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Falcons Free Agency Primer: Inside the process of negotiating deals, signing free agents

Front office details how Falcons work to get players to sign on the dotted line, while knowing when to walk away and pivot during a hectic free-agency signing period

Editor's note: This is the final installment of a three-part series focusing on how the Falcons proceed through free agency. Falcons executives detail how deals are made and how the team must read, react and pivot during an action-packed free-agent signing period.

The Falcons are taking a similar approach to this free agency signing period as they have in years past. They're doing homework and tons of it. They're methodically planning for every possible outcome once the new league year opens Wednesday afternoon and free agents start signing on the dotted line, virtual or otherwise. Months of prep has gone into what will happen from the Ides of March on, to be ready for the expected and the out of the blue.


There is one major difference, however, between this year and the previous two in the Terry Fontenot/Arthur Smith era. As VP of player personnel Kyle Smith put it, the Falcons can engage at a different "value line."

That's due to the disciplined work done the previous two years getting right with the salary cap. The Falcons have the NFL's second-highest amount of salary cap space heading into the 2023 league year.

Now it's time to spend some of it. How exactly does that happen? How does a team and a player reach a pact? How does free agency's chaotic first wave influence proceedings?

We'll take a look at all that in the final installment of our Falcons free-agency primer, as we enter an important signing period for the franchise.

"Those first couple of days of free agency -- when it opens, it's fast and furious," Kyle Smith said. "We're prepared for those days, and then there's kind of lull there and it drops, and you feel where the market goes. Those first couple of days are [hectic] and so is the lead-up to those days.

"We work hard leading up to it so that, when the gun goes off, we're ready to run."

That doesn't mean the Falcons will run through the streets throwing money at anyone looking for employment in free agency's first wave.

General manager Terry Fontenot has already told you that. Listen to each press availability he has held since the offseason began.

Two terms keep showing up over and again.

Discipline. Parameters.

"We just want to make sure we have the right discipline, again, not just outside the building but inside the building as well, and that we're doing the right things," Fontenot said at the NFL Combine. "We have to set parameters because if we don't, we could get ourselves in a bind. Yeah, we need to add a lot, and we just want to make sure we go through the process in the right way and focus on the right kind of people. We have to focus on our makeup and not compromise that at all."


That's the opposite of unrestricted gluttony and excess that can set a franchise back.

While several are involved in free-agent contract negotiations and the lead-up to them, Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith set the tone for what's coming next. Kyle Smith's input and expertise enhances their vision.

They come up with an overall plan and then the larger Falcons front office must go execute. While Fontenot will occasionally assert himself into negotiations – last year’s re-signing of Cordarrelle Patterson is an example of that – but that's generally not how deals are made.

There's no agent screaming "shooow meeeeee the monaaaaay!!!" into a telephone with a grumpy GM on the other end ready to bicker.

These exchanges are generally cordial in real life, based on mutual respect between team and player rep. They're conducted by senior director of football administration Chris Olsen and manager of football administration Kirsten Grohs, who advise on salary-cap matters and are integral in player acquisition.


Olsen likes to take emotion out of proceedings, understanding that's just the business of upgrading the roster. There's a natural tug-of-war between sides, with the team looking for value and the player hoping for the biggest payday possible.

"[Ideally], it's a process of identifying what we want and what they want," Grohs said, "and then trying to meet up somewhere in the middle."

The process generally starts with baseline parameters of a deal given to the agent. Then there can be a long pause or a short one when a counter comes. The leverage attempting to be established comes from offers from other teams, once the negotiating window is open, combined with an often statistically based argument for why a player deserves a higher rate.

Sometimes subtle, passive tactics are employed to increase negotiating position, but compromise generally requires a concession from one side or both on aspects of the proposed deal.

There's generally a breaking point on both sides regarding concessions, though.

"You also have to have a serious conversation with Terry that we could be paying in [a certain] bracket," Grohs said. "'Are you okay with that?' If he is, you try to get a deal done."

In addition to a wealth of experience and knowledge from Olsen and Grohs and Ryan Pace and Rob Kisel from the pro scouting side of things, the Falcons have another asset in those big moments.

Fontenot himself.


As Olsen points out, making a deal, or not, comes down to feel, gut instinct and how the Falcons value a certain player. There are a lot of variables involved in this endeavor – some are controllable, others not – but being a quick thinker, while avoiding rash decisions, is key.

Several interviewed for this story mentioned Fontenot's top-level instincts in these matters, in addition to his expertise in reading people and situations.

In an often scientific preparation period for free agency, those human decisions made in the moment are crucial to holding firm or making a concession, to making a deal or stepping away.

"Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture," Grohs said. "You don't want to get to a place you don't want to be, but that's why you have discipline."

Stepping away from a negotiation brings us to another key component of the deal-making process. Being able to pivot.

If a deal doesn't work out or a player takes another offer, then what? The Falcons have plans for all that.

They have contingencies for every ideal scenario and contingencies for those contingency plans. Then you have to be able to react to the unexpected.

All that's a must during, to borrow from Kyle Smith, a fast a furious opening to the free agency window.

"That's what we take pride in as a pro staff, is the ability to pivot," Kyle Smith said. "What that means is that you've addressed every scenario and every player, and you have them ranked. Then moves get made, and maybe a guy stays with his team and another gets signed by another team. Then you pivot."


That could mean within a previously targeted position group or another one.

"You have to see the whole board," said Kisel, Falcons senior pro scout. "You have to work diligently on that by working well together. We all like working together, so the communication is really good. … You have to be flexible and ready to pivot from one option to the next thing. But, because you've done the work, you're not starting from scratch."

Fontenot and his entire staff are prepared for what this free agency period will entail, armed with research and parameters for how to execute well during a hectic stretch trying to upgrade the roster and stay right with the salary cap over the short- and long-term.

"Our goal isn't to win the offseason and get some instant gratitude," Fontenot said. "If you go back and look at the grades – that's what we appreciate about our game; everyone has an opinion and we love that – but go back and look at the grades and the fact that they don't always age well.

"We want to make sure we bring in the right kinds of guys. If that takes more patience, we're going to go through that process. We're just going to make sure that we find the right types of guys."

As you've read, this process can be a stressful grind. But, when the Falcons inevitably sign the right type of guy – over the next few weeks, there will be several such moments – there will be some smiles and high fives over a job well done to help the Falcons get better and hopefully win more games.

"At times it can feel like your stress level and your competitive level is high and you're running on empty, but, then, when the deal gets done, it's just the best feeling in the world," Grohs said. "So much goes into it and it can feel like a high-pressure situation, but it's really exciting when they're in the building and they're signing a contract with their whole family behind them and you know you added an important, impact player to your team. Nothing beats that."

Join us as we take a look back at our favorite photos of our rookies from the 2022 Atlanta Falcons season.

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