How the Atlanta Falcons have approached 'transition' from a salary-cap disaster

Falcons coach Arthur Smith already believes he sees some changes in attitude in the locker room and on the practice field. Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith were hired, they had an understanding of what they inherited: a roster with multiple bloated contracts and a salary-cap situation not far from the worst in the league.

Fixing it would take time and patience in a sport where playing careers are short and a willingness to see things through doesn't always occur.

They understood the surface issues and some of the critical, if not difficult, moves to come. Like with any job, the more you are there, the more you learn.

"You need perspective in this league," Smith told ESPN. "To say, 'Look, everybody's got different challenges; here are our circumstances, how do we deal with them?'

"Not this, 'Oh s---, whatever.' I just never let my mind go there, even in my most, maybe, irritated moments."

Some of those were obvious last season, when the Falcons went 7-10 despite a nonexistent pass rush and a receiving corps that since has gone through massive turnover. Others not as much. Whenever there was a moment of annoyance, there was also knowledge that this was just the beginning. Teams aren't constructed in a month or an offseason.

It's a constantly evolving process in the best of situations. The Falcons are a multiyear, multilayered construction plan, including this season, when outside expectations for the franchise are low. While Smith and Fontenot don't want to refer to what they are doing as a rebuild -- transition seems to be the more popular term -- they're in the midst of a massive undertaking. Some of it, like culture change, is in a better place than a year ago. Other parts, like the actual construction of the roster, is in the midst of change -- evidenced by the over $63 million in dead cap the franchise has for 2022.

Smith and Fontenot have turned over most of the roster in under two years. Entering training camp, 16 players remain from when the pair took over in January 2021. Two of those -- linebacker Deion Jones, who is on the physically unable to perform list, and receiver Calvin Ridley, who is suspended indefinitely for gambling -- have uncertain futures.

The quarterbacks and edge rushers have completely cycled through. Only one position group -- offensive line -- has more than two players from the previous staff remaining.

How the Falcons approached the past 18 months had roots in Smith's past.

Smith doesn't like talking about his father, FedEx founder Fred W. Smith. He is proud of his dad's accomplishments, but he doesn't want anyone to think he had anything to do with his father's success.

Growing up in a business environment, he saw his father acquire different companies and how FedEx handled the transitions. Patience, then eventual change and rebranding in FedEx's vision.

"It wasn't like some hostile takeover where they just wiped the slate clean," Smith said. "It was: get a feel for it, give people a chance, see what the issues have been, see if you can get them on board and then you slowly integrate it."

FedEx's post-acquisition transitions influenced Smith's approach to the roster, his players and so much of what he did last season. He wanted to give people a chance while also starting to implement his own philosophies and mindsets with his partner in football, Fontenot.

Turnover was high for many reasons. Salary-cap constraints. Players moving on. Opportunistic trades. It's why, although they turned over so much of the roster, there was also the understanding that it would be somewhat gradual.

They would be doing more than transitioning a roster. They'd be shifting a culture.

"It wasn't like all of a sudden you could just jerk the wheel right away," Smith said. "You got to assess things, and some things you knew you would have to deal with right away and other things that you knew that were coming."

This spring, Smith started to see those changes manifest. In some ways, the team's youth -- only eight players are over 30 and not all of them are roster locks -- helped push forward their vision for what they believe is sustainable success.

"We've been able to put our philosophical stamp, that it's starting to show up," Smith said. "I think you'll see that a lot when you see the team practice and you see the team out there playing.

"It looks a lot different than it did a year ago."

Nowhere is the change more evident than in the receivers room, where the only holdovers from last season's 53-man roster are veteran Olamide Zaccheaus and last year's sixth-round pick, Frank Darby, who is not a lock to be on the team in 2022.

The players they've brought in have some similarities -- while Smith said it doesn't really matter to him how tall they are, but height seems to be a theme. Atlanta drafted 6-foot-4 Drake London, traded for 6-3 Bryan Edwards and signed 6-5 Auden Tate and 6-3 Geronimo Allison.

While the Falcons also invested in smaller receivers, height was part of the plan at the position -- at least on the outside. Different players have different skill sets, too, which is why they looked at smaller receivers, for instance re-signing Zaccheaus (5-8) and bringing in Damiere Byrd (5-9). What they do is different than the bigger receivers.

A big focal point for the Falcons with was run after catch, because of the things Smith and offensive coordinator Dave Ragone look for and the reality of the league.

"It's very rare that the separation in college, when you're watching a player, could be three yards of separation. In the league it's not, it's not that way," said Kyle Smith, the Falcons vice president of player personnel. "So you have to have guys who can catch contested balls. Physical guys, tough guys that can play between the numbers, inside the hashes.

"Make the tough, contested catches. Third-and-6 is third-and-6. It's going to be tight quarters and you're going to have to make plays. Bigger, longer guys can do that, but that doesn't mean we don't want the speed and the twitch and the quicks. There's elements to that, but you can't do everything in one swoop."

The balance of the bigger outside receivers and smaller inside receivers can create difficulty for defenses to match up, which fits in with how Smith likes to call offense and create plays. But the roster construction at the moment could also allow for Atlanta to put a skill position group of 6-2 running back Cordarrelle Patterson, 6-6 tight end Kyle Pitts, 6-2 tight end Anthony Firkser and then three of the taller receivers on the field at the same time to create a different type of problem.

