With draft a month away, Falcons to use secret weapon

Matt Ryan arrived in Falcons owner Arthur Blank's personal jet at the Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville after the team picked the Boston College star No. 3 overall in the NFL Draft on Saturday, April 26, 2008. Ryan was headed to his new team's headquarters in Flowery Branch. The team uses Blank’s jet, likely a newer one now, to help prepare for the NFL draft.  (By Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

‘AirBlank1’ allows executives to travel quickly to private workouts

As they prepare for the NFL draft, the Falcons have a secret weapon.

Thanks to owner Arthur Blank’s private airplane, team officials can zip around the country, checking out prospects, interviewing them and holding team-specific private workouts.

On March 14, general manager Thomas Dimitroff, head coach Dan Quinn and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel went to Boulder, Colorado to see defensive backs Isaiah Oliver and Afolabi Laguda.

“Afolabi impressed big time for Atlanta coaches,” said a person with knowledge of the workouts.

With a little over a month left before the draft, which will be held April 26-28 in Arlington, Texas, the Falcons will use the plane to help polish off and stack their final draft board.

“Of course we are very fortunate to have Arthur’s generosity and allowing us to use his plane so we are very efficient to move around as a staff,” Dimitroff told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday after attending Georgia’s Pro Day.

Team scouts, who have been looking at players in their respective regions all season, have filed their reports. It’s time to do cross-checking and to start bringing the final draft plan into focus to fit needs.

“We are doing (private workouts),” Dimitroff said. “We’ll hit the odd Pro Day. Our focus is normally not on the Pro Day as a staff with myself, Dan, and (assistant general manager) Scott Pioli and (director of college scouting) Steve Sabo, and our coaches. It’s mainly on to trying to get individual workouts, massage our board and get everything done.”

Dimitroff and Quinn, who are the co-team builders of the franchise, have been on a draft roll.

The last three drafts revamped the defense and already produced two Pro Bowlers in defensive end Vic Beasley (first round, 2015) and middle linebacker Deion Jones (second round, 2016).

Also, they’ve found key starters in safety Keanu Neal (first round, 2016), defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (fifth round, 2015), linebacker De’Vondre Campbell (fourth round, 2016) who are potential future Pro Bowlers.

Tight end Austin Hooper (fourth round, 2016) and right guard Wes Schweitzer (sixth round, 2016) were also starters last season.

Other contributors drafted by Dimitroff and Quinn over the past three drafts include: running back Tevin Coleman (second round, 2015), special teams/wide receiver Justin Hardy (fourth round, 2015) special teams/linebacker Duke Riley (second round, 2017), special teams/safety Damontae Kazee (fifth round, 2017) and special teams/tight end Eric Saubert (fifth round, 2017)

There has been only one major draft flameout.

The Falcons gambled on cornerback Jalen Collins in the second round (42nd overall) of the 2015 draft. After showing some promise, he’s out of the league after two performance enhancement drug suspensions. He started in Super Bowl LI for the Falcons.

Seventh-rounders are longs hots and cornerback Akeem King (2015), tackle Jake Rodgers (2015), wide receiver Devin Fuller (2016) did not make the team. Last season’s fifth-round pick Brian Hill was released, but was picked up by the Bengals. Last season’s fourth-round pick guard Sean Harlow was inactive all for all 18 games and must still prove he can play in the NFL.

“The combine, we’ve already looked at,” Dimitroff said about the plan for the final month before the draft. “We’ve done a lot of interviews already and we’re in the process of really trying to refine our stack.”

Stack is scout-speak for ranking and rating players in groups by talent and position group.

The Falcons signed guard Brandon Fusco and tight end Logan Paulsen in free agency. They also have a glaring hole at defensive tackle with the departure of Dontari Poe.

Defensive end, fullback, tight end, linebacker and wide receiver are positions of need either at the starter level or quality depth.

“Over the next month, we’ll really try to grind out a lot of video work with myself and Dan together on a lot of different levels,” Dimitroff said. “We’ll take our scouting staff, Scott along with Steve Sabo and some of our regional and upper level scouts and we’ll do a lot of juxta-positioning between the different positions and within positions.”

Once the board is polished and stacked, the executives must discuss which players are going to help the Falcons, who were the only team to return to the playoffs in the NFC last season, remain a title contender.

“We’ll have a lot of discussions about (position stacking),” Dimitroff said. “We will continue to discuss how that they stack. That’s a big part of this process leading up until the draft.”

The Falcons are also scouting some of the top cornerbacks in the draft, per their trip to the University of Colorado. Defensive tackles have also been targeted.

“There are some bonafide athletes and (defensive) interior lineman in the draft,” Dimitroff said. “They could be there. You never know.”

The Falcons have two front-line wide receivers in All-Pro Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. However, behind them, they didn’t re-signed two reserves, Taylor Gabriel and Nick Williams. So, there are at least two roster spots.

While Quinn wants to see if Marvin Hall or Reggie Davis, who was on the practice squad last season, step forward, the team will likely draft another player to add to the competition.

“When you put money into certain positions, you can’t continue to (spend more money on) three or four in those positions,” Dimitroff said. “So, you need to really start focusing in on those positions in the draft.”

The Falcons are intrigued by Georgia wide receiver Javon Wims, a late-bloomer with speed (4.47, 40-yard dash), height (6-foot-4) and power (at 220 pounds).

“He’s one of the guys that’s on our (radar) and in our sights,” Dimitroff said. “We need to make sure that with our local Pro Day we continue to press more and more on (learning about Wims). There are some really good receivers out there. They are not all necessarily at the top of the position group.”

So, over the next month, the Falcons’ secret weapon, Blank’s plane, will help the team’s executives get to private workouts to help with another bountiful NFL draft class.

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