Terry Fontenot

Latest On Falcons’ First-Round Decision

The Falcons shocked many last Thursday when the team opted to take Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. with the eighth overall pick of the 2024 NFL Draft. Some saw the pick as a reach in value, thinking Penix could’ve been acquired after trading back; others saw it as a wasted opportunity to address a position of need after Atlanta had just given Kirk Cousins a four-year, $180MM contract with $90MM guaranteed. All this while the team faces significant tampering charges that could deprive them of more first-round picks in the future.

In terms of value, the Falcons feel like they got a steal, at least concerning positional value. Penix ended up being the fourth quarterback off the board, following Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels, and Drake Maye, but was drafted before J.J. McCarthy, who was ahead of him in most mock drafts and rankings. According to Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated, Atlanta was satisfied with how the order of quarterbacks played out, favoring Penix over Maye and McCarthy, though Maye’s camp had reportedly declined to work out for the Falcons, thinking he’d certainly be gone by No. 8 overall. Some in the building even had Penix ahead of Daniels at No. 2.

There also didn’t seem to be any interest in trading back. Breer reports that the team had made inquiries about moving up previously, investigating the availability of the draft’s top picks while in Indianapolis. They reportedly “got flat-out no’s” from Chicago and Washington, while the Patriots and Cardinals informed Atlanta that they would not be moving from their selection until they were on the clock. These rejections were part of what spurred the Falcons to land Cousins.

Speaking of Cousins, we’ve mentioned that the 36-year-old passer was understandably “stunned” by the team’s decision to take a quarterback with their first-round pick, much like the rest of us. Breer added a bit of context to Cousins’ shock that came with little-to-no heads up. He tells us that Cousins’ departure from Minnesota was, in part, due to the Vikings informing him that they had plans to draft a passer in 2024, making the Falcons’ similar plan sting all that much more.

The reasoning for the Falcons’ decision ended up coming down to their research into draft history. Head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Terry Fontenot explored a history that showed, on average, only one or two quarterbacks that make it in the NFL out of each draft class, very few of whom are drafted outside the top 10 picks. Also, having sought Cousins to escape from the past two years of a kind of quarterback crisis, owner Arthur Blank was not content with Cousins being the only plan moving forward; he desired a succession plan.

Fontenot explained to Blank that the personnel department didn’t have much faith in the quarterbacks that would be coming out over the next two years, that their best chance for a strong succession plan to Cousins was right in front of them. Fontenot asked Blank, “Are we gonna win for a couple seasons and then not be able to win anymore…?”

In the end, Blank agreed to the moves deemed necessary, Fontenot called Cousins once they were on the clock, and the team selected his eventual replacement. In doing so, though, the team gained a newfound sense of security. Assistant general manager Kyle Smith told the media that with the acquisition of Cousins and the drafting of Penix, the brass feels great about the quarterback position “for the next five years…minimum.”

More Bill Belichick Fallout: Kraft, Falcons, Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, Commanders

Plenty has emerged in the wake of Bill Belichick going from eight-time Super Bowl champion to unemployed, but as the legendary coach regroups, some additional information about what went down in Atlanta — along with other teams’ coaching searches — has come to light.

Connecting some dots based on what has previously come out this offseason, ESPN.com’s Don Van Natta, Seth Wickersham and Jeremy Fowler report in an expansive piece that Falcons execs dissuaded Arthur Blank from hiring Belichick and Robert Kraft played a major role in the process that ended up veering away from an overqualified candidate who had initially appeared the favorite for the job Raheem Morris now has.

On the morning of the day Morris became the pick, Belichick still viewed himself as likely to land the job. Blank confirmed the 24-year Patriots HC did not ask him for personnel control, but power brokering — given Belichick’s outsized influence and experience — is believed to have still gone down in Atlanta’s front office. As a result, Belichick felt “blindsided” by the Morris hire.

CEO Rich McKay and GM Terry Fontenot did not want to work with Belichick, according to ESPN, which adds the six-time Super Bowl-winning HC was willing to work with the fourth-year GM (while confirming he and McKay’s less-than-stellar relationship). A previous report pointed to Belichick’s concern with Fontenot and the Falcons’ overall power structure. Fontenot, McKay and Falcons president Greg Beadles were part of the Falcons’ second Belichick interview.

Going so far as to reveal Falcons brass’ final rankings for the HC job, Fowler, Van Natta and Wickersham indicate Belichick did not finish in the top three for the Atlanta position. Beyond unanimous top choice Morris, Mike Macdonald and Texans OC Bobby Slowik respectively slotted second and third in this process.

