NFC South: Michael Boley
With that in mind, we turn to AdamJT13. He’s the best I’ve seen at predicting compensatory picks.
According to him, the Falcons will be the big NFC South winners in this department. He has them getting a third-round pick for the loss of Domonique Foxworth and a fifth-round choice for the loss of Michael Boley.
He also projects Carolina will add two sixth-round picks for losing Frank Omiyale and Geoff Hangartner.
NEW ORLEANS – Just got the inactives and we’ve got a couple of points of interest for the Saints.
Kicker Garrett Hartley, who has finished serving a four-game suspension, is inactive. That means veteran John Carney will handle the kicking duties. Also, defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy, who had returned to practice this week after an injury, will not play. Remi Ayodele will continue to start in his place.
The other inactives for the Saints are cornerback Leigh Torrence, running back Lynell Hamilton, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, center Nick Leckey and tight end Darnell Dinkins. Chase Daniel will be the third quarterback.
For the Giants, Ramses Barden, Danny Ware, Aaron Ross, Michael Boley, Adam Koets, Guy Whimper, Clint Smith and Chris Canty are inactive.
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|Despite the team's youthful makeover on defense, the Falcons brought in 33-year-old linebacker Mike Peterson to usher along the process of reshaping the unit.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Listen to Mike Peterson talk for about 30 seconds and you'll hear why he's fitting in so nicely -- and quickly -- with the Atlanta Falcons.
"It's a process," Peterson said.
Ah, the old "process" line. If you've followed Mike Smith since he took over as coach of the Falcons last year, you've heard the word at least several hundred times. Around Atlanta, there are smiles and shrugs from fans, media and even some players whenever Smith drops "process" into a sentence.
It sounds nice and you can't really question that Smith is onto something with what he's done with the Falcons, but what does this vague term he seems to live by really mean?
Ask Peterson, because he speaks the language better than anyone else. He actually understands and totally believes in what Smith is saying. He bought into the process long before the rest of the Falcons first heard of it. He bought into it early in the process.
From the day Peterson first met Smith, he's lived the process. They came together back in 2003 in Jacksonville, where Peterson had just joined the Jaguars as a linebacker from the Indianapolis Colts and Smith was the new defensive coordinator for new coach Jack Del Rio.
"He's been talking about 'the process' ever since I met him," Peterson said. "It's simple, really. It just means he's never satisfied. He's always trying to build something more."
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|Tony Gonzalez needed to be on a contending team and the Falcons needed another weapon for Matt Ryan. Atlanta is counting on the partnership to lead to a title.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
"I don't know why people always talk about 'it,'" Gonzalez said. "I think you can break it down and actually put your finger on it. First of all, he's got great talent and he's willing to work hard. Harder than anybody else. On our first day off of camp last week, he was in here working out at 3:30 on a Sunday. He's always watching film.
"I feel like I'm the same way. That's what makes great players. There's no substitute for it. That is the 'it' factor, you're willing to not just do what everybody else is doing. You're willing to go above and beyond.''
Ten minutes earlier and 30 yards away, Ryan sat in a chair and said basically the same thing about Gonzalez.
"There's no mystery why that kind of stuff happens,'' Ryan said. "It's not just a fluke or anything like that. He works so hard. He puts in the time, works hard in the weight room and on the practice field and takes care of his body. It's been impressive for me to see what it takes to be at that level at your position in this league and being one of the best players in the league.''
Yes, greatness realized and greatness on the verge are colliding in Atlanta this summer. It's no accident. Matchmakers Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff have put Ryan and Gonzalez together in an attempt to give each of them perhaps the only thing they were lacking. Quite simply, Ryan and Gonzalez needed one another.
Ryan needed a tight end to go with running back Michael Turner and receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins as he attempts to follow up on an astounding rookie season. In the post-Michael Vick reconstruction of Atlanta, the Falcons give Ryan whatever he wants and needs.
