Atlanta Falcons: Mike Smith

The Atlanta Falcons aren’t the only team that will have to be comfortable with an inordinate amount of cameras at training camp.

Part of the process of HBO’s "Hard Knocks" trailing the Falcons includes a trip to Houston, where the Falcons and Texans will hold a pair of joint practices (Aug. 13-14) leading up to their Aug. 16 preseason matchup.

The film crew won’t travel on the plane with the Falcons, but it will be inside Houston Methodist Training Center for the Falcons’ arrival.

[+] EnlargeDimitroff/Smith
Todd Kirkland/Getty ImagesGM Thomas Dimitroff, left, and coach Mike Smith said they feel that being featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks" will help display the Falcons' professionalism.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff thoroughly discussed the matter with the Texans.

"I’ve talked to the general manager, Rick Smith, and Smitty [Mike Smith] has talked to Coach [Bill] O’Brien, and they are comfortable with it," Dimitroff said. "[Hard Knocks] will not be showcasing the other team that we will be visiting. They’ll continue to focus on our team."

Dimitroff reiterated how the Falcons are totally behind the decision to be a part of "Hard Knocks" this season. It was far from a mandate from team owner Arthur Blank. In fact, the Falcons wouldn’t have accepted the invitation had Smith not signed off on it.

HBO approached the Falcons about "Hard Knocks" four of the past five years.

"This was not a brand play, period," Dimitroff said. "We think the series will give the fans that in-depth look; the idea of being able to see what the Atlanta Falcons are truly about and how we run our organization and how we’re mindful and professional about how we carry on our business."

Smith and Dimitroff had a two-and-a-half hour meeting with the folks from "Hard Knocks" and weighed all the pros and cons.

"This was a collaborative organizational decision," Dimitroff said. "This was made with the input of several people: the owner, the president, the general manager, the head coach, our entire communications team. We did a lot of work and a lot research on this.

"Myself and Smitty spent a lot of time with the 'Hard Knocks' crew. We asked a lot of questions and ran a lot of different scenarios by them. And we felt very comfortable after our meeting with them."

Skeptics wonder if "Hard Knocks" will be a needless distraction for a team coming off a 4-12 season. And taking on such an endeavor seems to counter Smith’s conservative approach.

"At the end of the day, the simple fact is Arthur mentioned to Smitty that he ultimately had to be comfortable with this decision as the head coach of this football team," Dimitroff said. "If Smitty wasn’t comfortable with any aspect of this, we would have moved on from the decision. Smitty was comfortable, and we decided to go through with it."

Smith addressed the decision to be on "Hard Knocks" through a statement released by the team.

"We are looking forward to connecting with our fans across the country as the program chronicles our 2014 training camp," Smith said. "The series will give fans a behind the scenes look at the competition between players as we build our roster and prepare for the season. We are looking forward to the start of camp in late July."

HBO debuts "Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Falcons" on Aug. 5.
It was the signature moment in Dwight Lowery's six-year NFL career.

October 2010, "Monday Night Football." New York Jets vs. Minnesota Vikings.

Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was determined to get revenge against one of his old teams as he tried to engineer one of those magical, last-minute comebacks. His efforts went for naught when Lowery, then a third-year defensive back still trying to find his way, stepped in front of a pass and returned an interception for a 26-yard, game-clinching score in the Jets' 29-20 win.

[+] EnlargeDwight Lowery
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing in 25 games for the Jaguars, safety Dwight Lowery will start off the 2014 season with his third team -- the Atlanta Falcons.
The same night Favre became the first NFL player to throw for 500 career touchdown passes and pass for 70,000 yards, Lowery had an epiphany.

"I played against Brett for my entire rookie year, being a scout-team player when he was the Jets quarterback," said Lowery, now with the Atlanta Falcons, "so I understood his cadence, where he liked to throw the football, his mannerisms."

Lowery knew there was a certain play the Vikings ran out of a particular formation, featuring two receivers set close to the line of scrimmage on one side with the outside receiver running a vertical and the other a quick out. Lowery knew Favre liked throwing the out, so he jumped in front of tight end Visanthe Shiancoe for the pick-six.

"At that moment, I said to myself, 'Now I know how to study film. Now I know what to look for and take advantage of situations,' " Lowery said. "I used to have to sit down for a real long time because I didn't really know what I was looking at. I really didn't know what to look for. Now, I can just breeze through it and just know."

Lowery, 28, wishes he was as astute with his film study at an early age, when he was getting picked apart by Peyton Manning in an AFC Championship Game. The six-year veteran out of San Jose State was selected by the Jets in the fourth round of the 2008 draft. At least now Lowery approaches football with a more cerebral approach as he aims to bring more veteran leadership to the Falcons' secondary.

Lowery, who spent the past 2 1/2 seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, did his homework well before signing a one-year, $760,000 contract with the Falcons. He saw an enforcer in strong safety William Moore who needed a tag-team partner on the last line of defense. He saw a trio of cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and Robert McClain capable of making impact plays. And he saw a young linebacker, Paul Worrilow, who as a rookie performed well beyond his undrafted status.

"Worrilow, he's a load, man," Lowery said. "I was sitting next to William Moore and he was like, 'That dude can go. That dude can play.' He's so young and works really hard. He's constantly in the weight room. For a young guy, he doesn't really have that young-guy presence. He seems like he's going to be a great player."

