NFC South: Thomas Dimitroff

The Atlanta Falcons aren’t the only team that will have to be comfortable with an inordinate amount of cameras at training camp.

Part of the process of HBO’s "Hard Knocks" trailing the Falcons includes a trip to Houston, where the Falcons and Texans will hold a pair of joint practices (Aug. 13-14) leading up to their Aug. 16 preseason matchup.

The film crew won’t travel on the plane with the Falcons, but it will be inside Houston Methodist Training Center for the Falcons’ arrival.

[+] EnlargeDimitroff/Smith
Todd Kirkland/Getty ImagesGM Thomas Dimitroff, left, and coach Mike Smith said they feel that being featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks" will help display the Falcons' professionalism.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff thoroughly discussed the matter with the Texans.

"I’ve talked to the general manager, Rick Smith, and Smitty [Mike Smith] has talked to Coach [Bill] O’Brien, and they are comfortable with it," Dimitroff said. "[Hard Knocks] will not be showcasing the other team that we will be visiting. They’ll continue to focus on our team."

Dimitroff reiterated how the Falcons are totally behind the decision to be a part of "Hard Knocks" this season. It was far from a mandate from team owner Arthur Blank. In fact, the Falcons wouldn’t have accepted the invitation had Smith not signed off on it.

HBO approached the Falcons about "Hard Knocks" four of the past five years.

"This was not a brand play, period," Dimitroff said. "We think the series will give the fans that in-depth look; the idea of being able to see what the Atlanta Falcons are truly about and how we run our organization and how we’re mindful and professional about how we carry on our business."

Smith and Dimitroff had a two-and-a-half hour meeting with the folks from "Hard Knocks" and weighed all the pros and cons.

"This was a collaborative organizational decision," Dimitroff said. "This was made with the input of several people: the owner, the president, the general manager, the head coach, our entire communications team. We did a lot of work and a lot research on this.

"Myself and Smitty spent a lot of time with the 'Hard Knocks' crew. We asked a lot of questions and ran a lot of different scenarios by them. And we felt very comfortable after our meeting with them."

Skeptics wonder if "Hard Knocks" will be a needless distraction for a team coming off a 4-12 season. And taking on such an endeavor seems to counter Smith’s conservative approach.

"At the end of the day, the simple fact is Arthur mentioned to Smitty that he ultimately had to be comfortable with this decision as the head coach of this football team," Dimitroff said. "If Smitty wasn’t comfortable with any aspect of this, we would have moved on from the decision. Smitty was comfortable, and we decided to go through with it."

Smith addressed the decision to be on "Hard Knocks" through a statement released by the team.

"We are looking forward to connecting with our fans across the country as the program chronicles our 2014 training camp," Smith said. "The series will give fans a behind the scenes look at the competition between players as we build our roster and prepare for the season. We are looking forward to the start of camp in late July."

HBO debuts "Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Falcons" on Aug. 5.
The Atlanta Falcons haven't officially put out their list of signed undrafted free agents, but plenty of names of signed players circulated immediately after the draft.

One of those names is Cornell quarterback Jeff Mathews, a player the school's website dedicated a page to in order to send him off on his NFL journey.

The 6-foot-4, 229-Mathews completed 901 of 1,447 passes for 11,284 yards and 72 touchdowns with 42 interceptions in 38 games at Cornell. He was the 2011 Ivy League Player of the Year and the most prolific passer in Ivy League history.

The Falcons decided not to draft a quarterback this season behind Matt Ryan, but Mathews essentially was their late-round pick. Backup Dominique Davis and Sean Renfree, last year's seventh-round pick from Duke, are the quarterbacks currently on the roster. Renfree was on injured reserve last season with a shoulder injury.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff talked Saturday about not drafting a quarterback this year, although it was evident he already had Mathews in mind.

"Obviously we drafted last year, which was important for us," Dimitroff said. "We like were our quarterback situation is as far as the developmental side. We'll always look at that. I don't necessarily buy into the philosophy that you have to take a quarterback every draft. I think it's from year to year and from situation to situation. ...We will have to add one quarterback to our group to come in and be there for camp."

Mathews is known for his strong, accurate arm but doesn't have much athleticism. Footwork also is an issue he has to overcome, according to scouting reports. He'll have the chance to show off his skills when the Falcons begin their rookie minicamp Friday.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Falcons add a veteran quarterback at some point.
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons had a plan all along, and the plan worked out in the end.

For all the talk about possibly trading up to the No. 1 overall selection to pick coveted pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, I don't believe that was truly ever in play. Of course the team wouldn't admit it because general manager Thomas Dimitroff never wants to proclaim himself closed for business, but the Falcons knew what the priority was.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsJake Matthews is ready to step in to a Falcons offensive line that was constantly under attack last season.
They knew they needed to get tougher along the offensive line. They knew protecting Matt Ryan and improving the league-worst rushing offense had to be the focus of their attention.

So I have no doubt the Falcons went into Thursday night's NFL draft intent on drafting an offensive tackle, and they might have secured the best of the bunch. Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews and the cousin of Green Bay Packers pass-rush demon Clay Matthews, is now a member of the Falcons family. He was available at No. 6 as the Falcons stayed put.

"We talked throughout this process about improving our team with tough, rugged football players and Jake Matthews epitomizes exactly what we were looking for," Dimitroff said. "He is a solid finisher and has good pass protection skills. He is the type of player that we are always looking for here in Atlanta -- guys who are willing to work and those who come in and embrace the team concept."

