NFC South: Chevis Jackson

Matt RyanKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesQB Matt Ryan is far from a bust, but one has to wonder if he can lead Atlanta to playoff success.
There’s an old saying in NFL circles that you should never judge a draft class until two or three years down the road.

Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff might want to borrow a ploy from the New Orleans Saints and get some special arbitrator to convert that saying into law. Heck, in the case of Atlanta’s 2008 draft class, Dimitroff might be better off with keeping the statute of limitations on judging results to just one year.

As Atlanta’s class of 2008 gets ready for its fifth season, there’s still hope for greatness, but this class isn’t looking quite as good as it did a couple years ago. And it certainly isn’t looking as brilliant as it did in 2008, when some rookie from Dimitroff’s first draft class seemed to step up and make a big play every week.

Quarterback Matt Ryan and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton were stars from Day One and Sam Baker looked like he might be the guy to protect Ryan’s blindside for a decade. That wasn’t a total shock because Ryan and Baker came in the first round and Lofton in the second. What was shocking in those days as the Falcons recovered faster than anyone expected from the Bobby Petrino era was the production from the rest of the draft class.

The Falcons had three third-round picks -- cornerback Chevis Jackson, receiver Harry Douglas and safety Thomas DeCoud. At various times, each of them made key plays and showed all sorts of promise for the future. Even fifth-round draft pick Kroy Biermann got involved.

With the rookie class playing a big role and guys like Roddy White, Michael Turner and John Abraham providing veteran leadership, the Falcons stunned everyone by going 10-6 and making the playoffs in coach Mike Smith's first season. Dimitroff was named Executive of the Year by The Sporting News, called a genius by many (including myself) and the common assumption was that Atlanta’s Class of 2008 had a chance to go down as one of the best in NFL history.

In the years that immediately followed that class continued to look like it could be an all-time classic.

But, five years into the process, this class suddenly looks like one big question mark. It’s far from a disaster, but it’s far from great. Gee, that’s kind of become the unofficial motto for the Falcons the last couple of years.

That’s no coincidence because the fate of Dimitroff’s first rookie class is tied directly to the Falcons’ fate. With Atlanta facing a crucial season, the class of 2008 is at a career crossroads. If this group finally steps all the way up, the Falcons can win a playoff game for the first time in the tenure of Dimitroff and Smith. If it disappoints or stays status quo, the Falcons again can be just another pretty good team. But that may no longer be good enough.

If the Falcons don’t get a playoff win this season, Smith and Dimitroff move closer to the hot seat. But the class of 2008 already is there. Lofton and Jackson already are gone. The Falcons wanted to keep Lofton, but not at the price tag he wanted at the start of free agency. He settled for a deal with the rival Saints. Jackson’s luster wore off much more quickly. He was gone from the Falcons by 2010 and is trying to earn a roster spot with the Carolina Panthers.

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Mike DiNovo/US PresswireHarry Douglas has speed, but that hasn't helped him consistently produce TDs for the Falcons.
But Ryan, Baker, Douglas, DeCoud and Biermann remain with the Falcons and each of them is facing the biggest season of his career. Let’s start with Ryan.

Nobody’s ready to declare the quarterback a bust. In fact, he’s coming off his best statistical season. But Ryan’s development seems to have paused after his thunderous entrance into the NFL. Some of that can be blamed on his supporting cast and maybe even his coaching. But the Falcons have invested a lot into improving the talent at the other skill positions and have brought in new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

If Ryan doesn’t take the step from good to great and doesn’t win a playoff game, questions will start flying about whether he’s the guy for the long term. Those questions are especially relative these days because Ryan’s rookie contract ends after the 2013 season. If he doesn’t progress, he might not get a new deal. If he does, a huge extension is sure to follow.

There are lots of people out there that already have declared Baker a bust. His inability to stop the pass rush might be one reason why Ryan has been unable to develop the deep passing game the Falcons want. Baker ended up losing his starting job to journeyman Will Svitek last season. But Baker still is around and it sounds like the Falcons are going to give him one final chance to show he can be a quality left tackle.

The Falcons have made a lot of noise about how they still believe in Baker and have pointed to injury problems as reasons why he has struggled. But Baker’s heading into the last year of his contract. Unless Baker beats out Svitek and plays better than ever, it’s hard to imagine the Falcons giving him another contract.

The Falcons already gave Douglas a new four-year, $12.5 million contract in March. The Falcons aren’t asking Douglas to be a superstar because they already have White and Julio Jones as their starting receivers. But Douglas is the one member of the 2008 class that might be the furthest from having realized his full potential. There were a few glimpses in 2008, but Douglas missed 2009 with an injury. The Falcons have wanted to use him as their slot receiver the past few years and that’s still the plan.

But Douglas never has been truly explosive in that role. Part of that is because injuries to others have forced him to play outside at times. When he has been in the slot, Douglas hasn’t been much of a deep threat. Blame that on the offensive line if you want, but the fact is Douglas has only three receiving touchdowns in his career.

There’s really no reason Douglas shouldn’t have more than three touchdown catches in a season, if he’s truly allowed to work out of the slot and the offensive line is protecting Ryan.

The Falcons also committed to DeCoud in March, giving him a five-year, $17.5 million deal. Although DeCoud has started 47 of 48 games the past three seasons, he’s not much different than the rest of his classmates. He’s been good at times, ordinary at others. But DeCoud is coming off a season in which he had a career-high four interceptions. If he can add a few more to that total, DeCoud starts entering Pro Bowl conversations and gets a shot at full validation.

Biermann, who got a three-year contract worth $9.15 million in March, is in pretty much the same territory as Douglas and DeCoud -- decent, but several steps from great. There’s a reason why the Falcons kept Biermann around. They feel he still has some upside as a pass-rusher. But there’s some evidence suggesting Biermann might have hit his peak in 2009 when he had five sacks. He had just 2.5 last season and three in 2010. Abraham is aging and Ray Edwards didn’t do much last year. The Falcons have to hope they can generate some pass rush from somewhere else and Biermann remains the best hope.

