Lions GM candidates: Thomas Dimitroff

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Thomas Dimitroff is an experienced candidate that the Detroit Lions have interviewed to fill their GM job. Here is why.

The Detroit Lions fired their head coach and general manager a few weeks ago. They have not spent the time since sitting on their butts and waiting, as they seemed to have in 2015 after firing Martim Mayhew midseason. They have interviewed several candidates in the interim. Yesterday, I profiled former Texans GM Rick Smith, but he is far from the only experienced candidate the Lions have interviewed. Today I will look at another of the premier candidates for the job: former Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

Dimitroff has a special place in my heart because he started his career in the CFL. He was Canadian scouting coordinator for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1990 and 1991. He moved on to the World League of American Football in 1992, tracking player transactions. He also coached a team in Japan. Then he joined the Cleveland Browns grounds crew during the Belichick era in Cleveland while working part-time as a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs. In 1994 he joined the Detroit Lions as an area scout, and he stayed with the team until 1997. He went back to the Browns as a college scout until 2001.

In 2002, Dimitroff joined the New England Patriots under Belichick and Scott Pioli, who has also interviewed with the Lions recently for the GM job. He was a national scout in 2002 and moved to their director of college scouting position from 2003 to 2007. In 2008, Dimitroff became the Atlanta Falcons GM, and he held that position until he was fired five weeks into the 2020 season.

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Dimitroff as Director of College Scouting

The 2002 draft was a very good one for the New England Patriots. they had only six picks, and they selected three players who went on to play over 100 games in the league. tight end Daniel Graham was not worth the first-round pick they spent, but he did play 148 games in the league. Wide receiver Dion Branch played 140 games in the NFL. He logged 518 catches, 6644 yards, and 39 TDs during his 10-year career. That’s exactly the kind of career you hope to get out of a second-round pick. Defensive end Jarvis Green became a valuable depth player and spent eight years in the league.

The Patriots made ten selections in the 2003 draft. Their first and second-round picks: defensive end Ty Warren and safety Eugene Wilson both became immediate starters and played for a long time. Fourth-round CB Assante Samuel had 51 interceptions over the course of his career. Center Dan Koppen was a stalwart in the middle of more than one Superbowl championship-winning team. Seventh-round pick Tully Banta-Cain stuck in the league for 113 games. Of the ten picks, only one played less than three seasons in the NFL, which is a solid draft class by any reasonable standard. Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury was the Patriots sixth-round selection in this draft. He retired as a player in 2005.

New England’s 2004 draft started with a bang. They made two first-round selections. Vince Wilfork and Ben Watson played 189 and 205 games, respectively. Both were key components to Patriots Superbowl runs before moving on to other organizations later in their careers. The rest of this draft was a train wreck. Of the remaining six picks the Patriots made, only one played even 15 games in the NFL.

The 2005 draft was kinder to the Patriots. All-Pro Guard Logan Mankins was the first-round pick. Third-round selection corner Ellis Hobbs started 49 games for the Patriots before he left in free agency. Nick Kaczur was also a third-rounder and started 62 games for the Patriots. fourth round corner James Saunders became a valuable special teamer and played in 114 NFL games, 84 with the Pats. The Pats also pulled future Chiefs starter and future Detroit Lion Matt Cassel out of the seventh round. Their sixth and other seventh-round selection never played an NFL game.

Dimitroff’s department had a rough 2006 as well. Lawrence Maroney was a very good player, but his career was cut short by a string of injuries. The rest of this draft, ten picks in total, yielded a couple of reliable backup/special teams/spot starter type guys in TE David Thomas and DE Jeremy Mincey, but Mincey’s career didn’t actually start until 2007… in Jacksonville. The Pats drafted a kicker in the fourth round. While Stephen Gostkowski has been a spectacular kicker, some will take issue with the selection being made at all.

In Dimitroff’s final season in New England, 2007, the Patriots draft was a disaster. Safety Brandon Merriweather started 80 games in the NFL for the Patriots, Bears, Washington, and the Giants. He had 12 interceptions in three years as the Pats started strong safety before leaving in free agency. None of the other eight players the Patriots selected played 50 games in the NFL. Five of them played in fewer than five games total in the NFL.

Dimitroff was not the person making the selections in New England. Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick were the brain trust that chose the players. With that said, of the six draft classes Dimitroff was involved in, there are three drafts that were abysmal failures. The Patriots were famous for trading back in the draft and making a huge number of day three selections hoping to hit on a few diamonds in the rough. The Pats’ first-round picks all made impacts or got hurt, but after that, it’s sketchy, to say the least. What is far more important, though, is Dimitroff’s 12-1/3 years as the Atlanta Falcons GM.