The Falcons, with an offseason theme of getting bigger and stronger, made it a point to address some of their offensive line concerns via free agency, bringing in Jon Asamoah to start at right guard. Now bringing in a tackle capable of playing on either side should help the offense flow a little more smoothly.

Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times last season and was banged up a lot more than he let on by season's end. The deep ball was missing because Ryan never had much time to throw and he lost top receiver Julio Jones to a season-ending foot injury five games into the campaign. Turning to the run game wasn't an option, as Steven Jackson was slowed out the gate with a hamstring injury and the Falcons, as a team, averaged just 77.9 rushing yards per game.

Matthews is known as a technician, so it shouldn't take him long to adapt to the NFL. Of course, he'll go up against speedy and powerful pass-rushers in the NFC South with Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy from Carolina, Michael Johnson from Tampa Bay, and Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette from New Orleans. But he already vowed to work on some aspects of his game, including getting stronger in the weight room.

"As a coach, you always want to work with guys who love football and Jake Matthews loves football," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "As we were doing our due diligence, we had a number of people tell us about Jake's work ethic, his study habits and his passion for the game. He fits the bill for the kind of player we want on our team.”
LawrenceRic Tapia/Icon SMIAtlanta could target a versatile pass-rusher such as Demarcus Lawrence in the draft's second round.
Demarcus Lawrence isn't caught up in rankings or NFL draft projections. He just wants to play ball.

When the Boise State pass-rusher was asked about the possibility of being drafted in the late first round or early second round this week, Lawrence brushed off any significance.

"It really doesn't matter to me," Lawrence said Wednesday. "If they want me, then take me. If they don't want me, then they'll see me later on in my career. And I don't forget that, either. Trust me."

The Atlanta Falcons shouldn't overlook Lawrence if they have an opportunity to scoop him up. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and crew seem destined to target an offensive tackle with the sixth-overall pick in the first round. If such comes to fruition, the Falcons have to think either pass-rusher or safety in the second round.

In terms of the pass-rushers, Lawrence could be in that group, as could Auburn's Dee Ford and BYU's Kyle Van Noy. All three visited the Falcons during the pre-draft process.

In recalling his visit, Lawrence talked about how impressed he was with the Falcons' overall demeanor.

"Atlanta was cool. They've got a little swagger about them," Lawrence said. "It was like it's time for them to ball, and I'm down for the same cause. Hopefully they feel that way about me."

Lawrence immediately felt a connection with new Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox.

"He came out saying, 'We're out here trying to ball. We're out here with a purpose.' And I'm going for the same thing," Lawrence said of Cox's message. "I don't like losing myself. I want to be on a team with a group of guys that feel the same way that I feel.

"Coach Cox, he's a good guy. I want to be in somebody's place that's going to teach me how to ball and also keep it real with me. And that's how Coach Cox does it."

The 6-foot-3, 251-pound Lawrence played in a multiple defensive scheme at Boise State, so he feels comfortable in any type of setup. He actually played the role of undersized defensive end (6-1, 225) in a 3-4-defensive setup as a South Carolina high school player. He refined his pass-rush skills at Butler Community College in Kansas (he was a teammate of current Falcons offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder) after being an academic non-qualifier. He then moved on to Boise State and led the Mountain West conference with 20.5 tackles for loss, to go with 10.5 sacks last season. He then decided to forgo his senior season and enter the draft.

Lawrence insists he can play defensive end in a 4-3 or outside linebacker in a 3-4.

"It doesn't matter if I'm standing up or have my hand in the dirt: If you tell me to go get that quarterback, I'm going to get him," Lawrence said. "It's just that plain and simple. I have one mission: to get that quarterback. And I'm going to find a way to do it."

Lawrence models his play after a couple of players, including one with the same first name.

"I like DeMarcus Ware (Denver Broncos) a lot and I watch him," Lawrence said. "Jason Pierre-Paul (New York Giants). I like those two guys and their attitudes. They've got a little swagger to their games. They're good pass-rushers. And that's what I want to come into the NFL and be."

Lawrence understands his shortcomings and plans to work on those aspects immediately.

"I'd say my strength and my fundamentals," he said. "Once I get a little more powerful and more juice with my pop, I'll be straight. It will make me more explosive getting off blocks. Being 250 pounds, it's not easy getting off a 320-pound dude.

"Playing at 250, I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life. I'm going to stay right here as of right now. Depending on what my position is and what they need me to do on the team, I don't mind pumping up a little weight."

Lawrence has another negative to overcome. He had multiple suspensions at Boise State for rules violations, including being sent home from the MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas during the 2012 season. He said he overslept and missed curfew prior to the bowl game while hanging out with a family member at night.

"Everybody makes mistakes in their days, and mine happened in my college days," Lawrence said. "I did it. I learned from it. And it's over with. If they trust me, they'll see I've grown up and I'm mature enough to handle the process. If not, once again, they'll see me on the field."

Lawrence understands why he would face scrutiny from NFL teams over the suspensions.

"They want to make sure they don't have any dirt underneath their toenails," he said.

Lawrence is in Las Vegas now and plans to have a draft party at the Venetian Hotel. The Falcons would be smart to roll the dice on Lawrence if he's still available in the second round.

The Falcons currently own the fifth pick in the second round, or the 37th overall selection. Trading up to the top of the round (the 33rd pick owned by Houston) doesn't seem like a stretch if the Falcons feel they could lose out on a chance to get a coveted pass-rusher.

Last year, San Diego moved up from the 45th overall pick to the 38th by swapping second-round picks with Arizona and also giving the Cardinals a fourth-round pick. The Chargers made the move to select linebacker Manti Te'o.

