NFC South: Ryan Kerrigan

Tony Gonzalez AP Photo/Evan VucciThe Falcons are 5-0 in part because of Tony Gonzalez, who had 13 passes for 123 yards and a TD.
LANDOVER, Md. -- Arthur Blank is a cultured man who has experienced plenty of things in his life.

That’s why I’m kind of chuckling at what the owner of the Atlanta Falcons said after his team defeated the Washington Redskins 24-17 on Sunday at FedEx Field.

As he waited to listen to coach Mike Smith’s postgame news conference, Blank walked over to me and sounded like he had a big secret.

"This is the first time this team has been 5-0, and that goes all the way back to 1966," Blank said.

Blank’s tone wasn't celebratory or boastful. In fact, he sounded more amazed than anything. You can’t blame him, especially when you look at the history of the Falcons.

They’d had only two 4-0 starts in their entire existence. Aside from one glorious run to the Super Bowl in 1998, this is a team without much positive history. The Falcons didn’t even have their first back-to-back winning seasons until 2008 and ’09.

Blank wasn’t the only one who seemed stunned that the Falcons are 5-0. Like Blank, veteran center Todd McClure has been around the block. He has the longest tenure of any member of the team, but he sounded almost child-like as he pondered his team’s status.

"You know [linebacker] Mike Peterson came into the league the same year I did," said McClure, who was a seventh-round pick by Atlanta in 1999. "I went up to him after the game and I asked him, 'Have you ever been 5-0?' He couldn’t remember being 5-0."

I double-checked with Peterson, who has played for the Colts, Jaguars and Falcons during his 14-year career.

"Not that I remember," Peterson said. "If I have, it wasn’t sweet enough that I could remember. This is very sweet. It’s big for the city, the franchise and the owner. Everybody’s been pulling for this team to take that next step. You can kind of see it now. We’ve been fighting this thing the last three or four years."

"The thing" Peterson is talking about is the fact that the Falcons have had four straight winning seasons, but they haven’t won a playoff game. They’ve been a good team, but not quite great.

The Falcons can’t do a thing about their playoff jinx until January, but they’re putting themselves in a position where they could have the NFC South wrapped up early. If they keep winning, they could rest some starters at the end of the season, have home-field advantage and, maybe, finally get over that hump.

They might have taken a step in that direction Sunday.

"These are the kind of games that you hate to see, but you want to see," defensive end John Abraham said. "We didn’t play the way we wanted to, but we persevered."

The Falcons weren’t sharp early and fell behind when Ryan Kerrigan intercepted Matt Ryan in the second quarter and returned it for a touchdown. Atlanta hung around, but fell behind again (17-14) early in the fourth quarter when Santana Moss caught a 77-yard touchdown pass from rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins, who entered the game after fellow rookie Robert Griffin III suffered what the Redskins described as a mild concussion in the third quarter.

"We were our own worst enemy in the first half," Smith said.

The Falcons -- and Ryan -- were uncharacteristically sloppy for the better part of three quarters, but they scored 17 points in the fourth quarter. Ryan completed 34 of 52 passes for 345 yards and two touchdowns, and he did that on a day when he didn’t look particularly sharp.

For the second consecutive week, Ryan rallied the Falcons to a come-from-behind victory in the fourth quarter. With the game tied (17-17), Ryan and the Falcons got the ball at their own 31-yard line with 5:40 remaining and promptly went on a touchdown drive.

"That’s what [Ryan] does," Abraham said. "I never thought we were going to lose that game because nothing he does surprises me."

Ryan didn’t have his best day, and neither did the Falcons, but they came away with a win. They did it with solid defense, stopping the Redskins consistently on third downs and coming up with two fourth-quarter interceptions. They also did it because veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez had a huge game, catching 13 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown.

"In terms of showing some resiliency, you are going to have to do that," Smith said. "Games are going to be tight and close in this league, and you are going to have to win those close ones."

That’s the kind of thing you have to do if you’re going to take the next step that Peterson talked about.

