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NFL draft's big winner: Atlanta Falcons again

The NFL draft hasn't even begun, but we already know who won.

That would be Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff for the second year in a row. While the hype this weekend will be trained on who gets the glamour-boy quarterbacks - Matthew Stafford of Georgia, Mark Sanchez of Southern California and Josh Freeman of Kansas State - Dimitroff has already been there and done that.

A year after he took a big gamble on quarterback Matt Ryan with the third pick overall, Dimitroff proved how savvy he really is. This time around, he not only saved some money, but probably locked up another winning season, another playoff appearance and maybe even another NFL executive of the year award.

All because of what he did on Thursday.

'Every team in this league dreams of having Tony Gonzalez run out of the tunnel for them,' Dimitroff said after trading a 2010 second-round pick to Kansas City for the perennial All-Pro tight end.

Every GM in the league also dreams of having a free pass heading into the weekend. But Dimitroff has already filled the Falcons' most pressing offensive need, freeing him to find a quality lineman or linebacker at a good price. That's a much easier order to fill with the No. 24 pick. And as a few of his rivals are about to be reminded, there's no bigger gamble than trying to find a franchise quarterback at the top of the draft.

They're all prohibitively expensive, and most who go to a team with too many other needs wind up failing. They're an even bigger risk when they're underclassmen, like the top three QB prospects on the board. And even if you minimize all the other risk factors, recent research by analyst George Sarkisian found that only one of every three first-round QBs, on average, ever lead a team to a conference championship game or Super Bowl.

Dimitroff knew that before he drafted Ryan, then handed him the richest rookie contract ever. While Ryan adapted to the pro game faster than a rookie should, in hindsight, Dimitroff's bet wasn't as risky as it seemed.

Ryan was a four-year starter at Boston College, and the Falcons had a serviceable offensive line to protect him, a strong ground game built around emerging running back Michael Turner, and an aging, but still solid, defense to take off some of the pressure.

Though Dimitroff couldn't have known the pieces would fall in place so fast, you can bet he had a good idea.

He's the son of NFL player, scout and coach Tom Dimitroff, and spent plenty of time scouting in Canada and other football backwaters before falling in with the Bill Belichick mob in New England. There, he was tutored by then-Patriots player personnel director Scott Pioli.

Everyone else in the NFL treats the draft like a chess game. But Belichick's disciples know building a team is more like three-dimensional chess. Based on past success, they rarely draft early and almost never look for the one player who can single-handedly turn a team around.

Taking Ryan was a gamble, to be sure. But Dimitroff had been on the job for four months at the time and something bold needed to happen if the Falcons were going escape Michael Vick's disgraced shadow anytime soon. Besides, he liked that bet enough to double down by trading for Gonzalez. The teams that prepare harder for Ryan, now that he's a known commodity, will still have to account for his newest asset.

Gonzalez, a 10-time Pro Bowl selection who holds career marks for yards, catches and touchdowns at the position, also happens to be one of the best locker room guys in the league. That, too, places Dimitroff squarely in the Belichick mold, since teams turn over a third of their rosters, on average each season, and 'character' guys are hard to come by.

The Falcons will need that, too, after losing a handful of defensive starters to free agency during the offseason. So look for the Falcons to grab defensive tackle Peria Jerry of Mississippi or linebacker Brian Cushing of USC, with the first pick.

Whomever Dimitroff selects, chances are he'll get a useful part. While choosing Ryan earned him kudos, he also found two starters and two specialists in the first three rounds. Not only does Dimitroff think like Belichick, he's beginning to sound like him, too.

'As long as it's not a drastic dropoff,' he said about his draft-day plans, 'you seriously have to consider the need position.'

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.