Under Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons front office was good for at least one free agent splash per offseason unless money was very tight, in which case you could expect a lot of low grade signings for unexciting starters and depth. Sometimes those splashes worked out (Dontari Poe! Alex Mack!) and sometimes they didn’t (Ray Edwards! Dante Fowler Jr. so far! Tyson Jackson?), but if the Falcons had the cash you could bet on them swinging for big free agents at key positions of need.
The mixed track record in free agency occasionally pushed Atlanta to new heights (Mack is a great example of this, as is Michael Turner) but often those players fell short of expectations, which in turn became one of the things that doomed Dimitroff in Atlanta. For the first time in many years, we really don’t have even a rough outline of what the new front office might be looking at in free agency.
We can guess, though, and we can work off Terry Fontenot’s track record in New Orleans. That track record suggests that Fontenot will prioritize team fit and will mostly chase mid-tier free agents, at least at first with limited cap space to work with. If space is available and he’s identified a difference maker, however, the Falcons might open up Arthur Blank’s coinpurse. After all, Fontenot has already been part of a front office that was figured out there was always a way to free up cap space to get the guy you want, and this team lacks both difference makers and depth on both sides of the ball. The draft and some undrafted free agents, especially in a year where the Scouting Combine isn’t happening and meeting with and checking out prospects is more difficult, will make free agency an attractive avenue for Atlanta.
As Tori McElhaney noted in her most recent free agency preview for the Falcons, Fontenot is no stranger to nabbing relatively affordable free agents who fit like gloves for his team’s vision. The following quote comes from Jeff Duncan, a longtime Saints beat writer who is currently at The Athletic:
“Terry also has a keen eye for talent and understood how to find players who fit the vision of the Saints’ coaching staff and scheme. Demario Davis is by far his best free-agent signing. 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. 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. Players like Malcom Brown, Latavius Murray, James Hurst, Nick Easton and Ty Montgomery have come in and played key roles and allowed the team to withstand attrition and injuries, which is so critical in today’s game.”
We can quibble a bit about how well-known Davis was—he was a very good player for the Jets even if he wasn’t well-known—but the broader point he’s making fits. Davis had a career-high single year earning when he was 27 and in Cleveland at just $4.2 million, but the Saints gave him a big multi-year deal with typical creative accounting that averages more than $6 million per year. In Davis, Fontenot and the New Orleans front office saw a player who could lift their typically shaky linebacker group and provide a locker room presence and were willing to pay for it. For guys like Brown, Murray, Hurst (a Falcons free agent target, by the way) and others, it was about the intersection of team fit and cost for a team that needed to nail those kinds of free agency signings to stay afloat with their other significant expenditures.
McElhaney’s blueprint for the offseason also includes one proven defensive difference maker—no Dante Fowler 2.0, even if he ultimately fares well in 2021—and coming out of the offseason without blowing up their fortunes in 2022 and 2023. All of that is sound and likely to be a very rough outline of what Atlanta gets up to in March and beyond, but you should fully expect a front office now led by a season pro personnel executive from one of the most cap-savvy teams in the league to make free agency a genuine priority.