Of course the Atlanta Falcons' salary-cap situation is daunting. They are projected to be $37 million over the cap in 2021 with just 31 contracts on the roster, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System.
But that won’t be the biggest hurdle for Terry Fontenot, who became the Falcons' first Black general manager on Tuesday.
Remember, Fontenot comes from the New Orleans Saints' front office, where they spent the better part of the past decade finding ways to push cap costs into future years. If he wanted, Fontenot could probably have the Falcons under the cap by lunch on his first day by converting base salaries into signing bonuses and adding some extra voidable years to big-dollar contracts.
But the Saints have been managing their cap that way because they were decisively in “win-now” mode during the back stretch of quarterback Drew Brees’ Hall of Fame career -- and they were prepared to deal with the financial repercussions at a later date.
Fontenot’s biggest challenge with the Falcons is trying to figure out what mode they want to be in.
Do they try to quickly replenish their roster around quarterback Matt Ryan, who turns 36 in May, and receiver Julio Jones, who turns 32 next month? Especially considering the NFC South could be wide open in the near future with Brees about to retire, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady theoretically not able to stick around forever and the Carolina Panthers just beginning their own reboot? Do they focus on more of a complete overhaul that could include drafting a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in April’s draft? Or do they try for something in between?
“We’re gonna think big picture and do the right things. The goal is to have sustained success,” said Fontenot, who didn’t commit to either path during his introductory videoconference on Tuesday, while insisting that the goal is always to remain competitive and add the right players no matter who they’re investing in.
“We’re not gonna make decisions that are gonna help us in 2021 but are gonna hurt us in ’22 and ’23,” Fontenot said. “I know there’s a lot of good players on this roster and I know there’s some areas we need to address.”
Falcons owner Arthur Blank and president Rich McKay said during the hiring process they wouldn’t force any of those decisions on the GM.
Blank made it explicitly clear “you cannot hire the very best people” and then immediately “tie their hands” by calling anything off limits. So Fontenot and newly hired coach Arthur Smith should be the leading decision-makers when it comes to the futures of franchise cornerstones such as Ryan and Jones.
Blank said he thinks the opportunity to go from worst to first in the NFC South in 2021 is “very real.” But he said what matters most to him is finding the best path to “sustained success.”
“The  team is better than a 4-12 record. There’s no question about that,” Blank said recently. “But it’s probably not better than 7-9 or 8-8, and that puts us back where we were the past two years [7-9 in both 2018 and 2019]. So we can’t fool ourselves.”
Blank and McKay said one of the things they enjoyed most about their extensive GM search was getting opinions about their organization from people who were not only outside the building, but actual competitors who had done advanced scouting work while trying to beat them.
Blank admitted sometimes your eyes can be “rose colored” when evaluating your own team.
Well, nobody has studied the Falcons more closely than Fontenot, who spent the past 18 years working his way up the ranks of the pro personnel department for Atlanta’s biggest rival. One of Fontenot’s top job descriptions for many of those years was specifically studying teams like the Falcons inside and out.
Fontenot probably has strong convictions about how to address some of the Falcons’ biggest question marks (like their barren backfield, the progressing offensive line that will likely lose center Alex Mack to retirement, the edge rusher spot that they haven’t been able to get right despite some major investments and the safety position that will be in flux if they don’t re-sign free agent Keanu Neal).
Fontenot said he interviewed for four GM jobs in this cycle -- but felt like he knew the Falcons better than any of them because he had studied them so closely for so long.
“I know the roster, yet I need to really drill down into the details,” Fontenot said. “And do it along with Arthur Smith. And once the coaches are in, we need to have extensive meetings with them.”
Fontenot also comes from an organization that had the kind of “sustained success” Blank was talking about. New Orleans went to the playoffs nine times in 15 years with Brees and coach Sean Payton -- with a mini-rebuild of its own in the middle of that run.
The Saints went 7-9 for three straight seasons from 2014 to '16 before winning the past four NFC South titles. And they did it through some spectacular draft hauls, as well as some shrewd free-agent additions despite limited cap space (most notably linebacker Demario Davis).
And let’s face it, that’s the biggest key to this job -- nailing the draft picks and striking gold with limited resources in free agency. That will be true no matter what mode the Falcons are in.