It’s really the same story for Ryan, Baker, Douglas, DeCoud and Biermann. The most important grade on the class of 2008 will come in 2012.

Falcons sticking with 'the process'

September, 6, 2010
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When I was on the phone with John Clayton on Sunday night working on our Great Debate for Wednesday, he threw out a great stat.

Clayton, who should have been a rocket scientist if he wasn’t so great at what he does, was breaking down rosters in every way you could imagine. According to Clayton, and this is current as of late last night, the Atlanta Falcons were tied with Minnesota for the fewest new players.

They have only eight new players on their roster. The list includes free-agent pickup Dunta Robinson, undrafted tight end Michael Palmer and the draft class -- linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, defensive tackle Corey Peters, offensive linemen Joe Hawley and Mike Johnson, cornerback Dominique Franks and safety Shann Schillinger. Clayton’s list doesn’t include center Rob Bruggeman and running back Antone Smith because each of those guys spent time on Atlanta’s practice squad last year.

What’s this all mean? Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff really are sticking to what they like to call “the process,’’ which basically means building through the draft, adding a free agent here and making sure you keep your core players.

It’s a formula a lot of teams talk about but don’t truly follow as they often get desperate and go outside for free agents. Entering their third season together, Smith and Dimitroff have stuck with the plan and it’s been highlighted by the spectacular 2008 draft class.

The Falcons have had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, and their roster displays a lot of continuity. We’ll see if that translates into them winning big, but I think they’re headed in the right direction.

When you’re able to cut a player like cornerback Chevis Jackson, it shows you’ve built a roster with pretty strong depth.

Atlanta Falcons cutdown analysis

September, 4, 2010
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Check here for a full list of Atlanta ’s roster moves.

Biggest surprise: There really are no major surprises here. But cornerback Chevis Jackson is a guy that once was viewed as having a lot of potential, and he’s fallen by the wayside. Consider that a sign of how much the Falcons think they’ve upgraded their cornerback group by drafting cornerback Christopher Owens last year and Dominique Franks this year, and the signing of free-agent Dunta Robinson. Jackson also had some special-teams ability, but Franks can fill that role. Jackson still has practice-squad eligibility, but there’s a decent chance he might get picked up by another team.

No-brainer: The release of center Brett Romberg comes as no surprise. His days were numbered as soon as the Falcons drafted Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley. Those two might not play immediately, but they’re versatile and the Falcons have a bunch of offensive linemen that could become free agents next year. Romberg was a veteran with no upside. Johnson and Hawley can start off as backups, but they’ll eventually be starters.

What’s next: There really is not much left to do with this roster. The Falcons are pretty healthy and have no glaring holes. Adding a receiver that comes free from another team might be a possibility. The Falcons also are carrying only one fullback -- Ovie Mughelli. He’s pretty durable and tailback Jason Snelling also can play that spot. But Atlanta also could look for an extra fullback.

Camp Confidential: Atlanta Falcons

August, 16, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 8

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The leadership seen on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice field these days was hatched in the locker room of a former Arena Football League team.

Two years ago, that's where Matt Ryan, Curtis Lofton, Sam Baker, Harry Douglas, Kroy Biermann, Thomas DeCoud, Chevis Jackson and a handful of others dressed. Now, Ryan’s the quarterback, Lofton’s the quarterback of the defense, Baker and DeCoud are key starters and Douglas, Biermann and Jackson are expected to play bigger roles.

“We’re a super-tight group,’’ said Lofton, who has started at middle linebacker since his rookie year and has used camp to emerge as the unquestioned leader of the defense. “When you’re a rookie, you don’t get to be in that [main] locker room. You’re down in the Georgia Force locker room. That’s where it started for us. It’s kind of like we had our own little team. All of us went through our ups and downs, and we all leaned on each other and it’s just continued that way.’’

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesQuarterback Matt Ryan and the rest of the Falcons' "Class of 2008" believe they will make noise in their third year.
The Force is gone and the Class of 2008 has taken over the main locker room. This class already has done some very good things, namely leading the Falcons to the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. But last year’s 9-7 campaign was a bit of a disappointment for a team that had hoped to follow an 11-5 season in 2008 with another playoff berth.

This offseason, the team’s marketing department came up with a new advertising campaign, “Rise Up.’’ The slogan is plastered on billboards in the Atlanta area, and a television commercial with actor Samuel L. Jackson passionately delivering the message plays frequently on stations throughout the market.

“I think 'Rise Up' is a good theme for our organization,’’ Ryan said. “I’ve been here for two years, and I feel like we’ve done a good job. But I feel like we have the kind of talent to take it to the next level.’’

In other words, the Class of 2008 believes the third year is when it’s time to take over the real locker room and fully take control of what happens on the field. That’s why the Falcons are embracing, not running away from, the “Rise Up’’ campaign.

“We have something special going on here,’’ Lofton said. “Everyone knows it. We feel like we’re about to rise up to the occasion and hopefully make it to the Super Bowl.’’

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Is the defense really ready to rise up? The Falcons' defense was not very good the past two seasons. The front office and coaching staff are well aware, and that’s why the defense has looked different in camp.

[+] EnlargeSean Weatherspoon
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIFalcons rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has a good chance of grabbing a starting role.
There are many positive signs. The Falcons aim to be more aggressive. The overall team speed is better. The energy and enthusiasm the defense shows is reminiscent of New Orleans last preseason when new Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had his unit chasing after every loose ball. There also seems to be a growing swagger to a defense that simply had none the past two years. Part of that is coming from rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, a talking machine who seems destined to be a starter at one of the outside spots. Weatherspoon’s energy seems to be rubbing off on Lofton, who seemed a bit stoic in his first two seasons. They celebrate after big plays, a trend that’s spreading throughout the defense.

Atlanta’s secondary has been revamped, with the signing of cornerback Dunta Robinson to a big free-agent contract being the key addition. There is a lot of work to be done, but the early impression is the defense has a whole new look and attitude

“We can be great,’’ DeCoud said. “We can be one of the best defenses in the league. If everyone builds the confidence and the swagger and keeps building up each other, we can be one of the elite defenses in this league.’’

