FLOWERY BRANCH — In his never-ending quest to not let you know what he’s really thinking – which just makes him an NFL general manager — Thomas Dimitroff balked at answering a question the other day.
It was a simple one: In his extreme makeover plans, on which side of the ball were the Falcons closer to completion?
Dimitroff started and stopped his answer twice, before finally saying: “I would suggest we’re a tad closer to where we want to be on offense.”
Statistics, actually, would tell you a lot closer.
The Falcons had to take outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon on Thursday night.
Injuries in 2009 notwithstanding, when a team finishes 21st in total defense, 28th against the pass, 26th in sacks, 16th in interceptions and 26th in passes defensed, it’s not even a close call.
The pass rush stunk. The coverage stunk. This weekly game of bend-bend-bend-drop-to-your-knees-and-pray-you-don’t-break gets real old after a while.
Opponents had 54 pass plays of 20-plus yards last season. At some point, the question became, “How many of these guys are missing major organs?”
Weatherspoon is not a one-man Mr. Fix-it. But he’s as close as the Falcons’ could have hoped for with the 19th pick. He can play the strong side. He can play the weak side. He can rush the passer. He can hit. He can drop into coverage, an important factor in a division stuffed with athletic tight ends.
“We were in a situation where we needed to build the defense — build depth, increase versatility, eliminate the explosive plays in the passing game,” Dimitroff said after the pick. “In our mind, Sean will help us become more consistent and help us eliminate those explosive plays.”
Now it can be told. Dimitroff locked onto three players in the days leading up to the draft. All on defense. End Derrick Morgan of Georgia Tech, end Brandon Graham of Michigan and Weatherspoon. (Florida center Maurkice Pouncey was in the next group.)
Morgan seemed like a long shot. But with a few surprising picks ahead of them — offensive tackle Trent Williams at four to Washington; cornerback Joe Haden at seven to Cleveland; defensive tackle Tyson Alualu at 10 to Jacksonville — Morgan tumbled down. He finally went to Tennessee at 16.
What if both he and Weatherspoon were there at 19?
“We wouldn’t have made our pick in only five minutes,” Dimitroff said. “We would’ve had a much more pointed discussion. It might’ve come down to the last minute. But we really liked Sean. In the end, we felt the linebacker spot would really help our pass defense.”
The Falcons considered dropping down and swapping picks with Denver at 22 or 25, thinking they might still be able to get Weatherspoon there. But they were worried they might lose him.
“He’s the guy we targeted,” Dimitroff said.
Dimitroff’s first draft was going to be offense-heavy, even if Matt Ryan wasn’t the choice. His original plan was to take LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey with the first choice and try to come back with Michigan quarterback Chad Henne with the Falcons’ next pick. Offensive picks would follow.
Last year was all about defense. Seven of the team’s eight selections were on that side of the ball, including the top four who will be back in 2010: defensive tackle Peria Jerry, safety William Moore, cornerback Chris Owens and defensive end Lawrence Sidbury.
This moves the defense’s makeover closer to completion. Injuries voided the rookie seasons of Jerry and Moore. Both will be back. Cornerback Dunta Robinson, a six-year starter in Houston, was signed in free agent.
Under the circumstances — which included injuries to Ryan and running back Michael Turner — it’s a wonder how the Falcons slipped to only 9-7 last season. Weatherspoon will help them move forward again.
Dimitroff was beaming after the pick. The draft is the favorite part of his job. He feels like he has been scouting players since he was 10 years old, when his father was a long-time pro scout.
“It brings me back to my roots in football, down on the field, sniffing the pits,” he said the other day, using an old scouts’ term.
Defense gets the Falcons back to the roots of football. It was a good day at work.