Falcons’ GM search kicked into overdrive with two interviews

091320 Atlanta: Falcons President and CEO Rich McKay (left) confers with owner Arthur Blank while General Manager Thomas Dimitroff looks on from the sidelines in the final seconds of the home opener Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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091320 Atlanta: Falcons President and CEO Rich McKay (left) confers with owner Arthur Blank while General Manager Thomas Dimitroff looks on from the sidelines in the final seconds of the home opener Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

While the Houston Texans and Detroit Lions are trudging onward with their general manager searches, the Falcons joined them and the Jacksonville Jaguars remain in a holding pattern.

The Falcons completed interviews with internal candidate Anthony Robinson and former Houston general manager Rick Smith for their vacant general manager position Friday.

The interviews of Robinson, the Falcons’ director of college scouting, and Smith were conducted virtually, as no in-person interviews may be held with any candidate until the conclusion of the regular season.

Robinson was in his 14th season with the Falcons’ personnel department and his second as the team’s director of college scouting. He began his career in Atlanta as a scouting assistant for three seasons before being elevated to Southeast Area scout and then the team’s eastern regional scout covering half the country in 2016.

Before working with the Falcons, Robinson worked with BLESTO scouting as a scouting assistant intern from (2007-08) and as an undergraduate assistant coach (wide receivers) at Florida State (2005-07). He also was in the Baltimore Ravens’ player personnel department as an intern.

Robinson is a native of Tallahassee, where he lettered four years in football and track at Godby High School. Robinson played running back at Morgan State before transferring to Florida State and earning his bachelor’s degree in sports management in 2006.

Smith was general manager in Houston before losing a power struggle with Bill O’Brien, who remade his talented roster. Smith drafted DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt.

The Falcons fired general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn on Oct. 11. Raheem Morris was named interim head coach. Falcons president Rich McKay assumed the general manager duties and brought in national scout Ruston Webster to help run the daily football operations.

Circle Jan. 4 on the calendar, the Monday after the last regular-season game.

The NFL sent out protocols that any interviews before a team’s season ends must be held virtually. So, the earliest a team can start in-person meetings would be Jan. 4 and only with candidates not employed by a team or employed by a team that has been eliminated.

The Falcons’ football structure may be an issue.

The Falcons had a team co-builder approach with general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn, and there’s no rush to interview the general manager before the coach. Most of the coaching candidates are under contract with teams and can’t be tampered with.

Saints personnel executive Terry Fontenot and the Rams’ Brad Holmes were set to be interviewed by the Falcons, a person within the NFL familiar with the situation told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Also, Miami executive Reggie McKenzie has been linked to the Falcons by ESPN.

Former Falcons tight ends coach Chris Scelfo coached Fontenot while at Tulane.

“I tell you, I’m not surprised at all that he’s moved this fast,” Scelfo told the AJC. “Age is just a number in his case.”

Scelfo was an assistant head coach at Georgia from 1996-98 before becoming the head coach at Tulane from 1998-2006. Fontenot was a four-year letterman as a safety from 1999-2002.

“He was dependable,” Scelfo said. “He wasn’t a great player, but he did everything he could to be the player that he was. He worked at it. He worked in the offseason. He worked in the classroom. He worked off the field.”

Scelfo remembers that Fontenot had unwavering core values.

“He was brought up, raised the right way,” Scelfo said. “He’s a respect-and-dignity person. He does not get rattled. He will always keep his composure. That’s the way that he played.”

Fontenot, who’s the Saints’ vice president/assistant general manager/pro personnel, has been with them for 16 seasons.

Over that time, the Saints have dominated the NFC South and have continually replenished their roster. Fontenot and the Saints have been successful in mining for players in alternative places like the Canadian Football League.

That will be attractive to the Falcons, who’ll have salary-cap issues and must find additional talent from other rosters and leagues in addition to the draft.

Scelfo is not stunned that Fontenot is a general manager candidate.

“Well, I’m really not (surprised),” Scelfo said. “No. 1 is the training that he has had in the situation at New Orleans where he started, blossomed and that’s been a tremendous organization to learn from Mickey Loomis, watch Sean Payton up close and personal. Those guys have had a lot of success. For him to be a part of that, obviously this could give him a chance to branch out and kind of mimic the pattern that has been successful.”

The general manager candidates will evaluate four areas of concern with each team vacancy: the quarterback situation, roster talent, salary-cap situation and draft capital.

The Falcons and the Lions have veteran quarterbacks in Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford. Houston has a young and mobile quarterback in Deshaun Watson, while Jacksonville’s quarterback situation is unsettled.

The Falcons rank highest in total yards this season among the four teams currently in the GM market. The Falcons (15th) are ahead of Houston (18th), Detroit 20th) and Jacksonville (22nd).

All four teams are lacking on defense and rank in the bottom five in the league. Atlanta (28th), Detroit (29th), Houston (31st) and Jacksonville (32nd)

The Falcons’ salary-cap situation will make the team less attractive.

The Falcons are $25.1 million over the projected 2021 salary cap, according to overthecap.com.

Jacksonville has $77.6 million in salary-cap space and Detroit has $12.1 million. Houston is projected to be $8.5 million over the cap.

Jacksonville also has a bushel of draft picks. After trading disgruntled players Jalen Ramsey and Yannick Ngakoue, the Jaguars have 10 picks, including two in the first round.

The Falcons have all of their picks for 2021. Detroit has five of their seven picks, and Houston doesn’t have a first- or second-round pick after O’Brien’s trades.

Because of the NFL teams’ poor minority hiring record, all of the searches are being heavily scrutinized by the league office.

“We have not been pleased with the results that we’ve seen from the hiring practices over the last few years,” said Troy Vincent, NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “The work place and diversity committee … with their leadership in collaboration with the Fritz Pollard Alliance and working with the competition committee, they just did a complete inventory or what we’re doing well, what we haven’t been doing well from a policy standpoint.”

Meetings were held with all of the teams to articulate the league’s vision and what needed to be done from a policy standpoint with the anti-tampering rules to create true upward mobility.

“The commissioner (Roger Goodell) gets final say of who gets denied and who has access to an interview,” Vincent said.

The league is hopeful that the searches will be more diverse in 2020-21.

“We’re on a good path,” said Jonathan Beane, the NFL’s senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer. “We’re touching all areas. We are looking at our people, how can we ensure that we’ve got diversity at all levels of the organization and all different positions.”

The Falcons met with league officials recently, and McKay is chairman of the powerful competition committee.

“We’re looking at our culture, how to enhance it and ensure that we have safe, welcoming and inviting environment where everybody has a sense of belonging and feel likes they have a right to express themselves,” Beane said.

Dimitroff is set to interview with the Detroit Lions, who recently fired their general manager Bob Quinn, NFL Network reported Thursday.

Dimitroff is credited with drafting Ryan, signing Michael Turner in free agency and building the franchise into a playoff team under Mike Smith (2008-14) and a Super Bowl team under Quinn (2015-20). Smith became the coach with the most wins in franchise history, while Dimitroff was the general manager.

The Lions interviewed in-house personnel executives Kyle O’Brien, Lance Newmark and Rob Lohman last week, and are expected to meet with ESPN analyst Louis Riddick and Smith in the coming days, according to the Detroit Free Press’s Dave Birkett.

The Lions also will interview Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli, according to ESPN. Pioli was general manager with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2009-12. He resigned from the Falcons in May 2019.

Falcons’ final three games

Buccaneers at Falcons at 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 20

Falcons at Chiefs at 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 27

Falcons at Buccaneers at 1 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 3

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