Ever since John Schneider became the General Manager for the Seattle Seahawks, he has gone in an untypical direction. He brings a new philosophy to the NFL.
Knowing when you messed up
It was pretty weird when the Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson in the third round, and not just because he is short. They just signed Matt Flynn to a $20 million, three-year contract, presumably because they felt he would be their starter. Mere months later they select Wilson higher than anyone expected him to go.
They paid Flynn $9 million to take 38 offensive snaps. Most General Managers would get in hot water if they paid someone nearly $250,000 per snap but Schneider was quick to move on from someone he painfully misevaluated.
Stacking a position
The Seahawks have no problem stacking up talent and depth at a ridiculous rate. There is some great evaluation, some luck and the attitude that they can and will cut or demote someone they paid dearly for. In a way, the team is built like a college team. Even the big names aren't guaranteed to start. I'd like to use their pass rushers as an example.
Schneider traded for Chris Clemons, a guy with an unimpressive track record, for Darryl Tapp and a fourth round draft pick. Tapp was another guy with an unimpressive track record and he continued to be unimpressive. Clemons, however, put together three straight seasons of 11+ sacks. Nice pickup.
Going into 2012 most GMs would consider the defensive end position set. They had a top 10 defense in yards allowed, top 20 in sacks in a division without any elite quarterbacks or pass heavy offenses. They drafted Bruce Irvin, an undersized defensive end in the first round. He had character concerns but Seattle took a chance on him. He paid off with a nice eight sack campaign as a rookie.
You know what happened this season: a great defense added Michael Bennet and Cliff Avril on team friendly deals. Irvin was bumped to strongside linebacker. It didn't matter that Seattle was developing Irvin or that Clemons was returning from a knee injury. They fielded an aggressive defense with unheard of depth.
We saw it with Bennett and Avril. Two very good players they brought in at bargain prices. Even if you are set at a position, sometimes something is such a good deal you have to buy it. Anyone with a Costco membership can understand this and so does Schneider.
Even if running back isn't your biggest need, sometimes you can get Marshawn Lynch for a 4th and 5th round selection. That is a bold move with such great upside a smart guy knows when to take it. That is why some people have a gallon of Costco pickles.
Taking risk is important. Seattle had their fair share of misses. Their 2011 draft was a disaster: James Carpenter, John Moffitt, the wide receiver from UGA who wasn't A.J. Green. Disasters. Half of their first four picks are no longer on their roster.
Yet you can still handily win the Super Bowl if you take risk knowing a percentage of them will pay off. Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and Golden Tate have failed live up to the price Seattle played but have been OK. But when Lynch, Wilson, Richard Sherman, Malcolm Smith and Kam Chancellor pay off, you can afford to have some misses. Don't put all your eggs in one basket and an injury or two doesn't torpedo your season.
With those players we have an illustration of just about every type of risk: off the field concerns, too small to play in the NFL, too slow and too nonathletic. None of these players were even close to a sure thing but provided the potential to be great players. The risk/reward ratio became worth it and Seattle won a Super Bowl because of it.
I must admit there is a wild bit of luck with some of these selections. You cannot expect to get the 6th best graded player at a premium position in the 5th round but you will get great players by taking some risks. You don't need that type of payoff but pulling a quality starter after round four is fantastic.
What can Atlanta do
Thomas Dimitroff is still considered one of the better GMs even after a terrible, soul-crushing season. He has done a good job but can stand to change some of his tendencies.
Dimitroff doesn't know when to say goodbye
The Sam Baker contract is stuck in my mind. Baker should have faced some competition at the left tackle position for years. Really, any competition at all. Baker can be a good tackle when completely healthy but that is rare. Will Svitek did a very nice job when Baker was put on injured reserve and was then allowed to walk in free agency. Why? Because Baker is the starter. He was a first round selection with a (poor) history in Atlanta, and yet again, he was given every opportunity to start without even the mention of competition.
This should probably apply to a few other players at a few different positions, but I believe the Falcons are slow to admit they made a mistake, occasionally stubborn in their belief in players they liked. Ray Edwards was a big mistake but took severe locker room incident for Dimitroff to cut him.
