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Dalvin Cook fits Terry Fontenot’s mold for veteran free agents

Don’t the Falcons already have lots of running backs? Yes, but not enough.

Minnesota Vikings v Chicago Bears Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

We’re still trying to figure out exactly what Atlanta general manager Terry Fontenot values despite being deep into his third offseason. In the same way someone may struggle to find out what food you like when you are grocery shopping when broke, a lot of Fontenot’s moves have been out of necessity versus his preference. Plenty of moves in 2021 and 2022 were either off-brands or from the discount bin.

In 2023, while we learned a lot about Fontenot’s approach when he’s ready to make a splash, we also learned that the man still loves a good deal.

Fontenot made a few multi-year pacts with big (and medium) name free agents, like Jessie Bates down to Kaden Elliss, but he still swung on multiple veterans ready to sign a prove-it deal with Atlanta. Players like Bud Dupree, Calais Campbell, and Mack Hollins signed one-year deals and have a great opportunity to start, while others on two-year deals like Lorenzo Carter (again) and Mike Hughes could be gone after only one year if they don’t play up to snuff.

Cordarrelle Patterson has been Fontenot’s successful prototype: a veteran player who came in “cheap” and significantly outperformed his contract. Patterson was too limited in multiple different offensive schemes and too old for other teams to find upside. In Atlanta it all came together, with Patterson putting up career highs, topping over 1,000 offensive yards and over 10 touchdowns in his first season. Patterson remained a major piece of the offense a year ago.

There are definitely a good number of players who could fit Fontenot’s mold of a cheap reclamation project, and at least one of them is at running back. Dalvin Cook won’t be as cheap as Patterson, but despite an anticipated strong market for his services, rumors of visits and interests have been nonexistent. Teams aren’t getting into a bidding war, perhaps with few willing to bring in an almost-28 year old player at a devalued position.

You know who doesn’t care about positional value? The general manager who has taken a tight end and a running back in the top-10 of the NFL draft. Fontenot also signed Patterson in his age-31 season only for Atlanta to switch his position full-time. At 5-foot-10 and 210-pounds with receiving chops and a history of scoring a ton of touchdowns, Cook also has the size and skillset head coach Arthur Smith is looking for in... well... seemingly every single one of his offensive players.

Under Smith and Fontenot, the Falcons have been much more interested in adding talent, and allowing that talent to blossom in multiple spots in the lineup, than simply filling out a standard depth chart. Further, the Falcons lead the league in rushing with 559 attempts, and the run game didn’t get to rolling until late in the year under Tyler Allgeier. When compared to only 415 passing attempts, Smith ran the ball an absurd (in 2022) 57% of the time.

Considering Smith’s success and astounding creativity in the run game, and in light of sophomore passer Desmond Ridder and limited wide receiver depth, it’d be reasonable to expect that percentage to increase. I fully expect this team to be the run game first. Everything else a distant second.

Even with top pick Bijan Robinson, rookie phenom Allgeier, and the versatile Patterson filling in, are the Falcons short on snaps? The team is certainly short on depth without Caleb Huntley. If the plan is for 600 to 650 rushes, the team is short on snaps even if everyone remains healthy. Assuming an injury at a particularly injury-prone position, the Falcons have some substantial risk at being unable to establish its identity if the hits start coming.

The potential solution? A versatile, established back who could show off his value as an electric backup. The Falcons still sit at around $10 million in cap space. Could Cook, believed to be healthy after nagging shoulder issues since 2019, have a Patterson-esque season in a dream scheme for a running back?

For Smith, the potential to throw Cook in the mix along with the team’s other offensive weapons has to feel like yet another edge on a team desperate for them. Not only can Smith develop plays to take advantage of his team’s talent, he can design bespoke game plans for each and every defense he faces. What front seven could potentially cover all these wrinkles?

Cook will have options, but the Falcons can offer an offense unlike few others in the league, one where running backs are valued and play an integral role in the team’s identity. The Falcons would protect themselves against injury, but more than that, they’d add one more talented player to an offense that could always use another.