The Philosophy of the Atlanta Falcons Roster Construction


The defining element in evaluating general manager Thomas Dimitroff and the Atlanta Falcons roster construction philosophy is the blockbuster 5-for-1 trade Atlanta Falcons Thomas Dimitroff pulled off with the Cleveland Browns in 2011 in which he gave up 1st, 2nd, and 4th-rounders that year as well as 1st and 4th-round picks in 2012 to land eventual Pro-Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones.  While it’s true that only one player of that five-pick haul remains with the Browns, it’s easy to argue that has more to do with that franchise’s drafting ineptitude rather than a stroke of a genius on Dimitroff’s part.

Nov 9, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I prefer to examine Dimitroff’s skill at roster construction by a different measuring stick.  Comparing his roster-building philosophy to that of the franchise from which he came and of his erstwhile mentor Bill Belicick of the New England Patriots is more relevant.  Belichick, like Dimitroff, has a franchise-level quarterback around which to construct a winning team, but their styles of actually doing so could hardly be different.

Thomas Dimitroff has spent lavishly both with salary and draft picks on surrounding QB Matt Ryan with pass catching stars by trading for Tony Gonzalez, closing the aforementioned deal for phenom Jones, filling out the remaining of the roster with relatively high-priced athletes such as Devin Hester, and resigning Roddy White in a deal that points to the fact that Dimitroff plans to resign Jones to a long and cap-destroying deal.

Belichick on the other hand has only once given future Hall of Famer QB Tom Brady any pass catchers with which to work, and yet Brady has continued to set a plethora of records with predominantly substandard pass-catchers and had so many consecutive winning seasons that it’s redundant (not to mention frustrating) to exhaustively list them here.  Check out this link for all of the glory Brady has experienced as one of the most successful QBs of all time in spite of rarely having top-flight pass-receiving talent.

The fact is that Belichick believes “… in general, that when you put the roster together you try to create as much depth as you can on the roster,”  This essentially means he stays away from paying huge money to a small group of players and prefers to spread the cap money around to all positions in an effort to create a well-rounded team.  Dimitroff has obviously taken a different approach.

“… in general, that when you put the roster together you try to create as much depth as you can on the roster,” – New England head coach Bill Belichick

Outside of the 2007 season when Belichick seemingly had a fit of fancy and decided to see exactly what might happen by surrounding Brady with receiving talents such as Randy Moss, Donté Stallworth, Wes Welker, and Kelley Washington, Belichick routinely refuses to re-sign the previous season’s top receiving targets and uses that cap money on other areas of the team.  It turns out that “Terrific Tom” turned in possibly the greatest statistical season in NFL QB history in that 2007 season but, that anomalous season aside, Brady has still earned 11 division titles, two regular season and Super Bowl MVP awards each, nine Pro Bowls, blah, blah, blah with “top” wide receivers such as Deion Branch, Wes Welker, and Julian Edelman.

Meanwhile Matt Ryan has earned various rookie awards and franchise records, which isn’t saying much considering the Falcons’ history of lackluster QBs and passing attacks.  I don’t mean this as an indictment of Matt Ryan, but a QB is only one of 22 starters for his football team and that is the crux of my argument.  This isn’t basketball.  One player cannot a championship make.

Giving up so many high-level picks for Jones obviously resulted in a lack of depth across the roster that revealed itself as the Falcons have endured a plethora of injuries during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, and they clearly did not have the quality depth of players to step into those holes and perform effectively.

It appears that Bill Belichick’s success in roster construction far surpasses that of Thomas Dimitroff.  It’s easy to nitpick at the Moneyballesque-method by which Belichick constructs his rosters, but there’s no denying eleven consecutive seasons of double-digit win totals and 13 straight winning seasons.  This tells me that the team is built sufficiently evenly across the 22 starting positions to compete in and win games on a weekly basis.  Their five Super Bowl trips and 3 rings are also a testament that Belichick seems to know something about constructing winning teams.

Nov 9, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) points and calls a play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Atlanta Falcons defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-17. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the Falcons sitting at 3-6 in 2014, after going 4-12, there is much introspective among top brass regarding whether the team has been snake-bit by injuries the past two season and there’s nothing that could have offset such bad luck, or is owner Arthur Blank and Dimitroff reconsidering their philosophy of building heavily on certain aspects of the team gambling that those strengths can hide the inevitable weaknesses elsewhere on the roster.

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Re-signing Roddy White, who turns 33 years old this month, amounts to a tenure contract based more on what he’s done in the past versus what he’ll do in the future.  It’s almost inconceivable that Belichick would dedicated $18 million to a WR who’s turning 33 and 34 during those two years.   My bet is that Belichick would have brought in a younger WR at probably 1/3 the cost even if said cheaper player only produced at 80% of what Roddy may be able to do.

Compound this expenditure with what Dimitroff appears to be gearing up for in resigning Julio Jones to an incredibly pricey long-term contract, and I wonder if that money might be better spent on a defense that has no pass defense (last in the NFL currently) and bottom half in rush offense and defense, at 23rd and 24th, respectively.  No, I don’t wonder about this at all.  I’m sure a more even distribution of talent across the team, especially in respect to acquiring pass rushers and proven offensive linemen would be a more efficiacious use of cap resources.

This may lead to a slight decrease in performance from the Falcons’ current perch as the league’s 7th best pass offense but improvement across all of the other aforementioned units would result in a better overall record from 3-6 and have Atlanta in a commanding position atop the dreadful NFC South.

We can play the “what-if” game all day long, but it’s clear that Belichick seems to have a more complete understanding as to how to assemble an overall roster around a top-flight QB than does Dimitroff.  Time will tell if Dimitroff does in fact maintain his preferred roster imbalance by resigning Jones and dedicating a huge proportion of the salary cap to the pass offense to the detriment of the remainder of the team.

Maybe Dimitroff is clairvoyant and sees how the NFL is fast becoming a pass-happy league given the recent rules changes and giving QBs and WRs outsized importance relative to other positions, and his roster-building philosophy will soon to be seen as ahead of its time.  I prefer to see if we can trade Julio in return for proven pass-rushing and/or offensive line assets, and let’s see if Matt Ryan is in fact the franchise player most of us believe him to be.

Give him some time to throw the ball with better offensive linemen… give him a defense that allows him to run the offense they want instead of the one they must given deficits on the scoreboard… let’s see if Ryan can make stars of guys like Wes Welker as elite QBs should.