GamePlan: The Falcons' Terry Fontenot on Being a First-Time GM in Another Unusual Offseason

As the NFL goes through its second straight summer affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, first-time general managers still have to settle into their new roles. Plus, the most pivotal non-QBs in the draft, the Bills' proposal to delay the hiring cycle and more.
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The story of Feb. 12, for the Falcons, really starts with their new GM, Terry Fontenot, realizing just how close Clemson is to his office. Because the team is headquartered 45 minutes north of Atlanta, that campus is a little over an hour’s drive away. And in Fontenot’s mind, that made going to see Trevor Lawrence throw that Friday morning, five days after the Super Bowl, a no-brainer.

Sure, the chances of Lawrence slipping to the Falcons at No. 4 were shorter than the trip was and, no, this wasn’t even a real pro day, with most other top Tigers prospects choosing not to take part in the workout. Still, Fontenot knew it’d be worth the hassle, and the mileage on a rental car, for reasons that went beyond getting a good look at a guy he won’t get.

“Number one, having a school like Clemson that close, with all those good players that they have, and all those good people, you have to take advantage of that,” Fontenot said Friday morning. “I mean, we got in the car and left, and it was a little over an hour to get there. And to get to talk to those coaches, I spent a lot of time with Dabo [Swinney], just talking to him on the field. They’ve done a hell of a job building that culture, and you look at our team and we have really good players on our team from there, and they’re great human beings.

“So getting there and getting to talk to them and spend time with them, that was really important. And I do value, hey, just getting to spend some time in a car with Dave and Arthur, getting to travel with them, getting to look at the quarterback up close and discuss him. I think all those things are important.”

Arthur, of course, is new Falcons coach Arthur Smith, and Dave is new OC Dave Ragone.

Two months ago, Fontenot didn’t know them. Today, there may not be any part of his job more important than getting to know them, and everyone around him, better than he does already. So, as he said, he got about 75 minutes on the way there and 75 minutes on the way back to learn more about his new co-workers, and the time in between those two commutes hearing the guys talk about football, quarterbacks and coaching.

This is a very weird year to be a first-time GM, given all that has come off the calendar over the last few months—be it the combine, “30” visits, college all-star games or private workouts—things that are seen as so vital to any GM, new or old, doing his job.

Fontenot’s way of handling it, very clearly, is about time, how he’s spending it and who he’s spending it with. In some ways, as he sees it, the change has allowed for he and his team to move faster through certain parts of the process, because so much can be, and has to be, done remotely right now. But in others, there’s nothing that’ll replace the sort of face-to-face interaction that’s been a part of a scout’s job for so long.

In this particular case, the shot to get that with Swinney, and with Ragone and Smith, made the decision to load up the SUV last month easy. And getting to see one of the best quarterback prospects in a generation was a nice bonus too.

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The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are clearly still being felt after the 2020 season.


We’ve got a loaded GamePlan for you this week, coming off what would’ve been combine week. Inside the column, you’ll get …

• Five non-quarterbacks who are pivotal in the first round.

• An inside look at the NFL potentially pushing the hiring cycle back.

• The pressure on players at this year’s pro days.

But we’re starting in Atlanta, with a new regime trying to grow together under a pretty challenging set of circumstances.


To be sure, the COVID-19 limitations did affect that trip to Clemson. Fontenot, given his druthers, may have taken a few more guys with him for the ride up, were it not for NFL rules limiting attendance at pro day workouts to three staffers per team. And there’s no question rules like that one are all over the place, and will touch just about everything and everyone in some way this offseason.

But it’s not all bad, and that’s really where Fontenot and I started the hour or so we spent talking. Where the situation has taken things away, the Falcons have tried to find things they can add.

“When you think about the combine, O.K., there’s the travel and there’s a lot of little things you have to do that that make your days longer that aren’t easy,” he said. “So I would say we’re more efficient now. You pick your 60 guys that you’re going to interview, the formal interviews, at the combine. So that’s the whole process. But right now, I’m in my office and I can be in my office watching film and our draft room is just a few steps away.

“So when it’s time for our 60 interviews that we’re going to do, I’ll step right over, the coaches will come over and then we’ll go in the room and we’ll go through the interview with the player on Zoom. We can watch film, we can do the whole thing, we can do everything that we would have done. And then I’ll walk right back to my office and keep watching film. You’re able to be efficient.”

And that’s something that, right now, is being felt day-to-day in the operation that Fontenot and Smith have set up. They’ll have seven or eight formals per day in the draft room—for those, Smith, Fontenot, a coordinator and a position coach will be in the room—and coaches will have lists of players they have to interview separate from that, which is allowing Atlanta to plow through a huge number of prospects in a shorter amount of time.

