A lot of Falcons fans have voiced their displeasure with Arthur Smith and the club’s underperforming first half of the season. Rightfully so too because Arthur Blank invested heavily in this roster.
The top-end talent and depth were improved, dramatically in some cases, but the team sits in the same spot through ten games as the previous two seasons. Smith deserves to shoulder most of the blame; he’s the head coach, and it comes with the territory.
What hasn’t been discussed as much is Terry Fontenot’s place in all of this. He certainly can’t phone down to the field and tell Arthur Smith to run the dang ball like Leigh Anne Tuohy told Coach Cotton. However, his culpability lies in the construction of the roster, which includes the quarterback position and its lack of direction.
I’m sure Arthur Smith had a certain amount of say in Matt Ryan, Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder, and Taylor Heinicke’s respective time in Atlanta. How much each had in bringing those guys in is the question. I would guess it was a collaborative approach with Smith telling Fontenot what he needed/wanted and the GM doing what he thought was best considering the circumstances.
Though it’s a large factor in assessing Fontenot, the roster has many other facets. The present and future looks matter as well as the health of the salary cap and draft arsenal. He’s certainly struggled in the draft, done well in free agency, and has the club’s finances in a relatively advantageous spot.
It would be a middling grade if I was the teacher, and Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus had him in the “Questionable process, varying results” tier of his GM rankings, which primarily focused on the following categories:
- Draft pick production compared to expectation
- Positional value consideration
- Draft trade value
- Free-agent signing value compared to expectation
- Early extensions
Early in his tenure, Fontenot showed signs of a different thought process than the one in New Orleans, where he cut his teeth in the NFL, with a sharp trade down from the No. 35 overall pick in 2021 to land safety Richie Grant and center Drew Dalman with pick No.’s 40 and 114.
Fontenot utilized his Saints connections this offseason to add a solid defensive coordinator in Ryan Nielsen and key defensive contributors in interior defender David Onyemata and linebacker Kaden Elliss.
However, this team has a clearly limited ceiling, which was very foreseeable after their offseason. The defense is the 10th-oldest in the league by average age, so while it has been great to see marked improvement, the odds are that they’ll need significant reinforcements before the overall roster is competitive.
Atlanta has allocated a lot of draft capital and money to non-premium positions, making it harder to get out of the middle of the pack going forward as they build around top-five contracts at guard and safety.
The Falcons have little talent to speak of at edge rusher and are without a long-term answer at quarterback despite drafting in the top eight for three straight years.
This isn’t a classic PFF referendum on running back value, but the selection of Bijan Robinson to split work with Tyler Allgeier has surprisingly not led to more wins. Atlanta is 15th in effective cap space for 2024 as of today and will likely pick somewhere between No. 10 and No. 20 in the 2024 NFL Draft
Five GMs were in the first tier, 11 in the second, and Fontenot was among nine in the third tier. Seven were too new to categorize. I don’t think Spielberger’s assessment is unfair or off-base; in fact, I think it’s pretty accurate.
Making Chris Lindstrom the highest-paid guard in the league was really the only choice the Falcons had, but building around a guard hasn’t netted a consistent winner often. Obviously, three straight top 10 picks on a tight end, wide receiver, and running back isn’t the formula either.
The Falcons don’t have encouraging prospects at either of the most valuable positions in the sport — quarterback and edge rusher. Until Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot figure out the former of which, they’ll always be thought of in the light Spielberger painted.
Photographer: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire