Pre-draft season underway for Falcons

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 FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.-- In 2008, Falcons fans were introduced to "the process."

At what seemed like every press conference or interview, Head Coach Mike Smithpreached the step-by-step plan he and General Manager Thomas Dimitroffhad in place.

(The pair joked 2009 would start, for word diversity, "the course of action").

No matter the name, 2010 holds dear importance to the team, which has a chance to piece together unprecedented back-to-back-to-back winning seasons and return to the playoffs for the second time in three years.

The third leg of the process has already begun, with Smith passing the road map to Dimitroff for the pre-draft season.

While the two collaborate on personnel decisions, it's in the draft and free agency Dimitroff makes his mark.

"Mike Smith and I talk about it all the time: I operate off his schedule during the season and he operates more off mine during the offseason," Dimitroff said.

The offseason schedule began in earnest earlier this week when Dimitroff, Smith and most of the coaching and scouting staff traveled to Mobile, Ala. for Senior Bowl practices. The annual all-star game featuring some of the best college talent entering the draft kicks off Saturday evening (NFL Network).

When he was hired in January 2008 (during Senior Bowl week) Smith said he enjoys putting down his coaching plans and moving on to the scouting season. He said his staff will be prepared for another busy offseason evaluating talent and confirming the team's draft and free agent strategy.

The Falcons will send a contingent to the NFL Scouting Combine at the end of February to continue draft evaluations and make adjustments on grades.

The first round of the NFL Draftwill be held April 22, with the Falcons making the first of -- currently -- five selections with the No. 19 or 20 selection. Dimitroff will be present for a coin flip at the Combine to break a tie with the Houston Texans and decide the final draft position.

However, in an always challenging note on the NFL schedule, the team must deal with free agency -- the availability of current NFL players at the end of their contracts -- during the draft preparation process.

Free agency begins March 5 and, without a new collective bargaining agreement, teams will face the signing period with no salary cap restraints. If owners and players don't agree to a new CBA before that time, more than 200 players will not become unrestricted free agents, shrinking the market.

Dimitroff said the Falcons will be fiscally responsible in free agency but, as always, stays noncommittal about his team's style or goals.

In 2008 the Falcons signed a handful of free agents, including Pro Bowl running back Michael Turnerand safety Erik Coleman. In 2009, Mike Petersonwas the headliner of a very quiet free agency season.

The Falcons did acquire 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalezin a draft-week trade, however, drastically changing the scope many experts predicted for the team's draft weekend.

Free agency can shape the draft strategy... And vice versa.

"To draft is always difficult thing because you're projecting," Dimitroff said. "You have to look. It's very important when we draft players to juxtapose a player that you are actually evaluating, versus the player he his going against.

"The middle group of free agents, after the first contracts that are possibly available, is the group that you really have good chance of hitting on and you have good, solid understanding of what they are after four-plus years in the league."

It's a balance but Dimitroff, a former scouting head for the New England Patriots, makes no secret of his love of the draft.

In his brief tenure, the Falcons have drafted a rookie of the year in Matt Ryanand starters at left tackle (Sam Baker), linebacker (Curtis Lofton), free safety (Thomas DeCoud)  and cornerback (Christopher Owens).

Dimitroff said he and the team "had high expectations" for the 2009 rookie class, but injuries to first-round pick Peria Jerryand second-round selection William Mooreadded a touch of gloom.

But not doom.

The third-year player executive said his team starts preparing for the following year's draft in March. So, most of the initial research is done before this pre-draft season begins.

Now he and Smith confirm direction and set the draft board.

"I have an idea in terms of vision and what our football team should look like," Smith said earlier this month. "In terms of the actual pieces and the personnel, that's something that I'm looking forward to getting with Thomas and his staff, and our coaching staff on. We'll start getting involved with the free agency players, the unrestricted free agents, as well as the college draft players."

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