HOUSTON -- Bill Belichick was talking, and the man on the other end was listening -- but the voice in Thomas Dimitroff's head kept telling him, loudly and resoundingly, to tune out the advice of a guy whose football acumen he revered.
It was April 28, 2011, and Dimitroff, the Atlanta Falcons' general manager, was sitting in a dorm room on the back side of the team's training facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia, in the midst of a lengthy telephone conversation with his former boss. The first round of the NFL draft was set for later that night, and Dimitroff had confided to Belichick, the New England Patriots' coach and chief powerbroker, that he was on the verge of making a blockbuster deal with the Cleveland Browns -- with Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones as his chief target.
As Dimitroff recalled in a recent interview, Belichick wasn't down with the plan. And as the one-time Patriots scout heard those discouraging words regarding a trade he felt could help vault Atlanta into the ranks of the NFL's elite -- and which, nearly six years later, is an inevitable subplot as the Falcons prepare to face the Pats in Super Bowl LI -- he knew in his heart he was likely to disregard them.
"It was an amazing discussion," Dimitroff remembered. "Bill was very open about it. He felt it was something he would not do. He said, 'Thomas, are you sure you want to do this? You're gonna be tied to this for the rest of your career.'
"We talked for 30 or 40 minutes. I remember coming back around at the end, saying, 'All due respect -- if and when you see we're gonna pull the trigger on this tonight, your words didn't fall on deaf ears.' And in my mind I was thinking, F--- it: We're doing this. It was surreal. Here's a Hall of Fame coach and team-builder telling me not to do it, and I'm doing this anyway!"
Sure enough, when the Browns were on the clock with the sixth overall pick, Dimitroff made the trade, sending Cleveland his first-round selection (27th overall) and second- and fourth-round picks in 2011, along with first- and fourth-round choices in 2012. And Jones, who had a monster outing in the Falcons' NFC Championship Game drubbing of the Green Bay Packers and has long been one of the league's elite offensive players, is the gift that keeps on giving.
Over the past three seasons, Jones has averaged 108 receptions for 1,624 yards and seven touchdowns. He has proven to be a special player -- which, for all of Belichick's personnel expertise, is something the Patriots coach clearly did not see coming.
Though Belichick didn't disparage Jones' abilities to Dimitroff, he did reveal his thoughts to author Michael Holley, whose book, "War Room," included a detailed breakdown of the episode:
"Belichick has a couple good reasons for his analysis and he's willing to share. He often says that the primary job of a receiver is to simply get open and catch the ball, and he doesn't like what he sees from Jones in either department. He thinks the receiver struggles to get open on intermediate routes, doesn't play as fast as his superb timed speed suggests, and too often displays inconsistent hands. There's also the issue of value. When Belichick began studying the 2011 draft, he saw great depth at the receiver position. Why go all-out for someone like Jones when you can likely have a Jonathan Baldwin, who, as far as Belichick can see, is just as good if not better than Jones?"
Baldwin, selected by Kansas City with the 26th overall pick, would have an inglorious NFL career, catching 44 passes for 607 yards and two touchdowns in three seasons with the Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers.
It's probably safe to assume that someone in the Falcons organization has brought these old quotes from Belichick to Jones' attention during the walkup to Super Sunday -- something which, given the circumspect coach's notorious paranoia about providing potential bulletin-board material for an opponent, is a somewhat unexpected plot twist.
Then again, so was Atlanta's bold move in April of 2011, though Dimitroff had laid the foundation for the trade several weeks earlier. Still smarting from a 48-21 Divisional Round playoff upset at the hands of the Green Bay Packers, Dimitroff and then-coach Mike Smith began hatching a plan to land a game-breaking receiver to pair with perennial Pro Bowl wideout Roddy White.
"I remember at the outset of the process, thinking about the idea of getting up that far, and thinking, 'There's no f------ way,' " Dimitroff recalled. "But we had concluded we needed a big receiver to make our offense go. And I thought, if we could ever get a guy here who would keep defenses on their heels, whether he catch four balls or 14 balls ... that would be amazing."
