General managers in today’s NFL don’t have the luxury of time decision-makers had 30 or 40 years ago. Time to build a roster, time to take chances and time to correct mistakes.
Fortunately, I was given — and earned — time as the general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, a position I held for 13 seasons. Some of the most important decisions general managers make come in the months, days and hours leading up to the draft each year. With no draft exactly the same, I experienced nearly every phase of the job during my time in Atlanta.
Now, roughly 24 hours ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft, I’m looking back on my own experiences and discussing the challenges current decision-makers face in four common draft scenarios.
1) Drafting a franchise quarterback
When I was first hired in 2008 as a neophyte GM, I knew all eyes were on me, wondering if I had what it took to turn the Falcons’ organization around after a 4-12 season. We knew we were going to draft a quarterback at No. 3 and focused all of our energy on Matt Ryan. Everyone, including first-year head coach Mike Smith, knew how incredibly important it was to build around this player, how the entire organization hinged on the success of that young quarterback.
There was a lot of pressure on me, and no one (other than team owner Arthur Blank) made it more apparent than the highly regarded sportswriter Peter King, who came over to my house during the pre-draft process that year. While talking over a glass of Silver Oak, he said something along the lines of, “You know, Thomas, if you screw this up on Matt Ryan, you and your family will no longer be living in this beautiful house in Buckhead, but instead may be living back in Boulder in your humble three-bedroom home, no longer drinking fine wine.” We laughed, of course. But the reality of it was I was taken aback about how upfront and real Peter was about the situation. And it was true: I was hanging on for dear life.
Looking at this year’s draft, a number of organizations will walk away from Day 1 with a new franchise quarterback, including the teams picking first, second and third: the Jaguars, Jets and 49ers. The Panthers (No. 8 in Round 1) and Broncos (No. 9) are two other clubs with fascinating QB situations, and both happen to have first-time GMs. Carolina’s Scott Fitterer and Denver’s George Paton are respected longtime personnel men who’ve finally landed their dream jobs. Heading into their first draft in the big chair, they each have starting QB options on the roster (Sam Darnold in Carolina, Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater in Denver). That’s the kind of situation that makes the draft even trickier to navigate. There is significant pressure on these two GMs to make the right decision at the game’s most important position. Do they roll with a player already on the roster and improve elsewhere, or draft a quarterback and risk throwing off the moral in the QB room and/or locker room? There’s much to consider.
2) Drafting without fear
Heading into the 2011 draft, coach Mike Smith and I were on an extended honeymoon in Atlanta and with Arthur Blank. Mike was the Sporting News Coach of the Year in 2008 and ’10, I had been named Sporting News Executive of the Year in those same years, and we had just finished our third straight winning season. Let’s just say, we walked through the facilities with a little swagger and headed into free agency and the draft with confidence.
At the time, we had a good team with Ryan, Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner, first-team All-Pro wideout Roddy White and a future Hall of Famer at tight end in Tony Gonzalez. But we felt that we needed one more piece to take our offense to the next level — and knew Julio Jones was the guy to do it. We dug deep and paid a hefty ransom by sending five picks to the Cleveland Browns in order to move up from No. 27 to sixth overall. I can still vividly recall when Roger Goodell announced the pick, Jon Gruden — then an analyst for ESPN — just annihilated us for trading up to take Julio. The broadcast showed clips of Julio dropping pass after pass while Gruden said things like, “I can’t believe they’re doing this!” Gruden and I have since joked about this, and it’s certainly a little easier to laugh about it now that we know what Julio’s accomplished so far in his career and what he’s meant to the Falcons organization.
Two general managers who figure to be drafting without fear this week: Tampa Bay’s Jason Licht and Buffalo’s Brandon Beane. Coming off a Super Bowl win, Licht has put in the work — retaining all 22 starters from the championship team — to be in position to take the best player available at the end of the first round. From my vantage point, given what he accomplished last year, Licht sits atop the league’s GM hierarchy – a lofty spot that’s well-deserved — until next season begins. On the other hand, Beane won Sporting News Executive of the Year after an impressive 2020 with myriad stellar decisions. His great working relationship with coach Sean McDermott has the Bills in an enviable position as a contender with seven picks over the next three days.