2. Where will the pass rush come from? The biggest moves the Falcons made in the offseason were adding Weatherspoon and Robinson. That should help the secondary and linebacker corps. But the Falcons didn’t make any dramatic moves at defensive end after a season in which the pass-rush production was disappointing.

The Falcons studied that area closely and decided to stick with the ends they already had. Atlanta firmly believes that veteran John Abraham (who dropped from 16.5 sacks in 2008 to 5.5 last season) still has plenty left. He came to camp in outstanding shape and has shown signs he can return to dominant form. The Falcons also believe Biermann has grown in his first two seasons and might be ready to emerge. They think second-year pro Lawrence Sidbury is still a work in progress, but believe he’s about ready to start delivering results.

But the biggest reason the Falcons didn’t import any defensive ends is because they believe players at other positions will help make the rush better. With defensive tackle Peria Jerry returning from injury and the arrival of third-round pick Corey Peters, the Falcons believe they can create more of a surge in the middle, freeing up the ends. Weatherspoon also has the speed to apply pressure on blitzes, and coaches believe the arrival of Robinson and improved play in the secondary will create more opportunities for coverage sacks.

3. Are Ryan and the offense ready for the next step? Many thought Ryan took a step back in 2009 after a stellar rookie season. The Falcons don’t think Ryan regressed, but they do expect him to take a big step forward this season.

Ryan and the offense were handcuffed from the start last season. Harry Douglas, expected to be a big factor as a slot receiver, went out with a knee injury early in camp. Running back Michael Turner, who admits he didn’t take great care of himself last offseason, got banged up early and missed close to half a season. Ryan also dealt with a toe injury and the offense never really hit its stride.

Douglas, Turner and Ryan are healthy and the presence of Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez means the Falcons should be able to do what they want on offense. They still are going to be a run-heavy team because of Turner’s skills. But Douglas’ return gives the Falcons someone who can stretch the field and open things up for White and Gonzalez. Look for offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to structure this offense to play more to Ryan’s strength as a passer.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeCorey Peters
Dale Zanine/US PresswireFalcons third-round pick Corey Peters has been better than expected in training camp.
Defensive tackle Corey Peters. With Jerry coming off the injury and Jonathan Babineaux suspended for the season opener in Pittsburgh, the Falcons used a third-round pick on Peters. They thought they were getting depth, but they might have more than that. Performing better than expected, Peters can play the run and generate pass-rush push in the middle and could be in the starting lineup on opening day. Even if he’s not, Peters is going to get a lot of playing time because the Falcons are serious about rotating defensive linemen. They’ll also slide defensive end Jamaal Anderson inside at times, giving them four quality defensive tackles.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Strong safety William Moore. After missing almost his entire rookie season with an injury, the Falcons hoped Moore would grab the starting job. But Moore has been banged up again and hasn't had a lot of practice time. The Falcons thought Moore could provide an upgrade over veteran Erik Coleman. But, at least in the short term, it looks as if the Falcons will be sticking with Coleman as the starter.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The starting cornerback spot opposite Robinson remains unsettled. But the Falcons are content with that because they think the preseason competition there has been healthy. Christopher Owens probably has a slight lead on Brent Grimes. But Grimes, the best natural athlete on the team, is putting up a good fight and making flashy plays. Veteran Brian Williams is coming back from a knee injury and provides an experienced and dependable alternative. But the best way for the Falcons to move forward as a defense might be to go with Owens as starter and Grimes as nickel back.
  • The one bright spot from injuries to Turner and fellow running back Jerious Norwood last year was the Falcons discovered that Jason Snelling can be a decent backup. The Falcons plan to be careful not to overuse Turner, and Norwood’s durability has been an issue throughout his career. Turner will get the bulk of the carries and, if Norwood’s healthy, he’ll get playing time because he’s a home-run threat. But Snelling also has earned playing time. He has the trust of the coaching staff and can do a little bit of everything out of the backfield.
  • The Falcons aren’t ready to make any immediate changes to their offensive line. With an eye toward the future, they drafted guard Mike Johnson and center Joe Hawley. Right guard Harvey Dahl and right tackle Tyson Clabo could become free agents after this season, and center Todd McClure is nearing the end of his career. Johnson has had a decent training camp and Hawley is off to a slow start. But the Falcons believe both rookies have potential and versatility. Each could get playing time this season.
  • Fifth-round pick Dominique Franks hasn’t been mentioned a lot in the cornerback competition, but he has been better than expected. Franks isn’t a candidate to start, but he has shown potential. He also could be an immediate factor in the return game.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Time for some observations and notes out of Tuesday morning’s combined practice between the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars.

  • Although defensive tackle Peria Jerry got some work, coach Mike Smith already has ruled him out for the preseason opener against Kansas City. Cornerback Brian Williams and receiver Harry Douglas, who also are coming back from knee injuries, also have been ruled out. Smith said he’s optimistic all three can play later in the preseason.
  • Douglas didn’t take part Tuesday morning and starting receiver Michael Jenkins is out for four to six weeks with a shoulder injury. That paved the way for veteran receiver Brian Finneran to get a lot of work with the first team. This is situation obviously in flux with Douglas expected to keep getting more work as the preseason goes on. Rookie Kerry Meier also is getting lots of work and has responded well. But Finneran’s experience allows the first-team offense to get work done without a lot of disruption. He knows the system and, as a run blocker, is a reasonable facsimile of Jenkins.
  • Cornerback remains an interesting position on this team. Dunta Robinson is set as one starter, but he’s not practicing, although he’s expected to return soon. The Falcons seemed to be using Christopher Owens and Brent Grimes as their first-team cornerbacks and Chevis Jackson as the nickel back against the Jaguars and I didn’t notice any of them getting beat regularly.
  • Curtis Lofton got all the first-team work in the middle and rookie Sean Weatherspoon and Stephan Nicholas seemed to get most of the work on the outside. Veteran Mike Peterson sat out and Weatherspoon worked in his spot on the weak side. The Falcons have given Weatherspoon time at both outside spots and it doesn’t sound like they’ve made any firm decision on where they will use him. By the way, it’s only practice, but I did notice the Falcons sending linebackers on blitzes several times.
  • Looked like quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Roddy White already have their chemistry down. They hooked up on a nice pass to the back of the end zone in a red-zone drill.
  • It also looked like reserve quarterback John Parker Wilson and reserve receiver Eric Weems have their timing down. I saw them connect on a nice touchdown later in that same red-zone drill.
  • People in Atlanta always get a little nervous anytime veteran defensive end John Abraham gets up slowly or doesn’t appear to be moving well. There was one slight scare Tuesday morning. At one point, Abraham stayed on the ground a little longer than usual and got up slowly. He came over to the sideline and talked to a trainer. But it appeared as if Abraham and the trainer adjusted his shoulder pads a bit and he returned to practice quickly.
  • I didn’t see Atlanta owner Arthur Blank out at practice. But Warrick Dunn, who now owns a portion of the team, showed up and was making the rounds on the sidelines. Dunn played running back for Tampa Bay and Atlanta. I saw him catching up with Jacksonville quarterbacks coach Mike Shula at one point. Shula was offensive coordinator when Dunn was playing for the Buccaneers early in the Tony Dungy years.

