The Falcons are going to spend. It may not be money flying toward the five specific free agents you or I want, but they’re going to bring in impactful players and they’re going to stock their depth chart with new additions. That much is certain.
What isn’t certain is how exactly that money will be spent, and whether Atlanta will spend to the hilt or prioritize long-term flexibility. What we do know is that General Manager Terry Fontenot is vowing that the Falcons will continue to do what they’ve largely done in his tenure—be deliberate about the way they’re building this team. A team that could easily get its way to $70 million in cap space is in a position to hand out many contracts, but it’s the rare team that spends big in free agency and turns that into wild success.
In comments to reporters this week during the Shrine Bowl, where Fontenot has been hanging out with the coaching staff and getting a closer look at prospects, the general manager was characteristically careful not to give away any plans. He did, however, give us a few limited insights into what’s ahead for Atlanta this spring, the team’s presence at the Shrine Bowl, and why Ryan Nielsen was hired as defensive coordinator.
Here are select remarks, drawn from stories like Ashton Edmunds’ and D. Orlando Lebetter’s.
On the money available:
Basically, money isn’t going to change the way the Falcons do business, per Fontenot. There will still be one-year contracts for players the team wants to try out, lucrative or no, and there will still be a focus on the culture in Atlanta. The only difference is that the Falcons may well be more active in the early days of free agency when that money is really necessary to lure in big-name players, and they have a legitimate shot at landing a few of them.
“Just because you have more cap space, the process doesn’t change,” Fontenot said. “We still evaluate all the players, and there are going to be some players that you want to bring in on one-year deals and some players that you’ll have more multi-year deals, but we have to make sure we know exactly who they are as human beings and who we’re bringing into this building.”
Obviously, we’re not shedding any grand light on this team’s plans, but the one-year deal mention feels significant because it has been such a part of how the Falcons have operated under Fontenot to this point. It doesn’t sound like money will change their desire to use those in the second and third waves of free agency.
On Ryan Nielsen:
The Falcons obviously liked Jerry Gray, to the point where he’s joining the staff as an assistant head coach on the defensive side, but it’s Nielsen who snagged the defensive coordinator role. I said when he was hired that we’d likely find out more about the why once we heard from Arthur Smith and Fontenot, and they’re saying essentially the same thing: That Nielsen has a plan and it’s focused on finally getting the Falcons a compelling defensive front.
“Whether we’re talking about the backend, the interior, the edge, he has a clear plan for how we want to continue to build this team, but we’re going to always prioritize the front...We just talked about the trenches. That’s where games are won and lost.”
Atlanta invested in the defensive front seven multiple times in the past two years, snagging Arnold Ebiketie and Troy Andersen in the second round, DeAngelo Malone in the third round, and both Ta’Quon Graham and Adetokunbo Ogundeji in the fifth round. Those players should all have significant roles in 2023, but that plus some budget free agents and undrafted players does not a great group make. The hire of Nielsen and the team’s impending capalooza should change that, and while some skepticism is justified given this team’s history, at least it does seem as though it will be a focus.
On the Shrine Bowl:
The Falcons have a huge presence, with Marquice Williams serving as the head coach of the East team. Fontenot noted that about half of the players at the Shrine Bowl will end up in the NFL and a quarter will end up drafted, so it’s a great opportunity to get hands-on work over the course of a week with players who might be future Falcons.
It’s also critical for the coaching staff, per Fontenot.
“(Williams) is going to see things from a different vantage point, it’s going to make him a better special-teams coordinator. Justin Peelle (has the) chance to call the offense, coordinate the offense. When he goes back in his (meeting) room, it’s going to make him a better tight end coach. They are preparing for that next step, but it’s also going to help them be better in their specific roles.”
Desmond Ridder isn’t guaranteed a starting job, and the Falcons aren’t going to stand pat with Marcus Mariota (who may very well be cut) and Logan Woodside (who is a free agent) behind him. There are zero clues to who the team is going to add, though certainly there has been plenty of wishcasting Lamar Jackson, Derek Carr, and others to Atlanta.
“We’re excited about where we are, but yet, we are going to add players. You have teams that put a lot of cap space at that position and some teams that don’t. But I will say that we always want to keep adding to the [group].”
What is worth noting is that Fontenot and the front office have tended to be a bit more effusive about Ridder than the coaching staff, and the general manager’s faith that the second-year quarterback is going to improve is worth noting. That faith could be the difference between signing quality veteran competition like Jacoby Brissett or seeking to replace Ridder outright with someone like Jackson (if he even becomes available) or a top ten draft pick.
“We keep talking about Desmond’s mindset and the way he carries himself and the way he works. So, we know that he’s going to look at the good things he did and look at the things he needs to improve on. He’s going to have a great offseason and be ready to roll.”