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.
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.’’