ATLANTA — Thomas Dimitroff will lean on a “needs specific” philosophy he learned in New England as he directs an NFL draft that is crucial to the Atlanta Falcons’ future.
The philosophy is the same, but the teams are far different.
Dimitroff spent the last five years as the Patriots’ director of college scouting before he was named Atlanta’s general manager. It was relatively easy to focus on specific needs when scouting for the talent-rich Patriots.
Prioritizing draft needs for Atlanta is more challenging.
The Falcons began releasing and trading such veterans as Rod Coleman, Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler and DeAngelo Hall immediately after a tumultuous 4-12 season. More veterans could be cut after the draft.
Atlanta’s draft needs are widespread. It is far easier to pinpoint the areas — make that the one area — that won’t need help when Dimitroff has the No. 3 overall pick and four selections in the first two rounds on Saturday.
“A safe response would be placekicker,” Dimitroff said, referring to the team’s signing of free-agent veteran Jason Elam.
As if to affirm the point, the Falcons signed another kicker, Kevin Lovell, on Friday.
So from the narrow foundation of feeling good about his kicker, Dimitroff must make his first key decision early Saturday as he considers his options for the third pick in the draft.
Dimitroff and new coach Mike Smith have said the Falcons will draft a quarterback as the franchise continues to move past the Michael Vick era.
The question for Dimitroff: Is any quarterback in this draft, including Boston College’s Matt Ryan, worthy of being the third overall pick? Should the Falcons instead invest in a foundation-type player for their offensive or defensive line?
Dimitroff’s decision could greatly impact the rest of the first round.
Miami, which has the first pick, already has signed offensive tackle Jake Long.
The St. Louis Rams may take Virginia defensive end Chris Long with the No. 2 pick, which would leave LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey as Atlanta’s probable choice. But if the Rams pick Dorsey, the Falcons might strongly consider Ryan.
Dimitroff hasn’t tipped his hand, but his New England background could prove instructive. The Patriots found superstar Tom Brady in the sixth round in 2000, and that’s the obvious reason Dimitroff has called himself a “quarterback snob.”
The Falcons don’t have to look far to be reminded of the dangers of picking a quarterback so high in the draft. One of the three starters for Atlanta last season, Joey Harrington, was the No. 3 pick for Detroit in 2002.
The team’s other returning quarterbacks are Chris Redman, who revived his career to finish last season as the starter, and D.J. Shockley, who has never played in a regular-season game.
It’s doubtful the Falcons will wait until the sixth round to draft a quarterback, but having three second-round picks may influence Dimitroff to look for first-round help at another position, even if the Rams pick Dorsey.
Chris Long, projected as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, could be the pass-rushing end to complement John Abraham on Atlanta’s four-man defensive front. Jamaal Anderson, the No. 8 pick in the first round last year, was a huge disappointment with no sacks as a rookie end.
Another possibility for Atlanta is Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston.
The Falcons have 11 picks in the draft, but another option is to trade down in the first round if Dorsey is not available.
Dimitroff said he won’t follow the draft strategy used by many teams of taking the best player available, regardless of position. But his needs-specific mantra learned in New England won’t be very restrictive because the Falcons need help in so many areas.
Dimitroff will be looking for the player who can address a need while projected as a good fit in the Atlanta system.
“I can’t stress enough the idea that if you find that right spot, the right position who plays a role in this defense or offense, it’s definitely worth drafting the guy,” he said.
“If it fits our system and we have a need, we’ll definitely consider it.”
Other needs include offensive line, cornerback, tight end and receiver.
The Falcons were devastated by the loss of Vick, now serving 23 months after entering a guilty plea on dogfighting charges. Dimitroff said he will not gamble on a player’s character.
“Character is a big thing for us,” he said. “It always has been. It’s something that was sort of drilled in my head at New England and I feel strongly about. Going forward, we’re very particular about the type of player we have in here.
“I understand not every player is going to have a clean slate but we want to make sure everyone has that common goal in mind to be a team player, to be a winner, to be a team guy. It is very important to us. It’s not like every guy is going to be angelic in his approach, it’s just important they have a common goal in mind and that’s the direction we want to go in our character evaluation.”