Flowery Branch, Ga. --Anyone looking through Thomas Dimitroff's recent draft classes can't help but notice the Falcons general manager prefers BCS Conference players in the early rounds.
The ACC, Pac-10, SEC, and Big 12 dominate the top of the Falcons' drafts under Dimitroff during his three years at the helm. Of the 10 players selected in the first three rounds of the last three Falcons drafts, Dimitroff has selected 8 players from those four conferences. There is no arguing the sentiment among NFL talent evaluators that performers at the nation's top football schools are the most NFL-ready of all draft prospects.
But look a little deeper and you'll see an extension of that philosophy toward the small-school player, a nod toward the old scouting theory that good football players are good football players, no matter what field they play on.
The classic example of Dimitroff's unearthing of tucked-away talent is his 2008 fifth-round selection of Montana defensive end Kroy Biermann. Already a fan favorite for his aggressive and persistent play, Biermann has seven sacks in his two seasons and could be on the verge of earning a starter's role in the upcoming season.
Last year Atlanta selected defensive end Lawrence Sidbury from Richmond and cornerback William Middleton from Furman in the fourth and fifth rounds. Sidbury served the team well on special teams and is expected to take another step forward in his sophomore season as a pass rusher.
Middleton fell victim to a numbers game in the secondary in training camp last season but was added to the Jacksonville Jaguars' regular-season roster, playing in 12 games as a rookie.
Building on the success of Dimitroff's first few Football Championship Subdivision draft hits, the 2010 Falcons rookie class is littered with players from schools the average fan is not familiar with.
Sixth-round draft choice Shann Schillinger is the second player from Montana Dimitroff has selected. Head Coach Mike Smith believes top-tier FCS programs like Montana and Richmond play championship-caliber football because they have players of the same ilk.
"They're not Division One programs, but they're very good programs," Smith said after a recent Atlanta rookie workout. "They have a lot of success and they've had a lot of very good athletes. The two universities are in the Football Championship Subdivision, they've been very successful, both Montana and Richmond. They've got some very good players. We've been very fortunate to add guys from the last few years from those programs and they've done a good job for us."
The Montana rookie believes it's not a matter of where you're from, but how you play.
"To me college football is college football," he said following a practice at last week's rookie minicamp. "Obviously the higher levels have better players and more of them, but at the smaller schools there are a lot of good players as well. There are a number of guys on this team that are from the FCS. To me college football is college football and it comes down to the simple things of getting lined up and playing football."
In addition to Schillinger, Atlanta added seven FCS players in the undrafted college free agent market, bringing their total to 11 on the current offseason roster.
One of Schillinger's new teammates, wide receiver Brandyn Harvey of Villanova, is already making his mark. A productive, play-making fifth-year senior for the FCS National Champion Wildcats, Harvey has turned heads through two minicamps.
"He's caught my eye," said Smith earlier this month. "He has very good length and height and has done some very good things catching the football."
Like many of his small-school brethren, Harvey isn't concerned with misconceptions.
"I guess some people could say they played against top notch players all the time and we only did every once in a while, but I don't really see it that way," the wide receiver said. "I think if you go out and compete every weekend then you'll get the best of everyone's abilities."
Harvey need only look around the room during position meetings to find another FCS success story. As fate would have it, he shares practice reps with a fellow undrafted Villanova wideout who ignored the small-school bias and hustled and gritted his way into the NFL. After 10 seasons (the last nine with Atlanta), over 200 receptions and nearly 3,000 yards, Brian Finneran no doubt sees a little of himself in the fledgling Harvey.
Dimitroff and his team of wide-scouring scouts are focused on their goal -- finding passionate, smart and talented players -- and no matter how remote the locale, how unheralded the conference affiliation or how junior the NCAA classification, Falcons personnel staffers will find you if you can flat out play.