The Falcons actually have two fourth-round picks this season at No. 103 and No. 139, but the latter is a compensatory pick that cannot be traded.
Some folks have criticized Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff for the Julio Jones trade in 2011, saying that Dimitroff sacrificed team depth in the process.

Remember, he surrendered five picks to the Cleveland Browns to move up from 27th in the first round to sixth for Jones. And all was well until Jones went down with a season-ending foot injury last year. The Falcons' lack of depth got exposed in a 4-12 collapse a year after making it to the NFC title game.

[+] Enlarge Thomas Dimitroff
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFalcons GM Thomas Dimitroff has proven to be aggressive in making trades during the NFL draft.
Reflecting on the Jones trade Wednesday, Dimitroff saw no need to apologize.

"I would never question what we did in 2011," Dimitroff said. "I’m completely at ease at what we did as far as, you know, adding one of the most explosive players in this league and what he can do for us. And Julio was fantastic.

"Moving forward, as far as gaining knowledge about depth, depth is very important. There’s no question about it. Usually your depth, however, are backups. So when you have injuries, a lot of times, it’s difficult for the backups to step up and do what they need to do 100 percent and equally to what your starters do. I think it’s very important to keep in perspective what depth does for your organization and for your roster. It’s very important, no question about it. But I think we have to keep it in perspective."

Dimitroff's logic might be another indicator of his willingness to move up for a coveted player such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, although staying pat at No. 6 is likely to give the Falcons a quality starter and impact player. He already has discussed trade scenarios with teams he declined to identify. He realizes trading up with a team like Houston, which holds the No. 1 overall pick, is going to cost at least a future first-round pick to go with that sixth pick and likely another pick.

Without naming a specific player, Dimitroff was asked if there was a player worth trading up for in this draft class.

"I think there are a number of good football players that we would consider," Dimitroff said. "We are always going through that scenario and discuss what truly is worth moving up for and potentially giving up picks. We’ve gone round to round with the statistics of where players play and how much they play and how often they start through different parts of the draft. We’re very calculated with our analytics approach to things. And I think, again, we feel very comfortable when go into the draft that we’re going to make the right decision, giving all the analytics that we have as well as our experiences in drafting."

The dissection process will continue over the next week in preparation for next Thursday's draft.

"We’re still projecting in the top 10,'' Dimitroff said. "And we’re going through countless scenarios. But, interestingly enough, with six people and not 20 to 32 different people I think that’s been interesting for us. It’s really allowed us to focus on, you know, what our needs are."

The most pressing needs are an offensive tackle and pass-rusher.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he has discussed trade scenarios with other teams in preparation for this year’s NFL draft, although Dimitroff declined to discuss which teams he reached out to

The Falcons currently hold the sixth pick overall, and Dimitroff continues to express a willingness to trade up or down. He believes no team wants to trade out of the top 10, which would indicate the Falcons likely being more inclined to remain at No. 6 or trade up.

"I’ve talked to many teams about many things," Dimitroff said. "Obviously, trade situations come up. Tis the season for that, as you can imagine. I think the biggest thing for that is to make sure you’re getting an idea of what compensation would be if, in fact, something ever came to fruition during the draft. That’s how we did it back in [2011]. I think that’s the important thing whether you travel down that road or now -- it’s important to make sure you’re gauging what compensation might be."

When asked specifically if he had discussed trade scenarios with the Houston Texans, who own the No. 1 pick, Dimitroff declined to speak specifics.

"I don’t want to talk about the teams that I’ve spoken with," Dimitroff said. "Suffice to say there have been some interesting discussions."

There has been speculation about the Falcons wanting to trade up to the No. 1 overall pick to secure South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the most athletically gifted player in the draft. The Falcons, however, could target a different pass-rusher in Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack or go after one of the top three offensive tackles: Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews, and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan.

In 2011, Dimitroff surrendered five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns to move up from the 27th overall pick to No. 6 and select game-changing receiver Julio Jones.
Seeing new defensive end Tyson Jackson toss 120 dumbbells around like trash bags Tuesday was a positive sign for an Atlanta Falcons team desperately in need of some heavy lifting.

Yet such strength means nothing if the Falcons fail to use it to their advantage on the field. Just ask general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

"It's functional strength," Dimitroff said this offseason. "Our guys were considerably stronger last year than they were the year before, interestingly enough, and we had some challenges with it. What I'm saying it, yes, we're going to continue to focus on strength increase. But it's the functional strength. It's being able to put them in the right spot to utilize their strength."

[+] EnlargePeter Konz
AP Photo/Paul AbellPeter Konz, who was pushed around at times last season, has "been living in the weight room."
That will all come in time. For now, the Falcons are using offseason workouts to get their bodies prepared for what should be a more physical 2014 campaign.

Coach Mike Smith seemed a bit more animated Tuesday as he explained part of the formula would be for winning the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball.

"One of the emphasis points for us as a coaching staff was to evaluate everything that we do," Smith said. "One of the things that became very apparent for us was that we need to get bigger and stronger. I think we've started doing that with our players. ... It's going to be very important for us to be a much bigger and stronger football team."

Smith is counting on AJ Neibel and his strength-and-conditioning staff to produce results as the Falcons go through Phase I of the offseason workout program. Smith and the other coaches are not allowed to oversee activity during the first two weeks, which started Monday.

"The offseason program has changed," Smith said, again emphasizing the bigger-stronger campaign. "If you'll look back and look what I said the very first time I was here in this room -- not in this room but over in that team meeting room -- I talked about what it takes to win in the National Football League. And I believe I said that you have to win the line of scrimmage. You have to have bigger and stronger players than your opponent. I feel like we've lost our way. I've lost my way a little bit.

