In this bit of a dead period between free agency and the NFL draft, I’ve decided to look back on Thomas Dimitroff’s tenure as General Manager of the Atlanta Falcons, reviewing his draft picks and free agent acquisitions.
Dimitroff is the best executive the Falcons have ever had, however much we can grumble about some of his moves, as he has been the architect of success which was unheard of during the times of his predecessors. In this little series, I’ve looked at both Dimitroff’s good moves and his bad moves.
Today’s list will be the first one which consists of both the good and the bad. In his 10 years as General Manager, Dimitroff has had 10 first round draft selections to work with (he had none in 2012, but two in 2008). In this article, I’ll look to rank those 10 players he’s selected from worst to best based on the success they’ve had as Atlanta Falcons.
I won’t be taking into consideration where the player was selected, just the impact the player provided. All 10 of Atlanta’s first-round draft selections between 2008-17 will be ranked and talked about.
10) Peria Jerry - 2009
Jerry is, admittedly, my least favorite Dimitroff draft selection of all time. The Falcons selected him with the 24th pick in the 2009 draft to try and solidify their defensive line following a pleasantly surprising 2008 season which saw the team secure an 11-win season and wildcard berth.
Jerry was the victim of unfortunate circumstance early on in his career, suffering a knee injury which robbed him of his rookie season. However, following his return from the injury, he immediately lost his starting tackle position to rookie Corey Peters and never came close to making the impact expected out of a first-round pick. Jerry retired following the completion of his rookie contract.
The main problem I have with this pick is that Dimitroff didn’t address the team’s most clear and pressing need: getting an edge rusher to take some pressure off of pro bowl DE John Abraham. Dimitroff admitted that he regrets not selecting USC’s Clay Matthews (who would end up being named a pro bowler six times in his career, including in his rookie season of 2009) with this selection.
The reason Jerry comes in at last place on this list is because every other first round pick Dimitroff has selected had at least one season of above average to excellent play to hang his hat on (even Sam Baker), Jerry never had more than an average season at best.
9) Sam Baker - 2008
Sam Baker was another one of Dimitroff’s catastrophic draft errors. The Falcons traded up back into the first round (from pick 34 to pick 21) to take the left tackle out of USC. The move ended up costing them an extra second-round pick and an additional fourth-round selection. With a surprising run of five offensive linemen selected between picks 12 and 19, this felt like a bit of a panic move by Dimitroff in an attempt to give newly drafted QB Matt Ryan a personal protector on his blindside.
Baker battled injuries and inconsistency to prove unworthy of the draft capital which was sacrificed to secure his services. He wasn’t terrible, but he proved to be little more than an average offensive lineman who could rarely play out a full season.
In 2012, things finally came together for Baker, as he managed to stay healthy all season while doing a very good job blocking for Ryan. Unfortunately for the Falcons, this was Baker’s contract year and Dimitroff compounded his mistake by giving him a massive (for the time) 6 year/$41.1 million contract extension (with a $10 million signing bonus). Baker would end up playing in just nine more games for the Falcons over the next two seasons before getting cut and leaving the team with a boatload of dead money on the books.
Baker never played well enough to warrant either the first round selection or the contract extension. The extra picks Atlanta gave up to secure him in a trade up as well as the dead money they were stuck with after still leave a bitter taste.
8) Sean Weatherspoon - 2010
Unfortunately for Dimitroff, his first-round selection in the 2010 draft, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, ended up being bogged down by injuries throughout his time in Atlanta, particularly after a nice start to his career.
Weatherspoon had a period of solid play in the middle of Atlanta’s defense in the 2011 and 2012 seasons when he played out 29 out of 32 regular season games. He was the spiritual leader of the Falcons’ defense and ended up totaling 156 tackles, 7.0 sacks, 12 pass deflections and an interception in that period.
Weatherspoon only managed to play in 47 out of 80 total regular season games in his five years with the Falcons, only playing out a full 16 game season in 2011. It doesn’t seem fair to criticize Dimitroff for this selection because of the tough injury luck, but GMs are tied to the production of their first-round selections, and Weatherspoon did not end up producing enough.
7) Takkarist McKinley - 2017
I’d like to preface this one by saying that the reason Takkarist McKinley is so low on this list is because he’s only played one season of NFL football so far. It was a terrific season, however, and it’s a testament to Dimitroff’s incredibly skilled and savvy first-round drafting that McKinley isn’t any higher than seven.
