Team Report - ATLANTA FALCONS
The SportsXchange – 16 hours ago
The Falcons, who report for camp on July 25, will enter training camp with three holes along the offensive line, a need for a pass rusher and a rookie to step forward in the secondary.
The team believes it has to create the stage for what is being billed by head coach Mike Smith as the most competitive camp since he arrived in 2008.
Most of the attention will focus on replacing long-time center Todd McClure, who retired after 13 seasons and 197 games in the trenches.
Peter Konz, who started 10 games at right guard, will enter camp as the favorite to beat out Joe Hawley. Konz was a second-round pick in 2012 and Hawley was a fourth-rounder in 2008 and has appeared in 37 games with 12 starts.
The starting right guard and right tackle spots are open after sliding Konz over to center and releasing Tyson Clabo.
There will be an all-comers battle for those spots with right guardGarrett Reynolds and right tackle Mike Johnson trying to hold offLamar Holmes, Phillipkeith Manley and Harland Gunn.
Reynolds has won the starting right guard spot in each of the past two training camps, but hasn't been able to put a stranglehold on the spot. Holmes, a third-round pick in 2012, is athletic, raw and nasty. He's expected to give Johnson a battle for that right tackle position.
In the salary-cap purge, to make room for quarterback Matt Ryan's contract extension, the Falcons shed themselves of their only legitimate pass rusher in John Abraham. They signed former New York Giant Osi Umenyiora to take over that role.
The team also let go three of their top five cornerbacks and are counting on rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford to help with some tighter man-to-man coverage. Trufant is projected to win the starting right cornerback spot, while Alford could earn the nickel back position.
On the hot seat: Strong-side linebacker. Nicholas, who had sports hernia surgery over the offseason, led the Falcons with 116 tackles last season. He also had two sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and three passes defense.
Nicholas took a lot of blame for tight ends being so open in the playoffs. A film review of the San Francisco game revealed that he was responsible for three of the seven plays made by the 49ers tight ends.
However, the Falcons must devise a better plan to cover tight ends and Nicholas will face a training camp challenge to keep his role in the nickel and dime packages. Akeem Dent, who was a two-down linebacker against the run last season, took over Nicholas' role in the offseason program when he was out recuperating from his surgery.
In the NFC divisional round, Seahawks tight end Zach Miller totaled 142 yards on eight catches and caught a 3-yard touchdown during Seattle's comeback from 20 points behind in the fourth quarter.
In the NFC Championship Game, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis caught five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown.
Cause for concern: Right tackle and backup quarterback are the key concerns for the Falcons. Mike Johnson has not been able to crack the starting lineup in two previous seasons and appears to be ahead in the race to replace Tyson Clabo at right tackle. After being backed up by veterans Chris Redman and Luke McCown over the past five seasons, Dominique Davis is slated to be the No. 2 quarterback behind Matt Ryan. He won the No. 3 spot last season, but didn't play in a game.
Breakthrough star: Rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant missed some of the OTAs because he was finishing up his college class work. Secondary coach Tim Lewis would Skype with Trufant in order to keep him up on the meetings. He struggled at times going against Roddy White and Julio Jones. He flashed his speed in battling back and competing. He's set to start at right cornerback and will likely see plenty of action.
Position battles: Right tackle, right guard, nickel linebacker and nickel back are the key position battles for the Falcons. Mike Johnson and Larry Holmes are battling for the right tackle spots. Johnson and Reynolds, who was been beaten out by Johnson the past two seasons, are battling for the right guard spot. Joe Hawley appears a long shot to beat out Peter Konz at center. Akeem Dent will get a chance to beat out Stephen Nicholas as the nickel linebacker opposite Sean Weatherspoon.Robert McClain will have to hold off a challenge from rookie Robert Alford for the nickel back spot.
--Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said Wednesday the 2013 season will definitely be his last as an active player in the NFL.
"Without a doubt, yes. Without question," Gonzalez said in an interview on The NFL Network. "I told everybody I was going to retire last year, and I really meant that when I was saying that last year."
But Gonzalez had a change of heart and decided to play one more season. Hence, he'll be back in the Falcons' training camp next week.