But Lowery also saw defensive flaws as he studied the NFC title game from two years ago -- when the Atlanta defense imploded against the San Francisco 49ers -- and as he dissected some of the Falcons' NFC South clashes from last season.

"Watching last year a little bit, it seemed like -- I'm not trying to single guys out -- but it seemed like sometimes they really wouldn't know what was happening or they would see something too late, or they were hesitating," Lowery said candidly.

"And I saw that tackling was an issue. I don't know if it was so much of a tackling issue or an angle/pursuit-type thing. The most encouraging thing, though, is the coaches are really emphasizing it. So, it's something that's either going to get fixed or it's not going to be tolerated. It doesn't have to be perfect and pretty. Just get him to the ground."

That's not to say Lowery views himself as the cure-all. He contends he's not about individual achievements. He just wants to be a part of the solution.

"I'm older now, and I've made enough money as a player to live comfortably," Lowery said. "I don't care about all that other crap. I just want to win. That's the bottom line. ... I just want to be a part of and contribute to a winning team."

Cleared for takeoff

Some wondered why a veteran with 41 career starts at cornerback and safety and plenty of playoff experience would be on the street.

Health concerns determined Lowery's status. Last year, he suffered his third concussion since college and second in the NFL after taking what he called a "cheap shot" from then-Seattle Seahawks receiver Golden Tate.

Lowery eventually passed the concussion test, but not before the decision about his Jaguars' future had been made. Jacksonville placed him on injured reserve, and a month later released him with no real place to go. The trade deadline had gone by. And Lowery didn't believe he was in good enough shape to respond to workout inquiries from the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins.

It was a trying period for Lowery, as his latest concussion emphasized the reality of football.

"It should be scary, for everybody," Lowery said. "You can only play this game for so long."

Lowery never once thought about giving up. In fact, he once turned to his own family for motivation. His younger sister, Aujanae, was born with tetralogy of fallot, a rare condition caused by a combination of four heart defects present at birth. The defects affect the construction of the heart and keep the blood from carrying sufficient oxygen.

Lowery said his sister has undergone at least three corrective procedures since infancy. Now she's a 16-year-old cheerleader trying to enjoy an active life, with no other surgical procedures currently scheduled.

"I think that's a testament to her strength," Lowery said. "Every time I think about her, it inspires me."

A rejuvenated Lowery hopes to put last year's concussion setback in the past and make a statement with his third NFL team. The Falcons don't need him to do it all. They simply need a starting free safety capable of tackling and not surrendering big plays. They need consistency at the position.

"I know that he's a very athletic player," Falcons coach Mike Smith said of the 5-foot-11, 212-pound Lowery. "He's got good size and he's got good speed. He's got a lot of games in the NFL. It's going to be fun to watch him develop in our scheme."

Although there is a void next to Moore following the release of Thomas DeCoud, Lowery doesn't anticipate being handed the starting job. The Falcons did draft safety Dez Southward in the third round.

"I don't really take anything for granted," Lowery said. "I told them when I signed, 'Look, I didn't play at all last year. I'm not looking to come into a situation and it be all about me.' I'm honestly all about the team and what's best for the team."

Winning attitude

Maybe Lowery became a little spoiled.

During his three-year stint with the Jets, he played in two consecutive AFC Championship Games. He grew as a player in coach Rex Ryan's exotic defensive schemes. He learned from one of the best defensive backs while playing opposite Darrelle Revis.

But something was missing.

"They used to say I was the jack of all trades," Lowery said. "They would throw me into different scenarios, different situations to take advantage of those skill sets, whether it be coverage or blitzing. I would come in and teams really wouldn't know what position I'd be playing.

"But as time wore on, I think there comes a certain point in time where you don't really get to progress as a football player because I never got an opportunity to go into the offseason and say, 'OK, I can focus on this.' I was always required to do so many different things."

So despite being a part of four playoff wins and 29 regular-season victories, Lowery welcomed a change of scenery and a chance to focus solely on playing safety. He had no issue with being traded to Jacksonville before the start of the 2011 season.

Or so he thought.

During his first two seasons in Jacksonville, the Jaguars went 7-25 and had three different head coaches, counting an interim. Lowery believed his team had talent but the wrong approach.

So he complained. To coaches. To the general manager. To his teammates.

"Really, to anybody that would listen," Lowery said. "I was frustrated because I just felt like we were lying to ourselves. We'd talk about how good our practices were and then we'd go to the game and we couldn't execute."

Lowery admitted being a little immature at the time and not really knowing how to approach the situation.

"And I think it put an image on me," Lowery said. "The new regime came in [under Gus Bradley], and they kind of came in thinking I was something that I don't feel like I was, like a cancer, yes.

"For whatever reason, I think I can be misunderstood sometimes as far as my approach. Maybe it's the California in me."

Being misunderstood, in his eyes, only helped Lowery grow as a person. He believes he grew as a player long before.

Those practices with Favre and failures against Manning went a long way in defining who Lowery is today. Those Sundays opposite Revis only enhanced his knowledge of the game.

"The experience of playing across Darrelle Revis for two years was definitely something that was challenging because they weren't throwing to his side," Lowery said with a laugh. "That was a learning experience in terms of how to guard a particular opponent: what this guys does well, where he lines up, what he likes in this situation. I learned that from Darrelle Revis and picking his brain for what he looks for from a receiver."

All of the lessons learned should pay dividends for Lowery as he makes the transition to a new defense and a new environment in Atlanta.

