LAS VEGAS — Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot has a plan for the franchise’s most important offseason since 2008 after Bobby Petrino walked out the door and Michael Vick sat in a federal prison.
The Falcons regrouped nicely by hiring general manager Thomas Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith and then drafting quarterback Matt Ryan. They went straight to the playoffs. The Falcons eventually built a Super Bowl contender and made it to the NFC Championship game after the 2012 regular season.
After two down seasons, Smith was replaced, and Dan Quinn was hired. “The Brotherhood” was established, and the team made it to the Super Bowl in the 2016 season, with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan dialing up some dynamic offensive wizardry – until he didn’t in Super Bowl LI.
The 2017 Falcons made it back to the playoffs, but their season died on the 1-yard line in Philadelphia. It’s been all downhill ever since. Quinn and Dimitroff were fired five games into the 2020 season.
Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith were hired Jan. 15, 2021, to turn things around. They would sweep the locker room clean of the vestiges of Quinn’s Brotherhood era and set out to rebuild the franchise.
It was a process that started with the trade of Julio Jones and culminated with the trade of Ryan last offseason.
Now, with two drafts and back-to-back 7-10 records, the Falcons have cleared the deck. Fontenot and Smith enter the 2023 offseason with salary-cap money – $56 million, which could climb to $73 million if they cut quarterback Marcus Mariota and cornerback Casey Hayward – and another bushel of draft picks.
The goal is to return the Falcons to respectability, which would first include a winning record for the first time in five seasons and a trip back to the playoffs.
But, first things first.
“It starts with our players,” Fontenot said while taking a break from scouting prospects at the East-West Shrine Bowl at the Raiders’ swank $75 million practice facility. “We’ve had a lot of discussions; we’ll keep them private with those particular players and particular agents. That’s the first step, is to work hard to get some of your contracts done.”
The Falcons’ key prospective free agents are offensive tackle Kaleb McGary, linebacker Rashaan Evans, cornerback Isaiah Oliver, wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus and outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter.
There is a mutual interest in Evans, who led the team with 159 tackles, returning, but it’s early in the negotiating process.
McGary was not awarded his $13.1 million fifth-year option last offseason and may want to test the open market after his best season in the NFL. He likely could be replaced with the eighth overall pick in the draft by either Ohio State tackle Paris Johnson or Northwestern tackle Peter Skoronski.
“We’ll continue to go through the process. We’ve spent a lot of time,” Fontenot said. “We’ve met with the personnel staff, the coaching staff, and it’s an ongoing process. We’ll continue to do it. Really, quickly here we’ll be getting into free agency and into our draft meetings. But we are going through it while we do everything else.”
The Falcons have some time to get things done internally. The free agency period opens at 4 p.m. March 15. The legal tampering period, where offers can be exchanged, starts March 13.
The Falcons have several other lower-profile free agents they likely can re-sign before they hit the market. That group includes fullback Keith Smith, punter Bradley Pinion, special-teamer Mike Ford, defensive tackle Vincent Taylor, special-teamer/wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge and tight end MyCole Pruitt.
“It all ties in together,” Fontenot said. “When you’re looking at free agency and looking at what’s on the market, you actually know draft-wise and what’s going to be on the market. It all ties in when you are making decisions.”
The Falcons also will monitor the offseason trade market and players who have their contracts voided.
“There are a lot of different elements to it, and you have to look at everything together because it all ties into your big plan,” Fontenot said.
Part of the Falcons’ “big plan” is to build up the trenches, especially on defense. New coordinator Ryan Nielsen was hired in part because of his work with the Saints’ defensive line since 2017, when he took over for former Falcons defensive line coach Bill Johnson.
“In the trenches, that’s where games are won and lost,” Fontenot said.
In addition to the pending free agents, the Falcons could elect to sign Pro Bowl right guard Chris Lindstrom to a long-term deal. However, they could let him go into the season on his fifth-year option and do the extension in-season or next offseason for salary-cap purposes.
“We’re not going to negotiate in the media, but our first phase for us, the first step, is to go through contracts and to work on some of the players in our building,” Fontenot reiterated. “We have a number of (potential) UFAs. There are some players we are going to work on to try to get done quickly. Some guys you have to be patient with. There are different (levels.)”
Some may get to the open market and land lucrative deals, as former linebacker Foye Oluokun did last season. He wanted to stay with the Falcons, but they couldn’t match the three-year, $45 million deal that Jacksonville put on the table.
“It could be on their end,” Fontenot said. “It could be on our end. You have to assess the market and see where it is. There’s a lot of different ways to approach it.”
The Falcons know that things will remain fluid as deadlines approach.
“It would be easy just to sign all the players you want,” Fontenot said. “Pick the guys you want, but there is a whole process to it. Some guys, it will take a little time. Some guys will end up somewhere else just because it doesn’t work out here, and some guys will get (a deal) done.”
The Falcons have used one-year contracts over the past two offseasons to bring in veterans and depth. Carter signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal last offseason.
“It’s very important to know who you are signing and who you are bringing into the building,” Fontenot said. “We’re always going to focus on makeup, focus on culture. So, we have to make sure we are bringing the right players in the building. We’ll still sign one-year contracts. That’s something valuable to do. Just because you have more cap space, the process doesn’t change.”
Fontenot knows this is an important offseason for the new regime.
“I think every offseason is pivotal,” Fontenot said. “I think every day is pivotal. The first offseason we had here was critical. Obviously, we had a different level of resources the first year, the second year and now this year. I understand the question, but yet, you have to look at every offseason (like) it’s critical. You’re going to do the best you can to improve this football team.”
FALCONS POTENTIAL UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
-Beau Brinkley, LS
-Damiere Byrd, WR
-Lorenzo Carter, OLB
-Matt Dickerson, DE
-Chuma Edoga, G/OT
-Rashaan Evans, ILB
-Rashad Fenton, CB
-Anthony Firkser, TE
-Mike Ford, CB
-Colby Gossett, G
-Erik Harris, S
-KhaDarel Hodge, WR
-Germain Ifedi, OT
-Jaleel Johnson, DT
-Nick Kwiatkoski, ILB
-Kaleb McGary, OT
-Isaiah Oliver, CB
-Bradley Pinion, P
-MyCole Pruitt, TE
-Keith Smith, FB
-Vincent Taylor, NT
-Elijah Wilkinson, LG
-Olamide Zaccheaus, WR
RESTRICTED FREE AGENT
-Abdullah Anderson, DE
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENT
-Liam McCullough, LS
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