Interestingly, it was his 12-year-old son who swayed the veteran player to come back for one more season.
"When I went home, I was able to talk to my family and my close circle -- specifically, my son Nico -- he was the reason I was going to retire, anyway,"
Gonzalez said. "He lives out in L.A. with his mom, he doesn't live with me during the season, so I wanted to spend more time with him.
"(Nico) said, 'You know what, Dad, you guys have a great team. I think you should go out and try it one more time.' And after he said that, with everything that fell into place, with the type of team we're going to have ... it was kind of a no-brainer."
The Falcons have such a great team coming into the 2013 campaign that Gonzalez probably doesn't want to miss out on the potential fun his teammates will have.
"With (Matt Ryan) pulling the trigger, with Roddy (White), Julio (Jones), myself, we're going to try and soften up that defense a lot where they got to stand back and play off us a little bit," Gonzalez said. "That is going to make big holes for a guy like Steven Jackson and we should hopefully go out there and be the perfect offense."
--Coach Mike Smith and offensive line coaches Paul Dunn and Pat Hill will have only 10 padded practices in training camp to evaluate the offensive line.
"It's very difficult to make a true evaluation when you're not in pads, especially at some of the positions that we are talking about," Smith said. "We can evaluate what our players know mentally."
The Falcons will have a morning walk-through practice where they are wearing baseball caps before their more strenuous afternoon two-hour-plus practices.
"Our No. 1 goal in training camp is to get as many guys prepared because it's a long season," Smith said. "We have to have depth across the board, so we want to get those guys prepared. ... That's not easy to do when you're not practicing in pads."
Smith knows that Garrett Reynolds and the players competing for time on the right side of the line will be heavily scrutinized.
"It's going to be interesting to see," Smith said. "Lamar Holmes, Mike Johnson, Joe Hawley andGarrett Reynolds, I think are really competing for those spots on the right side. We've got a center, a starting center, who has played guard for us (so he's a cross-trained player). Mike Johnson has played guard and tackle for us. We feel really strong about Lamar Holmes, a former third-round draft pick. It's time for these guys to step up and we feel very confident that they will."
--Falcons backup running back Jacquizz Rodgers is not sure how the carries will be split with the addition of free-agent signee Steven Jackson.
Last season, Michael Turner handled 66.4 percent of the carries by Falcons running backs (222 of 334 carries). Rodgers had 28.4 percent (94 carries) and Jason Snelling had 5.2 percent (18 carries).
Jackson had 70.4 percent of the St. Louis Rams carries (257 of 365) by a running back in 2012.
"When I get in the game, I'm going to try to make my plays and try to get my number called more often,' Rodgers said during the team's minicamp. "I'll try to make every carry and every catch count."
The Falcons have big plans for Jackson, who signed a three-year, $12 million deal ($4 million guaranteed). He received a $3.5 million signing bonus and has base salaries of $1.75 million (2013), $3 million (2014) and $3.75 million (2015).
The Falcons view both backs as three-down running backs, who don't necessarily have to leave the field in obvious passing situations. One of the few knocks on Turner was his inability to catch passes.
"That helps a lot because we can keep the defense on their toes," Rodgers said. "When we are in the game, we can also pass. That will help because the defense won't know what's coming."
Rodgers, who's set to enter his third year in the league, plans to learn as much as he can from Jackson.
"It's always good to have an older guy around," Rodgers said. "You can watch how they carry themselves. He's a guy who's had success in the league for a long time. So, you just watch the little things that he does in practice, the way he works and tries to get better and better each day. That helps the young guys, like me, out."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think that the corner position, the wide receiver position, and the running back position are positions where guys can come in and play early. It's not nearly as complex, especially at the receiver and (defensive back) positions." -- Falcons coach Mike Smith on getting rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford ready to play.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Matt Ryan. Backups - Dominique Davis, Sean Renfree, Seth Doege.
