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Finding culture fits: How the Falcons prioritize "ethos" in player-finding processes

The 2023 NFL Draft has arrived, and with it, another opportunity to figure out what makes or breaks Falcons decisions. 

Editor's note:This is the final installment in's extensive "Finding Culture Fits" series, detailing how the Falcons find players who fit their organizational philosophy and ethos during the pre-draft process. You can find links to the other stories of this series under the "Related Content" tab.


You've likely heard this word come out of Terry Fontenot's mouth before. It's a buzz word. It's a talking point for Falcons decision-makers. They say - time and time again - that they are looking for players who fit their ethos. In every player-finding process, whether its through the draft, free agency or a trade, they're finding players that fit this word and what it means for the Falcons.

Ethos, though, is a word that acts more like an umbrella than it does anything else. So much can - and does - fall under that one word. Ethos is a Greek word that means character. Your character is what makes you, well, you. So, think of all the ways you would describe yourself to someone. Would you say you are kind? A hard-worker? Intelligent? Perhaps you would, or perhaps you have other words you liken to your personality. Whatever word you choose, they're all right, because your character and what makes it up is authentically you.

Ethos is also an appeal to credibility. Does this person have a character I can trust? Do they have a character of which I can believe in? Do I see my ethos in their own? Are their guiding beliefs something of which I respect? All of this is wrapped up into this one word: Ethos.


So, when Fontenot or head coach Arthur Smith or any Falcons decision-maker gets in front of a mic and says they're looking for players who fit their ethos, what do they mean? What are their ethos? What is their true north?

That's what I set out to find at the beginning of this series, one that has spanned much of the offseason thus far. It's taken us all the way to the start of the 2023 NFL Draft, which begins at 8 p.m. on Thursday night, a night in which those ethos take center stage as decisions are made about the next rookie class that'll make its way to Atlanta.

I'll be honest with you before we move forward, I am not 100 percent positive on the answer to the questions I've laid before you now. With a word that has the potential to encompass so much, it's hard to nail it down in a concise manner. But through conversations and discussions completed over the last few months, I feel like I'm very close to an answer, and to ultimately knowing what the Falcons mean when they say they want to find culture fits, players who fit their ethos.


Let's go back to January. The Falcons were in the process of hiring a new defensive coordinator after Dean Pees retired. They landed on Ryan Nielsen, who has been with the Saints since 2017, helping to establish one of the most consistent defensive fronts in the league.

In his first press conference as the Falcons next defensive coordinator, Nielsen was - of course - asked about the key characteristics of his defensive philosophy. He quickly answered.

"Hard. Tough. Physical. Aggressive," Nielsen ticked off. "Those are all the things I believed in at all of the places I've been."

When he met Arthur Smith, his new head coach and the Falcons offensive play caller, those words echoed back to him. Smith's beliefs, Smith's philosophies matched Nielsen's. Those words are the core of who they are as coordinators, but also the core of what they want their units to be.

Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen is interviewed by media during a press conference in the Jimmy Cribb Media Room at Ticketmaster Studios inside the Atlanta Falcons headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Monday, February 6, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

So, the process begins to find players who fit that core belief. Enter Falcons director of player personnel, Kyle Smith, who sat down with Scott Bair in early February. Scott asked him: What are you looking for as you break down film, as you talk to free agents, as you get to know draft prospects?

"We talk about self-starters a lot," Kyle Smith said. "Where you don't have to push a guy, start a guy to try to maximize what he's all about."

And then: "Can you take hard coaching? Because you're going to be coached hard here."

Now enter Terry Fontenot in late February, who stood in a suite at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis overlooking the field that would host the workouts for the 2023 NFL Combine. In that suite, formal interviews were to be held with draft prospect. I asked Fontenot: What are you looking for in these 15 minutes of face-to-face interaction?

"I think about guys throughout my career that excelled and they had it between the ears. They had it here," Fontenot points to his chest. "They were wired the right way and they did things the right way, because when that adversity comes - and it will come, when those distractions come because they will come - when they fall down they're going to get back up and keep fighting."

Smart. Tough. Highly-competitive. That's what Fontenot ticked off then.

By mid-March as the new league year arrived and with it a handful of new players bought off the free agency market, Fontenot said those words again. This time not in the context of what the Falcons look for, but in the context of what they had found.

A guy like Jessie Bates III, for example.

"We not only want players who will be good at their position, but they're going to make people around them better," Fontenot said, "and he's done that through his career, (that's why) we're very excited to get Jessie."

Jessie Bates does strength and conditioning during phase one at Atlanta Falcons Headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Monday, April 17, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

To recap, here are the words and phrases that I believe fall under the Falcons category of what key characteristics they are looking for in players they bring into Atlanta.

  • From Nielsen: Hard, tough, physical, aggressive.
  • From Kyle Smith: Self-starters, ability to take hard coaching.
  • From Fontenot: Smart, tough, highly competitive, makes the people around them better.

I've found this all falls under the ethos umbrella for the Falcons. It's not one specific thing. It's characteristics that are shared and coveted. When they say they want players to fit their ethos, these are the examples of what they're looking for.

But perhaps nothing explains what they mean quite like this next quote from Fontenot. It's the one I think epitomizes that word, ethos. It's the quote that puts a lot of words together to help explain one much more complex word. One word that - while a buzz word - is a word the Falcons do, indeed, live by.

"It comes down to none of us are perfect," Fontenot began. "We come down to it that we're all flawed human beings, but do we love football? Are we passionate about what we do? Off the field, whether we've made mistakes, are we self-aware and are we constantly trying to improve?

"It's all relative because people come from different places, and I can't expect someone to be like me because they might not have grown up like me, so it really takes time to understand people. You want to know where they are here," Fontenot points to his heart again. "Are they truly passionate about becoming a better human being? Becoming a better football player? And bringing it to your team and being a good teammate. Because we believe we have a strong culture and a really good locker room and we want to make sure that we add to that in the right way. There are not these specific things that, 'Hey, you have to be this,' or, 'You have to be that,' but it's really getting to know that person and knowing who they are and if they are truly passionate about what they do.

"Do they want to be the best football player they can be? (Do) they want to be the best person they can be? Regardless of where they are in their life, that they're moving in the right direction."

As we prepare for the upcoming Draft, take a look at the Atlanta Falcons 2022 Draft Picks and their highlights from the 2022 season, including Drake London, Desmond Ridder, Tyler Allgeier, Arnold Ebiketie, and Troy Andersen.

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