"We’ve got a maturity level on this team," Peterson said. "We were down seven, and it could easily have swung the other way and got away from us. We got down, but we have the maturity to get through that. Nobody got down or started pointing fingers. It just shows how this team has grown over the last few years."

And here might be the scariest thing of all.

"We haven’t played our best football yet, but we’re 5-0," McClure said. "This team is much better than the way we’ve played so far. But the nice thing is that it’s easy to make corrections when you’re 5-0. We still have a lot of room for improvement."

They do. But they’re 5-0, and that’s something the Falcons never have been able to say before.

Halftime thoughts on Falcons-Skins

October, 7, 2012
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LANDOVER, Md. -- The Atlanta Falcons are struggling as they try to start the season 5-0 for the first time in franchise history.

They’re tied, 7-7, with the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. The Falcons put together a nice drive at the end of the first half and Matt Ryan hit Tony Gonzalez with 1-yard touchdown pass.

But Ryan didn’t have a great first half before that. He made two uncharacteristic mistakes.

Ryan had a pass intercepted by Ryan Kerrigan, who returned it for a touchdown with 10:11 remaining in the second quarter. Ryan and center Todd McClure also botched a snap with 4:56 remaining in the second and the Redskins put together a nice drive, but didn’t come away with any points as Billy Cundiff missed a field goal attempt.

Atlanta has played well on defense, but the Falcons need to get their offense going in the second half if they want to stay undefeated.

I'll be back with a Rapid Reaction soon after the game ends and a full column a couple of hours after that.

Atlanta LB duo a fixture on the field

February, 7, 2012
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Atlanta linebackers Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon almost never left the field during the 2011 season.

According to playing-time numbers obtained by ESPN.com, Lofton participated in 986 of Atlanta’s 996 defensive plays (99 percent). Weatherspoon was right behind him, taking part in 976 plays (97.9 percent). Those two and Carolina’s James Anderson (97.3 percent) easily outdistanced the rest of the NFC South linebackers in playing time.

In fact, only Cleveland’s D'Qwell Jackson, St. Louis' James Laurinaitis, Chicago’s Lance Briggs and Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan, who each played all of their team’s defensive snaps, and Minnesota’s Chad Greenway (99.3 percent) participated in a higher percentage of plays than Lofton, Weatherspoon and Anderson.

Here’s a list at the rest of the leading NFC South linebackers in percentage of playing time:

Saluting NFC South's Iron Men

February, 1, 2012
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In recent days, I’ve been sharing some details on 2011 playing time at various positions. We’ll continue to do that going forward and still have to touch on NFC South fullbacks and all the defensive positions.

But this is Iron Man Day, so we’re going to talk about offensive linemen. As a general rule, offensive linemen get a greater percentage of playing time than players at all the other positions. That’s part of the nature of the position -- teams want continuity.

In 2011, 42 NFL players took part in 100 percent of their teams offensive and defensive snaps. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, Cleveland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, St. Louis linebacker James Laurinitis, Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs, Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan all deserve special mention for taking part in 100 percent of their team’s snaps at positions where that’s pretty rare.

Aside from those six players, 36 others took part in all of their team’s offensive plays. All of them were offensive linemen and seven of them were from the NFC South.

Carolina guard Geoff Hangartner, Atlanta guard Justin Blalock, New Orleans guard Carl Nicks, Tampa Bay guard Davin Joseph, Atlanta tackle Tyson Clabo, New Orleans tackle Jermon Bushrod and Tampa Bay tackle Donald Penn each took part in every one of their team’s offensive snaps.

Several other NFC South offensive linemen also came close to achieving that honor. Here’s a look at the other NFC South linemen that played more than 90 percent of their team’s offensive snaps.
Lots of good stuff in our Friday NFC South chat. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.
Bill (Winston-Salem): Panther beat writer Steve Reed pointed out last week that when Legedu Naanee was targeted by Cam Newton, "bad things happened". Why do you think he's still the number 2 WR for the Panthers?

Pat Yasinskas: Good question and I agree with Steve from what I've seen. I've seen some promise out of LaFell. I think Panthers should just throw him in there and let him grow up with Cam.

Quez (FLA): Will Mason "the Monster" Foster get Defensive ROY??

