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Bair: Why it will be fascinating to watch Falcons head into phase of Terry Fontenot, Arthur Smith era

Finally set with a roster not hindered salary-cap constraints, Falcons have real chance to compete in NFC South

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons spent the last two seasons trying to make a lot out of too little. They weren't quite deep enough to weather inevitable injury issues. They weren't quite talented enough to compete with the best around.

While there were good moments and success stories, there wasn't quite enough overall to get beyond seven wins.

We all know why. General manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith were hamstrung by salary cap issues from a previous regime. It must be noted early in this column that the Falcons never made excuses about the cap. They had to make some tough choices to elevate that burden, but the handcuffs are officially off. Have been since the new league year began.


That's when they were able to be competitive in free agency, landing some big-time players and depth to flesh out the roster. They also extended some of their own, an important accomplishment for Fontenot and Smith. Those facts, plus a solid run of potential-filled draft classes has created a level of optimism that the Falcons are firmly headed in the right direction.

"We feel we've had a very productive offseason, really excited about the guys that we've brought in here on every level, the vets, the guys that are in the middle parts of their careers, and these young guys needing development in our program," Smith said. On May 12 "So, I feel really good [about the roster]."

They've made smaller strides over the course of their regime in terms of culture building and player development, but there's a greater possibility of making larger ones in the one area that truly matters.

The win column. The Falcons are playing in a wide-open NFC South. While they may not be the favorite, there's great opportunity to snap a five-year streak of finishing below .500 and win the division for the first time since 2016.

While there might be higher expectations from the outside, the Falcons' expectation every year. They want to build an organization that wins consistently.

"We start training camp, and we're trying to do everything we can to win every football game that we're a part of," he said after the NFL Draft. "Certainly, you talk about expectations. Our expectation every year is to go out there. Talk about small starts, things you can control to get into the postseason, win your division. You can get in there other ways in a wild card, but that will be our expectation.

"You are talking about sustaining success. Let's get in the playoffs every year and get in the dance, try to make a run. I would think that's what every other team is trying to do. Understand, if you can just win your division, you are certainly going to get in. We certainly put everything we had into it last year. We came up short. Obviously, I understand what you are saying because the roster is completely different now, but every year that's what you're trying to do. Win. I don't know how else to put it. I mean, we're putting everything we have into doing that.

It might seem easier with the roster as constructed, but this collection of talent is not perfect. Building quality reserve units across the depth chart will take time.

While there's confidence in what Desmond Ridder can do, questions remain at quarterback. And, no, that's not a dig at anyone. It's just a fact when addressing a young passer with four career NFL starts. Until they have a truly established starter, the doubts won't disappear. Fontenot and Smith have surrounded Ridder with a tough, talented front and an intriguing set of versatile skill players who could play a unique band of football.

And if we're going to that approach with the quarterback, we should do the same at defensive coordinator. Players are inspired by his coaching style and he finds ways to generate pressure, but we haven't seen him do it on his own at the coordinator level. Also, will this group of veterans come together quickly and execute Nielsen's scheme well in Year 1? My vote is yes.

Also, they were 23rd in scoring defense and scoring offense last year. How much improvement can be expected in one campaign?

It will sure be interesting to find out. The Falcons have fun, entertaining players like Bijan Robinson, Kyle Pitts, Calais Campbell and Jessie Bates. They have solid leadership. The have elevated levels of talent capable of making a big jump.

Maybe this is a team that gets hot. Or maybe it takes another year to reach the next level.

Fontenot and Smith have been calculating in their approach to this roster buildup, setting up a season where they should be able to compete at a higher level. Can they do it? That effort will fascinating to watch.

Take a look at our defensive players from the 2023 Atlanta Falcons Creative Days.

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