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Falcons offseason plans: 5 things we learned from Terry Fontenot, Arthur Smith - The Athletic


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by Tori McElhaney for The Athletic

 

Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith’s joint news conference on Tuesday afternoon was supposed to be about the NFL Combine. That was the name of the email the media got: “Combine Media Advisory.” You know, for the combine that isn’t happening.

Perhaps that’s why everything besides the non-existent combine was brought up during this call, the first time Fontenot and Smith have spoken to reporters since their introductory news conferences in January.

Everything was on the table: What will they do in free agency? What are their plans for the draft? How are they attacking the salary cap? What are the plans for the future? My God, the future! We must know!

But Fontenot made it clear early on that most questions would get no straight answers.

“We’re not going to discuss any individuals in terms of contracts,” Fontenot said. “Whether it’s a UFA or a player under contract, whether we are talking about renegotiating contracts or extending contracts, or fifth-year options. Those are going to be internal discussions. … We are having all of those discussions with all of those players but that’s not something we want to discuss in this forum.”

A few minutes later, Smith followed suit.

“We’re not trying to be evasive, there are just so many things at play. … We will look for help anywhere,” Smith said. “A lot of that plays into the salary cap: who’s available, who you can sign, who you can draft. It’s all in play.”

Their answers may have been evasive, but some were very telling. Let’s take a look at what Fontenot and Smith did and didn’t say Tuesday afternoon and, more importantly, what we learned.

Flowery Branch is running on coffee and adrenaline

Chris Olsen might have the most difficult job of any Falcons hire this offseason: he’s the cap guy. Or, if we want to get technical: senior director of football administration. But it’s way easier to say he’s the Falcons’ cap guy, and his predicament is tough.

The Falcons are north of $20 million over the cap in 2021. They rank 27th out of the NFL’s 32 teams in available cap space, according to Spotrac, and they have four guys counting $20 million or more against the cap this year. So, when Fontenot said the only time he sees Olsen leave his office is to grab a cup of coffee, the story checks out.

Fontenot and Olsen didn’t have a relationship before Olsen hopped on board in Atlanta. He spent 13 seasons with the Texans negotiating player contracts and managing the salary cap, but as Fontenot searched for a cap expert for his staff, Olsen was it. What’s funny, Fontenot said, is that the first day Olsen got to the Falcons’ facility in Flowery Branch, he was clean-shaven.

“All put together,” Fontenot described.

As the days have passed, that all-put-together look has, well, changed as the long hours of the job have taken hold.

“Every day I see him,” Fontenot said, “his beard gets a little longer.”

Olsen’s office light seems to be on, always. When Fontenot gets to his office in the morning: on. When Fontenot leaves at night: on. It’s always on because Olsen and those working on the cap alongside Olsen are always on, too.

“They are working hard because there are so many variables with everything,” Fontenot said. “… We challenged them and said, ‘Hey, we have to look at the big picture. It’s not just about getting underneath the cap (in 2021). We have to make sure we’re making big picture decisions.’ It’s going to be a challenge because it’s going to be on us to find value.”

It may be rough sailing ahead as ‘hard decisions’ are made

As Fontenot addressed the future of the Falcons on Tuesday, he said, “Everything is in consideration.” Vague, but what he said next wasn’t: “We are going to have to make some hard decisions on some players on this roster.” Well, maybe it’s still vague, but let’s hone in on the word “hard.” 

This isn’t the first time Fontenot has noted the difficulty of the decisions ahead. He said so similarly in his introductory news conference. It’s not hard, nor is it difficult, to restructure individual player contracts. Players often are happy with this option because it means they get more money upfront. So, no. Simply moving money around from one year to the next probably isn’t the kind of “hard decisions” Fontenot is talking about.

The Falcons have already released Ricardo Allen and Allen Bailey. They were going to be cap casualties from the beginning. But it seems they won’t be the last based on what we can infer from this quote. If that’s the case, the Falcons would make more room in the cap. But they already have so few players under contract players (the smallest number in the league to be precise). So, if a cap casualty exodus is imminent, the Falcons have to fill those holes. And they will have to do that through free agency.

Free agency will be important to monitor

I know I have hammered this thought home for weeks. You don’t have to look far to find stories I have written about free agency.

I know you’re tired of reading how important mid-level free agents are to the Falcons’ offseason. I’ve said again and again the Falcons need cheap, veteran depth in 2021, and the way to find that is through free agency. But I reiterate all of this because Fontenot very much agreed.

“We have over 50 percent of the roster to fill with where we are now so we have such a long way to go,” Fontenot said. “We’re going to work hard to bring in the right players.”

That means, he said, the entire Falcons front office has to earn their jobs as scouts.

