NFC South: Joe Zelenka

NFC South afternoon update

September, 4, 2012
Although a good chunk of the NFC South isn't practicing Tuesday, there still is a lot going on as we get ready for the start of the season. Let's take a run through the headlines:


With the team deciding to keep only five linebackers, the final spot came down to Robert James and Spencer Adkins. James won, in large part because he showed what general manager Thomas Dimitroff likes to call "urgent athleticism." Translation: James is a better athlete than Adkins and the Falcons think he can make some plays as a backup and on special teams.

A lot of people tend to think of the Falcons as a veteran team and that’s true to some degree. But their real goal is to have a mix of older and younger players and they tried to get younger without any making any dramatic moves this offseason. One way they leaned toward the youth movement was when they elected to go with undrafted rookie Josh Harris as their long-snapper over veteran Joe Zelenka.

Newly-signed backup quarterback Luke McCown has a general idea of coordinator Dirk Koetter’s offense because the two were together in Jacksonville the last three years. But McCown is still learning the language because the Falcons are using different terms than what the Jaguars did.


Coach Ron Rivera said he’s optimistic running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle) can play in Sunday’s opener. Rivera even implied Stewart might practice Wednesday. If Stewart can’t play, that means more carries for DeAngelo Williams and could mean some time at tailback for fullback Mike Tolbert.

Here’s a story that’s off the beaten path. Carolina receiver Steve Smith will take his cleats off and walk barefoot to the locker room at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. Smith will do this to raise money to buy shoes for needy children. But it does have to be pointed out that Smith just returned from a foot infection that caused him to miss part of the preseason.


Bradley Handwerger writes that temporary New Orleans coach Aaron Kromer says he’s following a formula. You can’t argue with that. What Sean Payton did since taking over the Saints in 2006 has worked pretty well for the Saints.

Wide receiver Adrian Arrington said he’s appreciative the Saints kept him on the roster even though he missed the preseason games with an injury. Arrington has a chance to be the No. 4 receiver. But I’ve got a feeling his fate might have been a lot different if rookie Nick Toon didn’t suffer a season-ending injury.


A lot of people are debating why quarterback Josh Freeman didn’t look sharp in the preseason. Charlie Campbell throws out a theory that makes as much sense as anything else I’ve heard. Campbell writes that Freeman is suffering from a lack of continuity. The Bus changed offensive coordinators before his rookie season ever started. They gave him a quarterbacks coach in 2010 and he had some success then. But Freeman took a big step back in 2011 and that got the whole coaching staff fired. Now, with coach Greg Schiano, offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and quarterbacks coach Ron Turner, Freeman is starting from scratch. But, at least this time, he’s got a true No. 1 receiver (Vincent Jackson) and an all-purpose running back (Doug Martin).

Defensive tackle Wallace Gilberry, who was released by the Bucs on Saturday and re-signed Monday, isn’t doing what Amobi Okoye did and attacking Schiano’s character. Instead, Gilberry says he understands the business. Hmm, that might be the reason Gilberry is on the roster and Okoye isn’t.
Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff hasn’t had a lot of salary-cap room to work with this offseason, but that hasn’t stopped him from using creative ways to maximize every penny.

While recently re-signing veteran center Todd McClure and veteran long-snapper Joe Zelenka, Dimitroff took advantage of the veteran minimum salary benefit. That’s a rule that basically was put in so that veterans aren’t priced out of the league. Zelenka’s a 12-year veteran and McClure has been in the NFL for 13 seasons. At that level of experience, the minimum salary is $925,000.

That’s the salary Zelenka and McClure will receive this season, but the benefit allows their base salary to count only $540,000 against the salary cap. McClure got a $65,000 signing bonus, so his cap figure is $605,000, even though the total cash value of his one-year contract is $990,000. Zelenka didn’t get a signing bonus so his cap figure is $540,000.

The Falcons currently have $1.66 million in cap space.

Dimitroff isn’t the only NFC South general manager taking advantage of the benefit. The Carolina Panthers' Marty Hurney used it when he recently re-signed defensive end Antwan Applewhite. As a four-year veteran, Applewhite’s minimum salary is $700,000. That’s what he’ll get, but only $540,000 of his base salary counts toward the cap. Applewhite also has a $65,000 workout bonus, which bring his cap figure up to $605,000.

In other contract and cap news, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Preston Parker has signed his exclusive-free-agent tender. He’s scheduled to make $540,000 this year. Running back LeGarrette Blount also is an exclusive-rights free agent, but has yet to sign his tender.

Update: The Bucs announced later on Wednesday that Blount has signed his tender and confirmed the Parker signing.
The Atlanta Falcons just announced a couple of transactions. Relax, the team that’s been virtually silent in free agency still isn’t doing much importing.