Dimitroff believed that either Jones or former Georgia star A.J. Green would be worthy of such a gamble -- though he quickly (and correctly) became convinced that the Cincinnati Bengals, who picked fourth overall, had Green as their prime target.
"We had both receivers in our scope, understanding that, in our system, Julio was gonna be a better fit," Dimitroff said. "And all the intel I had gotten was that A.J. was going to Cincinnati, and when I'd called them they had no interest in a trade, which substantiated that. I had a really good pulse on what was gonna play out at the top of that draft."
Dimitroff reached out to then-Browns general manager Tom Heckert, whose team owned the sixth overall pick, and then-49ers GM Trent Baalke, whose franchise held the seventh overall selection, to see if they'd be receptive to the possibility of making a swap. As the draft neared, Dimitroff zeroed in on Cleveland's pick as his primary focus, and he found a willing partner in Heckert, with whom he had a long, trusting relationship.
"Our dads scouted together in Cleveland way back when," Dimitroff said of Heckert. "We'd known each other for a long, long time."
The night before the draft, Dimitroff and Heckert came to a tentative accord over the compensation package, agreeing that their mutual intent was to swing the deal when the Browns were on the clock the following night -- as long as either Jones or Green was still on the board.
"I started to get a little jumpy," Dimitroff recalled. "I remember calling Tom and saying, 'T, hey man, are we still in on this? We've been on this for two weeks. I thought that we had agreed.' And (Heckert) said, 'Nah, we're good.' And that goes back to having good relationships with people you can trust in those types of situations."
So Dimitroff went for a fast-paced bike ride in the streets surrounding his Buckhead home to calm his nerves, then ended up dialing Belichick to seek his counsel. And later that night, when the Browns were on the clock and Jones was still on the board, Dimitroff called Heckert and shook up the draft.
Then, he and the other three-dozen staffers in the Falcons' draft room waited for the news to be revealed and excitedly anticipated the television commentators' reactions.
"There are two big screens in there -- one tuned to NFL Network, the other to ESPN -- and we all stand up to wait for the reaction," Dimitroff recalled. "They show the trade, and everyone's clapping, and we can't wait to see our new draft pick projected to the world. And then [on ESPN, Jon] Gruden starts talking, and he's not loving it at all.
"We're thinking, 'They're gonna show this amazing athlete with so much potential,' and instead they show him dropping the ball -- it must have been about 10 drops in a row. It was rough. It was a 'wah wah wah' moment; there were a lot of people in our room who weren't thrilled."
It was easy at the time for people to rip the Falcons for overextending, but most NFL talent evaluators -- Belichick being an obvious exception -- understood Jones' appeal. At the time, I quoted an AFC front office executive who described Jones as "a faster Anquan Boldin" and thought, That would be pretty damn good. (On Wednesday that executive, current Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht, gave me permission to use his name in this story.)
Despite the impressive haul of picks, the Browns failed to land a player whose impact has been even close to that of Jones. They drafted defensive tackle Phil Taylor, wide receiver Greg Little and fullback Owen Marecic in 2011, and quarterback Brandon Weeden the following spring, using the 2012 fourth-rounder to move up to select running back Trent Richardson in the first round. Only Weeden, a Houston Texans third-stringer, and Taylor, who signed last month with Washington and has not played in a game since 2014, remain on an NFL roster.
Suffice it to say that Dimitroff is glad he went with his instincts, even after a future Hall of Fame coach urged him to proceed with caution.
"Half the league thought I scored," Dimitroff recalled. "The other half thought I had my head up my ... And looking back, maybe I didn't expect the fallout that Bill was alluding to.
"In my mind, this was a once-in-a-career move. We had a lot of young guys we were still developing and were on the verge of breaking through. We said, 'This is the time, if we're gonna do something monumental like this, it should be now.' And we felt like we needed to go after it."