By D. Orlando Ledbetter
INDIANAPOLIS — Despite rising from the downtrodden to the top of the NFC South, the Falcons will continue as a needs-based team when it comes to the next NFL draft.
Since Thomas Dimitroff was hired as the general manager in 2008, the team has retained nearly 80 percent of the players it drafted. He’s selected 13 starters and four Pro Bowl players in five drafts.
With that massive infusion of talent, the Falcons reached the conference championship game last season. They have been eliminated in the playoffs by the NFC’s Super Bowl representative in four of the past five seasons. The team will continue to rely heavily on the draft.
With big contracts looming on the horizon for quarterback Matt Ryan, left tackle Sam Baker, safety William Moore and possibly tight end Tony Gonzalez and cornerback Brent Grimes, the Falcons will need younger players and their lower salaries to fill out their roster.
After the Ray Edwards debacle — $27.5 million contract, $11 million guaranteed, virtually no return — the Falcons will be extremely selective in free agency. They have discussed adding defensive linemen Dwight Freeney and Osi Umenyiora. Teams can’t start negotiating until March 9. Free agency officially starts on March 12.
“We always go in the draft being needs-based,” Dimitroff said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the NFL scouting combine. “At (No.) 30 (in the first round), you are a little more apt to consider multiple positions than you are honed in on one.”
Dimitroff reviewed how the team has been strategically built through the draft.
“When we started out in 2008, we knew that we had a lot of moves to make and we had to be very creative in how we put the team together,” Dimitroff said. “We had to acquire (some players) through free agency and we had to be very acute with our approach in the draft, which we did. We came out with some very adept football players.”
In 2008, the Falcons added current starters in Ryan, Baker, safety Thomas DeCoud and defensive end Kroy Biermann. Reserve receiver Harry Douglas and linebacker Robert James were also drafted along with linebacker Curtis Lofton, who led the team in tackles over his four seasons before signing with the Saints in free agency.
In 2009, the Falcons focused on rebuilding the defense after letting five defensive starters season leave.
“We knew that we had to fortify our defense,” Dimitroff said. “So we went defensively with (defensive tackle) Peria Jerry and (Moore). William has really stood up to be an outstanding football player. Peria, if not for his injuries, I believe he would be that much farther along. I like his progression now.”
In 2010, the team again focused on defense, drafting linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in the first round and defensive tackle Corey Peters in the third round, two more starters.
“We jumped in heavy on (Weatherspoon),” Dimitroff said. “He’s been very impressive and has become our defensive leader.”
In 2011, the Falcons made the blockbuster trade with Cleveland to get into position to add wide receiver Julio Jones, who just went to his first Pro Bowl.
“We are never looking back on that,” Dimitroff said. “We are excited about what he is and has become.”
Last season, the Falcons had no first-round pick because of the Jones’ trade but the team believes it drafted two eventual offensive line contributors in guard/center Peter Konz and tackle Lamar Holmes.
“We had to be creative since we didn’t have a first-round pick,” Dimitroff said. “We feel that we pulled off a very productive draft and one that will provide us with players for years to come, that will be solid, consistent football players.”
The Falcons have all seven of their draft picks in 2013 and could pick up two additional compensatory picks for losing Lofton and Eric Weems to free agency last season.
“We are in a completely different place than we were five years ago,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We had a lot of areas that we had to address. This year, I don’t think we have as many as we did five years ago. But we are always trying to get better as a team.”
BUILDING THROUGH THE DRAFT
Since general manager Thomas Dimitroff was hired, the Falcons have drafted 38 players and 30 of them (78.9 percent) finished last season on the roster. Over that period, the team has drafted 13 of their 22 starters and have drafted four players that have played in the Pro Bowl in quarterback Matt Ryan, free safety Thomas Decoud, strong safety William Moore and wide receiver Julio Jones.
YEAR 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Total picks 11 8 7 6 6
Starters 4 2 2 4 1
Backups 2 4 5 1 5
On other teams 1 1 0 1 0
Out of NFL 4 1 0 0 0
Pro Bowlers 2 1 0 1 0
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