At 3:30 Thursday morning, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff sat up in bed, opened his eyes wide and felt his heart rate rise.
Having worked out the tentative framework of a blockbuster draft deal the night before with Tom Heckert, his Browns counterpart, Dimitroff suddenly was overcome by an anxious thought: When we draft Julio Jones(notes), do we have a Falcons jersey and hat to give to him when he walks across the stage?
A bit later, Dimitroff really began to feel panicked. After turning on his computer and reading a report that the Patriots had spoken to the Browns about trading up to acquire the No. 6 overall selection, with ex-Alabama wideout Jones as a possible target, Dimitroff's spirits sunk. To calm his nerves, he decided to go off the grid.
Leaving his phone and iPod at home, Dimitroff hopped on his Colnago road bike just after sunrise and spent the next hour and 15 minutes zooming around the hilly streets near his Buckhead home, wondering whether the bold move he planned for the first night of the 2011 draft would come to fruition.
"There were so many waves of emotion those last couple of days before the draft, and I was all over the place that morning," Dimitroff recalled Saturday night. "I went to bed thinking it was 75-25 that we'd do the deal, and it was maybe 25-75 by the time I finished the ride. Starting with the 27th pick and wanting to move up that high, it's incredibly difficult to find a suitor. I was really unsure."
About an hour into Thursday night's first round, Dimitroff engaged in the GM's equivalent of the Valparaiso Cerro Abajo, aka The Scariest Bike Ride on Earth. In an effort to give young Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) another weapon and push his talented team into championship contention, Dimitroff sent five picks to the Browns – the Falcons' first-, second- and fourth-round selections this year and first- and fourth-round choices in 2012 – to snag Jones sixth overall.
Though draft trades are common, this was an unusually aggressive move which, for better or worse, will help define Dimitroff's legacy. Though the former Patriots scouting director has twice been voted the NFL's executive of the year since joining the Falcons in 2008, Dimitroff knows he'll be pummeled publicly if Jones turns out to be a bust.
Conversely, if Jones teams up with All-Pro wideout Roddy White(notes), future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes) and former Pro Bowl halfback Michael Turner(notes) to create matchup nightmares for defenses – and, more important, if he helps the Falcons win a championship – Dimitroff's gamble will be hailed as a masterful move.
I shy away from instant draft analysis like I do royal wedding coverage, because in most cases I don't pretend to know which rookies-to-be will become successful NFL players. However, I'm always willing to evaluate a given team's process, and I give Dimitroff (and owner Arthur Blank, whose enthusiasm and blessing made the trade possible) high marks for chutzpah.
One reason I like the trade is because it shows a shrewd understanding of the Falcons' place in the NFL world. Though Atlanta had the NFC's best regular-season record last season, a December defeat to the Saints and a divisional-round playoff beatdown by the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers exposed the team's shortcomings. Whereas quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes) was virtually unstoppable in Green Bay's 48-21 triumph at the Georgia Dome last January, the Pack's defense was able to frustrate Ryan by doubling White, as New Orleans had a few weeks earlier.
As Dimitroff recalled of the Packers, "They looked unstoppable, and we obviously couldn't match them point for point. When we got down, we didn't have the firepower to get back in the game."
Enter Jones, a 6-foot-3, 220-pounder known for his physical play who also ran a sizzling, 4.39-second 40-yard-dash at the NFL scouting combine. Though Dimitroff would have surely made the same trade for ex-Georgia receiver A.J. Green(notes), who went fourth overall to the Bengals, some talent evaluators believe Jones is the superior player.
"He's better than A.J.," one AFC front-office executive told me Saturday. "He's faster, more physical, tough as [expletive], strong as [expletive]. He's a faster [Anquan] Boldin."
At that point, I nearly dropped my BlackBerry. Boldin, now with the Ravens, is one of my favorite players, and the thought of someone like him having an extra step or two on defensive backs is downright scary.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has told me several times that when he has a quarterback he believes is special on his roster, it justifies a higher degree of risk-taking in an effort to maximize that window of opportunity. Dimitroff essentially agrees with this principle, and he felt that surrounding Ryan with another talented playmaker was an enormous priority.
The general manager was also moved by a pre-draft conversation with Alabama coach Nick Saban, who, Dimitroff said, "told me that the one thing about Julio is, 'He's just not affected. He will come in there and not be affected.' Considering that he's a guy who'll face a lot of pressure to prove he's worth 21 spots in the draft and all we traded, that's a pretty comforting statement."
Incidentally, Dimitroff managed to trade up for another potential gamebreaker on Saturday, albeit one in a much smaller package: He sent a seventh-round pick to the Rams to move up in the fifth round and select Oregon State star Jacquizz Rodgers(notes), a 5-6 scatback reminiscent of the Chargers' Darren Sproles(notes). "He's a true change-of-pace back for us," Dimitroff said, "and we were so fortunate to get him where we did."
He feels the same way about Jones, though he knows there will be plenty of dissenters unless and until the wideout makes the type of impact Dimitroff anticipates. As Jones strode to the stage at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night (and yes, the NFL had a Falcons jersey and cap on hand), the GM received a barrage of text messages and phone calls commenting on the size of a certain region of his anatomy and knew he had done something significant.
“I understand that if it doesn't work out, I'll get my ass fried," he said Saturday. "But we really believe this is the ideal move for this organization in terms of where we are in our development. I'm not stressing about it at all."
You'll be happy to know that my post-draft assessment of the NFL's current pecking order was also devoid of stress – though I suspect the same won't apply to the accompanying reactions. As is customary, I put the defending champs atop the list as a sign of respect, then went about the painstaking process of disrespecting the other 31 teams in a wholly subjective manner.
Hopefully, you won't wake up at 3:30 a.m. pondering the injustice of it all.
4. Baltimore Ravens: If Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti sends a bottle of wine over to his Bears counterparts at the next NFL owners' meeting, should the McCaskeys check to make sure it doesn't have an unpleasant odor?
12. Oakland Raiders: What are the odds that second-round pick Stefen Wisniewski was instructed in the fine art of administering "the fork" and "the knife" by Uncle Steve at family barbecues growing up?
15. Kansas City Chiefs: When Todd Haley (via text) told me to tease Larry Fitzgerald Thursday evening by asking if "[fellow ex-Pitt receiver Jonathan] Baldwin [was] better than him," should the All-Pro wideout and I have known he was foreshadowing his first-round pick?
16. Dallas Cowboys: After Jerry Jones called former Cowboys coach Barry Switzer to ask his opinion on eventual third-round pick DeMarco Murray(notes), did the Dallas owner offer an assessment of Bill Parcells' worth in return?
17. San Diego Chargers: Given that he gets to stay in America's Finest City, play in Norv Turner's offense and catch passes from Philip Rivers(notes), could third-round pick Vincent Brown's professional life be any better?
22. San Francisco 49ers: Sure, eventual second-round pick Colin Kaepernick(notes) won a passing competition against Jim Harbaugh during a pre-draft workout, but is there any doubt he'd have lost a staring contest to Harbaugh's predecessor, Mike Singletary?
25. Minnesota Vikings: Given that a former NFL quarterback I respect greatly told me that first-round selection Christian Ponder(notes) is "scared to death" and the "worst pick I've seen in years," can you see why I believe the skepticism surrounding the Vikes' move is warranted?
31. Tennessee Titans: After drafting Jake Locker(notes) and Jurrell Casey(notes) in the first and third rounds, respectively, shouldn't the Titans just go ahead and put The Rogue Scout on the payroll, already?