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Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons GM

Dimitroff took over an Atlanta Falcons team that was coming off the weirdest season I can recall. The 2007 Falcons had hired college coach Bobby Petrino, to revolutionize the NFL with quarterback Michael Vick. Vick. For those of you too young to have seen him play before the 2007 season, Vick was basically Lawrence Jackson with Patrick Mahomes’ arm. Unfortunately, he was also heavily involved in funding and running a dogfighting ring in his spare time, which came to light shortly after the Falcons traded his backup Matt Schaub to the Texans in 2007. HERE is a 54-minute highlight reel for your viewing pleasure that only covers the first five seasons of Vick’s career. He was the best Madden cheat code since Barry Sanders. Petrino quit midseason, the Falcons won 4 games, and owner Arthur Blank cleaned the entire rotten house out. Before the Vick news destroyed the entire organization, the Falcons had been considered the favorites to win the NFC South by many pre-season hype machines.

Dimitroff hired a hot defensive-minded coaching candidate, Mike Smith, as his first head coach. Among the players he released immediately was Bucs offensive coordinator and possible 2020 Lions head coach candidate Byron Leftwich. He signed free agents running back Michael Turner (6081 rushing yards in five seasons as a Falcon after a career-high 501 in San Diego) and Safety Erik Coleman, who became immediate starters for the Falcons’ new offensive and defensive schemes. He traded pro-bowl corner Deangelo Hall for second and fourth-round picks because he was not going to fit the team’s new scheme.

At the 2008 draft, Dimitroff started his tenure by picking Matt Ryan, the quarterback that has been the Falcons’ starter ever since and is likely hall of fame bound. He also traded back into the first to take tackle Sam Baker, who started, though not extremely well. In the second round, he took Curtis Lofton, a heavy-hitting linebacker out of Alabama who put in a decent career as a solid starter. Free safety Thomas Decloud was a third-round pick. He started for the Falcons from 2009-13 and tallied 14 INTs. He also picked up 100+ game ST/backups in wide receiver Harry Douglas, a great WR3 and spot starter who peaked in 2013 with an 85 catch, 1067 yard season for the Falcons, and linebacker Kroy Bierman; who was with the Falcons until 2015. The Falcons went 11-5 in Dimitroff’s first season; they lost in the wildcard round of the playoffs.

The 2009 draft is hard to judge. The first-round pick, defensive tackle Peria Jerry, is a bust. He never really did anything but coast on his name recognition in the NFL. Seventh-round DT Vance Walker, however, played 104 games, 58 with the Falcons. Safety William Moore in the second round was the only player in the group of 8 picks that made any real impact in the league. The rest just made the roster during their rookie contracts and then went away, as most NFL players do. Only Spencer Adkins in the sixth round played fewer than 49 games in the league. It was not a good draft, but it was not terrible either. The Falcons also officially cut Vick in 2009, and they signed hall of fame tight end Tony Gonzalez to round out the receiver corp. They moved on from ex-patriot Lawyer Malloy to make room for Moore in the secondary. The team went 9-7, as Matt Ryan missed time with a turf toe injury and had a bit of a sophomore slump otherwise. The Falcons were entrenched as a solid team only two seasons after the mess that was 2007.

Sean Weatherspoon was looking great in Atlanta beside Curtis Lofton until he started getting injured. He never really came all the way back, but two years into his career, he looked like an all-pro in the making. He was the Falcons first-round pick in 2010, and he did play 67 games, but it’s an unfortunate story of a supreme athlete not being able to stay healthy. The Falcons second-round pick, Corey Peters, is still playing for the Cardinals and has started 121 games in the NFL. He had 46 tackles and 5 sacks in 2014, but he has served as the anchor in the middle of numerous terrifying defensive fronts. Fourth-round pick. interior offensive lineman Joe Hawley was a solid backup and a not as solid starter for 91 games before he retired in 2018. The rest of the picks were special teams contributors who played between 12 and 52 games in the NFL. Three guys who start multiple seasons and a few ST guys is a decent but not great draft. Cornerback Daunta Robinson was the only big free-agent addition of the season, and he started for the Falcons in 47 games over his three years in Atlanta. He was a middling starter for the Falcons, who signed a huge, at the time, 6 year $54 million deal. Robinson was more known for illegal hit fines than great cornerback play. The Falcons went 13-3 with a healthy Ryan and eight other pro bowlers. They won Dimitroff’s first division title as a GM. They lost to the Packers in their Divisional playoff game, however.