"I think what I'm going to bring to the table is an understanding of the big picture," Lowery said. "In this defense, Mike Nolan and Rex [Ryan] have a lot of similarities. And I think that will make me more comfortable. I think I'll have a better understanding of what we're trying to do and how we're going to execute it."

The Falcons certainly need Lowery to be a quick study.
Not one day of Atlanta Falcons rookie minicamp went by without Tyler Starr being noticed on the football field.

The outside linebacker and seventh-round pick from South Dakota played with high energy throughout the three sessions. And the fact his long blonde hair flopped around outside his helmet only made him much more visible.

[+] EnlargeTyler Starr
Michael Conroy/AP PhotoTyler Starr made a good first impression on coach Mike Smith during the Falcons' rookie minicamp.
"Well, he's a very energetic player," coach Mike Smith said of Starr. "He has the look of a very free-spirited guy. But that's not necessarily what it is. He's very focused. And I like his work ethic. I think he has the ability to rush off the edge. I think he also has the ability to be a guy that we can drop into coverage and ask to play man to man. And those are the type of guys we're trying to add to our defense."

Starr, who is is 6-foot-5 and weighs 250 pounds, has a quick first step and plays with some power. He even beat first-round pick Jake Matthews around the edge on Sunday while showing a burst not typical of a late-round pick.

The scratches on Starr's neck where indicative of how fierce and relentless a competitor he can be.

"Just coming in, the first thing was to adjust to the facilities," Starr said. "You're in a new place, new league. Just to come out here, the first thing was to learn that playbook as fast as possible so I could play fast. That's really important here. Mental errors aren't allowed in this game, especially when you're trying to earn a spot. But the mental has to be 100 percent. They'll take a physical error here and there or a technique error here or there. But, you've got to know that playbook."

Starr often rushed out of a four-point stance, something he said he altered in his game upon arriving in Atlanta. If rookie minicamp was a glimpse of his true talent, then Starr could be an immediately contributor to a team in desperate need of a pass rush. He and fellow rookie Prince Shembo are a pair of outside linebackers the Falcons could count on heavily in terms of pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

"I think the most important part is that I've got a chance to show this team what I can do and hopefully, bust my butt so I can make this team," said Starr, who signed a four-year contract Sunday that included a $45,896 signing bonus and $2.2 million in base salaries. "At the end of the day, I want to be playing football for as long as I possibly can."

His next chance to make an impression will come a week from Tuesday, when the Falcons begin organized team activities.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff reflected on his nine draft picks Saturday evening, he found himself on the defensive about one in particular: outside linebacker Prince Shembo.

The fourth-round pick from Notre Dame was the center of a controversial case that involved an alleged inappropriate sexual encounter and ended with a young woman taking her own life. Shembo maintained his innocence when he addressed the issue via teleconference Saturday afternoon.

Dimitroff showed no regret about the decision to draft Shembo, regardless of what other players were on the board.

"We're very, very aware of the seriousness of the incident," Dimitroff said. "Obviously, it's a sad situation for the young lady involved. We've done a lot of research at many levels from our security standpoint, from all the research that we did at Notre Dame. And he was never charged, never suspended from the team or the school.

"We've done our due diligence as far as making sure that we felt very comfortable with making that decision. Only glowing endorsements from the university. And again, pleased to have him a part of this organization going forward."

Dimitroff said the Falcons did not send investigators to South Bend, Ind., to look into the incident.

"We used the NFL investigation as well as our own investigators through their processes, without going into the detail of how we acquire that information," Dimitroff said. "We're very confident about what we acquired."

Historically, Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith have been extremely careful in evaluating players in terms of character. Had there been any red flags or reason to believe the case could linger, the Falcons wouldn't have drafted Shembo.

Dimitroff asked if the character standards were relaxed in this case.

"Not one bit," he said. "Not one bit."
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons had a plan all along, and the plan worked out in the end.

For all the talk about possibly trading up to the No. 1 overall selection to pick coveted pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, I don't believe that was truly ever in play. Of course the team wouldn't admit it because general manager Thomas Dimitroff never wants to proclaim himself closed for business, but the Falcons knew what the priority was.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsJake Matthews is ready to step in to a Falcons offensive line that was constantly under attack last season.
They knew they needed to get tougher along the offensive line. They knew protecting Matt Ryan and improving the league-worst rushing offense had to be the focus of their attention.

So I have no doubt the Falcons went into Thursday night's NFL draft intent on drafting an offensive tackle, and they might have secured the best of the bunch. Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews and the cousin of Green Bay Packers pass-rush demon Clay Matthews, is now a member of the Falcons family. He was available at No. 6 as the Falcons stayed put.

"We talked throughout this process about improving our team with tough, rugged football players and Jake Matthews epitomizes exactly what we were looking for," Dimitroff said. "He is a solid finisher and has good pass protection skills. He is the type of player that we are always looking for here in Atlanta -- guys who are willing to work and those who come in and embrace the team concept."

The Falcons, with an offseason theme of getting bigger and stronger, made it a point to address some of their offensive line concerns via free agency, bringing in Jon Asamoah to start at right guard. Now bringing in a tackle capable of playing on either side should help the offense flow a little more smoothly.

Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times last season and was banged up a lot more than he let on by season's end. The deep ball was missing because Ryan never had much time to throw and he lost top receiver Julio Jones to a season-ending foot injury five games into the campaign. Turning to the run game wasn't an option, as Steven Jackson was slowed out the gate with a hamstring injury and the Falcons, as a team, averaged just 77.9 rushing yards per game.

