FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has grown accustomed to an annual moment of comic relief during the pre-draft private workout circuit.
As Dimitroff and a cast of about 10 to 12 other Falcons team evaluators make the college rounds to dissect offensive and defensive linemen, there are times when a 225-pound assistant coach in the group has to hold a heavy bag as a 320-plus-pound offensive lineman thrusts all his weight toward the bag.
“And it's funny every year -- there is an assistant holding that bag who is ass over teakettle,” Dimitroff said of watching one of his staff members tumble to the ground. “It's kind of funny. And we all log those moments and have them on video to talk about.”
But these private workouts are mostly serious matters, especially for a team coming off a 7-9 season and desiring to upgrade in the trenches. That's why Dimitroff, coach Dan Quinn and the Falcons' entourage spent countless hours putting “close to 30” offensive line prospects through private workouts leading up to the first night of the NFL draft next Thursday.
An offensive lineman could be the target if the Falcons keep the 14th overall pick, although some of the moves made in free agency -- plus holding nine draft picks -- give the Falcons the flexibility to select the best player at any need position or perhaps trade up for an unquestioned game-changer.
Some of the Falcons' offensive line failures under Dimitroff's watch -- such as fragile first-rounder Sam Baker in 2008 or second-rounder Peter Konz in 2012 -- have the skeptics questioning the Falcons' commitment to upgrading that unit via the draft.
"We're always pretty focused on it, contrary to what people believe,” Dimitroff said of scouting O-linemen.
So what goes into a private workout with an offensive lineman? Dimitroff offered his thoughts from a general manager's perspective.
The crew assessing this year's offensive line candidates consisted of Dimitroff, Quinn, assistant GM Scott Pioli, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, offensive line coach Chris Morgan, assistant offensive line coach Bob Kronenberg and director of college scouting Steve Sabo, among others. The workouts always began with a warm-up session headed by strength coaches Jesse Ackerman and Jonas Beauchemin.
“We've got two different strength coaches to really evaluate the bigs because I think you can gauge some of their physical traits, what their leverage may be and what their balance may be from a different perspective,” Dimitroff said. “We take that all into consideration.”
Following the warm-ups, Morgan took the lead. One of the drills -- a four-square exercise -- had linemen jumping forward, backward and laterally. Morgan also orchestrated a drill using tennis balls in which the linemen had to juggle at least two while moving, testing their concentration.
Dimitroff typically stood just a few feet away, observing next to Quinn.
“I stand back in certain parts of it, and other parts I want to be right up there and see the explosiveness or what their strength may be,” Dimitroff said. "It's not easy to actually run a player through drills and truly evaluate, and I've said that forever. I would say to a coach, yeah, they get a feel for it when they're moving them around, but they're worried about how they're navigating through the drills. I'm a big believer in making sure that you can step back and watch.”
Although workouts are sometimes catered to specific positions, they often want to gauge a lineman's versatility -- leading to a tackle moving inside for a certain drill or a guard seeing snaps at center.
Some of the typical offensive line drills include pass punch and change of direction, plus the ability to get in and out of a stance to run block and pass protect. Coaches often have prospects show on the chalkboard whether they know their own college offense and can explain each front-line player's responsibility.
The largest group of players the Falcons are allowed to work out in a single day at a particular school is four, and they took full advantage during a stop at Oklahoma. They drilled top offensive line prospect Cody Ford -- a guy capable of playing both guard and perhaps right tackle -- along with his fellow linemates Bobby Evans, Ben Powers and Dru Samia.
All workouts are video-recorded for later viewing. Sometimes the Falcons utilize software that juxtaposes two different workouts on the screen for comparative purposes.
Maybe the biggest change this year is the presence of Koetter, who might mesh a different style into the outside-zone scheme the Falcons' offensive linemen became accustomed to under Kyle Shanahan and Steve Sarkisian.
"Dirk is involved, no question,” Dimitroff said. “We want the coordinators on both sides involved with us. If we're going to work out offensive guys, Dirk will be on the plane with us. Dirk, he has a quiet presence about him. He does not get involved [in the workout]. He's totally in an observing role, and he watches our guys from that standpoint.”
In previous years, there was a greater emphasis on evaluating the movement of offensive linemen within the outside-zone scheme. With the adjustments expected under Koetter and the possibility of playing more of a gap scheme, the Falcons were more closely investigating a prospect's power -- which led to more chances of an assistant coach getting trucked in the process.
Regarding the length of private workouts, Dimitroff couldn't put an exact timetable on the longest -- except to say longer workouts sometimes relate more to the more intriguing prospects. The Falcons conducted an hour-and-a-half workout with Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom on a Saturday. They held a 45-minute session with Florida OT Jawaan Taylor during the week.
“And we've had really short workouts when you know it's time to go, and you still try to be respectful,” Dimitroff said. “It could be a matter of a few minutes. You go through a couple of drills, and the guy is throwing up on the ground. And then we're like, 'All right, we'll come back another time.' We've done that before. It just didn't happen this year.”