Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (23) breaks up a pass intended for Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) in the second half of an NFL football game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011. / John Amis/AP
Judging the Atlanta Falcons’ costly trade up for receiver Julio Jones will be simple.
If Jones ends up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it was worth it. If not, probably not.
The Falcons, who had the No. 1 seeding in the NFC playoffs last season before the Packers blew them out in the divisional round, are off to a shaky 2-2 start this season. So the deal hasn’t immediately made them better. But one-quarter of the way through Jones’ first season is not the time to judge the trade. That will have to wait several years.
But the exorbitant cost that aggressive General Manager Thomas Dimitroff paid to get Jones requires a high standard for success.
According to two scouts interviewed this week, Dimitroff has an excellent reputation amongst his scouting peers after quickly building a good team in post-Michael Vick Atlanta. He began his career as a college scout with Detroit in 1994 and learned about running a team from Bill Belichick as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003-07.
Dimitroff, now in his fourth season as Falcons GM, immediately set up his team well by resisting all trade offers and drafting quarterback Matt Ryan with his first pick, No. 3 overall in 2008. His hiring of coach Mike Smith in ’08 appears to have been a sound choice as well.
This year we also learned Dimitroff is willing to take the big risk. On draft day last April 28, he traded five picks for Jones, a big (6-2¾, 220 pounds) and gifted true junior from the University of Alabama. To draft Jones with the No. 6 pick overall, Dimitroff sent Cleveland two first-rounders (No. 27 overall this year and in 2012), a second-rounder (this year) and two fourth-rounders (one this year, one in 2012).
According to a draft trade value chart, the five picks Dimitroff traded add up to 1,766 points whereas the No. 6 pick overall was worth 1,600 points. In a report about the trade, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King said future picks are discounted 20 percent, so take 20 percent off the two 2012 picks and the total is 1,620. If you don’t discount the 2012 picks, the Falcons paid an extra later-third-rounder; if you do, an extra mid-sixth-rounder.
Regardless of the numbers, though, Dimitroff knows the trade was massively expensive. Five players, including two first-round picks, for one.
“It’s a substantial price to pay,” Dimitroff told King after the draft, “but we spread it over two years, and we’re still left with a three, a five, a six and three sevens this year. I want to emphasize this: I know the impression out there will be that we must think we’re one player away to have paid so much for one player. But that isn’t the case at all. We need more explosive playmaking, and this will help not only Matt but (receivers) Roddy White and Michael Jenkins and (tight end) Tony Gonzalez. We just decided to make an aggressive, bold move that we think will pay off for our team.”
The scale for grading the trade has to be especially high, though, because of Jones’ position. Paying that for a quarterback who ended up being good but not great is worth it. That position matters far more than the rest.
But for a receiver, or probably any other position, that price demands a premier performer to be considered a good deal. Any one of those five picks might have ended up being good or even great.
Packers GM Ted Thompson, for instance, picked Greg Jennings in the second round, and Jennings has become one of the best receivers in the game. Tight end Jermichael Finley was a third-round pick who has the kind of difference-making talent the Falcons are looking for from Jones. And in this year’s draft, Thompson selected another player late in the second round, Randall Cobb, who’s looking like a playmaker even if the Packers are breaking him in slowly because of their deep group of receivers.
To be sure, with a high first-round pick such as Jones, the Falcons were more likely to get the help immediately. And four games into his career, Jones already looks good. He’s tied for No. 11 in the NFL in receptions (24) and alone at No. 11 in receiving yards (342).
“He’s really big and strong,” said an NFL scout, “and for a bigger guy, once he catches the ball and turns up field he’s unbelievably explosive.”
But if observing the Packers over the past decade has taught anything, it’s the risks of trading picks for aggressive moves up in the draft.
Remember when former coach and GM Mike Sherman was moving up in drafts to get players he’d targeted? In 2003, he traded up three times, in essence spending six picks to draft Kenny Peterson (third round), James Lee (fifth round) and Hunter Hillenmeyer (sixth round). In 2004 he spent four picks to select B.J. Sander (third round) and Corey Williams (sixth-round).
The problem is, when you trade an extra pick for a player and he fails, you’ve missed on two picks. So when only Williams panned out amongst that group, the Packers’ roster suffered, and not that far down the road. Yes, there’s something to be said for more bites at the apple.
In Thompson’s six drafts he’s mostly stood pat or traded back, and his reward is maybe the best young roster in the NFL. Granted, the approach to draft trades doesn’t matter if you don’t select enough of the right players, no matter where you’re picking. But for the steep price, Dimitroff needs a home run with Jones.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.