Tuesday likely marked the easiest day in Terry Fontenot's tenure as the Atlanta Falcons' general manager, but it's hard to imagine him getting off to a better start.
Fontenot was gregarious and engaging during his introductory press conference, laying out clearly his vision for making the Falcons a successful organization once again. Among the most notable points of emphasis for the former Saints vice president and assistant general manager of pro personnel pertained to his draft philosophy.
"In the draft, you're going to take the best player," Fontenot said. "You can't be afraid to continue [to add] at every position. There's not a position that you're going to say, 'Oh, we're good there, we're not going to draft there this year.' That's just what I believe. … We're never going to be afraid to take a player at any position and build a strength."
Previously, the Falcons had factored in team needs when preparing for the draft, at least to a degree. When players clearly high on their draft board, such as Calvin Ridley, fell to them, the Falcons didn't hesitate, but the majority of early-round draft picks over recent years aligned with perceived needs. It seems Fontenot is focused on adding the top talent, even if talent already exists at a position.
"You never want to reach for needs," Fontenot said. "I think it's cool listening to Ozzie Newsome tell stories about where there were certain players on the board, in certain areas, and they took the best player available, and he ends up taking Hall of Fame players as opposed to reaching for a need."
Creating a culture of competition was also a primary topic of discussion for Atlanta's new general manager. That, however, isn't a break from what former head coach Dan Quinn hoped to establish with the Falcons. In the new path laid out by Fontenot and new coach Arthur Smith, the idea of competition went hand in hand with the importance of accountability.
In his introductory press conference, Smith explained that, while all players will be held accountable, it's especially important to hold the Falcons' best players accountable. To create the highest level of competition, nobody can feel safe or entitled to the role they have. Fontenot's belief that no position should be off the table when adding to a roster perfectly syncs with that accountable philosophy Smith adheres to.
"It's never a bad thing to add to a strength," Fontenot said. "You want to get good football players, because it's a long season. There's a lot of injuries. A lot of things happen, there's a lot of challenges. At any position, you want to continue to add competition, and you want to get the best players that fit the makeup standard, that fit the physical talent, that fit the skill set and we have a clear vision for what they're going to be. You definitely want to take the best player available."
It's no secret that Smith and Fontenot are landing in a complex situation. Coming off a 4-12 season, the Falcons have some older stars they've built around and one of the more challenging salary cap situations in the league.
The team's new leadership says that while they always aim to be competitive, they know some hard decisions may be coming in the future. Their goal is to not only try to improve the team for the 2021 season, but to put the right infrastructure in place to have lasting success beyond the short term.
"We want to add, again, smart, tough, competitive players, get the right people on the bus and we want to be a competitive football team," Fontenot said. "We always want to be competitive. We're never going to sit here and say that we're not going to be competitive. That's what we want to do. But we also understand that we're going to do it the right way. We want to have sustained success."
Atlanta currently holds the No. 4 pick in the draft, which is the highest slot since 2008, when the organization drafted Matt Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick. That choice changed the direction of the franchise. It's possible the Falcons can select another player of similar ability this April, but Fontenot understands that change won't come that easily.
Given the cap situation the team is in, he stressed the importance of hitting on late-round picks in the draft and signing the best undrafted free agents available. With it unlikely the Falcons will be big spenders in free agency, the mid-to-lower priced guys they do sign must have an impact as well.
The only times Fontenot wasn't generously divulging with his answers was when it came to the specifics of the roster or the draft. That's partially because it's just Day 1 on the job, and he wants to thoroughly evaluate everything. He also had an obvious reason for withholding that any fan might understand and even celebrate.
"I watch every press conference," Fontenot said. "Anytime a must-needs-wants list for every team [emerges, I read it], because sometimes you can assess a team from where you stand and you can say I think they need this. But, when there's a general manager or a personnel director or a coach talking about exactly what they need on a press conference, that's not something I'm ever going to do."
Fontenot spent 18 years in the Saints organization, working his way from an intern to an assistant general manager for one of the most successful franchises of the last 15 years. This is his first time running the show as a general manager, but he came prepared and seems to have a clear grasp of what he hopes to accomplish.
It's the start of a new chapter for the Atlanta Falcons, but the first sentence may make them want to keep reading.