NFC South Tuesday morning mailbag

August, 10, 2010
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Time to swing through the NFC South mailbag before I head out to watch the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars in another day of combined practice. Monday’s sessions weren’t action packed as both coaching staffs did a lot of teaching. However, I’ve been told by someone high up with the Falcons to expect a very aggressive morning session today.

James in Bristol, England, writes: Not much has been said about Kellen Winslow at camp and I haven’t seen many, if any pictures of him while sifting through camp photos. So I was wondering, is he at camp?

Pat Yasinskas: Yes, Kellen Winslow is definitely at Tampa Bay’s camp. He’s been getting some practices off because of his knee, but I believe the Bucs are just being cautious with a guy who is probably the best player on their roster. Winslow took part in Thursday’s practice when I was out at One Buccaneer Place. He looked very good and coach Raheem Morris raved about him after practice. Think the Bucs are just being conservative and making sure Winslow is rested and ready for the start of the regular season.


Ryan in Atlanta writes: I am curious as to where Jacksonville players dress for practice and such during the joint practices? Also, what do they do between practices? Go back to their hotel via bus?

Pat Yasinskas: I was totally stumped by your question at first, so I went straight to Jacksonville public relations man Dan Edwards, one of the best in the business to get the answers. During their joint workouts with the Falcons, the Jaguars are staying at a hotel near Flowery Branch and using it as their home base. They have a locker room and training room set up at the hotel, and they get ready for practices there. Then, they hop on the bus and come over to Atlanta’s facility and go through practice. As soon as they’re done, they go back to the hotel. They watch their film, eat their meals and do everything else there. Basically, it sounds like the Jaguars have taken over the hotel and made it their home for a couple of days.


Jeff in Charleston, S.C., writes: Do you think Brent Grimes, who had six interceptions last season, will start opposite Dunta Robinson?

Pat Yasinskas: Grimes is definitely in the mix for that spot, but the Falcons are letting this competition play out during the preseason. Christopher Owens, Brian Williams and Chevis Jackson also are in the mix. Atlanta coaches and players will tell you Grimes is the best pure athlete on the team. However, his height is the one knock on him. His leaping ability helps him overcome a good portion of that, and he’ll definitely get a good amount of playing time. However, I think Owens is the guy the Falcons hope will emerge as the long-term starter. Williams is a veteran and coming off an injury, but he was playing very well before he got hurt last season.


Roy in Greenville, S.C., writes: What's the deal with William Moore. I saw he was held out from practice Monday. Is he hurt again, or was that just precautionary?

Pat Yasinskas: Like a lot of NFL teams, the Falcons can be a little tight with injury information. Coach Mike Smith only said that Moore does not have a new injury and was held out as a precautionary measure. He said Moore is day-to-day and I wouldn't be surprised if he's on the practice field Tuesday. We'll see.
John AbrahamKevin Liles/US PresswireJohn Abraham had just 5.5 sacks last season and the defensive lineman is the first to admit that his production must improve if Atlanta is to return to the playoffs.
The film didn’t lie. It just stretched John Abraham’s 2009 season into something much better than it looked on paper.

Those 5.5 sacks that were easily the lowest total in any season in which he’s played more than eight games? Well, they were a concern for the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive end. After all, he was 31 last season and his sack total had dropped by 11 from 2008.

“I thought maybe I was losing something, so let me check," Abraham said. “I sat down and started watching the tape, really watching it honestly. I walked away feeling like I’m still a valuable player for this team. I didn’t play bad last year. As I watched the tape, I didn’t feel like I lost a step. There were times when I got there, but the sacks just didn’t happen. I thought I had a pretty good year last year."

“Pretty good" is being pretty generous when you talk about Abraham or any of Atlanta’s defensive linemen last year. It was a problem spot, one that helped cost the Falcons a second straight trip to the playoffs. The Falcons had only 28 sacks and their leader was defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who is supposed to be a run-stuffer, with six.

Defensive ends Kroy Biermann, Jamaal Anderson, Chauncey Davis and Lawrence Sidbury, the guys who were supposed to join Abraham in the pass rush, combined to produce 7.5 sacks -- and Biermann had five of those.

After a victory in San Francisco in October, Abraham went on a nine-game stretch in which he produced only half a sack. That coincided with a stretch in which the Falcons pretty much fell out of playoff contention.

As much as Abraham believes he was “pretty good" last year, he knows another season of 5.5 sacks isn’t going to suffice. He needs to get back somewhere close to being the dominant pass-rusher in the NFC South and he needs some help from his teammates.

“It’s time for us to be the strength of the defense and not the weakness," Abraham said. “Last year, we didn’t play up to our potential. I call myself out for that and I’ll call everybody else out on the D-line too. It’s not just one person. As a whole D-line, we’ve got to step up and play better."

So what did the Falcons do in the offseason to address their pass rush? Really, nothing dramatic at all. They drafted linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in the first round, who brings a little bit of ability to help the pass rush as a blitzer. They selected defensive tackle Corey Peters in the third round and he can bring a push to the middle, but his main strength is as a run-stuffer.

