Falcons’ Arthur Smith set to turn page on strong Year 1

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

FLOWERY BRANCH – Falcons coach Arthur Smith will turn the page on his first season after facing the Saints at 4:25 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Given the talent level, salary-cap constraints and roster turnover, Smith’s inaugural season can respectably be termed a success in terms of laying a foundation for the future.

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“I think he wants tough, competitive football players guys that, you know, regardless of circumstances continue to go out and fight,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I think we’ve done that throughout the year.”

There will be major changes to the roster and the team must figure out what to do with wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who missed the final 12 games to address his mental well-being.

Ryan has a sense of what Smith is looking for as he and general manager Terry Fontenot will seek to upgrade the roster.

“Guys that are of high football intelligence, you know, smart players,” Ryan said. “He talks about that all the time and trying to grow and develop guys and improve their football intelligence all the time. I think that’s really the baseline for it. Then obviously adding different guys that fit that mold is going to be important for us as we move forward.”

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The Falcons were looking for running back help late in the offseason and signed D’Onta Foreman on Aug. 9.

Things were kind of crowded, and Foreman was told that he’d start the season on the practice squad. He started sulking and stop working hard. He was shown the door Aug. 31.

Smith, mindful of the environment and culture he wanted to create, knew Foreman was talented. They were together in Tennessee. But Smith wanted no part of his sense of entitlement to a roster spot.

Qadree Ollison, a draft pick by the former regime, went to the practice squad and kept grinding at practice.

“Well, he kept working,” Smith said. “I know you think that’s obvious when you got a job in the National Football League, but I’ve seen it go sideways for guys.”

Foreman has since resurfaced in Tennessee and is doing a fine job to help fill in for Derrick Henry. His talent was never in question. It was a matter of whether he’d keep working when things got tough.

“I give Qadree a lot of credit,” Smith said. “It wasn’t easy for him to go on the practice squad because in his mind, like a lot of these guys, they’re competing, and this is what they’re achieving, trying to achieve for their life’s work or professional career.”

Ollison ended up working his way back to the 53-man roster. He’s playing on special teams and backing up Cordarrelle Patterson and Mike Davis at running back.

“So, great attitude, great mindset,” Smith said. “Continued to improve, and when his number has been called on, he’s been pretty productive for us.”

The Falcons have 28 players who will become free agents.

“Every team changes in the offseason,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “Like I told the players in our meeting (on Thursday), this won’t be the same team sitting in here next year. It never is.”

Pees was on the Ravens staff that won the Super Bowl after the 2012 season. They lost seven starters – two to retirement and five to free agency.

The Falcons priorities are to re-sign Patterson, linebacker Foye Oluokun and kicker Younghoe Koo.

Patterson wants to return, but wants a deal that reflects his new market value.

“I also know that it’s a business and there are decisions, tough decisions that have to be made,” Ryan said. “But as far as wanting (Patterson) back as a teammate, of course. He’s been a great teammate.”

Oluokun is leading the NFL in tackles with 179 and possibly could get a mega-deal on the open market. He was a sixth-round pick, and the Falcons have had the benefit of his rookie deal.

Koo wants to return.

“I love it here,” Koo said. “I love coach Smith and (special-teams coordinator Marquice Williams). At the end the day, they gave me the opportunity, a second chance in the league. I love the fans here. I love everything here. I’d love to stay, but at the end of day I also understand it’s business.”

The Falcons will have decisions to make on wide receiver Russell Gage and outside linebacker Dante Fowler.

“Dante, like a lot of our guys, gives everything he’s got,” Smith said. “He’s a tough football player and fun to get to know him, to work with him. ... You know he’s a good teammate. He cares. So, pleased with Dante.”

The Falcons also will have to make decisions on which other veterans they want to bring back from the group that was signed to one-year deals, such as tight end Lee Smith, strong safety Duron Harmon, free safety Erik Harris and linebacker Brandon Copeland.

“A lot of these veterans we brought in here, just where we’re at Year 1, obviously the circumstances with a salary cap,” Arthur Smith said. “You can’t bring a guy in here that can’t play anymore.”

The Falcons were pleased with most of the vets, especially Lee Smith, who helped show rookie tight end Kyle Pitts the ropes.

“Obviously, he can still play,” Arthur Smith said. “I know he’s a little older. He looks even older than he is. He provided a lot of good wisdom to guys. They’ve been through it. I think you learn a lot from your peers.”

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Ryan, who the Falcons are unlikely to cut and take on a $40.5 million cap hit, turns 37 in May and has said he wants to play until he’s 40.

Smith is his third head coach and he saw him grow over his first season.

“I think leading,” Ryan said. “It’s important. I talked specifically from the offensive side of the ball, but you talked about the culture that he wants to bring, whether it’s in the locker room, but also with the front office, the entire building, creating that culture and environment that he wants to create.”

Ryan senses the changes that have been made to the organization. by Smith

“I think we’ve had to navigate some different things throughout the year that have come up and keeping guys together and keeping the guys focused,” Ryan said. “I think he’s done an excellent job of that. And so, you know, all in all, I think he’s done a really good job in his first year.”

Here are the 28 Falcons set to become unrestricted free agents:

Josh Andrews, G

Daren Bates, ILB

Christian Blake, WR

Jonathan Bullard, DL

Brandon Copeland, OLB

Dorian Etheridge, ILB

Dante Fowler, OLB

Russell Gage, WR

Matt Gono, G

Colby Gossett, OL

Jaeden Graham, TE

Duron Harmon, SS

Erik Harris, FS

Josh Harris, LS

Hayden Hurst, TE

Younghoe Koo, PK

AJ McCarron, QB

Steven Means, OLB

Thomas Morstead, P

Fabian Moreau, CB

Isaiah Oliver, CB

Foye Oluokun, ILB

Cordarrelle Patterson, RB/WR

Josh Rosen, QB

Tajae Sharpe, WR

Lee Smith, TE

Jason Spriggs, OT

Olamide Zaccheaus, WR

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