NFC South: Antone Smith

While rookie Devonta Freeman generated a lot of buzz for the Atlanta Falcons this offseason, another running back quietly went about his business in preparation for the 2014 campaign.

Jacquizz Rodgers, entering his fourth season, isn't worried about being overlooked in the backfield equation, with Freeman being touted as a possible every-down back and Steven Jackson already the starter. Fan-favorite Antone Smith also is a part of the group and undrafted rookie Jerome Smith hopes to make an impression.

"There are no concerns," Rodgers said, speaking about the addition of Freeman. "You've got to come and compete every year. It just makes the group better, bringing more guys. It makes everybody work harder at practice. We're going to work collectively. We're going to learn from each other. And we're going to make each other better each and every day."

The Falcons had to think toward the future with Jackson ready to turn 31 next month. That is why they drafted Freeman in the fourth round out of Florida State.

"He's a good running back," Rodgers said of his new teammate. "Comes from a winning program. Fast guy: a guy that's willing to learn, willing to learn from the older guys. He's a good piece to our puzzle in the backfield."

Rodgers has value as an all-purpose back, so he should be part of the rotation entering the regular season. So what happens when Freeman starts taking touches from Rodgers once the season starts?

"It wouldn't bother me because you know I'm going to go out there and work hard, and just continue to do what I've got to do," Rodgers said. "I know when I got my shot, I'm going to go all out."

Rodgers compiled 1,248 all-purpose yards last season, including 575 kickoff return yards. The addition of Devin Hester as a return man will keep Rodgers from being as a effective on special teams, but he will likely stay in the mix as insurance.

Rodgers remains a threat as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and a player capable of creating mismatches. Plus, he brings another aspect that a rookie such as Freeman might have a hard time with initially.

"Blocking, I take very good pride in that," Rodgers said. "As a running back, if you want to be on this field, that's one thing that you've got to be able to do."

Rodgers is capable of a lot. That is why he should have a place on the field this season.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons addressed another need with their first of two fourth-round draft picks by selecting Florida State running back Devonta Freeman.

Freeman (5-8, 206) left college early after winning the national title. The Miami native received a third-round grade from the draft advisory board.

"I took a visit up there one time and I was like,'I want this to be my home, man,'" Freeman said Saturday via teleconference. "I just loved the atmosphere. It just reminded me so much of Miami. ... I was just praying to God. God is so good. I'm just so blessed.

"I'm going to work. I promise that. I promise I'm going to go to work every single day."

The Falcons needed another body in the backfield after Jason Snelling abruptly decided to retire. It left the team with aging veteran Steven Jackson as the primary ballcarrier with Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith behind. The Falcons finished last in the league in rushing last season.

Freeman has some elusive ability. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he averaged 3.9 yards before first contact per rush and gained more than 67 percent of his rushing yards before contact.

Freeman appeared in 39 games during three seasons at Florida State, starting 26 contests, including his final 19 appearances. He racked up 2,255 yards with 30 touchdowns on 404 carries and caught 47 passes for 475 yards and a touchdown.

Freeman said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of another Florida State back who went on to play for the Falcons: Warrick Dunn.

"I want to be great, like he was," Freeman said of Dunn. "I want to give to the community. I want to speak to the community. ... I'm just happy to be a part of the Atlanta Falcons."

Here's a story detailing some of the obstacles Freeman overcame as a child and some of the people who helped him along the way, including one famous rapper.

Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

December, 1, 2013

TORONTO -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 34-31 overtime victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at the Rogers Centre in Toronto:

What it means: No matter the outcome, the Falcons' draft status is sure to be a topic of conversation for the remainder of the season, even if head coach Mike Smith said the draft is not a concern right now. Atlanta, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans all sat at the bottom of the NFL standings entering Sunday. While the Texans lost to the New England Patriots, the Jaguars defeated the Browns. Sunday’s victory wasn't the best-case scenario for eager Falcons fans hoping for the No. 1 overall draft pick.

