Fontenot 'took the position out of' Robinson pick
Falcons G.M. Terry Fontenot joins Mike Florio to explain what drew them to Bijan Robinson, why they weren't worried about drafting a RB in Round 1, how they plan to utilize their offensive weapons and more.
MIKE FLORIO: All right. We continue our series of interviews with general managers throughout the NFL post-draft, not that the work stops. It never stops for guys like Terry Fontenot, who joins us now. Terry, how are you?
TERRY FONTENOT: Outstanding, man, outstanding. Appreciate you having me.
MIKE FLORIO: I appreciate you doing it. You were just rattling off all the stuff that's going on. One thing that caught my eye-- XFL players, paying attention to the spring leagues, developmental opportunities for players, chances for teams to find some guys who can maybe come in and make a difference.
TERRY FONTENOT: Yeah, I was talking to Randy Mueller this morning about it. The XFL, that league did a really good job this year, just the way they structured the league. The coaching staff, the front office, they hired a lot of really smart people. And the way they put the league together, it's made it really easy for us to evaluate them, bring players in, and start to go through that process. So there's some good players in that league.
MIKE FLORIO: You know, I hadn't really thought of it before. It's one thing to look for players, but you have other avenues. You could find some scouts from the XFL. You can find assistant coaches. You can find all sorts of people who can come make the Atlanta Falcons better because they're getting their reps and their opportunities in one of the spring leagues.
TERRY FONTENOT: Yeah, you're absolutely right. And a lot of people that are in there are people that have had opportunities in the league and have been in the league, and so they know a lot about the league. And so it is turnkey if you hire someone from there. But the other cool part is the fact that they know how the league works. And so when you come up with different ideas and how you want to do things, they say, OK, this makes sense, because they've sat in these seats. You have former GMs, former coaches, former personnel directors. And so they really understand the impact that they can have structuring it the way that they did.
MIKE FLORIO: And I need to mention USFL also, because USFL games on NBC and Peacock [INAUDIBLE].
TERRY FONTENOT: Yes, absolutely.
MIKE FLORIO: I probably should have mentioned that there are two spring leagues now from which you can draw both player talent and non-player talent, and people get chances to really prove what they can do before they get an opportunity to do it at the highest possible level. Well, you've been doing at the highest level now for a few years. The Falcons are one of those teams, in my mind, that are kind of on the brink of something.
And I think most people haven't figured it out yet. 7 and 10 each of the last two years, division that feels wide open, conference that has seen a lot of the great players migrate to the AFC. I just feel like you guys have something going on that has yet to be fully appreciated. And maybe you like it that way.
TERRY FONTENOT: Yeah, it's mentality before reality, right? There's a really good mindset in this building, and it has been here for the last two years. And really believe that from the coaching staff to, really, everybody in the building, everyone is here, constantly doing everything you can do to win.
And so we're really excited about the players that we've added, starting with the offseason, and players that we traded for, players that we added in free agency, and then now as we go through the draft. And again, we just worked out some players. We're visiting XFL players. So we're always trying to get better. And we really believe in the building right now, the players that are here, and the staff. So we're really excited about the season.
MIKE FLORIO: How much of this year, Terry, feels like clean slate because you've gotten past the dead cap money from the Julio Jones trade, the dead cap money from the Matt Ryan trade? That's gone now. It's off the books. It's over. You can now focus on going forward. You spent in free agency, bolstering the defense, mainly. But does it feel like you're finally at the spot where you can do your job now that-- all due respect to great players from the past, but those salary cap numbers are gone, and you can focus on moving forward?
TERRY FONTENOT: Yeah, and that's all a part of it. And any job is going to have some different challenges for whatever reasons. And that was a challenge dealing with a lot of that. And again, that's why I say I appreciate this staff and, again, these coaches, because it was never used as an excuse over the previous couple of years. We were doing everything we could do to win every possible game and build the best roster that we possibly could, and so we were looked at as opportunities as opposed to obstacles. But there were some challenges.
And look, moving forward, there are going to be more challenges that we're going to deal with. Those are the challenges in those moments. But we are definitely excited about where we are at this point.