When it came to defensive ends, the Falcons stayed with what they had.

“Biermann and Sidbury are both guys that we think are going to continue to develop," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “And we think they’ll take big steps this year."

Maybe they will, but the success of Atlanta’s defense may truly come down to Abraham. Why are the Falcons so confident that a guy who turned 32 in May can bounce back from a season that, at least statistically, wasn’t anywhere close to the standard he has set?

“Believe me, we studied John on tape a lot and we studied his history," Smith said. “One trend throughout John’s career is that every third or fourth year, historically, he’s had a year where his numbers drop. What we saw last year was a guy who was still getting a lot of pressure on quarterbacks. The sacks didn’t always come, but that wasn’t really his fault."

Talk to Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff and they’ll tell you the sack production by Abraham and the rest of the defensive line last season was impacted by the defensive secondary. The Falcons lost cornerback Brian Williams to injury early, Chris Houston never endeared himself to the coaching staff and the Falcons were rotating a lot of other cornerbacks.

[+] EnlargeRobinson
Fernando Medina/US PresswireThe Falcons are hoping the addition of CB Dunta Robinson will bolster the secondary and the pass rush.
That’s why the Falcons went out this offseason and made their sole splurge in free agency, signing cornerback Dunta Robinson to a huge contract. They also re-signed Williams, traded Houston and put their faith in the belief that Brent Grimes, Christopher Owens and Chevis Jackson can continue to grow and safety William Moore can make an impact after missing most of his rookie season with an injury.

In short, the Falcons believe they improved their defensive line by improving their defensive secondary.

“I’m not trying to knock our secondary,’’ Abraham said. “I think there were just a lot of young guys that maybe weren’t as confident as they’re going to be this year. With the addition of Dunta, that’s going to help us out a lot.’’

In theory, the addition of Robinson and the return of Williams might tie up receivers a little bit longer and force quarterbacks to hold the ball an extra split second. Just that little bit of time might be enough to turn some of the 12 quarterback hurries Abraham had last season into sacks. Same for Biermann, who was credited with eight hurries.

Throw in the return of defensive tackle Peria Jerry, who suffered an injury early in his rookie season. Jerry was Atlanta’s top pick last season and there were early signs that he was more than a run-stuffer and had the ability to generate a surge in the middle.

Give Sidbury, who had one sack as a rookie, another year of growth and maybe it all adds up to an improved pass rush for the Falcons.

But the real key here is Abraham. He has spent most of his career as an elite pass-rusher and has recorded double-digit sacks in five seasons. Even though Abraham believes his play wasn’t bad last season, he’s the first to admit his production needs to increase for Atlanta to have a shot at the playoffs.

“I don’t think I’ve lost a step or anything like that," Abraham said. “After watching the film, I think last year was one of those years where things just didn’t work out the way you want for a number of reasons. But I can’t sit here and tell you I’ll be happy if I have another season with 5.5 sacks. If I do that, then maybe I’m losing a step. We can’t have another season like that."
ATLANTA -- As I look ahead to the start of the Falcons’ minicamp Friday, I’m not seeing a lot of glaring questions.

That’s a good thing. Aside from the draft and the signing of cornerback Dunta Robinson, the Falcons have had a peaceful and quiet offseason, on and off the field. They’ve focused on fixing some leaky areas of a team that went 9-7 despite plenty of injuries and bad luck last year. Their core is intact and getting healthy and the Falcons could be the top challengers to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.

But before they can truly fill that role, the Falcons have some questions to answer. Here’s a look at five things I’ll be watching in minicamp.


Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireWill Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan improve in his third season?
Is Matt Ryan ready for the next step? A lot of people say he had a sophomore slump. I wouldn’t say that. He had a decent year, but his own toe injury and Michael Turner's ankle problems made last season difficult. Ryan’s healthy now and the Falcons have to build this offense around him. Turner and the running game are hugely important, but the Falcons need to take the shackles off Ryan a bit and let him reach greatness. The return of receiver Harry Douglas from injury should give Ryan another target and another dimension (think speed) to the offense.

Is the secondary fixed? The Falcons signed Robinson and re-signed Brian Williams. They’ve also got safety William Moore coming back from injury. That should be enough to improve a group that took a lot of heat last year. Robinson slides in at one cornerback spot and Williams will compete with Christopher Owens, Chevis Jackson and Brent Grimes for the other. That’s not a bad collection of cornerbacks. Thomas DeCoud played well in his first season as a starter at safety, but Erik Coleman didn’t have a great year. Moore will be given every opportunity to beat out Coleman. On paper, this secondary looks good. But it could be a lot better if the Falcons can find a pass rush.

Where’s the pass rush going to come from? Atlanta’s coaches and front office will tell you the lack of a pass rush was the biggest problem for the defense last year. It’s good that’s recognized, but the Falcons haven’t made any dramatic moves up front. They’re hoping the return of defensive tackle Peria Jerry from injury can create a surge in the middle and help everyone else. But it’s pretty obvious the Falcons are counting on veteran John Abraham to bounce back from a quiet season and young defensive ends Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury to really step up.

Where does top draft pick Sean Weatherspoon fit? That’s something I’m curious to see in minicamp. The Falcons have quality starting linebackers in Curtis Lofton, Mike Peterson and Stephan Nicholas. Lofton’s not going anywhere and you don’t draft a guy in the first round to sit him on the bench. Weatherspoon’s going to get his shot at one of the outside spots. Peterson is getting older on the weak side and Weatherspoon might be his replacement. Nicholas had a decent season last year in his first season as a starter, but the Falcons could try Weatherspoon on the strong side and hope he’s more of a playmaker.

Who’s the kicker? This was a big issue last year and the Falcons finally parted ways with veteran Jason Elam after he lost his consistency. Atlanta believes it has the answer in veteran Matt Bryant, who joined the team late last year. Bryant used to be one of the league’s more reliable kickers. But his career got thrown off track in Tampa Bay by injuries and a family tragedy. The Falcons believe Bryant is healthy and ready to get back to being the kind of reliable kicker he once was.