Stock watch: Antone Smith's stock continues to soar. The diminutive running back once again took advantage of his touches. He scored on a 38-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, sweeping to the left and darting through the hole with his blazing speed. Smith also ran 50 yards on a kickoff return after taking a reverse from Jacquizz Rodgers. That’s not to say carries should be taken away from Steven Jackson, who played rather well himself while scoring two rushing touchdowns.

Turn of events: Although the defense gave up some big plays once again, the Falcons managed to create turnovers when they needed them most. Robert McClain forced Bills receiver Stevie Johnson to fumble in the final moments of regulation, allowing the Falcons to force overtime. Then William Moore knocked the ball away from Bills tight end Scott Chandler on the first possession of overtime. The fumble was recovered by rookie Robert Alford, who foolishly lateraled it to teammate Desmond Trufant. Regardless, the Falcons got the ball and were able to win on Matt Bryant’s 36-yard field goal. Moore’s forced turnover turned out to be the difference-maker.

Regaining his form: Roddy White hasn’t been himself most of the season thanks to ankle and hamstring injuries. Now apparently back at full strength, White looked like his old self against the Bills. He surpassed 100 receiving yards for the first time this season and looked fluid running his routes. He finished with 10 catches for 143 yards. White had 80 yards combined on six catches in the three games before the trip to Toronto.

Stumbling back: Quarterback Matt Ryan didn’t help his own cause. On one play from the goal line, Ryan stumbled as he dropped back and fell to the ground. On another, he fumbled an exchange with center Joe Hawley that helped set up a Bills score. Ryan seemed to have trouble with his footwork on a couple of plays. Maybe it was playing on foreign soil, although he said earlier in the week that Canada was no different from any other U.S. city.

What's next: The Falcons have another road matchup, this time against the Green Bay Packers at historic Lambeau Field. Uncertainty remains concerning Aaron Rodgers' status coming off a broken collarbone. If Rodgers is out, the Falcons legitimately have a chance to win. But how will the dome-oriented adjust to life outdoors in the cold?

W2W4: Falcons vs. Saints

November, 21, 2013
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The NFC South clash between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints won't carry the same significance, with the 2-8 Falcons having a down year. But the battle is sure to be spirited regardless of records.

Here's what to watch for on Thursday night:

[+] EnlargeAntone Smith
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayThe Falcons are looking to give Antone Smith more work after he ran for 88 yards on just two carries last week.
Schraeder's time? Garrett Reynolds is expected to regain his starting role at right guard after being benched last week while Peter Konz talked as if he has been replaced by Joe Hawley at center for the immediate future. But the interesting spot to watch on the Falcons offensive line is at right tackle, where Ryan Schraeder, Jeremy Trueblood, and newcomer Sean Locklear all got first-team snaps this week. Trueblood got benched for Schraeder last week while Locklear was inactive. One of the players seems destined to be inactive Thursday, but it would make sense for the Falcons to get a longer look at the rookie Schraeder. "I feel comfortable," Schraeder said. "I'm ready to go, if I need to be called on." He played 22 offensive snaps in the last game. "I got some positive feedback," Schraeder said. "Got coached up on a few things."

Free spirit: Pro Bowl free safety Thomas DeCoud admitted he's not playing his best football right now. At the same time, he didn't appreciate all the blame being pointed his way and vented through social media about it. DeCoud has been nothing but a true professional in terms of dealing with the media, so one would expect him to handle this adversity in the same manner. He won't lose his starting job this week, but the Falcons need him to defend the deep ball better. How soon people forget that DeCoud scored the last defensive touchdown for the Falcons with a 30-yard return of a fumble recovery against the Buccaneers in Week 7.

Pressure point: Speaking of the defense, DeCoud scored his touchdown a result of a perfectly timed blitz by himself and fellow safety William Moore. In fact, the high amount of blitzes dialed up by defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was a big factor in the Falcons' last win. Would the same work against Drew Brees and the Saints? Maybe not. According to ESPN Statistics and Information, Brees completed 8 of 9 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 when the Falcons sent five or more pass rushers.