MIKE FLORIO: So last Thursday night, you're sitting at number eight when round one begins. I assume you've got at least eight names that you're happy to take because it can go seven different ways, seven different names. Seven guys you really like all could be gone by the time you pick. How high was Bijan Robinson on your list of names going into round one?
TERRY FONTENOT: Well, you're right-- you do want to have eight names. You don't sleep good if you don't have eight names because you know that it can go either way. And we kind of talked about it. That was one of the more unpredictable drafts going into it, not knowing what's going to happen in front of you. I think everybody knew who they expect the number one pick to be. Outside of that, the next picks, we just didn't know.
We loved Bijan throughout the whole process. And there were some other really good players that came off the board before him. We liked those players a lot, but we love Bijan and the man he is, the person he is, the player he is, the impact he's going to make. So without saying exactly where he was in our stack, we were pumped to take him off the board at eight.
MIKE FLORIO: There's been a debate about taking running backs in the top 10. Bijan is the first one to go since Saquon Barkley in 2018. There hadn't been a running back taken higher than number 24 since then, no running backs in round one last year. What was it that made you comfortable with making a running back, regardless of who the running back is, any running back, a top 10 draft pick?
TERRY FONTENOT: Well, and I think for us, you got to take the position out of it and talk about the player. Because you might say take a premium position. Take a corner. Take a defensive end. OK. Tell me who the corner is. Tell me who the defensive end is. That's what matters, is who the particular player is.
When we talk about Bijan Robinson, the impact-- he's an impact offensive player. He's a playmaker. You look at last year with Drake London. We were excited to take him off the board not because he was a receiver but because of the impact we believe he's going to make, as well as Kyle Pitts two years ago. So we believe we're taking impact players, and we're taking playmakers, home run hitters, touchdown makers, guys that can really impact our total team. So we never focus on a particular position. You take a positionless football. You just want to take good players that fit the character traits that you're looking for that are going to make you a better team.
MIKE FLORIO: One of the realities, I think, of running backs not being taken as high as they used to be is there are so many running backs out there. You can get them in any round. You can get them in every round. You can get them undrafted. But is part of it also the nature of the position that is so conducive to injury? Saquon Barkley started off great, got injured in 2019, got injured in 2020. Not his fault. You're the guy that's in the car crash every play. You've got guys hitting every angle of your body, every body part every play you touch the ball. How much of that factor is into it, the idea that this position is arguably the riskiest from a health standpoint in all of football?
TERRY FONTENOT: Yeah, and I think, to your point, you have to have a clear plan of exactly what you're going to do and how you're going to utilize that particular player. And that's what's fun about-- we do really like the players in our running back room, whether we're talking about Tyler or CP and all the different things that they can do. And I have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff, from our head coach Arthur Smith and our offensive coordinator, Dave Ragone. You go all the way down the coaching staff. We have some really smart people in the building, and we have clear visions and clear plans for everyone on our roster. And when we get excited about a player and know the impact he's going to make-- obviously, you factor all those things in, usage and mileage and all those things. But we have a very clear plan and clear vision of how it's going to all come together.
MIKE FLORIO: There's been a lot of talk about Bijan Robinson not just playing in the backfield but spending time in the slot like he did at Texas last year. Is the vision to move him all over the place when he's on the field?
TERRY FONTENOT: Yeah, I think he can do a lot of different things. And that's one of the things that, when you put on the tape, wherever he is on the field, he does. He makes impacts. If he's at receiver or if he's in the slot, you're going to worry about him. You better make sure you have a plan for him. Coordinators have to make sure they have a plan for him, or if he's in the backfield.
But when you just go through our players on our roster, we have other players that are the same way. You don't know where they're going to line up and exactly what they're going to do. So that's the fun part about it.
MIKE FLORIO: It sounds like some no-huddle offense could be incorporated more heavily into the attack. I mean, you get guys out there who are versatile, who can line up everywhere. You can create some mismatches if you get the right personnel on the defensive side of the ball.
TERRY FONTENOT: We'll see. Again, not only the different impacts the guys can make, but we believe we have a lot of smart players that we brought in, a lot of smart, high-character guys. So you can definitely be versatile with the different things we're going to do.