"And the emphasis moving forward is going to be a bigger and stronger football team. And we're going to win the line of scrimmage."

Adding big, physical players such as offensive guard Jon Asamoah, nose tackle Paul Soliai, and Jackson were the first steps toward improvement. New offensive line coach Mike Tice immediately encouraged center/guard Peter Konz to bulk up, and Konz, who was pushed around more often than not last season, responded by "living in the weight room" so far this offseason.

"I think it's more for the younger guys," Tice explained in January, during a break at this year's Senior Bowl practices. "I think the younger guys, as they grow into their bodies and they stop growing and they start maturing, physically, I think that they get stronger and take a big leap and not only take a big leap with strength, but when they gain strength, they gain confidence.

"I see us in a couple different areas needing to gain that confidence. And I think a good offseason in the weight room will help some guys."

The first two players quarterback Matt Ryan mentioned Tuesday in terms of working hard in the weight room were tackle Lamar Holmes and Konz. The Falcons' offensive line obviously failed at the line of scrimmage last season as Ryan was the most pressured quarterback in the league.

"I think everybody takes a good, hard look in the mirror when things go well and then also when things don't go well," Ryan said. "And I know that's one of the most important things for me as a player and as a professional is to take a good, honest evaluation of yourself after a season and try and find areas that you can improve. And so those guys, they've made a conscious effort to get into the weight room and to move weight.

"We're not naive. Those guys (the offensive linemen) have taken some heat. And they've had to answer questions and tough questions all of last season and through the offseason so far. And I think they've taken it as a challenge. And they're in there working as hard they possibly can. I've been really impressed with the way they've handled it professionally and also how they have taking it personally, too, and want to become better and are doing everything that they can in order to improve."

Konz appears to be taking things personal. But again, he understands it's about more than just bulking up.

"You know what? We never talk about strength in the film room because it's all about technique," Konz said near the end of last season. "If you open up any book, it's all about leverage. And strength is important when you know how to use it with your footwork.

"Strength is very important, when used in combination with technique. That's what most important: lowest man wins. If you've got your hands on somebody and you've got them, they're going to have a hell of a time trying to get away from you."

If the Falcons don't improve up front, the season could get away from them again.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff made it clear Friday that he wants to add more rugged players -- but not, in his words, a "thug."

Well, meet Greg Robinson.

The Auburn offensive tackle has the type of qualities the Falcons sorely need up front. He’s a big, intimidating presence at 6-foot-5, 332 pounds. He put up 32 reps in the bench press at the combine, which would be welcomed strength for a Falcons team that has been pushed around as of late. And Robinson accounted for 130 pancake blocks this past season, which would make any running back trailing behind him get wide eyed.

You just get the feeling that Robinson could be so nasty on the field. But not thuggish, of course.

"I’m far from a thug," Robinson said Friday at the NFL scouting combine. "I’ve never been in any trouble besides growing up; I was kind of bad, but that’s because I had older brothers. But if [the Falcons] aren’t looking for a thug, they can invest in me."

[+] EnlargeGreg Robinson
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith St. Louis looking to improve its offensive line, a prospect like Greg Robinson could be a potential fit.
Robinson, 21, continues to make a steady rise up the draft board and might not be there if the Falcons stand pat with the sixth overall pick. Maybe he’s one of those guys worth trading up for, such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

The Falcons should prioritize drafting an offensive tackle such as Robinson if Clowney isn’t a legitimate option. Robinson’s makeup reminds me of D.J. Fluker, who looked like a man among boys during his combine appearance last year before being drafted by the San Diego Chargers. Fluker made an immediate impact as the Chargers' starting right tackle.

Robinson and Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews have been the offensive tackles most linked to the Falcons this draft season. Michigan’s Taylor Lewan wants to be considered among the elite group as well. Notre Dame’s Zack Martin and Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio are right behind.

"Honestly, there’s probably four or five offensive tackles that can come in and start," Dimitroff said. "There will be challenges like any new player has, but these guys can come in and be starters in this league."

Dimitroff is fully confident in both his and his staff’s ability to evaluate offensive linemen, so as Dimitroff prepares to evaluate this year’s draft prospects at the combine, he won’t go into it overly concerned about the outside perception of Atlanta drafting busts along the offensive line in recent years.

But Dimitroff needs to be conscious about constructing a group of five offensive linemen capable of working in unison. Such was far from the case for the Falcons during a pathetic 2013 showing.

The Falcons sorely need to improve up front. Matt Ryan was the most pressured quarterback in the league last season, in large part due to offensive line woes. Steven Jackson and crew couldn't prevent Atlanta from having the league’s worst rushing offense, because the Falcons couldn’t get it done in the trenches.

So what’s the quick fix? The process started with the firing of offensive line coaches Pat Hill and Paul Dunn and the hiring of former head coach and long-time NFL tough guy Mike Tice. The next step was adding Scott Pioli -- a guy who drafted Pro Bowl offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Matt Light to the New England Patriots -- as assistant general manager to bring more expertise to the scouting process. Then, the Falcons added former NFL offensive lineman Russ Bolinger as a scout and extra pair of eyes. You just have to wonder if all those minds will think alike.

While free agency is the next phase in the retooling process, the Falcons won’t target a veteran offensive tackle -- not when the draft is so deep at that position. Signing an offensive guard, however, has to be the priority.

So then comes the draft, with the Falcons having to weigh which side of the ball needs to be addressed first as they strive to get tougher up front. Robinson seems to have that mean streak in him.

Robinson was asked Friday if he plays angry.