In the running: Mike Smith has said it was imperative to get Antone Smith more involved in the running game after Smith broke off a 50-yard touchdown run last week and gained 88 yards on two carries. That statement came a week after the Falcons said they needed to work their workhorse Steven Jackson more often. That's not to say that Smith will surpass Jackson as the primary ball carrier, but it will be interesting to see how the Falcons deploy Smith against the Saints. Jacquizz Rodgers was limited in practice with an ankle injury and Jason Snelling is in the doghouse following a marijuana arrest, so there will be opportunities for Smith. Plus the 5-foot-9, 192-pound special-teams ace Smith has the right approach. "I feel like I'm playing for a job every time I step in the building," he said.

Ryan's hope: Rob Ryan obviously has made an impact. The Saints had the worst defense in league history in terms of yards allowed last season. Now with Ryan coordinating the defense, the Saints boast the league's fourth-best total defense and third-best passing defense. Ryan comes at you with a variety of different looks, which will test Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's game plan. "He's really good at mixing his personnel groups," Koetter said of Ryan. "Some of how he mixes his groups is determined by the health of his guys. Whoever he's got up on game day, he uses all of his guys." The Saints lost top cornerback Jabari Greer to an ACL injury, which could benefit the Falcons.

Falcons sign RB Antone Smith

March, 5, 2013
The Atlanta Falcons have signed a running back. No, it’s not the type of big name you were hoping for (although that could come in free agency or the draft).

The Falcons just announced they have signed restricted free agent Antone Smith to a two-year contract.

But don’t look for the commitment to Smith to suddenly make him into a factor in the backfield. He has one career carry (that was in 2010), but has made his living by being a regular on special teams.

After releasing Michael Turner last week, the Falcons still have Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling.

Looking at Falcons' offensive snaps

February, 12, 2013
Considering injuries played such a big part in holding him back the first four years of his career, Atlanta tackle Sam Baker reached a remarkable milestone in the 2012 season. The left tackle did not miss a single snap.

Baker participated in all of Atlanta’s 1,060 offensive plays. So did guard Justin Blalock.

Let’s take a look at the rest of the playing time percentages for the rest of Atlanta’s offense.

Looking at Atlanta's free agents

February, 11, 2013
We still have a little more than a month left before the start of free agency, but let’s start taking a look at who the potential free agents are for each NFC South team. Let’s start with the Atlanta Falcons.

Their potential unrestricted free agents are tight end Tony Gonzalez, cornerback Brent Grimes, tackle Sam Baker, safety William Moore, tackle Will Svitek, fullback Mike Cox, center Todd McClure, quarterback Luke McCown, cornerback Christopher Owens, linebacker Mike Peterson, tackle Garrett Reynolds, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury and defensive tackle Vance Walker. Running back Antone Smith and tight end Michael Palmer are potential restricted free agents.

This is a group that’s heavy at the top. Gonzalez, Moore, Baker and Grimes all are starters and potentially expensive. McClure might be near the end of the line, but he started last season and brings valuable leadership.

The Falcons are pleading heavily with Gonzalez to return for one more season. If he decides to retire, they’ll have to make major changes to their offensive scheme because you just don’t find another tight end with the same skill set.

The Falcons have limited salary-cap space, but, much like last offseason, they’ll make a strong effort to keep their team together.

Moore has turned into a Pro Bowler and Baker had a very solid 2012 season. The beauty of Moore is that he’s a safety and the market price shouldn’t be that high at that position. Left tackles are more expensive, but the Falcons have built a level of trust with Baker and they might be able to keep him at a reasonable rate. Besides, it would be difficult and expensive to go out and find a new left tackle in free agency or the draft.

