The new regime had to come in and deal with a disgruntled Julio Jones, get a handle on the salary cap and make a decision on the future of quarterback Matt Ryan.
They couldn’t fix everything in Year 1 as they left the porous offensive line and pass rush intact.
“It’s just because there’s so many things to do Year 1,” Smith said. “As you start and hit the ground running, it should be a lot easier this time because you understand how everybody operates. There are some things we want to do better than we did last time. You are just more familiar. It’s like any relationship, you feel like you know everybody better.”
Because the previous regime failed to draft contributors, the Falcons were not able to keep contending after Ryan signed a six-year, $150 million contract in 2017. The Falcons also signed left tackle Jake Matthews, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones to hefty contracts.
The Falcons’ salary-cap situation is not ideal.
“Still some constraints,” Fontenot admitted. “But we just have to look at every player and every contract and just do the best job we can.”
The Falcons finished 7-10, but had the fifth-worst point-differential in the NFL, at minus-146. The Falcons don’t suffer from any delusions of grandeur after finishing third in the NFC South and missing the playoffs.
“We know we have to bring in competition and continue to work to improve this offseason,” Fontenot said. “There are going to be challenges every year with the cap, but we just have to make the right decisions.”
While the Falcons went 7-2 in one-score games, they were blown out by double-digits in eight other games, seven against playoff teams.
“We have to close that gap in those other games,” Smith said.
The Falcons started before the paint was dry on their 2021 season by signing 19 players to reserve/futures contracts this week.
“That’s why this is such a collaborative effort,” Smith said. “I’ve seen this done a lot in this league is (a team) brings a player in and everybody wants credit for it. Or you know, you win a game and you want to get out in front of the parade.”
Smith has a disdain for parade-line jumpers.
“There’s so much work that goes in, and you’ve got to be in sync because those guys in the (pro) personnel department do a terrific job of trying to sort through the rosters to see who’s available,” Smith said. “It’s our job to make sure that we have a vision for them, and you’ve got to play them. You can’t sit here when you bring a guy in and then you don’t play them. ... It’s got to go both ways, and that’s why it’s such a collaborative effort.”
Smith and Fontenot insist that the Falcons have a shared vision for the future of the franchise.
“You have to be in sync,” Smith said. “So nobody’s looking out here to jump in front of the parade because everything is discussed. We have daily discussions with Terry and I and our staffs. It’s about the vision of building this roster to get to a championship level and operate that way to win championships. That’s why we feel we’re on the right path.”
Fontenot and Smith have another major decision to make on Ryan, who has two years remaining on his contract and has a $48.6 million salary-cap number for 2022. They could restructure and kick the bill down the road another year or stand pat.
With a team that needs so much, using Ryan’s contract at the ATM might be the most prudent move.
Smith insisted that the Falcons will try to improve the roster at all positions.
“You never want to pass up an opportunity to improve your football team,” Smith said.
Free agency will come first for the Falcons. After the coaches review the film of 2021, they will decide who they want to retain. Then the front office will start trying to reach deals before the new league business year starts at 4 p.m. March 16.
The top free agents are running back Cordarrelle Patterson, linebacker Foye Oluokun, kicker Younghoe Koo and wide receiver Russell Gage.
“You go through that process again, it starts with meeting with the coaches and determining who you do want to proceed with,” Fontenot said. “That’s the beginning of it, and then we go through the process of looking at their market value. It does make a difference when a player is in your building.”
Sometimes free agency can be a crapshoot. Some of the past Falcons free-agent signings that didn’t work out include Ray Edwards, Jamon Brown and James Carpenter, to name a few. Also, Dante Fowler didn’t produce the pass-rush numbers that the Falcons were expecting when he signed a three-year, $45 million deal in 2020.
“Ideally, the best (approach) is developing and signing your own players because you’re not guessing,” Fontenot said. “We know exactly who they are in the building. So, that’s important. Ideally, when it’s players in your building, those are players you want to invest in.”
The market value of a player may dictate the team allowing him to leave, as tight end Austin Hooper and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell after the 2019 season.
“But when you can do that, when you can reward your players in your building, that’s something we would want to do,” Fontenot said.
The Falcons will try to get better through the draft, which is set for April 26-28. Underclassmen have until Monday to declare for the draft.
“We’ve had a round of (draft) meetings. The next set of meetings are in February,” Fontenot said. “So, it’s an ongoing process.”
Yes, several members of Georgia’s national championship team are on the Falcons’ draft board.
“The college staff has been grinding all year,” Fontenot said. “And now’s it’s to the point where the coaches are going to get involved in that process. It’s going to be a collaborative effort to make sure we bring in the best players we can.”
Upgrading the offensive and defensive lines will be key for the Falcons.
Also, instead of looking only for a pass rusher, Fontenot wants players who can put pressure on offenses from all over the field.
“We’re always looking for pressure players,” Fontenot said. “You’re always looking for cover corners. Like Arthur said, it’s a complementary game. As we improve the roster and bring in competition at every position, that’s going to help when you’re playing with leads.”
If Fontenot and Smith are on the right path, perhaps it will lead to a parade. Just don’t jump to the front of the line.
The Bow Tie Chronicles
2022 draft order: 1. Jacksonville Jaguars; 2. Detroit Lions; 3. Houston Texans; 4. New York Jets; 5. New York Giants; 6. Carolina Panthers; 7. Chicago Bears (traded to N.Y. Giants); 8. Falcons; 9. Denver Broncos; 10. Seattle Seahawks (traded to N.Y. Jets); 11. Washington Football Team; 12. Minnesota Vikings; 13. Cleveland Browns; 14. Baltimore Ravens; 15. Miami Dolphins (traded to Philadelphia); 16. Indianapolis Colts (traded to Philadelphia); 17. Los Angeles Chargers; 18. New Orleans Saints; *19. Philadelphia Eagles; *20. Pittsburgh Steelers; *21. Cincinnati Bengals; *22. New England Patriots; *23. San Francisco 49ers (traded to Miami); *24. Las Vegas Raiders; *25. Buffalo Bills; *26. Arizona Cardinals; *27. Tennessee Titans; *28. Los Angeles Rams (traded to Detroit); *29. Dallas Cowboys; *30. Kansas City Chiefs; *31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers; *32. Green Bay Packers.
*- Subject to playoffs results