Pat Yasinskas: He's doing well. But I think Ryan Kerrigan's the early leader for that. Plus, I think Foster's teammate, Adrian Clayborn, also is off to a very nice start.

Michael (Atlanta): Pat I was wondering if you were worried about how Roddy White has been playing? Do you think Roddy will get back to his pro bowl form which helped Atlanta so much last year?

Pat Yasinskas: Roddy has the talent to bounce back at any time. Not sure he's completely healthy though. That thigh has been a factor.

Geraden (Orem, Utah): Hey Pat! Love your blog! With Marques Colston coming back last week, you think Drew Brees might have tried to get him the ball a little more. It seems like Jimmy Graham is quickly taking over as New Orleans' number one target?

Pat Yasinskas: They eased Colston in slowly. Think he only got 20 snaps or so. Expect he'll get more going forward.

Adam (Connecticut): What do you think of Gerald McCoy's performance so far? Also, it seems that Price has rebounded nicely from that injury and he has been very disruptive.

Pat Yasinskas: Think McCoy had a very nice game Monday night. Price is definitely playing well and I think the presence of Price and Adrian Clayborn already is helping McCoy and will continue to do so.

D. Walker (Atlanta): Pat - I've kept up with the stats, and this year, when the Falcons have used the no-huddle offense, they: 1) tend to run a more balanced offense of run vs pass 2) gain more yards per rush 3) gain more yards per pass 4) have given up no sacks.Given that, what possible reason could you see that the Falcons haven't gone to the no-huddle more, if not permanently?

Pat Yasinskas: I've been saying for a couple years that Falcons should go no-huddle all the time. Either that or take the batteries out of Mularkey's headset.

Here’s the complete transcript of Friday’s NFC South chat.

NFC South Stock Watch

October, 4, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Ron Rivera, coach, Panthers. I like just about everything this guy has done since he arrived in Carolina and he’s got the Panthers on a good track. But I think Rivera flashed a little of the stubbornness John Fox was so famous for on Sunday in Chicago. Rivera had his team kick and punt to Devin Hester and it cost the Panthers dearly. Rivera used to be an assistant coach in Chicago. As much as anyone, he should be aware that it’s not a good idea to feed the ball to the most dangerous return man in NFL history.

2. Brian VanGorder, defensive coordinator, Falcons. It’s still early and things can straighten out, but Atlanta’s off to a very rocky start. Sunday’s near disaster in Seattle is being viewed by fans as being almost as bad as a loss. This is a team that entered the season with huge hopes and so did the fans. Most important, owner Arthur Blank also felt that way and he’s not the world’s most patient man. If things don’t straighten out, there will be a scapegoat for this season and, so far, VanGorder is looking like the leading candidate. Atlanta’s defense has talent, but the results have not been there.

3. Ray Edwards, defensive tackle, Falcons. Speaking of Atlanta defensive talent that’s not producing, you’ve got to start with this guy. It’s not like Edwards has been a complete bust. He plays the run quite well and has shown he can pick up a fumble and make a nice return. But the Falcons paid him a lot of money and a lot of people thought he was the missing link. He was supposed to help generate a stronger pass rush. Through four games, Edwards has not produced a sack.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireSteve Smith recorded 181 yards receiving in Carolina's loss at Chicago.
RISING

1. Steve Smith, wide receiver, Panthers. You don’t have to like everything about him and he does have some of the diva traits that so many great receivers have. But a lot of those guys are still happy if their team loses, as long as they put up big individual numbers. Smith put up big numbers against the Bears (and has been doing that all season), but he was extremely frustrated in the locker room after the game because his team didn’t win. You have to respect his competitive desire.

2. New Orleans’ offensive line. Right tackle Zach Strief and center Olin Kreutz were out with injuries and Charles Brown and Brian De La Puente had to take their places. Yes, the Saints did allow Drew Brees to be sacked three times, but he still had enough time to throw for 351 yards. More important, the running game really worked well with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram. The Saints finished with 177 net rushing yards. The offensive line has to be doing something right for that to happen.