Grimes is likely to be the biggest challenge in this free-agency class. Although he is undersized and coming off a major injury, Grimes is likely to command big money on the open market. The Falcons also have decent money tied up in Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel, and Robert McClain showed strong signs he can be a solid No. 3 or No. 2 corner. The Falcons are likely to treat Grimes the same way they did linebacker Curtis Lofton last year. They’ll draw a line in the sand as far as what they’re willing to pay and won’t go over it if he gets a bigger offer elsewhere.

The Falcons have invested a fair amount of draft picks on the interior of the offensive line in recent years, so I can’t see them paying more than the minimum to bring McClure back. They also should be able to retain McCown and Cox for the minimum or close to it. Sidbury, Reynolds and Owens have had plenty of chances, but haven’t developed into impact players. If they get decent offers elsewhere, I don’t see the Falcons making a big effort to keep them. Peterson is a veteran who could come back for one more year at the minimum to provide some linebacker depth.

Walker is a solid role player on the defensive line. But he could get more money elsewhere and I don’t see the Falcons going out of their way to keep him.

Atlanta's offensive playing time

January, 8, 2013
We already showed you the playing-time breakdown for the Atlanta Falcons defense.

Now, let’s switch over to the offensive side, where the Falcons had 1,073 plays. Here’s the complete breakdown of how many snaps each offensive player got, followed by my thoughts: My thoughts: In the final analysis, the Falcons had Rodgers on the field about as much as Turner. Limiting Turner’s playing time was a goal at the start of the season and Rodgers seemed to gain more trust from the coaching staff as time went on. … Konz was the only member of the rookie class to get much playing time. Although some fans thought Holmes had a chance to start, the team viewed him as a project. … Baker played every snap and stayed healthy for an entire season. He turned in a solid year and that probably means the Falcons will make a fairly strong effort to keep him from leaving as a free agent.

Nicholas, Babineaux will play Sunday

October, 14, 2012
ATLANTA -- Linebacker Stephen Nicholas and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who had been listed as questionable with injuries, are expected to start Sunday’s game with the Oakland Raiders.

The Falcons just gave out their list of inactives and Nicholas and Babineaux aren’t on it.

Quarterback Dominique Davis, cornerback Terrence Johnson, running back Antone Smith, offensive tackle Lamar Holmes, tight end Michael Palmer, defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi and defensive end Cliff Matthews are inactive.

Jon Beason to play against Falcons

September, 30, 2012
ATLANTA -- Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Jon Beason, who was listed as questionable with knee and shoulder injuries, will be active for Sunday’s game with the Atlanta Falcons.

The biggest item of note on Carolina’s list of inactives is that rookie receiver/return man Joe Adams will not play. Adams muffed a punt and fumbled on a kickoff return last week. Kealoha Pilares is expected to handle kickoff returns and Armanti Edwards is likely to handle punt returns.

Carolina’s other inactives are Jimmy Clausen, D.J. Campbell, Bruce Campbell, Mike Pollak, Antwan Applewhite and Frank Kearse.

As expected, Atlanta fullback Lousaka Polite, cornerback Chris Owens, tight end Michael Palmer and running back Antone Smith are inactive due to injuries. The other inactives for the Falcons are Dominique Davis, Lamar Holmes and Jonathan Massaquoi.

Checking the injuries that matter most

September, 28, 2012
The final injury reports are in for Sunday’s game, so let’s take a look at the most significant injuries around the division.

The news isn’t good for a New Orleans defense that already was struggling. Linebackers David Hawthorne and Jonathan Casillas and defensive end Turk McBride have been declared out for Sunday’s game at Green Bay. Casillas had been backing up Hawthorne. With both of them out, Will Herring appears likely to get the start.

Carolina middle linebacker Jon Beason (knee and shoulder) practiced Friday. Coach Ron Rivera said the team will see how sore Beason is Sunday before making a decision on his status. If Beason can’t play against Atlanta, Jason Phillips is expected to start in the middle. Running back Jonathan Stewart is listed as probable and expected to play for just the second time this season.

