By Kelsey Conway
A month before the 2019 NFL Draft, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff was very matter-of-fact when discussing the upcoming draft plans with team owner and chairman Arthur Blank.
Dimitroff told Blank to expect two offensive linemen to be drafted in the first three rounds, preferably rounds one and two and specifically a guard and a tackle.
“I had told Arthur as we were acquiring our two free agent guards, Jamon Brown and James Carpenter, that no matter what we did in free agency we were not going to be dissuaded from acquiring young talent in the draft at the offensive line position, specifically the guard position,” Dimitroff said.
So, while the selection of guard Chris Lindstrom with the 14th overall pick might have surprised some outside the walls of the team’s facility, it was the exact plan Dimitroff laid out for how he hoped the night would go.
From the start of the pre-draft process in January until late April, Dimitroff said they had about eight to 10 guards stacked on their front draft board and those were the prospects they really “honed in” on.
I personally felt I would never put this team in that situation again where, God forbid, we had injuries [and] that we were limited in overall depth at the position, especially interior. We were going to make sure we had a rotation there that was going to be legitimate and accomplished. Thomas Dimitroff
After a season in which Atlanta finished 7-9 and missed the postseason, everything was on the table. The Falcons’ offensive line was in need of a makeover this offseason.
"I’m comfortable at center and left tackle in the same way as you said,” Quinn said following the season. “Past that, you scrub every bit of it”
The Falcons struggled to protect quarterback Matt Ryan as he was sacked 42 times – the second most in his career – in 2018. Atlanta’s run game was also never able to flourish in the way they hoped, finishing the year as the 27th ranked rushing unit in the league.
Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn knew how critical this offseason would be in terms of addressing their needs.
Offensive line wasn’t the only positional need, though. Dimitroff and Quinn heavily weighed the options of taking a defensive lineman in the first round as well.
“We were very honed in on the defensive line as well,” Dimitroff said.
So were other teams, however, as seven defensive linemen were picked in the 13 picks ahead of Atlanta, the last being defensive end Rashan Gary to the Packers at No. 12 and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins to the Dolphins at 13.
At that point the Falcons knew where they were going with their first pick – and that was Lindstrom.
Dimitroff wanted to rebuild Atlanta’s offensive line with players who are quick, athletic, tough and play with a sense of urgency. Lindstrom certainly checks all of those boxes.
“Highly competitive, highly tough and highly urgent as an athlete” is how Dimitroff would describe his first thoughts after watching hours of film on Lindstrom.
From watching Lindstrom up close at the Senior Bowl to watching him test at the combine to a private workout at Boston College, Dimitroff found himself wanting to see more of Lindstrom.
Ahead of the draft, the Falcons brought a contingent of coaches to work Lindstrom out. In addition to Dimitroff, Quinn and Scott Pioli, now former assistant general manager, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, offensive line coach Chris Morgan, assistant offensive line coach Bob Kronenberg and strength and condition coach Jesse Ackerman were all in attendance.
Lindstrom said after the Falcons put him through the workout and interview, it just “felt different” than any other workout he had done to that point.
He was a guy I kept coming back to study more video of [and] do more research on. Similar to other really important first and second round draft picks over the years, he was in that same boat. Thomas Dimitroff
“He was a guy I kept coming back to study more video of [and] do more research on,” Dimitroff said. “Similar to other really important first and second round draft picks over the years, he was in that same boat.”
The Falcons’ 2018 season was ravaged by injuries, especially at the guard position. Both starting guards Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco were placed on injured reserve during the season and the injuries didn’t stop there. Starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen both suffered season-ending injuries in the first month of the season and starting middle linebacker Deion Jones missed 10 games with a foot injury.
After watching how the season unfolded with so many injuries to key players, Dimitroff made a vow to himself and the organization that he would never put the team in a position where they are without depth at key positions.
“I personally felt I would never put this team in that situation again where, God forbid, we had injuries [and] that we were limited in overall depth at the position, especially interior,” Dimitroff said. “That we were going to make sure we had a rotation there that was going to be legitimate and accomplished.”
Dimitroff accomplished that feat this offseason with the additions of Lindstrom, Brown, Carpenter and the selection of Kaleb McGary in the first round. The Falcons traded back into the first round of the draft to select McGary out of the University of Washington.
And while it’s too early to tell how exactly Atlanta’s starting offensive line will shake out, it appears Lindstrom is well on his way to solidifying a starting spot. Jake Matthews and Alex Mack will be the only two players along the offensive line who started every game for the Falcons in 2018. After that, it will be a full-blown competition for starting roles during training camp amongst several talented players – exactly how Quinn likes it.
Morgan has spent the most time with Lindstrom since his arrival in Atlanta and the longtime position coach has been pleased with what he’s seen from Lindstrom in the short period of time.
He’s made of the right stuff. Chris Morgan
Lindstrom has enjoyed his brief time with the Falcons just as much as his coaches are enjoying teaching him.
If he continues to progress the way he has so far, Quinn and Dimitroff will enter their fifth season together knowing they not only have a vastly improved offensive line, but their selection of Lindstrom could give them a potential long-term starter at the right guard position for years to come.
“It’s been absolutely incredible,” Lindstrom said. “I’m playing for a great organization. In an offensive line room with a great group of guys and I’m really thankful for that. If you’re passionate about something and you want to get better at it and you’re in a great environment like this, there’s nothing better in the world and I’m enjoying every second of it.”