3. Adrian Clayborn, defensive end, Buccaneers: Lots of people are talking about Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan as the potential defensive rookie of the year -- deservedly so. But I think Clayborn at least belongs in the conversation at this point. This guy is showing up every week and getting better. So is second-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. It might not be too long before Tampa Bay has one of the league’s better defensive lines.

Cam Newton wins Rookie of the Month

September, 29, 2011
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This one should come as no surprise. The NFL just announced that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has been named the Offensive Rookie of the Month for September.

Newton
Newton
The No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Newton threw for 1,012 yards, the most ever by a player in his first three NFL games. He threw for four touchdowns and ran for two.

Newton threw for 422 yards in his debut, the most ever by a player in his first game. He followed that by throwing for 432 yards in Week 2.

Newton is only the third Carolina player to earn Rookie of the Month honors. Julius Peppers won the defensive award in October 2002 and Matt Moore won it for offense in Dec. 2007.

Sam Bradford (October and November 2010) and Tim Couch (October 1999) are the only other quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall to be named NFL Rookie of the Month and Newton is the only one to earn the award in his first month of play.

Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan won Defensive Rookie of the Month.

Call It: Falcons pick

April, 25, 2011
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As the ESPN Blog Network mock draft unfolded, I kept hoping there would be some tumbling defensive ends. That’s largely because I was picking for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, and my opinion is that’s the biggest position of need for all three teams.

I didn’t get my wish as Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan and Clemson’s Da'Quan Bowers were gone by the time we even began the run for the three NFC teams who aren’t picking No. 1 overall. In my eyes, Georgia’s Justin Houston was the best pass-rusher available when I made Tampa Bay’s pick at No. 20 and I put him there. When New Orleans came up at No. 24, I went with Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn because I viewed him as the most complete defensive end remaining.

When it came time for Atlanta’s pick at No. 27, I looked at the board and really didn’t see a defensive end I liked. Although a loyal reader has been trying to sell me on the merits of Arizona’s Brooks Reed as a pure pass-rusher, I just don’t see him as a first-round pick, so I went in another direction.

I chose Pittsburgh wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin. I’ve heard his name and Maryland receiver Torrey Smith tied to the Falcons in recent days, and I keep thinking back to a conversation with an important person in Atlanta who mentioned need for a "big receiver." I may be reaching here, but I saw nothing else I really liked.

I also considered Smith, but went with Baldwin because he’s bigger. I gave a little consideration to offensive tackle Nate Solder because I’m not convinced Sam Baker is the answer at left tackle, and this offensive line could be going through some other changes. I also gave a little thought to UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers because Mike Peterson’s getting older and I suspect Stephen Nicholas will probably land elsewhere as a free agent.

In a perfect world, I would have traded down. But we didn’t have that luxury in our mock draft.

You’re welcome to put yourself into my shoes and the shoes GM Thomas Dimitroff could be in Thursday night. Take a look at the Call It poll to the right. You can cast your vote for Baldwin or go in another direction.

Call It: Buccaneers pick

April, 25, 2011
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In the ESPN.com Blog Network mock draft, I made the pick for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

At No. 20, I took Georgia defensive end Justin Houston. I did that simply because he was the best pass-rusher on the board when it was my turn to pick.

Agree? Disagree? Go for it. The only limitation I’m putting on you is that you play by our mock draft and choose only from the guys who actually are still available. Yeah, I might have taken Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan or Clemson’s Da'Quan Bowers if they were there, but they weren’t.

I also considered Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith and Alabama running back Mark Ingram. You’re free to hit our poll on the right and vote for one of those guys or you can vote for Houston.

We'll be back in a bit with a Call It poll for the New Orleans Saints at No. 24.

Look who is coming to the draft

April, 25, 2011
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Although there had been some rumblings early on about players not attending the draft due to the labor situation, the NFL announced Monday that 25 expected draft picks are planning to be at Radio City Music Hall. The league said that’s an all-time record.

Although players won’t be able to work out with their teams or sign contracts until the lockout is over, the league has said it’s all right for top picks to go to their new cities to meet with the media the day or two after the draft. The Panthers have the first overall pick. The Buccaneers are at No. 20, the Saints at No. 24 and the Falcons at No. 27, so it’s at least possible all four of the first-round picks for the NFC South could be in New York on Thursday night.

