Perhaps the buzz about the Falcons trading up from No. 16 in the NFL draft is almost entirely fueled by general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s history of making such moves. Dimitroff fed that speculation by predicting there will be lots of trade action in the first round. Then again, the GM also has talked about the possibility of trading down.
It’s hard to know what to make of any pre-draft noise. But it does make me wonder about the danger of Dimitroff making a lopsided trade. Sending away multiple picks to acquire such a player may align with Dimitroff’s short-term incentives while running counter to the long-term interests of building the roster.
Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn managed to keep their jobs after the Falcons won six of eight games to close 2019. They may not be so fortunate if the Falcons miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season. Past salary-cap mistakes made them minor players in free agency, when they lost more talent than they gained.
The Falcons have a lot riding on getting it right in this draft, which begins Thursday. The chances of doing that are greater near the top of it than at No. 16. Will Dimitroff sacrifice multiple draft picks to move up for a player he must have?
He’s done it before. Dimitroff famously bet the farm on Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones in the 2011 draft. That No. 6 pick cost him Nos. 27, 59, and 124 in that draft as well as first- and fourth-round picks in 2012 (they ended up Nos. 22 and No. 118).
For years, I seemed to be among the few who believed Dimitroff erred with that trade. Jones was good as a rookie and great ever since (save for the injury-shortened season in 2015). But the picks Dimitroff traded for Jones were lost chances to build the rest of the roster.
Over Jones’ first five seasons the Falcons had one playoff victory and three non-winning seasons. They had a great wide receiver on subpar teams that were particularly deficient along both lines. Ultimately, Dimitroff’s trade for Jones was redeemed when the Falcons went to the Super Bowl and Jones made the play that would have won the game if not for a cascade of coaching errors.
It turns out that this year, like in 2011, there is a great prospect in the draft at a position of need for the Falcons. Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young is expected to be picked near the top of the draft. His position is much more valuable than wide receiver, so theoretically, trading multiple picks for Young would be a better risk than the one Dimitroff took with Jones.
But Washington is expected to keep the No. 2 pick and select Young after the Bengals select LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. The Falcons could trade up for the top prospects at other positions of need. The list includes Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, Clemson do-everything defender Isaiah Simmons and Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown.
Come draft day, Dimitroff will have to choose to stay put at No. 16, trade up or trade back. Dimitroff has rarely chosen the last option. He said he’s not against it.
“I think sometimes you have to be very comfortable. ... If you’re trading back, you’re walking away with someone you really feel comfortable with, not walking (away) thinking there's a little bit of a ‘wa-wa’ moment,” he said. “No one wants that. You need to make sure you feel really good about the handful of guys that are going to be there in the later part of that first round if you do trade back.”
That’s one risk of collecting extra picks lower in the draft in exchange for a higher pick. One reward is more chances to draft players. The Falcons have some obvious, immediate needs at cornerback and along the defensive line. But they also must plan for some potential holes in 2021.
Center Alex Mack will be 35 years old in November (if Chris Lindstrom succeeds Mack that leaves a hole at guard, where the Falcons already are thin). Running back Todd Gurley is signed for one year. Injuries have clouded the futures of defensive end Takk McKinley and safety Keanu Neal.
By trading back, Dimitroff can collect more picks to acquire prospects who can eventually replace those players. He also could build depth at the most important positions. Those are the kind of moves teams make to build rosters with young players, whose contracts are much gentler on the salary cap than veterans.
In Dimitroff’s estimation, the strengths of this draft line up with what some of Falcons’ needs.
“There are also other positions you look at,” he said. “You’re thinking, ‘Wow, if we needed that position, this would be a great year to dive in, right?’ That's always the way it is.
“Then you start thinking about how could you change your needs, but that’s not necessarily the best way to approach it.”
That last part was a joke. Teams can’t change their needs. They can focus on acquiring talent without regard for immediate needs. There are plenty of ways to get good players on the field at every position except for quarterback.
Dimitroff always has been willing to take a chance by trading up in the draft. Shaky job security means he has even more incentive to do so this year. But after consecutive 7-9 seasons, the Falcons need an injection of talent across the roster for this season while thinking about replacing some starters in 2021.
That doesn’t seem to be a situation that calls for Dimitroff to make a trade that sends out more picks than it brings in.
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