It's no secret that Thomas Dimitroff is good at his job. In five seasons as Atlanta's general manager, he's been named as Sporting News' Executive of the Year twice. That's not too shabby. Since Dimitroff was hired by Atlanta prior to the 2008 season, he's consistently made smart personnel choices. A few of his choices--Ray Edwards comes to mind--don't seem that smart in retrospect, but in looking at his free agent acquisitions collectively, Dimitroff has been very successful.
The two big name free agents who signed with the Falcons this offseason, running back Steven Jackson and defensive end Osi Umenyiora, are both shaping up to be great fits for the Falcons on and off the field. As Jay Adams writes at AtlantaFalcons.com, both Jackson and Umenyiora are positive influences on younger players, including wide receiver Julio Jones.
It's not that work ethic has ever been a problem for Jones--quite the contrary, he's well-known for his commitment, effort and dedication. When he was a coveted recruit coming out of high school, he mentioned in an interview that people sometimes talk more about his work ethic than his athletic ability, which was just fine with Jones. I've watched him at training camp and minicamp--if he's not on the field for drills, he's talking with Matt Ryan, or Roddy White, or assistant head coach Terry Robiskie, going over routes. Prior to his rookie season, during the NFL lockout, Jones and linebacker Akeem Dent were the only rookies who participated in the player-organized offseason training program. But, Umenyiora and Jackson are encouraging the young receiver, through their actions, to be even more committed and work harder than before.
Jones talked to FoxSports.com about how hard Steven Jackson works. He said that, despite Jackson's age, he's on the field for every rep he's supposed to take, and he's always giving it 100%. "That stuff is not mandatory, man, it's voluntary. You can come if you want to, but Steven is there working," said Jones, "I really believe he is going to make the Atlanta Falcons better."
On Osi, Jones said that Umenyiora's work ethic has positively impacted his own. "Every morning Osi is working out in the facility before anyone else even gets there," Jones said. "I noticed that, so I started doing that. Little things like that will make this team great."
Make no mistake--while Jackson and Umenyiora both filled positions of need for the Falcons on the field, they weren't just brought in for their physical abilities. Mike Smith insists that games are won or lost in the locker room first, and because of this, Atlanta's front office values certain characteristics, such as a solid work ethic, and a team-first attitude. From that vantage point, it's clear that Umenyiora and Jackson are living up to the team's expectations so far in that regard.
The reality is, veteran influence--understanding what it takes in terms of commitment and sacrifice and effort to succeed in the NFL, and passing that understanding on to younger players--can definitely help put the Falcons in a better position to succeed this season. Much like Asante Samuel benefited the defense last season by coming in with some swagger and setting a tone of aggressiveness that was much-needed on that side of the ball, Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora are clearly committed to leading by example and doing whatever it takes to make the Falcons better. It's still to early to determine if these acquisitions will pan out on the field, but it's clear that these two understand and respect the Falcons' off-the-field expectations, and are having a positive influence on younger teammates in the process.