The Falcons’ first round trade has been three months in the making

Wide receiver Julio Jones of the University of Alabama stands with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected as the sixth overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2011 NFL football Draft in New York, April 28, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Heading into this year’s draft, the overall consensus was that the Falcons would use their first round pick (No. 27 overall) on defense after they gave up 48 points in an embarrassing Divisional Round loss to the Packers last January.

But that ugly showing inside the Georgia Dome that night must have showed GM Thomas Dimitroff that he had a more pressing need than defense. One that facilitated the biggest trade so far of the 2011 NFL Draft.

It was apparent in the Falcons’ loss to the Packers that they didn’t have another receiver opposite Roddy White to stretch the defense. In fact, the Falcons had an issue all season in gaining yards after the catch. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is still productive, but he’s lost a step over the years. Michael Jenkins comes up with a couple of clutch receptions every season and is a solid blocker in the run game (an important skill in Atlanta‘s offense), but he doesn’t threaten defenses with his speed. Slot receiver Harry Douglas does have good speed, but he’s been slow to recover from a knee injury that he suffered in training camp in 2010.

So Dimitroff packaged five picks (including his 2012 first round selection) in order to move all the way up to No. 6 (which was the Browns’ original pick) in order to select Alabama receiver Julio Jones in the first round on Thursday night. Jones is the ultimate blue-chip prospect. He can break tackles, make plays after the catch and yes, stretch defenses vertically. Assuming Jones isn’t a bust in the making, defenses won’t be able to double-team White and Matt Ryan now has even more weapons at his disposal.

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Cam Newton to get the chance to start as a rookie?

Quarterback Cam Newton of Auburn University poses with a jersey after being selected as the first overall pick by the Carolina Panthers in the 2011 NFL football Draft in New York, April 28, 2011. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera indicated after the draft that No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton will have the opportunity to play as a rookie.

“Cam will play when Cam gets himself ready to play,” Rivera said. “I’m putting a little bit of a challenge out there for him. That’s what he thrives on.”

As long as the Panthers don’t rush Newton’s development or force him to play before he’s ready, there’s nothing wrong with handing the keys over to a rookie. Granted, it didn’t work for Carolina last year with Jimmy Clausen, but the Ravens and Falcons obviously had success with Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, both of which took their respective teams to the playoffs in their rookie years. Even though he eventually suffered an injury, Matthew Stafford had some success as a rookie in Detroit, too.

Does that mean Newton will have as much success as Flacco or Ryan? Of course not. But teams seem a little less apprehensive these days than they were 10-12 years ago when guys like Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith and Joey Harrington were ruining lives. If the Panthers can simplify the playbook and allow Newton to mainly use athletic ability next year, then maybe he/they will find some success in his rookie season.

Like any top-10 quarterback, the projections on Newton seem to be mixed. Assuming he beats out Clausen for the starting job in training camp, we may find out right away if Newton can have an impact in the pros.

Report: Falcons wanted Green, but Bengals rejected trade offer

Wide receiver Julio Jones of the University of Alabama is greeted by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell onstage after being selected as the sixth overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2011 NFL football Draft in New York, April 28, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

The Falcons made the biggest splash in the first round on Thursday night when they traded five picks to the Browns in order to select Alabama receiver Julio Jones at No. 6 overall. What’s interesting is that Jones wasn’t even the player they wanted the most.

According to a report by the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Falcons attempted to trade with the Bengals at No. 4 in order to select Georgia receiver A.J. Green. But the Bengals, who had Green rated as the No. 1 player on their board, rejected the same offer that Atlanta turned around and handed to Cleveland for the No. 6 pick.

Granted, this doesn’t mean that the Falcons didn’t want Jones. Obviously they did or else they wouldn’t have traded five picks to the Browns, including their first rounder in 2012. But again, it’s interesting that Green was ahead of Jones and they wound up giving up a small fortune in picks to get the guy they had second on their board (or maybe Green was 1A and Jones was 1B – whatever, you get the point).

Either way, GM Thomas Dimitroff got the impact player that he coveted. He knows that the Falcons are built to win now and maybe they’re on the cusp of a Super Bowl. The Packers made it clear in the playoffs last year that the Falcons were lacking another receiver opposite Roddy White that could stretch the field and now they have one in Jones. Obviously if Jones is a bust, this could wind up setting the Falcons back for years. But teams assume that risk any time they make a trade like this. Jones was worth it to Dimitroff and Atlanta, so they paid the price to get him.

2011 NFL Draft: Five First Round Surprises

If you’re a fellow draft nerd like myself, you figured that there would be plenty of surprises in the first round on Thursday night. Here are five that caught me off guard.

1. The Falcons trade two drafts worth of picks for Julio Jones.
The fact that the Falcons traded into the top 10 wasn’t surprising. There were pre-draft reports that suggested they would do just that. The fact that they traded 72 picks in order to climb up in order to take him…wow. Make no mistake: Julio Jones is a stud and he’s going to look real good in an offense that already consists of Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez. But a first, second and a fourth this year, plus a first and a fourth next year is a TON to give up for one player. But hey, GM Thomas Dimitroff knows he has a Super Bowl-caliber roster and he just added an impact player. The loss to the Packers in the playoffs last year proved just how badly the Falcons needed a deep threat that could stretch the defense. Jones fills that need instantly; he just better pan out.

2. Titans take Jake Locker at No. 8.
With Vince Young heading out of town, everyone knew a quarterback was an option for Tennessee at No. 8. But the fact that they passed on Blaine Gabbert, who was arguably the better QB prospect, for Jake Locker was a surprise that not many people saw coming. That said, had Locker came out last year he would have probably be the No. 1 overall pick. But since he struggled as a senior at Washington, draft observers thought he would go in the late first round, or possibly even slip into the second. The Titans obviously were incredibly high on him and he’s going to bring a lot of excitement to Tennessee – at least initially. But consider this: if Locker doesn’t pan out and Gabbert does, not only will it set the Titans back, but Gabbert (whom Tennessee’s AFC South rivals the Jaguars traded up to take at No. 10) could wind up haunting them for years.

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Tweeting the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft

Anthony Stalter will be tweeting the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, which starts tonight at 8:00PM ET. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section below, or call Anthony out for his observations. (And to check out Anthony’s final mock draft, click here.)

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