"I wouldn’t say angry," he said. "But I’m not trying to be nice."

The Falcons could trade up to land Clowney or even stand pat at No. 6 and draft a pass-rusher such as Buffalo’s Khalil Mack or UCLA’s Anthony Barr. Such a move would mean digging deeper into the draft pool of offensive tackles with a player such as Virginia’s Morgan Moses or Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson.

Whatever the case, both Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith agree the draft is full of talented offensive tackles. If the Falcons find a starting tackle later in the draft, it could be just a matter of whether that player would come in to play on the left or right side.

"I think it’s going to be much more of a mental thing for those guys," Dimitroff said. "Some people are more comfortable being off of one side or the other. It’s going to be a transition for them to ever do that.

"But, again, if they’re athletic, I think the transition can be fairly sound as long as you have a good coach, and we believe we do in Mike Tice."

Dimitroff believes Tice is capable of making the current group of offensive linemen into better players. That’s why Dimitroff still has faith in players such as Peter Konz, Lamar Holmes and newly signed Gabe Carimi -- even if most people outside the organization don’t. That’s why Dimitroff believes Sam Baker will be the same player he was back in 2012 as he returns from a serious knee injury.

Tice will be in charge of instilling the toughness that the Falcons sorely need.

"A team will be much more apt to give up a little bit in athleticism if the trade-off is getting more toughness, ruggedness, passion and strength," Dimitroff said.

If the Falcons decide to go with Robinson, they might find someone with all those characteristics -- plus the athleticism to go with it.
Jadeveon Clowney vowed to put up "amazing" numbers at the NFL combine this week in Indianapolis. Well, the Atlanta Falcons better have their stopwatches and notepads ready to dissect his every move.

If the South Carolina defensive end follows through with his promise and blows away the field with his performance, the Falcons would be wise to start compiling their trade proposals to move up in the NFL draft. Whether Clowney tears up the combine or not, he's unlikely to be around if the Falcons remain at the sixth overall spot.

The Falcons sorely need a game-changer along the defensive line after tying for 29th in the league with 32 sacks in 2013. Their lack of consistent pressure made third down seem like going to the free throw line for opposing offenses.

So here comes Clowney, a guy who drew come criticism for not dominating this past season and for picking up a few speeding tickets off the field. That won't cause his draft stock to fall. NFL teams understand the impact this 6-foot-5, 258-pound junior could have on a franchise.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff certainly realizes it.

"Obviously, he is an incredible talent with wild upside," Dimitroff told me recently. "He's going to be a very big contributor on a football team from day one. We all know that. The league knows that. He has the potential to be one of the marquee-type pass-rushers."

Now it's just a matter of going out and clearing up any doubt about Clowney's unique ability. I asked ESPN analyst Bill Polian, formerly the president and general manager of the Indianapolis Colts, if the Falcons should attempt to maneuver up to grab the guy touted as the most gifted player in this year's draft class.

"I think he's a good player," Polian said of Clowney. "But first off, with trading up, it takes two to tango. People tend to think of the draft as fantasy football. It isn't. It's the real world. You have to have a trade partner. And the price has to be something you're willing to pay.

"And you haven't seen the results of the NFL combine yet or his pro day. Those things are critically important. You have to know how fast he runs. You have to know if he's healthy, because he's had some injury issues. And let's assume that it's true that he's the most athletically gifted player. That's compared to the prospects coming out this year, not compared to the players already in the National Football League."



Indeed, there are plenty of variables the Falcons need to consider before the May 8 draft. Signing a veteran defensive end wouldn't be a stretch, but team owner Arthur Blank seemed to indicate the Falcons wouldn't make a "big splash" in free agency. If that is the case, it's hard to imagine the Falcons targeting top defensive end Greg Hardy, who told me he would go to "any team that will pay me." And Hardy, who had 15 sacks for the Carolina Panthers last season, is going to be paid handsomely.

But Blank's words don't necessarily mean the Falcons will avoid pursuing an impact defensive end in free agency. If Brian Orakpo doesn't re-sign with the Washington Redskins, he'd be a solid option. Falcons fans remember how Orakpo dominated at the Georgia Dome last season. Then again, the Falcons' offensive line made plenty of defensive linemen look like Hall of Famers in 2013.

Let's say the edge-rusher scenario doesn't pan out in free agency and the Falcons land an impact player such as safety Jairus Byrd instead. That's when internal talks about Clowney should really heat up. I would trade up for Clowney instead of selecting top offensive tackles Jake Matthews or Greg Robinson at No. 6, although Atlanta's miserable offensive line has to be addressed in some manner.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney drew a crowd on the field. He'll get plenty of attention at pro day, too.
Dimitroff isn't afraid to trade up. He surrendered five draft picks in 2011 to grab game-changing receiver Julio Jones. Dimitroff also traded picks last year in order to draft cornerback Desmond Trufant.

This is what Dimitroff told me about the possibility of trading up this year: "I always want us, as an organization -- me as a general manager and us as an organization -- to be perceived as a group to pick up and call and make the offer and at least know that we're open to discussion."

Clowney said he wants to be the first overall pick, and he probably should be. But I can't see Houston Texans coach and quarterback guru Bill O'Brien passing on a chance to grab a talented signal-caller at the top of the draft.

Here is another factor to consider in the Falcons' trade-for-Clowney scenario: St. Louis owns the second overall pick and Jacksonville the third. Rams general manager Les Snead and Jaguars general manager David Caldwell both worked under Dimitroff in Atlanta. And both Snead and Caldwell said they would be open to trading their picks. That's not to say Snead and Caldwell would just hand their picks over to Dimitroff, but the familiarity should only help the Falcons' cause.

