Posted: 7:27 am Friday, January 31st, 2014
By D. Orlando Ledbetter
NEW YORK – Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and new assistant general manager Scott Pioli made the rounds at radio row on Thursday at the Super Bowl.
Afterwards, Dimitroff granted an exclusive interview to me and columnist Jeff Schultz of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Schultz, a long-time former beat writer, went into “Beast Mode” and I knew to just get downfield and get some blocks for him. When he needed a break, I jumped in with a question or two, until he got his wind back.
Here’s the full transcript on the wide-ranging interview:
Q: When will you all start making moves?
A: I believe that on February 3rd, when the rosters are no longer frozen, we’ll start to make some moves.
Q: Have you all been in meetings to make those roster determinations?
A: To say that we’ve had meetings is an understatement. Yes, we’ve been very busy at so many levels.
Q: Is there any way to quantify how dramatic of a change we should expect? Last year, you all did a bunch of moves and it was like wow! Could it approach that?
A: I don’t know if we can parallel the two years because this is a very different offseason than last season. Suffice it to say, we’ll be very mindful of our assessment of the readiness of some of our young players to potentially move into starting roles. Yes, there will be moves. There will be adjustments. We’ve already made them throughout the organization in football (operations) and certain (other) areas. We’ve added some really good football coaches to our staff. We’ve added a top notch personnel executive in Scott Pioli, who is going to be very good in our adjustment as well, teaming with Lionel Vital, who I believe is one of the top talent evaluators in this league. We like where we are there. We haven’t even really started our adjustment from a personnel standpoint, but there will be strong moves and there will be legitimate adjustments.
Q: In a sense do you think you have some clarity about maybe some guys now because a lot of young guys had to play last year?
A: There is no question, given this past season, 4-12 allowed us as a team to experiment with a lot of different personnel groupings that we never would have done if we were a 13-3 team.
Q: When would you say that the experimental aspects started?
A: I believe it probably started. … We were mindful going into probably the fifth or sixth game how important it was going to be. We knew it was going to be very important even going into the season. I had talked with (head coach Mike Smith) time and again about the unbelievable importance of developing our football players. That’s the important thing. Mike believes it and he knows it and he understands that the way the league is going right now that it is more important now, more than ever, to spend time and develop our youthful talent because of the restrictions from the salary cap standpoint. Sometimes, it may not be the most suitable situation and the best player for that position overall, but that player may satisfy two or three traits that we are looking for to get better and we’ll really hone in on that player.
Q: As soon as the fifth or sixth game, you all started to say we are playing with some other players?
A: No, I was just saying that when we started having our injuries and we realized that we were playing a lot of, or a number of younger guys, it was going to be very important for us to continue to focus on schooling, educating and developing those players while they were on the field. That was going to be very important for us.
Q: Last year, those moves weren’t announced until March 1, when the league year started. With the Feb. 3rd date are you all working with a different timeline this year?
A: We’ll have the discussions and we can start to make the moves after the 3rd (when) the rosters are no longer frozen.
Q: Can you clear up how the (decision-making) hierarchy is going to work now with Scott Pioli being on board? How will it work between you, Pioli and Lionel Vital?
A: Lionel Vital is our personnel director. He is charge of the personnel department, both pro and college. Nothing has changed with the hiring of Scott as far as what Lionel’s responsibilities are. Scott is an assistant general manager. He (has) a very important seat at the table. His insight and experiences as per building teams and putting rosters together is going to be very important as a discussion point at so many levels. Again, Scott’s direct line is to me and our owner. He is not in charge of the personnel department.
Q: So he has no autonomy per se? It’s just a voice basically?
A: Yes, Scott doesn’t have autonomy. We’re a very collaborative football team. What he’s going to be again is an incredibly insightful voice for us at so many levels. Not only from a personnel standpoint, but also from an organizational football and operational standpoint. Not only from all of the successes that he’s had, but by his own admission from the challenges that he’s had along the way as well. It’s going to be a great reminder for myself, as well as for Mike Smith, Arthur Blank and Lionel Vital and for all of those of us in that football ops leadership group. It’s going to be very important to have a very challenging and insightful voice.
Q: Did he just want to slowly ease back into it? Everyone knows about your (personal) relationship with him and your comfort level with each other, but was he just not sure if he wanted another (general manager’s) job yet? Maybe, there wasn’t another GM job offered yet.
A: I will say without getting too specific about Scott’s situation, I will say that Scott had opportunities and potential opportunities, that he could have been perceived as very beneficial for him. But this is where we wanted to be. He wanted to work with me, the Falcons, Arthur and Mike Smith, who he knows well over the years and Lionel Vital, who he knows very well. He believes that we have a good football team and that we can continue to be more and more successful. Scott feels that he can provide us with some very good insight in so many different ways. That’s why he wanted to be here. I would suggest that there is probably only one place in the National Football League where he would take an assistant general manager’s title and that was in Atlanta.
Q: Any update on a possible contract extension for Roddy White that has been widely speculated? In order to get a more cap friendly number for him and maybe Blalock?
