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Virtually speaking, this draft could be big for the Falcons

Here's a look at the year-by-year record for Dan Quinn as coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

Nobody likes where our world is. We’re five or so weeks into self-quarantine, and we stand to be here a while longer. We’re not thrilled about it, but we’re trying to make do.

The only sport still going —  unless you count ESPN’s 117-part Michael Jordan documentary, ballyhooed to a height unseen since the Beatles hit Ed Sullivan’s stage — is the NFL, which technically isn’t playing games. The draft commences Thursday night. Some teams will benefit more than others. The guess is that the Falcons will be among the winners.

Not that the Falcons are incapable of erring. Faithful readers know that neither general manager Thomas Dimitroff nor coach Dan Quinn would remain in place were this correspondent making the decisions. And this is an organization that has never found anything — not even two Super Bowls — it can’t mess up. That said …

A virtual draft figures to play to the strengths of TD/DQ. Even their harshest critic (me again) would never suggest these aren't smart men with lively minds. Twelve years ago, Dimitroff got this job largely because of an impressive interview conducted via webcam from Colorado. He was in the vanguard of league GMs to dive into advanced analytics, making annual pilgrimages to MIT's Sloan School of Business for what has become an industry-standard conference. Quinn, as we know, is enthusiastic about everything, technology included. 

From all appearances, the Falcons have embraced their enforced isolation. Said Quinn on a video conference Monday: “The adversity has generated opportunity. What I’ve told (the players) is that everybody’s doing some form of virtual program, but there’s only one team to do that the best. There’s a chance for us to be unequal to other teams.”

Said Dimitroff, speaking on the same conference call from a different location: “We all knew from the very beginning of this transition that we were going to have to learn to work remotely more adeptly, and a lot of us were hesitant about it — not just what was on the other side of it, but how we were going to do it and how comfortable did we feel. We realized the benefit of us being able to have myriad conversations with player after player after player. For Dan and me to pull those off the way that we did — and our scouting staff and our coaching staff — I think we made major strides.”

Quinn: “Think of all the individual meetings a player is going to have with a coach. We’re never going to get this kind of customization again, so why not max that out like hell?”

A skeptic — which regarding the Falcons I usually am, though less so this time — would say that these guys have no choice. After consecutive losing seasons, they’re lucky to be employed. They don’t have the luxury of sitting around raging about grim reality while waiting for normalcy to return in 2021. If they don’t get this draft and this season (assuming there is one) right, they won’t be making decisions for the Flowery Branch franchise next year. They have to take whatever’s thrown their way and run with it.

As fate would have it, a virtual draft could be in the Falcons’ wheelhouse. Dimitroff and Quinn aren’t hidebound. The former had to adjust to Quinn, who arrived seven years after the GM got here, having final say over the roster. Quinn has been nimble enough to find multiple uses for assistant coach Raheem Morris.

A normal Falcons draft room includes 45-50 people. In our time of self-distancing, there will be no shared workspace. Dimitroff will have his own room with three TVs and three computer screens and three phones; Quinn will have his. (There’s also a backup generator at the ready in case of inclement weather.) Some folks would find this unwieldy. Dimitroff said Monday he believes it will be liberating.

“Coming from New England, our draft room was 10 people. Here it’s a lot more than that. Coming back to some of the basics of it, working with Dan daily and our directors — it’s been good. We’ve been able to home in and focus on what is necessary for us, we think, to take it to another level.”

The complexities of a virtual draft have led some NFL types to speculate that teams will be reluctant do the usual trading-up/down. That could offer a free run for Dimitroff, the world’s most ardent trader-upper. (Or it could mean nothing it all. This is all new.) Whatever the case, the Falcons must be aggressive. They suffered a significant talent drain because of salary-cap considerations — Austin Hooper, Devonta Freeman, Desmond Trufant and De’Vondre Campbell and gone. Nobody’s sure about Todd Gurley’s knees; he’s still in L.A., having signed for $6 million without undergoing a physical. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Alex Mack are on the high side of 30.

This is not a rebuilding team. Indeed, the Falcons could start 10 first-round picks on offense, which would be an NFL-first. (For the record, four were drafted by other clubs.) Dimitroff and Quinn are on the clock as never before. One more non-playoff season, and it’s hello, Lincoln Riley. Any holes, and there are a few, need to be filled over three days in April.

Asked if, with all the comings and goings, the Falcons’ 2020 roster will be as talented as its immediate predecessor, Dimitroff said: “I do believe it will. I know I say that from year to year, but I really do believe that.”

He does say that on an annual basis. This time he needs to be correct. This time, Dimitroff’s dexterity and Quinn’s curiosity could be the biggest assets the Falcons have. They need to think hard and strike fast, and they need to do it in a draft like no other. And they, it says here, just might.

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