FLOWERY BRANCH — Everything was in place for Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff. The 41-year-old whiz of talent evaluation had the third overall pick, four picks in the top 48, six in the top 100, and 11 picks overall in this weekend’s NFL draft. Even given that the rest of the roster is in relative shambles, a first-year GM could hardly ask for a better opportunity to put his mark on a team. It was billed as the most important draft in franchise history.
But with one pick, Dimitroff blew it.
While six of the first eight picks Saturday were spent on linemen, an area of considerable need in Atlanta, the Falcons opted for Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan.
Considered the best of a weak quarterback draft class, Ryan tested well in workouts and wowed team officials in interview sessions. He presents himself well - personable, well-spoken and intelligent.
But the Falcons aren’t hiring a team spokesman or a "face of the franchise," as numerous commentators have put forth in recent days. They’re hiring an NFL quarterback. The whole thing reeks of P.R. schmoozing. It makes sense that owner Arthur Blank would be all too eager to put the Michael Vick era further in the rearview mirror by selecting the new quarterback of the future, even if the team has greater needs at this point in the ground-up rebuilding process.
But Dimitroff said the decision was out of the owner’s hands.
"(Blank) made it very clear to us that this decision was my decision and coach Smith’s decision," Dimitroff said.
So the all the blame, or the adulation, will be theirs alone.
Many, if not most experts believe Ryan will be an elite quarterback in the league. They may be right, though it’s worth noting those same experts thought the same thing about David Carr, Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf and, oh yeah, Joey Harrington.
Yes, the Falcons needed a quarterback. Nobody expected Chris Redman, Harrington or D.J. Shockley to lead this team to championships. But are two Harringtons any better than one?
Ryan’s resemblance to his new teammate is striking:
Both were tall, effective passers in the college pocket.
Both are smart and likeable.
Neither have any known ties to underground dogfighting operations.
Both were taken with the third overall pick.
And most likely, both will be thrown behind an offensive line that isn’t ready to protect them (the Falcons ranked 24th in the league last year in sacks allowed).
That last one seems to be the common denominator for all draft-day busts involving quarterbacks, and that’s the bottom line here. Quarterbacks taken this high in the draft are typically rushed onto the field before they’re ready, and all that "upside" we hear about in the spring never materializes in the fall.
Smith said Saturday he has no "preconceived ideas" about when rookie quarterbacks should play.
"If he’s the best player, whether it’s a rookie quarterback, a rookie lineman or a rookie linebacker, we want those guys to compete," Smith said.
"We’re going to put the best player out there on the field."
Sounds to me like the Matt Ryan era will be in full swing by mid November.
But it isn’t the fact that the Falcons spent the No. 3 pick on a quarterback who threw 19 interceptions last year that makes this such a troubling selection -it’s who they left on the board.
Glenn Dorsey was there; the best player at a position where the Falcons needed immediate help. The Falcons ranked in the bottom third of the league in just about every major defensive category in 2007 and a defensive tackle like Dorsey could have improved that unit from the first day he set foot in Flowery Branch.
But he won’t, and neither will Curtis Lofton, the Oklahoma linebacker the Falcons took at No. 37. Not that Lofton won’t be a fine player — he’s just not Dorsey.
Wisely, the Falcons addressed their offensive line needs by moving back into the first round and selecting USC’s Sam Baker. It cost them two second-round choices and fourth-rounder to do it, but they got third- and fifth-round picks from Washington in return, leaving Dimitroff with eight picks in the final five rounds today to salvage his first draft.
Everything about his pedigree and persona says he’ll be able to do it.
He’d better, because with his first selection he staked his reputation and the future of the franchise to one shaky pick.