It Starts With Matt
No team had more work to do in the draft than the Falcons, who tapped BC's Matt Ryan as Michael Vick's replacement the first step in the recovery of a beleaguered franchise
The text message arrived on Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff's cellphone around noon last Saturday, three hours before the start of the 2008 NFL draft: trust your instincts. you have been training for this all your life. It came from Patriots vice president Scott Pioli, Dimitroff's close friend, former boss and mentor, and he took the encouraging words to heart. This was the first draft that Dimitroff, 42, would run, and the job ahead of him was monumental. Atlanta held six of the first 98 picks and had 10 holes in its starting lineup to fill, including quarterback. "This draft will be a milestone in the history of the Falcons," team owner Arthur Blank had said on Friday. "We're not starting a new chapter here. We're starting a new book."
Thirty minutes before the draft began, the Rams, holding the No. 2 pick, one spot ahead of Atlanta, called Dimitroff to tell him they'd received strong interest in their pick from the Ravens, who were sitting at No. 8 and also needed a passer. Would Dimitroff like to trump that offer by giving St. Louis a second-round pick in return for swapping positions with the Rams, thus assuring the Falcons that they'd get the QB they wanted, Matt Ryan of Boston College? The Atlanta brain trust huddled, but in the end it was Dimitroff's decision. "I don't want to say we were calling their bluff," Dimitroff said later, "but I just didn't think Baltimore would trade a lot of their draft for this one player." He was right. The Falcons stayed at No. 3 and got Ryan.
Dimitroff's second draft priority was left tackle, and when the fifth tackle flew off the board with the 19th pick of the first round, he intensified discussions with the Redskins to trade back into the first round, at No. 21. The deal got done in time -- Dimitroff gave up two second-round picks (Nos. 34 and 48) plus a fourth- and a fifth-rounder for Washington's first-round choice plus a third and a fifth -- and grabbed Sam Baker, a four-year starter at USC. It was a reach; even Baker was stunned to be taken so high. "In an ideal world," Dimitroff said, "you'd get Baker at 34 or 37. But if we had waited, he'd have been gone, and we would be shut out of the guys we liked. Quarterback, left tackle, defensive end, cornerback . . . it's worth being aggressive there."
The 73rd NFL draft showcased several such instinctive decisions that will have far-reaching implications. The Jaguars, to shore up an aging pass rush, traded a total of six draft picks to move up twice and select defensive ends, Florida's Derrick Harvey and Auburn's Quentin Groves. The Ravens got their first-round quarterback, but was it the right one? Baltimore bypassed Chad Henne of Michigan for Joe Flacco of Division I-AA Delaware. The Panthers paid a tremendous price -- second- and fourth-round picks this year and their first-rounder in 2009 -- to get the Eagles' pick at No. 19, which they used on Pitt tackle Jeff Otah. "In this business," said Carolina coach John Fox, "what you really want is never cheap."
Also, the lesson learned from the Giants' victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII had a strong influence on this draft: To win a championship, a team better have a pass rush . . . and, on offense, it better have players who can stop a pass rush. Seven of the top 10 picks were defensive linemen or linebackers chosen for their ability to pressure the quarterback; seven of the top 26 (including the Dolphins' selection at No. 1, Michigan's Jake Long) were offensive tackles. That's quite a lot of early picks spent on players who don't throw or catch the ball -- but play a major role in determining the success of those who do. (For the first time since 1990, no wide receivers were chosen in the first round.)
Among the teams that appeared to have gotten a lot better last weekend were Miami, which might have stolen a starting quarterback in Henne, at No. 57; Kansas City, which nabbed three of its top 25-rated players, including LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey at No. 5; and Philadelphia, which swung a total of three trades, piled up 10 picks over the two days and still landed a premium receiver-return at No. 49, Cal's DeSean Jackson, whom the Eagles had considered taking in the first round.
The Falcons? No other team over the last 12 months lived the nightmare this franchise did, so no other team was as dependent on the 2008 draft. They used three third-round picks to get a cover corner, LSU's Chevis Jackson, a speedy wideout in Louisville's Harry Douglas and a special teams standout in Cal safety Thomas DeCoud. While the rest of the league was tinkering with their rosters last weekend, Atlanta, with 11 picks overall, was operating like an expansion team.
Any story about the Falcons these days must make a stop 842 miles from Atlanta, at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kans. You wonder: Was Michael Vick watching the draft on TV there, when the selection of Ryan all but guaranteed he won't be invited back to lead Atlanta's offense?
Since Vick began serving his 23-month sentence last November following his conviction on dogfighting charges, Blank has received three handwritten letters from him. The owner said last week that Vick has been apologetic and sincere in the messages. "He was washing pots and pans for 12 cents an hour, and now he's a janitor," Blank said quietly last Friday. He paused for a full five seconds, then added, "I would think that would have a way of cleansing one's soul."