Ryan has guided the Falcons to the playoffs in four of his first five seasons. Last season, Ryan led the Falcons to an 8-0 start on their way to a 13-3 regular season and the NFC South title. Ryan attributes a great deal of his success to the team surrounding him with offensive weapons like wide receiversRoddy White and Julio Jones, and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. As he's grown into the position, Ryan has taken on more of a leadership role. He's been taught the ropes by former center Todd McClure, who retired over the offseason. The position is in solid hands with Ryan, however the backup quarterback position is a little murky. Dominique Davis, who made the team as an undrafted prospect, is the top candidate to win the backup position. Some contend that the Falcons need a veteran signal-caller in case something happens to Ryan.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Steven Jackson, FB Bradie Ewing. Backups - Jacquizz Rodgers,Antone Smith, Josh Vaughan, Donald Russell, FB Jason Snelling, FB Patrick DiMarco, FB Devonte Campbell.
Jackson, who was signed as a free agent, is expected to fill the void created by the release of Michael Turner. Jackson has been one of the more productive running backs in the NFL over his nine years. He's rushed for 10,135 yards and has posted eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He's also a pass-catching threat out of the backfield and has 407 career catches. Turner had hands of stone. Jackson has never played on a winning team and has reached the playoffs once, when he was a rookie in 2004. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said Jackson will make the entire offense better because of his versatility. Ewing is expected to take over at fullback. He is coming back from ACL knee surgery that cut his rookie season short. Rodgers and Snelling are talented backups who can spell Jackson and Ewing. There is quality depth at the position.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Tony Gonzalez. Backups -- Chase Coffman, Levine Toilolo, Tommy Gallarda, Andrew Szczerba, Colin Cloherty.
The Falcons were elated that Gonzalez decided to come back. He contemplated retirement all of last season, before switching gears early in the offseason. At age 36, he caught a team-high 93 passes for 930 yards and eight touchdowns, earning his 13th Pro Bowl appearance. In Week 10, he had 11 receptions for 122 yards and two touchdowns at New Orleans as he became the first tight end in NFL history with 100 touchdown catches. Gonzalez holds NFL tight-end records for career receptions (1,242), receiving yards (14,268), touchdown catches (103), 100-yard games (30) and 1,000-yard seasons (four). Coffman and Toilolo are pass-catching tight ends. The team is intrigued by Toilolo, who's 6-8 and could be a red-zone weapon for the Falcons.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Roddy White, Julio Jones. Backups - Drew Davis, Kevin Cone, Rashad Evans, Darius Johnson, Martel Moore, Marcus Jackson, James Rodgers, Tim Toone.
White and Jones are perhaps the best wide receiving tandem in the league. White turned in another Pro-Bowl worthy campaign in 2012, but was not selected. He caught 92 passes for 1,351 yards and seven touchdowns. It was his sixth straight season with more than 1,100 yards receiving and his third straight season with 90 or more catches. Jones started to blossom last season and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time. He's made some changes to his diet and appeared primed for another big season during OTAs and minicamp. In addition to eating chicken and veggies, Jones is a big fan of turkey bacon and turkey burgers. Jones appeared leaner. He caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The scary part for cornerbacks around the NFL is that Jones can improve. White didn't hit his stride until his third season in the league. Douglas flourishes as the No. 3. Drew Davis and Kevin Cone will again battle for the fourth spot.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Sam Baker, LG Justin Blalock, C Peter Konz, RG Garrett Reynolds, RT Mike Johnson. Backups - T Lamar Holmes, T Theo Goins, T Ryan Schraeder, T Terren Jones, G Phillipkeith Manley, G Matt Smith, G Harland Gunn, G Alec Sovie, C Joe Hawley, C Jacques McClendon.