Kraft is believed to have played a role in Blank backing off his initial hope to hire Belichick. A conversation between Blank and his longtime friend came after the Jan. 15 Blank-Belichick yacht meeting, and ESPN reports the Patriots owner warned the Falcons boss not to trust the accomplished HC.

Seeing as this comes during an offseason that has seen more information come out — via the much-discussed The Dynasty series — about Kraft’s issues with Belichick, it is hardly surprising the longtime Pats owner would provide such a warning. Robert Kraft, who considered ousting Belichick after 2022 (before son Jonathan Kraft advised against), referred to Belichick as “very, very, very arrogant, per ESPN. A Robert Kraft spokesman denied the owner, who was naturally complimentary of the game’s second-winningest HC upon the January separation, disparaged Belichick to Blank.

Belichick had already assembled a coaching staff, with some familiar names indeed believed to be part of it. Beyond plans to bring Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge aboard, former Texans VP (and Patriots staffer) Jack Easterby was on the radar to be part of a Belichick Atlanta staff. Falcons execs expressed reservations about this staff, with ESPN adding Blank also questioned why this group failed elsewhere. Belichick reportedly responded by saying this group was comprised of “better soldiers than generals.” Judge has since joined Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss staff. The Texans moved on from Easterby in 2022.

New Commanders GM Adam Peters, a Patriots scout in the 2000s, discussed the HC position with Belichick. Minority owner Magic Johnson pushed for Washington to hire the Maryland native, but Josh Harris — who spoke to Kraft about Belichick in December — had decided he would not make that move. We had heard previously the NBA and NHL owner wanted a more collaborative approach, which many current NFL owners prefer, rather than handing the keys to one person. With Harris wanting a front office-oriented leadership structure, Peters has final say on Commanders football matters. Belichick was not interested in the Chargers.

The three other NFC East HC jobs may well be open in 2025, and ESPN notes Belichick would be interested in the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants positions — should they open up. The Eagles did work on Belichick before determining Nick Sirianni would stay, with Jeffrey Lurie and Howie Roseman viewed as fans of the future Hall of Famer, and the former has been close with Jerry Jones for many years. Lurie looks to have joined the Falcons in expressing hesitancy in greenlighting a Belichick move that would bring major changes while qualifying as a short-term fix.

Belichick, who turned 72 on Tuesday, is now six years older than the oldest HC ever hired (Bruce Arians). Any team that considers a 2025 hire would be adding someone who will turn 73 before coaching his next NFL game.

A Belichick confidant also expressed doubt the former Giants DC would earn another HC job unless Jones signs off on a Cowboys hire. Mike McCarthy‘s lame-duck status will keep Belichick rumors going, it would seem, but for now, a TV gig appears in the works. Belichick is expected to join Peyton Manning‘s Omaha Productions for analysis-based work. ESPN’s Pat McAfee also announced Belichick will be part of his show’s draft coverage (video link).

Fifteen wins shy of Don Shula‘s career record, Belichick is believed to have informed allies he expects to land at least one interview next year. While the NFC East jobs are worth monitoring, the bumps the Patriot Way has taken — coupled with Belichick’s age and implied threat to organizations’ status quos — leave it far from certain he will have a third opportunity to lead an NFL team.

Arthur Blank: Bill Belichick Never Asked To Control Falcons’ Football Ops

This offseason brought an unusual development involving a prospective coaching hire. The most accomplished coach to ever land on a carousel exited this year’s ride without a job. Bill Belichick‘s credentials are unmatched, but steady rumblings about what he would do upon taking a job look to have impacted his current free agency status.

A rare instance of power brokers interviewing a candidate and protecting their own job security came out as a reason Belichick is not currently the Falcons’ head coach. This component may well have led other teams to steer clear of the six-time Super Bowl-winning HC, who is believed to have only spoken with only one other team — the Commanders — about a coaching vacancy this offseason. While Belichick is believed to be planning to regroup with an eye on 2025, the Falcons now reside as the “what if?” team regarding the NFL’s second-winningest coach.

[RELATED: Latest On Falcons’ Quarterback Plans]

While calling Belichick’s interviews “excellent,” Arthur Blank said (via ESPN’s Michael Rothstein) Belichick did not ask the Falcons for full control of their football ops department during his interview process. A report indeed suggested the 71-year-old coach was targeting such power, though Belichick and Blank were not believed to have discussed this directly.

I want to be clear really on behalf of Bill, just as a human being and as a storied coach in the history of our league,” Blank said during an appearance on NFL Network’s Super Bowl Live. “Been a coach 49 years in the NFL. Bill, during all of our discussions with him, it was never about power, control, needing people to work for him, etcetera. He was interested in coaching. He definitely wanted a collaborative relationship with personnel, scouting.

