Editor's note: This is the first installment in AtlantaFalcons.com's extensive "Finding Culture Fits" series, detailing how the Falcons find players who fit their organizational philosophy and ethos during the pre-draft process. In this story, Falcons GM Terry Fontenot provides a tour of the Falcons formal interview suite at the the NFL combine and details the art of the interview in an exclusive interview with Tori McElhaney.
INDIANAPOLIS -- When asked about formal interviews at the NFL Combine, Terry Fontenot said without hesitating that he'd liken the process to speed dating.
Yes, speed dating.
Every year, all 32 NFL teams and their leadership descend upon the city of Indianapolis for the NFL Combine. It's there where team scouts, coaches and front office staff members venture through Lucas Oil Stadium and into assigned suites overlooking the football field. One suite is set up so the teams' decision makers can watch invited draft prospects workout on the field. It's in the other locale, though, where some of the most important work is done. This second suite is the site where formal interviews are held with the best players across college football and the professional team that could draft them.
In an exclusive interview with AtlantaFalcons.com, the Falcons general manager pulled back the curtain of the interview room. It's a place that often goes overlooked at the NFL Combine, but a place of great importance to the Falcons, who under Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith have established through two years at the helm that they want to put together not just the best 53-man roster come August, but a collection of the "right" 53 men. The process of finding the "right" fit is at play in the suites of Lucas Oil Stadium.
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Each team gets 20 minutes with 45 players of their choosing, which is roughly 14 percent of the 319 players invited to the combine. Players begin their formal interviews shortly after arriving in Indianapolis. What those interviews actually look like, though, varies outside of only a few consistencies.
For starters, there's a shot clock in the room. It won't make a loud buzzer-like sound if the clock strikes zero, but it's hard to miss.
On one side wall in the suite mounts a flat screen TV with nothing but a giant number on it. When a player walks into the room, the number 20 illuminates atop a green background. As the minutes tick by, that number drops. By the time it gets to the number five, the background color turns yellow. By the time teams find themselves inside the three-minute mark of their interview, the background turns a bright red indictator the player's time is almost up and he needs to be ushered from the room.
So, yes, "it's like speed dating," Fontenot said.
And what date is complete without food? Because oh yes, there's a lot of it. A table full to be exact. Fontenot said players never eat the food as they cycle through. He laughed that not even his fellow staff members do, either. Fontenot does, though. He's a snacker. Skinny Pop is his salty snack of choice.
There's also an endless supply of coffee, which everyone in Indianapolis seems to run on throughout Combine week. However, majority of the formal interviews happen at night, from about 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fontenot said its offensive coordinator Dave Ragone who frequents the coffee machine, often times regardless of the time of day.
"Dave Ragone will go through coffee late at night like it's nothing," Fontenot said. "I can't drink coffee this late because I'll be up all night. I stick with more of the green tea and the Skinny Pop."
There's also a parting gift upon the end of said speed date. Teams give out gear to their interviewees. Backpacks, sweatshirts, hats, you name it, these players receive it. Along the wall closest to the door sits a table lined with various hats and shirts, neatly folded for players to grab on their way out. The hat design that's been most popular among those interviewing with the Falcons in 2023 you may ask? "You can't miss on the red," Fontenot said of the very specific throwback red helmet inspired hats.
There's a quickness and urgency to these meetings, though. Despite the coffee and the candy and the gear, no time can -- or will -- be wasted. For instance, when a player walks into the room, there are no introductions done even though this player is entering into a room filled with scouts and coaches he likely does not know. With so little time on the shot clock, the quicker a player sits himself on the hot seat, the better.
And that hot seat? Its position in the room is important to think about when you're imagining this scenario.
In the middle of a room is a table. At that table sits Smith and Fontenot on one side while the player and the specific coordinator who calls his side of the ball directly beside him. Smith sits directly across from the player. It's the head coach who has a laptop in front of him. That laptop is the device that cues up specific tape of the player in front of him to the bigger TV beside him. A whiteboard with markers sits behind the player for him to use if need be.
