FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The 'Offseason Checklist' will be a series of stories that break down the Falcons top priorities at specific junctures during the 2023 offseason. This offseason is poised to be one of the most significant the Falcons have had in recent memory.
Terry Fontenot said last week this offseason would be very different than the ones that came before it. And let's be honest: Just because it's the offseason doesn't mean the work stops. Oh, far from it.
The Falcons will be busy. So busy, in fact, that you may need a road map prior to each tentpole moment to help you navigate the busyness. That's why the 'Offseason Checklist' is here. New lists will drop periodically throughout the offseason to keep you up to date on what the Falcons are doing and what they should be prioritizing at that time.
So, let's waste no time, shall we? Here's the first of many checklists we'll have for you this offseason.
Finding a defensive coordinator
When Arthur Smith was asked about replacing Dean Pees after he retired at the end of the 2022 season, Smith said the Falcons would take their time finding a new defensive coordinator. Don't take that for the Falcons resting on their laurels when it comes to this decision, though.
Already the Falcons have reportedly requested interviews with coaches like Panthers defensive coordinator Al Holcomb, Packers pass game coordinator Jerry Gray, Saints co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen and Steelers linebackers coach Brian Flores. The Atlanta Falcons have not confirmed these reports.
This list isn't likely to be where they stop, either. As Smith said last week: The Falcons will "cast a really wide net" to find Pees' replacement.
"Certainly, there are familiarities with certain schemes that you want to talk to, but we're not going to be closed-minded about anything," Smith said. "… I want to talk to a lot of people. I already have talked to a few so far, but we'll take our time."
With Pees only on a short-term deal in Atlanta, the Falcons knew the day would come that he would officially head to retirement, and they would have to hit the market to find a new defensive coordinator. However, Smith was clear last Wednesday that the way the Falcons have been building their defense isn't going to alter based on which defensive coordinator ultimately gets the job.
They've been building a hybrid system, so even if the scheme changes slightly, they still feel confident that they won't need an "overhaul" of defensive personnel.
"Structurally, it's really about being flexible," Smith said. "… Terry can certainly share his opinion on it, but when you are building that hybrid model you're not looking for an overhaul. We've been building something here. Baltimore is a great example. They've had a lot of success with that scheme… They've had a lot of different defensive coordinators, a lot of success and they've tweaked different things of it and made it their own, but the way that they've drafted and built it, that vision to play multiple and have guys that are really versatile, that won't change regardless of who the play caller is."
Fontenot agreed: "It's not like we're bringing in a new visionary of the defense and he's going to have a whole different (scheme). Arthur really knows what he's looking for, and he'll be strategic in that."
The search is on, though.
Prepping for the Shrine Bowl
As announced last week, the Falcons coaches will join Patriots coaches as the staffs selected to coach the East-West Shrine Bowl on Feb. 2 in Las Vegas.
When it comes to the pre-draft process, Fontenot calls moments like the NFL Combine and college pro days "touchpoints" for Falcons coaches and scouts to meet and work with top college prospects. The Shrine Bowl is a unique opportunity in that the Falcons staff will have a few days of full practices with a portion of the 130 accepted invitees who will play in the Shrine Bowl. That means Falcons coaches will be running the drills, plays and meetings, getting the chance to work up close with some of these prospects.
Head coaches and specific coordinators are assigned to act as supervisors during the Shrine Bowl, and will not participate in their actual roles' capacity. So, the Falcons will have different coaches in the roles of head coach, offensive and defensive coordinator and special teams coordinators. Those decisions have yet to be announced.
"If you are one of the staffs with coaches in there, they want it to be about development," Smith said. "It's a lot of younger (coaches) getting opportunities and bigger roles. That's the format for teams with staffs going down there. I think it's good (because) there are very few opportunities to get real experience."
A challenge for the Falcons participating in the Shrine Bowl, though, is that the Senior Bowl will be happening simultaneously. So, the logistics might be a little crazy for the organization during that week.
Planning for the Senior Bowl
The Senior Bowl takes place in Mobile, Alabama, on Feb. 4, two days after the conclusion of the Shrine Bowl on Feb. 2. Like the Shrine Bowl, the Senior Bowl holds a few practices prior to game day. This means there will be overlap for the Falcons between the two events.
Fontenot said that shouldn't be a problem, though. It just may mean that the contingency the Falcons send to the Senior Bowl may be smaller in the days leading up to the game. That doesn't mean the Falcons will be without representation, though. It'll just be an all-hands-on-deck situation.
"We'll find the right balance, because there will obviously be good players at each game," Fontenot said. "You'll usually have a group of scouts at East-West and then you'll head over to the Senior Bowl. We'll make sure we have both covered."
The rules for the coaching requirements of the Shrine Bowl and Senior Bowl will be slightly altered in 2023. A new league policy mandates that only one of the two bowls will have a complete NFL team coaching staff coach in the game, while the other bowl will get a staff of nominated coaches from a plethora of different NFL teams. This mandate for the bowl games will switch back and forth every other year.
So, as we already know, the 2023 Shrine Bowl will have complete coaching staffs (the Falcons and Patriots) coaching the teams. The 2023 Senior Bowl will have a group of nominated coaches participating in the game's prep.
The Falcons – and the league itself – have not announced which coaches from each NFL staff has been nominated.
Regardless, the Senior Bowl has become an important "touchpoint" for the Falcons under the Fontenot/Smith regime. In Fontenot and Smith's first year in Atlanta, the Falcons drafted five players from the 2021 Senior Bowl (S Richie Grant, CB Darren Hall, OLB Ade Ogundeji, DL Ta'Quon Graham and WR Frank Darby). Last year, they again drafted five players who they met at the 2022 Senior Bowl (QB Desmond Ridder, OLB Arnold Ebiketie, ILB Troy Andersen, OL Justin Shaffer and OLB DeAngelo Malone).
If this track record means something, the Falcons won't be skipping out or pulling punches for the 2023 Senior Bowl. It's been too productive a week for them the last two years to skip out now.