Falcons’ risk-reward scale may tip in new direction

When Michael Vick was indicted for funding and operating a dog-fighting enterprise in 2007, it did more than just train-wreck his NFL career, the Falcons’ season and the abbreviated coaching tenure of Bobby Petrino (who, at least psychologically, was on the next train out of Dodge).

Falcons owner Arthur Blank, retail maven and image-obsessed sort that he is, was mortified by what had become of his organization. The reality was bad, the perceptions were even worse.

So Blank and the front office (in flux) made it clear that any potential draft pick or free agent signee would first be screened through the “Falcon filter.” The holes on the screen were small. Imagine only clean, pure grains of sand slipping through. The objective was to weed out any potential head cases or felons and hope there would be a ripple effect on the field and in sales.

Eight years later, there’s reason to believe the risk-reward scale in the front office tips in a new direction.

This isn’t to suggest the Falcons and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation would suddenly view Bad Newz Kennels as some wholesome and promising start-up venture. But after two seasons of losing, a head coaching change, a new front-office structure and Blank’s overwhelming need to sell personal seat licenses, tickets and sponsorships in a new stadium, the landscape has been altered.

We’ll learn a lot more about where the team stands in the NFL draft (April 30-May 2). But here are two players the team may need to make a decision on:

• Adrian Peterson: My sense is Minnesota will not trade the running back, who accepted a plea deal following child abuse charges last year and was either suspended or placed on the commissioner's exempt list for all but one game. The St. Paul Pioneer Press listed the Falcons among six teams (Arizona, Dallas, Jacksonville, San Diego, Tampa Bay) that may have trade interest in Peterson.

There are two obstacles to a Falcons-Peterson deal: satisfying the Vikings in a trade and finding room for him under the salary cap (although technically none of the $44.25 million over three years left on his contract is guaranteed). But the biggest question is whether the Falcons, who are in need of a quality running back, would add one of the NFL’s best, even if it meant taking a significant public relations hit.

• Randy Gregory: The former Nebraska defensive end is the best pure edge rusher in the draft, even if he won't be the first (or even second) defensive lineman off the board. (USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams and Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. are expected to go in the top five picks.) But Gregory flunked a drug test (marijuana) at the scouting combine, which showed unbelievable stupidity. As a result, he's already in the NFL drug program. Gregory admitted he regularly smoked marijuana at Nebraska, so the Falcons and every other team must now weigh the possibilities of "need" and "addiction."

Falcons coach Dan Quinn came from the Seattle Seahawks, who, since 2010, have never hesitated to draft or sign a player with off-field baggage. Examples include Bruce Irvin (drugs, both social and performance-enhancing varieties), Marshawn Lynch (conduct) and Percy Harvin (marijuana, anger management issues). Irvin was one of six Seahawks to violate the NFL’s PED policy from 2011 to 2013 (primarily for Adderall).

Quinn’s predecessor, Mike Smith, embraced Blank’s philosophy of not bringing in potential problem players. Conversely, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and assistant Scott Pioli worked in New England, which has a history of taking risks in personnel decisions (Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, LeGarrette Blount … Aaron Hernandez). But that’s easier for teams to do when there is strong leadership in the locker room.

Quinn, Dimitroff and Pioli understand the Falcons have a number of holes. They are going to have to make some difficult decisions. They opted not to sign defensive end Greg Hardy, who had domestic violence issues, but that shouldn’t suggest they will eliminate anybody with a red asterisk by his name. To the contrary, I would expect the red isn’t as bright as it used to be.