That's why they went out and got the most productive tight end ever. Not thrilled with the prospect of another rebuilding year in Kansas City, Gonzalez said he was contemplating retirement. That all changed when Dimitroff and Smith started talking to the Chiefs about a trade. Atlanta sent its second-round pick in 2010 to Kansas City in exchange for Gonzalez because the future is now for the Falcons, who stunned the world by going 11-5 and making the playoffs last season.
Gonzalez needed a reason to keep playing and, most importantly, he needed a quarterback. You can see the chemistry coming together on the field. You can see it off the field, as the quarterback and tight end have been training-camp roommates and fast friends.
"We have the potential to be the best football team I've ever played on,'' Gonzalez said. "Offensively, we can be better than any team I've played on and that's saying a lot with the teams I played on with Dick Vermeil, Priest Holmes and Eddie Kennison. I loved (quarterback) Trent Green, but Matt's one of those Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman kind of guys. He's got the potential to be one of the best players ever.''
Now, Ryan is throwing to one of the best players ever.
1. Can Atlanta's defense, with five new starters, be as good as the offense?
Yes. Smith got his defense to overachieve in his first season as a head coach and that came without him truly having time to stock his roster with his type of personnel. The Falcons made the playoffs with linebacker Keith Brooking, safety Lawyer Milloy and defensive tackle Grady Jackson serving as stopgaps near the end of their careers.
Those three are gone and so are linebacker Michael Boley and cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who was the only one of the five the Falcons had any interest in keeping. The Falcons drafted defensive tackle Peria Jerry and believe they had some replacements that fit their scheme in linebacker Stephen Nicholas, safety Th
omas DeCoud and cornerback Brent Grimes.
They also signed free-agent linebacker Mike Peterson to take Brooking's place. Peterson, 33, doesn't make the defense any younger, but he spent the best years of his career in Jacksonville, where Smith was his defensive coordinator. Smith likes to talk about the "process'' and the defensive overhaul is the next step. The Falcons put last year's emphasis on building the offense. This year, they're trying to assemble a defense to match it.
|AP Photo/John Bazemore|
|The Falcons need Matt Ryan to continue to improve in his second year.|
2. Are the cornerbacks good enough to stop the top passing games?
A lot of fans seem concerned about a cornerback group that has Chris Houston and Grimes as the starters with rookie Chris Owens and second year pro Chevis Jackson as the top backups.
None of them fit the profile of a true shut-down corner, but Smith and Dimitroff seem to have a lot more faith in this group than their fans do. Houston's not the most physical cornerback around and Grimes' size (5-foot-9, which might be generous) could cause some matchup problems. But the Falcons didn't seem worried enough about either of those things to go out and splurge for a free agent.
That's because Smith and his staff believe they can coach Houston to be more aggressive and they believe Grimes is so athletic that he would have been a first-round pick instead of an undrafted free agent if he were a couple inches taller. The belief is that Grimes can make up for his lack of height with his rare leaping ability (he has a 42-inch vertical jump). Of course, it would only help the corners if John Abraham can produce another year of double-digit sacks and Jamaal Anderson can start showing why he was a top 10 pick in 2007.
3. Will there be a sophomore slump for Ryan?
That's usually a legitimate question when a guy has a remarkable rookie season. But this guy is different than any quarterback to come along in recent years.
Ryan's got an offensive line that showed it could protect him last year. He's got a top-notch runner in Turner, a Pro Bowl receiver in White and a solid possession guy in Jenkins. Add Gonzalez to that and Ryan's only going to get better.
Quietly, the coaching staff is raving about what Nicholas has shown in camp so far. They say he's a completely different player and person than he was last year when he was flying back and forth to Boston to be with his infant son, who was awaiting a heart transplant. Stephen Nicholas Jr. got a new heart in mid-October and is completely healthy now. His father is able to focus completely on football now and the coaches firmly believe he's ready for a breakout season.
It's obvious this is a make-or-break year for Anderson at defensive end. He's got to show something and show it quickly because the Falcons aren't going to be patient much longer. They've got Chauncey Davis, who's ready to play immediately, and rookie Lawrence Sidbury, who has lots of potential, waiting to take over.
