This is year two for Terry Fontenot and company. They’re still adding to the front office structure in Atlanta, having brought aboard former Bears general manager and ex-Saints executive Ryan Pace, and the simple truth is that there’s a lot we don’t know about how they intend to build the Falcons up and why they’re going to choose the route they do.
Ahead of free agency, I thought it would be useful to review what we do know about Fontenot and this front office, and what it may mean for the Falcons as we rapidly approach 2022 free agency.
They love a bargain
Even when the Saints felt they could spend big and had to in order to keep their window of contention wide open, you could see Fontenot’s desire to find budget contributors at work. This was a team willing to rummage through the discount bin to add potential contributors like Noah Spence, Margus Hunt, Mario Edwards, and so forth.
The Falcons are in a drastically different place than the Saints were in the last few years of Fontenot’s tenure there—they’re trying to become contenders, and they’re not in can-kicking mode with the cap—but that’s only going to encourage Fontenot to work harder to root around for deals. He’s repeatedly said that the team will be “patient and find value.”
We saw this play out last year in largely underwhelming fashion. Instead of sinking their limited cap space into guaranteed starters at several key positions, they made moves like the Josh Andrews signing that were intended to give them competition and options. Where they could, they stacked up multiple cheaper players rather than one more expensive high-end option. That really didn’t work when it came to the front seven and the pass rush, but the Falcons are likely to conclude they just didn’t get the right players rather than that they can’t possibly build up the D with
Generally speaking, that means you’re not getting the name brand player at any position this offseason, so be prepared for a handful of “who?” reactions in March and April.
Cap difficulties are going to drive short-term deals
Last year, the Falcons signed exactly one player to a two year deal in the early days of free agency, and that was Mike Davis. This year, with a shot at real cap space in 2023 and the impossibility of turning this roster into a Super Bowl contender in 2022, they’re likely to repeat that approach.
In addition to being cheap, then, most of these players will join on one-year deals. The ideal marriage for team and player here will be guys who for one reason or another are looking to re-build their value—think someone who had most of 2021 wiped out by injury, or just turned in a disappointing contract season—and would be happy to sign a short-term pact and play a lot for a so-so team in the hopes that they’ll hit the market in better shape heading into 2023. The Falcons, meanwhile, will benefit from having a pretty wide-open road ahead of them next season with very few players who aren’t either essential or on rookie deals and the cap space to take advantage of that.
You may see one or two longer-term deals if the Falcons have a strong belief in a player being instrumental to their success in 2023 and beyond, but I’d largely expect this team to once again trial a bunch of one-year deals and see who might be worth keeping around after this season.
They hate being boxed into “needing” players in the draft
Fontenot keeps saying as much with the “best player available” ethos he insists the Falcons will be following. If you don’t want to be backed into a corner where you absolutely must spend a draft pick on a particular position because of a lack of options, you have to fill holes with at least semi-credible options in free agency.
We can debate until the end of time whether the Falcons truly selected the “best” player in each draft slot a year ago—Jalen Mayfield is going to be contentious forever unless he turns into an above average starter this year—but the Falcons set themselves up to follow that route with their moves in free agency by covering off on needs. They added veterans at running back, receiver, along both lines, at linebacker, at cornerback and at safety specifically so they would be able to swing at upside with Kyle Pitts, Richie Grant, and (yes) guys like Mayfield.
You should expect a similar strategy this year, so even if we don’t know the players we generally know who they’ll be targeting. Atlanta needs considerable help at outside linebacker, at least insurance policies at cornerback, safety and all along the offensive line, as well as basically an entirely rebuilt wide receiver group. It would be a huge upset if they don’t use free agency to stock the cupboards at those positions, and likely others.
They’re trying to get bang for their buck
I think plenty of us thought Erik Harris was going to be a reserve when he was signed. Cordarrelle Patterson was a kick returner and interesting reserve at receiver and running back. Tajae Sharpe was a deep reserve coming off a brutally bad year, and Fabian Moreau was a player who could compete for a starting job.
Patterson was the only truly good player and only major surprise on the list above, but you can see a pattern of thinking here. The Falcons like to add guys who are relatively inexpensive and don’t require massive commitments and who you can expect a baseline level of competence from, but they’re obviously aiming to add players who can deliver much more value than their contracts would suggest.
Harris and Duron Harmon took veteran minimum deals and started most of the year, Patterson turned into an absolute stud in front of our eyes, and Moreau started the entire season and played reasonably well. Even when it doesn’t work out—Mike Davis is a good example, I’m sure there are plenty of people ready to argue that Harmon and Harris are also—you can see where the Falcons are leaning by trying to find players who have shown flashes in their careers of being more than just replacement players. The fact that they missed more than they hit a year ago won’t change the approach.
Patterson is, of course, the difficult-to-replicate example that Fontenot wants to follow, which means Atlanta really has to dig and try to determine who has the skill set to shine on this team if given the opportunity. Even if they only strike gold once per year and wind up getting more than one Moreau amongst their low-budget signings, it will at least let them be more competitive. I can’t wait until we’re setting the bar much higher here, but hey, here we are.
What else do you believe you know about this Falcons front office ahead of free agency?