If the opportunity presents itself to trade up for Clowney, the Falcons probably shouldn't part ways with this year's second-round pick. That might be too valuable in terms of filling an offensive line need. But trading away future picks certainly would be worth it for a Falcons team I believe isn't too far from returning to Super Bowl contention, despite last year's implosion. Clowney fits the organization's desire to get tougher in the trenches.

The Falcons just have to be absolutely certain Clowney isn't the next Courtney Brown, a defensive end who had an unremarkable career after being picked No. 1 overall by Cleveland in 2000. All indications are that Clowney will be far from a bust.

Rarely, if ever, will you see an NFL coach get a contract extension after his team finishes a season 4-12.

Such was the scenario for Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith on Monday, as Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff received one-year contract extensions while team president Rich McKay received a four-year extension through 2019.

No matter how you examine it, Smith's extension is a vote of confidence from team owner Arthur Blank, although a longer extension would have been an expression of complete faith. Smith had at least one year remaining on the three-year contract extension he signed back in February of 2011. Tallying the numbers means Smith is now signed through 2015 and will go into the 2014 season not having to worry about an expiring contract.

That doesn't mean the pressure is off Smith, by any means. He still has to produce. He still has to show last year's implosion was just an aberration; a product of an injury-riddled team who had bad coaching along the offensive and defensive lines.

This past season marked Smith's lone losing campaign since taking over the Falcons in 2008. He has guided the team to four playoff appearances, including the NFC Championship game during the 2012 season.

Smith deserved a pass regardless based on his body of work alone. You don't give up on a coach who has the sixth-highest winning percentage since '08, as Smith posted a 60-36 record over that time span.

Yet the onus isn't just on Smith to get the Falcons back among the NFL's best. In fact, Dimitroff probably should face the bulk of the scrutiny due to the personnel decisions that need to be made this offseason.

The Falcons have to rebuild their offensive and defensive lines. They need to replace Tony Gonzalez, or at least attempt to do so. They need to add more bodies at linebacker and better depth across the board.

To help with the task, Dimitroff hired old friend Scott Pioli as his assistant general manager. No one expects the former New England duo to turn the Falcons into the Patriots overnight, but creating such a dynamic dynasty should be what they're striving for daily.

Let's not ignore McKay's role in this whole equation. He'll be responsible for overseeing the new stadium, which is scheduled to be ready in 2017.

By then, Blank hopes the Falcons are back among the league's elite teams. It's up to Dimitroff and Smith to have Blank's back, just like he has theirs.

The next big thing: Falcons

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The Atlanta Falcons have plenty to accomplish over the next few months as they try to rebound from this past season's 4-12 implosion.

The first step in the retooling process was adding toughness with new line coaches Mike Tice and Bryan Cox. Then came the addition of new assistant general manager Scott Pioli to help bring expertise and a new perspective to talent evaluation.

Next, the Falcons have to see how they can improve the team via free agency come March 11. Cox said he already started breaking down the potential free-agent defensive linemen, so it will be interesting to see if the Falcons can find a pass-rusher at a bargain price. On the offensive line, the Falcons seem likely to target a free-agent guard while addressing tackle in the draft.

Safety, linebacker and tight end also are areas the Falcons need to improve either through free agency or the draft. And it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Falcons add another quarterback to the mix as added insurance, although Dominique Davis has plenty of tools behind starter Matt Ryan.

It's too early to say which players the Falcons might target, although there is plenty of speculation ongoing. Pioli, currently an analyst for NBC Sports Network and SiriusXM Radio, won't even technically start his new position until Feb. 3. Certainly general manager Thomas Dimitroff -- who still has the final say -- will value Pioli's input throughout the process.
MOBILE, Ala. -- Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli were all smiles as they addressed the media at the Senior Bowl.

[+] EnlargeScott Pioli
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesScott Pioli, who mentored Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff in New England, said he's ready to take a more open-minded approach.
Dimitroff, the Atlanta Falcons general manager, praised the guy he just brought on board as his assistant general manager. Pioli, currently an analyst for NBC Sports Network and SiriusXM radio, joked he had at least one more week to criticize the Falcons before officially joining the team on Feb. 3.

The duo even had their drive to work Wednesday captured on video and displayed on the team's website.

Yes, everything seemed so perfect for a pair of guys who built their reputations while working with the New England Patriots. But what happens the first time Dimitroff and Pioli disagree on a draft prospect?

"The input, that's going to be something that just evolves and grows," Pioli said as Dimitroff nodded in agreement next to him. "I"m going to be, as Thomas keeps saying, a seat at the table. I don't know if it's a fat joke or what. But I'll be sitting at the table. I just care about the food, not the input."

In other words, there won't be a power struggle here, despite Pioli having already served as the general manager of the now-successful Kansas City Chiefs before his one-year hiatus from the NFL.

"Scott and I have talked about working together again at another time," Dimitroff said. "We uncovered some very interesting things out in New England. And Scott, I learned a lot from him as a mentor as well as a co-worker and good friend. We've always spent a lot of time talking about football over the years. And it's just a great opportunity for Scott to really join us and help bolster the staff not only from the personnel standpoint, but from a very, very integral and important part and person at the table. Looking forward to having Scott's insight in many, many different areas of our organization."

The Falcons obviously need another eye for talent, especially someone like Pioli with a strong background in discovering impact offensive and defensive linemen. He was New England's vice president of player personnel for three Super Bowls and worked alongside Dimitroff, who was the Patriots' director of college scouting. Pioli's ability to evaluate draft talent speaks for itself, although his résumé in terms of free agency isn't flawless.

