Editor's note: This is the second installment of a three-part series focusing on how the Falcons proceed through free agency. Reporter Ashton Edmunds takes you inside the extensive process of how the Falcons scout, find and put monetary values on players they want to pursue.
While NFL teams are in the thick of their schedules competing for an opportunity to play in late January and early February, pro scouts and player personnel executives are (in addition to everything else they do) thinking ahead to mid-March when free agency begins. It's a process that is months in the making, one that's strategically orchestrated.
For the Falcons, free agency will look much different than the previous two years in terms of cap space available. Atlanta is projected to have $62.92 million in space, per OverTheCap. For Falcons owner Arthur Blank, this is 50 percent more than he's ever had in his 21 years of ownership. Who will the Falcons target in free agency? There are a lot of people involved in an intensive process of finding the right guys.
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The undertaking of scouting prospective free agents starts the summer before the NFL season commences. When the season starts, player personnel executives and pro scouts first work through preseason scouting for players that can potentially get cut during the preseason [from other teams]. Then they start to identify players that can add depth to the team during the season.
"Some of that will bleed into the regular season when we're trying to start the process of evaluating the league as we evaluate our own team," said Rob Kisiel, a senior pro scout for the Falcons. "We see how our own players are doing. We get feedback from the coaches and we try to assess where our needs are going to be. Our job is to always try to make our team better, which means we're always trying to upgrade competition. That's the biggest part of the job in pro scouting, which is really kind of retaining your depth as well as working to try to upgrade where you can."
Throughout the season, Falcons personnel are scouting the league at large for players they can poach from other teams' practice squads or guys that get cut within the year. As the trade deadline approaches, pro scouts really start to drill down on those players who can upgrade the roster, both during that time of the season as well as those names likely to be available thereafter in the spring.
"Going through the whole season, everybody has their teams," Kisiel said. "We have three scouts and each has got the league divided up. By the end of the season, we try to have a report on everybody that has an expiring contract, so unrestricted free agents and restricted free agents.
"You like to have a current temperature on where those players are in the process, relative to where they are in their careers," Kisiel said. "Is the arrow up? Is the arrow down? Is it still across? How well do they fit what we do? Maybe they are a really good player but not an ideal scheme fit so, therefore, maybe they don't make as much sense. But you're not ready to dismiss them at that point in time. You just try to make sure that you're casting a wider net."
The tricky part about free agency is that it can be a dangerous market sometimes. There are instances when players become available for specific reasons.
"It's navigating through all that," said Ryan Pace, a senior personnel executive for the Falcons. "You know, who fits us, and you're digging in on the medical and on the character. You have a lot of material from their college days, but a lot has changed since they have been in the league for five, six, seven, eight years. So, you're trying to research that information to minimize our risk. Then there's the physical evaluation of a player which is what we're seeing on tape but also, all the other things. The character fit, the medical risk, all those factors."
As the season progresses, Falcons pro scouts and personnel continue to narrow down the list. They grade each of those free agents by team, and then there's cross-check procedures that come into play. So, eventually, they are cross-checking players by position. They continue to narrow down and refine those players, in collaboration with Falcons coaches, as free agency gets closer.
"You're watching a lot of film on these guys and every position has different criteria for what we're looking for," Pace said. "There [are] strengths and weaknesses in a position's summary. We have a pro grading scale. It's not too different from our college grading scale that we're all familiar with. That's how we grade our players based off that scale. It can go anywhere from an elite category all the way down to a training camp type of player and then we stack players in that order."
In early January, typically the last week of the regular season, the Falcons have their first free agency meeting. It's essentially the preliminary meeting to review all the information gathered throughout the year. The purpose of this meeting is to talk through the players, and how well they fit the Falcons.
"Prior to that, as the grades have kind of come in, the directors and [VP of player personnel] Kyle Smith are also looking at players from an over-the-top look, trying to maybe even dial in on more specifically who might make the most sense for us as we try to get position specific," Kisiel said. "Places that we know we're going to have needs, whether it's a players' contract expiring, or they may move on, so you have to be ready for contingency plans."
