Each year, teams dream of adding players through the draft who can put them in Super Bowl contention. The Falcons did exactly that over the last two offseasons, and a lot of Atlanta’s draft success is thanks to head coach Dan Quinn.
You can see Quinn’s influence in the selection of strong safety Keanu Neal in last year’s draft. Most mock draft projections had Neal pegged as a second-rounder, but the Falcons selected him with the 17th overall pick in 2016. The pick didn’t earn the team high draft grades, but the Falcons saw how Neal would fit in their defense. They were right. Neal finished his rookie season with 106 tackles and five forced fumbles.
Neal was second on the team last season in tackles, behind fellow rookie Deion Jones. Jones has blazing speed, but he’s undersized by conventional middle linebacker standards. Because of that and his limited starting experience at LSU, he was a third-round projection. Atlanta got him in the second round, but again, it worked out. Jones’ name even entered the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation thanks in part to his three regular-season interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
Quinn isn’t doing this alone. He’s working alongside Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff to build the roster, and the partnership has been productive.
Dimitroff has been named the Sporting News Executive of the Year twice, and his way of evaluating talent and building the roster meshes well with Quinn’s philosophies. In two years, Quinn and Dimitroff have worked together to overhaul the team’s approach to the draft. The results are vastly different from when Mike Smith was the Falcons head coach.
Draft misfires during the Mike Smith era led to the Falcons’ decline
Smith and Dimitroff were hired by the Falcons prior to the 2008 season. They were tasked with turning around a franchise that had finished the 2007 season 4-12. Smith replaced Bobby Petrino, who left during the season to take the head coaching job at Arkansas. Michael Vick was in prison for dogfighting, and the Falcons had a lot of work to do to turn things around.
And they did turn it around, at least at first. Smith and Dimitroff’s first draft pick was Matt Ryan, 2016’s league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. The Falcons made it to the playoffs in four out of the first five seasons of the Dimitroff and Smith era, but then things fell apart abruptly. One reason for the collapse was a disparity between the team’s needs and the players drafted to fill them, which gave the Falcons a lack of depth and talent that kept the team from being competitive.
Smith and Dimitroff had different priorities. Dimitroff preferred prospects with over-the-top speed and athleticism. Smith’s old-school approach on both sides of the ball wasn’t a good fit for many of those players. The Falcons plummeted from the NFC Championship Game following the 2012 season to winning only four games in 2013.
Atlanta’s entire 2012 draft class washed out of the NFL
In 2012, the Falcons were missing a first-round pick and a fourth-round pick thanks to the blockbuster trade with the Browns to move up to get Julio Jones in 2011. The team had needs on both sides of the ball, and without a full slate of picks, the pressure was on to use each one wisely. They didn’t.
The best example of Smith and Dimitroff not seeing eye to eye is free safety Dezmen Southward. At 6’2 and 210 pounds, Southward had the physical attributes teams want in the secondary, and with 4.38 40-yard dash speed and a 42-inch vertical at Wisconsin’s pro day, his athleticism was appealing.
But he only played one year of high school football, and his lack of experience was a warning sign for his NFL career. Southward was projected to go in the fourth or fifth round, but the Falcons grabbed him in the third round in 2014.
Southward played in all 16 games in his rookie season, but he only racked up 23 combined tackles and one interception. That was Smith’s final year as Atlanta’s head coach. Quinn shifted Southward to corner before the 2015 season, but the transition was a failure, and the team cut him midseason.
There was also Lamar Holmes, who had the physical tools to become a successful NFL tackle, but he was raw. Holmes was projected as a sixth- or seventh-round selection, but the Falcons took him in the third round of the 2012 draft. Holmes didn’t develop like he needed to, and the Falcons released him with an injury settlement toward the end of the 2015 season.
Holmes and Southward weren’t outliers, either. Not a single player from Atlanta’s 2012 draft is still in the NFL.
