Thomas Dimitroff didn’t have time to settle into his new role as the general manager of the Atlanta Falcons – there was far too much on his plate. Just days into his tenure, he was a driving force behind the hiring of Head Coach Mike Smith, who would go on to win the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year Award in 2008. Just a few weeks later he inked several high-profile free agents, including eventual first-time Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner, safety Eric Coleman and kicker Jason Elam. He followed up those key free agent signings with the selection of a stellar draft class in April that included the AP Rookie of the Year signal-caller, Matt Ryan, starting left tackle Sam Baker and a host of additional starters and key contributors.
All this with only a few months under his belt in a freshly-minted job with a brand new organization.
His vast early accomplishments were acknowledged two weeks ago when he was named the 2008 Sporting News NFL Executive of the Year.
That begs the question: So what can the 42-year-old Dimitroff and his staff do with a full year to prepare for an off-season?
AtlantaFalcons.com staffers posed a series of questions to the energetic executive, who has spent the last 12 months stewarding the Falcons’ football operations and acclimating himself to his new role. Dimitroff and his staff are currently entrenched in off-season preparations, laser-focused on fine-tuning an 11-5 club that enters 2009 riding a wave of unbridled optimism and positive momentum.
Following is a transcript of Dimitroff’s exclusive interview with AtlantaFalcons.com.
AF.COM: Now that the Falcons magical 2008 season is over, Falcons fans want to know what the club’s plans are for free agency, the NFL Scouting Combine, the NFL Draft, and what the Falcons are going to do with QB Michael Vick who remains on your roster? Can you shed some light on those topics?
Thomas Dimitroff: “We’re all engrossed in the various preparations for free agency, the Scouting Combine, and the 2009 NFL Draft with the goal of improving our football team. NFL rosters never stay the same from one year to the next, so we’re busy doing our due diligence as far as evaluating our own players and evaluating the collegiate players who will be available to us in the draft.
With regards to Michael Vick, we’ve decided to seek a trade of his contractual rights to another NFL club. We took a number of steps in the 2008 season, including using our first pick to draft a quarterback. We feel a trade is the best move for the Falcons, and it’s also in the best interest of Michael. This has been a really unique situation from a variety of standpoints and because we will actively be involved in a trade situation, I don’t envision our organization speaking any more about this subject publicly until it’s reached a resolution.”
AF.COM: Vick is under indefinite suspension by the NFL. Are teams allowed to seek trades for players who are under suspension?
TD: “NFL rules allow teams to trade the contractual rights of suspended players. So, yes.”
AF.COM: What are the Falcons hearing from the NFL office regarding the timeline for Michael being reinstated?
TD: “We have not been advised by anyone from the League Office of any type of timeline regarding Michael Vick being reinstated. So, we don’t know when that might occur. That decision is up to the Commissioner.”
AF.COM: This time of year, football fans want to talk about who their favorite team will select in the upcoming draft. At this point in the off-season evaluation process, what are the Falcons’ most pressing draft needs?
TD: “I don’t want to give away club secrets, but our goal is to improve our football team – to build on what we started last year. Whether we do that through trades, free agency, or the draft will become clearer in the next couple of months. I can assure you that all of our personnel people, scouts, and coaches are working extremely hard to make sure that we add another strong class of rookies to our football team.”
AF.COM: How do you and your staff determine which positions you will address through free agency and which you will address via the draft?
TD: “That’s a very good question. I feel we are blessed with a terrific scouting staff and a solid personnel department who all work very well together. We also have a head coach who is extremely adept and well-versed in the personnel aspect of this business and that helps our football team tremendously. We stress the team concept in every aspect of our operation. Smitty and his coaching staff are great assets from a personnel standpoint. We’ve been in the evaluation process for several months and have developed what we feel is a sound and strategic plan to address our team’s needs both in free agency and in the draft.”
AF.COM: You made it clear last season that successful organizations are built via the draft, yet ironically, you made one of the most fruitful and high-profile free agent moves of 2008 with the signing of RB Michael Turner. Has that signing changed your views on improving your team through free agency?
TD: “I think every situation and circumstance is different, but you have to do whatever is necessary to improve your football team. A variety of factors affect those decisions – economics, salary cap, etc. This is an area Smitty and I have discussed many times. While I do subscribe to the theory that successful NFL teams are built through the draft, I am never going to be one of those guys who says you can’t get good value or good players via free agency, and I think Michael Turner is a good example of that thinking. We also were extremely pleased with other key 2008 free agent pick-ups such as K Jason Elam, S Erik Coleman, and TE Ben Hartsock.”
AF.COM: You clearly saw something in QB Matt Ryan that foreshadowed his incredible rookie season and potential as a leader and franchise cornerstone. That said, how much did his rapid maturation surprise you?