Here’s the list (in alphabetical order) of the players the league said will be at the draft:
The NFL draft, especially the future of Cam Newton with the Carolina Panthers, was the big topic in Friday’s NFC South chat. Here are some of the highlights.

JM (Charlotte) How confident are you that the Panthers are gonna take a chance and draft Cam Newton??

Pat Yasinskas: I've been saying for weeks, maybe a month now, that they're leaning heavily in that direction. I've not seen or heard anything that leads me to believe there has been any shift in their thinking.

Mark H (Greensboro, NC) What's wrong with waiting on a QB this year and re-addressing next year? Especially when it appears the QB class may be better. Carolina could easily sign vet and see what they have in Clausen.

Pat Yasinskas: I hear you and your logic makes sense. But I don't think Hurney and Richardson are thinking the same way.

CJ (West Lafayette, IN) Last year before draft time, I remember Sean Payton saying is how the Saints can't lock on to one guy or even one position. This year I haven't heard any of that. Do you think the Saints are eyeing someone in particular this time around?

Pat Yasinskas: No, when you're sitting at No. 24, you truly can't lock in on one guy or one position. Saints have been very good in recent years about not locking into anyone or anything and it's worked out for them.

Greg (Stone Mountain): What’s the word on the Falcons? Any idea who they have fairly firmly in their sights?

Pat Yasinskas: DE is definitely a possibility. But I'm not sure the right guy will be there at No. 27. I've been hearing more and more buzz about WR and Torrey Smith and Jonathan Baldwin are the names I hear.

Justin (Reading, PA): Pat, imagine Ryan Kerrigan lined up next to Gerald McCoy? McCoy was coming on strong and Kerrigan will make an immediate impact, I think the Bucs D will be relevant once again if they land him. What do you think?

Pat Yasinskas: I think Kerrigan would be a great fit. But I think he'll be gone before No. 20.

Here’s the entire transcript of Friday’s NFC South chat.
The polls just closed (at 5 p.m. ET) on our Call It votes for the draft needs of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. Time for a look at and an analysis of what you had to say.

Let’s start with the Buccaneers because they had the most lopsided vote.

Defensive end was the overwhelming choice with 72 percent of the voters saying that’s Tampa Bay’s biggest need. No argument here, but the big question will be if there’s actually a true pass-rushing tight end available when the Bucs choose at No. 20. Guys like Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan, Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers and Georgia’s Justin Houston may or may not be on the board.

If they’re not, linebacker seems to be a possibility. The Bucs have had several linebackers, including UCLA’s Akeem Ayers, in for visits and 12 percent of voters said this was the top need for the Bucs. Offensive line drew nine percent of the vote and running back got seven percent.

Defensive end also was the big winner in the Atlanta precincts with 54 percent of the voters saying that’s the biggest position of need for the Falcons. I have no argument with that vote because John Abraham isn’t getting any younger and the Falcons don’t have another true pass rusher.

But there’s no guarantee the Falcons are going to see a defensive end they like at No. 27. The second choice among voters was wide receiver with that position drawing 27 percent of the vote. I could see the Falcons going with a receiver like Jerrel Jernigan in the first round. Fans also can see the possibility of Atlanta going with an offensive lineman or outside linebacker. Offensive line drew 11 percent of the vote and outside linebacker got eight percent.

The Saints had, by far, the closest race in this contest. With over 2,100 votes cast, defensive end (41 percent) nudged outside linebacker (39 percent). I can see the Saints going either way. But this is a team that doesn’t always draft its biggest need. That’s why running back (18 percent) also remains a decent possibility. The Saints are a veteran team without a lot of different needs and I put wide receiver as the fourth – and final – choice on the ballot. Doesn’t sound like New Orleans fans think Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and company need much help. Wide receiver only earned two percent of the vote.
The guy who might be the perfect draft pick for three NFC South teams, might be getting as close to the division as he’s going to come Monday and Tuesday.

