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Catching up with the Atlanta Falcons scouting department

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Arthur Blank promised changes, and we sure got ‘em.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Atlanta Falcons
Pioli assembles and Dimitroff executes Atlanta’s draft board. But there’s an army of scouts that does the underlying grunt work to make it all happen.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the regular season has come to an end, fans are starting to think hard about the upcoming free agency period and the 2017 draft. But for our scouts, it’s nothing new - they’ve been hard at it since last spring.

One year ago, Arthur Blank expressed optimism about the Quinn-Dimitroff partnership but noted that the scouting department needed an overhaul. The changes did seem to be in order. On the pro side, the overwhelming majority of Atlanta’s free agent signings in 2014 and again in 2015 had been players with ties to the coaching staff or front office. Frankly, it didn’t seem like there was much point in even having a pro scouting department, at least as far as free agency was concerned. Why bother researching free agents when you’re only going to sign players that the coaches already know?

On the college side, the team had fared far better in recent years. The Falcons have quite a lot to show for the last four drafts and UDFA classes. But overall, the college scouting group was arguably a bit short-handed, particularly when it came to senior scouts.

To that end, we’ve seen quite a few changes in the college scouting unit and a complete turnover of the pro scouting group.

Here’s a rundown of the changes and a listing of the current scouting department:

Departed: Lionel Vital. For the prior three years, he was one of the top four figures in Atlanta’s front office as our Director of Player Personnel. However, having Scott Pioli become Assistant GM made the Director of Player Personnel role a bit redundant, particularly after the 2015 reorganization had put Pioli in direct control of the scouting departments. Vital was reportedly asked to take on a different role but instead decided to part ways with the organization. The Falcoholic reported his departure here.

The good news is that he wasn’t sidelined for too long. Dallas announced in March that he’d be joining the Cowboys front office, and they officially named him as their new Director of College Scouting in June.

Hired: Joel Collier. Instead of another Player Personnel executive, we hired Collier to the position of Director of Pro Personnel. The difference in title indicates that he is dedicated to pro scouting full time rather than splitting time between the pro and college side as Vital had done. Collier had been out of the NFL, but he was known to the team having previously served as Assistant GM under Pioli in Kansas City. The initial Falcoholic reaction was a lot of raised eyebrows (seen here), but free agency was a success this year.

Departed: Billy Devaney. Our former Assistant GM had returned to our scouting department in 2014. He carried the title “Player Personnel Scout”, but his bio noted that he was involved with pro personnel. The Falcoholic covered his departure here, complete with a frightening picture of Freddie Falcon. As you’ll certainly see from the comments in that article, I wasn’t exactly a Devaney fan - among other things, he led the coaching search that brought Bobby Petrino to Atlanta. But I do wish him well in Nebraska. Side note...if anyone is wondering, he’s not related to legendary Nebraska coach Bob Devaney.

Departed: Dejuan Polk. Polk had spent his entire NFL career with the Falcons and had worked his way up the pro scouting department to the title of Pro Personnel Coordinator. As we reported here, he went to Jacksonville to join former Falcons college scouting director David Caldwell’s staff as Assistant Director of Pro Personnel.

Hired: Kevin Simon. The former University of Tennessee linebacker had been in the Cowboys scouting department when word broke out in May that he’d join the Falcons. It didn’t happen right away - in fact, he came aboard too late to be included in the team’s annual Media Guide. He also doesn’t carry the title of Assistant Director as originally reported. The team simply lists him as their Pro Scout. But he’s currently the only other member of the pro scouting group, so he actually is next in line to Collier regardless of the title.

Changed Roles: Bob Kronenberg. This appears to be another late change in conjunction with the hiring of Simon. Kronenberg (a former coach of the Georgia Force in the Arena League) had originally been a college Area Scout for the Falcons. He moved over to the pro scout role to replace Ran Carthon when Carthon left to join Les Snead with the Rams. Kronenberg’s bio on the team’s web site and the official media guide still list him as a pro scout, but the staff directory now says that he has returned to his previous role of Area Scout.

Retained: Steve Sabo. He had served as Director of Pro Personnel in Cleveland and had spend 12 years with the Browns joining the college scouting department here in Atlanta. When the Jaguars hired David Caldwell, Sabo replaced him as our Director of College Scouting. He may not have as much college scouting experience as several of the scouts in his department, but he does have experience as a coordinator and director.

