Vick struggles on first day of campBy Len Pasquarelli
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Here are five observations on the Atlanta Falcons, based on the July 25 afternoon practice:
1. The good news is that quarterback Michael Vick plays with such passion that every foible, as head coach Jim Mora pointed out, is frustrating to the NFL's most electrifying performer. That means the game means something to him personally. The bad news on Monday afternoon? That Vick, at least in the passing game, had so many legitimate sources of frustration.
Michael Vick was second on the Falcons in rushing last season with 902 yards."He's a perfectionist," Mora said. "He wants everything he does to be perfect." In the first on-field session of camp, Vick didn't even approach mediocre, let alone perfection. Yeah, it was the first practice, the first workout in months in pads, and the transition from throwing a ball in shorts and a T-shirt to being totally padded up is always a dramatic step. It takes time, just from a practical standpoint, to reach a comfort zone in pads. So it's a bit unfair to judge Vick's progress at the outset of Year 2 in the Falcons' bastardization of the West Coast offense, on one 2Â½-hour session on a sweltering afternoon.
But the point of making training camp observations is to allow readers to see practice through ESPN.com's eyes. And these eyes saw a lot of poor throws. Vick was, in a word, brutal at times. And that might not even accurately describe his afternoon. He was too high. He was too low. He was long and he was short. Vick looked anything but ready to ratchet up his completion percentage to the levels that typically accompany a West Coast-style passing design. His body language belied his frustration. At one point, tight end and favorite target Alge Crumpler, following one particularly scattershot effort, returned to the huddle and placed his arm around Vick's shoulders.
But even more disappointing than his performance in throwing the ball was Vick's slipshod footwork on too many occasions. Hard to imagine, we agree, for a player so agile and nifty, but the guy looked like he had two left feet at times. Vick still tries, or at least he did Monday, to do too much just with his arm. You generate velocity and even accuracy, from the feet up. But Vick rarely squared up, didn't get his feet set, had too many skewed release points. There is also a kind of "jump" in Vick's drop-and-plant, one that, mechanically, forces him to divert his eyes.
Here's hoping that, as Vick strives to move forward as a passer, Monday's first impressions are not lasting ones.
At least on the opening day of practice, it didn't appear that Price and Vick made any better connection during the offseason than they did in 2004. Of course, one of the dangers in starting White (who, as of Wednesday morning, had not yet signed his rookie contract) and Jenkins is that the two are so young and inexperienced. If the Falcons follow through with their plans, it would mean having two starting wideouts with a total of seven career regular-season catches. And, maybe it's just us, but Jenkins does not play nearly as fast as his stop-watch speed. The former Ohio State standout is a tough kid, and played well on special teams a year ago, but he struggles to get a good release at times.
Mora noted that the receiver spot will be competitive, with veterans Dez White and Brian Finneran in the mix, and it should be. But the Falcons seem to have, for now, five guys capable of playing, but no one who has yet demonstrated that he can make big plays.
Two kids to watch: Kendrick Mosley and Romby Bryant, both tall, angular guys with nice inside separation. One of them could play his way onto the roster if he excels on special teams during the preseason.
3. The second position Mora cited as being ultra-competitive is safety. But one has to wonder: Is it competitive because of the overall quality at the position, or because Atlanta just has a collection of very ordinary players there? The guess is that it's the latter. Certainly the safety with the most potential is Bryan Scott, a third-year pro with physical skills and plenty of smarts. The Falcons are getting a break in that Scott, who underwent offseason shoulder surgery and wasn't expected to participate in on-field drills until well into camp, is already on the field, albeit in a limited basis. The team has made a smart move in allowing him to get reps in all the non-contact drills. He might not play, or even hit anyone, until late in the preseason. But the work Scott is doing now will pay off once the season begins.
At this point, the other starter figures to be veteran Keion Carpenter, a wily, sage player, who missed all of 2004 with a knee injury. He seems to provide leadership to the unit, and his 12 career interceptions certainly make Carpenter the most proven playmaker in the safety bunch, but he largely relies more on savvy than on physical prowess. And that seems to be the common thread among the assemblage at the position. There are enough veterans who have lined up and played -- Carpenter, Scott, Ronnie Heard, Rich Coady and Kevin McCadam -- but there's not a really special player in the lot.
Sure, safety is a position whose importance tends to be diminished. But if you don't have at least one player who can provide some flexibility, who can occasionally go into the slot and cover, that shortcoming is often exposed. The Falcons should be steady enough at the position, particularly if Scott is fully recovered when the season starts, but it's not a position from which they figure to get much more than just steady play. The position produced but one interception in 2004.
4. Looking for the Falcons' strength on defense? It is the overall speed and quickness of the unit, especially at linebacker. In fact, Atlanta added two key veterans in Ed Hartwell (middle) and Ike Reese (strongside) at the linebacker position, and it was obvious even from the first practice that it should really be a standout area.
