When: 4 p.m. Saturday (first two rounds)
Falcons picks: No. 24, No. 55
FLOWERY BRANCH — What will Thomas Dimitroff do for an encore?
Last year, Atlanta’s rookie general manager used his first NFL draft as the cornerstone for a remarkable turnaround that carried the Falcons all the way to the playoffs.
In the first three rounds, Dimitroff landed a franchise quarterback (Matt Ryan), two more starters (left tackle Sam Baker, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton) and two other players who contributed greatly in specialized roles (nickel back Chevis Jackson, slot receiver Harry Douglas).
Of course, the Falcons’ improbable success — an 11-5 record after going 4-12 the previous year — means they’ll be picking a lot lower this time around. Instead of going third, where they grabbed Ryan in 2008, they’ll have to wait to the 24th selection on Saturday.
Still, the youthful-looking Dimitroff — the 42-year-old showed up Tuesday for a round of interviews with spiked hair and stylish glasses — is still confident of landing enough talented players to ensure the Falcons of lasting success, something that has eluded this franchise ever since it entered the league in 1966.
"We’ve got quite a bit of work to do," Dimitroff said. "But we actually feel quite confident going into the draft that we can get some quality football players who are going to be legitimate contributors in the first year. As we all know, it’s a little easier to find those starting positions out of the draft when you’re 4-12 versus being at least a one-year playoff team. You have to be a little more calculated and creative with your approach."
In his first draft as GM, Dimitroff focused on the offensive side. That unit was in shambles after quarterback Michael Vick went to prison for running a dogfighting operation and coach Bobby Petrino returned to the college ranks without completing even one full season in Atlanta.
Several astute picks helped turn things around quickly. Ryan was the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year and has the look of someone who’ll be a fixture with the Falcons for the next decade or so. Dimitroff traded up to get Baker late in the first round, and the former USC stalwart quickly earned the role of protecting Ryan’s blind side (though a back injury during the season slowed his progress). The diminutive but speedy Douglas came aboard in the third round, providing a solid complement to starting receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins.
This time around, the Falcons are likely to concentrate on defense. Five veteran starters — defensive tackle Grady Jackson, linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, cornerback Domonique Foxworth and safety Lawyer Milloy — were lost in free agency. The only newcomer so far is linebacker Mike Peterson.
"We’ve stressed from the beginning that defense will be emphasized," Dimitroff said. "We also want to make it clear that we will definitely entertain the opportunity to get a marquee player on offense if that is a position of need."
There are all sorts of needs on defense. The Falcons need to bolster themselves at tackle, as well as linebacker and safety. Tackle Peria Jerry of Mississippi might be on their wish list. Linebacker Brian Cushing of USC could be a nice fit.
Dimitroff is certainly not one of those "take the best athlete available" GMs, stressing that need is his primary concern when it’s his turn to pick.
"It is very important to understand what is right for our team," he said. "Just because everyone else deems a certain player to be the No. 1 receiver or quarterback doesn’t mean we need to go after that player when we may be looking for an offensive guard. As long as it’s not a drastic drop-off, you seriously have to consider the need position."
The most glaring need on offense is tight end, and there’s been speculation that Atlanta may take a run at perennial Pro Bowler Tony Gonzalez, who’s asked Kansas City for a trade.
"Every team in this league dreams of having Tony Gonzalez run out of the tunnel for them," Dimitroff said.
Another possibility is Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew. It’s hard to imagine the Falcons passing on him if he drops all the way to 24th.
No matter who the Falcons pick, Dimitroff considers this another key draft for a team that has never put together consecutive winning seasons.
"At the outset, (coach) Mike Smith and I talked about putting two very solid draft classes together while sprinkling in some free agents," Dimitroff said. "At that point, we felt we would be well on our way to having a team that’s heading in the right direction. That will be the base and foundation going forward. We have a relatively young football team that within the next two, three, four years could have a very, very solid nucleus of players who are dialed in for the prime of their careers."
There could be a wild card on draft day — Vick.
While it’s hard to envision any team giving up even a last-round pick for a quarterback who remains in federal prison and suspended from the NFL for running a dogfighting operation, the Falcons have made it clear they are willing to listen to any offers.
Vick remains on Atlanta’s roster even though the team has said it doesn’t want him back.
"We’re always open to entertaining any offers and any discussion about players on this roster," Dimitroff said. "We’re kind of anchored in and focused on the draft, but it someone does want to discuss Michael Vick with us, we’ll definitely entertain a discussion during the draft."