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FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons made quite a splash in last year’s NFL draft.
This year, they’ll likely spend a lot of time sitting around.
The Falcons are one of three teams that does not have a pick in Thursday night’s first round. Considering what they gave up to get receiver Julio Jones, there’s little chance of the team moving up to make another high-profile selection.
“Needless to say, I don’t think we’re going to be messing up any draft parties,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff quipped.
Instead, the Falcons were focused on filling their needs beginning in the second round, where the Falcons had the No. 55 overall choice.
“I’m confident there will be a lot of good players at 55,” Dimitroff said.
A year ago, with the Falcons coming off a 13-win season and NFC South title, Dimitroff felt his team might be one impact player away from contending for the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship. So he gambled big on draft day, dealing away his first- and fourth-round picks in 2012 for the chance to take Jones.
The big receiver had a solid rookie season, but the Falcons slipped to 10-6, settled for a wild card, and were wiped out in the opening round of the playoffs by the eventual Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants.
Now, the Falcons don’t appear so close to that elusive title, and they’re not positioned to take a major step forward in the draft. They have only six picks in the seven-round, three-day process, picking up an extra compensatory choice in the final round.
In a way, the low-key draft is in keeping with the theme of Atlanta’s offseason. The team has spent most of its time re-signing its own free agents, which has sparked plenty of grumbling from impatient fans who thought the Falcons might be poised for a major shake-up, given owner Arthur Blank’s harsh public critique of the 2011 campaign.
Dimitroff, who has earned plenty of praise for his four years as general manager, began to hear some complaints about his roster management.
“I totally understand the thought process and the banter and the discussion,” Dimitroff said. “But I feel like we’ve been very active. … We talked at the very beginning of when we came aboard in 2008 about the importance of retention. We’ve been at over 80 percent (re-signing his own players). That’s very important to us. We felt like it was important to keep our core together. It’s not just about splash moves to acquire certain players.”
The Falcons do have new coordinators on both sides of the ball, hiring Dirk Koetter to run the offense and former NFL head coach Mike Nolan to handle the defense. With some of the changes they have in mind, Atlanta will be looking to fill more subtle needs, such as better protection from the offensive line and more depth in the secondary.
Koetter is determined for the Falcons to have a more vertical passing game, but that will require the line to give quarterback Matt Ryan extra time in the pocket. While the Falcons appeared at first glance to do a good job in 2011, ranking sixth in the league in fewest sacks allowed (26), a closer look reveals they also allowed the seventh-most hits (84) on their franchise guy in the pocket.
Plus, the Falcons had several high-profile flops trying to pick up mere inches on fourth down, including a stop by the Giants in the playoffs.
“We’ve got to get those aggressive yards,” Dimitroff said. “We’ve done it in the past, but for some reason we hit a little bit of a standstill last year. It was challenging and agitating at times. I also think we need to continue to fortify our stoutness to provide a pocket for Matt Ryan. It’s important for Matt to step up in that pocket confidently and be able to deliver the ball assuredly to some very, very good receivers.”
Going with an offensive lineman early in the draft would be a change of philosophy for Atlanta. Sam Baker (2008) is the only first-round pick at those positions since 1993, and Atlanta hasn’t picked a lineman in the second round since the late Travis Claridge a dozen years ago.
Defensively, Nolan is eager to play a lot of nickel and dime in the secondary, especially playing a schedule that already ensures twice-a-year meetings against New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Carolina’s Cam Newton and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman and this season includes games against Eli Manning of the Giants, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, Dallas’ Tony Romo, San Diego’s Philip Rivers and Denver’s new quarterback, Peyton Manning.
Knowing it would be hard to draft someone who could make an immediate impact in the secondary, the Falcons were looking into a possible trade for Philadelphia cornerback Asante Samuel. The Eagles were eager to dump Samuel’s hefty salary and would probably settle for a lower-round draft pick, but it wasn’t known if the Falcons could make it work under their cap number, especially after Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes agreed Tuesday to a $10 million contract tender.
No matter what happens this week, Dimitroff insisted the Falcons will come out of it with a better roster.
“We have a very sound foundation,” he said. “We are very positive about what we have at this stage and being able to build on it in this draft.”