Once the season is over, coaches can join the free agency meetings. After they have their time to evaluate the state of the roster, Falcons scouts, personnel and coaches all come together to map out the direction of the team during the second free agency meeting at the end of January.
"These may be some of the tweaks to things [where] we think our team is ready to grow into this next phase," Kisiel said. "This is something we haven't relied on yet because we haven't had it but if we can find this particular piece, this will help us a lot."
During those end-of-season discussions, it generally leads to having to go back and reevaluate specific players. There are several questions that the scouts and coaching staff typically ask themselves during this process.
"A. Do we already have that player on this roster and [does] that person just need to continue to develop? B. [Do] we need a more definitive plan on how that's going to be? Or are we going to go find this person in free agency so that we don't have to rely on it for the draft?" Kisiel said. "That's the other part of it. We have all these things we want to take care of because we have a big roster, but we really don't want to put it all on the draft either."
Up until this point in the process, Falcons scouts and executives have had many discussions about the state of the current roster, what the team needs are and potential players they might to target in free agency. This information is vital when presented to general manager Terry Fontenot, head coach Arthur Smith, and Kyle Smith because it helps them to be fully informed on where the Falcons stand at that point in time, as well as to fine tune anything that may need to be adjusted.
Deciding the financial value of a free agent is also a critical part of the process. A player's film and in-season production are ultimately what determines that value.
"You get your target list. So, we know, in-house who want to extend and then we get an idea from Terry and Kyle on what they're looking for in free agency," said Kirsten Grohs, manager of football administration for the Falcons. "When we get the target list from them of what they really want, then we go back to the markets and we're like do you want a mid-level at this position? Or an elite-level at this position?"
That's when the pro department element comes into play for in-house guys and even unrestricted free agents, Grohs added.
"You want to ask them like who do you compare these guys to?" Grohs said. "Not just in terms of their measurables but obviously their play and things like that. So, they'll give us their pro version of the comps and then I try to align with what Terry [Fontenot] and Kyle [Smith] said versus what Ryan [Pace] and Rob [Kisiel] say and then look at our market."
The other element to the process of determining a player's value is working with the Falcons analytics department for them to chime in with their opinion. That's how Grohs and Falcons senior director of football administration Chris Olsen narrow down the list of how much they think players will make.
"Sometimes free agency can skew that because it is supply and demand," Grohs said. "So even though on a regular year, you might not think a player is worth [a certain amount per year], he might end up there just because he's the best on the market right now."
With the Falcons having more resources to spend this year, Falcons personnel have spent ample time looking at the whole market as opposed to last year, they focused more so on the players that would likely be within what we they could afford.
"We evaluate every unrestricted free agent year-to-year," Kyle Smith said. "This year [is different because] we can attack in a different value line."
Once March arrives, everything starts to ramp up. You have the NFL Scouting Combine during the first week of the month and then free agency a week and a half later.
"You start feeling it out with Chris Olsen and Kirsten Grohs and our cap people, and they go through trying to set the market and see what these players are going to end up becoming from a financial perspective," Kyle Smith said. "We get prepared that way so that there aren't any surprises when we get to that point."
The first couple of days of free agency is "fast and furious" as Kyle Smith puts it. Yet, the culmination of events leading up to this period has prepared the front office for what's ahead. Ultimately, for the Falcons, signing guys who are the right culture fits will be vital heading into the 2023 season.
"You want people that are tone setters, who are self-starters in positions of leadership," said Kyle Smith. "It's the culture that coaches created in terms of everyday that you come in here and you're working and you're grinding. We talk about self-starters a lot. You don't have to worry about a guy, you don't have to push a guy or prod a guy to try to maximize what he's all about.
"When hard times come, good teammates pick each other up. We're going to face hard times; this is the NFL. If you're able to be a leader whether it's vocal or you're acting it by example, can you take hard coaching because you're going to get coached hard here. We don't want soft souls around here and [we want guys who are] a good teammate. If you fit those parameters, when you come here, you're going to reach your maximum potential."
Join us as we take a look back at our favorite photos of our home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, during the 2022 Atlanta Falcons season.