That’s when Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan will visit the Atlanta Falcons. It’s easy to picture Kerrigan, who had 33.5 career sacks in college, stepping right into Atlanta’s defensive line rotation. It’s just as easy to picture him someday taking over for veteran John Abraham as the team’s top pass rusher.

But here’s the catch on why Kerrigan probably isn’t going to make it to the NFC South. The Falcons have the No. 27 overall pick. The Saints are No. 24 and the Buccaneers No. 20.

Even if you go on the assumption that Kerrigan ranks slightly behind North Carolina’s Robert Quinn, Missouri’s Aldon Smith and Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers, who seems to be falling in most mock drafts due to concerns about a knee injury, it’s difficult to imagine Kerrigan still being available when the NFC South really gets on the clock in this draft.

Jacksonville, New England and San Diego pick at Nos. 16, 17 and 18 respectively and all have strong needs for a pass rusher. The other three defensive ends are likely to be gone by then and I saw it almost as an impossibility for Kerrigan to last past the Jaguars, Patriots and Chargers.

I think the defensive ends available when the NFC South (aside from No. 1 Carolina) begins picking will be guys like Georgia’s Justin Houston, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward. I can see Heyward perhaps fitting well in New Orleans, but he’s not the real edge rusher that Tampa Bay and Atlanta are probably looking for. Houston and Clayborn could be possibilities for the Bucs and Falcons.

Kerrigan’s visit to Flowery Branch might be the final look the Falcons get at this defensive end. Probably the only way the Falcons can land Kerrigan is to trade up 10 or 12 spots in the draft.
Conventional wisdom has the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking a defensive end with the No. 20 overall pick in the draft.

But there are signs the Bucs could be willing to go in a different direction. In recent days, there have been reports of Alabama running back Mark Ingram and UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers visiting with the Buccaneers.

Or maybe those are just smokescreens and the Bucs are really hoping a defensive end like Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn or Justin Houston is available at No. 20.

General manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris will make the call on draft night. But here’s your chance to voice your opinion on what the Buccaneers need most.
Thomas DimitroffAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesFalcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is comfortable with his team picking near the end of the first round of the NFL draft.
When he was hired as general manager of the Atlanta Falcons back in 2008, Thomas Dimitroff was given some instructions by owner Arthur Blank.

With the Falcons coming off the Bobby Petrino mess and Michael Vick’s legal issues and suspension, the message was pretty direct and basic. Blank told Dimitroff he wanted to win and do it the right way.

Then, sometime after Dimitroff led the search that resulted in the hiring of coach Mike Smith and before the 2008 draft, Blank delivered another message that really hasn’t been revealed publicly.

"Arthur whispered very lucidly, 'Get me out of the single digits,'" Dimitroff said with a laugh during last month's NFL owners meeting as he recalled Blank's pep talk.

But Blank and Dimitroff weren’t laughing back in 2008 when the owner and the general manager were discussing the draft. The Falcons were sitting at No. 3. That can be a very nice spot to be in, but it’s not an area where general managers and owners want to be stuck for the long term.

If you’re drafting in the top five, it means you’re coming off a bad season. That’s not the only negative for an owner. If you’re drafting in the top five, at least under the old labor system, you’re going to have to pay a ton of money to a player who has never performed in the NFL.

Dimitroff did his duty and we’ll come back to the route he took in a minute. But the Falcons are holding the No. 27 overall pick in this year’s draft. It’s the latest pick for the four NFC South teams and it’s the latest the Falcons have been slotted in the first round since Dimitroff’s arrival.

When asked how he felt about where he’s sitting in this draft, Dimitroff smiled and you could quickly get the sense the only way he and Blank would be happier would be if they were at No. 32. That would mean they’re coming off a Super Bowl victory.

They’re not, but they’re much closer to that prospect than they were a few years ago, and they think they can get there, even if it means finding a key piece late in the first round of the draft, an area where a lot of people will tell you there aren't many can't-miss prospects.

“This is a little bit back to my comfort level having come from New England and usually being in the 25-plus range,’’ Dimitroff said.

