Falcons’ Fontenot to make signature personnel move in 2021 NFL draft

Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot poses for a portrait during his first visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday January 21, 2021. (Photo by Dakota Williams/Atlanta Falcons).

Credit: Dakota Williams/Atlanta Falcons

Credit: Dakota Williams/Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot poses for a portrait during his first visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday January 21, 2021. (Photo by Dakota Williams/Atlanta Falcons).

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot’s first NFL draft is only a few days away.

With the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, Fontenot has a chance to make a signature personnel move to undeniably leave his mark on the franchise for perhaps the next decade.

The Falcons’ draft board is set, and Fontenot and the restructured personnel staff will pull a name off the board in the draft, which will be held in Cleveland starting Thursday.

Fontenot, with the help of his staff and new coach Arthur Smith, has a tough decision to make. If he gets it right, the Falcons, who have gone 18-30 over the past three seasons, can quickly turn their fortunes around.

If not, the Falcons can get stuck in the basement of the NFC South.

Fontenot’s decision is not unlike the one that Thomas Dimitroff faced in 2008.

The Falcons were coming off a 4-12 season and quarterback Michael Vick was headed for federal prison.

Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith had to decide if they were going to take a quarterback early in the first round or pick LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and then maybe take Michigan’s Chad Henne later in the first round. They picked Matt Ryan and instead traded back into the first round to pick up left tackle Sam Baker.

Ryan was selected third overall and helped to turn the Falcons into a playoff team in one season under the direction of offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave.

What must Fontenot and Arthur Smith do to make sure they make the right decision? Hall of Fame personnel executive Gil Brandt was asked by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution what advice he would give to the rookie general manager.

“I think the thing the Falcons have to do, is decide one thing, do you want to take ... (tight end) Kyle Pitts from Florida, or do you want to roll the dice and take a quarterback,” Brandt said. “I myself, think the Atlanta quarterback (Ryan) is fine for a couple of more years, but that’s a decision that you have to make.”

If the Falcons don’t take a quarterback, they may have an opportunity to trade back and amass picks in what’s considered a weak overall draft, especially among players on defense.

“Sometimes, when a new coach comes in, he wants to get more draft choices and do things like that,” Brandt said.

Cincinnati has the fifth overall pick behind the Falcons.

Former Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik, an analyst with SiriusXM NFL Radio, also had some advice for Fontenot.

“The advice I’d give Terry is be decisive and be confident in what you are going to do,” Dominik said. “Meaning that, have your pick ready at No. 4. At this point you should probably have your mind made up.”

Keeping an open line of communications is key.

“Then, I’d remind him to re-check the phone lines and re-check them again and then one more time,” Dominik said. “It would be really nice if they could get that opportunity to get that trade-back call. I think I’d take advantage of it if I was Atlanta, but I don’t want to move out of the top 12. Top 11 is as far as I think I’d want to move back.”

Sometimes the big trade back for picks doesn’t work out so well.

The Falcons and the Browns made a mega-deal April 28, 2011. The Falcons gave the Browns five picks to move up from No. 27 to No. 6 in the draft. The Browns didn’t make good use of the picks, while the Falcons picked up wide receiver Julio Jones.

“We get enamored with multiple picks, but when you move so far back, you get them all wrong, and that’s a bad first start,” Dominik said.

The Falcons, who have nine picks throughout the draft, have glaring needs at left guard, running back, defensive end, cornerback and safety. But Fontenot said that he plans to draft the “best player available,” which would be a major departure from the Dimitroff era.

“To Terry, be sure about what you want to do at four,” Dominik said. “I think they already know that. But make sure that phone line is working, so if you’ve got that chance to move back. I think he’s probably already setting the table, as we see in the media he’s doing a good job of saying the Falcons are fielding calls. That’s a smart move by him.”

Fontenot comes from the Saints, where he worked closely with general manager Mickey Loomis and with assistant general manager/college scouting director Jeff Ireland, since 2015. Fontenot is borrowing from both Loomis and Ireland, who was Miami’s general manager from 2008-13.

