Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith, who have made a practice of not saying much of anything in remarks to the press to this point in Atlanta, were in rare form Tuesday at the 2022 NFL scouting combine. The duo ended up touching on Matt Ryan, the possibility of trades, and the reality of working with a relatively tight budget in free agency. You can find a good rundown from Kevin Knight here.
One of the most interesting remarks from a big picture perspective came from Fontenot, who re-affirmed that this is not a team trying to do a full-scale teardown or one going all-in on winning in the here and now. The Atlanta Falcons are trying to chart a middle course, or as Fontenot put it:
“We’re trying to have our cake and eat it too,” Fontenot said. “We want to be smart and don’t want to make decisions that will hurt us in future years, but we also want to build the best team that we can. So we’re gonna work hard to be smart and calculate in our decision making, but we have to improve the roster this offseason and add competition.”
Can the Falcons actually do this? In my humble opinion, sort of.
The cake comment caught everyone’s eye, but as Kris Rhim wrote, Fontenot was a little more nuanced than that in additional remarks. The Falcons regime is going to talk about being in contention this year in much the same way they did last year, perhaps a little more brassily thanks to a little more cap flexibility and a year under their belt. It’s pretty obvious that nobody in Flowery Branch is heading into work every day with a bedrock belief that they’ll be playing in a Super Bowl in February 2023, however.
“What I’m saying is we wanna have some discipline, and we’re trying to build a championship roster,” Fontenot said. “We’re not trying to win one more game next year. We’re trying to build a championship roster, so long-term. A team that can continue to compete, so with that, we want to help our roster this offseason, but we also need to look at the future, but we want to have balance with that.
Consider the challenges of today. The Falcons are going to have to shift dollars around just to spend a little bit in free agency, and that will likely involve cuts, changes, restructures and extensions to get there. Opening up the kind of open field space it would take to sign multiple big name free agents would involve moving quality talent or tying up money in future years in a way that could lead to more tough cap situations, and we know the team will consider the former but will try to avoid the latter. The NFC South is going to be weaker this year, but we know that without multiple impactful additions, Atlanta’s not going to be a great team.
Instead, this year will likely be somewhat of an echo of last year, albeit one we hope has a better overall outcome. The Falcons are going to move some players and contracts around, sign a bunch of affordable free agents to fill the gap, and count on an impactful draft class and improvement from in-house options to fuel some growth in 2022. I don’t think they’d tell you, even entirely off the record, that they are resigned to not making the playoffs or even not winning the NFC South.
Last year made it clear that the Falcons aren’t simply going to be content to roll around in the basement of the NFC South for two or three straight seasons while they figure this out. Arthur Blank has to be running out of patience with all the empty Sundays at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the Falcons have a roster that is, for the moment. still loaded with a handful of high-priced, high-quality veterans they’d like to try to win with and for. There’s just a limit to what this team can do to win now without putting themselves in a perpetually tight cap situation, and that’s a limit they’re likely to mind.
The Falcons can try to be competitive today and try to rack up wins in the here and now by being savvy and building on their 2021 offseason, and personally I will enjoy this year a lot more if they’re not lousy. It’s clear that there’s still a long-term goal to build a consistent contender here, and the Falcons aren’t going to eat all their cake now and risk having none in 2023 and beyond. Rhetoric aside, that’s still the smart play, because there’s simply no easy, straightforward path to contending for a deep playoff run this year that figures to work, while the advantages of building up a potent, stacked roster are beyond obvious. The question is whether the current regime can get us to that point.