Editor's note: This is another installment in AtlantaFalcons.com's extensive "Finding Culture Fits" series, detailing how the Falcons find players who fit their organizational philosophy and ethos during the pre-draft process. The statements and opinions regarding players and/or potential future players in the article below are those of the AtlantaFalcons.com editorial staff and are not of the Atlanta Falcons' football personnel unless noted in a direct quote.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The age old saying goes that you only get one chance to make a good first impression, and while that's true, what's more important for the Falcons as the 2023 NFL Draft gets closer is not necessarily the first impression but the second and third and fourth.
For many of these coaches and front office decision-makers, a lot of the true first impressions happen at the NFL Combine. Teams are allowed to formally interview a select group of invited prospects for 15 minutes in Indianapolis.
Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot likened the rapid-fire combine interviews to that of speed dating.
And while those 15 minutes are important for several reasons, what happens later, in the months that follow, paints the true picture of a prospect and their depth as a player and person.
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As Kyle Smith put it, you're just looking at one singular layer of a person at the combine. There's a lot more work to be done, and it's work they're actively doing right now.
"You can get conned in a 15-minute interview with someone who tells you all the things you want to hear," Smith, the Falcons director of player personnel, said. "… Pro days are where we have them much longer to figure all that out. We also have options to bring them in on visits and private meetings where we see them even more."
It's at college pro days, top-30 visits (where a team can bring in up to 30 players to their facility for interviews, meetings and a physical) and private workouts where the nitty-gritty is found.
The bulk of pro days wrapped up not too long ago, and the Falcons were well represented across the country. During that time, coaches and executives have the chance to spend more time with players on their own turf (no pun intended). Conversations greatly differ this time around than they did at the combine when just 15 minutes are on the clock.
According to Fontenot, the goal of these next set of conversations is to peel back the layers further to understand how a player ticks, how he ingests information and how best to teach him.
At the pro days and within the closed doors of top-30 visits, scheme reigns supreme.
"We do spend a little bit of time getting to know them more, but then you really get to delve into football," Fontenot said. "Our coaching staff does a really good job talking to the player, watching some of their film, watching some of our film and really assessing where they are."
It's not that the Falcons are trying to figure out if a player is smart enough to play in Atlanta, because as Fontenot said, "they all are." It's more about figuring out what is best for the player.
"It's learning how the player learns and how we can coach this player," Fontenot explained. "You're getting kind of a head's start on - if he does end up in the building - you know exactly how to utilize him and what his capacity is and how he's going to learn. So, it's important in those (conversations) to really dig into the football part."
That's where Arthur Smith, in particular, really shines.
Fontenot said at the combine this year that watching Smith conduct interviews when ball is involved is notable. He's completed his research, Fontenot said of Smith, so the head coach knows exactly what clips he wants to pull up when a player sits down in front of him, whether that's within the scope of 15 minutes in Indianapolis, on a college campus after a pro day workout or in his own office at the Falcons facility in Flowery Branch.
"Just like players who get in their zone watching tape?" Fontenot said. "That's how Arthur is. He loves it."
The Falcons are looking for players with the same tick as their could-be head coach.
"If that's what you really love to do, you can really feel that with players when they're watching tape," Fontenot said. "You can kind of feel that they really love football."
The Falcons are doing their due diligence in finding players who fit this mold.
In the last week – as top-30 visits have really ramped up – the Falcons have reportedly brought in players like QB Will Levis, QB Anthony Richardson and DE Myles Murphy for visits, according to Cam Wolfe. Ian Rapoport added names like receivers Quentin Johnston and Jaxon Smith-Njigba to the list, while Aaron Wilson threw RB Tyjae Spears' name into the top-30 visit bucket, too.
Opportunities are plentiful for the Falcons with the No. 8 overall pick, but they know what they are looking for.
It's because when Fontenot thinks about the players he's come into contact with who have found success over his two decades in the league, they "had it" between the ears and, he points to his own chest, in their heart. They cared about the game in both the intellectual side of it as well as the physical.
However, you sometimes don't find this love and passion in a character until chapter eight of a 25-chapter story. Some people hold their love and passion close to their chest and don't let it show until trust is established. But that's why you take the time to read the story.
And that's exactly what the Falcons are doing as the 2023 NFL Draft looms at the end of this month.
"We're writing a book on the players," Fontenot said as interviews began in earnest this offseason, "and this is the next chapter."
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