MOBILE, Ala. — There will be dinners at a fancy steak house, player interviews with the aid of a high-tech gadget and a hiring that could have a profound influence on the future of his front office. But the best part of Senior Bowl week to Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is the opportunity to "sniff in the pits" on the practice fields.
As the GM of the coaching staff for the North squad, Dimitroff has the privilege of walking the field for both teams during Senior Bowl practices. Dimitroff shared some of his time with Bleacher Report to explain the Senior Bowl experience through the eyes of a general manager.
Dimitroff never had been a part of a staff that has coached one of the Senior Bowl teams. So he is taking this in completely, with all of his senses. He quietly walks behind a huddle on the field, inconspicuous as a water boy. And then he listens.
After one play, Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice admonishes a player for taking a wrong step. The player snaps back at Tice, justifying what he did. Dimitroff takes note, and wonders about how accountable and respectful the player will be once he gets to the NFL.
"I like to wander in behind them, unbeknownst to them, and gauge how they interact, gauge how they are when they come off the field," he said. "See how they interact with the coaches. When the coaches aren't around, are they mumbling or carrying on with their teammates? Are they focused? I'll never have an opportunity like this to sniff in the pits with these guys. So I want to take advantage of the opportunity that is rare."
It is a particular advantage to see interaction between these prospects and Dimitroff's own coaches during the North team practices, because part of what he is doing is projecting how these players would fit in as Falcons.
"The last thing we want is soft souls on the offensive line with Mike Tice coaching them," Dimitroff said. "It's not going to work. He's going to expect a lot of these guys. And it's a big part of why we are excited about having him on staff. We know he will inject that element of playing with grittiness."
Dimitroff is all over the place during practice. Behind the offensive formation. Over the defensive backfield. On the sidelines. Wherever he might learn. At one point during special teams drills, Iowa State punter Kirby Van Der Kamp shoos him out of the end zone so he can attempt a punt with the ball backed up against the goal line.
Now he is behind the offensive formation. He points to Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin leading the pack as the offense runs to the line. Dimitroff is impressed. "He's a 100 percent guy," Dimitroff said. "He carries himself like a professional football player should. He is focused. He is alert. He has natural leadership qualities. He's been a fun guy to watch. Not only is he adept with his craft on the field, but the way he approaches it."
Dimitroff also is zoning in on how Martin and the other offensive linemen move during drills with Tice. He points to Clemson offensive tackle Brandon Thomas and notes his ability to keep his rear end down when he comes out of his stance. When it's Seantrel Henderson's turn, Dimitroff says he likes the way the Miami offensive tackle moves his feet and can slide and redirect quickly.
He speaks over grunts, hoots, whistles and the thud of massive men colliding. Dimitroff believes there is a particular benefit to being so close to the action when evaluating defensive linemen. "You see how they truly leverage and you can assess their strength at the point of attack, how they split a double team," he said. "To me, there is nothing like getting down there and watching it live."
Dimitroff points at Ra'Shede Hageman of Minnesota. He is one defensive tackle who has shown the ability to leverage. Another is Princeton's Caraun Reid, who really wasn't prominent on many team's radars before this week.
It isn't easy to get quality, live looks at players in practices prior to All-Star season. Many college teams have restrictions on how much practice scouts can see. Most college coaches won't run man one-on-one drills after training camp. And executives like Dimitroff are spread thin during the season, so they often don't often have time to sit through long practices only to evaluate a few draft-eligible players.
This, however, is a different experience. For Dimitroff, it is the most controlled atmosphere for evaluation available. The daily one-on-ones—one good prospect going against another—are invaluable.
To take in everything that is happening during a practice, Dimitroff would need about five pairs of eyes. So he studies the one-on-ones and other elements of practice each day between practices on videotape in a room the Senior Bowl has set up for NFL scouts.
The advent of high-definition technology has made videotape more revealing than ever for talent evaluators, but Dimitroff still believes there are advantages to seeing the player with the naked eye. He likes what his eyes tell him about the movement skills of Louisville pass-rusher Marcus Smith, who, he points out, stays compact when he bends and turns the corner. And he nods his head in appreciation when Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Justin Ellis moves his 342 pounds as if he were a mere 300-pounder.
In particular, Dimitroff finds it easier to assess speed in person. "You can see the body control, the efficiency of movement, the power coming out of breaks," he said. "The explosiveness is right in front of you as they gather themselves and break off a route. You can see how they are running with the other ostensible top-speed guys in the NCAA."
He likes the way Utah State cornerback Nevin Lawson runs with little wasted motion. He points to another cornerback whose long limbs make him a less efficient runner. It becomes apparent, he says, in the one-on-ones against quick receivers.
Shortly after he says this, Dimitroff has to show off some speed of his own. The general manager has to scramble out of the end zone to avoid getting run over by Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon, who is trying to defend a deep pass.
Dimitroff also believes there is a benefit to watching throwing velocity in person as opposed to on tape. Quarterback footwork and mechanics, you can see that on tape. But velocity is different. He appreciates the way Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas spins the ball.
Perspective is required, however, when watching these magnificent skills. Dimitroff does not want to become intoxicated with a player based on one week. "In the end, it's about all of the experiences, evaluating the player as a sophomore, junior and senior," he said. "It's not just about one All-Star Game. There is no question you can misevaluate because of a high or low performance here."
That being said, Senior Bowl performances have sold Dimitroff on players in the past. Just one year ago, Dimitroff's opinion of Robert Alford was swayed by Alford's week in Mobile. Dimitroff wanted to see if Alford, who played at Southeastern Louisiana, could run, jump and compete with players from the football factories. Not only did Alford perform well, but he "oozed swagger," in Dimitroff's words. The Falcons took him in the second round.