The Falcons have declared tight end Michael Palmer, cornerback Christopher Owens, running back Antone Smith and fullback Lousaka Polite out for Sunday. That means Dominique Franks likely will be used as the nickel back and running back Jason Snelling probably will get some time at fullback. Tommy Gallarda is expected to take Palmer’s place as the backup tight end.

The Buccaneers are relatively healthy compared to the other three teams. Reserve cornerback Anthony Gaitor is out for Sunday, but everyone else (including guard Carl Nicks and cornerback E.J. Biggers) is no worse than probable.

Observation deck: Falcons-Jaguars

August, 30, 2012

Some quick observations on the Falcons' 24-14 preseason loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night.
  • Coach Mike Smith opened the game with most of his starting defense on the field. He told the defense it would play one series. Well, that series ended up being exactly one play. Defensive tackle Vance Walker scooped up a Blaine Gabbert fumble that set up an Atlanta touchdown on its first offensive play. Smith stayed true to his word. The starting defense, for the most part, was done after that one play. Middle linebacker Akeem Dent and defensive tackle Peria Jerry were the notable exceptions. They got some extended playing time because Dent missed some time earlier in the preseason and needs the experience. Jerry, who appears to be destined to start with Corey Peters injured, continues to show signs he could get back to where he was before he suffered a major knee injury in his rookie season.
  • Undrafted rookie quarterback Dominique Davis got the start and played the entire way. Davis did some good things, particularly making a few wise choices to dump off to secondary receivers (and sometimes just throwing the ball away) when primary targets weren’t able to get open downfield. But Davis did throw an interception as the Falcons were running the two-minute offense late in the game. I think Davis has shown enough to earn a roster spot, but I think he will open the season as the third quarterback behind starter Matt Ryan and Luke McCown. I think the Falcons will be thrilled if Davis can develop into the backup relatively quickly. But I think the smart move is to at least open the season with the veteran McCown as the backup. He has experience in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s offense from their days together with the Jaguars. But I’m impressed by just about everything about Davis. In particular his pocket presence and awareness is a whole lot better than you would expect from an undrafted rookie.
  • Dominique Franks did some good things at cornerback. That along with the fact that he’s wrapped up the punt-returner job, probably means Franks has locked up the fourth cornerback spot. Franks intercepted a Chad Henne pass near the end of the first half.
  • Speaking of guys on the roster bubble, I think Kevin Cone might have helped his case for the final receiver spot. Cone had a nice touchdown reception, where he swatted away several potential tacklers, in the third quarter.

Ranking the NFC South RB situations

May, 9, 2012
1. Carolina Panthers: The Panthers have the best one-two punch at running back in the entire league in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Although they traded Mike Goodson to the Raiders this offseason, they also signed Mike Tolbert, who could play some fullback as well as running back. The Panthers’ backfield is stacked.

I am extremely high on Stewart and would love to see what he would be able to do if he didn’t have to split time, as evidenced by his whopping 5.4-yard average in 2011. Stewart has power, elusiveness, is very fluid, but also explosive. He can be one of the very best running backs in the NFL. He has come into his own as a receiving option. Stewart’s 47 receptions last season were more than he accumulated over his first three years in the league combined. One knock on Stewart is that he could stand to improve as a pass blocker, but he also just recently turned 25, so his best might be yet to come.

There is also a ton to love about what Williams brings to the table. In 2008, Williams had a monster season, rushing for more than 1,500 yards. He has yet to approach such production again, but like Stewart, Williams averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2011. Williams has great vision, runs with excellent pad level and I very much believe he has a lot more in the tank even though he recently turned 29. Williams is a solid receiver but seems to have been passed over by Stewart for the bulk of those duties.

Despite his stature, Tolbert also can contribute quite a bit in the passing game. I don’t see him as a fullback, but rather a punishing ball-carrier with an incredibly low center of gravity and excellent power. Tolbert has gotten into the end zone 21 times over the past two seasons and clearly excels near the goal line.