Part of the reason Dimitroff got the Atlanta job was because he was a huge part of the reason the Patriots were one of the dominant teams of the last decade. As director of college scouting, Dimitroff worked with Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli to consistently churn out wins. They kept fueling the machine, even though they usually weren’t drafting until the latter stages of the first round.

Dimitroff used that No. 3 pick back in 2008 to take quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons haven’t been back to the single digits since. Dimitroff had another first-round pick that year, No. 21, and he used it on left tackle Sam Baker. In 2009, he picked defensive tackle Peria Jerry at No. 24, and last year he grabbed linebacker Sean Weatherspoon at No. 19.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/Jason DeCrowMatt Ryan was the first player the Falcons drafted after Thomas Dimitroff took over as GM.
The Falcons hit big on Ryan, who's led them to three consecutive winning seasons. The jury is still out on Jerry, Weatherspoon and Baker. Weatherspoon played well at times last year, but had his rookie season interrupted by injury. Jerry got hurt early in his rookie season and didn’t have much of an impact last year, although the Falcons are hoping his knee is fully healed and he can emerge this year. Baker has struggled with some injuries and has had bigger problems with consistency.

Just looking at that history, it’s easy to say the chances of the Falcons landing an impact player decrease when they’re further down in the draft order. But Dimitroff doesn’t see it that way. The Falcons are coming off a 13-3 season that ended with a disappointing playoff loss to Green Bay. Dimitroff and Smith have reviewed last season and firmly believe they’re only a couple players away from taking the next step, which would be winning some playoff games.

They believe they’re in a prime spot to do it. Coincidentally, they’re in the same spot where a previous regime picked Roddy White in 2005, and he’s turned into one of Atlanta’s best players and one of the league’s top receivers.

“This is where Thomas and his staff are at their best,’’ Smith said. “There are so many scenarios that can take place. It’s not like No. 3. There are so many more guys you have to evaluate. The one thing that’s different this year is we’re at a different point than we were with the needs on our football team. We’ve done a good job filling needs in our previous drafts, so they’re relatively narrow this year.’’

Smith and Dimitroff aren’t going to undercut themselves strategically and list their exact needs or whom they might be looking at. But they have repeatedly said they want to add players with “explosiveness." Even late in the first round, it’s not difficult to figure out what and whom they’re talking about.

You can look at Atlanta’s roster and figure out “explosiveness’’ translates into a pass-rusher (John Abraham’s getting older and doesn’t have much help), a speed receiver to take the passing game to the next level and a speedy running back who could provide a nice complement to Michael Turner.

Pass-rushers like Missouri’s Aldon Smith, Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan and Georgia’s Justin Houston could be prime targets, and there also are rumblings Clemson’s Da'Quan Bowers, once considered the top defensive end in the draft, could be falling fast due to concerns about injuries and disappointing workouts. Any of those guys could land in Atlanta. But they also could land elsewhere in the NFC South. Tampa Bay (No. 20) and New Orleans (No. 24) are likely to be in the market for pass-rushers.

If the elite pass-rushers are gone, it’s not hard to picture the Falcons shifting things a bit and looking hard at wide receivers, and Maryland’s Torrey Smith and Troy’s Jerrel Jernigan are guys some experts are tying to the Falcons.

A lot of general managers will tell you that when you have a late pick, you have to let the draft come to you. There’s truth and logic to that because much depends on what teams do earlier in the draft.

But as comfortable as he is at No. 27, Dimitroff might not be willing to completely wait for the draft to come to him. The Patriots had success in Dimitroff’s time when they were willing to watch the draft sort out for a bit, but, at a certain point, go out and grab the draft. They have traded up a few spots to get a guy they really wanted and traded down a few spots to add an extra pick when they saw several guys they liked still sitting on the board.

Much to Blank’s relief, Dimitroff’s days with the No. 3 pick are well in the past. But just because the Falcons are sitting at No. 27 right now, it doesn’t mean they’ll be picking in that exact spot on draft night.

“To me, it’s a very good value area,’’ Dimitroff said. “In the mid-to-late 20s, there are opportunities to move back a few spaces if you don’t see the person you really want or to move ahead a few spaces if you see somebody you really want.’’

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