FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Last March, the men at the helm of the Atlanta Falcons showed up in Baton Rouge, La., with stopwatches and video cameras. Head coach Dan Quinn was there, along with general manager Thomas Dimitroff and assistant GM Scott Pioli to work out LSU linebacker Deion Jones.
Jones did not make the Southeastern Conference coaches’ all-league first or second team. He weighed 219 pounds and was considered too light to be an every-down player, but Quinn, Dimitroff, and Pioli treated Jones as a priority.
The Falcons’ scouts did not have Jones run a 40-yard dash in the workout. They timed him in linebacker drops, blitzing from a certain position on the field, sinking to a coverage spot as linebackers are asked to do, and then cutting left or right. They filmed him to judge footwork, flexibility, and body balance, all from a linebacker stance and from the linebacker position marked off in yards from the spot of the ball.
Dimitroff said the anatomizing of the Falcons’ draft process not only includes the usual study of height, weight, speed, and other critical factors, but also looking at a prospect and asking, “Who does this guy remind us of in the NFL?”
“We’re always looking to compare, that’s what I learned being around Scott and Bill [Belichick] in New England, the comparative evaluation, and not vacillating,” Dimitroff said. “What is his role here, who does he beat out here?”
This is how the Falcons overhauled their roster, retooling from a team that went 6-10 in 2014 to 11-5 in 2016 and getting set to play the Patriots in Super Bowl LI next Sunday. In just two seasons, Dimitroff, Pioli, and Quinn have brought in eight starters on defense and seven on offense.
The Falcons have a deliberate anchor system that cuts right through the fog of confusion in drafting players and acquiring free agents. They knew what they wanted and Quinn said it was conveyed quickly to scouts after he was hired in 2015.
Take Jones, for example. He intrigued Quinn for two reasons. When the Falcons worked him out in Baton Rouge, the linebacker’s impact on contact was above average. Jake Coker, the former Alabama quarterback, had his shoulder separated by Jones in a 2015 game and said Jones was the hardest hitter he ran into. Quinn has a catchphrase — “arrive violently” — and Jones checked that box.
LSU football staff members watched Jones’s workouts, and the Falcons’ caretakers asked them: “Tell us about this kid. Can we trust him?” They all said yes, which followed Quinn’s mandate of acquiring players for what the coach calls his “brotherhood.”
Atlanta selected Jones in the second round, a round or two higher than he was projected. The rookie will start next Sunday.
The Falcons have another rookie linebacker in their starting lineup, De’Vondre Campbell from the University of Minnesota. The 6-foot-5-inch, 239-pound Campbell wasn’t even a lock to get drafted. The Falcons picked him in the fourth round, and now the long-strider is a perfect complement to the smaller Jones, who can shadow running backs while Campbell takes the tight end.
The Falcons also did their comparison shopping with rookie safety Keanu Neal. He played at Florida, and Quinn knew exactly who Neal reminded him of: Kam Chancellor, the Seattle safety who played for Quinn when he was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator.
Neal was selected in the first round, 17th overall. Temple coach Geoff Collins, the co-defensive coordinator at Florida the last two seasons, said he would walk into the Gators’ film room and Neal would be studying tape of Chancellor. The Falcons picked up on that.
“We are very mindful of comparatives,” Dimitroff said. “Comparatives are huge for us.”
The Falcons film a prospect, then use a software program to examine body movements and compare them with other pro players or potential draftees. They consult their “library” often.
Brian Poole was a cornerback for Florida who went undrafted in 2016. The Falcons snatched him up as a nickel corner for two reasons: Though he’s 5-9, he has the reach of a player who is 6-2, and he has short-area quickness.
Collins taught Poole how to read a quarterback’s head movements so he could judge cadence and time up the snap to blitz off the edge.
“He is one of the top slot corners in the NFL now,” Collins said.
Falcons starting defensive tackle Grady Jarrett was picked in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, but it wasn’t just his girth (305 pounds) and quickness off the ball that excited Atlanta. Quinn saw Jarrett as a mature player who could bond with teammates and enhance the “brotherhood.”
In the first round of the same draft, the Falcons took Jarrett’s Clemson teammate, Vic Beasley Jr., a marauder and ball-stripper off the edge. Beasley, an outside linebacker in the 4-3, led the NFL this season with 15½ sacks.
Stone by stone, the Falcons rebuilt their defense. Atlanta ranked 25th in total defense this regular season, but the rookies have come along so well they shut out Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the first half of the NFC Championship game.
On offense, the Falcons built a basketball team of receivers for quarterback Matt Ryan. They already had the post player, the 6-3 Julio Jones, a first-rounder in 2011. Last March, they acquired a power forward in the ruggedly built Mohamed Sanu. They added the point guard by claiming 5-8 Taylor Gabriel off waivers last September.
Atlanta picked another big receiver in the 2016 draft in 6-4 tight end Austin Hooper. The third-rounder from Stanford is now atop the depth chart.
The Falcons are tall, quick, short, fast, and strong at receiver, which is how you get mismatches in the NFL.
Atlanta had 5-9 running back Devonta Freeman on the roster by way of the 2014 draft and added more speed in the 2015 draft with Tevin Coleman, a 6-1, two-way threat as a running back/receiver.
Center Alex Mack came from Cleveland as a free agent and was a perfect fit for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone run scheme. Left tackle Jake Matthews, a first-round pick in 2014, was already in the fold, as was one of the gems of the Atlanta scouting department, right tackle Ryan Schraeder, an undrafted free agent signed in 2013.
The gathering process hasn’t always been smooth for the Falcons. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox shoved a scout from the Cardinals at the 2016 scouting combine. Defensive backs coach Marquand Manuel asked a prospect at the 2016 combine about his sexual preferences. Atlanta’s second-round pick in 2015, cornerback Jalen Collins, was suspended for the first four games this season for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Many thought Dimitroff was on the verge of getting fired in 2014 after a 6-10 season, but he oversaw the rebuild in a job-share with Quinn, who also has authority over the roster. Dimitroff started bringing in “DQ guys,” who Quinn said have to be fast, faster, and faster.
The Falcons have five men with experience as an NFL GM helping with the retooling of the roster: Dimitroff, Pioli, team president Rich McKay, and national scouts Ruston Webster and Phil Emery.
“I would never have brought someone in who I thought was going to run roughshod,” Dimitroff said.
“People were throwing darts, ‘Why are you bringing these guys in?’ Every one of these guys that are getting GM jobs, their background is in personnel, and the reason they get them is they are damned good personnel evaluators.”