NFC South: Alge Crumpler

NFC South legends to appear in N.Y.

September, 4, 2012
9/04/12
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The NFL just announced that one alumni representative from each team will take part in Wednesday’s pregame celebration at Rockefeller Center.

They’ll help the winner for each team unveil their design in the inaugural NFL Fan Flag Challenge. The show will start at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC and NFL Network and will lead into the season’s opening game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.

Looks like the NFL did pretty well in its recruiting efforts of former NFC South players. Two of the best tight ends in division history will represent the Falcons and Panthers. Alge Crumpler will be there for Atlanta and Wesley Walls for Carolina.

Willie Roaf will represent the Saints and I have a quarter that says he wears his Hall of Fame jacket, which he should.

Finally, Derrick Brooks, who might be the best player in division history (Drew Brees has at least closed the gap) will represent Tampa Bay.
The NFL announced Monday that 33 former players will get to announce picks during this week’s draft.

For the most part, the retired players will announce second-round picks. The New Orleans Saints don’t have a second-round pick, so Willie Roaf, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, will announce their third-round pick.

Former tight end Alge Crumpler will announce Atlanta’s second-round pick. Retired defensive end Mike Rucker will announce Carolina’s second-round pick.

Dexter Jackson will announce Tampa Bay’s second-round pick. To be clear, that’s the Dexter Jackson that was a safety and was the Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl XXXVII and not the wide receiver by the same name who was taken by the Bucs in the second-round in 2008, but didn’t last long.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

The much-anticipated NFC South all-decade team offense was supposed to go up before the defense and special teams this morning. Due to a technical glitch it did not.

But we'll run your offense out now. I say "your" team because it truly is. I asked you to vote and you did by the hundreds. I didn't make any of the selections. You did. I just counted up the ballots, so give each other grief in the comments section below if you don't like a pick (In fact, you made some picks I wouldn't have and I'll note them below).

Quarterback: Jake Delhomme. This was really close. After nearly 700 votes, Delhomme edged out Drew Brees by 11 votes. It was a tough call because Brees has been with the Saints since only 2006 and Delhomme has won a pile of game for the Panthers. I still would have gone with Brees just because he's been so spectacular in those three seasons. This wasn't just a two-horse race. Brad Johnson, the only NFC South quarterback to win a Super Bowl, finished a respectable third and Michael Vick even got 22 votes.

Running back, Warrick Dunn. I wouldn't call it a total landslide because there was some solid support for Deuce McAllister, but Dunn won pretty easily. He was productive in Tampa Bay and Atlanta throughout the entire decade. No argument here.

Fullback: Mike Alstott. This one was an absolute runaway and it probably should have been. Alstott had a very nice career even though he was almost as overrated as Jason Sehorn. Plus, there wasn't much competition. Carolina's Brad Hoover did get a few votes and those people deserve bonus points for looking beyond the easy and the obvious.

Tight end: Alge Crumpler. Crumpler was the easiest winner on the offense. The only reason we can't say Crumpler was a unanimous choice was because there was one vote for Wesley Walls. Not another tight end even got a vote.

Wide receivers: Steve Smith and Joe Horn. Smith was nearly unanimous and Horn wasn't that far off. Muhsin Muhammad got some attention and, somehow, Keyshawn Johnson got a vote. Thanks for stopping by the blog, Key.

Offensive tackles: Jordan Gross and Jammal Brown: Willie Roaf got some votes, which was a nice try by Saints fans, but Roaf was shipped off to Kansas City early in the decade and didn't qualify. Gross won easily. Brown edged a pack that actually included Todd Weiner and Todd Steussie. If he hadn't, I might have vetoed the vote and inserted Roaf on the team.

Guards: Davin Joseph and Travelle Wharton. This position had more variety than any other. After looking at the guys who also got votes, I've got no problem with Joseph and Wharton.

Center: Jeff Faine. This was one of the closer calls. Faine won with almost 40 percent of the vote. LeCharles Bentley and Todd McClure each had more than 30 percent of the vote.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

When it comes to next week's NFL draft, the NFC South should take a lesson from Carolina's DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

While the rest of the world was debating the real "Smash and Dash" last season, the Carolina backfield went in a different direction and dubbed itself "Double Trouble."