Matthews is known as a technician, so it shouldn't take him long to adapt to the NFL. Of course, he'll go up against speedy and powerful pass-rushers in the NFC South with Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy from Carolina, Michael Johnson from Tampa Bay, and Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette from New Orleans. But he already vowed to work on some aspects of his game, including getting stronger in the weight room.

"As a coach, you always want to work with guys who love football and Jake Matthews loves football," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "As we were doing our due diligence, we had a number of people tell us about Jake's work ethic, his study habits and his passion for the game. He fits the bill for the kind of player we want on our team.”
The Atlanta Falcons did the expected Tuesday when they picked up the fifth-year option for receiver Julio Jones.

Jones
By exercising this option, the Falcons have Jones signed through 2015. Teams have until May 3 to execute the fifth-year option.

Jones, who is scheduled to make $2,581,875 this season, is on the books for a fully guaranteed $10.176 million come the start of the 2015 league year. For players drafted in the top 10, the value of the fifth-year option is equal to the transition tag for their position during this offseason.

The bigger picture involves getting Jones locked up with a long-term deal, which could happen at any point. Exercising the fifth-year option doesn't prohibit the Falcons from signing Jones to a long-term deal now.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff didn't surrender five draft picks in 2011 to take Jones sixth overall without believing Jones would be a cornerstone for the future. The plans for Jones simply took a slight turn when he suffered a season-ending foot injury last season, limiting him to five games.

Despite his abbreviated 2013 campaign, Jones still showed the explosion and unique ability that makes him such a dangerous weapon. He was on pace for more than 1,800 receiving yards before the injury -- Calvin Johnson-like numbers.

If Jones regains his footing and returns to being the player the Falcons expect him to be, the 25-year-old could find himself being paid like Johnson one day. Remember, the Detroit Lions signed Johnson to a seven-year extension worth more than $16 million per season, making him the league's highest-paid receiver. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald is in the same neighborhood in terms of average per year.

Well, maybe Jones won't make that type of cash. Maybe his negotiations might have to start in the $11-12 million per year range, although he would appear to have more value than receivers such as Seattle's Percy Harvin ($12.9 million per year), Miami's Mike Wallace ($12 million per year), Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe (11.2 million per year), and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson ($11. 1 million per year).

But Jones should be rewarded handsomely at some point, and the Falcons definitely don't want to see him go anywhere else.

"I'm not going to talk about specific contractual situations," Falcons coach Mike Smith said recently. "I do know this: Julio Jones is going to be an Atlanta Falcon for a long, long, long time."
Seeing new defensive end Tyson Jackson toss 120 dumbbells around like trash bags Tuesday was a positive sign for an Atlanta Falcons team desperately in need of some heavy lifting.

Yet such strength means nothing if the Falcons fail to use it to their advantage on the field. Just ask general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

"It's functional strength," Dimitroff said this offseason. "Our guys were considerably stronger last year than they were the year before, interestingly enough, and we had some challenges with it. What I'm saying it, yes, we're going to continue to focus on strength increase. But it's the functional strength. It's being able to put them in the right spot to utilize their strength."

[+] EnlargePeter Konz
AP Photo/Paul AbellPeter Konz, who was pushed around at times last season, has "been living in the weight room."
That will all come in time. For now, the Falcons are using offseason workouts to get their bodies prepared for what should be a more physical 2014 campaign.

Coach Mike Smith seemed a bit more animated Tuesday as he explained part of the formula would be for winning the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball.

"One of the emphasis points for us as a coaching staff was to evaluate everything that we do," Smith said. "One of the things that became very apparent for us was that we need to get bigger and stronger. I think we've started doing that with our players. ... It's going to be very important for us to be a much bigger and stronger football team."

Smith is counting on AJ Neibel and his strength-and-conditioning staff to produce results as the Falcons go through Phase I of the offseason workout program. Smith and the other coaches are not allowed to oversee activity during the first two weeks, which started Monday.

"The offseason program has changed," Smith said, again emphasizing the bigger-stronger campaign. "If you'll look back and look what I said the very first time I was here in this room -- not in this room but over in that team meeting room -- I talked about what it takes to win in the National Football League. And I believe I said that you have to win the line of scrimmage. You have to have bigger and stronger players than your opponent. I feel like we've lost our way. I've lost my way a little bit.

"And the emphasis moving forward is going to be a bigger and stronger football team. And we're going to win the line of scrimmage."

Adding big, physical players such as offensive guard Jon Asamoah, nose tackle Paul Soliai, and Jackson were the first steps toward improvement. New offensive line coach Mike Tice immediately encouraged center/guard Peter Konz to bulk up, and Konz, who was pushed around more often than not last season, responded by "living in the weight room" so far this offseason.

"I think it's more for the younger guys," Tice explained in January, during a break at this year's Senior Bowl practices. "I think the younger guys, as they grow into their bodies and they stop growing and they start maturing, physically, I think that they get stronger and take a big leap and not only take a big leap with strength, but when they gain strength, they gain confidence.

"I see us in a couple different areas needing to gain that confidence. And I think a good offseason in the weight room will help some guys."

