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With new free agency chapter about to begin, Falcons can absolutely learn from last one

Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot have a great opportunity not to make old mistakes.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It was two years ago the Atlanta Falcons made “big moves” to address the offensive line by signing journeyman James Carpenter and developing Jamon Brown to big-money contracts to shore up the blocking up front.

It was a year ago the Falcons signed pass rusher Dante Fowler and running back Todd Gurley in a move to stay aggressive after two years of lean and a mirage of a 6-2 finish.

It’s now that the folks who made those decisions no longer are making them for the Falcons.

Next week when free agency starts, Falcons fans will go through something we’ve not gone through in a long, long time: something different. Former general manager Thomas Dimitroff had been making the personnel decisions since 2008 before he exited the franchise last fall, and former coach Dan Quinn has had a say in personnel since 2015.

In 2021, neither man will be doing much of anything with the Falcons, outside of perhaps glance over every now and then to see what’s happened with their former team.

In the Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot regime, we’re about to learn our first lessons as free agency gets underway. Will the Falcons solve enough of the team’s cap issues to make some moves? Will they sit idly as the first wave of free agency churns and wait for more modest contracts? Will they just not sign anyone at all save for some veteran depth and pour most resources into the draft? Will it be a mix of all of that? We haven’t a clue.

We’ve genuinely not heard anything about the Falcons free agency process set to begin in about a week’s time, which is all at once kind of exhilarating and a little strange. It’s like jumping into a pool, not knowing if it’s going to be freezing or perfect temperature. The jump itself is the best kind of rush, but you never know what you’re about to hit if you don’t dip your feet into the water a little.

We can study Fontenot’s history with the Saints, or the kinds of players the Titans drafted while Smith called the plays. We can make links with free agent ties here and there just out of baseline speculation. But the truth of the matter is, we know jack squat and won’t until next week.

Spotrac says the Falcons still have about $11 million to go against the cap in the top 51 with the release of guard James Carpenter official.

The team can still restructure some veteran deals for guys like Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews, Deion Jones and even Dante Fowler, and they could still opt to part ways with defensive tackle Tyeler Davison or even Fowler with a post-June 1 designation. But that’s about it when it comes to possible cap moves.

Of course, Fontenot comes from a team who treats the salary cap like a punchline, so we might could expect the Falcons to adapt some flexibility there? One thing we can hope, though, is that they’ll be extremely careful not to make the same mistakes of the last team, or to find themselves in a situation like the Saints in a couple of years, where every player has to have years tacked on to their deals or hit the road for them to be under the cap.

March 2020 was a painful reminder about the attraction of free agency, and why winning in March most certainly does not lead to winning in the fall. Signing Fowler and Gurley gave Falcons fans (including yours truly) some genuine excitement and hope at the start of the pandemic, but neither move did much of anything to change the team’s fortunes.

Gurley looks as good as gone, and Fowler might not be too far behind him unless the team feels he can rebound under Dean Pees. A year later, neither move worked out at all.

The 2019 guard moves will live in infamy as two of the worst contracts Dimitroff ever signed players to, and it’s not at all dissimilar to his track record. Earlier Dimitroff deals for guys like Ray Edwards, Tyson Jackson, Jon Asamoah, Steven Jackson, Osi Umenyiora, Brooks Reed and Brandon Fusco (and more we’d probably best forget) ranged from underwhelming replacements to outright disasters. Dimitroff’s better work was in the draft and ferreting out bargains, not the big signings to fix major issues.

While Carpenter was decent in 2020 and Gurley still produced some in the red zone, the Falcons legitimately hadn’t hit on free agency since 2017 when they signed Dontari Poe for a rental, and even that deal didn’t really quite live up to its “one piece away” billing.

The 2016 offseason (Alex Mack, Mohamed Sanu) was the last time the Falcons really won much of anything in March since the early days of Dimitroff’s tenure. It’s a sad history of March hype leading to dry falls; the team’s draft failures looked even worse when March didn’t pan out.

Dimitroff is no more here in Atlanta, but his and Quinn’s mistakes still linger on this depleted roster. The Falcons certainly have good players, but there is much work to be done to get this team back in playoff shape. Pumpkins turn to carriages overnight all the time in the NFL, so don’t put it past Fontenot and Smith to get the Falcons to January 2022 with football ahead.

It won’t be easy, but the duo can start by avoiding the splashy free agents unless they feel completely sure they’ll be able to contribute and earn their salaries. The tight cap might prevent that from being an issue in 2021, but you never know.

An early win Fontenot and Smith could score in Atlanta is to remember how they got here. The missteps of the past regime must be avoided for this new one to thrive. It’d be nice to feel like the Falcons are making smart decisions in the spring that pay off later rather than fun ones that dissolve the second they hit the field.

It’s tempting to want sprinkle-laden chocolate lava cake and ice cream this time of year, but we might all be better with more greens in our Falcons free agency diet.