Atlanta Falcons load up at CB

April, 24, 2010
4/24/10
12:20
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The Falcons just jumped up 14 spots to get Oklahoma cornerback Domonique Franks in the fifth round.

Atlanta traded its fifth-round pick (No. 149) and sixth-round pick (No. 189) to the St. Louis Rams to get Franks at No. 135. It’s mildly surprising the Falcons were willing to trade away a pick to get a cornerback because they solidified the position earlier in the offseason when they signed free-agent Dunta Robinson and re-signed veteran Brian Williams. They also have high hopes for young players Christopher Owens, Chevis Jackson and Brent Grimes. They were so confident in the position that they traded away former starter Chris Houston.

But Franks is an exceptional athlete and some pre-draft publications projected him to go much earlier than the fifth round. He comes with experience, as a two-year starter in a top-notch conference, and has good size. The one knock on Franks is that he’s not a great tackler.

But he’ll get a chance to develop that ability with the Falcons. If he can do that, he'll have a chance to contribute. Atlanta still has its compensatory pick (No. 165) at the end of the fifth round.

NFC South mailbag

March, 11, 2010
3/11/10
3:20
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Grant in Washington, DC writes: You recently discussed the possibility of Derek Anderson landing in Carolina. But with the reports that the Browns are shopping Brady Quinn, do you think there's any chance Carolina would be interested in him? Personally, I think Quinn has been given a very raw deal in Cleveland and could be a good NFL quarterback. The change of scenery would do him good, and I like the idea of Matt Moore and Quinn competing for the starting spot.

Pat Yasinskas: I generally avoid speculating about players under contract to one team ending up with another team. However, I think this one is fair to at least discuss a bit because it’s been widely reported the Browns are looking to trade Quinn. I think it’s something the Panthers at least have to consider. Quinn came out of college viewed as a franchise quarterback. Things didn’t work out in Cleveland. It wasn’t all his fault and he did some good things from time to time. I think he could be a legitimate competitor to Moore for the starting job. Now, on the flip side, I also have two reasons why this might not happen. First, the Panthers have plenty of other holes and they already are without a first-round draft pick. Getting Quinn will cost at least some sort of draft pick and I think the Panthers will be hesitant to part with their remaining picks. Also, and I don’t want to be unfair to Quinn, but the whole David Carr episode might still be in the minds of John Fox and Marty Hurney. Like Carr, Quinn was a very high draft pick that didn’t work out in his first stop. I'm not saying Quinn will be a bust in his second stop like Carr. But I know Fox and Hurney still carry emotional baggage from the Carr fiasco.

Will in New Orleans writes: Usama Young looked great in his limited playing time as a free safety last year, and he's been torched just about every time he's lined up at corner since he's been drafted, wouldn't it make sense to make him the heir to Darren Sharper instead of moving Malcolm Jenkins?

Pat Yasinskas: If the Saints end up losing Sharper, I think Young is definitely an option. But I also think there’s a desire to get Jenkins on the field more often in his second season. Could end up being a training camp competition between these two for the starting job.

Jordan in Alto, GA writes: I've heard all the talk about Matt Ryan possibly not being as good as everyone thought he might be after his second season slump. I agree he had a little fall off but it also seemed the coaching staff went very conservative on play calling. What are the chances they open the playbook back up and let Ryan air the ball out a little more given all of the talent around Ryan for him to throw to? Also can we expect more no huddle series this fall?

Pat Yasinskas: I like, and share, your take on Ryan. I still think this guy is going to be a very good quarterback and I don’t think he was bad last season by any means. I just don’t think the coaching staff did a good job of playing to his strengths. Mike Smith and Mike Mularkey are both very bright guys and they’ve had time to process what didn’t work last season. I suspect they’ll make some adjustments to play to Ryan’s strengths. As for the no-huddle offense, we won’t really know until the season. But I thought they had great success with it in Ryan’s rookie season and need to get back to using it more often.

Will in New Port Richey, Fla. writes: Why haven't the Bucs even made a hint of interest in Brandon Marshall? The guy makes big play after big play. He can stretch the field and is a major game changer. Sure he has a small attitude problem but so did Keyshawn Johnson.

Pat Yasinskas: As far as we know, the Bucs haven’t shown interest in Marshall. But, even in age when the media covers free agency so closely, not everything going on behind the scenes comes to light. Careful, I’m not saying the Bucs are making a play for Marshall, but let’s not make the assumption that they’re just sitting still on him or another No. 1 receiver. Now, a couple of issues with the Marshall scenario: First, he would have to come in a trade and that would mean the Bucs would have to part with some of this year’s draft picks. They’re proud of the fact they’ve accumulated 10 of them and they don’t want to subtract from that number. Also, I think the baggage that comes with Marshall is a big caution flag. The Keyshawn Johnson situation was a little different because he came in to a veteran team with established leaders and things worked out in the short term. The current Bucs are not an established team and don’t have any real leaders. Bringing Marshall’s personality into that locker room could be a big mistake.

Yansen in Iowa writes: I’m assuming the Bucs are going to go with defense with the first round and they should. But what about the second round? There are a lot of good receivers this year. Can I expect a wideout in the second with either of the two picks?

Pat Yasinskas: Safe assumption on defense in the first round and I think the possibility of a receiver in the second round is very strong. A lot of experts have Jordan Shipley in the second round and Josh Freeman already has said he likes the Texas wide receiver. Also, I heard Sirius NFL Radio’s Pat Kirwan yesterday speculating that Oklahoma receiver Dez Bryant could tumble into the second round because of baggage and the fact that he hasn’t been able to run for scouts because of an injury. I’m not sure that will really happen. But, if Bryant is somehow available in the second round, I think the Bucs might be willing to ignore the baggage.

Brian in Augusta, GA writes: Pat, in a recent post you said, "Brent Grimes will compete with Brian Williams for the No. 2 cornerback spot. If he doesn’t win that, he’s probably the favorite over Christopher Owens and Chevis Jackson to be the nickel back. " Is that your opinion, or are you getting that info from the Falcons?