Pioli built a contender in Kansas City during four seasons and left behind Pro Bowl players such as Eric Berry, Justin Houston, Dontari Poe and Dexter McCluster. But the Chiefs and Pioli parted ways last January after a taxing season, marred by the suicide of Jovan Belcher right in front of both Pioli and then-head coach Romeo Crennel.

Part of the problem with Pioli in Kansas City was the knock on him for being controlling. Being a member of the media for the past year has helped him realize that flaw.

"When you get in these jobs, sometimes you're so focused on what you need to do and representing and protecting the institution, organization that you work for," Pioli explained. "And sometimes, in my case in particular, I have found that I need to be a little more open-minded about certain things. And I will be."

Asked if his goal is to become a general manager again one day, Pioli came back with a quick response: "My goal is to win a championship with the Atlanta Falcons."

It's all on the line for the Falcons

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith met the media Monday, they were careful not to single out any individual for the team's 4-12 implosion.

In fact, Smith said the responsibility "solely goes on me" in terms of not fulfilling expectations.

However, both Smith and Dimitroff made it clear how significant not winning the line of scrimmage was in terms of the team's demise. So it was no surprise when the Falcons parted ways with offensive line coaches Pat Hill and Paul Dunn as well as defensive line coach Ray Hamilton Monday evening.

The Falcons sorely need to get better up front, and adding better linemen is just one step in the process. Dimitroff said he has no desire to be a finesse team, so the Falcons need to find line coaches capable of bring out the "nastiness'' in the team's offensive and defensive linemen.

[+] EnlargeMike Tice
AP Photo/Scott BoehmMike Tice has worked with Falcons coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter before.
With so much coaching turnover on "Black Monday'' there are sure to be plenty of options available. And at least one free-agent coach is interested in bringing his expertise to Atlanta.

Former Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Tice, who was last the offensive coordinator in Chicago but took a year off from coaching, has a strong desire to work with the Falcons offensive line, a source told ESPN.com. Tice didn't have much success as a coordinator, but he did show plenty of passion while tutoring a below-average Bears' offensive line.

Not to mention Tice worked with both Smith and Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in Jacksonville, so there is some familiarity.

However the Falcons proceed, they need to spend every ounce of their offseason energy trying to improve every aspect of their line play, on both sides.

Dimitroff was asked specifically what went wrong with the offensive line this past season, as quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times and the running game ranked dead last in rushing yards per game.

"I believe where things went awry offensive line-wise is more the missed assessment on the readiness of this offensive line to play together as a unit,'' Dimitroff said. "I thought over and over how I could summarize that, and that's what I came up with.

"I think individually, we have some players that are developing along the offensive line that, we think, have upside. Some were challenged more than others this year. Some played, at times, well, other times, struggled. And we're going to do all in our power to make sure that we correct that at many levels.''

Dimitroff went on to talk about future acquisitions and the coaches doing a better job developing players -- somewhat foreshadowing the coaching changes. Although Dimitroff sounded somewhat hesitant about breaking tradition and addressing offensive line needs with spending spree in free agency, he didn't rule out making such a move. Some of the names expected to be available include Branden Albert, Michael Oher, and Anthony Collins, to name a few.

Plus the Falcons hold the No. 6 pick in the draft, so the belief is they'll look to fill a void on either the offensive or defensive line. Speculation has focused on South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney and Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, if either remains available and if the Falcons keep their current spot in the order.

But based on Dimitroff's assessment, targeting a pass-rusher would take priority over drafting another first-round offensive lineman. Since 2008, the Falcons have spent a first-round pick (Sam Baker), a second-round pick (Peter Konz) and two third-round picks (Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes) on offensive linemen.

"That's been our approach because we believe that you do not necessarily have to go extremely high in the draft to acquire, because that's a position where you're going to continue to develop your football players,'' Dimitroff said of offensive line prospects.

"We're not going to second guess or question what we've done from an offensive line standpoint. We do believe that we have talent along the offensive line that will continue to develop. With that, they need to continue to develop on their own as well as with our coaching staff encouraging them and pushing them to be the best that they can be. That's important for us.''

The general theme here is clearly evident: It's all on the line for the Falcons.

W2W4: Falcons at Buccaneers

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Regaining form: Roddy White admitted he played a little tentatively in his return to the lineup last week off hamstring and ankle injuries. He was limited during practice this week but looks set to play Sunday in Tampa. Now, White has to rediscover his comfort zone as Matt Ryan's primary receiver. White could match up against Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis, a player considered the best shutdown corner in the NFL when healthy.

Revis
White
White
"He's always been a good player in this league," White said of Revis. "The thing about him is he does everything well. You've got to be technically sound in everything that you do and always coming back to the ball. You've got to use your hands against him. He's a very physical guy."

Fellow receiver Harry Douglas had a career-high 149 receiving yards the last time the Falcons played the Bucs, so maybe White can enjoy the same type of success.

Mental block: Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff certainly got in the minds of his offensive linemen went he went on radio and criticized the unit's run blocking. Dimitroff said his guys have to play with better pad level, something the Falcons worked on during Wednesday's padded practice.

"It's definitely something we've been working on the passed couple weeks," right guard Garrett Reynolds said. "I feel like we're making some improvements on it. That's something that we've known, and we know [Dimitroff] has known. We just have to keep trucking along, put it upon our shoulders and keep on rolling."

As a team, the Falcons have rushed for 100 yards in just one game this season (146 at Miami). They currently rank last in the league in rushing.