He had done his reference checking on our department, had committed to me that he’d be happy to work with our people. In fact, did it in writing through a text message he sent to me at one point.”

Belichick met with Blank in a one-on-one setting before the second summit included members of the Falcons’ brass. Going into the second meeting, Belichick was viewed as the favorite. Following the larger-scale powwow in Atlanta, the team started moving in a different direction. It is natural, then, to assume the reports of Falcons brass steering Blank away from Belichick have some truth to them. GM Terry Fontenot said it was Blank’s call to hire Morris, but the fourth-year GM said (via Rothstein) he led the interview process. This came after a Falcons statement — issued in the wake of Arthur Smith‘s firing — said Blank and CEO Rich McKay would lead the search as Fontenot provided input.

One of the reports in the wake of the Falcons’ Raheem Morris hire pegged Belichick and McKay as having a less-than-stellar relationship. Despite moving out of the GM role in 2009, McKay has been a key Falcons decision-maker since. The team made a point of announcing the former Super Bowl-winning GM (with the Buccaneers) would step away from involvement in football ops moving forward. Friday, Blank said the experience Morris and Fontenot possess helped lead him to slide McKay toward the business side.

Given McKay’s 30-plus years in front offices and his 20-plus years with the Falcons, it is difficult to imagine he will not retain a voice in football matters — to some degree, at least. But Blank said Friday both Morris and Fontenot will report directly to ownership. Pointing toward Morris’ experience would seemingly represent a dig at Smith, but the former has been in the NFL much longer. Morris’ NFL run includes a three-year stay as Bucs HC and spending much of the 2020 season as Falcons interim HC.

Bill was really focused and is focused on being a great head coach, which is clearly what he has been,” Blank said. “We looked at all the candidates that we interviewed, all the time together, and we felt for a variety of reasons that the best choice for us at this point in our lives, the life of the franchise going forward, is Raheem Morris.”

If Belichick were to book more HC interviews in 2025, teams will naturally want to know the football lifer’s expectations regarding personnel control. He held dual HC/GM roles throughout his Patriots stay. Even if Belichick makes a point of indicating he is fine being only a head coach and not a de facto GM, having someone with his experience in the building and that organization giving someone else final say would be quite the interesting dynamic. After the Falcons passed, it will be a bit before these scenarios resurface.

Bill Belichick Viewed As Top Falcons HC Candidate

The Bill Belichick-Falcons partnership prospects are heating up. Belichick arrived in Atlanta on Thursday night ahead of his second interview, Dianna Russini of The Athletic reports, and is now viewed as the top candidate for this job.

After Belichick’s first interview consisted of a one-on-one meeting with Arthur Blank, he is set to meet with other Falcons higher-ups. Belichick began his second interview with dinner Thursday, Russini adds, and CBS Sports’ Josina Anderson notes this process — Belichick’s first time on a coaching carousel in 24 years — continues to trend in a positive direction. Though, CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones cautions this is not yet a done deal.

Blank, CEO Rich McKay, GM Terry Fontenot and team president Greg Beadles will be part of this second interview, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s D. Orlando Ledbetter. This meeting will double as a chance for Belichick to evaluate the Falcons as a fit, as questions will be warranted on his part. This marks Belichick’s first meeting in Atlanta, with Jones adding the interview with Blank took place on the owner’s yacht near the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Belichick held final personnel say throughout his Patriots run. While he laps Fontenot in terms of experience, the presences of the fourth-year GM and McKay — a former Falcons GM who moved up the chain in the late 2000s — create some uncertainty as to what the legendary head coach’s role would be. Belichick reaching a comfort level with McKay, a former Super Bowl-winning Buccaneers GM, will be critical here, SI.com’s Albert Breer notes. Doubt about Belichick wanting to keep the McKay-Fontenot status quo in place has emerged, per Jones. But Blank would need to naturally approve of any major front office restructuring.

One source has informed Jones that Blank “desperately” wants Belichick as his next coach and that it would be on the latter to accept the job. Even with Jones indicating the Falcons want to complete a thorough search, it would not surprise to learn of Belichick receiving an offer. The Falcons have also interviewed Jim Harbaugh and are preparing to meet with their former interim HC, Raheem Morris, on Saturday. But the team is believed to be prioritizing experience to fill its latest HC vacancy. Blank has never hired anyone with previous NFL HC experience to lead his team, and Belichick is arguably the greatest coach in league history.

