Drafting Themselves Out of a Corner
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — In this week’s edition of Heresy Thy Name Is Thomas Dimitroff, we bring you the Atlanta Falcons’ 2013 draft.
It’s counter to what is taught in general managers school, but the Falcons, in Dimitroff’s sixth draft, went for need instead of the best player. Lots of GMs say they take the best player on the board (or, if the grades are very close, a need player) and do it with great success. Ted Thompson in Green Bay and Jerry Reese with the Giants, for instance. But Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, the Falcons' drafting chiefs, say the opposite.
"Our drafts aren’t best-available," Smith said in his office Wednesday. "They’re actually need-based, consistently. Look at us historically, and look at us this year."
Out on the practice field Wednesday morning, prepping for the year’s first preseason game, this year’s two gems were on display—in a very needy place. First-round pick Desmond Trufant, from Washington, and second-rounder Robert Alford, from Southeastern Louisiana, ran through a light workout taking some first-unit snaps and looking very comfortable doing it. Barring injury, one should start at the corner alongside the seasoned Asante Samuel, and the other will play quality snaps in one or more of the Falcons’ sub packages.
The need for speed—and cover ability—was apparent after the Falcons’ playoff run, which ended with a home-field playoff loss to San Francisco in the NFC title game. In the divisional round, Seattle rookie Russell Wilson shredded the Falcons with 385 yards passing. Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick had but five incompletions the next week and won a shootout with Matt Ryan. As alarming as the 618 passing yards allowed in eight playoff quarters was this garish factoid: Wilson and Kaepernick, playing their first NFL starting seasons, completed 70 percent of their throws in the two games against Atlanta. That’s what you call a crying need. Then the Falcons lost three corners in free agency (losses met by shrugs, mostly, in Flowery Bench), so the need was exacerbated.
And so the Falcons did what they do. Three times in six Atlanta drafts, starting as a neophyte GM in 2008, Dimitroff has clearly gone for need.
2008: Matt Ryan, with the third overall pick, was easy. Sam Baker, at 21, was a reach—and Dimitroff admitted it. He was rated somewhere in the mid-30s on the Atlanta draft board, but the Falcons, after seeing a run on offensive tackles, refused to be patient at a huge position of need. "When you need a left tackle, like we did, it’s okay to reach," he said at the time. Baker’s been a so-so left tackle, but Dimitroff has no regrets about picking him. He knows without Baker, the position could well have been a wasteland.
2011: Friends around the league told Dimitroff he shouldn’t pay such a ransom (two first-round picks, one second- and two fourth-rounders) to move up 21 spots in the first round to be able to take wide receiver Julio Jones sixth overall. But Dimitroff and Smith wanted speed at the position because they didn’t have a burner, and Jones was a classic deep threat kind of player. If you watched the NFC title game last year, Jones had the kind of impact on that game that Larry Fitzgerald had on the 2008 postseason. It’s been well worth the cost so far.
2013: When Dimitroff phoned around for information before this year’s draft, he asked a few people he trusted if they’d heard anybody projecting Alford in the first round. No, he heard. He was thrilled. Normally, he might have used some draft capitol to move to be sure he’d get Alford. But he figured he probably wouldn’t have to. And there he was, at 60. Dimitroff followed Trufant at 22 with Alford, and was thrilled to have two players he felt were first-round values—at least for his team, at this time.
Trufant has come in about as NFL-ready as a cornerback can. He’s cockier than his rookie status would suggest; he’s mouthed off at a few receivers during team drills, something camp vets have noticed. He’s watched brothers Marcus and Isaiah play in the NFL, Marcus at a high level. And name another corner prospect with this sort of collegiate pedigree: Desmond Trufant started 47 major-college games in a big-time passing conference, the Pac-12.
It’s a tribute to Alford, and to the Falcons’ scouting staff, that Alford is challenging Trufant for the starting job opposite Samuel.
"We took a trip to Hammond, La., where Robert went to school, before the draft to work him out and interview him," Smith said. "We saw a few things. He had excellent ball skills, and we thought he could be a candidate to be a returner for us. He’s not afraid. Even though he went to a smaller school than Desmond, we thought he showed the elements in coverage and toughness you need to play in the league."
A coach and general manager have to be able to work together, even though in many cases they’ve been thrown together by situations no one could have forseen. Pick two corners with your first picks? With major needs on the offensive line, at tight end, and at pass rusher? The way Dimitroff figures, you fix one crisis point at a time, if you can, in the draft, and scotch-tape other things together as time goes by. The Falcons got lucky when Tony Gonzalez chose to play one more year, alleviating the tight end need for now. Pass rush? Maybe they’ll be better with Osi Umenyiora, but Atlanta still needs help there. Right tackle? A grab-bag now that a marginal starter, Mike Johnson, was lost for the year with a dislocated ankle.
Dimitroff is lucky he hired an outside-the-box thinker in Smith, who doesn’t mind using four of eight draft choices in the defensive backfield. If the logic works, Smith sees it.
"I think one of the elements you’re going to see much more of in the future in the NFL is this: hiring coaches who have the flexibility to adjust to new ideas and new ways of thinking," Dimitroff said.
New ideas, parenthetically, taking time for high tea in the general manager’s office; Dimitroff talked as his green tea steeped Wednesday. Owner Arthur Blank takes key leaders, including Smith and Dimitroff, on a Montana retreat every spring. Think the Eagles are the only ones using GPS technology to track player movements in practice? Atlanta’s done the same thing for two years.
The Falcons are a different organization, and it’s served them well. The Dimitroff-Smith team has piloted the Falcons to the playoffs in four of their five seasons. So if they go corner-corner in the first two rounds of an important draft, needing immediate impact from both players on opening day 2013, they’ve earned football America’s trust that it’s probably the right decision.
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