Feed the workhorse: Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said Steven Jackson needs more touches. "My opinion is Steven Jackson is a workhorse running back and we haven't been able to work him," Koetter said. "I mean, I think Steven is one of those guys that gets better the more he touches it."

Jackson might have to wait a week to prove Koetter right. The Buccaneers boast the league's fifth-best run defense, allowing just 95.8 yards per game. At least Jackson has the right mindset going into the game despite his career-low 3.2 yards per carry. "I am still very much durable," the 30-year-old Jackson said. "And I am healthy."

David and Goliath: Speaking of the Bucs' run defense, they boast one of the league's top linebackers in Lavonte David. Falcons head coach Mike Smith raved about David's ability. His variety of skills were evident during the Week 7 matchup between the teams, when David made two outstanding plays in coverage then dropped Jason Snelling for a loss -- all on the same drive. The Falcons better find a way to put a body on David or he might single-handedly disrupt the offense.

Getting a Spoon-ful: The Falcons finally get linebacker Sean Weatherspoon back from the Lisfranc foot sprain he suffered in Week 2. Weatherspoon might not be the cure-all for the team's defensive woes, but the Falcons sorely missed his leadership. At halftime of last week's loss to the Seahawks, Weatherspoon apparently gave a fiery speech in the locker room, one that apparently caused him to shed tears.

He practiced all week and set to be a three-down linebacker upon his return. Maybe he can help the defense create some takeaways -- the Falcons are 35-3 under Smith when they win the turnover ratio.
Tony Gonzalez and Darrelle RevisAP PhotoIt has been a disappointing season for Tony Gonzalez's Falcons and Darrelle Revis' Bucs.
When the season started, the Atlanta Falcons were a trendy Super Bowl pick and a lot of people thought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could make the playoffs. As it turns out, both NFC South squads are floundering. They've combined for only three wins.

But these two teams are rivals and that means Sunday's meeting will be about pride.

Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine the matchup.

Yasinskas: Vaughn, I was one of those people who picked the Falcons to win the Super Bowl. Obviously, I was way off base. I know injuries have played a big role, but what else has gone wrong for this team?

McClure: Pat, I talked to Tony Gonzalez extensively after the last game and he was adamant about this all being about the injuries. I agree with him to a certain extent because you just can't lose a receiver as dynamic as Julio Jones and expect the offense to click in the same manner. It drastically changes the way defensive coordinators attack and allows them to focus more on shutting down guys such as Gonzalez.

The other injury I thought was significant was linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is expected back this weekend after being sidelined since Week 2 because of a Lisfranc sprain. The defensive intensity hasn't been there throughout the season, and Weatherspoon would have provided a spark just from his fiery speeches alone. Not saying that he would have totally helped the Falcons avoid giving up 14 plays of 40-plus yards, but they would have been better with a healthy Weatherspoon.

Speaking of injuries, it looks as if both top running backs are out for Tampa Bay. Can Brian Leonard step in and run the ball effectively?

Yasinskas: I agree that getting Weatherspoon back should be a big boost for the Atlanta defense and the first priority whenever you play Tampa Bay is stopping the running game. Even with Doug Martin and Mike James lost to season-ending injuries, the Bucs still will be a run-first team. Leonard is going to be a big part of the offense now. He's a dependable veteran, who can do a little bit of everything. But I think the Bucs will try to use a combination of Leonard and second-year pro Bobby Rainey. The Bucs want to get Rainey a fair amount of touches because he's more of a home-run threat than Leonard.

Speaking of home-run threats, even without Jones, the Falcons still have some playmakers. Are Roddy White and Steven Jackson now healthy enough to make a significant impact?

McClure: Jackson said he was 100 percent now coming off a hamstring injury, and White continues to have his snaps monitored coming off a hamstring pull and high-ankle sprain. I thought Jackson showed signs of his old self with some tough runs against the Carolina Panthers. He then regressed against the Seattle Seahawks, but head coach Mike Smith blamed that on poor blocking. Jackson has a lot of pride and wants to show Falcons fans he was no fluke. But he can only do so much if the holes aren't there for him. He's averaging a mere 3.2 yards per carry.

As for White, he had one catch for 20 yards in his return against the Seahawks. More than anything, he wants to establish a rhythm so he can be back to his old self. The Falcons just need him to be the same type of playmaker when Jones returns next year. Shouldn't the Buccaneers have a new head coach by then?

Yasinskas: It's pretty obvious that Greg Schiano is on the hot seat. He has won only one game this season and two of his past 15 dating to last year. Ownership does like the way Schiano cleaned up the culture of the locker room that was established under predecessor, Raheem Morris. Schiano, who has three more seasons remaining on his contract, might have bought himself a bit more time by benching Josh Freeman and going with rookie quarterback Mike Glennon. But ownership also wants to see some wins. I don't know that there's a magic number, but my guess is Schiano needs to win more than half of his remaining games if he's going to stick around for next season.

I know Smith has had five straight winning seasons since taking over as head coach in Atlanta, but this year hasn't gone as planned. Since expectations were so high, is owner Arthur Blank's patience wearing thin?

McClure: I've watched Blank's reaction after the past two losses and he has been very supportive of Smith. He even embraced Smith like a long-lost son after a road loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Smith has been a winner since taking over in 2008 (58-31 record) and guided his team to the NFC Championship Game last season, although he's 1-4 in postseason games. I talked to general manager Thomas Dimitroff after last Sunday's game and he said Smith's going "nowhere" in reaction to speculation about maybe Jon Gruden being the team's next head coach.

Smith should get a pass on this season because of the injuries alone. But there are bound to be some staff changes in the offseason to correct some of the on-field problems plaguing the team.

 

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