Atlanta doesn't stack positions
It may be asking too much to stack talent like Seattle did at defensive end. You will have some weak positions regardless of what you do. A team can add talent to a position that isn't a weak position. Atlanta seems to pick starters, rotational players and depth. Atlanta did well at stacking corner backs, taking Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the first and second round, and it worked out great, but we have had problems in other areas.
For instance, Atlanta has one tight end left on the roster. After trading for Tony Gonzalez the tight end position was ignored. Atlanta had their starter and never added anything but a few undrafted free agents, Chase Coffman and a fourth-round tight end in Gonzalez's final season.
You can point at a lot of positions like that. Running back? We had Michael Turner, drafted Jacquizz Rodgers to rotate in, and when Turner left, we subbed in Steven Jackson. Two free agent signings and Rodgers were our investments over five years. In comparison, Seattle had one of the best running backs in the league and drafted backs in the second and thirds in back to back years. Lynch could be cut and they might still have one of the best run games in the league.
Atlanta would be better off by adding talent even at positions of strength, in free agency and the draft, or else it may all fall apart like it did in 2013.
Atlanta could do better at getting value
To be fair, Dimitroff has done well with getting value at positions of need. Jackson was a good value even though he didn't play to the level we thought he would. Samuel was basically stolen from Philadelphia and would likely still be on the roster if it weren't for the development of our rookies. Gonzalez paid off fantastically.
Value at better stocked positions? Not really. If our roster has competent starters then we aren't bringing anyone in. But sometimes value is value. Occasionally you have a chance to reinforce a position you don't need a starter.
There are two I would like to throw out there as players who I wanted Atlanta to bring in, and maybe this goes along with stacking a position as well. Greg Olsen was famously on the trading block before going to the Panthers for a third round pick. Atlanta had Gonzalez so passed over the young and talented pass catcher, despite this stunning value. This off season Eric Winston became a free agent and eventually signed for just over a million to play in Arizona. He didn't play particularly well but would have given Atlanta some much needed veteran depth.
Dimitroff is risk averse
This may be my biggest complaint and it has hurt the team. Dimitroff has been more than willing to take a risk with a player with an injury history. Anything else? That is as rare as a clutch Harry Douglas catch.
Relying mainly on college production will leave you with plenty of fringe talents that play predominantly on special teams but just aren't talented enough to start. You aren't going to find too many late round gems by selecting players who aren't going to improve very much. You end up with Shann Schillinger. He is fine, made some special teams play and was awful on defense. A few slots later Greg Hardy was selected. Hardy had the potential to be cut during his rookie contract or put up huge numbers.
At a certain point, you need to take a few Hardys over Schillingers.
After mulling it over, I think a "project" player with great athleticism drafted by Dimitroff is few and far between. Lawrence Sidbury had great speed, Dominique Franks and Levine Toilolo had great size and Lamar Holmes was raw. That seems to be it for the Dimitroff era. No other high-ceiling, low-floor types in six years.
Guys with character concerns? Never. Did you test positive for marijuana? Atlanta won't be drafting you. Arrested for being a dumb, drunk kid? You can visit Atlanta in the offseason.
With the right amount of risk, you can help find the late round gems the Atlanta Falcons have been missing. Seattle is one of the best teams in the league because they take risks on players who can develop into great players. You will miss on these players, but when the alternative is a guy who can contribute some on special teams, this is the risk I want to see Dimitroff finally take.
For the TL;DR crowd
This article isn't meant to be a dig at Dimitroff. I think he has done a very good job but after this season it is clear some things should change. There should always been room for improvement. Using the Seahawks philosophies, as I see them, Dimitroff can easily tweak his talent acquisition to get a more stacked roster.
Specifically, getting rid of "his guys" when there is better available would help. Stacking premium positions with talent can help prevent a repeat of 2013, where a few injuries topples a season. Adding value picks and signings at all positions, not simply positions of need is a fantastic thing the Seahawks do and Atlanta could do better at.
Mainly, Dimitroff would be best served by taking more risks in the draft. Our locker room should be strong enough to deal with a few guys with character concerns. Dimitroff avoids them at all costs but they can pay off, especially the players with only small issues. Also avoided are the size/speed projects with insane athleticism. You will lose on lots of the high-ceiling, low-floor players but Atlanta has failed to grab any late round gems for the length of the Dimitroff regime.