The consequences of missing on so many picks caught up with the Falcons, and Atlanta went 4-12 in 2013 and 6-10 in 2014. Smith was fired following the 2014 season, and his departure ushered in the Quinn era and a new approach to the draft.
Quinn’s influence is paying off
Quinn has a clearly defined vision for the players Atlanta needs. Almost immediately after he was hired as the Falcons head coach, he and Dimitroff focused on how to work together to build a team that could be in perpetual postseason contention.
"We went through every department along with culture in football ops and discussed, at multilayers, how we wanted to run this organization from a football-operations standpoint,” Dimitroff said in the week leading up to Super Bowl LI, via ESPN’s Vaughn McClure. “And it was the best thing that we could have done, because there's never any ambiguity about it.
“And if we ever do (disagree), we go back to our corporate-knowledge platform and discuss about everything that we've discussed and how we built the team. And if it needs to be adjusted, it's adjusted together. Again, I'm so proud of that."
One major change from Smith to Quinn is the division of responsibilities. Dimitroff had the ultimate say over the roster when Smith was with the Falcons, which led to him bringing in prospects who didn’t necessarily fit.
On Quinn’s side, it involves listening to his assistants and making sure they’re all on the same page about which players are the best fits in Atlanta’s schemes and why. Then it’s a matter of communicating that to the team’s talent evaluators.
Quinn has control over the 53-man roster and the practice squad now, and while Dimitroff is involved in evaluating prospects and making draft decisions, his primary responsibility lies in managing the salary cap.
Dimitroff also manages the scouting staff, which includes three former general managers — Scott Pioli, Ruston Webster, and Phil Emery. It’s not a “too many cooks” situation, either. This arrangement works because everyone has a specific role and a common goal.
Falcons’ new approach is paying off
Quinn and Dimitroff got off to a strong start in their first draft together. With the eighth overall pick, they selected Vic Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks with 15.5 and added four forced fumbles last season. Still, that’s the production you’d expect from a top-10 pick. It’s the under-the-radar picks Quinn and Dimitroff have teamed up on that really tell the story of their success.
In fact, Beasley’s college teammate, Grady Jarrett, may turn out to be the best pick of the entire 2015 draft for the Falcons. Jarrett had second-round-caliber talent, but he fell into the fifth round because at 6’1 and 304 pounds, he lacked ideal size for a defensive tackle.
Jarrett showed promise as a rookie but became a key contributor last season. He was on the field for nearly 57 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps and notched three sacks during the regular season. Then Jarrett matched that total in one night in Super Bowl LI against the Patriots, his breakout game. Jarrett played well enough that he could have been named Super Bowl MVP if the Falcons hadn’t blown a 25-point lead.
Cornerback Jalen Collins looked like a reach in the second round of the 2015 draft due to limited starting experience and some off-the-field concerns while at LSU. Still, he fit the prototype for a defensive back in Quinn’s scheme, and the team took a chance on him.
Last season, it paid off. When Atlanta’s top cornerback, Desmond Trufant, went down with a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve, Collins filled in admirably, showing everyone why the Falcons snagged him that early.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank said last year that he’d like to see the team come away from the 2016 draft with three immediate starters out of the first four rounds. Blank got his wish. Neal, Jones, and fourth-rounder De’Vondre Campbell all earned starting roles on the Falcons defense.
These young players developed quickly and turned in solid performances last season. Quinn and Dimitroff have figured out how to pinpoint players who will shine in Atlanta’s schemes.
Continuity makes a difference, and Blank wants to give Quinn and Dimitroff an opportunity to keep this momentum. Last November, the Falcons offered Dimitroff a contract extension through the 2019 season. That’s the same length as Quinn’s contract.
The partnership between Quinn and Dimitroff lifted the Falcons out of three years of obscurity to a Super Bowl bid last season. This week, Quinn and Dimitroff will focus on working together to get it right once again in the 2017 draft.