Around the room more chairs are scattered about. Special teams coordinator Marquice Williams and Falcons vice president of player personnel Kyle Smith sit by the window overlooking the field. Offensive coordinator Dave Ragone and new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen take turns shifting from the back of the room to the table with Smith and Fontenot depending on the player they're interviewing at any given moment. A handful of area and regional scouts sit in lines on the outer fringes of the room to make a semi circle around the player being interviewed.
In terms of hot seats? This one is just that: Hot.
What's interesting is that the set up of the room and who sits within it from the Falcons camp is the only constant of these 45 interviews. Why? Because, according to Fontenot, every interview is different. A misconception is that coaches and the general manager enter into these interviews with a script. Some may think they spend five minutes asking questions to the player with the final 10 minutes being allocated to go over film with him. Fontenot said that's not the case at all.
For Fontenot and the Falcons, the art of an interview is based in feel and flexibility.
"We do feel it out," Fontenot said of the interviews. "Sometimes we might not get to too much of the film. If we start talking to the player and it's just a really good conversation and you want it to keep going and you don't want to cut it off, we'll keep going with that. Sometimes you'll have a short conversation with the player and then you'll get right to the film. And, naturally, while you're watching film other questions will come up. It kind of just depends on the player."
Some players are conversationalists. They can get long-winded in their answers or have specific talking points they want to get to. If that's how the interview is trending, the Falcons will let it trend that way. Other times, the staff will have to work hard to pull any conversation out of a guy in the first few minutes. If so, they'll switch gears, pulling up their film to go over a few plays with them. Soon, they begin to open up.
"Usually, when you start talking ball you can tell the guys who love it," Fontenot said. "They get kind of in the zone when they start talking football."
(Not unlike the head coach sitting across from them, Fontenot added).
It's all about finding the right balance for a player in the moment. What makes him the most comfortable and relaxed in a notoriously uncomfortable setting? That's a decision made on the fly, in the middle of the interview. But there's quite a bit of prep that goes into these 15 minutes of true interview time.
Staying on the speed dating theme, every player has a profile. These profiles are created by the area scouts who, in turn, pass them up the ladder to ultimately get them in the hands of Fontenot and Smith. Even though they are quiet figures in the room, these area scouts play a major role on interview day, according to Kyle Smith. They're the ones who have built out these profiles. Per Fontenot, they're the ones who have started writing the book on the player that the organization may want to complete. They know these prospects as well as (if not better than) anyone. So, when the interviews are over Fontenot and Kyle Smith can ask them the simple question: Was the guy we spent that short amount of time with the same guy you've been scouting for a year, if not longer?
"Did that feel like what we got? Did that kid feel - in that 15-20 minutes - like the guy that we heard about through the fall visits?" Kyle Smith will ask. "If it is, great, but we're not done yet. We still have more work. If it isn't, we have to check that as a flag. Let's get around this kid more. He could be nervous. Some of those interactions are so short and it's long days, sometimes it's at night and kids are tired. You never put it to one interview and be done with it."
Fontenot agreed. Though these speed-dating interviews are important to set a tone, they won't be what ultimately makes or breaks a prospect.
"These interviews are a grind," Fontenot said. "A player might have 10 of these one night and you get all the way to the end. Is he just zapped and he's done? Or is he still ready to go and he can handle it? Because that's the NFL game. They're playing a lot more games in the NFL than they are playing in college. Can you handle that day-to-day grind? That's why this process is important."
And still, "you can tell a lot about a guy within your first interaction" with him, Kyle Smith said. He'd be the first to say, though, along with Fontenot, that it's the interactions ahead -- the college pro days, the Falcons facility visits, the private workouts -- that build out a final declaration on a player.
The formal interview at the NFL Combine is a start. It's not the finish line.
No one's proposing marriage on a first date.
Join us as we take a look back at our favorite photos of our rookies from the 2022 Atlanta Falcons season.