The Falcons went through a long period, if not a majority of the franchise’s existence, when the draft wasn’t about restocking the roster as much as it was about setting up the next punchline.
You could view early selections at various state fairs, adjacent to the two-headed goat, the bearded-lady and the Smith family guide to sports management. You may want to cover your eyes.
Aundray Bruce. Jamaal Anderson. Michael Booker. Devin Bush. Marcus Cotton. Peria Jerry. Jimmy Williams. Brian Scott. Steve Broussard. Bruce Pickens. Peter Konz.
There also was that time in 1991 when the Falcons spent a 10th-round pick on a wide receiver named Walter Sutton out of Southwest Minnesota State. Turns out Sutton was a convicted drug dealer who was sentenced to nine years in prison. There was a low bar for 10th-round draft picks. But not that low.
Was it all bad? Not. Former Falcons general manager Ken Herock, who made the Sutton pick, was fond of telling the world that he drafted two Hall of Famers, Brett Favre and Deion Sanders. It would’ve been great if most of their careers hadn’t been spent in others teams’ uniforms.
OK, you can look now.
The past two drafts have been like a deep cleansing breath for the organization. Or an exorcism. When this year’s draft opened Thursday night, the Falcons had the confident look of a team that believed it knew what it was doing and the resume to back it up.
Nine of their 13 draft picks the past two seasons are starting or major contributors: Vic Beasley, Keanu Neal in the first round, Jalen Collins and Deion Jones in the second, Tevin Coleman and Austin Hooper in the third, Justin Hardy and De’Vondre Campbell in the fourth and Grady Jarrett in the fifth. Three of their other four picks, sixth and seventh rounders, are on the roster (Wes Schweitzer, Devin Fuller, Akeem King).
So 12 of 13 players are on the roster, including an edge rusher, Beasley who led the NFL in sacks and went to the Pro Bowl last season. That’s beyond good. It’s illogical. It’s hard to believe this is the same operation that only five years ago completely whiffed on a six-player 2012 class, punctuated by two offensive line flops: Konz and Lamar Holmes.
That doesn’t provide any guarantees for this year’s picks, although general manager Thomas Dimitroff said an hour before the draft, “We believe we can get some starters out of this draft class, as we did last year.” But it creates a level of comfort that this organization has never experienced before.
Nothing will wipe out the memory of last season’s ending. But teams that keep making right decisions are bound to have a good ending at some point.
“The connection between the coaching staff and the personnel is staff is one I had hoped would grow stronger every year, and it has,” coach Dan Quinn said recently. “To see that connection take place and what’s happened has been great.”
Quinn hasn’t been the perfect head coach. There have been some painful lessons on the sideline, the most recent being his decision not to overrule offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan on a couple of decisions that cost the Falcons a Super Bowl. But he has been beyond what the Falcons could have hoped for in his two seasons as a coach and even better as a talent evaluator.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll said that of all the assistant coaches he has had in Seattle, Quinn seemed more adept at evaluating players than others. It shows, as he not only has been hands on in personnel decisions, but he and assistant coaches have clearly articulated to Dimitroff and the personnel department what they’re looking for.
The results have been staggering, particularly on defense.
“We’re much closer to a vision of what I think we can become,” Quinn said of his defense. “I’d like to stay in that rhythm.”
When the Falcons failed to make the playoffs in 2013 and ’14, losing 22 of 32 games, Dimitroff was an easy target for a series of bad drafts and his inability to build the offensive and defensive lines. But it wasn’t all on him. Former coach Mike Smith had significant input on selections, even if he didn’t have the level of autonomy Quinn possesses.
Quinn brought with him Seattle’s way of doing things. Coaches watch tape with scouts and clearly communicate what kind of players they’re looking for. That level of synergy between coaching and personnel has never existed before.
Players also are not evaluated based on some general conclusion like, “He’ll be good in pass coverage,” or, “He’ll be a good run-blocker.” It’s more specific to the Falcons’ system and depth chart, as in: “Who’s he going to beat out?”
“There are few ambiguities in terms of what we’re looking for,” Dimitroff.
There have been two years of blunder-free drafts. Logic says they won’t stay perfect. But if the good continues to far outweigh the bad, it will be a significant improvement over the past.