The Falcons went 10-6 and dropped the wildcard playoff game against the eventual Superbowl champion Giants in 2011. They let DE Jamaal Anderson walk in free agency and tried to replace him with the Vikings Ray Edwards, who never really amounted to anything in Atlanta. The Draft was where Dimitroff made his mark. The Julio Jones trade was the subject of a lot of raised eyebrows. The Falcons moved up to pick six from pick 27. It cost them pick 27 and their 2012 first-round pick. Jones has been a spectacular player for the Falcons, so in hindsight, it is hard to fault Dimitroff. The pick the Falcons originally had ended up being used by the Kansas City Chiefs to select wide receiver, Jonathan Baldwin. The next wide receiver taken was Titus Young of the Detroit Lions. Randall Cobb and Torrey Smith also went in the second round, but the dropoff between those players and the obvious first ballot hall of farmer Jones is immense. There was one stud receiver in that draft, and Dimitroff identified what he needed and got him. The Falcons also took Akeem Dent, a 90 game NFL player, Jaquizz Rogers, who played 110 games as a third-down back, and kicker Matthew Bosher who made it 110 games in the league.

In 2012 Dimitroff signed Assante Samuel from the Philadelphia Eagles, who he had likely been instrumental in finding for the Patriots late in the 2002 draft. He also signed Lofa Tatupu to replace Curtis Lofton. Samuel had five interceptions in his first year with the Falcons before injuries cost him five games in 2013, which was his final year in the league. The Falcons jumped back to the top of the NFC South, and they won their first playoff game under Dimitroff but fell two points short of beating current Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. The draft was terrible. The Falcons drafted six players, and none of them made it to 50 games. They didn’t have a first-round pick because of the Jones trade, but this was Dimitroff’s worst draft by far. He missed on a center and a tackle in rounds two and three. Every player he drafted was out of the NFL in 2015, only three years later. 

And that disastrous draft class is likely a big part of why the Falcons went 4-12 in 2013. The 2013 offseason saw Dimitroff singing Stephen Jackson, the Rams standout running back, and defensive end Osi Umenyiora from the Giants. Dimitroff left CB Brent Grimes walk in free agency after a year that had limited the diminutive but effective corner to only one game. Grimes was still starting in the league in 2018 at 35 years old and recorded 20 interceptions after leaving the Falcons, but you can understand why Dimitroff moved on from a 30-year-old corner coming off a serious injury. Grimes is an interesting case study because he shows how Dimitroff did not bring the Patriot way with him to Atlanta. Grimes does not meet any of the Patriots’ metrics for a draftable player. At 5’9″ and 177lbs, Grimes is too small. He only ran a 4.57 at his pro day. He was an undrafted free agent who had joined the Falcons the year before Dimitrioff came on board. and spent that season with the Hamburg Sea dogs of NFL Europa and then the Falcons practice squad. That’s an incredibly easy player to walk away from for a new GM, but Dimitroff gave the kid a chance. He was rewarded with a corner that kept several of Dimitroff’s draft picks off the field with his play. Dimitroff took Desmond Trufant in round one, and until this year with the Lions, Trufant was a pretty good player. Robert Alford was on the roster until 2019, but the second-rounder never took a starting corner role. Levine Toilolo, the Falcons fourth-rounder at tight end, has made a career as a blocking specialist. Safety Kamal Ishmael started several games for the Falcons, and in 2014 he put up five interceptions. He wasn’t a legitimate starter, but in spot duty, he was good enough to hold onto a roster spot until 2020. The other fourth, fifth, and two seventh-round picks never really did anything of note. Paul Worrilow, who later joined the Lions as a free agent, was a Dimitroff undrafted free agent signing who started at inside linebacker in 2014 and 2015 for the Falcons.

The 2014 season was Mike Smith’s final year in Atlanta. Dimitroff game his head coach the benefit of the doubt after the team was decimated by injuries in 2013. The reward for patience was a 6-10 season. Dimitroff drafted Jake Matthews, who has been a relatively very good starter for the team at left tackle. Ra’Shede Hageman has been a good player, but he lost the 2017 and 2018 seasons to a suspension due to a domestic abuse charge. After another suspension for substance abuse, the Falcons moved on in January of 2020. Devonta Freeman was a solid draft pick in the fourth round. He put up two 1000 yard seasons for the Falcons before injuries took away his explosiveness. He is still in the league, but he’s clearly washed. Still, two pro bowl seasons from a fourth-round running back sounds great to a Lions fan right now. Ricardo Allen, a 5’9″ safety, has started 75 games for the Falcons, and Dimitroff grabbed him in round five. He has outlasted Dimitroff in Atlanta. The Falcons cut Asante Samuel, and Tony Gonzales retired. Dimitroff spent in free agency. He brought in OL Gabe Carimi, defensive end Tyson Jackson, and return man Devin Hester in an effort to kick start the franchise. None of that mattered, and Dimitroff fired Mike Smith after the second losing season.