Like every other position, building the roster to what they want is going to take multiple moves. Receiver and edge rusher, where the Falcons clearly placed a priority on young players outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino could mold, were the two positions where the biggest changes happened from last season to this one.

There's different ways to build a roster but it comes down to finding the right players for the situation they are in and the staff that's doing the coaching.

Fontenot has his idea of prototypical measurements and traits he looks for in position groups -- ones he declines to share -- and even with the retooling of the roster, it's tough to gauge what those are at most positions because the sample size of players remains small.

In Atlanta, the prototypes are more guideposts than stringent rules.

Rigidity, Smith and Fontenot knew, probably would lead to failure. One of Smith's most-used phrases is about evolving and being willing to adapt. Fontenot says it in almost every conversation as well. It started in the first extensive meeting they had after being hired and continued as a tenet throughout the past 19-plus months.

The team's two drafts have been examples of it. Fontenot said -- and most teams say this -- he wants to build up front, have a physical team and draft pressure players. Yet Atlanta drafted Pitts and London with its top-10 picks in 2021 and 2022.

"You say, well, in a perfect world what would you pick if you want to build a team this way?" Fontenot said. "Well, you're going to make decisions based off what you have and what you need, and we made decisions in those drafts with those first-round picks based off who was in the draft and we're taking the best player off the board.

"We don't live in an ideal world. It's not an ideal league. And so I wouldn't say, saying that we have to adapt is just a part of it and it's always going to be a natural part of it."

The process to reach those points was arduous and an important part of the roster construction both for the draft and free agency.

They are realistic in their approaches. Everyone in the NFL knows not every draft pick works out. But the Falcons want the foundation of their team to be built through the draft.

It's too soon to know how those players pan out in the first two drafts, but if Smith and Fontenot are successful it will start there.

Much of the Falcons' core were players drafted by the team: Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, offensive tackle Jake Matthews, cornerback A.J. Terrell, right guard Chris Lindstrom and Pitts.

Drafting well would keep the Falcons from entering free agency in a more difficult spot. While there's more on-field evidence of player skill in free agency, there's less chance to really research and meet a player.

"You want to be able to use free agency in a smart way. You don't want to be desperate going into free agency," Smith said. "That's where you make mistakes."

It's why you often see teams in free agency sign players they already know. The Falcons have done it with former Tennessee Titans, where Smith and defensive coordinator Dean Pees coached, and Chicago Bears, where Ragone and senior personnel executive Ryan Pace came from.

The NFL is often the clichéd "copycat league." Smith and Fontenot are trying to break away from that model. How the Falcons used Patterson last season is a prime example.

"If people are all trying to pick the same type of players, all right," Smith said. "Well, what are you doing to try and differentiate yourself?"

All of which goes into their process of how they decide who they are going to sign and draft.

While Fontenot and Smith make the final decisions on acquiring or moving on from players, there is a lot of input, either together in big meetings or smaller conversations. For draft meetings, Fontenot has the pro and college scouting staffs, analytics administration and coaching staff in the same room. Then he has smaller departmental meetings, or if a question arises, he and Smith might pull in Pees or Ragone.

Fontenot stresses inclusion. When Fontenot meets with Kyle Smith, he will sometimes tell Fontenot he has to check with his staff first before giving an answer. Pees does the same thing discussing specific positions.

"There has to be a lot of trust and there has to be a lot of cohesion because some people don't have as inclusive processes because they worry about things getting out," Fontenot said. "That's important. There has to be a level of trust."

This isn't building consensus. It is making sure they have all necessary information. Depending on the situation, an opinion might have different weight. For instance, if an area scout has an issue about a potential draft pick and that scout has been the one putting in the work on him, Fontenot will weigh that more heavily or send more people to do more research.

Whether it's through the draft or free agency, Fontenot and the two Smiths -- Kyle and Arthur, not related -- all talk about similar "ethos" for the players they are looking for. Understanding the expectations of players they are bringing in and in the evaluation process. Scouts on the road have a checklist, Kyle Smith said, to go through as a baseline for what they are looking for both in traits and the makeup of a player as they go through evaluation processes of both draft prospects and free agents.

Fontenot said every move made is somewhat interconnected with other things they see -- or have plans for -- whether it is moving on from a big name or making moves with players on the back end of the 53- or 90-man roster.

"Every decision we make, we're never at a point where we're shooting from the hip and reacting," Fontenot said. "We have a detailed, organized plan. There's also an understanding between the coaching and scouting staffs to explain visions for a player to one another if there are questions about a player's potential fit. It's part of a much more detailed process than, 'Hey, we like this player, let's go get him.'"

Having a lot of people in the room helps. Kyle Smith said college and pro personnel staff and scouts will sometimes sit in the other group's meetings to help growth.

"The person who is speaking," Kyle Smith said, "is the most important person in the room at that moment."

If everyone is heard, Fontenot believes, they'll be OK with the outcome of a decision even if they weren't initially in favor of it.

"Loyalty is you giving your convicted opinion, this is your opinion," Fontenot said. "Then we're going to make a decision and then loyalty is, hey, you're going to walk out like the decision is your own."