‘Splash Brothers’ Terry Fontenot, Arthur Smith rebuilding core of the Falcons

Falcons coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot held their end-of-the-season joint press conference at the Falcons training facility on Wednesday, January 11, 2023. They reviewed the 2022 season and gave a preview of 2023. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Falcons coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot held their end-of-the-season joint press conference at the Falcons training facility on Wednesday, January 11, 2023. They reviewed the 2022 season and gave a preview of 2023. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

FLOWERY BRANCH — With the start of the NFL’s new business year Wednesday, Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith were not concerned about making splashy moves to win the press conference.

The Falcons proclaimed they were not interested in quarterback Lamar Jackson and then preceded to spend part of their $66.2 million in cap space along the offensive line and in the middle of the defense.

Smith kept a low profile at Georgia’s Pro Day on Wednesday.

“I’m happy as (heck) for Chris,” Smith said.

He was referring to Chris Lindstrom, who signed a five-year, $105 million contract extension Tuesday. Smith also was happy to get back right tackle Kaleb McGary for three years, $34.5 million.

“I’m so happy for Chris Lindstrom,” former Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli said on NFL Network. “So, folks who know his story, he lost his mom to cancer last year. He was very close with his mom. We drafted him and McGary that same year (2019). When we worked him out and watched tape, we absolutely loved this guy.”

Lindstrom and McGary both started as rookies.

“We thought he was going to take a little time to develop because as you remember (Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network) said he was little under-bulked,” Pioli said.

It was noted by Jeremiah that Lindstrom was “super athletic.”

Lindstrom broke his foot in the first game of his NFL career and missed most of his rookie season. He came back and played the last four games. He hasn’t missed a start since, as he played all 16 games in 2020, 17 in 2021 and 2022.

“Super athletic, had wrestler’s torque to him, that weird wrestler’s strength, but he also had this incredible amount of toughness,” Pioli said. “He has this amazing balance of being such a good, kind person off the field, but for those three hours, this cat hits the switch. He is an angry player.”

The Falcons’ regime before Fontenot and Smith tried to rebuild the offensive line while the defense was crumbling. The goal was to maximize Matt Ryan’s final years.

“We drafted a couple of guys that we knew were going to take a little bit of time to develop,” Pioli said. “It’s so great to see Chris Lindstrom and also see Kaleb McGary developing this year. Kudos and congratulations to Chris. It couldn’t happen to a better guy. I mean that sincerely.”

The Falcons’ other non-splashy move preceding free agency was getting tight end Jonnu Smith from the Patriots for a seven-round draft choice. Smith had flourished with the Titans under then-offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. He landed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Patriots after the 2020 season. He was a disappointment in New England after 27 and 28 catches over two seasons.

“I just got a call from my agent, like a bunch of us do,” Jonnu Smith said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to find out over Twitter.”

Smith had his best season in the NFL under Arthur Smith in 2020, when he had 41 catches and eight touchdowns.

“It’s an honor to be playing with him,” Jonnu Smith said. “Art believed in me for all of my NFL career. ... It’s a blessing to be reunited with him, a guy who knows how to take advantage of my abilities and talents.”

When free agency started, the Falcons sprang into action with the defense in mind. They added former All-Pro safety Jessie Bates (four years, $64 million), defensive tackle David Onyemata (four years, $35 million) and linebacker Kaden Elliss (three years, $11 million).

Bates, who was named to the Pro Bowl after the 2020 season, was brought in to take on a leadership role.

“There’s always another level that you can tap into,” Bates said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to bring that out of Richie (Grant). A.J. (Terrell) and those guys, and (hopefully) they’ll do the same for me.”

Bates helped the Bengals reach the Super Bowl after the 2021 season. He played last season with the franchise tag.

“Someone that has experienced (the) postseason,” Bates said. “Has experienced the bad. Has experienced the good. So, I’ve had a little bit of it all. Just five years into it at 26 years old, I’ll have a lot of wisdom and stuff to talk about with guys in the locker room.”

The Falcons are among the group of teams that believe teams overpaid for quarterbacks last offseason in free agency. They didn’t want to get into another bidding war for Jackson that would have kept them from continuing to rebuild the roster.

The Falcons bowed out of the Deshaun Watson derby last offseason after Cleveland gave him a five-year, $230 million deal.

While the Falcons’ moves have not been splashy, they generally have been well received.

“I love what they’ve done,” Pioli said. “When you have all of that space, it doesn’t mean that you have to spend it now. Let’s remember that free agency is happening now, but there is also going to be free agency once players are signed, other players are going to be cut. ... You always want to have a little extra money in your pocket.”

The Falcons clearly are not rushing back into a bad salary-cap situation.

“Think about what the future free-agent opportunities are going to be in, not in terms of unrestricted free agents, but street free agents,” Pioli said. “There are some street free agents that come out there ... watching the Falcons, and what I would love to see them do is exactly what they did. ... The most important part of free agency is to sign and re-sign your own best players.”

The Falcons also added quarterback Taylor Heinicke (two years, up to $20 million) in free agency. He will serve as Desmond Ridder’s backup.

“I’m going to try to be the best backup I can to him,” Heinicke said. “I’m trying to help him in any way that I can. … If he needs anything from me or if I see anything that can help him with, that’s what I’m here for. I’m very excited to work with him.”

Heinicke, a native of Suwanee who played at Collins Hill High, was close to returning to the Commanders.

“Honestly, I was about to sign back with Washington about two or three days ago,” Heinicke said. “Atlanta comes in with a better offer. I sat back and thought about it.”

In addition to big-ticket items Lindstrom and McGary, the Falcons also re-signed punter Bradley Pinion (three years, $8.65 million), fullback Keith Smith (one year, $2.35 million), outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter (two years, $9 million) and tight end Parker Hesse (one year, $940,000).

While the Falcons lost cornerback Isaiah Oliver to San Francisco, they remain hopeful that they can get back linebacker Rashaan Evans, who was their leading tackler last season.

In addition to Oliver and Evans, the Falcons allowed 18 other players to become unrestricted free agents.

That group included:

Cornell Armstrong: Helped out at cornerback last season.

Olamide Zaccheaus: The dependable player was the second-leading receiver with 40 catches for 533 yards and three touchdowns.

Erik Harris: With Bates, they no longer have a need for “veteran leadership.”

Damiere Byrd: Provided a deep threat early in the season.

Germain Ifedi: He was the backup swing tackle.

Mike Ford: He was a key special-teams player with 361 snaps.

Anthony Firkser: He played in 11 games and made one start as a quality reserve.

Elijah Wilkinson: He won the starting job, but injuries got in the way. He started only nine games.

Vincent Taylor: He spent the season on injured reserve. Was expected to be the starter at nose tackle.

Beau Brinkley: With McCullough re-signed, it wouldn’t make sense to have two long snappers on the 90-man roster.

KhaDarel Hodge: He played 259 special-teams snaps. He led the team with nine special-teams tackles.

Nick Kwiatkoski: A quality reserve who played in nine games.

MyCole Pruitt: He came on strong and caught four touchdown passes after tight end Kyle Pitts went down.

Jaleel Johnson: The defensive lineman provided some depth along the line.

Colby Gossett: Made a start but ended the season as the fifth guard.

Matt Dickerson: He provided some late-season depth along the defensive line.

Chuma Edoga: He made one start at guard.

Rashad Fenton: The Falcons traded a seventh-round pick to the Chiefs for Fenton.

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