Falcons GM Terry Fontenot on what he looks for in quarterback prospects

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot addresses the evaluation process and what he and team are looking for at the position.

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

If the Falcons had position group meetings today, the quarterbacks meeting room would be a gathering of two people.

Quarterbacks coach Charles London and the lone player, Matt Ryan.

With free agency and the draft approaching, the new regime cleared out the room and set the stage for an overhaul with an eye toward to the future.

With the release of Kurt Benkert and the retirement of Matt Schaub, Ryan is the only quarterback on the roster.

The Falcons will sign at least two and maybe three either through free agency or the coming NFL draft, which is set for April 29-May 1. They also could add an undrafted quarterback, as most teams go to training camp with four quarterbacks.

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith are looking forward to rebuilding the position with the Falcons and possibly landing the team’s quarterback of the future. Ryan, who turns 36 in May, has said he wants to play into his 40s. The most prolific passer in franchise history is under contract for through 2023.

“That’s an exciting part of it because we are going to utilize all of the avenues, whether it’s in free agency, at any point in the draft and even after the draft,” Fontenot said. “I’ve been places where we’ve traded for quarterbacks.”

Fontenot has studied how former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015, amassed quarterbacks in the 1990s and used them as trade fodder.

In 1994, Brett Favre, Mark Brunell, Ty Detmer and Kurt Warner were the quarterbacks in the Packers’ training camp. Warner was cut and went to play in the Arena Football League. He resurfaced with the Rams and went on to have a Hall of Fame career.

With Favre already on the roster from the trade with the Falcons, Wolf drafted quarterbacks in 1992, 1993 and 1995 through 1999.

Detmer, despite winning the Heisman Trophy, was selected in the ninth round of the 1992 draft. At 6-foot, he was thought to be too short to succeed in the NFL.

Wolf took Washington’s Mark Brunell in the fifth round of the 1993 draft. He also selected Alabama’s Jay Barker (sixth round, 1995), USC’s Kyle Wachholtz (seventh round, 1996), Army’s Rod McAda (seventh round, 1997), Boston College’s Matt Hasselbeck (sixth round, Boston College) and Virginia’s Aaron Brooks (fourth round, 1999).

Brunell, Hasselbeck and Brooks went on to become starters with other teams.

Brunell went to three Pro Bowls and was 78-73 as a starter. He played until he was 41.

Hasselbeck took Seattle to its first Super Bowl appearance after the 2005 season and went to three Pro Bowls. He had an 85-75 record as a starter.

He played with the Titans in 2011 and 2012, when Smith was a defensive quality control assistant (2011) and offensive quality control assistant (2012).

When Wolf hit on the quarterbacks, they later were traded for draft picks.

Brunell was traded to Jacksonville for third-round and fifth-round picks in 1994.

Hasselbeck was traded to Seattle along with a first-round pick (17th) to get a first-round pick (10th) and a third-round pick in 2000.

The Packers traded Brooks and tight end Lamont Hall to the Saints for linebacker K.D. Williams and a third-round pick in the 2001 draft.

Some are projecting that the Falcons will take a quarterback this year with the fourth overall draft pick, most often mentioning BYU’s Zach Wilson and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who also played at Harrison High and Georgia.

“We are always looking to bring in quarterbacks,” Fontenot said. “We have a real good (coaching situation) from Arthur Smith to (offensive coordinator) Dave Ragone. We have a really good offensive staff, and I think it’s going to be attractive. I think quarterbacks are going to want to be here.”

Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, of Cartersville, is considered the top quarterback in the draft and is projected to go No. 1 overall to Jacksonville. Also, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones are projected to go in the first round.

Fontenot said the Falcons are looking for players with good personal and football character at all positions.

Arthur has said it a number of times; you want a smart, tough, competitive, football team,” Fontenot said. “When we are talking about situational awareness and you are talking about critical times at the end of games, the end of halves. So, he wants smart, tough, competitive football players.”

For the quarterback position, the Falcons plan to have some additional parameters.

“Now, obviously the quarterback position is different than some of (the others),” Fontenot said. “So, you really have to spend a lot of time with the quarterbacks and make sure you really assess the mental part of it. So that you can assess them as processors (of football information).”

The Falcons are watching the quarterback carousel around the league this season with interest. The first big move was the trade of Matthew Stafford by the Detroit Lions to the Los Angeles Rams for Jared Goff.

“It’s kind of unique and uncommon this year with all of the discussion about the possible trades at the quarterback position,” Fontenot said. “... All we can do is really assess it, assess the market. It’s unique what’s going on at that position.”

Smith, a first-time NFL head coach, is not sure if he wants a veteran to backup Ryan.

“There are just so many things at play,” Smith said. “If this happens, we can add this guy here. As you go into the draft, you are looking to add everywhere. Obviously, we won’t with just one quarterback into training camp. We’ll have multiple spots there. ... We’ll look for help anywhere, and we’ll look to add. A lot that plays into the salary cap. Who’s available? Who you can sign? Who you can draft?”

Smith went back to the 2011 season when he was first starting out with the Titans. It was the lockout year and the season was in jeopardy.

“It was a top-heavy quarterback draft at the time,” Smith said. “You had Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder. I think all went within the top 15, give or take if I remember correctly. ... There are a lot of parallels.”

The 2018 draft was the last time five quarterbacks went in the first round. Baker Mayfield went No. 1 overall to Cleveland followed by Sam Darnold (Jets, third), Josh Allen (Bills, seventh), Josh Rosen (Cardinals, 10th) and Lamar Jackson (Ravens, 32nd).

“You have to do your due diligence,” Smith said. “You can look back from year to year. It’s the hardest position I think in professional sports to play at a high level for a long time. That’s why you are seeing (the quarterback movement) right now.”

From 2008 to 2017, there were only five franchise quarterbacks selected, if you count Ryan, Stafford, Newton, Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco. The jury is still out on the 2018 class, but Rosen has already flamed out, and the Jets are pondering what to do with Darnold.

Kyler Murray (Cardinals, first), Daniel Jones (Giants, sixth) and Dwayne Haskins (Washington, 15th) were selected in the first-round of the 2019 draft. Haskins was released last season by Washington. He signed with the Steelers.

Last year, Cincinnati took Joe Burrow No. 1 overall. Miami selected Tua Tagovailoa fifth, the Los Angeles Chargers selected Justin Herbert sixth and Green Bay picked Jordan Love 26th overall.

Burrow was injured, and Herbert won the PFWA’s rookie offensive player-of-the-year award.

“Just look at the last 10 years of the first-round quarterbacks,” Smith said. “It’s not easy. There are a lot of things that factor into it.”

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. Dolphins: Penei Sewell (OT, Oregon)

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

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

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