The first two players quarterback Matt Ryan mentioned Tuesday in terms of working hard in the weight room were tackle Lamar Holmes and Konz. The Falcons' offensive line obviously failed at the line of scrimmage last season as Ryan was the most pressured quarterback in the league.

"I think everybody takes a good, hard look in the mirror when things go well and then also when things don't go well," Ryan said. "And I know that's one of the most important things for me as a player and as a professional is to take a good, honest evaluation of yourself after a season and try and find areas that you can improve. And so those guys, they've made a conscious effort to get into the weight room and to move weight.

"We're not naive. Those guys (the offensive linemen) have taken some heat. And they've had to answer questions and tough questions all of last season and through the offseason so far. And I think they've taken it as a challenge. And they're in there working as hard they possibly can. I've been really impressed with the way they've handled it professionally and also how they have taking it personally, too, and want to become better and are doing everything that they can in order to improve."

Konz appears to be taking things personal. But again, he understands it's about more than just bulking up.

"You know what? We never talk about strength in the film room because it's all about technique," Konz said near the end of last season. "If you open up any book, it's all about leverage. And strength is important when you know how to use it with your footwork.

"Strength is very important, when used in combination with technique. That's what most important: lowest man wins. If you've got your hands on somebody and you've got them, they're going to have a hell of a time trying to get away from you."

If the Falcons don't improve up front, the season could get away from them again.
Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith maintained that Julio Jones is progressing well coming off season-ending foot surgery. But Smith also said the team would proceed with caution regarding the star wide receiver.

Smith, speaking with reporters Wednesday morning at the owners' meetings in Orlando, addressed a variety of topics. ESPN.com reporter Tania Ganguli, who was on the scene, listened in on Smith's conversation about Jones.

Jones
Smith
"He’s ahead of schedule," Smith told the group. "Julio’s started his running program with the athletic performance department. We anticipate he’ll be ready to go 100 percent. We’ll get him going at some point in time here in the offseason. We’ll be very careful. Our no. 1 goal is to have him ready to participate in training camp."

Jones hasn't been on the field since suffering the injury running a "go" route in a loss to the New York Jets last October. He had surgery on Oct. 14. Before going down, he had 41 catches for 580 yards and two touchdowns in five games. In other words, he was on pace for more more than 130 catches and 1,800 receiving yards.

"Injuries are part of the game," Smith said. "You gotta be able to overcome them. That was one of the things that I don’t think we did very well. Julio, I think, is a special receiver. I think he had 41 catches in five games, so he was on pace to have a monster season at that point in time when he went down. His skill set is very special. There’s very few guys in this league that can do the same things he can do in terms of his route-running, speed. He competes for the ball when the ball’s in the air."

The coaches in the NFC South, who are preparing to face him twice this coming season, understand what Jones' return means to the Falcons. They likely wouldn't have fallen to 4-12 last season had he been in the lineup.

"Whenever you talk about a special player in the division on a team, things change automatically," Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith told ESPN.com regarding Jones’ return. "You just look at all that Julio brings to the table. Look at this toughness. Yeah, it’s easy to talk about him as a receiver, catching the ball and all that. But man, this is a tough guy. He’s just a special talent. There are some special receivers in the league. Of course, Calvin Johnson is special. But Julio is big, fast, strong, tough. He’s got everything you’re looking for. Atlanta’s automatically a lot better just based on him being back on the field."

INDIANAPOLIS -- Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff made it clear Friday that he wants to add more rugged players -- but not, in his words, a "thug."

Well, meet Greg Robinson.

The Auburn offensive tackle has the type of qualities the Falcons sorely need up front. He’s a big, intimidating presence at 6-foot-5, 332 pounds. He put up 32 reps in the bench press at the combine, which would be welcomed strength for a Falcons team that has been pushed around as of late. And Robinson accounted for 130 pancake blocks this past season, which would make any running back trailing behind him get wide eyed.

You just get the feeling that Robinson could be so nasty on the field. But not thuggish, of course.

"I’m far from a thug," Robinson said Friday at the NFL scouting combine. "I’ve never been in any trouble besides growing up; I was kind of bad, but that’s because I had older brothers. But if [the Falcons] aren’t looking for a thug, they can invest in me."

[+] EnlargeGreg Robinson
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith St. Louis looking to improve its offensive line, a prospect like Greg Robinson could be a potential fit.
Robinson, 21, continues to make a steady rise up the draft board and might not be there if the Falcons stand pat with the sixth overall pick. Maybe he’s one of those guys worth trading up for, such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

The Falcons should prioritize drafting an offensive tackle such as Robinson if Clowney isn’t a legitimate option. Robinson’s makeup reminds me of D.J. Fluker, who looked like a man among boys during his combine appearance last year before being drafted by the San Diego Chargers. Fluker made an immediate impact as the Chargers' starting right tackle.

Robinson and Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews have been the offensive tackles most linked to the Falcons this draft season. Michigan’s Taylor Lewan wants to be considered among the elite group as well. Notre Dame’s Zack Martin and Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio are right behind.

"Honestly, there’s probably four or five offensive tackles that can come in and start," Dimitroff said. "There will be challenges like any new player has, but these guys can come in and be starters in this league."

Dimitroff is fully confident in both his and his staff’s ability to evaluate offensive linemen, so as Dimitroff prepares to evaluate this year’s draft prospects at the combine, he won’t go into it overly concerned about the outside perception of Atlanta drafting busts along the offensive line in recent years.