Along those lines, Fontenot is also able to cut out some time for himself later most nights, when the building may be emptier, and he can throw some music on the Bose in his office and do what he was hired to do—and get through some tape.

But as someone who came up on the pro scouting side, ran a department in New Orleans and worked in an office on a daily basis, Fontenot is also aware that every day can’t be like that. The Lawrence trip was one example of where he’s tweaked things to make sure, first and foremost, that the Falcons’ operation will be humming whenever things do get back to normal. There are others.

Senior Bowl week. Fontenot had been on the job less than a week, was still working out of New Orleans and had gone so far as to rent a car for the two-hour trip to Mobile for Senior Bowl week—in what would be his first league event wearing the colors of his former division rival. But then, over that weekend, he was on the phone with Smith, who was trying to assemble his staff, and plans changed.

“We have this massive staff to hire and all kinds of stuff and Arthur was in Atlanta,” Fontenot said. “So I said, You know what? It’s going to be better for me to go to Atlanta. And it was really cool. I just flew to Atlanta Monday instead of driving to Mobile. And it was cool because me and Arthur were just together for the whole week, and nobody else was really here, so we got to spend a lot of time together. And he’s hiring his staff. And I was just kind of support for him in that sense. But we were able to work through a lot of other things.”

One was Fontenot working through his own staff, and that meant hiring Kyle Smith (whom Fontenot didn’t know) from Washington as VP of player personnel and Dwaune Jones (whom he did know, from New Orleans) from Baltimore as assistant director of college scouting. Both would wind up being crucial hires and, in the grand scheme of things, show that week of working with Smith in Atlanta to be time well spent.

Meeting players. It’s hard right now, since it’s the offseason. But both Smith and Fontenot have made an effort to get to the players they do have, and Fontenot got to do it creatively at a ribbon-cutting event last week—he and quarterback Matt Ryan got a guided tour of Emory Healthcare’s new sports medicine facility, built in the Falcons’ parking lot, together.

That, of course, begs the question of where the team will go with its biggest stars, Ryan and Julio Jones. Truth is, just knowing who they are only helps inform the new guys on how to build around them and what it’ll be like to work with them.

“They’re really good players and we’re really excited to the to be able to work with them,” Fontenot said. “Those guys have been really successful here for a long time. And I feel like the question I get a lot is: Hey, would you be willing to draft a quarterback, would you be willing to draft a receiver, despite how strong your receivers are or where you are with Matt Ryan? And yes. Yes, yes, yes. We’re definitely going to acquire at both of those positions, and we’re going to work hard to bring in competition. But I hold both those guys in high regard.”

Going to pro days. The plan for now is for Fontenot to go to about a half-dozen pro days. Smith will almost certainly be at the ones Fontenot goes to—which, again, will help with the continued relationship-building—and those will be the logical ones. I’d expect to see an Atlanta brass at high-volume pro days (i.e. Alabama), and the ones where the top quarterbacks and others worthy of the fourth pick will be working out.

In explaining the importance of this, Fontenot, of course, reiterated the obvious, that you want to see guys that you might take fourth in person, and also drove home part of the point of making the Clemson trip again.

“It’s not just about seeing the players, but it’s about taking advantage of being able to travel with Arthur and spend some time with the coordinators and the coaches and the scouts,” Fontenot said. “So I’m going to go to some. I don’t know exactly where I’m going to be and how we’re going to do it, but I’ll definitely be at a few pro days.”

In-person meetings. Part of why Fontenot and Smith feel so comfortable doing parts of their jobs virtually now is the same reason you or I would: We’ve been forced to learn to communicate and work that way, as Americans, over the last year. And that, indeed, is a big thing Fontenot’s taking with him from the Saints’ offseason of 2020, that so much of the work that would normally be done by flying scouts in for a few weeks could be done online.

That said, there’s also the recognition that the Falcons, right now, aren’t the Saints, who’ve had the same coach and GM for a decade and a half.

“We still chose to bring all of our scouts in and meet with our scouts in our February meetings, which I know some teams didn’t,” Fontenot said. “Because there are some guys that have never met me or seen me face-to-face, or Kyle, or some different people. … So that’s why we’ve still done some in-person stuff. But I would say from last year, what I learned is you don’t have to always be in-person. You don’t have to always have everybody in the same room. You can still be effective and efficient and get everything done.”

That’s why, where Fontenot may have brought the scouts in for three weeks before all of this, with two for meetings and one for special projects, he decided instead to keep them for just two weeks, and have them working on projects from home.

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Julio Jones and Matt Ryan, long-time Falcons and subjects of many questions directed at Terry Fontenot.


In doing all of this, there is a singular end goal, and that’s to get everyone on the same page. And in that effort, Fontenot keeps one piece of advice he got after landing the Falcons job in mind every day that plays right into it.