While Belichick issues on the GM side recurred in New England — particularly after Tom Brady‘s 2020 exit — he continued to give the Patriots top-shelf work on the defensive side of the ball. Sixteen of New England’s Brady-era teams finished with a top-10 scoring defense, and the Pats fared well down the stretch despite losing Matt Judon and Christian Gonzalez early this season. But how the Falcons would plan on structuring their front office around Belichick would double as one of this offseason’s most interesting questions. The team made a point to say Blank and McKay are leading the HC search, with Fontenot offering input. McKay soon backtracked by indicating the GM has not seen his standing diminished after three straight 7-10 seasons.

The prospect of Belichick, 72 in April, wanting familiar personnel staffers would seemingly be in play; Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge have already been rumored staff targets if Belichick does indeed become the next Falcons HC. No team has ever hired a coach older than 66 (Bruce Arians, 2019). Will the Falcons buck that trend and become the team that gives Belichick the chance to break Don Shula‘s record? The 29-year HC veteran is 14 wins away.

Falcons To Carry Strong Interest In Bill Belichick?; Team Not Yet In On Jim Harbaugh

JANUARY 12: In an update which may point further in Belichick’s direction, Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post notes the Falcons are likely to favor coaching experience more this year than in past hires. While Harbaugh is certainly among the candidates to have spent time in charge of an NFL sideline, making his omission from Atlanta’s list of targets notable, it thus comes as little surprise the team is heavily interested in Belichick. The latter can join the Falcons or any other suitor at any time, whereas coaches employed by playoff teams must follow the league’s interview schedule.

JANUARY 11: Bill Belichick will not be a fit for every team with an HC vacancy. The six-time Super Bowl-winning leader will turn 72 in April; no team has hired a head coach older than 66. A rebuild effort would not seemingly be a fit, as Belichick is intent on breaking Don Shula‘s career wins record.

Now officially separated from the Patriots after 24 years, Belichick is a coaching free agent. While several teams have been tied to the all-time great, Falcons noise is growing louder. After previous connections emerged, ESPN.com’s Dan Graziano notes the Falcons are expected to have strong interest in Belichick.

Although Arthur Blank inherited Dan Reeves upon buying the Falcons in 2002, each of his head coach hires (Jim Mora Jr., Bobby Petrino, Mike Smith, Dan Quinn, Arthur Smith) had never been an NFL HC. Belichick laps 2024’s candidate field in accomplishments and NFL experience, having debuted in the league with the Baltimore Colts in the mid-1970s. The 29-year HC (five in Cleveland) would stand to appeal to Blank, who is 81 and has seen his franchise drift off the contender map since Belichick’s Patriots erased a 28-3 deficit in Super Bowl LI.

This position could certainly appeal to Belichick as well. The Falcons used back-to-back-to-back top-10 picks on skill-position players, and Pro Football Focus ranked Atlanta’s offensive line — one spearheaded by Chris Lindstrom and Jake Matthews — fourth overall. After some free agency dollars went to defense in 2023, the Falcons finished 11th in total defense and 18th in points allowed. The Saints’ 48-point finish dinged the latter placement, and DVOA was not as bullish, slotting the Falcons 24th. But the unit is improved from 2022.

Granted, Belichick going from one team without a quarterback answer to another would be a lot to ask — especially if the Chargers are legitimately interested — but the Falcons are expected to take a bigger QB swing after standing down and going with Desmond Ridder last year. Some close to Belichick view this as a good fit for the veteran coach, Graziano adds. The team looks to be planning to keep Terry Fontentot as GM, though it seems it is flexible regarding his power going into his fourth year on the job. That said, the Falcons value Fontenot, per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, making it hard to believe they will push him out at this point.

Another NFC South all-in push would be fascinating, considering the blueprint the Buccaneers established upon signing Tom Brady in 2020. Granted, Belichick has not been known — in most offseasons, at least — for wild spending to fortify his roster, but his vision may change if a short-term plan is in place. He is 14 wins shy of Shula’s all-time record. In terms of cap space, the Falcons — who again hold the No. 8 overall pick after a 7-10 season — reside in the middle of the pack, being projected to carry more than $21MM.

While it does seem like a Belichick-Falcons interview will take place, the team has sent out eight requests to other staffers Thursday. Jim Harbaugh has not yet received a slip from the Falcons, and Fowler adds the team does not look to have launched a pursuit of Michigan’s national championship-winning HC just yet. Harbaugh figures to have options out west, but the Belichick-to-Georgia storyline is obviously one to monitor going forward.

Terry Fontenot Role Not Diminished; Latest On Falcons-Bill Belichick Link

When the Falcons fired Arthur Smith, the team’s official statement included curious wording with regards to Terry Fontenot‘s role in identifying the team’s next head coach. But Falcons CEO Rich McKay attempted to downplay the uncertainty about his GM’s standing.