That's what the NFC South should do in the draft -- let flash go the same route as "Smash and Dash." What the NFC South -- and we're talking all four teams -- needs to do is forget all the hype fans and other teams are caught up in about offensive skill positions. Heck, just forget offense altogether (at least until later in the draft).

With its first draft pick, each NFC South team should go with a defensive player.

(Read full post)

Coach of the year debate

December, 25, 2008
12/25/08
12:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham, James Walker and Pat Yasinskas

The debate over who should be the NFL's coach of the year begins with three rookies who assumed control of woebegone teams and brought them back to relevancy.

Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano and Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh have been sideline miracle workers. The Falcons already have clinched a playoff berth. On Sunday, the Dolphins can claim the AFC East, and the Ravens can clinch the final wild-card berth.

ESPN.com bloggers Pat Yasinskas, Tim Graham and James Walker discuss whom is more deserving of the award, breaking down the debate into the three significant issues: team infrastructure, personnel at their disposal and obliterating expectations.

Which coach had to deal with the most daunting organizational strife?

Tim Graham: The Dolphins blew themselves up at the start of the year. Bill Parcells arrived late in 2007 and didn't see much he liked from a team about to miss the playoffs a seventh straight season. The team was going through the motions of a 1-15 campaign that was even more ridiculously bad than the record indicated. So the Dolphins started from scratch. Parcells fired the general manager, the head coach and got rid of all the captains.

Tony Sparano became the fifth head coach in the past five years, taking over a team that hadn't recorded double-digit wins since the glorious Jay Fiedler era. Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, meanwhile, was unloading a good portion of the team, creating a widespread uneasiness at the Davie, Fla., headquarters even in the offices outside of the football operations department.

A good time was not being had by all.

Pat Yasinskas: Sorry fellas, but this one's not even a contest. Yeah, the Ravens and Dolphins had their problems. But let's face it, at the end of last year, the Falcons were the most dysfunctional franchise in the history of football. Their franchise quarterback, Michael Vick, had just gone off to jail.

Their coach, Bobby Petrino, had walked out on them for a more talented roster at the University of Arkansas. The city, which never truly embraced the Falcons, now turned its back on them completely. Even Rich McKay, the team's general manager, president and perhaps only lingering thread of sanity, got pushed out of the football side and into the business side of things. Then owner Arthur Blank did the most daring thing of all and hired Mike Smith, who had never been a head coach before, and Thomas Dimitroff, who had never been a general manager before. It looked as if it was going to be a classic case of the blind leading the blind.

James Walker: Let me add this, Pat and Tim. Much is being made of Miami's 1-15 record last year, but keep in mind which team that victory came against. Yes, it was the Baltimore Ravens. That was a rock-bottom moment, not only for the season but I think for the 12-year history of the franchise.

Baltimore's biggest issue moving forward was where it would go from there. The Ravens' situation was unique in that they had to consider what type of transition to make.

Was Baltimore in need of a complete overhaul or just retooling? Sometimes, that's harder to accomplish in the NFL than what the Dolphins and Falcons did by completely starting over. Those two teams at least knew their direction early on.

The Ravens had to tread a more delicate path in bringing in some new coaches such as Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, while keeping others such as defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. They brought in some new players to help certain spots and trusted others to bounce back, either from injury or poor performance.

Baltimore also traded down in the draft to land more picks and first-round quarterback Joe Flacco, who was a bigger unknown than Matt Ryan or Jake Long. So there were certainly some issues with the Ravens. It just happened that Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome pushed most of the right buttons.



TG: Excellent points, James. You make an intriguing case for the Ravens in this area that I didn't think could be made compared to the Falcons or Dolphins. Mediocrity sometimes is harder to overcome than wretchedness, and the Ravens seemed stuck in neutral.

But let me remind everybody that Cameron was the Dolphins' head coach last year and ran their offense. He also had a huge say in personnel, which included the ill-fated addition of quarterback Trent Green and drafting return specialist Ted Ginn with the ninth overall pick. Cameron has returned to genius status with the Ravens. I think that speaks not to some sort of professional rebirth as much as it does that the infrastructure that was in place. There already was decent talent on the roster and good football people in the front office to lean on. The Dolphins didn't have an Ozzie Newsome.

