You can’t really game-plan a work stoppage. How do you prepare to do something when nothing can be done? That said …
If the NFL lockout arrives as expected — the start (or stop) date is March 4 — and lasts into August or September, the Falcons figure to be OK. They don’t need a lot. They can subsist without buying a big-name free agent. And they are, you’ll recall, coming off a pretty fair season.
“We’re definitely preparing for a regular offseason,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said this week. “That’s the only way we can do it.”
It’s the only way to prepare. What if the work stoppage holds for all of 10 locked-out days and then the NFL goes back to work? A GM can’t say, “I’m a little behind here — who’s a free agent this year?” He has to be ready to rumble. And the April draft will come off no matter what’s happening labor-wise.
But the great imponderable of Looming Lockout 2011 is free agency. Let’s say no settlement is reached until September: The best guesses hold that the NFL and its players would decide to have a blurry-fast training camp and preseason and skip free agency. (Scheduled FA’s would return to their teams for one more season.) The 2-14 Carolina Panthers might have a tough time with that; the 13-3 Falcons would not.
There was a time when the Falcons needed everything in a hurry, but that time was 2008. In his first three months on the job, Dimitroff made a big splash in free agency by signing Michael Turner and had a big hit in the draft with Matt Ryan. Those were two guys the Falcons had to have. Ever since, their moves have been a function not of desperation but deliberation.
Dimitroff did swing the Tony Gonzalez trade with Kansas City in April 2009, and last March he spent big on the free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson. All else of significance has been draft-related. TD the GM takes no small measure of pride in his ability to wrangle a draft. Last year he took offensive guards Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley in Rounds 3 and 4, and this moved the famous Mel Kiper of ESPN to rate the Falcons’ 2010 draft a C-minus. (This grade rankled, and rankles still, within team HQ.)
Starting guards Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock are scheduled to be free agents, and so is right tackle Tyson Clabo. There’s a chance the Falcons could lock up Clabo, say, by tagging him a “franchise” player, but Dimitroff prefers not to go that route. So there’s a possibility all three could leave if free agency is allowed to take its normal course. But the Falcons have backups in-house — don’t forget tackle Garrett Reynolds, a fifth-round draftee in 2009 — and could survive such an exodus.
And there’s the value of having a Bird as sharp as Dimitroff in charge. He always works off the draft, and he works not just for next season but down the road. (Every GM seeks to do the same, but not all are so adept.) The Falcons will have the 27th pick in Round 1, which is a far cry from the No. 3 of Dimitroff’s first draft, but he likes this way fine.
“It’s drastically different,” he said, “and [drafting later] is an area in which I feel a lot more comfortable. [The New England Patriots, whence TD came, tend to draft late.] You can get good football players, and there are opportunities for value. You can also move up and down.”
This draft’s target area? Read between the lines. “We need to continue to add explosive players with a sense of urgency on both offense and defense,” Dimitroff said.
Sounds like “wide receiver and pass rusher,” does it not?
If this lockout amounts to anything, the winners will be teams with a plan in place and the management to carry it through. It was no accident that the Washington Redskins won two Super Bowls in post-strike seasons: They had Joe Gibbs and Bobby Beathard to steer. It would be no great surprise if the post-lockout NFL sees the Falcons in Super Bowl XLVI. They’ve got Mike Smith and his little buddy in charge.
By Mark Bradley