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Editor's Note: This feature on Falcons director of pro personnel Steve Sabo is the sixth story in AtlantaFalcons.com's "Meet the Scouts" series.

The series provides insight into key members of the Falcons' player personnel department, and behind the scenes looks at how the Falcons discovered some of their top players.

By Scott Bair



The New Orleans Saints lined up for a massive 2-point conversion late in a tense game with the Falcons. Success meant going up three with a minute left. Failure created the possibility of getting beat by a field goal.

The Saints chose to give the ball to their best player and let him run behind their best offensive lineman. But, by the time Alvin Kamara received the handoff and headed toward left tackle Terron Armstead, the Falcons had foiled their rival.

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James Vaughters and Anthony Rush collapsed the Saints line of scrimmage, Jaylinn Hawkins prevented an outside escape and the defense swarmed to get Kamara on the ground.

Somewhere in the Superdome, Steve Sabo must've smiled.

A monumental play got made by two guys recently signed off the street, scouted by the director of pro personnel's department as the first part of a full-team effort designed to churn the bottom of the roster and improve the Falcons one addition at a time.

Vaughters and Rush helped make a pivotal play. We all know what happened next.

Matt Ryan hit Cordarrelle Patterson on a 64-yard strike and Younghoe Koo kicked the game-winning field goal two plays later to seal a dramatic comeback victory. Without that two-point stop, Koo ties the game and there's no telling what happens next. That defensive stand allowed Koo to win it.

While Ryan, Patterson and Koo were lauded after that 27-25 result, head coach Arthur Smith was quick to praise the "unsung heroes" of that victory you may not have known.

He counted Vaughters and Rush in that group.

Vaughters had a strip sack that set up a Falcons touchdown and was vital to shutting down that 2-point conversion. Rush had three tackles, including one for a loss, and got the good push required to stop Kamara.

"It was really fun to see those players have success," Sabo said. "It's encouraging for those coaches who got them ready, but it's also encouraging for [GM Terry Fontenot and director of player personnel Kyle Smith] and the pro department."



The pro department does front-office work you probably know least about. They don't focus on the college kids or making draft picks. Sabo runs a staff with three other pro scouts – Rob Kisiel, Reese Hicks and Peniel Jean -- all of whom wear many hats.

They're the kings of NFL roster projection during the summer, learning about every team and scouring every roster for guys who might get cut and could help the Falcons.

They're the advance scouts providing coaches insight on future opponents.

They're setting up by-position rankings for street free agents. They're monitoring the waiver wire for new prospects coming available.

They're doing background work on impending free agents, what they might cost, whether they'll fit Falcons schemes and within the team's salary-cap plans.

They're also looking for possible cap casualties, doing everything they can to help general manager Terry Fontenot execute his plan for free agency.

That's, well, a lot.

It's also vital to a franchise's success, which is why the Falcons have bulked up in this area.

Fontenot has an extensive background in pro scouting. Sabo has previous experience as a pro director before taking over this department in 2021. Kisiel ran Houston's pro department for four seasons. Kyle Smith oversaw college and pro scouting in Washington, and is heavily involved here, too.

"Between Kyle's knowledge of pro, Terry's knowledge of pro, my knowledge of it and Rob's knowledge of it, we have a pretty strong group, along with our evaluators," Sabo said. "I feel like this has been a new emphasis for the Falcons."

Sabo has done a ton during a long Falcons career, with experience as an area scout and as director of college scouting. He was also Falcons director of player personnel from 2019-20. He's been a pro director, too, in Cleveland, and has enjoyed filling that important role once again.

It's crucial here in Atlanta, considering Fontenot's emphasis on roster churn, in an effort to get at least one percent better with every transaction. The Falcons have made tons of them since Fontenot took over, both in the volume of free agents signed and the number of street free agents added to the roster during this season.

Sometimes they don't pan out. Often, however, they have.

Landing punter Thomas Morstead in-season, and Dustin Colquitt before him, was huge for Falcons special teams. The Falcons have also benefitted from in-season signings Mike Pennel, Daren Bates, Shawn Williams and, of course, Vaughters and Rush.

Finding players like that can be key, even if they don't make a huge splash. Each signing contains the possibility of helping the Falcons presently or farther down the line.

It's not just the front office that prizes this aspect of team building. Arthur Smith is a big believer in this process as well.

"You want to take [a player's] whole body of work into account, to see if there's anything out there to help you," he said. "That's why you've got good scouts and you do your research and talk with your collaborators and you put in effort. You don't let egos get in the way and you're not running for office. You can have those conversations and make the best decision for your team. That's what we try to do. It's got to fit. You got to have a vision and you got to make it work."



Since we've highlighted Vaughters and Rush, let's dive a bit deeper into those signings.

Rush started the 2021 campaign with the Tennessee Titans and had a solid showing in the exhibition opener against the Falcons. Sabo and his team kept a close eye on Rush during and after a game where he had two tackles near the line of scrimmage and two quarterback pressures against the Falcons reserves.

Sabo's department was right to think he wouldn't get cut and, even after the defensive tackle made Tennessee's initial 53-man roster, they had a full evaluation and were ready to pounce without hesitation when he hit the open market.

"Once he was free, we tried to get him here and got lucky enough to do so," Sabo said. "Full credit to the player. Full credit to [defensive line coach Gary Emmanuel] for getting him ready to go. Then he got the opportunity and made the most of it."

The pro department had an inside scoop on Vaughters. Falcons outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino worked with the big, physical edge rusher at a previous stop in Chicago. He knew firsthand about Vaughters' smarts, effort level and physical skill, and was willing to vouch for the Stanford product. Receivers coach Dave Brock was able to make a similar pitch for bringing Marvin Hall back. That helped make the players a priority and allowed Fontenot to make a better-informed decision.

"The collaborative part of roster building is really important," Monachino said. "I also think it's really good here. Terry is a guy who we all – nobody here thinks we know everything. That goes from the GM to the head coach and all the way to me. If there's good information, we'll listen. We'll get our good information wherever we can get it."

Sabo says coaches have been a huge help in the process. They briefed both pro and college scouts on the body types and skill sets that fit their schemes upon arrival. They're active in the draft and pro signings, and are essential to getting new players up to speed.

Arthur Smith also allows the pro scout who advanced a particular opponent to be in the coaching booth while playing that team. That's a rarity, Sabo says.

It's done because, as Monachino points out, the Falcons will take good information wherever they can get it.

Sabo's team is digging for good information all the time, so they can be prepared to act quickly and supplement new players of quality to the mix.

"That's what's exciting about working for Terry, and what's exciting for us, is that we have opportunities to add to our talent base," Sabo said. "These types of street signings can really help alleviate future needs. They can avoid potential draft picks to a position. Bottom-up scouting during the season can really make a difference if you can hit on the right guys."

Those efforts will give way to unrestricted free-agent signings in the offseason, and then to fleshing out the roster after the NFL Draft. The work never stops, and Sabo's fine with that. The Falcons are always trying to improve wherever possible.

"That's the goal, to keep moving forward," Sabo said. "To do that, you have to use all the clubs in your bag. Whether it's a practice squad signing or a waiver claim, whether it's a sixth-round pick or undrafted free agent, you have to nail those as well. To turn a team, you have to use all of your resources."

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