Falcons had busy offseason leading to NFL draft

Team holds eight selections over next three days, including No. 8 overall
Atlanta Falcons new head football coach Raheem Morris, left, and Atlanta Falcons General Manager Terry Fontenot react to a question at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Monday, February 5, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Atlanta Falcons new head football coach Raheem Morris, left, and Atlanta Falcons General Manager Terry Fontenot react to a question at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Monday, February 5, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

FLOWERY BRANCH — Heading into Thursday night’s first round of the NFL draft, the Falcons had made foundational moves with the hope of snapping their string of six consecutive losing seasons and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

“Going into the offseason, we knew the first thing we had to do was hire the right head coach,” Falcons general Terry Fontenot said. “The next thing we (had to) do was find the right quarterback. Then go from there.”

After firing Arthur Smith in January, the Falcons conducted an exhaustive search that included interviewing 14 candidates, including former New England coach Bill Belichick twice. (Once on Arthur Blank’s yacht off the shores of Antiqua.)

The Falcons hired Raheem Morris, who was serving as the Rams’ defensive coordinator and had been one of coach Dan Quinn’s trusted assistants during his Falcons tenure. He also was the interim head coach after Quinn was fired five games into the 2020 season.

Morris, 47, previously was the head coach of the Buccaneers from 2009-11 and posted a record of 21-38 in a tear-down situation.

“I’m very excited for Raheem,” said Mark Dominik, who was named Tampa Bay’s general manager on the same day Morris was named had coach. “He deserves another shot. He became the head coach in the National Football League at 35. I was 37. We gutted the team as per what we were talking about.”

The rebuild didn’t go smoothly.

“We put ourselves in quite a hole,” Dominik said. “It was hard. We gutted all of the veteran leadership off the team. I think it taught Raheem a lot. I know it taught me a lot about how I’d redo it again if I got another shot.”

Dominik will be pulling for Morris’ return to the head-coaching ranks.

“I’m very excited about him just being the head coach of the team and kind of overseeing everything and being that leader that players talk to and get motivated by,” Dominik said. “I think Raheem is going to do a great job.”

Morris was named the new head coach Jan. 26. With Morris and most of his staff of board, the Falcons moved – perhaps too eagerly – into free agency.

The Falcons signed quarterback Kirk Cousins to a four-year contract worth up to $180 million. His signing is under review by the league office for allegations of tampering, which will be decided after the draft.

With those two foundational pieces in place, the Falcons moved to their offseason program.

Now, it’s time for them to add new players through the draft.

“There has been a lot of really positive (energy) in the building,” Fontenot said. “Very exciting times right now.”

The Falcons are set to pick eighth in the draft, and they hold eight total picks.

“The most exciting part is that we’re going to go and make this team better,” Fontenot said.

Fontenot, who was hired with Smith in January 2021, said that he and Morris have formed a partnership heading into the draft.

“We are aligned,” Fontenot said. “Very excited again with the opportunity to make the team better.”

Fontenot held the final pre-draft meeting with Blank on Monday before Matt Ryan’s retirement press conference.

“The college scouting department, this is their baby,” Fontenot said. “All year, the late nights. The rental cars. All of the travel that they do. The time away from their families, and they are really the backbone of this process and all the work that they put into it.”

The acquisition of Cousins, wide receivers Darnell Mooney and Ray-Ray McCloud and tight end Charlie Woerner also were completed in free agency.

The Falcons traded former quarterback Desmond Ridder to the Cardinals for wide receiver Rondale Moore.

“We are excited about our team right now,” Fontenot said. “We have a lot of flexibility going into the draft because of all of the work that they put into it. The coaching staff, from Raheem right down throughout all of the coaches, all the work that they put into.”

Once the coaching staff was hired, they have merged systems and ratings with the scouting department. A lot of coaches came from the Rams and like some of general manager Les Snead’s strategies.

“We rely on our coaches a lot in this process,” Fontenot said. “We lean on them a lot. In terms of giving us the vision for their players, what we are looking for and then in all of the evaluations.”

Flexibility has been the key.

“It’s been an excellent process,” Fontenot said. “We have a very smart, passionate and forward-thinking group. It’s been really fun going through that work with them.”

Fontenot even pointed out that the analytics staff, the equipment staff, training staff and player engagement have helped in the preparation.

“Just very appreciative of the entire building,” Fontenot said.

Now, after the draft it’s on to onboarding the new players and moving to the rest of the offseason program, starting with the rookie minicamp May 10.

“Somebody said the other day, I think it was (assistant director of college scouting) Dwaune Jones, who has spent time in Baltimore,” Fontenot said. “He said, ‘today’s surplus is tomorrow’s necessities.’ Tomorrow could be two years from now.”

It has been an eventful offseason thus far for the Falcons.

“We get out of the season, we’ve got the coaching search, then you’ve got free agency and then the draft,” Fontenot said. “It really hasn’t stopped.”

Fontenot already was considering one of his first moves after the draft. Veteran defensive end Calais Campbell remains a free agent.

“No update at this point, but we’ll never close any doors,” Fontenot said. “We’ll get through the draft and once we get through the draft, we always go through the players that are available. ... It’s a 24/7, 365 process to roster building. We’re never stopping. The roster is never set. We won’t close any doors.”

New Falcons quarterback Kirk Cousins said Wednesday at his introductory press conference that he spoke with Falcons trainers and PR staff Tuesday.


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