Pat Yasinskas: My opinion. The Falcons, and all other NFL teams, don’t tell you their starting lineup in March because they don’t know their starting lineup. I’m just saying Williams is the most experienced of the bunch the Falcons will have competing for the spot opposite Dunta Robinson. That makes him the safe choice right now. But they’re going to throw all those guys out there and see who rises up. Grimes, Owens and Jackson all have upside and the Falcons would be delighted if one of them moves ahead of Williams.

Mailbag: Atlanta Falcons edition

March, 10, 2010
3/10/10
3:06
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The Atlanta Falcons are next in our series of team-by-team mailbags.

ATLJBO in Atlanta writes: I see you are hinting towards Brian Williams starting on the other island opposite of Dunta Robinson. In one of Thomas Dmitroff recent interviews, he said Brian Williams will be in the competition for the inside position. Inside meaning a nickel back. I personally think Brian Williams is depth.

Pat Yasinskas: You very well could end up being right on that and nobody would be happier than the Falcons if it plays out that way. I’m simply saying Williams is the leader for a starting job right now because he’s experienced and played well in a starting role before his injury. But the Falcons are going to let Chris Owens, Brent Grimes and Chevis Jackson compete for the second cornerback spot. They have high hopes for all of those young guys. If one of them really steps up, the Falcons would be happy to use Williams as their nickelback. If they end up having to start Williams, he is at least reliable.


Joe in Perrysburg, Ohio, writes: I am a die-hard Atlanta Falcons fan and I am curious to know whether or not they will pursue a wide receiver via free agency or the NFL Draft? As of now, the Falcons have two solid receivers in Michael Jenkins and Roddy White. However, Harry Douglas will be a mystery going into the 2010 season because of his ACL injury and Brian Finneran didn’t accomplish much this past season. I feel they need just one slot receiver, possibly like a Derrick Mason, Antonio Bryant or whoever to bolster the offense. What are the chances that Dimitroff will sign a wide or slot receiver?

Pat Yasinskas: First off, I think Bryant and Mason come with higher price tags than the Falcons are willing to pay. Second, and more importantly, they truly are counting on Douglas being a big factor this year. The one positive is that it happened so early in the preseason that he’s had plenty of time in the recovery progress and the knee shouldn’t be an issue by training camp. The Falcons loved what Douglas showed as a rookie. They think he can be the slot guy this year and, maybe, eventually challenge Jenkins for a starting job.


Tyler in Calgary, Alberta, writes: Most people thought the Falcons would address their secondary with the first pick, but with the signing of Dunta Robinson that won't happen. Do you see them going DE or OLB with that pick?

Pat Yasinskas: I suspect they’ll go with one of those positions in the first round because those are the biggest needs and Dimitroff likes to target needs. But it’s hard to choose between the two spots right now. Drafting in the latter half of the first round means the Falcons are at the mercy of the teams in front of them. In general terms, I’d say you have a better chance of hitting on a linebacker in their spot than you do of getting a sure-thing at defensive end. Atlanta’s recent history (Jamaal Anderson) shows there are no guarantees at defensive end, even if you have a top-10 pick.


Jim in Chino Hills, Calif., writes: Pat, I think all rational Falcon fans realize that Dunta Robinson is not a Revis shutdown-type of corner, and that we undoubtedly overpaid a bit to get him. However, he will be a definite upgrade to what we had last year. However, since the signing I've seen a lot of 'experts' talking about how horrible Robinson has been the last several years....Just sour grapes ? Whats' the real take?

Pat Yasinskas: From the people I’ve talked to, the consensus is Robinson didn’t have a good year last year, but that may be largely because he was coming off ACL surgery. A lot of people will tell you that it’s not until the second year after surgery that a player really gets back to full strength. I’m sure the Falcons did their medical homework and their share of scouting on Robinson. Yes, they might have overpaid to some degree. But Robinson is an upgrade over what they had last year. He also was the best corner on the market that wasn’t already getting near the end of his career, and he was better than any corner the Falcons could have taken in the second half of the first round.
We’ve got a few transactions around the NFC South this afternoon.

Let’s start in New Orleans, where the Saints have just announced they’ve agreed to terms on a one-year contract with cornerback Leigh Torrence. He spent last season with the Saints and appeared in five games. Torrence isn’t a real threat to challenge for significant playing time at cornerback, but he has a chance to be a factor on special teams.

In Atlanta, the Falcons took care of some housekeeping details. They got Brent Grimes to sign an exclusive rights contract, which means he’s Atlanta’s property for this year. Grimes will compete with Brian Williams for the No. 2 cornerback spot. If he doesn’t win that, he’s probably the favorite over Christopher Owens and Chevis Jackson to be the nickel back.

The Falcons also waived receiver James Swinton, who spent part of last season on the practice squad.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A new Tuesday feature on the ESPN.com NFL blog network.

Can the Falcons play some real defense?

In Mike Smith’s two years as coach, the Falcons have put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. But the amazing thing is that Smith, a coach with a defensive background, has done it without a very good defense, which is something any team needs to compete with New Orleans in the NFC South.

[+] EnlargeBrian Williams
Dale Zanine/US PresswireRe-signing cornerback Brian Williams was an important move for the Falcons.
The Falcons are well aware of this and they’re doing something about it. They went out and made their big splash in free agency by signing cornerback Dunta Robinson and re-signing cornerback Brian Williams. They also dumped Chris Houston, whom they never felt was very aggressive, in a trade with Detroit.

On paper, Robinson and Williams should be the starters. But the Falcons are also high on young corners Chris Owens, Brent Grimes and Chevis Jackson, and they’ll all be in the mix. Pretty amazing how proactive the Falcons have been at cornerback, especially when you consider Atlanta officials got a little sensitive when media members criticized the team's cornerback play last season.

Those officials repeatedly said the main reason the cornerbacks were struggling was because the pass rush wasn’t producing like they had hoped. Take that as a very strong sign the Falcons aren’t done touching up their defense.

They’ll tell you that defensive tackle Peria Jerry, who is coming back from an injury that kept him out most of his rookie season, will be back. Jerry can create a push in the middle and that’s going to help John Abraham and Kroy Biermann be more productive on the outside. But, if the Falcons were this aggressive at addressing cornerback, you have to think they’re not done at defensive end.