As for the Falcons, do you mean to tell me, Pat, that overcoming all those travails you outlined are a big deal? Puh-lease. Teams handle that sort of turmoil every year, don't they? OK, maybe not.

PY: All right, I'm going to move on with how the Falcons began to rebuild their infrastructure and this brings up what seems like a very subtle point, but, as much as anything aside from drafting Matt Ryan and signing Michael Turner, it has been a key for the dramatic turnaround. Quite simply, Mike Smith put together an all-star team as a coaching staff.

He got former head coach Mike Mularkey to be the offensive coordinator, quarterback teacher Bill Musgrave to work with Matt Ryan (before the Falcons even knew they had Ryan) and kept defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas on staff. That was hugely important because Thomas was the guy who coached the team when Petrino left and the players trusted him. Smith completed the roster by getting veteran position coaches such as Paul Boudreau, who has taken very ordinary talent on the offensive line and kept Ryan standing upright and opened all sorts of holes for Turner.

It was kind of the same with Dimitroff, who knew a lot about evaluating players, but had never negotiated a contract. People like to say McKay is completely out of the football end of things and assume there's a rift between him and the guy who filled his general manager duties. But that's just not the case. McKay's one of the smartest people in the NFL and it makes some sense to at least let him keep a hand in the football side. McKay's the one who did Ryan's contract and he has been guiding Dimitroff and his staff on other contracts. From what was a totally dysfunctional organization, the Falcons have patched together one that now works very smoothly with good people in every spot.

JW: The Ravens, more than anything, needed a culture change. I think that should d
efinitely be considered when it comes time to vote.

Harbaugh had to come in and quickly tear down the relaxed, country-club atmosphere that Brian Billick left behind. The training camps were harder. The practices were more up tempo, and when you have a lot of strong-minded veterans that were there before the head coach, that can become dicey.

But the leaders in Baltimore's locker room bought into Harbaugh's message early and everyone else fell in line. Once that happened, it was no longer Billick's team. Winning early also helped, but this situation had the potential to be a major challenge that Harbaugh defused early on.

I don't think either Smith or Sparano faced the same issues, because those rosters were gutted and infused with youthful players who were easier to mold.


Which coach coped with the worst personnel entering the season?

PY: I remember standing at Falcons training camp and thinking, "This is not an NFL team." I looked out and saw Keith Brooking, John Abraham and Lawyer Milloy as the only big names, and they're all closing in on the end of their careers. The cupboard appeared to be absolutely bare.

I know everyone likes to think the Michael Vick thing is what left the Falcons so short-handed. It really wasn't. When Smith and Dimitroff came in, one of the first things they did was to gut the roster. They unloaded big names such as DeAngelo Hall, Alge Crumpler and Warrick Dunn, so a bad roster suddenly looked even worse. Back on that day in training camp, I played a little game and asked myself how many Falcons could start for another team? My answer was brief -- Abraham and fullback Ovie Mughelli. That's it.

JW: The Ravens had good personnel, but much of it was aging. Baltimore entered the season with seven starters with at least 10 years of experience, and many of those key players were coming off injuries the year before.

So although Harbaugh had veterans such as Ray Lewis, Samari Rolle and Trevor Pryce, the big unknown was how would they hold up for a 16-game season. The Ravens have had injuries this year but they've been fortunate for the most part with their older players, and it's one of the reasons they are having a winning season.

Even though Miami beat Baltimore last year, I would still say the Dolphins' personnel was considered the thinnest coming in. Would you agree, Tim?

TG: Oh, the Dolphins looked thinner than Manute Bol in pinstripes. What strikes me most when reflecting on Miami's training camp was the dearth of significant names on either side of scrimmage. A casual NFL fan couldn't name five guys on their roster, and the most well-known players came with serious question marks.

Ronnie Brown was returning from season-ending knee surgery. His backfield mate, Ricky Williams, is 31 years old and a known head case. Joey Porter was viewed as the NFL's most egregious free-agency error of 2007. Even Chad Pennington, once he arrived, was considered a washout just clinging to a career. Before leading target Greg Camarillo suffered a knee injury in Week 12, Miami's game-day receiving corps consisted of only one player who had been drafted, Ted Ginn. And he's considered a bust by most Dolfans.


