Analysis

Falcons' approach in 2022 NFL Draft part of long-term vision to reach 'light at the end of the tunnel'

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- On a beautiful Wednesday afternoon at the Falcons' facility just east of Atlanta, general manager Terry Fontenot completed his last pre-draft task, then prepared to head for lunch with his family, to enjoy one more calm meal before a hectic weekend.

But first, he had to share one of his favorite memories, one that should give Falcons fans a glimpse into his mindset as he and head coach Arthur Smith try to bring the team back to prominence the right way.

Fontenot's excitement was palpable, because this was the story of how, 16 years ago, he learned the philosophy he wants to use to push this Falcons team out of its current state of despair and into long-term contention.

In 2006, Fontenot was entering his fourth season as a pro scout for the New Orleans Saints, who were coming off a three-win campaign and had been to the playoffs just once in the previous 13 seasons. Head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in town that year -- and so did a draft class loaded with franchise-changing gems, including future Pro Bowl safety Roman Harper (drafted in Round 2), future All-Pro guard Jahri Evans (Round 4) and Marques Colston (Round 7), one of the most productive receivers in Saints history. Even taking into account underwhelming second overall pick Reggie Bush, New Orleans hit a home run with this group.

And Fontenot remembers when that team, which went on to win 10 games and reach the NFC title match, first began to show something: at training camp that year, held at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, amid low expectations.

"Those dudes got the s--- beat out of them. We had draft picks about to quit. But they didn't. We learned we had the right dudes. We weren't supposed to win many games. But that team was tough, competitive and won. People remember the 2009 Saints because we won the Super Bowl, but it all started with the Junction Boys of 2006," Fontenot said, using a nickname that plays off the difficult conditions faced by the team at camp.

"That team made me really believe that when you focus on the right things you can build a good, tough, smart, competitive football team. That team taught me to focus on makeup before everything else."

The Atlanta Falcons, the franchise that Fontenot and Smith are in charge of now, are coming off four straight losing seasons. They just traded away quarterback Matt Ryan, perhaps the best player in team history, in exchange for a third-round pick. The roster is light on proven veterans, especially on offense. Though Fontenot and Smith hate the word rebuild, viewing it as disrespectful and unfair to the players, who aren't putting their bodies on the line now for a proverbial future reward, the reality is, the Falcons have lost some juice.

"We're going to build this thing the right way." -- Arthur Smith

But during the four days I spent in Atlanta during draft week attempting to understand what Fontenot and Smith are trying to do, I detected a ray of hope for Falcons fans. A reason to believe. That is, if -- as New Edition so eloquently put it -- you can "stand the rain."

"There may be short-term pain. But I see the light at the end of the tunnel," Fontenot said. "Even in this year, we're not mailing it in. If we bring in the right dudes made of the right stuff, we're going to go out there and beat some people."

The Falcons will likely have to take a step back first. There could be missteps, like the failed, aggressive offseason push for Deshaun Watson, which led to a clunky fallout and Ryan's exit from the franchise. But whether it works or not, there seems to be a clear, aligned vision of how to rescue Atlanta from mediocrity.

That vision is apparent in the approach to free agency, with Atlanta essentially punting on making big additions in 2021 and '22 while dealing with the remaining fallout of the previous regime's cap decisions and, more recently, swallowing the painful pill of Ryan's $40.5 million dead-money hit, the highest in NFL history. Fontenot says they are "taking it on the chin now" so they can reap the reward of a projected $100 million-plus in salary cap space in 2023 and the future.

The vision is also evident in what the Falcons did in the 2022 NFL Draft, when, despite having their pick of every QB in this class, they decided not to panic or reach early on a group they didn't love.

"Our charge is not to be stuck in this kind of limbo area," Smith said. "We're going to build this thing the right way."

'Watch the tape, he's plenty fast'

Minutes after midnight Friday morning, the Falcons' post-Day 1 draft press conference began with back-to-back questions about the speed of their first-round pick, receiver Drake London.

Coming off a fractured ankle suffered late in his final season at USC, London didn't run a 40-yard dash ahead of the draft this year, which led some to mark him as a possession X receiver with marginal speed. But Smith had heard enough about the player Atlanta selected with the eighth overall choice.

"Just watch the tape, he's plenty fast enough," Smith sniped. "Did you watch him in the slot? The guy is a dynamic player. Plays a lot of positions."

The response suggests how Smith sees the 6-foot-4, 219-pound London as the ideal fit in his offense alongside 6-6, 245-pound tight end Kyle Pitts. Together, London and Pitts form a big, dynamic and versatile duo that can be best described as a physical basketball team. Smith was so pumped about the combo that, hours after the pick, the coach was in his office, drawing up plays that will enable Pitts and London to drive defenses crazy.

London's breakout season came in 2021, when he lined up primarily as an outside receiver, finishing with 1,084 yards and leading all FBS wide receivers in contested catches, per Pro Football Focus. But London's 2020 tape -- in which he ran most of his routes out of the slot -- was a huge part of what made the Falcons fall in love with him. He was rarely brought down by the first defender, initiated contact on the sidelines and brought the kind of versatility that can take Atlanta's offense to the next level.

