By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Bill Belichick’s “coaching tree” hasn’t exactly led his assistant coaches to success with other franchises. But as for front-office execs, the Atlanta Falcons just punched a ticket to the Super Bowl for a couple of notable ex-Patriots.
Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff is nine years removed from his time with the Patriots, where he served as Director of College Scouting from 2003-07, but has made the Falcons almost an annual contender since taking over in 2008. His first major move came with drafting quarterback Matt Ryan out of Boston College and his next home run was to draft wide receiver Julio Jones sixth overall in 2011.
The next two drafts produced exactly one player who got selected to the Pro Bowl, and the Falcons ostensibly felt the effects of those down years when they crashed to a 4-12 record in 2013. Although a 6-10 record in 2014 led the Falcons to change head coaches from Mike Smith to Dan Quinn, the team had already begun building what would become their first Super Bowl team in nearly 20 years.
The transformation began when Dimitroff brought former Patriots Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli aboard as an assistant in 2014.
Granted, Quinn deserves plenty of credit for a culture change in Atlanta that has emphasized speed and aggression over the more conservative Smith. But a look at the Falcons’ last three drafts would signal that sea change in the form of fast, tough players on both sides of the ball who are now playing key roles for the NFC Champions. Pioli’s presence has not necessarily been the overriding factor, but it has not been a coincidence.
Atlanta struck gold in 2014 with fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman, who in 2015 emerged as one of the NFL’s most dynamic running backs. In 31 games since the start of 2015, Freeman has totaled 3,175 yards from scrimmage to go with 27 touchdowns. He is a threat to break off a big, explosive play every time he touches the ball. They hit big at running back again in 2015 with Tevin Coleman, who broke out in 2016 with 4.4 yards per carry, 31 catches for 421 receiving yards, and 11 total touchdowns as the No. 2 option.
The Falcons’ recent drafting has also been impressive on defense. Eight of their starters in the NFC Championship Game were drafted in the past three years: defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and Ra’Shede Hageman; linebackers Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, and De’Vondre Campbell; cornerback Jalen Collins; and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen. Beasley has been a particularly strong pick, earning first-team All-Pro honors from the Associated Press and Pro Football Writers in 2016, and could be a player who presents problems for Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
There is a caveat to the defense: they weren’t particularly great over the course of 2016. They allowed 25.4 points per game, the sixth-most in the NFL. They also had the 11th-highest opposing passer rating at 92.5. But they also had to face plenty of talented quarterbacks, like Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Jameis Winston twice each, plus Aaron Rodgers, Derek Carr, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, and Carson Palmer. None of those guys are Brady, but they are certainly battle-tested.
The defense hasn’t been spectacular, but it’s been good enough to supplement the Falcons’ real strength, which has been the league’s most explosive offense. Their trades and free-agent signings under the Dimitroff-Pioli tandem are what really stand out. Mohamed Sanu was signed in 2016 and immediately seized his role as the second option in the passing game with 59 catches for 653 yards and four touchdowns. The Falcons also acquired receiver Taylor Gabriel off waivers; the former Cleveland Brown has been a respectable third receiving option (35 catches, 579 yards, six touchdowns) and is another big-play threat.
The Falcons’ revamped offensive line is arguably where the biggest improvement has taken place. Although 2014 sixth-overall pick Jake Matthews hasn’t quite flourished at left tackle, center Alex Mack has been one of 2016’s most transformative free-agent signings. Though Mack may not be fully healthy for the Super Bowl, he finished the regular season with an 89.9 grade on Pro Football Focus, which was third among all centers. Guard Andy Levitre (84.4 grade, 14th) has also been a strong addition since the Falcons acquired him for a 2016 sixth-round pick and a future conditional pick.
These are moves that have turned the Falcons into perhaps the NFC’s best team, certainly the best offense. It’s no coincidence that Matt Ryan has enjoyed a career year and is playing in his first Super Bowl in the wake of Dimitroff and Pioli’s recent moves.
It’s also the first time since Belichick arrived in New England that one or more of his former assistants has built a Super Bowl-caliber roster. The coach has finally stuck around long enough to face something of a reflection of himself across the field in the Big Game. It remains to be seen how the Falcons’ young roster performs as most of them get their first chance on the biggest stage in sports, but what Dimitroff and Pioli have built in three short years has been hugely impressive.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.