They’ve got the draft and what’s left of free agency, and their focus is going to be on building up the pass rush. It’s all they’re really lacking right now. They’re solid at cornerback, linebacker and in the middle of the defensive line.

Give them a pass-rusher and Smith might finally be able to really play the kind of defense he wants; the kind of defense that could make the Falcons a legitimate challenger to the Saints.

Houston trade now official

March, 8, 2010
3/08/10
7:41
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D. Orlando Ledbetter reports the much-anticipated trade of Atlanta cornerback Chris Houston to Detroit has finally happened.

The Falcons get a sixth-round pick in return. The deal also includes the two teams swapping picks in the fifth round. Atlanta now has the second pick in the fifth round and Detroit will take the 18th pick in the fifth round.

Houston became expendable after the Falcons signed Dunta Robinson and re-signed Brian Williams. They also have Christopher Owens, Brent Grimes and Chevis Jackson at cornerback.

NFC South mailbag

March, 8, 2010
3/08/10
12:01
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Time for another round of the mailbag and we’ll be a little heavy on Atlanta. That’s mainly because Falcons fans, who had been very quiet in recent weeks, really stepped up with a bunch of questions over the weekend. Thanks. If you’re not sending questions about your team, I can’t make them up.

Steve in Rochester, N.Y., writes: Any word on how Brian Williams' knee is healing? Do the Falcons think he will be opposite Dunta Robinson come opening day? I've read Christopher Owens could be the man if Williams isn't ready. Is this true?

Pat Yasinskas: I’ve asked general manager Thomas Dimitroff about all of Atlanta’s injured guys several times. He won’t break down where each guy is in his rehab, but he says all the guys who were injured are coming along well and should be ready for training camp. The Falcons wouldn’t have re-signed Williams if he wasn’t coming along well. Right now, you’d have to project Williams as the starter opposite Robinson. But the Falcons also are high on Owens, Brent Grimes and Chevis Jackson. Owens came on strong at the end of last season and certainly could contend for a starting job with a good preseason.


Derek in Mandeville, La., writes: Do you think the Saints are going to lose any more of the key starters from last year? I know Darren Sharper may not return. Do you think there is any interest in Jahri Evans or Jammal Brown? Picking up some draft picks from either of those guys would be great!

Pat Yasinskas: Now that Scott Fujita is gone to Cleveland, Sharper’s the only key unrestricted free agent. The Saints have interest in bringing him back, but they’ll let him test the market for now. He’s 34 and I think they’re playing it smart and have no intention of overpaying him. Evans and Brown each have been given the highest tender for restricted free agents. Another team would have to give up a first- and a third-round pick to sign either of them. That’s a steep price and will probably keep most teams from pursuing them. I also think the Saints would match just about any offer to Evans because he might be the best guard in the league. Brown was hurt last year, but he’s a left tackle who has been to the Pro Bowl. That type of left tackle doesn’t grow on trees, and it would take a huge offer for the Saints not to keep Brown.


Robbie in Murphy, N.C., writes: Why is everyone insisting that the Panthers are not trying to win this year? Our biggest loss was Julius Peppers, the other guys were older and not really impact players. The media is not sold on Matt Moore either and some say our best option is to draft Tim Tebow with our 2nd round pick or trade for Michael Vick. That's just ridiculous to me. Vick never was a good QB and has always been over-rated. Your thoughts please?

Pat Yasinskas: The stuff on Vick and Tebow seems ridiculous to me, too. Once again, I’ll say there’s no way Jerry Richardson would touch Vick. As for Tebow, the Panthers need to win now (John Fox is in the last year of his contract), and you don’t do that with a rookie quarterback who just recently decided to change his throwing motion. Moore was promising last year and I think you’ll see the Panthers add another quarterback with some experience at some point. And you’re right: Peppers was the only significant guy in the purge and that was because he and the team didn’t see eye to eye. There’s still a good core (Jon Beason, Chris Gamble, Jordan Gross, Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) in place. Yes, the Panthers have gotten rid of a bunch of guys, but this offseason is far from over. They’ll add some guys as time goes on and, like I said, Fox really needs to win now.


Corey in Hanford, Calif., writes: What about the BUCS? They have been extremely quiet when there has been chances to significantly improve this team before the draft and still have picks.

Pat Yasinskas: The Bucs have said they’ll be relatively quiet in free agency and they’ve held true to that so far. I suspect you’ll see some movement once we get to the second wave of free agency, which will be starting soon. Tampa Bay is committed to building through the draft, but the Bucs can’t get all of their needs there. They didn’t chase any of the big names, but I think you’ll see them as players for some mid-level guys who will fit needs.


Mark in Marietta, Ga., writes: What are the chances that Charles Grant lands in Atlanta or Carolina? Is he a good fit for either?

Pat Yasinskas: No doubt Carolina and Atlanta both need help at defensive end, and I’m not ruling out Grant landing with either one. But don’t expect anything right away. Grant’s an older guy who didn’t always produce in New Orleans and he also got hurt at the end of last year. He’s likely to hang on the market for some time. If Atlanta and Carolina don’t fill their needs elsewhere, Grant could be an option later in free agency.


Phillip in Atlanta writes: Now that the Falcons have signed Dunta Robinson and are getting Peria Jerry and Brian Williams from injury, do you think the Falcons have a better defense? Also can they slow down New Orleans's passing attack?

Pat Yasinskas: Plug in Robinson, Jerry and Williams and Atlanta’s defense is instantly better on paper. The Falcons still need a pass-rusher and I’m sure they’ll address that in time. Can they shut down the Saints’ passing game? Well, that’s almost impossible. But even last year the Falcons played well against the Saints both times. With a better defense, I see Atlanta as the best challenger in the division.


Niraj in Atlanta writes: When is the NFL schedule going to be released? We Falcon fans have to plan when to migrate!

Pat Yasinskas: Don’t have an exact date yet, but probably sometime in early April. Also, the NFL probably will announce select prime-time games at the league meeting in late March.

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