the Saints (four years): 51 starts, one force fumble, three fumble recoveries, 8.5 sacks, 186 combined tackles (14 for a loss)

Stats after joining the Saints (two years): 29 starts, three sacks, 61 combined tackles (nine for a loss)

It’s hard to top Brown’s years with New England, the organization that drafted him in the first round in 2015. He was expected to come in and make an immediate difference, and he did. Though he hasn’t made quite the same impact, he was exactly what the Saints needed from him in his first year in New Orleans. However, 2020 was arguably the worst individual performance of his career, as Brown only accounted for one sack and 27 combined tackles (just three for a loss).

The 2021 season will be the last of his contract, so if the Saints keep him around, this may be a big year for the defensive tackle to prove the Saints got what they paid for.

RB Latavius Murray

Stats before joining the Saints (five years): 48 starts, 34 touchdowns, 3,600+ yards rushing, 4.1 yards per carry, 128 receptions for 883 yards

Stats after joining the Saints (two years): 15 starts, nine touchdowns, 1,200+ yards rushing, 4.4 yards per carry, 57 receptions for yards

When Alvin Kamara is in the running backs room it’s sometimes difficult to talk about anyone else. But even at 31 years old, Murray has been exactly what the Saints needed. He’s not going to have the stat line of Kamara, or even of his younger self, but Murray has been reliable for the Saints, even if he might get overlooked a little.

He’s not super flashy, and he’s not going to stuff a stat sheet. But what Murray is good for is picking up a few yards here and there, or pulling in two or three catches out of the backfield in a game. That’s all the Saints are asking of him, and it seems he’s been able to be just that for the last two seasons.

OG Nick Easton

Key note of Easton’s 2020 season with the Saints: He earned the highest PFF grade of his career (59.8) in 2020. He ranked 51st out of 80 league guards. For reference, Andrus Peat ranked 46th overall, while Cesar Ruiz ranked 64th.

With the salary cap situation being what it is in New Orleans (not completely unlike that of the Falcons), those mid-level, veteran guys are always the first on the chopping block as cap casualties. With the Saints releasing Easton last week, he’s a prime example of the powers that be having to make those decisions. Without Easton on the roster, the Saints save about $6 million in cap space. However, his release doesn’t take away from what Easton was to the Saints.

Every team needs these filler pieces, and Easton was a pretty good one, acting as a backup to Andrus Peat and Cesar Ruiz. It didn’t help Easton’s case that he had two concussions in 2020, but in the 12 games in which he played (nine of which he started), the Saints never seemed off-kilter with Easton in for Peat or Ruiz.

 

 

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1 hour ago, Vandy said:

Free agency is vastly overrated by media and therefore here in TAFT. Most of free agency is teams in a bidding war for players whose  former teams no longer wanted (ala vic Beasley last year).

You build your team through the draft.

Twitter take: I have to believe free agency is important. I also have to believe that Fontenot is the type of guy who could be a great asset in assessing free agents. He doesn't get my endorsement yet, but I love his background.

Full reply:

I understand your take, but I think it undersells the importance of free agency to some degree. You basically have 4 sources of players: your roster, the draft, other team's rosters (trades), and free agency. If you have an edge in any of those areas, you can use it to gain an advantage over teams doing an average job. 

I am not one to "buy in" on first year HCs or GMs, but I do think there is a chance that the new GM will give us an advantage in accessing players available from all 4 channels and identifying good scheme and roster fits.

While it is an intangible, I am a big believer in executives who start on the ground floor as generalist of sorts. They tend to developer more of a "big picture" understanding of an organization than those who enter an organization or an industry with a specialty that they continue to foster their whole careers (an engineer or a marketing specialist). The guy who grabs the GMs coffee also delivers memos to the owner and gives tours to sponsors. You have those informal discussions in team facilities with whoever is standing next to you in the break room. You tend to be someone that everyone knows, its like your part of the infrastructure. You were there when people are hired, and you may be the last to say goodbye as they move on to their next opportunity. This puts you in a great spot to look at a player and says "is he right for our organization" as opposed to asking "is he right for our OL coach." By nature you consider scheme fit, salary cap implications, character, and stats. If you have been an player evaluator your whole life, your going to believe that players have a bigger impact than coaches. If you come form a coaching background, your going to believe that "he can be coached up." I think Fontenot is unique in that he's not an offensive guy. He's not a defensive guy. He's not a son of an owner who has been sheltered into an organization. If you look at his career in New Orleans, his background is a solid mix of interaction with scouts, GMs, and coaches. I think he sees the big picture. You can't teach that. You have to experience it. 