The left side of the line is in good hands with Baker and Blalock. The rest of the crew is uncertain. After re-making his body last offseason, Baker started all 16 regular-season games for just the second time in his career. He went to a gluten-free diet and added more protein. He also worked on reducing his body fat from 23 percent down to 13 percent last season. With the added strength and mobility, he held up much better as the protector of quarterback Matt Ryan's blind side. Over his first four seasons Baker's play was inconsistent as he battled through an assortment of injuries and three back surgeries. Last season, Baker allowed just 3.5 sacks over 1,073 snaps. It was his lowest total since his rookie year in 2008 when he only played in eight games. Blalock, who's been a starter since his rookie season in 2007, is perhaps the most athletic member of the starting line. Blalock has been extremely durable as he's started all 16 games in each of the past four seasons. Konz is set to attempt to replace longtime center Todd McClure. Konz started 10 games last season at right guard and got pushed around at times, but was able to hold firm with his superior techniques. Garrett Reynolds should emerge as the starter at right guard, while Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes will battle for the right tackle position.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RDE Osi Umenyiora, UT Jonathan Babineaux, NT Corey Peters, LDE Kroy Biermann. Backups - DE Jonathan Massaquoi, DE Stansley Maponga, DE Brandon Thurmond, DE Malliciah Goodman, DE Cam Henderson, DT Travian Robertson, DT Cliff Matthews, DT Adam Replogle, DT Peria Jerry, DT Micanor Regis, DT Neal Huynh.
Umenyiora brings with him his two Super Bowl rings and a relentless passion to rush the quarterback. He'll be counted on to replace John Abraham along the defensive line. Abraham accounted for 34.4 percent of the Falcons' sacks last season and was a mainstay on the defense since being acquired in a 2005 trade with the New York Jets. The defense finished last season ranked 24th overall (356.6 yards per game), 21st against the run (123.2) and 23rd against the pass (242.3) in the NFL. The Falcons had 29 sacks, which ranked 28th in the league. Abraham had 10 of those sacks. Umenyiora's 75 sacks ranks 10th among active players. Umenyiora also has played in 10 playoff games and has registered 5.5 sacks in those games. The underrated Babineaux does a lot of the dirty work in the trenches. Babineaux started last season at tackle, but as the season progressed and Ray Edwards wasn't working out, he played some defensive end when the Falcons operated out of the 3-4 alignment. Since he was drafted by the Falcons in 2005, Babineaux's 49.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage are the most by any defensive tackle.
Peters had a strong offseason as he was clearly moving around much better after recovering from foot surgery that slowed him last season. Peters appears ready to fulfill the promise that he flashed in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The left end spot is up for grabs on run downs. Biermann will likely play a hybrid role -- defensive end/linebacker - in the nickel defense. He just hasn't held up against the run. Goodman or Matthews could emerge as the starting left end. Jerry and Robertson will battle to be the primary backup tackle.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Sean Weatherspoon, MLB Akeem Dent, SLB Stephen Nicholas. Backups -- Robert James, Paul Worrilow, Pat Schiller, Brian Banks, Joplo Bartu, Nick Clancy.
Weatherspoon, who was second on the team with 114 tackles last season, had arthroscopic knee surgery that caused him to miss OTAs. He returned in time to fully participate in the team's minicamp in June. Weatherspoon was the team's signal-caller last season and is slated to remain in that role in 2013. He is the most versatile member of the group and will rarely come off the field. Nicholas, who had sports hernia surgery over the offseason, led the Falcons with 116 tackles last season. Nicholas struggled in coverage and will face a training camp challenge to retain his position in nickel and dime situations. Dent took over for Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker last season and came on strong down the stretch. The unit lacks depth as James has played sparingly from scrimmage. Banks is a longshot to make the roster.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Asante Samuel, RCB Desmond Trufant, SS William Moore, FS Thomas DeCoud. Backups - CB Dominique Franks, CB Peyton Thompson, CB Robert McClain, CB Robert Alford, CB Terrence Johnson, CB Saeed Lee, S Charles Mitchell, S Zeke Motta, S Shann Schillinger, S Kemal Ishmael, S Troy Sanders.