“Take time every day to get a couple hours in watching film with the head coach, even if he’s just going through his process and he’s watching tape, and you’re just sitting there watching film with him for an hour,” Fontenot said. “And not just with everybody else in a meeting setting, but just go in and close the door and just spend some time watching film with the head coach.

“And it’s funny, I got that advice and I understand it now because of what happens. Our offices are pretty close to each other, but you can just get inundated with everything that’s going on in the day. You get caught up with everything else, then all of a sudden, I’ll blink my eyes and I haven’t seen Arthur today, because he’s doing the same thing, he’s grinding, doing everything. So we have to make sure we find the time.”

Fontenot’s happy to report that, to this point, they’ve been able to do that.

And a big part of finding that time plays into another vital piece of advice he got, which was to delegate, and Fontenot’s doing that too. Smith’s running draft meetings. Both incumbent college scouting director Anthony Robinson (Fontenot called him “special”) and Jones are cranking through tape and interviews; another new hire, Chris Olson, is running the cap; and the ex-GMs on staff, Phil Emery and Ruston Webster, have been invaluable resources.

So when he has to step away, Fontenot knows that means he has to trust the guys around him to do the job, like Mickey Loomis trusted him in New Orleans. “Getting here, getting to know the staff here, but then also bringing in some people that I really trusted and empowering them, right away, that was the most critical part of the job. If I got here and I tried to run the draft on my own, tried to do a lot of things on my own, there was no way.”

And with no blueprint for entering a job like this in a year like this, that’s really what every day has come down to—finding a way.

Which, as the Clemson trip proved, might mean a different thing every day.


Alabama WR DeVonta Smith runs vs. Ohio State

POWER RANKINGS

We’ve got another draft ranking for you! Here are, in my mind, the five most compelling non-quarterbacks among this year’s first-round draft prospects.

1) DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama: We’ll obsess over his weight ahead of his March 23 pro day. And the history here isn’t great—just two receivers under 6' 1" and 200 pounds have gone in the top 10 over the last two years, and they were John Ross and Tavon Austin. As such, he could wind up the third receiver taken. But if you’ve seen Smith play, it’s hard to ignore what he’s already accomplished as a football player.

2) Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon: There are some maturity concerns here, and Sewell hasn’t played a snap since last year’s Rose Bowl, some 14 months ago. But he’s got the sort of potential to be the sport’s best offensive lineman—that’s not an exaggeration—and he doesn’t even turn 21 until October.

3) Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State: A true three-down, 21st-century linebacker, Parsons has a lot of things you can’t teach, and can rush, drop and stop the run all the same. But some questions on his character have followed him, and he’ll have to answer for those with teams over the next six weeks. He’s another opt-out, having not played a snap since the 2019 Cotton Bowl.

4) Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan: We wrote about him in the Monday column. He’s a freakshow of an athlete with a ton of room to grow as a player. If he does what a lot of scouts expect him to do at Michigan’s pro day on March 26, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start sniffing the top 10.

5) Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: Do you know who Riley Odoms is? It’s O.K., I didn’t either. Odoms was the No. 5 pick in the 1972 draft—he was taken by the Broncos, played in Denver 12 years, made four Pro Bowls and stands, 49 years later, as the last tight end drafted in the top five. Pitts has a chance to give Odoms company, and join he and Mike Ditka as the only players ever at the position to go that high.


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THE BIG QUESTION

What will the Bills’ new rule proposal mean in the grand scheme of things?

In case you missed it (and as we alluded to in the Monday column, though not with any team name attached to it at that point), Buffalo submitted a rule change proposal to the NFL that would dramatically change the way the league’s annual hiring cycle would spin. Coaching and front-office interviews would be barred until after the conference title games, and hires wouldn’t be allowed until 9 a.m. ET, the day after the Super Bowl.

The rule proposal applies to head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, special teams coordinator, general manager, assistant GM and top football executive positions—essentially all the spots that were affected last year, when the league put in a new movement policy that disallowed teams from blocking candidates from interviewing for those roles with other teams.

The proposal, I’m told, has strong support, and could be voted on by the owners at their virtual meetings at the end of the month.

To get to the effect of all this, let’s start with the intent, which is twofold.

The first, as I understand it, is to create better opportunities for diverse candidates, something the Bills’ advocates believe will be accomplished by eliminating what one coaching agent called the usual “smash-and-grab” mentality teams take, rushing to hire guys because of competition for the highest-profile candidates.

The two-week window would, in theory, work to slow the process down. Teams would have weeks of lead time to better research candidates, then a two-week window to interview a wider array of them. One of the primary gripes I’ve heard from Black coaches over the last couple years is how often they hear an owner was just more “comfortable” with another candidate. Forcing the process to be more deliberate, conversely, would give every coach and scout a better chance to get those doing the hiring more comfortable with who they are.

