FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When Arthur Smith and Terry Fonentot made their individual pitches to come to Atlanta and become the Falcons’ head coach and general manager, it was with the same general understanding.
Their plan would take three seasons to implement. They inherited a roster with bloated contracts and multiple holes, a salary cap conundrum which would take time to remedy and the reality of any new coach and general manager coming in needing a little time for their decisions to take hold.
It’s now Year 3 and the boss, Falcons owner Arthur Blank, has higher expectations than before.
“They got us in a position now where I think our team is gonna be even more competitive than it’s been in the last couple years,” Blank said Tuesday. “I think they’d be disappointed if that was not the case. I’d be disappointed. Our fans would be disappointed.
“So I feel good about the direction of where we are.”
The Falcons, with a hamstrung roster, finished 7-10 the past two seasons as Atlanta worked through its transitionary period. With money to spend in free agency this past offseason and three straight top-10 picks, the Falcons have begun to assemble a roster in line with what Smith and Fontenot had hoped for.
It’s been evident in training camp, where even in situations where Atlanta chooses to not tackle to the ground in practice and only with a couple of days of padded work, the defense appears much improved from last season. They have consistently brought pressure, recording at least one “sack” every day of practice. Multiple players have intercepted quarterbacks Desmond Ridder, Taylor Heinicke and Logan Woodside -- some because of poorly thrown passes and others because of an improved talent level.
Defense was addressed largely through free agency, with big signings of safety Jessie Bates III, and defensive linemen David Onyemata and Calais Campbell. The offense was constructed through the draft with Atlanta’s 2021 first-round pick, Kyle Pitts, returning from injury and looking better by the day, its 2022 first rounder, receiver Drake London, making difficult catches and this year’s first-rounder, running back Bijan Robinson, being good enough that Smith said Monday he’s “pretty damn pleased” with what he’s seen so far.
They may also have their quarterback -- Ridder has strung together multiple good days of practice after two rough ones to start training camp -- although whether he is poised to be a franchise quarterback remains to be seen.
“He played at a very competitive level the last four games, each game seemed to be a little bit better,” Blank said. “So we feel pretty strongly that he’s gonna be our quarterback of the future and we got to play games and we’ll see.
“But we feel good about him.”
The building of a young team is part of the larger plan Smith and Fontenot had, aligning with a cultural shift Atlanta brought in with Smith and an upgraded roster. It led Blank to say he expects the Falcons to “certainly win more games than we’ve won the last couple of years.”
That’s not a mandate for playoffs or big victories yet, but it is an understanding of where he believes the organization is.
On Tuesday, the 80-year-old said he plans on keeping the franchise in the family for “as long as we can possibly see.” He said this in the context of a succession plan in ownership, where he mentioned his children and others connected to the franchise but made clear “we want to make sure that Atlanta stays in Atlanta.”
For now, Blank seems pleased with how the general manager and head coach are handling their three-year plan.
“Our goal every year, no matter who we have here, the challenge is to fight like hell to get into the playoffs,” Smith said. “Certainly nobody is going to have higher expectations than I do for this team and myself.”