In his first four years as the Falcons’ chief architect, Thomas Dimitroff didn’t have to convince anybody that he was being aggressive.
There were screaming headlines every offseason as evidence: Free-agent signings (Michael Turner, Dunta Robinson, Ray Edwards), a trade for a Hall of Famer (Tony Gonzalez), draft picks for franchise anchors (Matt Ryan, Julio Jones).
Yet, here we are in mid-March, and the headlines haven’t been screaming. Re-signing John Abraham was significant. It broke the silence of spring. But whether that’s enough to douse perceptions that the Falcons aren’t doing nearly enough to improve their product is another matter.
To say that Dimitroff disagrees with those perceptions would be an understatement.
“The insinuation that we’re not being active and doing everything we can to improve our football team is, in my mind, incorrect,” the Falcons’ general manager said, measuring his words carefully. “We’re doing everything in our power to analyze and improve this team.
“We said we’re going to be aggressive and make changes, not just tweaks. Between [placing the franchise tag on] Brent Grimes and [signing] Abraham, and the new coaches we’ve brought in, we feel we’ve been making significant changes.”
Abraham’s signing helps. If he had not accepted the Falcons’ contract offer — and there were concerns in the building that their best pass rusher was going to sign elsewhere — Dimitroff would have sought help in the free-agent market. But Abraham was his preferred option. (There is still a chance the Falcons could re-sign linebacker Curtis Lofton, but he’s drawing interest from other teams, including New Orleans.)
But here’s where the divide between perceptions comes in: Whereas fans, media and others off the team’s Flowery Branch campus hear the words “aggressiveness” or “change” and equate that to “new,” Dimitroff is factoring in signings and negotiations with existing members to preserve the team’s core.
He has a point. Several Falcons, including picks from Dimitroff’s first draft in 2008, had expiring contracts. Identifying the key players in a team’s core is part of building a winner. The question is whether this will be good enough.
Dimitroff believes so. He expects Smith’s new coordinators, Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, and offensive line coach Pat Hill to have significant impacts. “When you get new coaches in, it’s a fresh perspective,” he said. “Both [coordinators] came in and had real positive feelings after analyzing our roster. We said we’re going to make changes, and this is a big part of that.”
One obvious area in question is the offensive line. There’s still a chance the Falcons will bring in another veteran (center Todd McClure remains unsigned). But Dimitroff thinks the change to Hill, who replaces the fired Paul Boudreau, will help the existing cast.
“We needed to truly analyze what the issue was with the offensive line,” he said. “They were back on their heels too much, literally and figuratively. We have the makings of a gritty, physical line. We like the foundation of our line.”
And yes, he is including the oft-maligned left tackle Sam Baker. “He’s been a part of many wins for us over the last four years,” he said, then referenced Baker’s injury problems.
Which means either don’t expect a change, or there’s one surprise left to come.
Dimitroff touched on several other topics during an hour-long interview, including:
• Being so close to the salary-cap ceiling makes many more moves difficult, unless more space is created. (He didn’t expand on that, so I’ll translate: A veteran would need to be cut or traded. With Baker getting the vote of confidence, that leaves fullback Ovie Mughelli as a likely candidate. His salary: $3 million.)
• Dimitroff considers cornerback Brent Grimes (who was franchised) part of the team’s core and still hopes to get him signed to a multi-year contract.
• He was relieved to get No. 3 receiver Harry Douglas signed to a new deal, believing the team might lose him. Keeping both Douglas and Eric Weems wasn’t likely (Weems signed with Chicago).
• He believes defensive end Kroy Biermann and safety Thomas DeCoud, despite some issues last season, are versatile and fill needed roles, which is why they were re-signed.
Bottom line: Dimitroff likes his team.
“Everybody in the organization is held accountable and asked to improve, and that starts with me,” he said.
Ultimately, he knows: The real grades won’t come until next season.
By Jeff Schultz