Keep an eye on second-year veteran Demorrio Williams, who is battling Reese for the starting strongside spot and might be in the lead early in camp. The former Nebraska star flashed legitimate pass-rush skills playing mostly in "nickel" situations as a rookie, and is a very impressive athlete. Williams runs well, is very flexible, and plays tougher than his physique indicates. Nothing against Reese, who brings great leadership skills and is terrific special teams contributor, but he isn't nearly the athlete Williams appears to be. The two will probably both get a lot of playing time but, if the Falcons want a difference-maker, Williams could be it. On Monday, his quickness off the edge was obvious, and he has the potential to be disruptive.
Hartwell, whose move to the Falcons allows him to escape the shadow of Ray Lewis in Baltimore, is an impressive inside linebacker. His legs look like redwoods and he moved even better than we thought he could Monday, including in reverse. He'll provide an attitude, and a vocal presence as well, to the defense.
The standout of the unit, of course, remains perennial Pro Bowl performer Keith Brooking, who isn't always spectacular, but is always solid and around the ball. A couple draft choices, Jordan Beck (No. 3) in the middle and Michael Boley (No. 5a) on the outside, further bolster this very deep unit.
5. The Falcons led the NFL in sacks in 2004 but, watching their defensive line Monday, you kind of wonder how they did it. And you can't help but question, especially with injured right end Brady Smith currently sidelined, if Atlanta has enough bodies and size to hold up against the run upfront.
Make no mistake, this is a very active unit, and its collective quickness and uncanny knack for getting off blocks is a hallmark. But the unit is small, which is what the Atlanta coaches prefer, and suddenly not particularly deep. Smith recently underwent neck surgery (the scar that runs down his back is long and ugly) and, in a worst-case scenario, could miss the first month of the campaign. There is zero experience, after standout left end Patrick Kerney, at the position.
"Under" tackle Rod Coleman is a superb interior pass rusher, one of the best in the NFL, and his importance to the Falcons was demonstrated last year, when he missed four games with injuries. But Coleman recently had a off-field incident that could put him under the league's scrutiny and potentially bring sanctions under the personal conduct policy. If he misses any time, Atlanta will suffer because it has no one like him. There are, in fact, very few tackles in the league as active as Coleman.
The Falcons are counting on two kids, second-year pro Chad Lavalais (five starts as a rookie) and second-round pick Jonathan Babineaux, to log a lot of snaps playing next to Coleman.
It's a group whose sum might be better than its individual parts, but the lack of depth on the line should be a concern, at least until Smith returns. Line coach Bill Johnson loves to rotate a lot of players, but he may run out of bodies.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL
Fantasy spotlight: Michael Jenkins
Last season's first-round pick is expected to be pushed into a more prominent role this year, and has already started working with the first-team offense. Peerless Price, who has been a big disappointment, has already been demoted to a reserve role, and Dez White's blocking skills, not his receiving, are the reason he is still running with the starting offense alongside Jenkins.
Jenkins showed flashes of promise during the preseason in '04, but was invisible during the regular season, so fantasy owners can't have high expectations just yet. Jenkins has the skills to be a thrilling playmaker for Atlanta, but he's going to do a lot of learning on the job this year, which could translate into a lot of inconsistency. But QB Michael Vick needs someone in his receiving corps to step forward now, and with a year of experience, Jenkins should start to produce more statistically. Jenkins has good leaping ability and can bust loose after the catch for considerable gains. But there are some questions about whether he can make the tough catches in traffic.
Expect a few good performances from Jenkins, but he won't be worthy of starting on a regular basis in fantasy leagues. In keeper formats, Jenkins has much more value, as he could blossom in his third season in 2006, and he and rookie Roddy White could eventually form the productive duo Vick has desperately needed.
-- Scott Engel, associate editor of Fantasy Games
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2. They might never admit it publicly, but the Atlanta offensive coaches have all but decided the starting wide receivers will be rookie first-rounder Roddy White and second-year veteran Michael Jenkins, a first-round choice in 2004. What about Peerless Price, you say? Already mentally penciled in by the staff as the No. 3 wideout, probably working from the slot. Assuming, that is, he makes the roster. Which is not yet a given.
The Falcons' brain trust never quite knows where to place culpability for the failure of Price to develop into a bona fide "lead" wideout. Sometimes the team suggests that part of the blame should fall on Vick, who has little confidence in Price, and who simply gave up trying to get him the ball in some 2004 outings. Other times, the Falcons allow that Price, who the team praised during the offseason for an improved work ethic, really is the culprit. But the bottom line on Price is a dismal one: The Falcons surrendered a first-round pick to get him in a 2003 trade with Buffalo, paid him a signing bonus of $10 million, and have doled out $12.5 million in two years to a guy who has produced just six touchdowns.