“We’re scouts, and we’re going to have to go find players because you can’t just build your roster with overpaid players in free agency or top draft picks,” Fontenot said. “We’ve gotta really dig. We have to dig and find value in free agency and that’s working with the coaches and finding out exactly what they need and going and finding the players they need.”

Fontenot said you never want to reach for needs in the draft. If you sign free agents who fill those positional needs before the draft, “you feel better” about going into the draft with the right approach in mind. And the Falcons know where they need to provide adequate depth in free agency. Smith has some ideas, too.

Smith wants to see depth on both lines of scrimmage 

If there’s one thing that’s certain in the NFL, Smith said, it’s injuries. And when injuries come for those in the trenches, it makes it much more difficult at the end of a season. He used the Super Bowl as a primary example.

“It’s hard when you lose up front, when you lose those guys or you don’t have those guys who can affect the quarterback,” Smith said. “We all saw it in the Super Bowl. We all saw that Tampa was able to get after (Patrick) Mahomes. I think (depth up front) helps.”

Smith said there’s not always going to be a need for guys in the trenches. He thought back to the 2020 season, when Tennessee played Buffalo and the Titans had access to only four receivers for COVID-19 reasons. So, yes, depth changes from game to game, but Smith is never going to complain about having too many options on the offensive or defensive line.

“You always love to have depth on both sides of the line of scrimmage in a perfect world,” Smith said. “It doesn’t always happen that way, but it certainly helps.”

The No. 4 pick is a ‘prime spot’ … 

… though Fontenot said he doesn’t want to be in this position again. And he’s not the first in the organization to say it. Still, this draft is so important for the future of the franchise. Do they draft a quarterback? Or do they add another first-round pick to their offensive line? Do they trade down to acquire more draft capital to help fill needs they definitely have? Oh, there are so many questions, and Fontenot and Smith were not going to telegraph their moves in a news conference.

“There are so many different scenarios,” Fontenot said. “There are going to be some really good players there at No. 4. We can move up, and we can move down and acquire more picks. There’s just a lot of different scenarios to really go through. It’s a prime spot to be in. It’s not somewhere that we want to be in very often with this team, but we are going to take advantage of that and be open to all possibilities.” 

But of course, the possibility of drafting Matt Ryan’s successor came up. Fontenot called it an “uncommon” year for quarterbacks, with several seemingly available via trade and a handful of others primed to be early draft picks.

“We are going to utilize all of the avenues,” Fontenot said. “Whether it be in free agency, whether it’s at any point in the draft or after the draft. I have been in places where we traded for quarterbacks.”

And then he said he thinks “quarterbacks are really going to want to be here.”

So, take that as you see fit. 

Honorable mention: Younghoe Koo has a new fan

When he last spoke to reporters, Smith barely had any time at all to get any intel on the Falcons roster before being asked about it. Now that a month has passed, he was asked who has caught his eye. Surprisingly, Smith said kicker Younghoe Koo without much hesitation.

He, of course, added there are some young linemen he’s looking forward to working with: Chris Lindstrom was called out by name. He also said Calvin Ridley had a “heck of a year.” But neither surpassed Koo.

It would seem Koo’s return is on the horizon.

“I just hope he doesn’t kick as many field goals next year,” Smith said with a smile. 

 

 

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This quote I love:

"Fontenot said. “We’ve gotta really dig. We have to dig and find value in free agency and that’s working with the coaches and finding out exactly what they need and going and finding the players they need.”

Finding out what the coaches need and going and finding them.  A novel idea.

I like TF more and more.

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I think one thing that isn’t getting enough focus is TF talking about using FA to fill glaring needs, so that we can be flexible in the draft.

If we use that method, I’m guessing that safety, RB, LG, CB and DL have to be the focal points during free agency. I’m not sure we can get someone at all of those spots, but that’s where I’d put my money. 
 

 

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1 hour ago, thanat0s said:

I think one thing that isn’t getting enough focus is TF talking about using FA to fill glaring needs, so that we can be flexible in the draft.

If we use that method, I’m guessing that safety, RB, LG, CB and DL have to be the focal points during free agency. I’m not sure we can get someone at all of those spots, but that’s where I’d put my money. 
 

 

I would say defensive secondary and OL are our biggest trouble spots.

If Carpenter is cut, we have no LG on the roster and we have no backups at any OL position.

Sign Nick Easton as a free agent and bring back Gono (restricted free agent). Gono and Easton can battle it out for LG and they can be had fairly cheap. Easton and Henny can battle it out for center. Gono was showing promise at OT but not so much at OG. He can be the swing tackle or win the LG spot. Easton probably takes center over Henny and he can be a backup at C/OG (he really sucked at OG though).

