The free agency frenzy is well under way in the NFL, with teams looking to rebuild their roster or bring in that player whom they hope to be the final piece in their championship puzzle.
Thomas Dimitroff isn’t new to the frenzy. As General Manager of the Falcons since 2008, he’s had 10 years of signings which are up for evaluation. Today, I’ll look at the five best free agents Dimitroff has signed in that window.
Here are some ground rules for this list. Players who were acquired via trade aren’t eligible; this is for outright free agent signings only: you won’t be seeing Tony Gonzalez in this top five. It doesn’t matter when in the year the player was signed, he could have been a March signing or a mid-season November signing. Undrafted free agents aren’t eligible, that’s a list for another day. Any free agent signing from 2008-17 qualifies for this list.
To be completely honest, the back end of this list was not easy to make. Dimitroff has had quite a few strikeouts in free agency to go along with his hits, so you may see a name or two which you weren’t expecting.
5) Patrick DiMarco - 2013
When the Falcons signed DiMarco to the practice squad (and eventually to the 53-man roster) in 2013, it was the type of move which was completely overlooked by everyone. And why wouldn’t it be? This is a fullback we’re talking about after all.
However, through the years DiMarco ended up growing into an incredibly valuable contributor. He had a breakout season in 2015, earning Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors while helping RB Devonta Freeman accumulate 1,056 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns as his lead blocker.
In 2016, DiMarco was again an integral, albeit overlooked, part of an Atlanta Falcons offense which had one of the 10 best offensive seasons in NFL history. With the help of his lead blocking, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined to rush for 1,599 yards and 17 touchdowns.
It’s weird seeing a fullback on a list like this, but DiMarco deserves recognition after contributing four years of excellent service. He was the best fullback in the NFL over the course of his last two seasons in Atlanta but was hardly recognized as such because he was blocking instead of vulturing one-yard touchdowns like Mike Tolbert. The Falcons still haven’t been able to replace DiMarco after not re-signing him in the 2017 offseason.
4) Mohamed Sanu - 2016
The moves made in 2016 free agency, and in the grand scheme of things the entire 2016 offseason, propelled Atlanta to an unlikely Superbowl run a few months later. However, at the time, the signing of Mohamed Sanu as a significant piece was met with mixed results from Falcons fans.
Sanu was given a big 5 year/$32 million contract to replace Roddy White as Atlanta’s primary receiving compliment to Julio Jones. Dimitroff, Dan Quinn and OC Kyle Shanahan put their trust in Sanu despite the fact that he was coming from a Bengals team where he was always viewed as nothing more than a third option when everyone was healthy, and that trust was repaid.
In two seasons with the Falcons so far, Sanu has hauled in a combined 1,356 receiving yards and 10 total touchdowns. These aren’t eye-popping numbers by any means, but he’s done everything asked of him as a number 2 receiver in Atlanta’s system, consistently making opposing teams pay for double-teaming Julio Jones. He also threw a beautiful touchdown pass to Julio.
Mohamed Sanu has proven to be an integral part of Atlanta’s offense over the past two seasons, and there’s still more of a contribution to be made from him. While it’s unlikely that he ends up moving up this list in the coming years (because of how elite his competition in the top 3 is), Sanu will be fondly remembered by the Falcons fanbase as a very successful signing in the 2016 offseason.
3) Matt Bryant - 2009
This is where we get into the upper echelon of Dimitroff’s greatest free agent signings. Kicker Matt Bryant wasn’t a conventional signing: the Falcons brought him in in the middle of the 2009 season after cutting the struggling Jason Elam. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Thomas Dimitroff had just signed the man who would go on to become the best kicker in Falcons history.
Bryant has been an absolute rock at the kicker position for Atlanta and has consistently made Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans question his release following the 2008 season. In his 128 games with the Falcons (eight full seasons worth of games), Bryant has converted 339/340 extra points (99.7%) and 230/261 total field goals (88.1%).
The Baylor alum has also proven to be clutch come playoff time: converting 37/38 of his total kicks for the Falcons in the postseason (97.3%). Bryant seemingly always comes through in any high-pressure kicking situation, and his game-winning 49-yard field goal against the Seattle Seahawks in the 2012 divisional round of the playoffs will forever rest in Falcon lore. I have no doubt in my mind that he would have put the New England Patriots away in Superbowl 51 had he been given the opportunity.
Bryant is far and away the Falcons’ leader in total points scored. He made his first pro bowl in 2016 but was even more important to the team through its offensive struggles in 2017. Even at age 42, Matt Bryant is still one of the elite kickers in the NFL, and he stands side by side with the greatest free agent signings in team history.
2) Alex Mack - 2016
It’s very rare to see a team who is one missing piece away from contention diagnose what that missing piece is and then properly address it. The Falcons did just that when they signed Alex Mack in the 2016 offseason.
Atlanta employed a revolving door of misfit toys at the center position from 2013-2015, following the retirement of reliable Todd McClure. The likes of Peter Konz, James Stone, Joe Hawley and Mike Person all had the opportunity to snap the ball to Matt Ryan over that time period, and none of them were good at their jobs.
The situation got to be so bad that Dimitroff and company invested a massive amount of capital in the best player available on the market, Alex Mack: signing him to a 5 year/$45 million contract. Mack has since solidified Atlanta’s offensive line and has become arguably the second most important player on the entire team (after the quarterback of course).
Alex Mack has played every snap in the past two seasons as a Falcon and was voted to the pro bowl both years. He’s been an absolute godsend to Matt Ryan and the entire offense and has a chance to top this list by the end of his time as a Falcon.
1) Michael Turner - 2008
Thomas Dimitroff’s first major free agent signing set the bar for everybody else over the next decade. The 2008 offseason was a golden one which won Dimitroff Executive of the Year honors. He drafted QB Matt Ryan and signed former Chargers backup RB Michael Turner to a 6 year/$34,500,000 deal to be his backfield mate.
It can’t be overstated how beneficial Turner was to the development of a young Matt Ryan over the first few years of his career. “The Burner” was the engine of Atlanta’s offense from 2008-11, leading the league in carries in 2008 and 2010 and making it to the pro bowl in each of those seasons. His incredible 2008 season saw him rush for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns on his way to earning first-team All-Pro honors.
Turner rushed for 6,081 yards in his time as a Falcon, second in franchise history to only Gerald Riggs, and totaled 60 rushing touchdowns, by far the most in franchise history (Gerald Riggs is second with 48). His 81.1 rushing yards per game is also the best mark in franchise history by a substantial margin (Gerald Riggs is second with 72.9 rushing ypg).
Thomas Dimitroff hit a grand slam with the Michael Turner signing in 2008, bringing in a guy who would eventually prove his metal as one of the two greatest RBs in franchise history. Right now, Turner tops not only the list of best free agent signings in the Tomas Dimitroff era but also the list of best free agent signings in Atlanta Falcons history.