MIKE FLORIO: You're going to keep guys awake at night, though, really, when they have to figure out how to stop all these guys. And you rattled off the names, and that's what dawned on me after you picked Bijan Robinson. Holy crap. Look at the skill position players this team has. But there's still only one football. How do you keep everybody happy when, at the end of the day, only one guy is getting the ball in his hands every single play?
TERRY FONTENOT: Yeah, and it's a great question. And we always look at it like it's all about wins. That's the one stat that matters. It's about, what are we going to do to get the win? And when you've been a part of really good teams and good programs, there's times that you can win 10 to 0, and there's going to be games that you have to outscore the other team, and you have to score more points. There's games where this particular player is going to have a bunch of catches or a bunch of yards, and there's plays where they aren't.
So that's why it's not just about bringing in players with high skill sets, but we have to bring in the right types of players. To have a championship team, you have to have championship character, so we want unselfish players. So if we go and win a game and this particular player didn't touch the ball much, he was more of a diversion, he was he's going to be excited about that win, and vice versa. So we're excited because not only the players we have, but we do believe we have unselfish players that are all about getting the one stat that matters, that win.
MIKE FLORIO: After you drafted Bijan Robinson, I tweeted a list of all the names of the skill position players you guys have, and I actually forgot Cordarrelle Patterson. And then that dawned on me, and I was like, oh--
TERRY FONTENOT: He's not going to like that.
MIKE FLORIO: But-- right, but it's unbelievable that you have that many guys. But the pushback I got was, yeah, but they don't have a quarterback. Yeah, but it doesn't matter if the quarterback isn't any good. I think the quarterback is unproven. And I think if anything, this only makes him better by taking pressure off of him by having all these great players he can get the ball too.
TERRY FONTENOT: we have a lot of confidence in Desmond, and not only-- we know the skill set that he has, but the worker he is, the competitor he is, the natural leadership. And so we do have confidence in him. And yet also, we believe it's not ever going to be about one player. It's going to be about the team. That's how we're going to win championships. It's going to always be about the team. But he's the ultimate team player, and we have a lot of confidence in him.
MIKE FLORIO: Where would you say his development is right now after one year in the NFL of only playing a limited amount at the end of the season?
TERRY FONTENOT: Yeah, well, he played in four games, and we saw growth throughout that four-game period. And since then, he's been working. And that's what he's been doing. He's going to do everything he can possibly do to get better. And there's a part of that equation that you need. There needs to be some experience. And so as we get into the season, he's going to gain more experience. But we believe. We believe in the person. We believe in his skill set, and we believe he's going to get the absolute most of his ability. But there's always unknown with that because, again, he's only played four NFL games.
MIKE FLORIO: Where have you, as an organization, challenged him to get better?
TERRY FONTENOT: I think with every day, the way we run this program-- everybody in the building, from myself to anyone that works in the building, every player, every coach, we come in every day, and we've got to get better. And there's no complacency. No one's comfortable. Everyone is trying their best to get better, and we believe that's what he's going to do. He's the ultimate competitor.
And there's a lot of little details of his game that-- again, we saw improvement down the stretch, and he knows there's a lot of areas he needs to continue to prove like everyone else on the roster. But we have no doubt that he has the right mindset that he's going to do everything he can do to reach his max ability.
MIKE FLORIO: You've got to have blockers to protect the quarterback and to create some running lanes for guys like Bijan Robinson. You traded up to get Matthew Bergeron at pick number 38 in round two. Were you trying to get into round one, too, on Thursday night? I'd heard that. Is that what was going on?
TERRY FONTENOT: Yeah, we were on the phone. What we basically do is once we make that pick, then we look at, OK, hey, these are the players that we want. Who are the players who we'd trade back in to get? There's always a clump of those players. Who are the players you want at the top of one? And we want to be aggressive.
What I love about, again, our staff-- it's not just our front office led by Kyle Smith but also, obviously, our coaching staff and our head coach, is there's passion and conviction. And that's what you're always looking for-- passion and conviction on the players that you take. You want to be excited about the players you take and have a clear vision. So when we're looking at the players that are there, we say, OK, are there any players we'd trade back in for? There were. So we were on the phone. And you're always weighing it out.