TD: “We were all so impressed with Matt’s maturity and his football intelligence right from the outset. We saw it during the evaluation last year, and we clearly saw it during the interviews at the Scouting Combine as well as at his private workout in Boston last year. The one thing you cannot measure is how a player will hold up once the live game action starts, and obviously Matt exceeded all of our expectations and had a fantastic season not only from a production standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint, as well. We think his work ethic and his desire to compete and improve bodes well for our entire football team in the future.”
AF.COM: NFL experts say year two is always much better for a new coaching staff than year one. We realize that you and Smitty are in the early part of the off-season, but has it been easier in year two?
TD: “There has been more familiarity – that’s for sure. This time last year, we were all trying to learn each other’s names. This year, we are ahead of where we were because we are much more familiar with the way we do things. That familiarity will pay big dividends with the players when we all assemble here in late March for the off-season conditioning, the Organized Team Activities (OTAs), the mini-camps, and training camp. The majority of our guys will know how we do things and that saves time. They’ll know what is expected of them, they’ll know how we meet, how we practice, and how we prepare for our opponents for the fast-approaching 2009 season.”
AF.COM: Let’s go back to Michael Vick for a moment. What are the salary cap ramifications associated with his contract if you are not able to trade him?
TD: “There are a number of scenarios that could play out, so it’s difficult to say. However, as long as Michael is suspended, his salary is tolled, but his signing bonus money would be part of the cap.”
AF.COM: If you’re able to make a trade, will the club feel a sense of closure?
TD: “We’ve long since moved on from any emotions, which we demonstrated throughout the 2008 season. That’s a credit to our players first, as well as to the focused leadership of our coaching staff.”
AF.COM: What happens if the Falcons try to trade Vick, but there are no takers?
TD: “We obviously have not had any discussions yet, but we think some teams might be interested in exploring a trade. If, for any reason, we are not able to complete a trade, we will re-evaluate our position and make the decision that is in the best long-term interest of our football team.”
AF.COM: Is this your favorite time of the year with regards to the NFL’s calendar?
TD: “It really is. The scout in me really enjoys the player evaluation process of our business. This is the time of year when our scouts who have been on the road all year come in and tell us about all of the fantastic college players who will be draft eligible in April. We have very serious discussions about scheme fit, cultural fit, work ethic, competitiveness – all of the things that we think will make a guy a great player for our organization. A lot of work, film study and discussion goes into the draft process and it is a very time consuming process, but I enjoy every second of it. The draft process is the lifeblood of our league, and it’s a process that you’d better get right if you want to be successful in this league.”
AF.COM: How much does the NFL Scouting Combine play into your entire player evaluation process?
TD: “I’ve always viewed the NFL Scouting Combine as just one piece of the overall body of work when evaluating a specific player. We also look at how the player performed during his entire college career. We evaluate how he conducted himself at the Senior Bowl, at the East-West Shrine game, and how the player handled himself during the interview process at both the Senior Bowl and the Scouting Combine. So, in short, a guy is not going to make a big leap one way or the other simply based on the test results from the Combine. We look at the entire body of work before assigning a final grade to a specific player.”
AF.COM: How important was it that the coaching staff – with the exception of one coach – remained intact as we enter the 2009 season?
TD: “That’s a big thing in our league. If you check NFL clubs that have a high degree of success year in and year out, you’ll find that the majority of those teams have coaching staffs that have been together, in many cases, six, seven, and eight years. That means everything in terms of scheme, player development, and consistency on both sides of the ball and special teams. I think the fact that our staff is remaining intact from an offensive standpoint bodes well for Matt Ryan and our entire offense. The coaches did a nice job last season, and we’re looking for them to be even better in 2009.”
AF.COM: How strong is this year’s draft class?
TD: “It’s a good, strong draft class. It really is. There are some positions that are stronger than others, but overall I really like this class and feel as if some very good football players are going to come out of this year’s class.”
AF.COM: How do you approach the upcoming free agency period?
TD: “I feel we are off to a very good start to free agency for a number of reasons. First of all, we’ve done our homework and evaluated this class and have a good plan as to the direction we will go when the free agency period commences. Secondly, we’ve signed two of our core players to long-term contracts, which kept them from hitting the free agent market. DT Jonathan Babineaux and WR Michael Jenkins are key members of our football team and it was very important that we re-sign both of those players because they are in our long-term plans. As far as the rest of the 2009 free agency class, I think there will be some very big names going to new teams like there are every year.”
Big question. Who are the Falcons considering at number 24 in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft?
“We’re going to take a very good football player who is going to hopefully come in on day one and help our football team. Is that vague enough?”