The second is to protect teams in the playoffs and the candidates who work for those teams. On the former point, we’ve become pretty used to teams in the playoffs having their assistants interview for jobs. But that doesn’t mean it’s ideal to have your offensive or defensive coordinator preparing for the biggest interview he’ll ever have as he is also preparing for his team’s biggest game of the year.

“Look at it like this—if a player spent part of a playoff week preparing for a free-agent visit with another team, we’d all be outraged,” said a veteran coaching agent. “People say it doesn’t affect guys, but it does. How could it not?”

As for the candidates themselves, this wouldn’t necessarily have an effect on diversity every year, but it sure could’ve this year, with the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers having three Black coordinators and the team they beat, the Chiefs, having an offensive coordinator who fielded seven head coaching requests. And in any year, it keeps the process from punishing guys who keep advancing in the playoffs.

On that point, consider this: Five assistants working for the four conference finalists (Eric Bieniemy, Todd Bowles, Brian Daboll, Leslie Frazier, Nathaniel Hackett) were requested for head-coaching interviews 14 times. Zero of them landed jobs. And if the process was slowed down a bit, it seems pretty likely that some team might’ve taken a look at what, say, Bucs OC Byron Leftwich did in the playoffs, and brought him in for an interview.

Now, there is some downside, of course. One is that teams hiring new coaches would be a full five weeks behind the rest of the league. New staffs would miss the opportunity to go scout college all-star games in January, and even getting ready for the combine and free agency would be a fire drill. Also, there would be teams that would still target singular candidates—Jacksonville, for example, spent the better part of December courting Urban Meyer and, before Christmas, had zeroed in on trying to land the ex-Ohio State coach.

Then, as you might imagine, there’d probably be a lot of tampering, the same way there is with free agency, which this year “starts” on March 17, but in practice is really already underway. And to be fair to Super Bowl coaches, the rule would allow for those guys to interview during the Super Bowl bye week, which is counter to part of the goal of the rule (albeit, more manageable, since those teams have more time to work with for that game).

But the flip side of that is there’d likely be fewer in-season coaching firings because there wouldn’t be the rush to get your ducks in a row for an impending search, which would give more guys chances to save their jobs. Contending teams would argue that the league’s concern shouldn’t be to protect the offseasons of teams that have failed to the point where they’re firing their coach. And as for the tampering, well, that just is what it is.

All of which is part of why I think there’s a decent chance what the Bills put in front of the league could be new league policy about a month from now.


WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The pressure on college prospects at pro days this year.

In a normal year, by now, more than 300 prospects would have 40-yard dash and shuttle times, bench press marks, and broad and vertical jumps, as well as tape from position drills as part of their files with all 32 teams. That would all be part of the combine. Then, they’d have their pro days to sit or improve on any of the testing or position work, and private workouts with teams after that to round out their résumés.

This year is different for those guys. There is no combine. There are no private workouts.

That means, as pro days rev up this week, there’s a good shot that a lot of these guys will only get that one bite at the apple to try and prove who they are physically. And yes, after the pro days are over, you’ll see agents putting out workout videos that prove how freakish their clients are—which teams will take about as seriously as a cop would take your insistence that you really weren’t going 85 in that 65.

Add it up, and there’ll be a lot of pressure on guys with something to prove to knock that one shot they get out of the part. And Northern Iowa edge-rusher Elerson Smith, who we talked about in the Monday column, is a better example of it than most.

Smith played his last college football game 15 months ago, a result of Northern Iowa’s conference, the MVFC, moving its 2020 season to the spring of 2021. He got to compete at the Senior Bowl, which created some buzz. But he didn’t have the combine and won’t have private workouts, which means his March 22 pro day will be a high-leverage event for he and his teammates.

For his part, Smith said the fact that he’s been doing this sort of testing at football camps since he was a high school sophomore helps—”I’ve been doing it for so long, it just dulls down the pressure a little bit.” But it’s still a lot to have on these kids who’ve already had such a weird year, to the point where those who thrive in it might get a few bonus points for it with NFL decision-makers.

Smith’s teammate Spencer Brown is in the same spot, as are North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Dillon Radunz. It’ll be fascinating to see how it plays out for those guys.

Anyway, the first pro day on the calendar is Friday at the University of Kansas, with a slew of them to follow next week—Northwestern is Tuesday, Arkansas and Wisconsin are Wednesday, Clemson and Texas are Thursday, and NDSU and Oklahoma are next Friday. Which puts us in the thick of draft season.


THE FINAL WORD

Lots of cuts are coming. Teams are waiting on the cap for that, and the league and union have waited, for a while, for the TV deals to get done to officially set it.

Once that happens, look out. The free-agent streets will teeming with talent.