Dimitroff traded up from the 31st pick to the 26th selection in the 2017 draft to select to the DE out of UCLA (the Dallas Cowboys at pick 28 were reportedly looking to take him before the Falcons made the jump). The move cost Atlanta an extra third-round pick, but if McKinley’s rookie season is any indication, that investment will eventually pay off in a big way.
McKinley, in his rookie season, was the personification of making the most out of one’s opportunity. Despite playing just 38.2% of the team’s snaps in 2017, and not starting a single game, he still finished the regular season with an impressive 6.0 sacks. In two subsequent playoff games, McKinley added 2.0 more sacks to his collection.
In 2018, Takkarist McKinley will likely move into a starting role on Atlanta’s defensive line and could be poised to become a dominant pass rusher. He will likely move up this list very quickly in the coming years.
6) Keanu Neal - 2016
Because Dimitroff has had so many “hits” in the first-round of the draft, the middle of this list was very difficult to make, and a spectacular selection such as Keanu Neal found himself just outside the top five.
The Keanu Neal pick at 17 overall in the 2016 draft came as a bit of a shock to many Falcons fans. Many draft analysts criticized the pick, saying that Atlanta “reached” for the safety out of Florida.
Neal has proven the doubters wrong two years in, however, as he’s beautifully filled the role of Kam Chancellor-esq enforcer in Dan Quinn’s secondary. Neal has registered 153 tackles, 15 pass deflections and eight forced fumbles (most ever by a defensive back in his first two years) in his two seasons thus far. His impact goes beyond just the numbers, however: Neal’s bruising play style and newfound reputation have made opposing receivers hesitant when coming over the middle of the field against him. It’s a type of psychological warfare which can swing a football match in Atlanta’s favor.
Just like Takk McKinley, Neal is expected to get even better as the years go by, and he could find himself climbing this list in due time.
5) Jake Matthews - 2014
The Falcons went into the 2014 draft with holes all over their offensive line. Even when the team was picking in the top 10 for the first time since 2008, taking the best available offensive lineman was a no-brainer. Jake Matthews, the son of NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, was the most polished offensive tackle coming out of the draft and he was Dimitroff’s selection at pick number six.
Matthews struggled as a rookie, but figured things out going into his second season and has solidified the far left side of the offensive line as a result. He’s never made the Pro Bowl (something we hope changes this season) but has done a good job protecting Matt Ryan’s blindside while playing one of the most important positions in football.
Matthews has been a rock at left tackle, starting in 68 out of 69 career games through four years (including the playoffs), and playing all 1,024 snaps in the 2017 regular season. His yards allowed as a result of sacks has also steadily decreased in each season of his career (from 40.0 to 35.0 to 25.0 to 18.0).
While Dimitroff did have a top 10 pick to work with in 2014, he still had to make the right selection the way four teams in that season’s top 10 failed to do so (Rams: Greg Robinson; Jaguars: Blake Bortles; Browns: Justin Gilbert; Lions: Eric Ebron). Matthews has become arguably one of the five most important players on the roster and looks to be a franchise Left Tackle in the NFL.
4) Vic Beasley Jr. - 2015
After addressing the big hole in the offensive line in 2014, Dimitroff used one more top 10 pick to fill another glaring gap within the Falcons’ foundation, which had been lingering since the departure of John Abraham: an edge rusher.
After finishing in the bottom five in total sacks each of the previous three seasons, the Falcons looked toward Beasley to help solve the team’s pass rushing woes. It didn’t work out in his rookie year. With the Clemson product nursing a torn shoulder labrum over the course of the season, he totaled just 4.0 sacks and the Falcons finished dead last in the NFL with 19.0 total sacks.
Things clicked in 2016, however. Beasley ended up totaling 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles (most in the NFL in both categories), serving as the anchor of Atlanta’s young defense. Those 15.5 sacks represented 45.5% of Atlanta’s total sacks that season, as the Falcons went from last in the NFL in that category to 16th. Beasley ended up being voted as a First-Team All-Pro.
Beasley took a step back in 2017, but that was partly due to the fact that he missed half the season because of injury and because he was sometimes dropped into coverage. Dan Quinn has noted that the Clemson alum will go back to every down rushing duty next season, so the expectation is that he’ll total double-digit sacks once again. Beasley’s All-Pro appearance nudges him ahead of Jake Matthews on this list.
3) Desmond Trufant - 2013
The Falcons went into the 2013 draft with a pressing need at the cornerback position. Desmond Trufant was a name which had been mocked to the Falcons at pick 30 for a number of weeks leading up to the draft. Dimitroff sacrificed a third-round selection to move up from 30 to pick number 22 so that he could select Trufant, making sure that nobody could undercut him for the services of the University of Washington CB.
