This past offseason I had planned to do a few articles highighting some of the best and worst personnel strategies that the Falcons had made under the decision-making team of Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff. I postponed it as there were so many other articles hitting the board at the time, including the best player by jersey number series. Now that we're winding down the season, it seems like a good time to get back to it - especially with reports suggesting that Dimitroff's tenure may be coming to an end.
I'm kicking it off with a pair of our best draft moves. I have often criticized the team's penchant for trading up rather than down and for "reach" picks - selecting players sooner than what appears to be the appropriate time to take them off the draft board. But in these two cases, the moves were correct - and not simply because the players have developed into major contributors. That part is obvious with the benefit of hindsight. But the moves were also correct based solely on the conditions of the moment.
They also involve what I consider to be the game theory aspect of the draft. Game theory is an area of mathematics. An ordinary mathematical optimization problem might be one where you have a workshop that makes tables, desks and chairs. You know how much wood, labor, transportation and storage costs are involved for each item, and your task is to figure out how to use whatever resources you have available to make the most profit.
A game theory problem is different in that you have specific opposition competing with you. The tables, desks and chairs aren't fighting back. But in the draft, the other NFL teams are. You're trying to build the best roster that you can. They are too, and they're competing against you for the same pool of players.
The bottom line is that a GM has to be aware of other teams' potential moves, and also know that other teams are aware of your own roster needs. With Matt Bosher and Desmond Trufant, Dimitroff prepared for the scenarios and executed the plans perfectly.
The Bosher selection came at a most unusual time in NFL history. 2011 was the year of the lockout. That caused the draft to come before free agency rather than afterwards. When the Falcons selected Bosher in the sixth round, Les Snead described it as "a business pick". And that's exactly what it was.
The team didn't know for sure if the 2011 season would have a salary cap at all or what the new cap would be, but they did know that if ownership had its way, the 2011 cap would be lower than the 2009 cap had been. Michael Koenen had been an outstanding punter for the Falcons since 2005, but resigning him would cost north of $2.5 million in cap space.
Meanwhile, kicker Matt Bryant was also a free agent. The Falcons wanted to resign him, but the coaching staff did NOT want him handling kickoff duties. That meant either carrying a second kicker or having a punter that could also work as a place kicker. There was really only one option in the 2011 draft class. Bosher wasn't the top punter (NFL Draft Scout ranked him as the #4 punter) or the top kicker, but he was the ONLY player in the draft class that could be a reliable NFL punter while also handling kickoff duties and potentially place kicking as well.
So picking up Bosher was a no-brainer, as the move would allow the team to resign Bryant while saving over $2 million in camp space on Koenen. The only question: when do you take him? The fourth best punter of a draft class would ordinarily be signed as an undrafted free agent. But you need him - and specifically him. No other player in the class even comes close.
Here's another nugget from that draft. Fans of Mike Mayock know that he doesn't believe in using draft picks on specialists (kickers, punters, long snappers). When Philadelphia selected kicker Alex Henery in the fourth round, Mayock rolled his eyes at the pick, prompting Rich Eisen to go into his annual "kickers are people too" bit. Soon afterwards, one NFL special teams coach sent Mayock a text message saying the Eagles had made a good pick and explaining why Henery was worth it. Mayock didn't name the coach/team, but he read the entire text message on the air. And it ended with a note that they should expect the kicker from Miami to be drafted too. That was Bosher.
So... real NFL professionals expected that Bosher would be drafted. The Falcons probably expected there to be other interest in Bosher even before Mayock's text, and this was a player that the Falcons really needed to get. With that in mind, while the sixth round may ordinarily be too early to take a punter, it was the perfect move for Atlanta. If some other team was likely to draft him in the seventh, then the sixth was absolutely the right time to scoop him up.
Snead's description of the "business pick" was perfect. When the new CBA put an end to the lockout, the new cap was indeed far lower than the 2009 cap had been. Resigning Koenen wouldn't have been feasible for Atlanta. But the Falcons were able to resign Matt Bryant, have the rookie punter take over kickoff duty, and save a net of over $2 million in cap space. There was even a draft bonus - Koenen's free agent contract with Tampa landed the Falcons a compensatory pick in 2012.
That type of situation was even more clear in the first round in 2013. Brent Grimes was a free agent, Chris Owens was not resigned, and Dunta Robinson had been released in a cap move. At cornerback the team was down to Asante Samuel - and pretty much nothing else. Dominique Franks had been released the prior year and only resigned because the team found itself in sudden need of a return man.
The Falcons absolutely HAD to land an instant starter at cornerback. The problem is that every other team in the league would know that just as well as our own front office did. And Minnesota was also universally projected to take a corner with one of their first round picks.
The Jets took top rated CB prospect Dee Milliner at #9. The Raiders surprised everyone by taking projected second rounder D.J. Hayden at #12. After that, there were only two CBs on the board that were considered as sure-fire instant starters - Trufant and Xavier Rhodes.
The Vikings had picks #23 and #25. Atlanta was sitting at #30.
One nightmare scenario was that the Vikings might take their CB at #23, and then some other team would trade up to the Colts pick at #24 or the other Minnesota pick at #25 - knowing that Atlanta had eyes on the other top CB and moving in to scoop him up ahead of the Falcons. Or some other team might even try to move ahead of Minnesota.
Atlanta avoided these scenarios by moving ahead of Minnesota themselves. As fortune would have it, pick #22 was held by our old friend Les Snead, who had acquired it from the Redskins in the RG3 trade. The Falcons had discussed the potential trade and had worked out the deal well ahead of the draft, so when #22 came around and both CBs were still on the board, the Falcons were able to get their man. Minnesota took Rhodes at #25.
It's highly unlikely that the Falcons would have been able to land either Trufant or Rhodes without trading up. The team's preparations made them aware of the scenarios they faced, and they were able to plan and execute a coup that gave them their choice of the two prospects. It's an impressive feat given that there were only three projected Day One starters in the draft class, that the Falcons were sitting at #30, and that every team in the league knew that Atlanta was in dire need of cornerbacks.