Dimitroff’s approach to free agency has evolved


RECENT HISTORY

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s five best and five worst free-agent signings:

Best

1. Michael Turner, RB, 2008

2. Devin Hester, CB, 2013

3. Mike Peterson, LB, 2009

4. Dwight Lowery, FS, 2013

5. Erik Coleman, FS, 2008

Worst

1. Ray Edwards, DE, 2011

2. Dunta Robinson, CB, 2010

3. Lofa Tatupu, LB,2009

4. Steven Jackson, RB, 2013

5. Luke McCown, QB, 2012

Splash!

That’s the new buzz word associated with the NFL free-agency period, which starts with the new league year Tuesday.

Detroit defensive end Ndamukong Suh is the player who will provide a team with the biggest splash in free agency.

Look for the Falcons, who have made the splash moves in the past, to go for a more tempered approach.

“That’s really what you want to do in free agency, is stay out of the splash signings unless it’s a real obvious fit,” said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former player and front-office executive. “You want to stay out of that first 24 to 48 hours and then be selective.

“Do good deals for your football team. Do good deals for your locker room because you’re getting the right kind of guys and you’re not just saying the heck with culture and the heck with fit because you want the guy who’ll make the big splash.”

Riddick, who played for the Falcons in 1996, was in Washington’s front office from 2001-07. He was also was with Philadelphia from 2008-13.

Washington owner Daniel Snyder regularly won the free-agency splash wars. In 2011, the Eagles went all-splash in free agency, and quarterback Vince Young was moved to call the Eagles the “Dream Team.”

History has shown that winning the splash war in free agency hasn’t translated to building a winning football team.

“I’ve been involved in that numerous times,” Riddick said. “It’s just a recipe for disaster. … When I hear splash players as it relates to free agency, I just kind of throw my hands up. I step back and go woo, ‘you can have it.’ I’ve been down that road.”

Falcons owner Arthur Blank looks forward to free agency.

“Evaluating our current roster and then looking at the free agency market for opportunities to fill needs is a precursor to the draft, and obviously both pieces of the puzzle need to be considered together,” Blank said. “It’s exciting from the standpoint that the roster begins to take shape and we’re all looking forward to what it means for the upcoming season.”

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who was a first-time GM when he was hired in 2008, has tempered his approach as he’s developed into a more-seasoned team-builder.

He’s won a few splash wars, but appears to have changed his ways.

The Falcons were not averse to going for the big-time splash move. But in two of three instances, the splash move backfired.

In Dimitroff’s first offseason, the Falcons landed running back Michael Turner in a splash signing, with a six-year, $34.5 million contact. He went on to record perhaps the best five-year period in franchise history for a running back.

But the splash signing of cornerback Dunta Robinson to a six-year, $57 million deal in 2010 did not work out. Robinson was a fierce and relentless player, but history suggests that the Falcons overpaid for his services.

He started 47 games before the team pulled the plug halfway through the contract.

The Falcons, in their never-ending quest to find a pass rush, made a disastrous move in signing former Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards to a five-year, $30 million contract. He didn’t make it through the second season as he became despondent over Kroy Biermann getting his playing time under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

“It’s about making sure that we get people who fit into our system,” Dimitroff said. “We’re not going to be making a big deal about it. We’re not going to have a lot of pomp and circumstances about our acquisitions.”

The Falcons, who are looking for edge rushers, noted that Seattle built its defense, in part, by adding Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril as value free agents in 2013.

“You don’t necessarily always have to jump out on the high-tier guys and pay out the roof,” Dimitroff said. “There may be a situation where you can get some mid-line guys who fit (the) system.”

Falcons coach Dan Quinn was the defensive coordinator in Seattle when the Seahawks signed Bennett and Avril. He’s been working closely with Dimitroff on the team’s free-agency plan.

“One of the things about free agency that we know is that there tends to be ramped-up expectations,” Dimitroff said. “I think Dan is going to make sure that’s not the issue here and that’s not the approach.”

Buffalo’s Jerry Hughes is the highest rated pass-rusher on the market, according to ESPN analyst Bill Polian’s grading system. Hughes is followed by Baltimore’s Pernell McPhee, Detroit’s George Johnson, New England’s Akeem Ayers, Washington’s Brian Orakpo and Carolina’s Greg Hardy.

“There are some good edge rushers out there this year that (teams) may be able to get at good value,” Riddick said. “Like maybe a guy like Derrick Morgan. Jerry Hughes is another guy … although Jerry Hughes is going to get paid a lot.”

In addition to Tennessee’s Morgan, Tampa Bay’s Adrian Clayborn and Pittsburgh’s Jason Worilds all have pass-rushing value.

“There is always value to be found in free agency as long as you really understand and lay out what your expectations are, lay out what your price is that you’re willing to pay and don’t let your emotions get involved,” Riddick said.

Blank is always ready if the football men need him as a closer.

“Dan, Thomas and Scott (Pioli) are in control of the free agency process, and my role is to understand and support, so if they need me for something during the recruitment process, I’m there for them,” Blank said. “I’m excited about the plan they have in place, and I’m encouraged about how the process is working as they execute this plan and put the roster together.”

Another of Dimitroff’s favorite moves in free agency is to add the aging veteran and then squeeze as much toothpaste out of the tube as possible.

Former coach Mike Smith valued the veterans and allowed them extra rest and in some cases practices off. With a less grueling practice schedule, linebacker Mike Peterson and tight end Tony Gonzalez, who was acquired via trade, were able to extend their careers.

Despite being a veteran reserve the final two seasons, Peterson instilled an attitude in the defense that it hasn’t recaptured since his retirement.

Gonzalez, on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, averaged 81.8 catches over his five seasons with the team.

The aging-veteran move didn’t work so well after the 2012 season, when the Falcons added running back Steven Jackson and defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

Jackson was released Feb. 26 and Umenyiora, who was used as a designated pass-rusher last season, hasn’t been re-signed.

“In free agency, just like the draft, you have to take a real big-picture perspective,” Riddick said. “You have to really follow a plan. For me, the top five positions are quarterback, pass-rusher, cornerback, wide receiver and offensive tackle. If you have needs at one of those positions, that’s what you better be looking for first and foremost in free agency. The rest can wait.”