You at least want to get on the phone, Mike, and find out, OK, what's it going to cost? There's some costs that it's not worth it to give up that much for. So we're on the phone with some teams. It didn't quite work out. And we did the same thing, trying to get back in or trying to get to the top of the second round, and it worked out. And the best player on the board and we were able to get on the clock was Matt Bergeron. And very excited to have him.
MIKE FLORIO: What are your expectations? And I know you get asked that all the time, and everybody always says to win the Super Bowl. But realistically, where the program is right now, where you've been-- 7 and 10 last year, 7 and 10 the year before that-- what is the next step for the Falcons?
TERRY FONTENOT: I think to get better every single day and get the most of your team, to go out there-- and every game that you play, you want to have a clear plan to go out there and compete and do the best that you can to win that game. That's the mindset. Every single game that you go out there and play, you want to be able to compete and win it.
We can go through and talk about the division and, we can talk about-- but at the end of the day, you want to have that mindset to where every time you step out on that field, whether it's a practice drill or whether it's a preseason game or whether it's a regular-season game or a playoff game, you want to do the very best you can to win that game.
MIKE FLORIO: Last one. I do these in that window between the draft and when the schedule comes out. Who do you want to open with?
TERRY FONTENOT: That's an interesting question. It's always cool to open at home. We got to open at home last year. That was always fun to open at home. And I don't know. I think sometimes, it's fun to open with familiar opponents. So sometimes, it's fun to open with that division. And that's a good question. I've never really thought about that.
Usually when you look at the schedule when the schedule comes out, you look at more so, OK, who are the games who-- are the cold-weather games you have to go and play at the end of the season? So you look at, where's your bye week? Do you have a London game? You look at more so things like that. You do look at that first game. But that's a good question. I got to think about that one, man. Who do you think? Who do you want to see us play week one?
MIKE FLORIO: Well, the New York Jets just because I want to see everybody play the Jets this year because they have Aaron Rodgers. And they are on your schedule this year. But this year, for the first time, you can have multiple short-week games. Is that one of the things you're going to look forward to? We get the short straw here where we have to do Sunday to Thursday turnaround more than once.
TERRY FONTENOT: You definitely look at that. You look at, where are those short weeks? Is it a home game prior to that? Because right away with Arthur Smith and working with the staff-- OK, so how do we plan this? And how do we plan the practices and the travel, and how do we go about this? Are we going to spend an extra night, and how do we go about that? So that's important to look at as well.
MIKE FLORIO: The popular teams get yanked all over the place-- primetime, Thursday night here, there, and everywhere. There is something to be said for having every game start Sunday at 1:00 Eastern just from the standpoint of that regularity, that rhythm that goes into a team. But that's reserved for the teams that the league thinks aren't going to be very good. And you can use that as a way to put a chip on your shoulder, too, if that's what happens, if you get a lot of 1:00 Eastern games.
TERRY FONTENOT: Yep, yep. And we already have some people in the building-- whether we don't get many primetime games or we get extra primetime games, if we get more than we had last year, then I do believe that the people in this building, they're going to figure out a reason to have a chip on their shoulder, even once we have-- because you know how it is. Whether you're handling success or failure, it's how you handle it.
But the way our building is, there's never going to be anyone that's comfortable or complacent. We're always going to have that mindset, that chip. And we believe we've got something to prove.
MIKE FLORIO: Well, I love watching standalone games in primetime. That's better than trying to watch eight or nine at once. And I want to watch the Falcons in primetime as much as possible this year with Bijan Robinson the rest of the great playes you have. Terry, it's been an honor to talk to you again. I enjoy it every time we do it. We wish you all the best as the offseason continues. And I can't wait to see where you start your season and how many of those night games you guys have this year.
TERRY FONTENOT: We appreciate you. You might want to send a follow-up tweet with CP in there, man.
MIKE FLORIO: I probably should.
TERRY FONTENOT: Because he's not going to like that.
MIKE FLORIO: Well, he'll have a chip on his shoulder. He'll be even better this year.
TERRY FONTENOT: There you go. There you go.
MIKE FLORIO: All right. Thanks, Terry.