Falcons seek to build a championship-level team, roster

073121 Flowery Branch: Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith (right) gives general manager Terry Fontenot give each other a fist bump after speaker to Falcons fans on the third day of training camp practice on Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Flowery Branch.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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073121 Flowery Branch: Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith (right) gives general manager Terry Fontenot give each other a fist bump after speaker to Falcons fans on the third day of training camp practice on Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Flowery Branch. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith are about to embark on their second offseason in trying to restore the franchise to respectability in the NFL and end its four-season playoff drought.

The Falcons went 7-10 and had the fifth lowest point differential in the league, with minus-146 during the 2021 regular season. Only the Jaguars (minus-204), Jets (minus-194) Texans (minus-172) and Giants (minus-158) had greater point differentials than the Falcons. Neither of those teams won more than four games.

“The goal here is to sustain success and win championships,” Smith said. “If that’s not your objective, then you’re just playing survivor, trying to manipulate narratives and stat-padding. That’s not what we are trying to do. We are tying to build a championship level team and roster. That’s our objective.”

The Falcons were 7-2 in one-score games, but in the other eight games they were beaten by double-digits with losses by 26 points, 23, 40, 25, 13, 18, 14 and 10 points.

“We have to close the gaps in the other games,” Smith said. “We have to continue to improve.”

The Falcons need to improve along the offensive and defensive lines and upgrade at wide receiver.

The offensive line gave up 40 sacks and 85 quarterback hits. The rushing attack averaged 85.4 yards per game and was ranked 31st in the league. The Falcons average 3.69 yards per carry.

The defensive line did not put much pressure on opposing quarterbacks and had only 17 sacks, which was last -- 32nd of 32 teams – in the league. The also had 39 quarterback knockdowns.

“Like the whole team, we’ve got to improve,” Smith said. “I think statistics, however you want to manipulate them, those are the low-hanging fruit. It doesn’t tell the story of necessarily how you win the game.”

Smith didn’t want to throw any of his players, who fought hard this season, under the bus.

“There are a lot of ways you can fix it. … We need more shots on goal,” Smith said. “I think when you get in the game and you don’t have the ball very long, a lot of it was self-inflicted. ... We need to be better all-around. There are multiple ways to improve the fronts, but we have to improve this whole team as we climb.”

The Falcons’ brain trust will take a break and then start on their offseason makeover.

“We’ll have a collaborative effort and sit down with Arthur and his staff, the coaches, the scouts and evaluate the season and every single player, and that’ll be the beginning,” Fontenot said. “Whether a player is under contract or not under contract, that’s the start. We will evaluate every player and how we want to proceed with each player, and then we’ll start to formulate that offseason plan.

“So we need to just separate a little bit, so we can come in with fresh eyes and be objective and evaluate every single aspect of this year.”

Free agency will be up first when the new league year starts March 16.

Keeping running back Cordarelle Patterson, linebacker Foye Oluokun and kicker Younghoe Koo are the Falcons’ top priorities.

With the NFL salary cap projected to jump from $182.5 million to $208.2 million in 2022, the Falcons’ situation will improve slightly.

Patterson, arguably the team’s offensive MVP for 2021, signed a one-year, $3 million deal in the offseason. His market value has been set at $6.1 million, according to Spotrac.

After leading the league in tackles, Oluokun’s price went up. Koo played last season at $920,000 and can at least double that if he reaches the open market.

“We’re in a better spot because the cap did increase this year,” Fontenot said. “That was one of the big challenges last year because of the cap going down so much. And we already had challenges prior to that.”

The Falcons also will have to restructure some contracts, including quarterback Matt Ryan, who has a salary-cap number of $48.6 million. Other candidates for restructuring are defensive tackle Grady Jarrett ($23.8 million), left tackle Jake Matthews ($23.6 million) and linebacker Deion Jones ($13.6 million).

“This offseason, the cap did increase and yet there still are challenges here for the next couple years,” Fontenot said. “But again, we have to look at every contract, every player, whether they’re under contract or not, and make the best decision for this team moving forward.”

The Falcons hold the eighth pick in the draft, which is set for April 26-28 in Las Vegas.

The Falcons have had one round of draft meetings and will start another round in February. The plan is to select the best players on the board.

“We always want to be a team that doesn’t reach for needs,” Fontenot said. “We’ll go into the draft with needs, you know you want to fill those needs, but you always want to take the best player on the board and not reach for something. We think that’s how you make mistakes.”

The Falcons hope they make some strides next season.

“We feel like we’ve got a great foundation here,” Smith said. “We’ve got a bright future, but we’ll look at every single thing we’ve done and see what we can do better.”

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