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By Matt Pitzer, USA TODAY
If DeAngelo Hall does not become the best cornerback in the NFL, it will not be for a lack of dreaming big.
Check out some of the players Hall already has turned to on his quest for greatness: Deion Sanders, Champ Bailey, Darrell Green.
"I talk with Deion all the time," Hall says. "Just how to play schemes and about certain situations. ... I know how vital and essential this season is for me, heading into my third season. Teams are going to notice me and single in on me. I'm not stopping at (any) cost. I'm picking the mind of some of the greats."
The Falcons cover man will tell you he is among the best cornerbacks in the league, and our panel of experts says he is on his way to the top. If he improves as much as he did from an injury-plagued rookie season (two interceptions in nine starts) to his second year (six picks in 15 games), he'll be closer to getting there.
"Champ definitely is the champ; he has that leaguewide respect," Hall says. "I'm starting to get that kind of respect, too. Guys like Deion Sanders, Chad Johnson, Michael Irvin are telling me that.
"But it's hard to argue with Champ because he's been that guy for so long."
Bailey agrees that Hall is on his way. "I love the way he plays," Bailey says of Hall. "I think he'll be one of the all-time greats. I think he has all the tools. I want him to be as good as he can be. I want every guy to be like that. I'm going to tell them what I know."
Before long, Hall might be the one dispensing advice. He has the athletic skills to stick with league's best receivers. Now it is a matter of mastering finer points and learning the tricks that only experience brings.
"He's really had only 1Â½ years," Falcons defensive coordinator Ed Donatell says. "But he has shown everybody that he does belong. He's really a sharp guy. To go to the next level in this league, it's really from the neck above. He's a really intelligent guy. He's learning at a rapid pace. He's going to give you the mental cues that you need to have."
The paradox of the elite cornerback is trying to do more with less. The better a player covers a wide receiver, the less likely opposing quarterbacks are to test the defender â€” which means fewer chances for the receiver to get his hands on the ball.
"I'm cocky and brash," he says. "You know I want the ball. Not to get the ball thrown at you is frustrating, but you have to be more focused. You can't take one play off, because that could mean six points. You could get only a couple balls a game and you have to be ready. That's what keeps me focused."
It is an attitude â€” and aptitude â€” that can lift an entire defense.
"I really love the way he plays," Atlanta coach Jim Mora says. "He plays with athletic arrogance. I'm not going to say he is the best in the league, but I think he has the potential to be one of the best in the league if he works at it â€” which he is."
Hall takes pride in matching up against top receivers and keeping them out of the end zone. In the first game of the 2005 season, then-Eagles receiver Terrell Owens had seven catches for 112 yards but he didn't score. And when the Eagles were trying to rally for a go-ahead score late in the game, Hall was in the mix when Philadelphia's final drive stalled, including two incompletions to Owens in the Eagles' final three plays.
"His Week 1 performance vs. Terrell Owens on Monday night was his coming-out party," TV analyst Solomon Wilcots says. "He revels in his assignments to lock down No. 1 receivers each week. The foundation of his game is complete and utter confidence and no fear of getting beat. He explodes out of his break and closes on receivers with precision timing."
The Falcons are counting on Hall and are rebuilding their defense with him as a key component. Atlanta pinned much of the blame for last season's 8-8 record on its 22nd-ranked defense. The unit was 26th against the run and got little help from its safeties, and the Falcons also were 22nd in the league in defensive completion percentage at 60.8%.
Newcomers Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker will get a chance to start at safety. The team's first draft pick, second-rounder Jimmy Williams, could bump veteran Jason Webster at cornerback, leaving Hall as the only returning starter in the secondary.
Mora says cornerbacks have difficulty becoming on-field leaders because their play often is so isolated, but Hall is taking it upon himself to become one of the players his teammates turn to.
"The coaches sat me down in the offseason and gave me that responsibility (to lead). And I definitely accepted it," Hall says. "We're not going to have to put the burden on (quarterback) Mike Vick's shoulders anymore. I feel like we can go out there and make it happen" on defense.
Helping to make it happen will be a rebuilt pass rush, forcing quarterbacks into quicker decisions and possibly mistakes thrown in Hall's direction. The Falcons were in the middle of the pack with 37 sacks last season. The big addition was John Abraham, acquired from the Jets for a first-round pick. Abraham, bookend rusher Patrick Kerney and tackle Rod Coleman combined for 27Â½ sacks last season, and each was selected to the Pro Bowl.
"That's what's going to help me. Ooh, the pass rush," Hall says. "Just bringing that kind of pass rush, it's going to be scary. We're not going to have to cover guys at all. Quarterbacks will just be throwing the ball away."
Although Hall returned an interception for a touchdown against the Saints last season, his greatest demonstration of that athletic ability was barely seen. As a rookie in 2004, playing at the Giants during quarterback Eli Manning's first start, Hall broke off a blitz when he saw Manning read his move and soared into the air to snag Manning's dump-off pass with only open field ahead of him.
The trouble was Giants tackle Luke Petitgout was called for a false start and the play went down, as Hall says, as the Greatest Play That Never Happened. "If that tackle hadn't moved, I'd have probably won an Espy," Hall says. "That's the kind of excitement I bring to the field."
That also is the brash confidence Hall brings, which the Falcons hope helps him become as good as Bailey.
"I think there are a lot of really good corners in this league," Mora says. "I wouldn't trade DeAngelo for any of them."
Contributing: USA TODAY's Chris Colston and Jim Corbett