PY: With such poor personnel, Smith and Dimitroff knew they had to work their tails off to rebuild the roster. It looked as if it might take a couple of years for them to assemble a roster capable of even challenging for the playoffs. Obviously, they've moved far ahead of schedule and that's because they were lucky and good as they went about the process. The first piece of the puzzle was signing Turner. He was viewed as the biggest prize in free agency, so why would he want to go to a team like the Falcons?

After four seasons of playing in the shadows of LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, Turner was looking for a place where he could be "the guy." The Falcons told him they'd give him 20 or 30 carries a game. They had him show up at an Arena Football League game and the crowd went nuts. If that didn't make Turner feel welcome enough, the Falcons wouldn't let him leave the building without signing a contract.

As good as Ryan has turned out, it was still a gamble to take any quarterback with the third overall pick and start him right away. But Dimitroff did an enormous amount of homework on Ryan and firmly believed he was exactly whom the Falcons needed to be their new quarterback and face of the franchise. Dimitroff's draft preparation didn't stop there. He traded back into the first round to get left tackle Sam Baker to protect Ryan's blindside, got a defensive quarterback in middle linebacker Curtis Lofton in the second and a third receiver and return man in Harry Douglas in the third. Those four rookies plus defensive back Chevis Jackson each have played huge roles in the turnaround.

JW: Pat and Tim, let me end this with a quick story that relates to both of your teams.

I live in Cleveland and attended the rookie orientation at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio for both of these teams. I was working on a story this summer and picked the brains of about a half-dozen rookies that day such as Long, Chad Henne, Ryan and Baker, and I got the sense early that these were respectful, mature players that appreciated the opportunity to play in the NFL. So I'm not surprised Atlanta and Miami have young talent playing beyond their years.

But what was funny was the number of players that were brought in. The orientation was for rookies only, but I remember thinking the Dolphins and Falcons brought their entire 53-man rosters to Canton. There were at least 15 rookies and undrafted free agents coming off the bus from each team, and it could have been closer to 20 players.

Obviously some rookies and rookie free agents never made it past training camp, but it illustrates the point you two were making about gutting the rosters. In that respect, Miami and Atlanta definitely had a farther starting point than the Ravens.


Which coach prompted the lowest expectations?

JW: Without a doubt, all three teams and coaches came in with question marks. Most experts picked the Dolphins, Falcons and Ravens to finish either third or last in their respective divisions at the beginning of the season. But in terms of coaches, Harbaugh was the biggest unknown.

Two years ago Harbaugh was a longtime special teams coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. He was promoted to secondary coach under Philadelphia's Andy Reid for one year before impressing the Ravens enough to lead their team.

There were certainly doubters locally and nationally. The biggest question was can a coach that spent most of his career running special teams handle all the strong personalities as the leader of the Ravens? But Harbaugh had the charisma and intensity to pull it off and was very smart to put together an A-list staff of assistants to back him.

As far as the team, no one knew what to expect from Baltimore. Were the Ravens a five-win team of 2007 or the 13-win team of '06? Maybe they were somewhere in between?

With decent quarterback play, I felt this team could win seven or eight games this year. My prediction was higher than most, but the Ravens have far exceeded even my expectations.

PY: If the expectations in Detroit this year were what they were in Atlanta, Matt Millen would still have a job and Rod Marinelli would be viewed as a decent coach. Seriously, after what happened to the Falcons last year, there were no expectations in Atlanta. Three or four wins and less than three major off-field controversies would have been considered a nice season. People were hoping the Braves went deep enough into the playoffs that there wouldn't be much gap before the Hawks started playing some preseason games because, as far as Falcons fans were concerned, there was going to be no reason to watch the Falcons.

In large part, I think that turned out to be a good thing. The incredibly low expectations allowed the Falcons to decide to start Ryan from Day One because fans wouldn't have the lofty expectations for him that they usually do for a first-round quarterback. Ryan didn't have to start the season under a microscope and that gave him a chance to get comfortable in a hurry. Even at midseason, Atlanta fans still were looking at the Falcons with guarded optimism. It has only been in recent weeks that people have started to even think about the playoffs.

TG: James, I have to disagree with you that Harbaugh was the most unknown of the new coaches. People at least knew him by his last name, his father being a well-known college coach and his brother playing NFL quarterback before embarking on a coaching career of his own. People still think the name of the new Dolphins coach is Tony Soprano.