Then either take Sewell if he's versatile enough to play LG or make Jake the LG or trade back and take Vera-Tucker or Slater with the first pick (or sign another free agent OG and develop a 2nd-4th round LG pick). Vera-Tucker and Slater both fit the "versatility" traits that AS and TF preach in every interview. Gono and Henny don't seem to be very versatile (or at least any good at that second position).

The OL problem is solved though in those scenarios with multiple backup options. 

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2 hours ago, thanat0s said:

I think one thing that isn’t getting enough focus is TF talking about using FA to fill glaring needs, so that we can be flexible in the draft.

If we use that method, I’m guessing that safety, RB, LG, CB and DL have to be the focal points during free agency. I’m not sure we can get someone at all of those spots, but that’s where I’d put my money. 
 

 

Safety has to be on top of the list. Falcons don’t have both starting safeties. RB you can find in draft. 

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2 hours ago, celtiksage said:

I would say defensive secondary and OL are our biggest trouble spots.

If Carpenter is cut, we have no LG on the roster and we have no backups at any OL position.

Sign Nick Easton as a free agent and bring back Gono (restricted free agent). Gono and Easton can battle it out for LG and they can be had fairly cheap. Easton and Henny can battle it out for center. Gono was showing promise at OT but not so much at OG. He can be the swing tackle or win the LG spot. Easton probably takes center over Henny and he can be a backup at C/OG (he really sucked at OG though).

Then either take Sewell if he's versatile enough to play LG or make Jake the LG or trade back and take Vera-Tucker or Slater with the first pick (or sign another free agent OG and develop a 2nd-4th round LG pick). Vera-Tucker and Slater both fit the "versatility" traits that AS and TF preach in every interview. Gono and Henny don't seem to be very versatile (or at least any good at that second position).

The OL problem is solved though in those scenarios with multiple backup options. 

Admission: I'm getting more enamored with AV-T than I am with either Sewell or Slater. He looks like day one legit. 

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4 hours ago, thanat0s said:

I think one thing that isn’t getting enough focus is TF talking about using FA to fill glaring needs, so that we can be flexible in the draft.

If we use that method, I’m guessing that safety, RB, LG, CB and DL have to be the focal points during free agency. I’m not sure we can get someone at all of those spots, but that’s where I’d put my money. 
 

 

I also found it interesting that he thinks its important to address needs in free agency prior to the draft, to enable good decisions. We may see their fingerprints on the roster sooner as opposed to later. Based on how quickly and decisively the staff came together, I wouldn't be surprised to see them quickly show their hand on where they see value in free agency once the negotiation window opens on March 15th. Seems hard to believe we are are less than six weeks out from off-season workouts opening up for teams with new coaches. 

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46 minutes ago, Herr Doktor said:

Honestly, a free agent center fixes several problems.  We need a swing tackle.  Safety is a concern.  We also really need a NT if Senat isn't that piece.  

Depends on what they think Hennessy can be.

Or if they think Lindstrom can be the center of the future..

If/when we cut Carpenter then we will definitely need a vet presence inside  be it center to guard.

Ben Jones would be a good fit.

He knows what Smith is going to try and run, has experience at both Guard and Center and is a former Bulldog to boot.

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11 minutes ago, falconsd56 said:

Depends on what they think Hennessy can be.

Or if they think Lindstrom can be the center of the future..

If/when we cut Carpenter then we will definitely need a vet presence inside  be it center to guard.

Ben Jones would be a good fit.

He knows what Smith is going to try and run, has experience at both Guard and Center and is a former Bulldog to boot.

Ben Jones isn’t a FA. 

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5 hours ago, thanat0s said:

I think one thing that isn’t getting enough focus is TF talking about using FA to fill glaring needs, so that we can be flexible in the draft.

If we use that method, I’m guessing that safety, RB, LG, CB and DL have to be the focal points during free agency. I’m not sure we can get someone at all of those spots, but that’s where I’d put my money. 
 

 

I'd be very excited about that this year if we had any cap space.  I know it can be manipulated, but only so much.

I think in general, going forward, that will absolutely lead to better teams.  And having young guys ready to replace veterans coming up on big contracts.  I just wish we had 40M in cap space to put it into effect this year, along with 2 great pass rushers in the top 6 players.  It's a really odd FA year, and a really odd draft talent at the top year.

They're going to have to earn their paychecks.

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I love the fact that he talks about being active in free agency EARLY to fill holes, before the draft, so that you can go into the draft with more a BPA and less of a "needs" mindset. That makes SOOOO much sense and Dimitroff always did it the exact opposite. He took too long to resign guys, so we never knew our cap. This impacted our ability to be aggressive in FA. Which then impacted the draft focus. It was a freaking daisy chain of negative impact.