Having quarterback Cam Newton a part of this rushing attack helps a great deal, but the Panthers also will be getting mauling right tackle Jeff Otah back and drafted a similar bruising masher in the run game to play guard in Amini Silatolu. The Panthers should have one of the league’s very best rushing attacks -- and a very dangerous offense overall -- in 2012.

2. New Orleans Saints: The Saints have more backs than they know what to do with, but they distribute the touches from this position extremely effectively. The Saints did not have a first-round pick in this past draft because they traded it to acquire Mark Ingram in the 2011 draft. He appeared in only 10 games during his rookie season due to injury issues. He flashed some of that first-round ability during those games, but overall, it was a rough season for Ingram. However, this former Heisman Trophy winner has true “bell cow” running back traits. Ingram has an excellent combination of leverage, power and vision with a fine burst through the hole. He can make yardage on his own and has the temperament to carry the load. Ingram’s knee now has to be a bit of a concern, though.

The Saints’ most dynamic player at the position -- maybe in the entire league -- is Darren Sproles. He is pure electricity as a runner or receiver. And the Saints use Sproles’ talents to perfection. Drew Brees and the Saints’ coaching staff do a fantastic job of using personnel, formation and motion to get Sproles in advantageous situations -- either as a receiver against an inferior coverage player or as a runner against minimal defenders in the box. And Sproles excels when used in such a manner. As you would expect with his diminutive stature, Sproles can struggle in protection. But despite his size, Sproles hasn’t missed a game in the past four years and has missed only two games in his six-year career.

As third running backs go, Pierre Thomas has no equal in the NFL. Thomas is a potent blend of what both Ingram and Sproles bring to the table. Thomas is somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. Thomas would start for several teams in the league right now. He finished the 2011 season with just under 1,000 combined yards.

Further showing off their embarrassment of riches as this position, the Saints also have Chris Ivory. Ivory isn’t flashy or dynamic, but he runs with great conviction and power. Getting Ivory the touches he deserves could prove difficult, unless Ingram’s knee remains a major problem.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers traded into the late first round to select Doug Martin. Considering Greg Schiano’s history at Rutgers favoring versatile two-way running backs like Ray Rice and Brian Leonard, I expect Martin to quickly grab ahold of the starting job in Tampa Bay over LeGarrette Blount.

Blount is a very powerful runner and is good overall with the ball in his hands, but he has fumbling issues and offers little as a receiver or in protection, which is just too much of an advantage to the opposing defense when he is on the field. But if given carries or if the Bucs are playing with a lead, which was rare last year, Blount can pound the opponent into submission. His career average of 4.6 yards per carry should not be easily dismissed, especially considering the circumstances he was under last year.

But Martin is the better all-around talent compared to Blount. A compact bowling ball with very good vision and a natural skill set for churning out yardage, Martin is also highly adept as a receiver out of the backfield. The Bucs also used a seventh-round pick on Michael Smith, which further shows their lack of trust in Blount.

Mossis Madu is also in the mix for Tampa Bay. As shown by their investments at guard, the Buccaneers are a run-first team. That is what Schiano wants and his offseason moves strongly indicate that is the approach Tampa Bay will be taking going forward, along with taking some shots deep downfield to Vincent Jackson. Martin should get the bulk of the running back touches, but there might be enough to keep both lead backs fed.

4. Atlanta Falcons: In a division loaded with high-quality running backs, Atlanta’s backfield is last on my list. Michael Turner is the lead back here. I see Turner as a declining player who needs a high volume of touches to be effective. Although Turner is a decent pass blocker, he offers very little as a receiver, which is a huge detriment in today’s NFL.

After Week 11 last season, Turner had only one game in which he rushed for more than 76 yards. Turner finished the season with 1,340 yards on the ground and six 100-yard days, but his performance was much too up and down on a week-to-week basis for a back of his nature. I am not implying Turner is over-the-hill. He isn’t. Turner still has value and can be very effective if used properly. But he just isn’t what he once was in terms of his elusiveness and burst. Amazingly though, Turner can still break off long runs. He also has missed only five games over the past five seasons, but I think the Falcons would be wise to get some insurance for their 30-year-old back.

