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Dimitroff And Pioli Reunion Tour Receiving Rave Reviews In Atlanta

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Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli had a successful draft in their inaugural season together with the Falcons, taking the first step toward regaining dominance in the NFC South. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.
Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli had a successful draft in their inaugural season together with the Falcons, taking the first step toward regaining dominance in the NFC South. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank called for more tough guys to be added to the team's roster, and the general managing duo of Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli did a fine job in finding such players in the NFL Draft. The tandem was able to fill their needs while drafting talented, aggressive players who can contribute to the team immediately.

The Falcons CEO wants to see less of a finesse team after finishing 4-12 last year, which placed the team last in the NFC South. Of course, Blank prefers tough football players over Raiders-type players who are more famous for antics and rule-breaking. He still wishes for his players to be good citizens, but also to be more aggressive on the field.

"I think, at the end of the day, if I asked you ... give me a brief definition of what toughness is, I think you might say something else, but you might say to me it's how you control the line of scrimmage," Blank expressed in a Jan. 6 article on ESPN.com. "Can you run the ball? Can you stop the run? And I don't think we did either one of those things very well this year [2013]. So I would say, if you looked at toughness from that perspective, I don't think we were as tough as we needed to be.''

Below are analyses on each day of the draft as well as Atlanta's additions, both during and after the draft.

Day One

I’m glad that Atlanta stayed at the sixth overall pick in the first round. Even they admitted that the price for possibly trading to the No. 1 spot was too costly. It would have been even more of a risk had they done so and drafted the people’s choice, DE Jadeveon Clowney, and the prized pass rusher failed to pan out at the NFL level. But by staying at their original spot, the Falcons patiently waited to see if their guy would still be on board. Luckily, OT Jake Matthews was still available when Atlanta’s turn to pick finally came, and they found their blindside protector for QB Matt Ryan.

Toughness is in Matthews’ blood - he’s from a family of fearsome men that includes a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and two perennial Pro Bowl linebackers. Aside from that pedigree, Matthews is the most NFL-ready out of the top OT prospects. He already had experience protecting a marquee quarterback - one Johnny Manziel - and I’m sure he won’t have any problems protecting one of the top quarterbacks in the league. He’s also faced tough defenses in the SEC, the most competitive conference in college football. Matthews will be able to help the Falcons soar to the top of another traditionally competitive division.  

Day Two

Day Two was a day of steals and surprises for Atlanta. The first steal was Ra’Shede Hageman, a defensive lineman who was projected to be selected in the middle of the first round. He fell right into Altanta’s lap and they didn’t hesitate to grab him. Hageman will fit in perfectly with the multiple defense schemes the Falcons like to run, and he can play nose tackle and dominate interior linemen with his agility. The Falcons can also have him either stand up or line up outside the tackles in pass rushing situations. Or, Hageman can also shoot the “B” gaps and clog running lanes. He’s versatile and athletic enough to make an impact on any spot of the defensive line.

In the next round, the Falcons drafted their potential starting free safety. From what I saw on highlight reels, Dezmen Southward is a hard-hitter just like his future counterpart, William Moore. Both safeties, no matter who is starting where, will wreak havoc on opposing receivers. And with his 4.3 speed, Southward has enough burst to defend the deep ball. Even if he does not start this year, he’ll still use his speed to play nickelback or even compete for the No. 2 cornerback spot against Robert Alford and Ricardo Allen.  

Day Three  

On the last day of the draft, the Falcons continued to focus on building a more dominant defense. Two late-round steals jumped out at me immediately, the first being Atlanta’s future starting running back, Devonta Freeman. Barring further injury, Steven Jackson will start this year and possibly one more year after. In the meantime, Freeman will almost certainly split carries with him. He may be just 5-8 and 206 pounds, but he can make tacklers miss and fight through them as well. Freeman is also valuable as a receiver, and we all know how the Falcons like to throw the ball. He can also help Ryan in pass protection.

Another steal is Ricardo Allen, a cornerback from Purdue. The Falcons see plenty of toughness in him - he’s a ballhawk who can also punish any offensive player with no regard for size or position. According to scouting reports, Allen can also get inside the heads of opposing receivers with trash talk. Like Southward, Allen can make an immediate impact on the field next year as a nickelback. At most, he can even surpass Southward (whose natural position is safety), Robert McClain and Robert Alford as the starting corner opposite Desmond Trufant.

The front office spent the rest of the day adding depth to the linebacker corps. Two of the four drafted linebackers may be able to compete for starting positions, depending on the scheme in Atlanta’s multiple defense. In the 3-4 scheme, there is at least one vacant spot to fill at outside linebacker. Another rookie linebacker can be used to light a fire under Joplo Bartu.

At any rate, I see Yawin Smallwood and Prince Shembo competing for starting jobs, but Tyler Starr and Marquis Spruill should also see significant playing time on defense and special teams.

Undrafted Free Agents

The front office continued to look for gems in the rookie class by signing 20 undrafted free agents. Atlanta mainly focused on adding toughness and depth to the offensive unit, though the team continued stockpiling talent along the defensive line and at linebacker. Converted FB Roosevelt Nix and former Miami Hurricane RB Maurice Hagens will compete for the starting fullback position, with the winner serving as lead blocker for Freeman, Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers. Nix is a better candidate based on his ability to attack running lanes as a defensive lineman during his time at Kent State. Also, look out for former Syracuse RB Jerome Smith. He may be the next coming of Jason Snelling, a running back who can give you the yardage needed in red zone and short yardage situations, but must learn how to hold on to the football if he wants to sneak onto the active roster.

Overall Grade: B+

Atlanta's 2014 draft class reminds me of one you would see from the New England Patriots. The Patriots don't always go for the biggest names in the draft, but instead build the team by mostly adding valuable pieces from the later rounds. Considering that they each played a role in drafting what became a dynasty in New England, Dimitroff and Pioli are at it again and using a similar formula in Atlanta. Though they took home prized prospects like Hageman and Matthews, the duo relied on adding depth and drafting hidden gems to maximize their competitive desire to retake the NFC South. Even some of their undrafted free agents can contribute to the team this season. More importantly, Freeman can be a solid replacement for Jackson should he miss games again due to injury. Freeman is primed to take Jackson’s place as the starting running back.

Drafting Shembo did come as a shock to me. Blank cherishes players who rarely get into legal issues, yet Shembo was right in the middle of one in 2010, when he was accused of sexual assault. We don’t know if he was indeed a perpetrator, but at the same time, we don’t know if he will continue to stay out of trouble in the pros. Though the pick was risky, it looks like Shembo’s upside outweighs this incident.

Aside from the question mark on Shembo’s character, my only other problem was Atlanta not getting a possession receiver in the later rounds. It is true that the team already has an elite receiver in Julio Jones and dependable wideouts like Harry Douglas and Roddy White. However, Douglas and White are getting older and may not be on the team much longer. Plus, the Falcons don’t have a big body who can catch while taking punishment in traffic or a possession receiver who can make the tough, clutch receptions.

All in all, it was a great draft for Atlanta. This draft class should be the one to kickstart a revival of championship aspirations for the Falcons.