As for expectations, no sane individual ever would have predicted Miami would finish with double-digit wins or be in position to make the playoffs in Week 17. But that was no more unfathomable than what's transpired in Atlanta.

But here's where Sparano will be taken for granted when it comes time for people to consider coach-of-the-year honors. Parcells, with his mere presence, inflated expectations. Fans weren't bold enough to consider an AFC title, but seven or eight wins was within the realm of possibility. And when people judge Miami's turnaround, the first person they will give credit to is Parcells.

JW: Tony Sparano had the catchy name, he was a Parcells guy, and he came from "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys. By the time he was hired in Miami, he was on the radar of sports fans. Harbaugh's hiring had people looking through media guides to double-check his pedigree.

We'll just have to agree to disagree, Tim.

But speaking of taking things for granted, let's not overlook the strength of schedule the Ravens had coming into the season. Baltimore had the fifth-toughest schedule in the league that included non-division opponents such as the Tennessee Titans (13-2), Indianapolis Colts (11-4) and the entire NFC East division.

Although some things changed during the course of a season, Atlanta entered the year with the No. 21-rated schedule and Miami's was No. 23.

Baltimore is in control of its playoff chances this week, in part because it went 3-1 against the NFC East, which is a mark the Dolphins and Falcons probably couldn't match if given the chance. Also, if head-to-head meetings have anything to do with coach of the year voting, Harbaugh and the Ravens did go into Miami and beat the Dolphins by two touchdowns in Week 7.

PY: James and Tim, I think we can all agree none of these three guys were household names in comparison to some of the veteran head coaches. But Harbaugh did have the bloodlines of his father and brother and was well-known as one of the league's top special-teams coaches. Sparano wasn't an unknown because the assistants in Dallas are as well known as head coaches most places. Smith was easily the least known of the trio of new coaches.

He'd been a coordinator in Jacksonville, where media attention is minimal, and he spent a bunch of years coaching in some small stops through the college ranks. The only area where Smith stood out was the fact he was tremendously ordinary. Even his name is ordinary.

I remember at the NFL owners' meeting last spring, ESPN's Michael Smith and I had breakfast with Smith. They were joking about having the same names. I remember thinking, "My television colleague is the more famous of these two." With apologies to Michael Smith, it's no longer that way. Mike Smith has become famous because he is the Coach of the Year.

TG: Mike Smith sounds like the name people use when they check into motels that charge by the hour, and I wondered if his coaching career would be measured in the same increments given the circumstances he was headed into.

But when you look at the turnaround of each club, the Dolphins have been the most dramatic. Sparano has overseen one of the biggest one-season improvements in NFL history. No one-victory team has won 10 games the next season, and the Dolphins could finish with 11 and a playoff berth, another unprecedented feat.

The Falcons' and Ravens' turnarounds have been remarkable, but the Dolphins' has been historic.

Around the NFC South

November, 27, 2008
11/27/08
9:27
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

PANTHERS

John Fox isn't the kind of coach who throws out statistics lightly. He often says "stats are for losers'', so it means something when Fox throws a stat at his team.

He did it this week when he and the defensive staff told the Panthers repeatedly they gave up 193 yards after contact in Sunday's loss to Atlanta. That stat is based on yards the Falcons gave after Carolina's defense made the initial hit. That's pretty surprising for a Fox defense. The Panthers are usually fundamentally sound in tackling, but they'd gotten away from that a bit even in their two previous games -- victories against Oakland and Detroit.

The Panthers haven't practiced in pads this week because Fox wants to keep his team fresh, but you can bet the Panthers have talked about tackling better.

SAINTS

Defensive end Will Smith is hoping Sunday's game at Tampa Bay isn't his last of the season. But that's a very real possibility. Smith, along with running back Deuce McAllister and injured defensive end Charles Grant, are facing possible suspensions for testing positive for a banned substance.

If Smith is suspended for the final four games, it will mark the end of what's been a disappointing season. After signing the biggest contract in franchise history in the offseason, Smith has been limited to 3.5 sacks.