General managers get a feel for confidence, football intelligence and character during Senior Bowl interviews. For most of them, it is their first chance to have personal interaction with prospects. Dimitroff delays most of his interviews until Thursday and Friday, after about 90 percent of the front-office men from other teams will be gone.
Players are pulled in a lot of directions on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, when more than a thousand scouts and coaches are vying for their time. Dimitroff learns all he needs to know about one prospect when one of his employees asks the kid to interview and is told no. "This is my me time," the player said. As far as the Falcons are concerned, draft day could be his "me time" as well.
When Dimitroff conducts interviews, he uses a touchscreen app on his iPad. On the screen in front of him are about 60 words, such as "brazen," "sincere," "intelligent," "spacey" and "boring" that can be tapped to describe the young man. When he is speaking with Stanford pass-rusher Trent Murphy on Monday, he presses the word "respectful." "He's a look-you-in-the-eye guy with a good strong handshake," Dimitroff said. "Communicative, polite."
When Dimitroff is sniffing in the pits another day and a scuffle breaks out, he notes it is Murphy who comes over and tries to break it up, talking calmly to the offensive player who is riled up.
The player-evaluation process is the most important part of Senior Bowl week, but it's just a fraction of the experience for a general manager.
On Tuesday, negotiations commenced for the Falcons to hire Scott Pioli as assistant general manager. Dimitroff and Pioli have a long history as co-workers and compadres, having worked together for seven years with the Browns and Patriots. Pioli, the former general manager of the Patriots and Chiefs, can give the Falcons a strong voice in the draft room that is capable of challenging Dimitroff. They had been talking about joining forces again ever since Pioli was let go by the Chiefs, and Pioli previously had met with Falcons owner Arthur Blank.
Dimitroff and Pioli have dinner at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse on Tuesday to finalize their agreement. They talk until about 10:15 p.m., then go back to their hotel. They wrap up their conversation with another phone call at 11:45 p.m. Pioli signs his contract at 7:30 on Wednesday morning, and the Falcons announce the deal. After Dimitroff's morning workout (a 35-minute jog through the streets of Mobile and 1,000 push-ups) there is a press conference at Ladd-Peebles Stadium and an interview on the set of NFL Network.
Blank also swoops into town Wednesday, so Dimitroff spends a good chunk of his day with the boss. They walk the field together during practice, with Dimitroff filling in Blank on players he likes and doesn't like. They observe drills together and make note of individual performances. "It's good for an owner to see what some of his next big investments are going to be," Dimitroff said. "It was a good chance for him to get up close and personal."
Between practices, Dimitroff and Blank have lunch at the Mellow Mushroom along with Pioli, Vital, college scouting director Steve Sabo, pro scouting director DeJuan Polk and director of operations Nick Polk.
Exchanging ideas and thoughts and fraternizing is a part of Senior Bowl week for these men as well. On Monday, Dimitroff has dinner at Ruth's Chris with Caldwell and Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley. On Tuesday, he is back at the same restaurant with Rams general manager Les Snead and Caldwell. He dines three straight nights at the steak house, and a morsel of beef never passes his lips. He does enjoy the seafood, however.
He meets others for a coffee or a beer. Dimitroff always is trying to learn, and he appreciates hearing the ideas and opinions of others. He and Jaguars pro personnel director Chris Polian have a good discussion at a coffee house about how difficult it is to have a quarterback whose high salary squeezes the middle class on the roster. He finds great insight from Polian, who went through it when he was the general manager of the Colts during the Peyton Manning years.
During many of his conversations, Dimitroff is interrupted by a pat on the back, a, "Hey Thomas," or an extended hand. One of the joys—and challenges—of Senior Bowl week is reconnecting with so many familiar faces. Another distraction pops up every few feet, it seems. As Dimitroff takes a bite of his Margherita pizza at Joe Cain's, an old friend from the scouting circuit stops by and they share a chuckle about the game on Saturday.
Between 20 and 30 people ask him about jobs during his week. He has nothing for them. "If something comes up, remember me," they say as he hustles off. "I want to be respectful to everyone, but I've learned to be a little more evasive, try to get to where I'm going and move along fairly quickly," he said.
Agents swarm him as well. About 30 of them have some kind of discussion with him within the course of the week. They want to tell him about a small college kid he never heard of. They want to sell him on a veteran who is scheduled to be a free agent. They want to start negotiating deals for Falcons with expiring contracts. They want to make sure he saw the great play their client made in practice earlier that day.
As he is talking about agents, one of them approaches him with an index card. On it is a printed list of his draft-eligible clients, along with his contact information.
"Give me a call if you want to know more," the agent says.
Then there are media responsibilities. In addition to the press conference, Dimitroff gives about 10 interviews, many of which are set up by Falcons PR men Reggie Roberts and Brian Cearns.
Game day is anticlimactic for Dimitroff. He watches most of his team's loss on the sideline, where he stands close enough to the players to know which ones didn't use deodorant before the game. He notes how the defensive linemen as a group are very attentive to assistant coach Bryan Cox. And he loves to see the fire in the eyes of Martin as he comes off the field.
As inestimable as this week has been, Dimitroff is looking forward to getting back in his office in Flowery Branch, Ga., closing the door, putting his feet on his desk and digesting everything that happened Senior Bowl week. He wants to collaborate with his coaches and scouts and get their opinions. He wants to hear a position coach's opinion versus a coordinator's opinion versus head coach Mike Smith's opinion versus a scout's opinion.
Dimitroff and the Falcons still are a long way from the draft. But they got a lot closer to it during Senior Bowl week.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.