Falcons’ situation coming into focus for Arthur Smith

Caption
Atlanta Falcons have nearly a dozen free agents on defense following the 2020 season.

A few realities are starting to sink in for new Falcons coach Arthur Smith, the former offensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans.

“We’re not going to have Derrick Henry here,” Smith told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during an appearance on The Bow Tie Chronicles podcast last week. “So, it’s not like I think we’re going to have Derrick Henry.”

The former Alabama running back was a star for Smith as he became the eighth player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season in 2020.

“Hand it off and watch him stiff-arm 15 people and go 99 (yards),” Smith said. “You’d love to have that, but that’s not reality.”

The Falcons will try to find most of their help in the NFL draft, which is set for April 29-May 1, and the secondary free-agency market.

“The reality is that we’ll get multiple backs in here, and we’ll have the way we trust our schemes and the way we teach the details of it, and we’ll commit to it,” Smith said. “That should provide hope to people because of that mindset.”

The Falcons’ rushing attack was meek last season.

Smith, who has evaluated the roster, was reluctant to address whether the line didn’t block well enough or if the running backs weren’t hitting the holes.

“The easy thing to do here is criticize without having all of the facts about what happened last year,” Smith said. “It’s really now about identifying the skill sets of those guys and how they fit with the way we want to do things. Because there have been good coaches and players here, you know that.

“I just have a hard time focusing so much on last year and just criticizing. That’s really kind of a cop-out for coaches when they get here to do that. I don’t want to do that to Dan Quinn or Raheem (Morris) or Dirk Koetter because I think they are really good coaches. I wasn’t here. All I can focus on is ’21.”

The top two running backs from last season, Todd Gurley and Brian Hill, appear set to become free agents March 17.

Ito Smith finished the season as the top back. Qadree Ollison also is on the roster.

Left tackle Jake Matthews and right guard Chris Lindstrom are the top performers on the offensive line. Former Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, 35, is weighing his options as he looks at free agency.

“We are excited about some of our young linemen and the way we want to do things,” Smith said. “We’ll see how it works out in the backfield.”

Everyone on offense will have to pitch in on the blocking.

“It takes all 11 to block,” Smith said. “Right now, I know the line gets all of the credit (or blame). But it takes the way you operate. The quarterback, sometimes you ask him to get you in the right play. Receivers have got to block. The tight ends and the fullbacks, when you play with them, must block.”

Smith can’t wait to implement his offense.

“Yeah, it is a blend of a lot of the offenses that I’ve been in,” Smith said. “We certainly ran the wide zone in Tennessee with Derrick. But we did a lot more of the power stuff that (former Titans head coach and Falcons offensive coordinator) Mike (Mularkey) was talking about. ... A lot of times with different (blocking) schemes. It may look like a little bit like an inside-zone play, but it’s really power without a (pulling lineman).

“That was a staple play when I worked for Mularkey. We had Russ Grimm as our (offensive) line coach. That was a big run staple for us with Demarco Murray (in 2016 and 2017) and Derrick when he was younger. It’s a blend of that. We wanted to be a wide-zone, but a nasty, powerful team as well. We had a pretty good blend of that in Tennessee.”

As the Falcons get ready for the new business year, Smith knows that free agency will not help much. The Falcons need to see what the actual cap will be and then get under it. Then if a player becomes available, they’ll have a contingency plan.

“Some teams have tons of money to spend, and the first couple of days kind of feel like signing day,” Smith said. “That may not necessarily be our approach unless something magical happens. Things have happened in the past, so it’s not out of the question. Realistically, you are just kind of waiting, keep the cap underneath it and trying to get good value for guys that are out there and that fit what you want to do and they fit character-wise.”

Smith noted that free agency always is tricky because of the unknown.

“You want to make sure you’ve done your homework and you know exactly what kind of player, what kind of person you’re bringing in here,” Smith said.

The Falcons are set to hit the Pro Day circuit as they finish their preparation for the draft.

“You can’t have any in-person workouts,” Smith said. “We can show up at the Pro Days, but you can’t meet with them. We can’t do any private workouts. You can’t bring them into the facility.”

Most of the Pro Days were shut down last season.

“We had to adapt from last year,” Smith said. “You have to do a lot of it virtually. You really (must) trust your scouts. You (must) be thorough. There were a lot of lessons learned from the last year. You really want to know what kind of player that you’re bringing in here.”

Normally, with a new coaching staff, the Falcons would be allowed to have two offseason minicamps. Smith has his calendar ready just in case.

“We obviously hope that we get players in here at some point,” Smith said. “If last year taught you anything, you have to do a lot of contingency plans. We have the calendar. It is set. … If we have to adapt it virtually, here’s our plan or for anything else that is thrown our way. If it’s some kind of combination, we have a plan for that.”

Smith also noted that Titans didn’t have an offseason in 2011 because of the NFL’s lockout.

While Smith is eager for the roster to start coming together and for the Falcons to move on to the draft, he’s very pleased with his coaching staff.

“It’s a mixture of experience and guys that have been in different spots, but they have kind of a shared vision as well,” Smith said.

Caption
Todd Gurley, Alex Mack among the dozen or so Atlanta Falcons 2020 free agents on offense.

Falcons’ 2021 draft position: Here are the pick’s in D. Led’s Mock Draft 1.0: Top five picks

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence (QB, Clemson)

2. New York Jets: Ja’Marr Chase, (WR, LSU)

3. Miami Dolphins: Penei Sewell (OT, Oregon)

4. Falcons: Justin Fields (QB, Ohio State)

5. Cincinnati Bengals: Devonta Smith (WR, Alabama)

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