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Terry Fontenot, Arthur Smith talk roster construction as free agency looms

The new head coach and general manager had some interesting, if general, things to say about the Falcons.

NFL: NOV 18 Titans at Colts Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Normally, the NFL Scouting Combine would be going on right now, and we’d be getting remarks from Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot in Indianapolis as they study some of the players they may be drafting in April. Because the Combine is effectively not happening this year due to COVID-19, we got a difference kind of press conference, albeit an interesting one.

Here, Smith and Fontenot got to talk about the road ahead for the roster and drop a few small morsels about their plans going forward. Here’s a quick roundup of some of the most salient and noteworthy points from today, with the note that you should take almost everything here with a grain of salt given that it’s still February and Fontenot in particular has a smart habit of keeping things vague.

Arthur Smith is excited about Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley

Ryan being on this list is noteworthy but not shocking, given that he’s going to be the team’s quarterback for at least most of the 2021 season and hasn’t declined so much as suffered through a Dirk Koetter offense for two years. Ridley and Koo are self-explanatory after both had stellar seasons, but Lindstrom being singled out on the offensive line is worth mentioning given that he was excellent last year and can probably reasonably be expected to be even better in his critical third season.

These may just be off the cuff remarks, but there are some very notable omissions here, namely everyone on defense and Julio Jones. I’d file that away for later but it’s probably not particularly significant.

The importance of deep lines

Speaking of Lindstrom, if all goes well it sounds like he’ll be a piece of a very well-built line.

The Falcons have lacked compelling depth on both lines in the past, though they did have good luck replacing Kaleb McGary last year with Matt Gono and got more out of the likes of Steven Means and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner than anyone would have suspected. The team needs starting-caliber upgrades across both lines, but they also need a credible rotation on the defensive line and an effective Plan B if injuries pile up on the offensive line. It’s not hard to be on board with this.

This team will add quarterbacks

Plural.

Fontenot is already very good at not saying a whole lot while suggesting something, but it’s evident the team will be prioritizing additions with Matt Ryan standing as the only quarterback under contract at the moment. The question is simply whether they want a potential long-term heir or a short-term option, but either way a team fixated on competition is not going to go into the 2021 summer without just two quarterbacks on the roster.

Terry Fontenot recognizes the enormity of the task ahead

The Falcons still aren’t under the cap or even particularly close to it, they don’t have a lot of players under contract, and the kind of restructured deals that would help them achieve that space could complicate life in the future. Atlanta has repeatedly insisted it’s not all that bad, but Fontenot acknowledged it’s not going to be an easy lift.

Atlanta’s likely to be active in free agency because they have to fill this roster and have vowed to tackle needs that way, but it’s going to take freeing up cap space and hunting for good players who might sign at bargain prices. Getting the space will require cutting deep, though there just aren’t a lot of obvious places to look besides post-June 1 relief.

With so many needs and not a lot of space, it will likely be tempting to at least consider moving down from the #4 spot in the draft and picking up additional picks for re-stocking the shelves. Fontenot isn’t ruling that out, but then, what general manager does?

Competition will be a feature

A fair criticism of the Dan Quinn era in Atlanta was that often, it didn’t seem from the outside like anyone particularly feared for their jobs if they didn’t perform well. That was partly a function of lackluster depth—you can’t replace struggling starters with quality reserves you don’t have—and partly a function of a coaching staff that preached accountability and may have pushed it behind closed doors, but rarely manifested it by benching players who weren’t playing up to their potential.

For what it’s worth, Brian Finneran suggested on Twitter that this perception is unfair, especially with my initial framing that lumped the Quinn and Mike Smith eras together. Criticism of Smith from fans and analysts here and elsewhere tended to focus on the way the team appeared to bury young defenders, particularly pass rushers, in favor of veterans who did not exactly set the world on fire. Few of those pass rushers went on to do anything elsewhere, however, and the Smith era is particularly noteworthy in hindsight for disciplined, surprisingly decent defenses that too often lacked both top-end talent and depth outside of a few key positions. I think backing up from my initial, breezy framing here is justified, given that.

I would suggest the criticism was more fair when it came to Quinn’s later years in Atlanta, particularly in 2019 and early 2020 when the team was struggling mightily and local columnists like The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz were writing that player accountability was lacking. Is it fair to suggest that not having a credible Plan B for Vic Beasley scuffling or multiple starting linemen not playing well in 2019 is a bigger factor than a coaching staff being unwilling to hold players accountable? Certainly. Is it also true that Quinn exiting the team and Raheem Morris taking over led to things like Todd Gurley being phased out of the gameplan when he struggled and the pass rush rotation being shaken up a bit? Yes, and I don’t believe that Arthur Smith’s comments in his opening presser about entitlement and accountability were made in a vacuum.

Arthur Smith’s hiring doesn’t suddenly mean Matt Gono’s on standby for Kaleb McGary and Jake Matthews during a bad stretch or that Dante Fowler Jr. is going to find himself parked on the bench if he doesn’t have a good summer. It is clear that at least during his first year, the new head coach is going to hammer home the message that nobody’s guaranteed a job unless they perform well enough to get one. That’s just a message until it’s a reality, of course, and it’ll likely take building a far deeper roster to be able to actually put the Falcons in a position to put underperforming starters on the bench.