But Dimitroff needs to be conscious about constructing a group of five offensive linemen capable of working in unison. Such was far from the case for the Falcons during a pathetic 2013 showing.

The Falcons sorely need to improve up front. Matt Ryan was the most pressured quarterback in the league last season, in large part due to offensive line woes. Steven Jackson and crew couldn't prevent Atlanta from having the league’s worst rushing offense, because the Falcons couldn’t get it done in the trenches.

So what’s the quick fix? The process started with the firing of offensive line coaches Pat Hill and Paul Dunn and the hiring of former head coach and long-time NFL tough guy Mike Tice. The next step was adding Scott Pioli -- a guy who drafted Pro Bowl offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Matt Light to the New England Patriots -- as assistant general manager to bring more expertise to the scouting process. Then, the Falcons added former NFL offensive lineman Russ Bolinger as a scout and extra pair of eyes. You just have to wonder if all those minds will think alike.

While free agency is the next phase in the retooling process, the Falcons won’t target a veteran offensive tackle -- not when the draft is so deep at that position. Signing an offensive guard, however, has to be the priority.

So then comes the draft, with the Falcons having to weigh which side of the ball needs to be addressed first as they strive to get tougher up front. Robinson seems to have that mean streak in him.

Robinson was asked Friday if he plays angry.

"I wouldn’t say angry," he said. "But I’m not trying to be nice."

The Falcons could trade up to land Clowney or even stand pat at No. 6 and draft a pass-rusher such as Buffalo’s Khalil Mack or UCLA’s Anthony Barr. Such a move would mean digging deeper into the draft pool of offensive tackles with a player such as Virginia’s Morgan Moses or Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson.

Whatever the case, both Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith agree the draft is full of talented offensive tackles. If the Falcons find a starting tackle later in the draft, it could be just a matter of whether that player would come in to play on the left or right side.

"I think it’s going to be much more of a mental thing for those guys," Dimitroff said. "Some people are more comfortable being off of one side or the other. It’s going to be a transition for them to ever do that.

"But, again, if they’re athletic, I think the transition can be fairly sound as long as you have a good coach, and we believe we do in Mike Tice."

Dimitroff believes Tice is capable of making the current group of offensive linemen into better players. That’s why Dimitroff still has faith in players such as Peter Konz, Lamar Holmes and newly signed Gabe Carimi -- even if most people outside the organization don’t. That’s why Dimitroff believes Sam Baker will be the same player he was back in 2012 as he returns from a serious knee injury.

Tice will be in charge of instilling the toughness that the Falcons sorely need.

"A team will be much more apt to give up a little bit in athleticism if the trade-off is getting more toughness, ruggedness, passion and strength," Dimitroff said.

If the Falcons decide to go with Robinson, they might find someone with all those characteristics -- plus the athleticism to go with it.

Smith: Konz will compete at center

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
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INDIANAPOLIS -- It appears Peter Konz will at least get a chance to compete for the starting spot he lost at center.

Konz
That's what Falcons head coach Mike Smith said Thursday at the NFL combine while discussing the future of the offensive line.

"The word is going to be competition across the board," Smith said. "[Konz] will compete at the center position. Again, I think the more flexibility we have in the offensive line gives us a better opportunity to come up with the best five and then, in turn, gives us the ability to come up with the best seven because on game day, you're playing with seven. And you've got to be able to have flexibility.

"You've got to have a backup center. You've got to have someone that can go from guard to tackle. You've got to have someone that can go from tackle to guard. And those are the things that we're looking forward to in this offseason, is really having a competitive atmosphere not only on the offensive line or the defensive line, but on our entire football team."

Konz began last season as the starting center but lost his spot to Joe Hawley and got moved over to right guard. He went back and forth with Garrett Reynolds at right guard before taking over the spot completely. Then at season's end, Konz saw Harland Gunn cut into his reps at guard.

The Falcons demanded that the former second-round pick from Wisconsin get in the weight room this offseason to improve his strength, and Konz continues to follow the team's orders religiously.

That doesn't necessarily mean he'll be back in the starting lineup in 2014. Konz still has a lot to prove. And there's no guarantee he will impress new offensive line coach Mike Tice on the field. Konz was a college teammate of Tice's son.

Konz also was roommates with newly signed Falcons offensive lineman Gabe Carimi, a former first-round pick of the Chicago Bears.

"He's definitely a talented player," Carimi said of Konz. "It's like having a brother on the team. I hope we raise each other's level of play."

The Falcons are expected to add an offensive guard in free agency and could target an offensive tackle in the first two rounds of the draft, depending on what happens in free agency.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith was careful not to single out any one draft prospect as his team prepares to break down players at the NFL combine.

Smith did, however, speak in general terms about the guy touted as the most physically gifted specimen in this year’s class: South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

Clowney
"Well, he’s got the measurables that you’re looking for," Smith said of the 6-foot-6-inch, 274-pound Clowney. "Obviously, we’re all anxious to see him perform here at the combine to validate those measurables. He’s been a dominating player at the University of South Carolina in arguably the best conference in college football."

Clowney said he wants to be the No. 1 overall pick, but the Houston Texans, who own the selection, could target a quarterback. The Falcons currently have the sixth-overall pick.

Smith compared the buzz around Clowney to what happened in 2006 when another imposing defensive end.

"Well, I think that he has similar measurables to Mario Williams," Smith said of Clowney. "Mario Williams is, when you talk about the defensive end, he fits the criteria that you’re looking for. And, of course, Mario went on to be the first pick in the draft."