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4 minutes ago, falcndave said:

Twitter take: I have to believe free agency is important. I also have to believe that Fontenot is the type of guy who could be a great asset in assessing free agents. He doesn't get my endorsement yet, but I love his background.

Full reply:

I understand your take, but I think it undersells the importance of free agency to some degree. You basically have 4 sources of players: your roster, the draft, other team's rosters (trades), and free agency. If you have an edge in any of those areas, you can use it to gain an advantage over teams doing an average job. 

I am not one to "buy in" on first year HCs or GMs, but I do think there is a chance that the new GM will give us an advantage in accessing players available from all 4 channels and identifying good scheme and roster fits.

While it is an intangible, I am a big believer in executives who start on the ground floor as generalist of sorts. They tend to developer more of a "big picture" understanding of an organization than those who enter an organization or an industry with a specialty that they continue to foster their whole careers (an engineer or a marketing specialist). The guy who grabs the GMs coffee also delivers memos to the owner and gives tours to sponsors. You have those informal discussions in team facilities with whoever is standing next to you in the break room. You tend to be someone that everyone knows, its like your part of the infrastructure. You were there when people are hired, and you may be the last to say goodbye as they move on to their next opportunity. This puts you in a great spot to look at a player and says "is he right for our organization" as opposed to asking "is he right for our OL coach." By nature you consider scheme fit, salary cap implications, character, and stats. If you have been an player evaluator your whole life, your going to believe that players have a bigger impact than coaches. If you come form a coaching background, your going to believe that "he can be coaches up." I think Fontenot is unique in that he's not an offensive guy. He's not a defensive guy. He's not a son of an owner who has been sheltered into an organization. If you look at his career in New Orleans, his background is a solid mix of interaction with scouts, GMs, and coaches. I think he sees the big picture. You can't teach that. You have to experience it. 

Great take.  Agreed in all facets.

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1 hour ago, Vandy said:

Free agency is vastly overrated by media and therefore here in TAFT. Most of free agency is teams in a bidding war for players whose  former teams no longer wanted (ala vic Beasley last year).

You build your team through the draft.

It almost seems like you’re threatened by a potential FA guru because of what that might mean for Matt and or Julio in the near future. Matts legacy is not more important than the team.

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1 hour ago, Vandy said:

Free agency is vastly overrated by media and therefore here in TAFT. Most of free agency is teams in a bidding war for players whose  former teams no longer wanted (ala vic Beasley last year).

You build your team through the draft.

Exactly. I always laugh when the media overrates teams with a lot of salary cap space. This is not the NBA where you can buy your teams. Free Agency is not a great place to find impact players for a couple reasons. The best players are typically locked up by their original teams. And some players don't react well after they receive a big contract.

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1 hour ago, Vandy said:

Free agency is vastly overrated by media and therefore here in TAFT. Most of free agency is teams in a bidding war for players whose  former teams no longer wanted (ala vic Beasley last year).

You build your team through the draft.

Mostly true. For this Falcons Team, they will need to be savvy and bring in a few mid-level guys to help bridge the gap, so they can win now. The roster has some holes, and they all can't be fixed through the draft this year. In the long run, it will be imperative to build through the draft, but for right now, FA is going to be important.

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1 hour ago, Vandy said:

Free agency is vastly overrated by media and therefore here in TAFT. Most of free agency is teams in a bidding war for players whose  former teams no longer wanted (ala vic Beasley last year).

You build your team through the draft.

It has to be a good mix of both the draft and free agency. Neither one alone can build a successful team without the other

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1 hour ago, Vandy said:

Free agency is vastly overrated by media and therefore here in TAFT. Most of free agency is teams in a bidding war for players whose  former teams no longer wanted (ala vic Beasley last year).

You build your team through the draft.

It’s no different than draft IMO. You can’t have blue chip FA at every positions but they can change the roster. Look at GB, they went and signed Smiths and made other moves to go with draft. Falcons don’t sniff the SB with out Alex Mack and Sanu in 2016. 
Signing some big name over hyped FA who isn’t roster fit is like drafting a top 5 or top 10 misfit. 
Signing mid tier FA is a crapshoot just like draft, if the team talent around them is good, you can see good results. Can these mid tier FA signings work with out the Saints DL, Marcus Williams and Lattimore? 

