Inside the war room: Why Falcons are planning to win now

0 Comments

Falcons factoid: Atlanta had two “blue” players, premier players in their scouting vernacular, on the entire draft board: Trevor Lawrence and Kyle Pitts.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga., 12:45 a.m. Friday — Not much drama in the Falcons’ draft room Thursday night. Coach Arthur Smith and GM Terry Fontenot (owner Arthur Blank too) had become convinced Matt Ryan could play at least three more years at a productive level. In the days before the draft, Fontenot listened to multiple offers for the fourth pick, but none came close to the mega-package he’d need to move out the slot to take the Florida tight end.

Now, 40 minutes after the first round was over, Smith and Fontenot sat in an office at Falcons HQ, shiny Falcons pins on their lapels, and made four things clear: There was a clear line of demarcation for them between Trevor Lawrence and the other four first-round quarterbacks; it made no sense to take a quarterback with Ryan (36 this season) having three to five years left and Smith liking him; Pitts was far and away the best player left at four; and the two new franchise stewards don’t see the Falcons as a major rebuild.

“They hired the wrong guys if they thought we were going to lower expectations, take our time, and rebuild,” Smith said. “That’s just not who we are. The expectation is to win now, build for the future, have plans.

“With Matt, I see a really high-quality starting quarterback who’s thrown for 55,000 yards in this league and had unbelievable experience and is still throwing guys open. It doesn’t sound absurd anymore to say, ‘Hey, I want to play till I’m 40.’ If he didn’t want to play, that would be a different set of problems. We still may not have taken a quarterback at 4 because soon as you take one, if you take the wrong guy, there’s some bad unintended consequences because right away, it’s like, ‘There’s your quarterback of the future.’ And if you take the wrong guy just because you want to win the press conference tonight, it’s like . . .” His voice trailed off.

The fact the Falcons didn’t take a quarterback is even an extra dose of faith in Ryan, whose compensation is an anchor (cap numbers over the last three years of his contract: $26.9 million, $48.7 million, $43.6 million) on a bloated cap. The Falcons are 29-36 since blowing that 28-3 Super Bowl lead to New England, but Ryan’s four-year numbers since—66.4 percent passing, an average of 4,516 passing yards per year, plus-63 TD-to-pick rate—and the tape Smith watched convinced him the incumbent QB is part of the solution, not the problem.

“The good news is yeah, they did go to a Super Bowl, but to me, in NFL time, it’s ancient history,” Smith said. “You’re coming off a 4-12 season.”

Atlanta may require more roster surgery. I wrote last week I wouldn’t be surprised if the Falcons traded Julio Jones, 32 and coming off a season in which he missed seven games due to injury. Now that the draft is over and Jones is still a Falcon, I don’t believe the prospect of a trade is kaput. Because Atlanta wouldn’t have made a trade official till June 2 so Jones’ dead-cap money could be spread over two years, Fontenot could still trade Jones sometime this summer for a 2022 draft choice. I don’t think drafting Pitts made a big difference in their Jones plans—I think they’d still like to find a taker if the price is right, and my guess is the price would be an unconditional second-round pick. A complicating factor: Blank told me Thursday night, “I hope Julio stays. We want him to finish his career here. We’re not required to make a move with him.” But would the owner stand in the way of a deal? I doubt it.

Having two fresh sets of eyes from new organizations helps, as does Fontenot’s realization that he wasn’t hired to just make the easy decisions—like picking a tight end the Falcons think has a chance to be a faster and more athletic Gronk.

“My son tells me, ‘You need to trade for this guy, you need to get that guy,’ ” Fontenot said. “People talk about it like it’s fantasy football. We’ve had to move on from some players, and we’re going to continue to have to do that. The roster has to work financially. That’s the challenge. It’s not just as easy as saying, ‘We’ll keep the best players.’ The most challenging part of the job has been more so the cap, where we are, and us having to make decisions more so for business and not just about who the best players are.”

Projecting the offense without Jones, Atlanta still looks potent. Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage (combined in 2020: 162 catches, 2,160 yards) make a solid 1-2 at wideout, Hayden Hurst is a good tight end piece, and Pitts is a more developed talent than the tight end Smith made a multiple weapon in Tennessee, Jonnu Smith. Pitts will be used wide, in the slot, as a traditional tight end and maybe even in the backfield. “Jonnu’s my guy,” Pitts told me Friday. “He’s a Philly guy, like me. We’re close. I saw how he was used by Coach Smith in Tennessee. This is going to be a great fit for me, because coach has a great reputation for using the end in different places.” An underrated piece of the offensive puzzle could be the versatile receiver/back/returner Cordarrelle Patterson, one of the game’s most intriguing players. With Smith’s imagination, Patterson could emerge as a big player here.

“Let’s put Cordarrelle on a Jet sweep,” mused Smith. “Let’s see if Kyle can run the football. I don’t care who’s back there. Let’s mix and match and morph.”

I drove away from the Falcons in the wee hours thinking they needed a GM and coach who understand the business of football can be cold sometimes, and it’s not a business to keep heroes a year too long, and who aren’t married to anyone here. That’s what they’ve found in Fontenot and Smith. This line from Smith, a big reader, stuck with me: “I use my Jim Mattis quote, and Terry and I talk about it all the time, ‘If you don’t like problems, stay out of leadership.’ “ They’ll have their share, and they don’t seem to mind.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.