Clowney gets a chance to back up the hype when the defensive linemen go through workouts on Monday.
After a 4-12 season, we should expect the Atlanta Falcons to make some changes in order to return to the postseason. But those changes won't involve either of the coordinators.

The Falcons' decision over the weekend to give defensive coordinator Mike Nolan a two-year contract extension, as a source confirmed to ESPN.com late Sunday night, showed that coach Mike Smith isn't pointing fingers for his team's demise -- at least not at his most important assistants. Smith already said he was glad to have offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in the fold moving forward after Koetter flirted with Boise State.

[+] EnlargeMike Smith and Mike Nolan
AP Photo/Tony AvelarNews of a contract extension for Mike Nolan (right) reflects the esteem in which coach Mike Smith holds his defensive coordinator.
In Nolan's case, Smith obviously understood that the defense's demise was beyond control. Nolan lost two integral parts early on when versatile linebacker/defensive end Kroy Biermann suffered a season-ending Achilles injury and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was sidelined seven games due to a Lisfranc foot sprain.

Nolan was forced to work with two undrafted rookie starters at linebacker in Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, although both players exceeded expectations. Nolan also had two rookie cornerbacks at season's end with Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, although Trufant played like a veteran throughout. And Nolan had inexperienced pass-rushers in second-year player Jonathan Massaquoi and rookies Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga.

Nolan told me that nobody, including himself, wants to hear the excuse of being too young. But the inexperience contributed to the Falcons surrendering 41 plays of 25-plus yards.

I talked to Smith last week about the defensive woes, and his response told me he was more than willing to give Nolan a pass this season.

"We were playing a lot of young players, and when you have young players you want to make sure that they have a good understanding of what you're trying to do, and you don't have the ability to have the multiplicity that you would like to have when you're playing young players," Smith said. "And I think multiplicity is important in game-planning. When you don't have the ability to play multiple coverages and multiple fronts, it does limit you somewhat."

Nolan definitely is a coach the players respect. You can tell by the way they interact with him at practice. It's as if they think he's that old guy who's cool and hip.

Did the Falcons make the right move in extending Nolan's contract? Time will tell. He's a solid coach, in my opinion, and dialed up some nice blitzes the last two games. And once the Falcons get back some of their injured players and upgrade the defensive line, Nolan probably should enjoy more success with different defensive looks. You can't blame him for the countless missed tackles and repeated mental mistakes.

At the same time, Nolan should feel the pressure coming off this season. The Falcons had the league’s worst third-down defense and finished tied for 27th in total defense. They also surrendered more than six yards per play, which is unacceptable.

But it's not as if Nolan is incompetent. He just needs a full complement.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – When the Pro Bowl rosters are announced Friday, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith fully expects a familiar name to be a part of the group.

Gonzalez
Smith was asked if Tony Gonzalez should be named to his 14th Pro Bowl.

"Absolutely,’’ Smith said of the retiring tight end. "I think Tony’s had a great season. Don’t have to politic for him or campaign for him. I think his merits speak for themselves.’’

The 37-year-old Gonzalez was named to the Pro Bowl the past three seasons with the Falcons. He sarcastically inquired last week about his chances for this year’s game, as personal accolades are never his focus.

Here are the Falcons that are likely to get Pro Bowl consideration, Gonzalez included:
  • Tony Gonzalez, tight end: His 79 receptions are second best in the league among tight ends behind New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham (81). Gonzalez leads the Falcons with eight touchdown receptions and has touchdown catches in four consecutive games going into the regular-season finale.
  • William Moore, safety: A 2012 Pro Bowl pick, Moore leads the Falcons with 124 total tackles, is tied for the team lead with three forced fumbles, and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions. He also has two fumble recoveries to tie for the team lead.
  • Matt Bosher, punter: His 41-yard net punt average ranks sixth in the NFL. He has placed 24 punts inside the 20-yard line. Plus, Bosher has successfully helped execute three onside kicks, the most successful attempts since Neil Rackers (Arizona) in 2007.
  • Antone Smith, special teams: The diminutive special-teams ace as a gunner leads the Falcons with 10 special-teams tackles despite missing one game with a knee injury.
Luke Kuechly and Tony GonzalezGetty ImagesLuke Kuechly and the Panthers will try to spoil the final game for the Falcons' Tony Gonzalez.

There should be plenty of electricity inside the Georgia Dome when the Atlanta Falcons close their season against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. It will mark the final time Tony Gonzalez suits up in his No. 88 jersey, the final time the 17-year veteran walks out of the locker room with his teammates, set to do battle.

The Falcons (4-11) are sure to do everything possible to make sure Gonzalez's last NFL game is a memorable one, including a likely tribute of some sort. Could ruining the Panthers' NFC South title chances be a part of the Falcons' festivities?

ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Panthers reporter David Newton break down the matchup.

McClure: David, I'm sure the Panthers (11-4) are aware that this is Gonzalez's last NFL game. Earlier in the season, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman exchanged jerseys with him, knowing that it would be the final time he’d see Gonzalez on the field. Which player from Carolina would be most likely to follow Sherman's lead with such a swap?

Newton: I'm going with wide receiver Steve Smith. He has swapped items with a few players already this season and at this stage of his career. Besides, Smith won't need his own jersey; he's doubtful to play because of a sprained knee.