Trufant has been stellar as a Falcon. Even in the 2013 season when Atlanta’s defense was horrendous in the midst of a 4-12 year, Trufant stood out with 17 passes defensed while consistently guarding and stifling the opposing team’s number one WR. He was voted PFF’s rookie of the year that season.
Utilizing fantastic technique to shadow the opposing WR and aided by blistering 4.3 speed, Trufant has proven to be a top 10 CB in the NFL time and time again over the course of his young career. He earned a 2015 pro bowl selection, and would have probably helped get the Falcons over the hump in Superbowl 51 had he not been injured.
Trufant was rewarded for his work with a 5 year/$68,750,000 ($41,526,000 guaranteed) contract extension ahead of the 2017 season. With him and 2013 second round pick Robert Alford patrolling the secondary, CB has become an overall position of strength for the Falcons.
2) Quintorris Lopez “Julio” Jones - 2011
In the 2011 NFL draft, the Falcons went all in. The team’s championship window was open and Thomas Dimitroff looked to capitalize on it by making his most audacious move as General Manager of the Falcons: he traded Atlanta’s first-round pick in 2012, second-round pick in 2011, fourth-round pick in 2011 and fourth-round pick in 2012 to the Browns in order to move from the 26th pick in the draft to the sixth selection, so that he could take Julio Jones out of Alabama. It was a move which would have cost him his job if Jones was anything less than a superstar.
Luckily for Dimitroff and the entire Atlanta Falcons organization, Jones repaid the incredible investment made in him by becoming a bona fide superstar in the NFL. He made his first Pro Bowl team in 2012 and looked well on his way to making it a second straight appearance in 2013, but suffered a broken foot which sidelined him for the year, just five games into the season.
Following the 2013 setback, Jones has set the NFL world on fire. He’s made the pro bowl four straight years since then (five total with the 2012 selection), has totaled at least 1,400 receiving yards in every season from 2014 on, including a preposterous 1,871 yard season in 2015 (the second most in a single season), and was voted as a First Team All-Pro selection in 2015 and 2016. Jones has also stepped up big-time in the playoffs, with 834 receiving yards and six touchdowns in eight career playoff games.
Julio Jones’ 95.3 receiving yards per game average for his career is the most in NFL history. His 9,054 career receiving yards is second in Atlanta Falcons history (Roddy White) and his 43 career receiving touchdowns ranks as fourth in franchise history. By the time he retires, Julio Jones will have rewritten Atlanta’s record books. He will be remembered as the greatest wide receiver in franchise history and will eventually be in the Hall of Fame.
1) Matt Ryan - 2008
In Thomas Dimitroff’s first draft ever as General Manager of the Atlanta Falcons, he owned the third overall selection and needed to make a franchise-altering decision. Should he take the quarterback out of Boston College, Matt Ryan, with the pick, or does he take the stellar defensive lineman out of LSU, Glenn Dorsey?
We may laugh at the thought of taking Dorsey over Ryan now, but there was a significant contingent of the fanbase which was torn on who to take. Dimitroff ended up submitting a draft card with Matt Ryan’s name on it, and the rest was history.
Ryan has brought about a golden era of football in Atlanta in the 10 years he’s spent under center as quarterback of the Falcons. He’s led the birds to seven winning seasons and six playoff appearances from 2008-17. Before he got to Atlanta, the Falcons had enjoyed just 10 winning seasons and eight playoff appearances in 41 years from 1966-2007.
As for personal achievements, Ryan has broken every single major passing record in franchise history: Most passing yards (almost twice as many as second-placed Steve Bartkowski), most pass touchdowns (more than 100 more than second-placed Steve Bartkowski), lowest interception percentage (among qualified candidates), highest passer rating (among qualified candidates), most fourth-quarter comebacks, most game-winning drives and most wins among QBs. He’s also the only player in franchise history to ever win the NFL MVP award.
I consider the Matt Ryan selection to be Dimitroff’s greatest accomplishment ever as GM of the Falcons. While he did have a high pick to work with, he made the right selection with that pick and has been able to build winning teams around that selection as a result. Ryan took this franchise out of the doldrums when there seemed to be no end in sight. He is the best Quarterback in franchise history; he is the most important player in franchise history; he could well be a future Hall of Famer. The best part is, he doesn’t appear to be closed to finished.