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1 hour ago, Vandy said:

Free agency is vastly overrated by media and therefore here in TAFT. Most of free agency is teams in a bidding war for players whose  former teams no longer wanted (ala vic Beasley last year).

You build your team through the draft.

In FA you should look for the good players leaving bad teams or bad cap situations. Example Alex Mack leaving the Browns. 

 

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44 minutes ago, Mister pudding said:

It has to be a good mix of both the draft and free agency. Neither one alone can build a successful team without the other

Absolutely.  FA is targeted for maximum effect, in theory anyway.  I think the whole Cap issue is way overblown by the media and the fans.  Teams have yet to fail to field a team due to being cap strapped.

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2 hours ago, Jerz #GurleySZN said:

It almost seems like you’re threatened by a potential FA guru because of what that might mean for Matt and or Julio in the near future. Matts legacy is not more important than the team.

What does free agency have to do with Matt and julio? The dang article says that a blow up is highly unlikely. It seems like you have a bad case of RDS

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3 hours ago, falcndave said:

Twitter take: I have to believe free agency is important. I also have to believe that Fontenot is the type of guy who could be a great asset in assessing free agents. He doesn't get my endorsement yet, but I love his background.

Full reply:

I understand your take, but I think it undersells the importance of free agency to some degree. You basically have 4 sources of players: your roster, the draft, other team's rosters (trades), and free agency. If you have an edge in any of those areas, you can use it to gain an advantage over teams doing an average job. 

I am not one to "buy in" on first year HCs or GMs, but I do think there is a chance that the new GM will give us an advantage in accessing players available from all 4 channels and identifying good scheme and roster fits.

While it is an intangible, I am a big believer in executives who start on the ground floor as generalist of sorts. They tend to developer more of a "big picture" understanding of an organization than those who enter an organization or an industry with a specialty that they continue to foster their whole careers (an engineer or a marketing specialist). The guy who grabs the GMs coffee also delivers memos to the owner and gives tours to sponsors. You have those informal discussions in team facilities with whoever is standing next to you in the break room. You tend to be someone that everyone knows, its like your part of the infrastructure. You were there when people are hired, and you may be the last to say goodbye as they move on to their next opportunity. This puts you in a great spot to look at a player and says "is he right for our organization" as opposed to asking "is he right for our OL coach." By nature you consider scheme fit, salary cap implications, character, and stats. If you have been an player evaluator your whole life, your going to believe that players have a bigger impact than coaches. If you come form a coaching background, your going to believe that "he can be coached up." I think Fontenot is unique in that he's not an offensive guy. He's not a defensive guy. He's not a son of an owner who has been sheltered into an organization. If you look at his career in New Orleans, his background is a solid mix of interaction with scouts, GMs, and coaches. I think he sees the big picture. You can't teach that. You have to experience it. 

I hear you. Just to be clear, my take on free agency is really more toward TF’s expertise....go after middle range guys to fill the missing spots, not the splashy (such as Fowler last year) signings. 
 

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3 hours ago, Mister pudding said:

It has to be a good mix of both the draft and free agency. Neither one alone can build a successful team without the other

I’m not disagreeing, but you have to be strategic.

 

3 hours ago, falcons007 said:

It’s no different than draft IMO. You can’t have blue chip FA at every positions but they can change the roster. Look at GB, they went and signed Smiths and made other moves to go with draft. Falcons don’t sniff the SB with out Alex Mack and Sanu in 2016. 
Signing some big name over hyped FA who isn’t roster fit is like drafting a top 5 or top 10 misfit. 
Signing mid tier FA is a crapshoot just like draft, if the team talent around them is good, you can see good results. Can these mid tier FA signings work with out the Saints DL, Marcus Williams and Lattimore? 

Mid-level actually has more data than a draft pick does. So we agree there. My bigger point was teams who chase high priced FAs almost always fail.

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3 hours ago, Boise Falcon Fan said:

Mostly true. For this Falcons Team, they will need to be savvy and bring in a few mid-level guys to help bridge the gap, so they can win now. The roster has some holes, and they all can't be fixed through the draft this year. In the long run, it will be imperative to build through the draft, but for right now, FA is going to be important.

Yeah, I should have said you build your core team through the draft. 

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