Terry Fontenot, like any other NFL executive, has his habits and his preferences. One that stood out during his time heavily involved in pro personnel for the Saints was this: He had a fondness for looking across the northern border for talent.
During his tenure in New Orleans, the Saints signed a raft of players from the Canadian Football League, including safety (and 2021-2022 Falcon) Erik Harris, fellow safety Marcus Ball, receiver Chris Williams, cornerback Delvin Breaux, and linebackers Adam Bighill and Wynton McManis. Only Harris really worked out in the NFL for any length of time, but the Saints were not shy about trying to look somewhere for talent that other teams in the league might not have been focused on in their search for useful depth.
How do we know this was a Fontenot preference? Because that habit has continued in Atlanta and expanded to include the XFL, the returned spring football league heavily finance by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The Falcons are not going to extremes in terms of how many players from the CFL and XFL they’re importing—plenty of teams are clearly looking at both—but Atlanta’s commitment to looking far and wide for talent when they’re tinkering with their roster is still evident.
In 2022, the Falcons imported both wide receiver Brayden Lenius and cornerback Dee Alford. While the team tried to convert Lenius to tight end and ultimately didn’t keep him, Alford turned out to be an absolute gem, allowing just 54.8% of the passes attempted against him to be completed and managing an interception playing under a quarter of the defensive snaps. He’ll be pushing hard for a role as a reserve in 2023.
In 2023, meanwhile, the Falcons added Jamal Peters, who led the CFL in interceptions last season and has an interesting mix of size and physicality. They also worked out multiple other CFLers in the run-up to signing Peters, and he figures to at least be a strong candidate for the practice squad this year.
On the first day of eligibility, NFL teams signed 11 XFL players to contracts. The Falcons were the only team to sign three ex-XFLers to contracts and one of only two teams to sign more than one (the Saints, fittingly, were the other).
Their pickups unsurprisingly fit their priorities. Seatle SeaDragon Barry Wesley boasts experience playing most positions on the offensive line, and would seem to be direct competition for fellow hyper-versatile reserve Ethan Greenidge. LaCale London is a quick defensive lineman for his size who excels at forcing fumbles and has some pass rushing chops, racking up three sacks last year and forcing two fumbles in a single game for the St. Louis Battlehawks. Fellow Battlehawk safety Lukas Denis was a bit of a ballhawk at Boston College, once managing seven interceptions in a year, and showed flashes of playmaking skill for St. Louis last year with a couple of picks and a sack in seven starts.
If all goes well, the Falcons will have imported depth options at all three positions that offers some versatility and playmaking abilities. Even if only one hits, it’s worth the time.
The Falcons are not unique in mining other leagues for talent, but their commitment to doing so is still noteworthy. This is a team that has seen, over the past couple of years, the heavy cost of not having quality depth, with losses at wide receiver and along both lines royally screwing Atlanta’s chances of contending. Finding players who may not have made a big splash in the NFL initially, but have thrived in another league and have a chance to become valuable contributors now, has to be rewarding for a front office. Dee Alford is a great example of that willingness to mine other leagues paying off.
The majority of Atlanta’s contributors are going to come from traditional channels: College football and both signings and trades from players already within the NFL. Fontenot and company are showing that they’re willing and able to go looking for options in other leagues entirely, and hopefully that work will pay off for the Falcons in 2023 and beyond.