3) Drafting for need
The honest truth is, teams almost always draft for need, filling in the remaining holes on their rosters. In the 2012 draft, we didn’t have a first-round pick because of the Julio Jones trade and desperately needed to find center Todd McClure’s heir apparent. We selected Peter Konz in the second round — a definite overdraft that didn’t pan out — and that misguided pick was the beginning of a bad draft for us. From the 2012 draft, I learned there is great importance in drafting for need, but you can’t let need override the overall research and intuitive draft prep.
Many teams have specialized needs in this year’s draft, including Cincinnati, Miami and Pittsburgh. For the Bengals and Dolphins, it’s all about helping their young quarterbacks, whether that means protecting them or giving them an outlet to throw to. For the Steelers, it’s also about helping the quarterback, but in a different sense. Giving the aging Ben Roethlisberger a run game he didn’t necessarily have last season is of utmost importance. Unlike Cincy’s Duke Tobin and Miami’s Chris Grier, revered Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert doesn’t necessarily have to secure the team need in Round 1 because, historically speaking, Days 2 and 3 offer good value at the running back position.
4) Drafting on the hot seat
In my opinion, a general manager is on the hot seat every year he doesn’t win the Super Bowl. Any GM who’s held a job for more than a decade has felt this pressure many times. The hottest seat I was ever on was heading into the 2016 draft. To preface, I was retained when Smith was fired after the 2014 season, and part of the search group for the organization’s next head coach, Dan Quinn. Our team started out hot in 2015, but flailed down the stretch to finish 8-8. It was extremely challenging in the months leading up to the draft, but the only thing I could do was believe in my evaluation adeptness and team-building prowess. I was extremely confident in the work ethic of the group around me and never doubted we would thrive and cool the proverbial hot seat. We delivered in a major way, drafting several first-year starters (Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell), as well as Austin Hooper and Wes Schweitzer, before stringing together a tremendous Super Bowl run that ended in crushing fashion.
Being able to navigate the ebb and flow of the league and the significant team-building challenges from year to year made me a more well-rounded and battle-tested general manager. As hard as it’s been, especially in the down years, I’m proud that I have effectively navigated the extremely rocky roads of an NFL decision-maker. I can honestly say it made me exponentially better as a leader and GM.
Every year, I know a lot of my friends and contemporaries around the league get skewered by the media and fan bases for their acquisitions and decision-making, which sometimes is warranted and other times is completely driven by agitated emotion. Believe me: Over my 13 years as a GM, I was criticized for many moves, decisions and trades while at the helm.
There are so many complicated layers to strategically building a team in today’s NFL, but no doubt, it starts with the quarterback. This has been a unique offseason where three GMs — each widely respected in this league on a number of levels — decided to part ways with their starting signal-callers, all of whom were top-five picks in their respective drafts. The Bears’ Ryan Pace (whose Chicago team went 8-8 in 2020), Rams’ Les Snead (10-6) and Eagles’ Howie Roseman (4-11-1) made very bold and difficult moves, but moves they deemed to be in the best interest of their respective franchises. It’s easy for those outside an organization to violently scrutinize them for such decisions. However, it’s beyond admirable for each one to put his ego in check and open himself up to criticism in the name of ultimately improving the organization.
It’s imperative that cities and fan bases alike understand that with good, smart football people at the helm, there can be a bright, shining light at the end of the tunnel. After all, Jason Licht — who, like I said, is the league’s best right now — rose to the occasion and built a Super Bowl-winning roster after cutting ties with his team’s first overall pick in 2015, Jameis Winston.
Former Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is providing analysis for NFL Media throughout the 2021 NFL Draft.
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