The Falcons basically took care of a couple of house-keeping duties. They went ahead and re-signed long-snapper Joe Zelenka, who was an unrestricted free agent. So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.

They also announced that Vance Walker has signed his restricted-free-agent tender, which is sort of the equivalent of announcing that there was daylight in Atlanta today. It's not like Walker really had any other choice but to sign the tender.

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.

All-NFC South team: Special teams

January, 24, 2012
It’s time to unveil my All-NFC South team for the 2011 season. We’ll have selections for the offense, the defense and a post that includes division-wide honors and bests and worsts. The offense and defense will come later Tuesday and the honors and bests and worsts will come Wednesday.

But, for now, let’s start with the special teams.

Kicker: Matt Bryant, Falcons. He missed only two field goal attempts all season. New Orleans’ John Kasay also had a fine year. But if the game is on the line, Bryant’s the one kicker in this division I want on the field.

Punter: Thomas Morstead, Saints. If San Francisco’s Andy Lee didn’t have one of the best seasons ever by a punter, Morstead probably would have been in the Pro Bowl. He also does a nice job kicking off.

Return man: Darren Sproles, Saints. Was dangerous whenever he touched the ball as a running back, receiver or a return man.

Long-snapper: Joe Zelenka, Falcons. There’s probably a fair amount of you who have never heard of Zelenka. That’s one of the best things you can say about a long-snapper. It means he’s not making mistakes.

Holder: Michael Koenen, Buccaneers. I usually don’t include a holder on awards for special teams. But I’m making an exception here. It’s a rare chance to give Tampa Bay representation on the All-NFC South team. I’m still debating a couple spots on the offense and defense and it’s looking like Tampa Bay may have one or two other representatives or Koenen might be the only player from the Buccaneers.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars are going to start their second joint practice of the day in just a few minutes.

I’m heading out to the field momentarily and this practice is going to be special. Lame joke there, but the afternoon session will be for special teams only. That doesn’t mean it’s going to lack some story lines.

About the only certainties are that Michael Koenen is safe as the punter and Joe Zelenka as the long snapper. But the place-kicker jobs and the competition among the return men is what I’ll be keeping an eye on. The Falcons have veteran Matt Bryant competing with Steve Hauschka competing for the kicking job.

There are all sorts of possibilities in the return game. Jerious Norwood, Harry Douglas and Brent Grimes all have handled some return duties in the past. Rookie cornerback Dominque Franks was drafted in large part because of his return abilities.

I’ll be back after the special-teams practice with some observations.

Around the NFC South

March, 9, 2010
  • The Falcons have re-signed long-snapper Joe Zelenka.
  • The Panthers have signed wide receiver Wallace Wright. Don’t get too excited. He’s not even close to a candidate to fill the No. 2 or No. 3 receiver spot, something the Panthers desperately need. Wallace was pretty much just a special-teams player in his time with the Jets.
  • Safety Darren Sharper still is saying he would like to re-sign with the Saints. He also recently had minor knee surgery.
  • Although the Falcons frequently talk about the “process,’’ Daniel Cox points out the signing of cornerback Dunta Robinson shows the team is moving with a sense of urgency.
  • The Saints reportedly are showing interest in defensive tackles Jamal Williams and Maake Kemoeatu. Sounds like Williams is the first target.
  • Former Carolina kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd has signed with Minnesota. Lloyd did a nice job handling kickoffs for the Panthers the past two years. But the Panthers have been shedding a bunch of luxuries and a kickoff specialist no longer seems like a necessity. Field goal kicker John Kasay and punter Jason Baker have handled kickoff duties in the past, but neither excels in that role.

Day of shakeups on special teams

December, 1, 2009
We’ve had these over on our news side, but, just in case you missed it, there have been some shakeups on special teams in the NFC South today.

The Falcons released veteran kicker Jason Elam and replaced him with former Tampa Bay kicker Matt Bryant. The Falcons also release long snapper Bryan Pittman and signed Joe Zelenka to replace him.

The Buccaneers signed punter Sam Paulescu after losing Dirk Johnson to a hamstring injury on a fake punt during Sunday’s loss to Atlanta. Paulescu previously spent some time this season with the Redskins.

The biggest move here is easily Elam. He had been one of the best kickers in the league for years and had a joyful homecoming when he joined the Falcons and returned to his native Georgia last year. But Elam had been struggling with accuracy most of this season and the Falcons made it clear by working out four kickers last week that they were considering alternatives.

Elam struggled again Sunday and that forced the move. Bryant was released by Tampa Bay in an unpopular preseason move. He had been kicking in the United Football League.

One other move that has nothing to do with special teams. The Falcons signed quarterback D.J. Shockley to the practice squad and released tackle Jeremy Clark from the practice squad. Shockley has previously been with the Falcons on the regular roster and the practice squad.