The Falcons’ statement indicated McKay and Arthur Blank would run point on hiring Smith’s replacement. Seeing as McKay is a former Super Bowl-winning GM (in Tampa) and held the role in Atlanta, he obviously makes sense as a lead voice here. But the statement said Fontenot would provide input during the organization’s search, suggesting his status may be diminished after three years with GM power. McKay, however, said Fontenot’s role remains the same, per ESPN.com’s Mike Rothstein.

Fontenot and the next Falcons HC will report to McKay, with the team (via Rothstein) planning to keep a 50-50 power split between the GM and Smith’s replacement. This setup can obviously lead to a divided organization, but McKay added the 50-50 plan will depend on who the Falcons hire as head coach. This can be interpreted as the Falcons keeping the door open to a high-profile HC having more say compared to Smith, and the Falcons continue to be linked to such a name.

Bill Belichick emerged as a possible name to monitor in the Atlanta HC search Sunday, and SI.com’s Albert Breer notes several NFL staffers have pointed to the connection between the New England HC and the Falcons as one to follow. Blank, 81, has hired first-time NFL HCs at each step since buying the Falcons in 2002. He fired Dan Reeves during the ’03 season, hiring Jim Mora Jr. in ’04. After the Bobby Petrino whiff, Blank hired Mike Smith before the Dan Quinn and Arthur Smith additions. Belichick obviously resides in a different class than any coach in Falcons history.

It is unclear still if Belichick is a serious candidate anywhere, but he has now been connected to five HC vacancies. The Falcons profile as an interesting one, given the team’s pieces on the offensive line and at the skill positions. DC Ryan Nielsen elevated the Falcons’ defense, though that unit crumbled in Chicago and New Orleans to close the season. Belichick also would be expected to run Atlanta’s defense in the event he was acquired via trade or hired as a coaching free agent. The matter of the Falcons’ QB situation lingers for any incoming HC, but the team — after finishing second for Deshaun Watson in 2022 and passing on a Lamar Jackson offer sheet in order to continue with Desmond Ridder in 2023 — is expected to chase a bigger name soon.

If Belichick comes in, Fontenot may have an uphill battle in keeping notable personnel input. That said, the New England HC is open to relinquishing some of his GM power in his current post. With Mike Vrabel now available, the Pats may pivot in that direction and ramp up their efforts to unload Belichick. A Falcons-Jim Harbaugh pursuit should also not be dismissed, Breer adds. This would move another team into the Harbaugh mix, though the Chargers and Raiders have been the clubs most closely connected to the national championship-winning HC.

The Falcons hired Fontenot, 43, from the Saints in 2021. He was handed a rebuild project, something McKay essentially confirmed (via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s D. Orlando Ledbetter) this week. The team took on record-setting in the Matt Ryan trade and incurred two years’ worth of dead money on both the Julio Jones and Deion Jones swaps. With the bulk of that dead cap in the past by 2023, Fontenot splurged in free agency for the likes of Jessie Bates, David Onyemata and Kaden Elliss.

While Fontenot looks likely to stay on for fourth season as GM, his role may well be up in the air depending on who the Falcons hire as head coach.

Falcons Fire HC Arthur Smith

After Arthur Blank‘s stance on his head coach oscillated for weeks, the Atlanta owner made a decision late Sunday night. The Falcons will move on from Arthur Smith after three seasons, NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero reports. The Falcons have since announced the move.

Late in the week, Blank was believed to be hoping to keep Smith. But coaches with three straight sub-.500 seasons are rarely retained for a fourth. The Jets will make Robert Saleh an exception; the Falcons will not give Smith a similar mulligan. A third consecutive 7-10 season, as the Buccaneers’ win over the Panthers prevented the Falcons-Saints winner from booking a playoff spot, will lead the offensive-minded HC out of town. Blank announced the firing at 12:01am ET, beginning Black Monday at the earliest possible juncture.

Smith’s tenure becomes the shortest by a Falcons HC since Bobby Petrino left for the Arkansas HC job late in his one-and-done season (2007). Mike Smith lasted seven years; Dan Quinn was in place from 2015-20.

Considering the Falcons closed their season with multiple blowout losses, Smith’s ouster was not difficult to foresee. While the NFC South team made strides on defense, Smith could not turn Desmond Ridder into a reliable quarterback. Blank, Smith and GM Terry Fontenot backed Ridder this offseason, but the 2022 third-round pick struggled frequently. Smith’s reputation as an offense-oriented coach certainly hurt him as Ridder continued to stumble in his first full season as a starter. Smith benched Ridder twice but reinstalled him as the starter to close the season.