Remember, the Titans drafted A.J. Brown in 2019, when Smith was the offensive coordinator in Tennessee, and the receiver made an immediate impact, racking up 1,051 yards and eight TDs on 52 catches. It's easy to see Smith using London in similar ways as Brown.

Having London as a big underneath weapon who punishes opponents with run-after-the-catch ability while grabbing contested catches -- both weaknesses for the Falcons in 2021 -- will strongly complement Pitts' do-it-all play-making ability. London should be a player to watch in fantasy football drafts, as well as a top contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

One thing that stood out from the time I spent around Fontenot and Smith was how aligned they seemed to be in what they were looking for in players. This was an arranged marriage of sorts -- they didn't know each other at all when they were hired by the Falcons in 2021 -- but Fontenot raves about Smith's coaching ability and humble, action-based leadership like they've known each other forever.

Fontenot said Atlanta went into this draft taking Calvin Ridley, the No. 1 receiver who was recently suspended indefinitely for betting on NFL games, out of the equation. Despite potentially more pressing needs at pass rusher and maybe quarterback, the Falcons decided not to reach from their board rankings at either spot, instead addressing the receiver corps with a Pitts-London pairing that could pay dividends for years to come.

"You have to pay the elite guys $30 million a year, then it becomes more valuable to have a player under contract for five years," Fontenot said, referring to the five years (including an option year) for which first-rounders are under team control. " We figured there would be a run on receivers after our pick. So we stayed there and took our top guy."

And with five more receivers being selected between picks No. 9 and 18, London might not have been there later if the Falcons had traded back or waited.

'Another version of Matt Ryan'

A banner marking the 2016 NFC championship hangs in the Falcons' indoor facility, a persistent reminder of the last time Atlanta was truly a contender. It was Ryan's MVP year -- a picture-perfect season for the Falcons until midway through the third quarter of Super Bowl LI.

Ryan said this week "there's a good chance" he'd still be a Falcon if not for the team's pursuit of Watson, who ended up with the Cleveland Browns. Smith said at the NFL Scouting Combine he anticipated Ryan being on the roster unless they got a trade offer they couldn't refuse. The Falcons surely knew the risk of alienating Ryan before making the collective decision to go after Watson.

Ryan, who said he told owner Arthur Blank, Smith and Fontenot he wanted to pursue other options after the failed Watson transaction, definitely deserved a smoother conclusion and farewell; yet, the final result truly seems best for both parties. The 36-year-old Ryan goes to a playoff contender in the Indianapolis Colts to finish his career. The Falcons move toward a new era by beginning to clean their cap books and lifting perceived pressure to make short-term win-now moves.

The task now, as Blank put it in March, is to find "another version of Matt Ryan" to bring them back. But after the push for Watson failed, the team refrained from making a big swing in the draft this year, using a third-round pick on Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder.

Smith said he expects the first season of the post-Ryan era to begin with veteran Marcus Mariota as the starter and Ridder as a backup who could compete for the top job as the year goes on. They are two similar, athletic quarterbacks who will allow Smith to use more principles of his offense, including deep play-action throws, roll-outs and maybe even some read option.

In fact, Ridder viewed Atlanta as a "perfect fit" for him because he compares himself to Mariota. The Falcons view Ridder as a potential developmental starter. They were particularly impressed with Ridder's toughness, football IQ, mobility, maturity, leadership and how his college coaches said he changed their program during his 43-win career at Cincinnati. Even if he isn't the QB answer, he could become a long-term backup.

But the Falcons remain in the mix to draft another option next year in what's expected to be a deeper, more talented quarterback class than we saw in 2022.

Looking ahead

The '06 "Junction Boys" Saints are not the only model Fontenot looks toward. There are also the 2018 Buffalo Bills, a team that, in Year 2 of GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott's regime, played it slow in free agency, even while building for the future with the first-round selection of QB Josh Allen.

"I see a lot of parallels with Buffalo," Fontenot said. "They took a step back to take a step forward as they went through their cap issues."

The Falcons, without their clear version of Allen, might have further to go than that Bills team. Two rival front office executives told me they'd rank the Falcons among the five least-talented NFL rosters going into the 2022 season.

"This is not a complete teardown," Fontenot said. "We still have some core pieces here we want to keep. We also know we have a lot of work to do. We're ready to do the work and bring in the right guys."

The Falcons prioritized keeping veteran franchise guys on each side of the ball to set the mentality as they transition to a new era. They identified defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and left tackle Jake Matthews for those roles. Jarrett, 29, signed a three-year, $51 million extension this week. Matthews, 30, signed a three-year, $52.5 million extension in March.

It is possible that both players will have aged out of their prime when Atlanta is ready to contend at the highest level, which might not be for two to three years. But with Fontenot and Smith preaching character and culture, the veteran players' value is obvious.

The Falcons are still searching for a surefire answer at quarterback. They still need more talent. They continue to manage a precarious cap situation. But Smith vows they will play "hard as hell" in the meantime. And ultimately, there is a vision -- one that, perhaps, will lead to the light that Fontenot foresees.

Follow Cameron Wolfe on Twitter.

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