A: I don’t want to comment on the specifics right now of any of their contracts obviously. But there is no question that we’d like Roddy to be back here. . .for the rest of his career.
Q: Are you in decent shape cap-wise?
A: We are in good shape cap-wise.
Q: Will it enable you to spend money in free agency? Can you quantify that?
A: Yes. We have a good situation as far as the cap space. We’re good from a cap standpoint as far as entertaining certain options in free agency. That doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to go big or go home. It does mean, however, that we’ll be very mindful of what may be out there and what may fit into our areas of need throughout our football team. Our feelings have always been that we can acquire through free agency, but we can also build through the draft. But we have to know where we can plug guys in who are ready to play right away.
Q: Since you have to make a decision in free agency before the draft, is there any way you can say where you are more likely to spend money?
A: I really can’t say that right now and that’s not me being evasive.
(PR guy and Schultz get into verbal scuffle. Something about ‘we’re not going to tell you’ and ‘it’s my job to ask questions.’ I get downfield and block the PR guy and get him out of the play.)
TD resumes: At this point, we don’t know which direction that we are going in free agency. We are really trudging forward in our discussions about it. Again, part of this had to do with how we compare that free agency group to what may be out there in the draft and taking all of that information and all of the financial implications of acquiring in free agency verses the draft and again being mindful of the readiness of the our roster to step up and play right away. That’s so important for us.
Q: Do you look at the Super Bowl teams and go wow, John Schneider made some smooth moves by getting Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett? Do you look at and admire John Elway’s pick-ups?
A: Anytime as a general manager, you look at some of your contemporaries and the ones that you truly respect. You’re always analyzing their system and their approach. We are all similar in certain ways and different in a number of other ways. It’s just a matter of what truly applies to team building. But there is no question that I respect both John Schneider and John Elway in their approach to building a football team. They approached it with aggressiveness and confidence which is something that I feel that we do here. We are very confident with our approach. We never look back and hesitate with our moves. We are usually very forward about what we are going to do as an organization. It’s something that I’m proud of.
Q: Where do you need impact players?
A: Offensively and defensively?
Q: Yes. Preferably by position or however you want to break it down.
A: There is no mystery here. We know that we need to continue to build along our fronts. We need to continue to focus on getting more gritty and more rugged in certain areas. That’s going to be important for us coming into the season. …We all know that this is a warrior game. We have to come to the line of scrimmage with that mentality. Mike Smith is a heck of a football coach and we’ve added two tough football coaches along both offensive and defensive lines. Now, we need to continue to look at personnel that is going to fit into our system.
Q: Did it become apparent last season that you all lacked that grittiness, toughness or warrior trait? Not, just on the field, but in the locker room?
A: I believe that we have some tough guys on this team. I believe that we have some guys, who have a lot of perseverance. There were a number of things that played into our 4-12 season. Along with that, we as an organization realize that we need to ramp up our ruggedness, not only the field, but off the field as well. …That’s very important.
Q: Does Jadeveon Clowney qualify as one of those players who could help you? Would you trade up for him?
A: All I will say is what everyone else knows in the country. J. Clowney . . .is a top notch talent. He’s going to make a team happy. He’s going to be a legitimate difference maker in this league. The people with the top two picks know that.
Q: In what scheme does he fit best?
A: He has the versatility to play in the 4-3 and 3-4. That is what makes him really interesting.
Q: Is there more uncertainty at the top of the draft? At six, does it make if difficult for you to determine if you have to trade up or sit at six?
A: I believe that this top 10 of the 2014 draft is a really top-notch group of football players. It’s going to be one of those drafts that you are going to get a lot of very accomplished football players from day one on the football field in the NFL out of this top 10. …you’re not going to be disappointed picking in the top 10.
Q: So you’re willing to sit at six and not trade up?
A: I’m willing to sit at six. I’m willing to trade up and trade back.
Q: All three possibilities. Are they equal?
A: That would be 33.3.
Q: So, that would be equal at this point?
A: Yes at this point. Ask me later.
Q: Like later today?
Q: Are the quarterbacks the wildcards in the top 10?
A: Sure they are. Quarterbacks are always wildcards in the top 10.
Q: You have friends in St. Louis and Jacksonville at two and three in the draft. How could that help the Falcons if you want to trade up?
A: We have already talked about the fact that we have two, (three) and six with Atlanta Falcons ties. Obviously, with Les (Snead of the Rams) being at two and Dave (Caldwell of Jacksonville) being at (three) and the Falcons being at six: this league is about having the right allies when you are trying to broker trades and that’s always a good thing. I’m excited about the opportunity to discuss with the other two teams.
Q: Will there be deals in top half of the draft before draft day?
A: There could be deals before draft day.
Q: Why would you make a trade the day before if you think the guy you want could be gone at two or three?
A: Ideally, you’d look beyond the clock and everything would roll and you’d decide. With the Julio (Jones 5-for-1 deal) we struck that about a day and a half early. You’ll definitely talk about compensation. It never truly comes to fruition until the day of the draft.