Fontenot has not been fired. A Blank statement indicated he and CEO Rich McKay will lead the search for Smith’s replacement; the longtime owner said Fontenot will provide input during the upcoming search. Although Blank had seemingly gone back and forth on Smith in recent weeks, he had reached out to confidants around the league for advice here. The Falcons will shift gears, with a bigger quarterback swing likely ahead.

We have profound respect for coach Smith and appreciate all the hard work and dedication he has put into the Falcons over the last three years,” Blank said in a statement. “He has been part of building a good culture in our football team, but the results on the field have not met our expectations. After significant thought and reflection, we have determined the best way forward for our team is new leadership in the head coaching position.”

Blank said in the spring he was eager to see his team build a roster around a rookie-QB contract, but many were skeptical Ridder would justify the organization’s confidence. The team backed the Cincinnati alum throughout the offseason, signing Taylor Heinicke to be a backup while passing on a potential Lamar Jackson offer sheet. The Falcons were not the only team to avoid the soon-to-be two-time MVP, but Blank’s comments on the Ravens superstar were notable considering the push the team made for Deshaun Watson in 2022. Watson appeared all set to waive his no-trade clause to return to his home state, but a Browns $230MM full guarantee changed the equation — and the state of the Falcons’ quarterback situation. Ridder arrived as the No. 74 overall pick the following month.

The Falcons have assembled an intriguing array of skill-position talent during Smith’s tenure, and Pro Football Focus ranked Atlanta’s offensive line sixth going into Week 18. But the supporting pieces did not move the needle much this season. Going 3-for-3 in first-round skill-position investments under Smith, Atlanta made Kyle Pitts, Drake London and Bijan Robinson top-10 choices in that span. Each has shown flashes and will be appealing to HC candidates, but the Falcons ranked 26th in scoring offense this season.

Atlanta did not surpass 22 points per game in any of Smith’s three seasons. The team pivoted from a Matt Ryan-guided attack in 2021 to a run-oriented offense around ex-Smith Titans charge Marcus Mariota in 2022. The Mariota season ended up supplying the most effective Smith-run offense, with a ground-geared approach producing a No. 3-ranked rushing attack. Mariota’s aerial limitations prompted Smith to bench him for Ridder with four games remaining last season. Ridder ranks 26th in QBR this year, doing the most to restrain the Falcons and ensure a playoff absence for a sixth straight season.

To be fair, Smith and Fontenot took on a rebuild in 2021. Until the Broncos release Russell Wilson, the Falcons’ $40.5MM dead-money hit from the March 2022 Ryan trade remains the NFL single-player record. Atlanta also took on considerable dead money from the June 2021 Julio Jones trade and October 2022 Deion Jones deal.

Both Joneses affected Atlanta’s cap sheet over multiple years, but with the Ryan dead money off the books this past offseason, the Falcons spent to fortify their defense. Jessie Bates, Calais Campbell, David Onyemata and Kaden Elliss trekked to Georgia, and the investments paid off defensively. Atlanta entered Week 18 ranking ninth in scoring defense. The Saints’ 48-17 bashing, which came after a 37-17 Bears romp, dropped the Falcons to 18th. The Falcons hired DC Ryan Nielsen in January 2023; the longtime Saints assistant’s position should certainly be considered tenuous given the Smith news.

Nearly seven years have passed since the Falcons’ infamous 25-point collapse in Super Bowl LI. Blank kept Quinn on for four more seasons, firing him early in the 2020 campaign. The team steadily plummeted from its NFC title perch and has become an also-ran during two historically bad divisional races. That said, a quarterback improvement would provide immediate intrigue given the state of the roster.

With Blank turning 82 this year, it would not surprise to see the veteran owner turn to an experienced HC. Bill Belichick has been connected to every opening thus far, and it would be interesting — given the shape of the defense and the above-referenced pieces on offense — to see if rumors continue on this front. For now, the Falcons will attempt to regroup as Fontenot — who will ride shotgun during this search, perhaps illustrating his own slide to a hot seat — attempts to upgrade the team in the coming months.

Staff Rumors: Commanders, Smith, Falcons, Bears, Pierce, Raiders, Giants

Among head coaches, Ron Rivera resides as the only true lock to be fired following Week 18. The Commanders‘ new ownership injects mystery into the upcoming search. Josh Harris has been rumored to be intrigued by a setup in which a football operations president-type figure oversees a GM and head coach, and SI.com’s Albert Breer further points to the owner being unlikely to hand the keys to a high-powered HC. Like Bill Belichick, Breer considers Jim Harbaugh an unlikely candidate in Washington. It is not known if Belichick would require personnel control if he ends up elsewhere, but Harbaugh having the leverage of more Michigan extension offers, it is expected the hard-edged HC would need significant input on the personnel front if he were to return to the NFL. So far, the Chargers have been the team most closely linked to luring him back.