Samuel is set to enter his 11th season in the league and blended in well last season and had an immediate impact. He finished with five interceptions and led the team with 19 passes defensed. It was an extremely tough season for Samuel, who shuttled back and forth to Florida to be with his mother, Christine, who passed away in January. Rookie Desmond Trufant was drafted to take over on the right side. His speed and ability to make plays on the ball will be tested in practice against Julio Jones and Roddy White. McClain will be in a battle with Alford to retain the nickel back position. The back end of the defense is in good shape with DeCoud and Moore. DeCoud led Atlanta with six interceptions and ranked second in the league among safeties in that category. Moore had 105 tackles, broke up eight passes and had four interceptions. Moore was the team's third leading tackler behind linebackers Stephen Nicholas (116) and Sean Weatherspoon (114) and he missed the last four games of the regular season with a hamstring injury. DeCoud's 89 tackles were fifth on the team. The team has high hopes for rookies Ishmael and Motta, who'll battle Schillinger and Mitchell for roster spots.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Bryant, P Matt Bosher, KOR Jacquizz Rogers, PR Harry Douglas, PRDominique Franks, PR Robert Alford, LS Josh Harris, P Sean Sellwood, K Jeremy Shelley.
Bryant, who booted the game-winner over Seattle in the divisional round of the playoffs, is still clutch. He set the franchise record for most points in a single season (138) and hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. Bryant's 49-yard game winning field goal against Seattle was the 15th game winner of his NFL career and his sixth as a member of the Falcons. Since joining the Falcons in 2009, Bryant has made on 31 of 41 field goal attempts from 40 yards or longer. Bosher had four special teams tackle in addition to breaking his own franchise record for net punting average (40.7 yards and he set a franchise record for most touchbacks in a single season with 45. Last year, Bosher punted 60 times for 2,827 yards (47.1 yard average). Bosher placed 22 kicks inside the 20-yard line. In part because of Bosher's hang-time, the punt coverage team has consistently been one of the top units in the NFL over the last five seasons. In 2012, the Falcons held opponents to 9.3 yards per return. The return game needs some sprucing up. Rogers and Franks were steady, but not special last season. Alford, a speedster, could add some spice to the return game.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--FB Mike Cox (not tendered as UFA).
--LB Mike Peterson (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED
--CB Robert Alford (2/60): $3,401,398/4 yrs, $853,744 SB/$1,077,744 guaranteed.
--DE Malliciah Goodman (4/127): $2,557,088/4 yrs, $397,088 SB.
--TE Levine Toilolo (4/133): $2,460,584/4 yrs, $300,584 SB.
--DE Stansly Maponga (5/153): $2,346,740/4 yrs, $186,740 SB.
--S Kemal Ishmael (7/243): $2,205,896/4 yrs, $45,896 SB.
--S Zeke Motta (7/244): $2,205,896/4 yrs, $45,896 SB.
DRAFT CHOICES UNSIGNED
--CB Desmond Trufant (1/22).
--QB Sean Renfree (7/249).
--T Sam Baker: UFA; $41.5M/6 yrs, $18.25M guaranteed.
--TE Tony Gonzalez: UFA; $14M/2 yrs, $3.5M SB.
--S William Moore: Potential UFA; $29.512M/5 yrs, $8.25M SB/$14M guaranteed.
--G Garrett Reynolds: Potential UFA; $2.58M/2 yrs, $500,000 SB/$700,000 guaranteed.
--RB Antone Smith: Potential RFA; $1.425M/2 yrs, $65,000 SB.
--FB Patrick DiMarco: FA Chiefs; terms unknown.
--RB Steven Jackson: UFA Rams; $12M/3 yrs, $3.5M SB/$4M guaranteed.
--DE Osi Umenyiora: UFA Giants; $8.5M/3 yrs, $2.5M SB/$5M guaranteed.
--DE John Abraham (released).
--T Tyson Clabo (released/post-June 1 designation).
--CB Brent Grimes: UFA Dolphins; $5M/1 yr, $2.25M SB/$3M guaranteed.
--S Chris Hope: Not tendered as UFA/Lions; terms unknown.
--C Todd McClure (UFA; retired).
--QB Luke McCown: UFA Saints; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Kerry Meier (released).
--CB Christopher Owens: UFA Browns; $1M/1 yr.
--TE Michael Palmer: Not tendered as RFA/Giants; terms unknown.
--CB Dunta Robinson (released.
--DE Lawrence Sidbury: UFA Colts; terms unknown.
--OT Will Svitek: UFA Patriots; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--RB Michael Turner (released/failed physical).
--DT Vance Walker: UFA Raiders; $1.3M/1 yr
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