The number of players on the injured-reserve list jumped to 14 Thursday as the Saints sat cornerback Aaron Glenn (ankle) down for the rest of the season. With another overhaul of the secondary likely in the offseason Glenn, a 15-year veteran, might have played his last game in New Orleans.

BUCCANEERS

Although his name has been thrown about in connection with the open head coaching job at Clemson, Tampa Bay associate head coach Rich Bisaccia said he hasn't been contacted by university officials. Bisaccia formerly worked at Clemson as an assistant and has a long history in the college game. Bisaccia has been one of Tampa Bay's most productive assistants this season. He oversees special teams, where rookie Clifton Smith has emerged as a top-not return man and punter Josh Bidwell and kicker Matt Bryant are having seasons that make them Pro Bowl candidates. Bisaccia also supervises the running backs and has done a nice job as the Bucs have had to juggle tailbacks and fullbacks because of injury.

It sounds like safety Jermaine Phillips, who has been out with a broken arm, could make his return Sunday against the Saints. If he does, that would send Sabby Piscitelli back to the bench. Also, tight end Alex Smith is making progress in his recovery from an ankle injury and might be available Sunday.

FALCONS

Atlanta coach Mike Smith has made several references to the "Over-30 Club'' recently. Specifically, he's talking about guys like John Abraham, Keith Brooking, Grady Jackson, Lawyer Milloy and Jason Elam. They're all over 30, most of them have played on winning teams at various points in their careers and they've provided valuable leadership for a young team that didn't seem to have a lot of leaders after an offseason purge that saw the departures of players like Warrick Dunn and Alge Crumpler.

The leadership from this group has been tremendous, but you have to wonder about the future of the Over-30 Club. Abraham and Elam are almost certain to be back with the team next season. But you have to wonder a bit about Jackson, Brooking and Milloy. They're all contributing a lot this year, but their age could work against them as the Falcons look at their roster in the offseason.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Before the NFL owners meetings started Tuesday morning, commissioner Roger Goodell and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank were standing near the coffee pots making small talk.

 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 Falcons owner Arthur Blank is keeping his team's 4-2 start in perspective.

They talked some about Atlanta's 4-2 start, which naturally led to rookie quarterback Matt Ryan.

"I said, 'Roger, when I was 23 years old, I can assure you I didn't carry myself the way he does and I thought I was a pretty mature young man,'" Blank said. "I'm amazed at his personal maturity. It's just shocking to me."

Largely because of Ryan, there's a lot of shock in Atlanta -- and across the league -- these days. Ryan, the third overall pick in this year's draft from Boston College, is playing with uncommon poise and the Falcons are winning.

"We're in a good place," Blank said three different times during a 25-minute interview with ESPN.com.

That's something Blank wasn't capable of saying a year ago when his team was in turmoil and he didn't expect to be saying it so quickly this season. But, after what he's been through, the owner isn't about to get carried away when the season isn't even halfway over.

"Coming into the season, a lot of people were saying we'd be lucky to win three or four games," Blank said. "We've already won four and that's great. But the general manager, the head coach and I were talking about it the other day and it is only six games. The world in the NFL can change in a week or two. We realize that we've got to keep our head down and keep paying attention to our business. We'll work as hard as we can all year and win as many games as we can."

(Read full post)

 
 Michael Montes/Getty Images
 Through three games, John Abraham is leading the NFL with six sacks.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

They sat John Abraham down in the offseason and told him that, on a rebuilding team, he would not be an every-down player.

An insult to the biggest remaining name on a roster that had just shed Alge Crumpler, Warrick Dunn and DeAngelo Hall? Well, you could have taken it that way. But Abraham didn't.

As it turns out that meeting with coach Mike Smith, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and defensive line coach might have been the best thing ever to happen to Abraham's career. A three-time Pro Bowler and one of the league's most talked about pass rushers during his time with the New York Jets (2000 through 2005), Abraham, like a lot of people in Atlanta, had become somewhat of a forgotten man since joining the Falcons in 2006.

But you can't forget him anymore. Through three games, Abraham is leading the NFL with six sacks. At his current pace, he would finish the season with 32 sacks. He's a major part of the reason why the Falcons, 4-12 a year ago, are off to a surprising 2-1 start.

It's all because Abraham has embraced what some would view as a reduced role.

"They came to me and said this would be best for the team," Abraham said.