Additionally, Breer notes Harris is intrigued by how the Eagles and Ravens’ power structures are set up. The Commanders hired ex-Ravens analytics staffer Eugene Shen as senior VP of football strategy in the fall. While the Eagles lost four staffers to assistant GM roles in 2022, the Ravens have a GM candidate in player personnel director Joe Hortiz. Baltimore’s OC-DC tandem — Todd Monken and Mike Macdonald — is expected to generate HC interest as well.

Going into Week 18, here is the latest from staffs around the NFL:

  • With the Falcons on the doorstep of a third straight 7-10 season, Arthur Smith‘s job status has come up frequently. Vacillating back and forth between being fired or becoming the rare HC to be given a fourth year despite three straight losing seasons, Smith was not exactly given a vote of confidence by Arthur Blank. But the longtime Falcons owner is not believed to be actively seeking changes, per Breer, making it sound like the hope is for Smith and GM Terry Fontenot to show enough to stay on. A one-sided loss to the Saints may well change Blank’s mind. The Falcons can win the NFC South by beating the Saints and the Buccaneers — who also have a coach on the hot seat — losing to the Panthers.
  • Ryan Poles is believed to have a good relationship with new Bears president Kevin Warren, being expected to stay on for a third year as GM. Prior to the Bears‘ rout of the Falcons, Matt Eberflus was linked to being in good standing for a third HC season. While expecting both to stay, Breer notes neither Bears power broker has been assured of a return. Warren has been a wild card in this scenario since he was hired, and the former Big Ten commissioner did not confirm publicly when asked Friday (via the Chicago Sun-Times’ Patrick Finley) if Eberflus would be retained. Eberflus is 10-23 as Bears HC, but the team — which has a rather important quarterback decision to make soon — is 7-5 over its past 12.
  • Raiders leaders Davante Adams, Maxx Crosby and Josh Jacobs would back the retention of interim HC Antonio Pierce, but Mark Davis is believed to be aiming higher. After all, Pierce — who resigned his two-year post as Arizona State DC in 2022 — has far less experience than Raiders DC Patrick Graham. But Pierce’s knowledge of the Raiders’ culture and history does appeal to Davis, Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com writes, noting these factors matter considerably to the second-generation owner. No team has bumped an interim leader to the full-time post since the Jaguars elevated Doug Marrone in 2017.
  • Giants running backs coach Jeff Nixon is set for a responsibility jump; it will come at the college level. Syracuse hired Nixon as its offensive coordinator Friday. Nixon was in his first season as Giants RBs coach; he had served under Matt Rhule at Baylor and with the Panthers. The Giants hired Nixon last year to replace DeAndre Smith, who left to take the same position with the Colts.

The NFL’s Longest-Tenured GMs

The latest NFL general manager hiring cycle only produced two changes, but each took over for an executive who appeared in good standing at this point last year.

Steve Keim had held his Cardinals GM post since January 2013, and the Cardinals gave both he and Kliff Kingsbury extensions — deals that ran through 2027 — in March of last year. Arizona has since rebooted, moving on from both Keim and Kingsbury. Keim took a leave of absence late last season, and the Cardinals replaced him with ex-Titans exec Monti Ossenfort.

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As the Cardinals poached one of the Titans’ top front office lieutenants, Tennessee went with an NFC West staffer to replace Jon Robinson. The move to add 49ers FO bastion Ran Carthon also came less than a year after the Titans reached extension agreements with both Robinson and HC Mike Vrabel. But controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk canned Robinson — in place as GM since January 2016 — before last season ended. Adams Strunk cited player unavailability and roster quality among the reasons she chose to move on despite having extended Robinson through the 2027 draft months earlier. The Titans are now pairing Vrabel and Carthon.

The Bills reached an extension agreement with GM Brandon Beane two weeks ago. Hired shortly after the team gave Sean McDermott the HC keys, Beane has helped the Bills to five playoff berths in six seasons. Beane’s deal keeps him signed through 2027. Chargers GM Tom Telesco has hit the 10-year mark leading that front office, while this year also marks the 10th offseason of Buccaneers honcho Jason Licht‘s tenure running the NFC South team. Although Jim Irsay fired Frank Reich and later admitted he reluctantly extended his former HC in 2021, the increasingly active Colts owner has expressed confidence in Chris Ballard.