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Dimitroff After Some Serious Scheme Changes

Dimitroff’s second head coach hire was Dan Quinn. Quinn was a hot coaching candidate who had been the defensive coordinator in Seattle. This coaching staff included Kyle Shanahan, Raheem Morris, Matt LeFleur, Matt Lefleur. Shanahan is comfortable in San Francisco, but his assistant Robert Saleh is a candidate for the Lions’ head coaching position. Mike Lefleur is the head coach of the packers, and his brother Matt is rumored to be Saleh’s first choice for an offensive coordinator. Raheem Morris has been doing a spectacular job in Atlanta since Dimitroff and Quinn were fired earlier in the year, and it is very likely his name will pop up in a lot of head coaching interview lists. All of the 2012 draft class was gone. They were all now terrible scheme fits. But Dimitroff did not just pick up a bunch of Seattle rejects.

Dimitroff found scheme fits in players like Adrian Clayborne, a failed Buccaneers draft pick who played well enough for another team to poach him three years later after a 9.5 sack season with the Falcons. He also signed Justin Durant, a former Detroit Lion, to a three-year contract. In the draft, Dimitroff grabbed Vic Beasley in round one, and the college pass rusher who recorded 6 forced fumbles and 15.5 sacks for the Falcons in 2016 before Quinn decided to play him at an off-ball linebacker spot rather than as a dedicated pass rusher. Grady Jarrett, in the fifth round, was the best pick of this draft. Any time a GM finds a perennial pro-bowl level player in the fifth round, it’s a good draft. Dimitroff also found running back Tevin Coleman in the third, and he was a solid number two running back before leaving for San Francisco in free agency this season. Corner Jalen Collins in the second did not pan out, but Jarrett, Coleman, and Beasley make this an acceptable draft for Dimitroff. The Falcons climbed back to 8-8

In 2016, the Falcons had a massive lead against the Patriots in the Superbowl. That is pretty much the day things fell apart for Dimitroff in Atlanta. In free agency, the Falcons had signed Alex Mack at Center, Mohammad Sanu at wide receiver, and defensive end Dwight Freeney. They went all in and won their division at 11-5 and made it to the big game. For reference, when Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia went all in for the Lions, they got fired halfway through. In the draft, the Falcons grabbed future pro-bowlers Keanu Neal, Dion Jones, and Austin Hooper with their first three picks. As much as Dimitroff has had a few drafts that leave you scratching your head, this one was a masterpiece. Fourth-rounder De’vondre Campbell has not been a pro-bowl caliber player, but he is also a legitimate NFL starter. Sixth-rounder Wes Schweitzer grabbed the starting right guard spot in 2017 and has held it for most of the intervening four seasons. He’s not a world-beater, but that many snaps from a sixth-round pick is impressive. Dimitroff only made six selections, but five are unquestionably hits. After this season Shanahan, and much of the offensive staff, left for San Francisco.

The Falcons did not fall apart immediately. They went 10-6 in 2017, but that was third in their division. They still won a playoff game against the Rams in the Wildcard round. They picked up Dontari Poe, the belle of the nose tackle ball, on a cheap one year $8 million deal. Quinn chose Steve Sarkisian to replace Shanahan, which did not work out. Dimitroff did sign Desmond Trufant to a massive five-year contract extension despite the corner having missed eight weeks of the 2016 season with a pectoral injury. In the draft, the Falcons picked Takk McKinley, a player completely redundant with Vic Beasley. McKinley looked OK for his first two seasons as a situational pass rusher, but that is all he is. the more snaps he plays, the less impact he makes, apparently. Third rounder Duke Riley never really grabbed a starting spot, and he’s been in Philly since the four-game mark of the 2019 season. Fourth-round pick Sean Harlow has logged only one game… last week… That’s a bust. Fifth-round pick Damonte Kazee logged 10 sacks in two seasons over 2018-19 but was injured in week four of the 2020 season. Dimitroff’s second fifth-rounder, running back Brian Hill, has averaged over four yards per carry over his career. He has not been an every-down back, but he’s produced in his 235 touched in 4 seasons. Dimitroff blew the first two rounds completely, but the rest of this draft was solid. Unfortunately, you can’t blow the first two rounds of the draft as often as Dimitroff has and stay inside the brief window for a championship in the NFL.