It turns out it's also best for Abraham to not be out on the field for 50 or 60 snaps a week. At 30 and with a long history of injuries, Abraham has been limited to about 35 plays a week, but that's maximizing his production.

He sacked Kansas City quarterback Tyler Thigpen on the first play of Sunday's victory and forced a fumble with a sack in the third quarter. Abraham had three sacks in the season opener against Detroit and another in a loss to Tampa Bay.

"I think that he has bought into how we are going to use him,'' Smith said.

Abraham has more than bought into his role, which has kept him as the starter at right defensive end. He's welcomed it completely and said he's invigorated after struggling, with everyone else, through last year's disastrous season with coach Bobby Petrino.

"Things are just more relaxed around here this year," Abraham said. "Coach Smith is a professional and he understands players and knows how to mentor young and old players. He talks to us as grownups. He talks to us as men."

Smith and his assistants talked to Abraham as a man back in the offseason and that may be why his career, and the Falcons, are rejuvenated. They told Abraham they were looking for addition by subtracting from his playing time.

"They basically said, 'If we do it this way, it will work and it will help the whole team'," Abraham said. "They were being smart and it's showing up in my numbers right now. I've got to stay fresh and do it that way the rest of the year."

Keeping Abraham fresh was the main goal in Smith's thinking. The arrival of defensive line coach Hamilton reunited Abraham with his position coach from his rookie season with the Jets and that may be another reason why Abraham is looking so youthful.

"It's the same as it was before when I was with Ray. It's fun," Abraham said. "I've got somebody I can talk to. Ray can work through anything. He's trying to see me succeed."

Abraham is succeeding because the Falcons are giving him plenty of rest. They're keeping him on the sideline in a lot of obvious running situations and letting younger defensive ends Chauncey Davis and Kroy Biermann get more playing time.

"I've played the whole game before and that's fine," Abraham said. Now, we have some guys who are accustomed to playing the run and we're using them. That helps me stay fresh and lets me do what I do best."

The reduced role isn't the only way the Falcons are getting the most out of Abraham. They're moving him around a lot, putting him at right defensive end, left defensive end and dropping him into coverage.

"I've moved around some before, but never anywhere close to as much as I'm doing now," Abraham said. "It's good and it's fun."

It's also confusing for offenses that have to figure out where Abraham is and what he's doing. Four of his sacks have come from the right side and two from the left. But being the designated pass rusher isn't Abraham's only role.

He's also become a mentor to Atlanta's other starting defensive end, Jamaal Anderson. A first-round pick last year, Anderson had a disappointing rookie season and still has not recorded an NFL sack.

But the coaches have been complimentary of Anderson's play through the first three games and say it's only a matter of time before the sacks start coming. Like Abraham, Anderson also has been moving around. At times, he slides inside to defensive tackle.

"Jamaal is a totally different player than last year," Abraham said. "He now understands what he has to do. It's not showing up in the stats yet, but it will because he's matured as a person and a player. I've talked to him a lot and told him to just keep doing what he's doing and things will take care of themselves."

That's an attitude that Abraham has carried throughout his career and, now, it's working out better than ever.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

 
  AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
 Alge Crumpler returns to the Georgia Dome on Friday night.

Once again, it's homecoming time in the NFC South. On Sunday night, Warrick Dunn made his home debut in his second stint with Tampa Bay and safety John Lynch, now with the Patriots, briefly returned to the place where he became famous.

Next up? Alge Crumpler returns to the Georgia Dome on Friday night. This time, Crumpler's with the Tennessee Titans. The best tight end in Atlanta history, Crumpler -- along with Dunn and a bunch of others -- got dumped by the Falcons in an offseason purge of veterans.

Crumpler spent seven seasons with the Falcons, but his heart is a long way from Atlanta. Crumpler made that clear when he talked to my AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky at Tennessee's training camp. Crumpler told Kuharsky he doesn't really care what happens to the Falcons.

"I'm not too in tune to everything that's going on," Crumpler said. "I do keep in contact with some of their players, like Lawyer Milloy, I talked to a couple days ago, and Martez Milner. But I'm not real in tune to it really. I'll pull for individuals, but as a team, no not really."

Coincidentally, the Falcons are planning to go with former Tennessee tight end Ben Hartsock as their starter.

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