Here is how the NFL’s GM landscape looks going into the 2023 season:

  1. Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys): April 18, 1989[1]
  2. Mike Brown (Cincinnati Bengals): August 5, 1991[2]
  3. Bill Belichick (New England Patriots): January 27, 2000[3]
  4. Mickey Loomis (New Orleans Saints): May 14, 2002
  5. John Schneider (Seattle Seahawks): January 19, 2010; signed extension in 2021
  6. Howie Roseman (Philadelphia Eagles): January 29, 2010; signed extension in 2022
  7. Les Snead (Los Angeles Rams): February 10, 2012; signed extension in 2022
  8. Tom Telesco (Los Angeles Chargers): January 9, 2013; signed extension in 2018
  9. Jason Licht (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): January 21, 2014; signed extension in 2021
  10. Chris Grier (Miami Dolphins): January 4, 2016[4]
  11. John Lynch (San Francisco 49ers): January 29, 2017; signed extension in 2020
  12. Chris Ballard (Indianapolis Colts): January 30, 2017; signed extension in 2021
  13. Brandon Beane (Buffalo Bills): May 9, 2017; signed extension in 2023
  14. Brett Veach (Kansas City Chiefs): July 11, 2017; signed extension in 2020
  15. Brian Gutekunst (Green Bay Packers): January 7, 2018; agreed to extension in 2022
  16. Eric DeCosta (Baltimore Ravens): January 7, 2019
  17. Joe Douglas (New York Jets): June 7, 2019
  18. Andrew Berry (Cleveland Browns): January 27, 2020
  19. Nick Caserio (Houston Texans): January 5, 2021
  20. George Paton (Denver Broncos): January 13, 2021
  21. Scott Fitterer (Carolina Panthers): January 14, 2021
  22. Brad Holmes (Detroit Lions): January 14, 2021
  23. Terry Fontenot (Atlanta Falcons): January 19, 2021
  24. Trent Baalke (Jacksonville Jaguars): January 21, 2021
  25. Martin Mayhew (Washington Commanders): January 22, 2021
  26. Joe Schoen (New York Giants): January 21, 2022
  27. Ryan Poles (Chicago Bears): January 25, 2022
  28. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah (Minnesota Vikings): January 26, 2022
  29. Dave Ziegler (Las Vegas Raiders): January 30, 2022
  30. Omar Khan (Pittsburgh Steelers): May 24, 2022
  31. Monti Ossenfort (Arizona Cardinals): January 16, 2023
  32. Ran Carthon (Tennessee Titans): January 17, 2023

Footnotes:

  1. Jones has been the Cowboys’ de facto general manager since former GM Tex Schramm resigned in April 1989.
  2. Brown has been the Bengals’ de facto GM since taking over as the team’s owner in August 1991.
  3. Belichick has been the Patriots’ de facto GM since shortly after being hired as the team’s head coach in January 2000.
  4. Although Grier was hired in 2016, he became the Dolphins’ top football exec on Dec. 31, 2018

Latest On Falcons’ Draft Plans

The Falcons have been one of the most active teams in the league so far this offseason, making a number of notable additions on defense. That leaves them well-positioned for the upcoming draft, regardless of which direction they end up taking this week.

Atlanta owns pick No. 8, which should leave them with a number of options on the defensive side of the ball in particular. The Falcons have already invested heavily with deals for safety Jessie Bates and defensive lineman Calais Campbell, along with a trade for cornerback Jeff Okudah. They could add further to their secondary if one or both of Devon Witherspoon and Christian Gonzalez, the class’ top corners, were to be available when they are on the clock.

That position represents one of interest for Atlanta, as noted by ESPN’s Todd McShay. Selecting Witherspoon or Gonzalez would come as little surprise, but both coming off the board earlier could change the Falcons’ plans. Both McShay and SI’s Albert Breer add that a trade down is a distinct possibility, with the latter noting that general manager Terry Fontenot has “explored the idea” of moving a few spots down the board.

Especially if that were to happen, attention in the organization could turn to running back Bijan Robinson. The Texas product is widely seen as one of the most talented prospects at any position, but the devaluation of tailbacks has led to a large range with respect to his floor and ceiling in the draft. Both McShay and Breer name Robinson as a prospect of interest for the Falcons in the middle of the first round, and Peter King of NBC Sports has them drafting Robinson in his mock draft (adding that doing so later on Day 1 would provide better value).

Robinson won the Doak Walker award as the nation’s top running back in 2022, adding All-American honors following his hugely productive junior season. That will make him a valuable addition to any team, though the Falcons enjoyed plenty of success on the ground last season with their incumbent options. That includes fifth-rounder Tyler Allgeier, who posted 1,035 rushing yards as a rookie. Robinson would represent not only another investment in the backfield for Atlanta, but the latest in a string of premium picks being used at the offensive skill positions (including tight end Kyle Pitts in 2021 and wideout Drake London last year). Whether the Falcons elect to follow suit this season will be a key storyline to watch.