We rode the wave this weekend.
Before each pick, our comments rose into a crescendo. We were eager to predict, eager to see those predictions come true, and eager to see the Falcons' front office lead us to the promised land. Each time, our predictions were dashed against the Rocks of Untrue Predictions, as the Falcons went in a substantially different direction than any of us could have predicted. Aside from Sean Weatherspoon in the first round, I honestly thought every draft pick was a surprise.
So the question is, why did the Falcons go in such a drastically different direction than any of us would have expected with the 2010 draft class?
The answer lies in the minds of Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff, first and foremost.
Our fiery coach and our calculating general manager are the two guys who are ultimately most responsible for the makeup of this team, and so we must look to them. Dimitroff, in particular, has shown himself to be a lover of good scouting, so for now we'll lump the two of them together under the banner of the Comrade. It's his mind that really fascinates here.
You can read his interview with the AJC here and arrive at a better understanding of what Dimitroff thinks of our later round picks, but he's not the kind of guy whose words are dripping with hidden meanings. To get at the why with this draft, you have to look at Dimitroff's track record. That's when things start becoming clear.
To recap, Dimitroff has said that he had a multi-year plan for the team, one that would take at least three years to come to fruition. If you look at the past three drafts, you see that plan coalescing. Here's a breakdown, keeping in mind that not all of these picks have worked out exactly the way they were envisioned:
2008: Drafted a franchise quarterback (Matt Ryan), a franchise left tackle (Sam Baker), a future Pro Bowl linebacker (Curtis Lofton), a terrific young safety (Thomas DeCoud), and promising young pieces (Harry Douglas and Kroy Biermann). Sign a punishing running back (Michael Turner) to go with that.
In that first year, you have a ton of splash. This was a terrible football team in 2007, so the Comrade immediately addressed a ton of weaknesses and key positions in an effort to make the team better in the long haul. Unexpectedly, they performed well enough to make the playoffs.
2009: Drafted a penetrating defensive tackle to help the pass rush (Peria Jerry), a run-savvy safety (William Moore), a future starter at cornerback (Chris Owens), and promising projects who will bear fruit down the line (Spencer Adkins, Lawrence Sidbury, Garrett Reynolds).
Recognizing a weak defense when he sees one, the Comrade focuses there heavily in 2009, locking down several positions of weakness with promising young players. Those positions where he has solid starters already, he drafts depth that will hopefully develop into starters down the line. If injuries hadn't crippled this draft class, we might have a higher view of it, but once again this is built for the long haul.
2010: Drafted a well-rounded linebacker to fill the team's greatest remaining defensive hole (Sean Weatherspoon), stockpiled talent along the offensive line to combat free agency and possible retirement in 2011 (Mike Johnson, Joe Hawley), threw a talented young cornerback into the mix at the position (Dominique Franks), and mortared those positions where depth was still a major concern with the rest. Also brought on Dunta Robinson to try to pump up a still-shaky corps of cornerbacks.
It's not a flashy draft, but Dimitroff has spent the past two filling the most major holes. Now the Falcons are strong enough up front at nearly every position that he can start building the depth that all good teams covet. Besides, if the Falcons are struck by injury hard again in 2010, you will need those quality backups. Nearly every one of the players he drafts are at minimum valuable backups, and in Hawley and Johnson's case the Comrade sees a glimmer of hope that they may be starters one day.
Throughout his short career in Atlanta, Dimitroff has made a point of drafting in a vastly different manner than draft pundits might prescribe. When it comes to getting the players he wants, the Comrade has absolute tunnel vision. Is Carlton Mitchell there late in the draft, with fans crossing their fingers and hoping they'll get him? The Comrade is unimpressed by the raw Mitchell, fancying the more versatile and more polished Kerry Meier. Is former Matt Ryan teammate Matt Tennant available at center, with fans drooling for the chance for a reunion? The Comrade doesn't care for the smallish Tennant as much as Hawley, who has the frame and the strength to stick at center, once the real concerns about his footwork limiting his push are addressed. And so on.
To put a fine point on it after all this rambling, what Dimitroff is doing is building the Atlanta Falcons are they've never been built before. Every one of these guys is a talented, hard-working player who has flaws, but flaws that the team believes can be coached out of them. The Comrade could give a damn if a bigger name is on the board, because those guys don't fit what the Falcons are trying to do, which is build an exceedingly deep, young and talented football team that is going to win a ton of games. If a guy like Corey Peters is sitting there in the third round and there's the slightest concern the Cleveland Browns are going to grab him, he's going to take him right there and then. So what if pundits and fans don't like it? Thomas Dimitroff believes that Peters is going to be an excellent player, and he's going to take him whenever he can get him.
There are very few other teams who come in to the draft so locked in on taking not the best player available—a philosophy that, for example, netted the New Orleans Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson when they needed a linebacker a lot more urgently—but the best player available for the Falcons. It's a strategy that serves up baffling moments, and one that is not rewarding from a public relations standpoint for a team that prides itself on reaching out to fans. But it is, in Dimitroff's estimation, the best way to build a football team. After 11-5 and 9-7 season—the first back-to-back winning seasons in the franchise's ugly 40+ year history—it's fair to wonder if he might be on to something there. Now entering the third year of a three year rebuilding phase, it's safe to say we're further along the curve than any of us would've dreamt when we put a bullet in 2007's head.
So at the end of the day, while I'm confused by some picks, have a bad feeling about a couple more and love a few more, I am willing to trust that the vision those in charge of the Falcons have built for the team is a good one. Not every player from our draft class will be a winner, but I'm willing to bet a significant percentage will. Because, frankly, Thomas Dimitroff is a lot of things, but he's not a fool.