It sounds like these guys have the exact opposite mindset.

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20 hours ago, since68andcounting said:

I love the fact that he talks about being active in free agency EARLY to fill holes, before the draft, so that you can go into the draft with more a BPA and less of a "needs" mindset. That makes SOOOO much sense and Dimitroff always did it the exact opposite. He took too long to resign guys, so we never knew our cap. This impacted our ability to be aggressive in FA. Which then impacted the draft focus. It was a freaking daisy chain of negative impact.

It sounds like these guys have the exact opposite mindset.

I enjoy his logic and thought process.  FA will be crazy.  In the lowest key, "whodafuq did we just sign" kind of way.

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TF says a lot without saying ****. That being said, Mike Tyson used to say, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Let's see what he does when the pressure is on. 

I am just not buying into his schtick yet, in fact, I am not sure I really like him at all. So far he has done a **** thing, and although I hope he does great things here, but I am taking a wait and see approach.

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On 2/24/2021 at 12:40 PM, falconsd56 said:

Depends on what they think Hennessy can be.

Or if they think Lindstrom can be the center of the future..

If/when we cut Carpenter then we will definitely need a vet presence inside  be it center to guard.

Ben Jones would be a good fit.

He knows what Smith is going to try and run, has experience at both Guard and Center and is a former Bulldog to boot.

I don't think Chris Lindstrom is our future Center.

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I leave the subject to share an article from the Falcons website. This article talks about the new Emory Healthcare, Flowery Branch clinic.And who I think may be a little underrated in the success of Falcons who with this clinic will be able to have faster rehabilitation and faster diagnosis.  And it also serves the community, so it's perfect. 

I have summarized but here again to say that the good news comes one by one and this one went unnoticed but knowing the Falcons' passive injury level it was important.

The future sounds very bright for us

https://www.atlantafalcons.com/news/state-of-the-art-in-sport-science-innovation-technology

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2 hours ago, Boise Falcon Fan said:

TF says a lot without saying ****. That being said, Mike Tyson used to say, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Let's see what he does when the pressure is on. 

I am just not buying into his schtick yet, in fact, I am not sure I really like him at all. So far he has done a **** thing, and although I hope he does great things here, but I am taking a wait and see approach.

Honestly...that is where I am at.

He sounds good ....but so did TD.

TD said all of the right things.... especially at first.

Smith has not said anything different than Smitty or Quinn.... especially at first.

So I get people getting excited over a fresh start but I have not heard anything that I have not heard before.

 

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On 2/24/2021 at 3:00 PM, takeitdown said:

I'd be very excited about that this year if we had any cap space.  I know it can be manipulated, but only so much.

I think in general, going forward, that will absolutely lead to better teams.  And having young guys ready to replace veterans coming up on big contracts.  I just wish we had 40M in cap space to put it into effect this year, along with 2 great pass rushers in the top 6 players.  It's a really odd FA year, and a really odd draft talent at the top year.

They're going to have to earn their paychecks.

There was a funny article about this in The Athletic. It was about Chris Olsen, their new Senior Director of Football Administration, i.e., the cap guy. When he was hired, T.F. remarked how neat, well-groomed and sharp Olsen was.

Since then, Olsen has hardly left his office. T.F. says when he arrives, Olsen is already there. When he leaves, Olsen's still in his office. With each passing day, his general state of neat and trim has eroded. At this point, he now looks more like a homeless guy than a top-drawer football exec. Definitely earning that pay check. 😆

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  • 3 weeks later...

Fontenot and Olsen didn’t have a relationship before Olsen hopped on board in Atlanta. He spent 13 seasons with the Texans negotiating player contracts and managing the salary cap, but as Fontenot searched for a cap expert for his staff, Olsen was it. What’s funny, Fontenot said, is that the first day Olsen got to the Falcons’ facility in Flowery Branch, he was clean-shaven.

“All put together,” Fontenot described.

As the days have passed, that all-put-together look has, well, changed as the long hours of the job have taken hold.

“Every day I see him,” Fontenot said, “his beard gets a little longer.”

Olsen’s office light seems to be on, always. When Fontenot gets to his office in the morning: on. When Fontenot leaves at night: on. It’salways on because Olsen and those working on the cap alongside Olsen are always on, too.

“They are working hard because there are so many variables witheverything,” Fontenot said. “… We challenged them and said, ‘Hey, we have to look at the big picture. It’s not just about getting underneath the cap (in 2021). We have to make sure we’re making big picture decisions.’ It’sgoing to be a challenge because it’sgoing to be on us to find value.”

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