Thomas Dimitroff's job hung in the balance. It was January of 2015, and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank was searching for a new head coach, refusing to make any promises about his general manager's status. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported at the time that the new coach would have a say in Dimitroff's future. Blank didn't realize that Dimitroff already had laid the foundation for a Super Bowl run with his 2014 draft class.
Dimitroff wound up keeping his gig with reduced power. New coach Dan Quinn was given control of the 53-man roster and reported directly to Blank. Scott Pioli, Dimitroff's close friend, assumed greater responsibility with the NFL draft and pro scouting. Dimitroff's status remained precarious after Quinn piloted the Falcons to an 8-8 season in 2015, requiring Blank to pen a statement after the season simply to say Dimitroff wasn't getting fired. His excellent working relationship with Quinn was cited as the primary reason. But the team's recent drafts should have been.
The 2016 Falcons proved once again how quickly NFL teams can hashtag rise up with a few good drafts, especially when a franchise quarterback is in place. Only six current starters were on the team in 2013. Dimitroff and Pioli unearthed 10 starters in the last three drafts, highlighted by Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman, Pro Bowl linebacker Vic Beasley and left tackle Jake Matthews. Nearly half of Atlanta's roster, 22 players on the active roster, were added to the team this season. That includes four rookie starters selected in the first four rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Fortunes can change fast on the field when teams stay patient off it. The Falcons soared this season partly because Blank didn't make wholesale changes in 2015, giving another chance to Dimitroff, the man who previously oversaw the greatest sustained success in team history. From the hot seat in June to a three-year contract extension in November, Dimitroff is back on top of the NFL executive mountain. Here's a look at how he and Pioli built this explosive roster:
Since Quinn's arrival, the Falcons have rebuilt their defense by valuing playing speed and energy above all other skills. Beasley, cornerback Jalen Collins, safety Keanu Neal, linebacker Deion Jones and linebacker De'Vondre Campbell are all "urgent" players drafted in the last two years who will start on Super Bowl Sunday. The defensive results didn't match Atlanta's potential for most of the season, but the young pieces augur better days ahead.
» That need for speed extends to the offense, as well. 2015 third-round running back Tevin Coleman, rookie tight end Austin Hooper and free-agent wide receiver pickups Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson are all burners. The Falcons have embraced their status as a dome team, and it's paying off in a postseason that will not include a game played outdoors.
» Finding three worthy starters in any draft cycle is considered a success. The Falcons might have found nine over the last two seasons, depending on how they view Coleman and upstart undrafted rookie cornerback Brian Poole. Dimitroff should be able to keep this core group together for a few more years.
» Gabriel is part of a ridiculously productive 2016 free agency crop. The Falcons found quality starters by spending big money (Alex Mack, Mohamed Sanu) and acquired key reserves on the cheap. The 36-year-old Dwight Freeney was Atlanta's best pass rusher in the NFC Championship Game. Gabriel, a castoff from Cleveland, was claimed off waivers in September before transforming into a big-play X-factor for the Falcons.
» There's no one way to build an offensive line. Guard Andy Levitre, who had a great 2016 season, was acquired via trade in 2015 from the Titans when his value was at an absolute low. The Falconsonly had to give up a sixth-rounder and a future conditional pick for him. Left tackle Jake Matthews was a top-10 pick. Center Alex Mack was a big-money free-agent pickup, while Chris Chester was a bargain-bin signing. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder, who arrived as an undrafted free agent, earned a big extension in November.
» It's crazy that only three current Falcons players predate the 2011 draft-day trade that netted Atlanta Julio Jones. Dimitroff will never make a more ambitious move than the deal that sent two first-round picks, a second-round pick and two fourth-rounders to the Browns for the right to draft one transformative talent. It's the type of transaction that can sink a career if the team bets on the wrong player. But Dimitroff has been right on the two biggest selections (Ryan and Jones) of his career. Dimitroff narrowly survived the ups and downs that have come since those picks, and now he's able to see his two best players reach the pinnacle of the sport.