“Jeff is as respected as there is,” said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout. “I mean, he’s been doing it for a very long time. He’s kind of a scout’s scout. ... He’s somebody that’s always been just widely respected around the league.”

Ireland, a former kicker at Baylor, was the rookie general manager with Bill Parcells and the Dolphins, when they took Jake Long No. 1 overall instead of Ryan in 2008. He flunked his rookie general manager test.

The Saints have been solid in the draft, which in part helped Fontenot land the Falcons’ job.

“When you look at their drafts over the last couple years, I think it’s some (to be determined),” Jeremiah said. “Obviously they’ve had some big picks. He’s at his best when they kind of go off of the instincts as opposed to some of the measurables.”

Fontenot added two key members to the personnel department, who are playing key roles in the pre-draft process. Kyle Smith, who was with Washington for the 11 previous seasons, is considered the second-highest personnel executive behind Fontenot.

(A request to make Smith available for questions was denied by the team.)

With Washington, Smith had to contend with meddlesome owner Daniel Snyder, who twice had the team pick a quarterback – Robert Griffin and Dwayne Haskins – over the advice of his personnel men.

While recently discussing Smith’s departure, former Washington coach Jay Gruden fired a shot at Snyder

“Every year that I was there, we had a pretty good draft class, with a couple exceptions,” Gruden told Nicki Jhabvala of the Washington Post. “(Smith) was really good about listening to the coaches because the coaches also did evaluations. … When it came our time to pick, we’d always talk about the picks, where we’d like to go, what happens if (the player) is gone, and did all our scenarios. And then (Snyder) would come in off his yacht and make the pick.”

Gruden was referring to the pick of quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Washington selected Haskins in the first round of the 2019 draft. He was released in the middle of the 2020 season.

Kyle Smith reportedly vehemently disagreed with Snyder’s choice.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank is “fascinated” by the quarterback class, according to Football In America’s Peter King, but would not force one on his decision-makers.

Kyle Smith’s time in Washington was up after the team hired Martin Mayhew as general manager and Marty Hurney as the executive vice president of player personnel.

Smith, the son of former Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, was not interviewed for the Washington position. Smith started as a intern, moved to area scout and then was director of college scouting.

Despite the issues with the owner, Washington drafted Ohio State’s Chase Young with the second overall pick in 2020.

While Smith was director of college scouting from 2017-19, Washington’s drafts were marked by heavy dose of players from the SEC. Out of 28 picks, Washington took nine SEC players, including five from Alabama.

Also, Dwuane Jones, who came over from Baltimore, was given the title assistant director of college scouting.

He was Baltimore’s Midwest region scout and helped the Ravens select quarterback Lamar Jackson in 2018 and running back J.K. Dobbins last year, with a second-round pick they acquired from the Falcons in the Hayden Hurst trade.

Jones, not Anthony Robinson, who’s the director of college scouting, attended the second Pro Day workouts of Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.

“Dwaune has an incredible drive and knowledge of our game fueled by his extensive experience in the field as a scout,” Fontenot said. “Like Kyle Smith, he is passionate about his craft and is a tireless worker.”


QUARTERBACKS: How far will Justin Fields drop in draft? | Top 10 QBs

RUNNING BACKS: Plenty of prospects to pick from | Top 10 RBs

WIDE RECEIVERS: Draft deep with talent | Top 10 WRs

TIGHT ENDS: Ability to create mismatches is key | Top 10 TEs

OFFENSIVE TACKLES: A ‘nasty’ bunch | Top 10 OTs

OFFENSIVE GUARDS/CENTERS: The men in the middle | Top 10 C/OGs

END RUSHERS: Pass on this draft stock | Top 10 DEs

DEFENSIVE TACKLES: One star among lackluster block | Top 10 DTs

LINEBACKERS: Deep class for position | Top 10 LBs

CORNERBACKS: Plethora of options for first two rounds | Top 10 CBs

SAFETIES: Falcons likely will add position player | Top 10 Safeties

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