The 7-9 2018 season was not what the Falcons expected. Dimitroff revamped the offense, drafting receiver Calvin Ridley in the first round, and while Ridley has developed into a very good receiver, his rookie season was up and down. He logged 10 touchdowns and 821 yards across from Julio Jones. Isaiah Oliver, the corner Dimitroff picked in round two, has been roughly equivalent to what Nevin Lawson was in Detroit. Large Tackle numbers for zone corners is not a good thing. He has one interception in three seasons. Deadrin Senat has only dressed for 22 games in three seasons. Sixth-round receiver Russell Gage has been asked to step in for an injured Julio Jones this season, and he’s had a better season than any of the Lions receivers in terms of production outside Marvin Jones Jr. starting only 7 games this year, Gage has 63 catches for 695 yards with one game to go. Seventh-round linebacker Foysade Olokun has started 13 games this season. He’s only got a high fifties PFF grade, and he’s made a ton of tackles, but when a seventh-rounder gets pressed into a starting role, that’s pretty good. Jalani Tavai has a PFF grade in the low 30s as a comparison for Lions fans.

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Why is Dimitroff Available?

I’ll not be going into the last two drafts; it’s too early to judge them. For salary cap reasons after going all-in to get to the Superbowl, the Falcons have hemorrhaged veteran talent for two seasons, and Steve Sarkisian was a terrible hire. Dimitroff tried to buy an offensive line to protect Ryan, but his budget was limited enough that he could not go after big names or retain his own good players. Dimitroff drafted plenty of offensive linemen, but they didn’t step into the starting role fast enough to save him. Dimitroff brought in Todd Gurley and TE Hayden Hurst to revamp the offense in 2020. He signed pass rusher Dante Fowler, corner Darqueze Dennard, and linebacker Deone Buchannon to revamp the defense. They went 7-9 again in 2019, and after starting the season 0-5, both Dimitroff and Quinn were fired. The Falcons have gone 4-6 since; they’re not a worse than slightly below average roster. Dimitroff ended up drafting to fill immediate needs, as most general managers do just before they get fired. If a third-round pick steps into a starting role almost every season, there is a problem with the team’s roster construction.

Dimitroff has been very good at acquiring offensive skill position players in both free agency and the draft. He hit on Matt Ryan, but that was not the lock it looks like now. The Dolphins QB group was Josh McCown and Chad Pennington, but they chose to wait until the second round to grab Chad Henne rather than select Ryan with the first overall pick they took offensive tackle, Jake Long. The Rams took pass rusher Chris Long despite the fact that they were starting 31-year-old journeyman quarterback Marc Bulger. Dimitroff does deserve some credit for not overthinking that pick. his wide receiver and running back pickups have almost all worked out, the Todd Gurley 2020 free agent singing being an obvious exception.

The blind spots Dimitroff has shown are important ones. He has not had a great record picking up offensive linemen, for example. Both in free agency and the draft, there are home runs and strikeouts in equal measure among his big men. His inability to grab pass rushers has been bafflingly predictable. Dante Fowler, Takk, McKinley, Vic Beasley (other than his one spectacular season), Dwight Freeny, who showed up for the Superbowl but not before, and even Clayborne, who eventually did have a good season, was on his third one year contract with the team.

Overall, Dimitroff was a good enough GM in Atlanta to build up a solid championship contention window with two different coaching staffs. In both cases, he went all in and paid the price a few seasons later. Dimitroff’s standard methodology is to build a great team and hold it together as long as he can. In recent Lions history, think of a Martin Mayhew whose high-end teams get three seasons of success rather than one. After a Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia led front office that was always taking care of three years from now and never actually building a good team for this season, Dimitroff’s approach might be a nice change for Lions fans.

Ash Thompson is an occasional blogger and substitute teacher in Canada. He is often present in the most intelligent Lions chat on the internet, which you can join for as little as $1 a month HERE.

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Ash Thompson
Ash Thompson is a fanatical football fan, and less fanatical hockey fan despite his Canadian heritage. He is sorry aboot that. His spirit animal is a beaver with a shark's head. He enjoys maple syrup and tacos, but never at the same time.