I suspect the Panthers will be more worried about covering Gonzalez than being nostalgic. He lit them up in the first half of the teams' first meeting before they adjusted coverage to shut him down. It's amazing that at 37 years old he's still a player teams have to plan for. Look for him to get a heavy dose of linebacker Luke Kuechly again.

A year ago, a Carolina team with nothing to play for beat Atlanta soundly in Charlotte late in the season, perhaps dulling some of the Falcons' momentum going into the playoffs. Are the Falcons hungry to play the spoiler, or just play out the string?

McClure: I think they're just trying to finish up the season unscathed and build toward next year. Coach Mike Smith has started nearly a full-fledged youth movement. In a Week 15 win over the Washington Redskins, nine players in the starting lineup were either rookies or second-year players. Smith contends that the Falcons aren't worried about draft positioning and are more concerned with winning games. At the same time, I'm sure they don't want to fall out of the top five in the draft order; they stand at No. 6 right now. Whatever the case, Smith's job is secure going into next season.

I know there had been some talk before about Ron Rivera's status, but he has no doubt silenced his critics, correct?

Newton: Rivera has pretty much slammed the door on his critics. If he doesn't get an extension out of this, it will be a shame. I've been really impressed with the way he remained the same during this hot streak to close the season as he was during a 1-3 start. That consistency, that unwillingness to waver from what he believed was the right way to build this team, is why the Panthers are in the position they're in.

He is indeed a players' coach. He doesn't ask anybody to do anything on the field that he wouldn't have done himself as a player. The biggest change since the season began is in his philosophy on fourth down. He has gone for it so many times that he's earned the nickname "Riverboat Ron." But most of that is more calculated than you'd think, and it has a lot to do with believing in what his players can do.

You mentioned Smith being solid in Atlanta, but there obviously needs to be some changes in personnel to shore up that defense during the offseason, right?

McClure: Correct. The first changes I anticipate are among the coaching staff, likely first on the defensive side. Once those coaching changes are made, the Falcons can identify where they are going with their schemes and identify which players make the best fit. Obviously, they need help along the offensive and defensive lines, and having a high draft pick helps the cause. I wouldn't be surprised to see them go after a linebacker in free agency and maybe try to add an elusive running back to the mix. Safety also is an area that needs to be addressed. And if the Falcons aren't fully confident in rookie Levine Toilolo as Gonzalez's replacement, they need to target another tight end.

I think the Panthers showed this year that they can compete with anyone, but what will it take to get them to the next level in terms of consistently being among the NFC's top teams?

Newton: They may be there now, but there are a few pieces that must be addressed after the offseason. Steve Smith isn't getting any younger, and No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell is unsigned. The secondary, despite its rank, could use a shutdown corner. And a decision on re-signing left tackle Jordan Gross must be made.

Otherwise, you have a strong nucleus in 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year Cam Newton at quarterback; Kuechly, the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year, at linebacker; and 2013 candidate Star Lotulelei at defensive tackle. General manager Dave Gettleman has done a good job of clearing cap room to re-sign key players and add needed pieces. I'd say it's more a matter of fine-tuning at this point.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons' coaching staff got an early Christmas gift Monday night: improved play on the offensive line.

No, it was not a strong enough performance to wipe out every bad memory from this season. But it was an encouraging sign from a unit that was expected to be dominated by a San Francisco 49ers front seven touted as arguably the best in the NFL.

Falcons coach Mike Smith hasn’t singled out the play of an offensive lineman too often this season. Tuesday afternoon, he singled out three.

Although quarterback Matt Ryan did a masterful job improvising at times, his pocket was clean for the most part, which helped him complete a career-high 37 passes. He was sacked just once and was able to go deep more than he had all season.

"The interior of the pocket was a little more stout," Smith said. "I thought that we did a very good job with scheming, with chipping, helping and having backs chip out, tight ends chip out before they went into their routes.

"The two tackles [Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder], they had tough draws. I thought they handled it well. I thought Matt [had a] very good pocket as well. And I really feel, after watching the tape on the ride back and watching it this morning, that Joe Hawley did a nice job cleaning the pocket up."

Hawley has been solid at center since taking the starting job away from Peter Konz, so his performance wasn’t that shocking. But Holmes held his own at left tackle against pass-rush demon Aldon Smith, while right tackle Schraeder did the same against Ahmad Brooks. Schrader fared well against Smith, too.

Holmes had a couple of false starts in the first half, but he settled down in the second half and competed with Smith. Bad technique seemed to cause Schraeder to fall on his back during one play, but he quickly shook it off.

"I thought Ryan Schraeder continued to show improvement, as an undrafted rookie getting his second start on 'Monday Night Football,'" Smith said. "I thought he did a nice job. He battled. He battled against a very good front seven."

The Falcons need to find five players capable of battling each and every week. Hawley looks like a keeper at center, while left guard Justin Blalock has been the only offensive lineman to keep his starting job throughout the season. Schraeder continues to show promise as the right tackle of the future, while the Falcons hope to get left tackle Sam Baker back healthy next season after knee surgery.

The coaches still believe Holmes has a bright future despite his obvious struggles. And the fact that Harland Gunn played 45 snaps at left guard against the 49ers, compared with 27 for Konz, is telling in terms of Konz’s status after losing his job at center.

If the line manages to string together back-to-back strong performances, the coaches truly would have something to build upon. And the Falcons finish the season against another one of league’s top defensive fronts in the Carolina Panthers.

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