Smith and Falcons have an eye on the future

In his rookie season, Mike Smith led Atlanta to a wild card berth in the playoffs after the team went 4-12 the year before. The 2008 NFL Draft was a crucial building block for the Falcons as they were able to add three starters and five role players to their roster and the second-year head coach spoke to the media assembled for the NFL Combine to talk about where things are headed…

"The lifeblood of any team is building through the draft," Smith said on Thursday. "This is going to a critical week for us. There are going to be a lot of good football players here. I'm looking forward to it.

"I know that Thomas (Dimitroff) and his staff are looking forward to interacting with these guys throughout the week. As far as the 2008 Falcons, I like what we were able to accomplish this year. We accomplished several of our goals. We were pleased with the outcome. We were very fortunate to be one of the 12 teams to have an opportunity to play in the playoffs.

"As I told our guys at our last meeting back in January, that's 2008. We're on to 2009."

Even though Smith wants to only look forward, it's impossible to evaluate he and the front office's job in 2008 without mentioning the selection and development of QB Matt Ryan who had arguably the best rookie season ever for a quarterback.

Ryan led the Falcons to an 11-5 record, completing 265 of 434 passes for 3,440 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Even with his poise and seemingly endless patience, the youngster from Boston College struggled in Atlanta's playoff game at Arizona as he only threw for 199 yards and had two touchdowns and two crucial interceptions.

Smith said he was happy with his young signal-caller's response to the sub-par performance.

"Matt is a young man that we classify as a gym rat," Smith said. "The day after the ball game there in Arizona, I came walking down the steps and by the quarterback meeting room and he was in there watching the tape of the game. That just tells you what kind of guy that he is.

"I think the thing that was most impressive about Matt is his maturation process throughout the season. We were able to continue to give him more and more and more as the season went on. I think he handled the no-huddle extremely well. I think that was a very good weapon for our offense.

"He had a number of awards at the end of the season. I think the most impressive thing about Matt Ryan's first year is that we didn't choose our captains prior to the season. We elected captains at the end of the year. Matt, as a rookie quarterback, was elected an offensive captain. I think that says a lot about the young man to come in, not even in be in our program for a year, and be elected a permanent captain."

And with that said, Smith acknowledged their Falcons brain-trust is ready to add some talent to his defense, but that side of the ball isn't necessarily going to be the only focus.

"Well it was obvious last year that we added some very important pieces on to our offense," Smith said. "Going into this offseason we can't really talk about ‘it's going to be offense' or it's going to be defense.'

"We definitely have some holes to fill on our football team. We are going to take a good strong look on the defensive side of the football. We're not going to say that we are going defense."

Besides the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons are looking to add a tight end as well as depth along the offensive line and Smith was asked about the difficulties in finding tight ends ready to block in the NFL with the spread offense so prevalent in the college game.

"I think the tight end position in this day in age, with what teams are doing offensively, most teams don't have fullbacks," Smith said. "I think the tight end position is a priority. I think it's very difficult to find the guy who can both run and block simply because some of the offensive schemes that they are running in college, these spread offenses you don't get an opportunity to evaluate guys getting down in three-point stances.

"It's a tough position to evaluate."

Of course having a former tight end as your offensive coordinator doesn't hurt in evaluating the position.

"I think coach Mike looks at the tight end position a little bit differently than most offensive coordinator because of course Mike played in the league as tight end for nine seasons," Smith said. "Our offense has a lot of elements that are very difficult for a tight end. Our guys did a nice job last year – Justin Peelle and we missed Ben Hartsock at the end of the season with the injury.

"Ben is more of the blocking type tight end. Justin is more receiving tight end. Tight ends, I think it's a good group of tight ends here from top to bottom at the Combine this week. This is one of the better groups."

According to several at the Combine, the Falcons have talked with players like Oklahoma State TE Brandon Pettigrew and they are eyeing other tight ends like Chase Coffman and Bear Pasco among others.

Also on Smith's mind is free agency and there have been reports that the Falcons are a favorite to obtain the services of DT Albert Haynesworth who will be a free agent.

Obviously, the Falcons will need to look at both the free agent pool as well as the draft board to see who fits into their system best.

"It's something that Thomas and I have had ongoing discussions," Smith acknowledged. "I think you have to look forward. It's something that Thomas Dimitroff does very, very well. He's very forward looking. What happens in Free agency can affect what happens in the draft. Not only in (2009) but (2010) as well. If it's going to be a deep draft at a certain position we may forego taking a player in free agency because we may know that next year it's a very deep draft at that position. I think you have to be very forward thinking and look out on the time line. That's one thing that Thomas Dimitroff does and our organization has done a good job of in putting our roster together up until this point."

And that "looking ahead" started Thursday with their first up-close look at some of the top prospects in the country.

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