Changed Titles: Russ Bolinger. Bolinger came aboard with Devaney in 2014 and also had the official title of Player Personnel Scout. However, Bolinger’s previous experience was mainly on the college side of the house. This year, the Falcons changed his title accordingly, listing him as a National Scout. He has over two decades of scouting experience. If the name sounds familiar to the old timers here, it’s because he was an offensive lineman for the Lions in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Hired: Phil Emery and Ruston Webster. These were the additions that got the most media attention. Many fans were confused about their roles when they were first hired as they were previously GMs for other organizations.

Keep in mind that this is hardly the first time we’ve had former GMs acting as scouts. In addition to Billy Devaney, we also had former Colts GM Chris Polian on board for a while. He left along with Caldwell to join the front office in Jacksonville, becoming the Director of College Scouting for the Jaguars. So while they were once GMs elsewhere, here in Atlanta Webster and Emery are only scouts, three levels removed from any real decision making. They report to Steve Sabo. Sabo reports to Pioli. Pioli reports to Dimitroff.

Arthur Blank had wanted to add experience to our college scouting unit, and Emery and Webster both have plenty. Webster had been a key part of Rich McKay’s scouting department in Tampa, helping to build the rosters that brought a Lombardi to Florida and made it to the NFC Championship Game in two other seasons. Emery had been Director of College Scouting right here in Atlanta for our 2005 through 2008 draft seasons. They are currently our National Scouts along with Bolinger.

Departed: Mark Olson. This was a sad one for me to report here, as Olson had been with the Falcons organization all the way back to 1998 (!) and was the most experienced member of our college scouting department. I don’t know the story behind the separation, and I wish he could still be here instead of elsewhere. But I do recognize that a change of scenery is good (and probably necessary) for his career path. So now he has moved on and is a part of Bob Quinn’s scouting department for the Lions. I wish him all the best in Detroit and beyond, and I will always be grateful for all the work he put in for the Falcons organization for so many years.

Retained: Shepley Heard. Our other senior scout is still with us. Regional Scouts typically focus on higher priority prospects than the area scouts, and as the title suggests, they cover a wider area - typically a third or half of the country. Heard had covered the eastern U.S. for the previous three seasons. For 2016, he flipped to the west as our Western Regional Scout.

Possibly Promoted: Anthony Robinson, Michael Ross. The bios on the official Falcons website do not seem to be current, and there are contradictions between the staff directory listing on the website and the team’s official Media Guide. So it’s quite possible that Anthony Robinson has been promoted from Area Scout to Regional Scout covering the eastern U.S. Ross might also be a regional scout, covering the southwest. I suspect that both have indeed been promoted, but I don’t have confirmation. So ... congratulations?

Departed: Scott Sika, Nate Tice. The team didn’t issue a press release and there was no other media coverage whatsoever, so we had a Falcoholic exclusive with this story. But it wasn’t a happy one - we had lost two of our up-and-coming scouting prospects.

Tice had been a scouting assistant. Sika was the most junior of our Area Scouts, having only been promoted to that rank last season. (You might remember him from “Hard Knocks”, when he was still a scouting assistant.)

Fortunately, both of them soon landed elsewhere. Sika followed Mark Olson in joining the Lions scouting department. Tice went on to Oakland, joining his father (former Falcons line coach Mike Tice) as an assistant on the Raiders coaching staff.

Retained: Sae Woon Jo, Tokunbo Abanikanda. Area scouts never get any recognition, but these guys are the true road warriors behind every team’s draft efforts, typically spending 200-250 days a year away from home and putting in more time writing reports than most people could ever imagine possible. These are the guys who have spent the entire season going from school to school watching practices, covering large and microscopic schools alike.

Promoted: James Bodenheimer. He had been one of our Scouting Assistants, and in May he graduated to the role of a full-fledged Area Scout. Congratulations!

Now he’s living the dream, assuming his dream is to live on the road, drive several hours every day to get from campus to campus, watch practices, eat on the run, drive to a hotel near the next day’s first campus and then spend the night writing reports.

But really ... congratulations!

Hired: Rodrik David, Rich Sanders, Katie Sowers, Bailey Swyden. Fresh meat! David and Sanders joined the organization as Scouting Assistants this year. Sowers came aboard this summer as a Scouting Intern, and Swyden is serving as our Scouting Coordinator. Welcome to the grinder, kids!

So there you have it. We’ve seen a complete rebuild on the pro side, and I’d say we still have room to add another scout or two on that side of the house. On the college side, we lost our most experienced person but have a tremendous amount of experience among our senior scouts plus an excellent team of scouts coming up through the ranks.