Jacquizz Rodgers is ahead of the game with his blitz pickup for a young back, but now the Falcons need to enhance his role catching the football. That seems like the next logical step in this dynamic player’s development. As a runner, Rodgers certainly isn’t built to be a lead guy, but he shows some power for his size and is competitive in all phases of the position. He could break out in 2012.

Antone Smith and Dimitri Nance are also on Atlanta’s roster, but it seems logical that the Falcons will add another veteran running back with size to back up Turner.

At fullback, the Falcons have one of the best lead blockers in recent years in Ovie Mughelli, but the usage of a fifth-round pick on Bradie Ewing, another downhill hammer blocker, could be the beginning of the end for Mughelli in Atlanta. The Falcons also have Mike Cox, a pure battering-ram fullback, in the equation. But it is unlikely they keep three blocking fullbacks on the roster.
The Atlanta Falcons quietly continue to move through the process of getting ready for the start of free agency.

After placing the franchise tag on cornerback Brent Grimes, the Falcons are now dealing with some other players that were not under contract for 2012.

The team announced Tuesday morning that tight end Michael Palmer and running back Antone Smith have signed their exclusive-rights tenders.

Palmer, who joined the Falcons in 2010, isn’t known as a pass-catcher, and that’s not needed because Atlanta has Tony Gonzalez in that role. But Palmer has played an important role in the offense as a blocker.

Smith has spent the past two seasons with the Falcons, playing primarily on special teams. But he also has some ability as a running back, and he could get a chance to show more of that moving forward. The Falcons have made it clear they want to lighten the load of feature back Michael Turner.

They have Jacquizz Rodgers, who is likely to get more use as a speed back in his second season. But Smith could compete with Jason Snelling as part of the rotation.

Falcons: First look at free agency

January, 31, 2012
Since the NFC South doesn’t have a team in the Super Bowl, let’s start looking ahead to the 2012 offseason.

We’ll start by taking a look at each team and its potential free agents. We’ll start with the Atlanta Falcons. We’ll list all of their potential free agents. Each one listed is a potential unrestricted free agent, unless he’s noted as a restricted or exclusive-rights free agent. After I list the free agents, I’ll summarize what could be the most important moves as teams re-sign players between now and the start of free agency in mid-March.

Here are Atlanta’s potential free agents: Defensive end John Abraham, defensive end Kroy Biermann, offensive lineman Kirk Chambers, safety Thomas DeCoud, receiver Harry Douglas, cornerback Brent Grimes, cornerback Kelvin Hayden, tight end Reggie Kelly, linebacker Curtis Lofton, center Todd McClure, linebacker Mike Peterson, offensive lineman Brett Romberg, safety James Sanders, running back Jason Snelling, receiver Eric Weems, long-snapper Joe Zelenka, tight end Michael Palmer (exclusive rights), running back Antone Smith (exclusive rights) and defensive tackle Vance Walker (restricted).

Lofton and Grimes are the most significant names on that list. They’re key defensive starters, and they’re in their prime. Keeping Lofton, the quarterback of the defense, might be the top priority. There’s little doubt the Falcons want Grimes back. He’s developed into a very good cornerback, despite the fact that he’s undersized. But Grimes could get big money elsewhere. The Falcons already have a lot invested in cornerback Dunta Robinson, and might not be able to pay huge contracts to two cornerbacks.

Abraham, McClure and Peterson are nearing the end of their careers. Any of them could decide to retire. The Falcons also could decide to bring back any of them as a role player. Abraham still was the team’s best pass-rusher in 2011.

It’s likely the Falcons will have some interest in keeping Biermann, DeCoud, Douglas and Snelling. They’re still young, but they could get better offers elsewhere. Hayden and Sanders each are veterans that could test the market, but eventually return to give the Falcons depth.