The Falcons must be very confident that left tackle Sam Baker is fully recovered from the back surgery that interrupted his rookie season. Atlanta didn't go out and get any other strong alternative and that's significant because Baker is the guy responsible for protecting Ryan's blind side.
It's early yet, but the Falcons believe they might have hit on something when they signed veteran Robert Ferguson after Harry Douglas went down with a season-ending injury early in camp. Ferguson looks like a guy intent on redeeming a career that seemed to be stalled. There's no doubt the Falcons will miss Douglas because they wanted him to stretch the field. But Ferguson and veteran Brian Finneran might give them some quality depth.
The Falcons had planned to let Owens focus solely on playing cornerback as a rookie. But the injury to Douglas leaves the team with a big question mark at punt returner. Owens has return abilities and the Falcons are going to use the preseason to take a look at him in that role.
The Falcons went with Chris Redman as Ryan's backup last season and had D.J. Shockley as their third quarterback. But there's a chance Shockley and Redman could flip roles. Shockley's had a strong camp and has lots of upside. ... The annual speculation that running back Jerious Norwood should get more carries is rolling again. There might be some truth to that because the Falcons don't want Turner handling 376 carries again. But Norwood's still going to be a situational player and his carries aren't going to increase dramatically. ... White's contract holdout didn't seem to set him back. He looks like he's in the best shape of his career. ... Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was a force as a rookie last year, but the Falcons are going to ask even more from him this year. They want him to be an every-down linebacker. ... A lot of people like to bash the right side of Atlanta's offensive line. It's true that guard Harvey Dahl and tackle Tyson Clabo might not be the most talented guys. But offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and line coach Paul Boudreau do a good job of playing to their strengths. Dahl and Claybo are aggressive as run blockers and Mularkey and Boudreau do a good job of covering up their deficiencies as pass blockers by giving them help and not having Ryan take many deep drops.
Posted by ESPN.com staff
- Former Falcons safety Michael Boley, who signed with the Giants in February, was handed a one-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy.
- Two Falcons players will help conduct a free football camp Saturday. This and more pre-camp tidbits from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter.
- The Sporting News' Albert Breer cites the 2008 Panthers as an example of a team that benefited from veterans stepping up at the right time. Which teams could use that type of help in 2009?
- Trying to prove himself is nothing new for Panthers rookie tight end Kevin Brock.
New Orleans Saints
- Could the Saints be this year's version of the Arizona Cardinals; a team that surprises everyone and makes a run to the Super Bowl? Pro Football Weekly's Eric Edholm thinks it's possible.
- The team's Web site takes an inside look at wide receiver Marques Colston.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
|David Stluka/Getty Images|
|Linebacker Stephen Nicholas will be able to concentrate on winning a starting job.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. -- Stephen Nicholas' arms were wrapped around his infant son, somewhat loosely because he didn't want to bump the tubes that had kept the child alive the past four months.
Wife Irene sat nearby and the doctor began talking. The doctor said the tubes were going to come out that afternoon. Stephen and Irene looked at each other and started crying as both minds registered the same two thoughts.
Stephen Nicholas Jr. had been in Children's Hospital Boston since last summer, waiting for a heart suitable to transplant into his little body.
"That was the doctor's way of saying there was a heart coming in,'' Stephen said.
Stephen Jr. was going to get a shot at life with a new heart. Tears of joy for a few seconds. Then, tears of sadness.
"The most bittersweet moment you can imagine,'' Irene said. "Our baby was going to get a new heart. But then you realize the heart had to come from someone his age and his size.''
Somewhere, someone else had lost a baby.
The date was Oct. 17, 2008. The surgery took hours upon hours and finally ended sometime around 4 the next morning. When the father saw the son at around noon, the baby had better color and was looking more alert than ever.
In another few weeks, Stephen Jr. would be given a clean bill of health and sent home to Atlanta. The doctors all have said Stephen Jr. should have a normal and healthy life.
If you looked over at the bleachers where the families sat during the Atlanta Falcons' minicamp practices last month, you never would have guessed life had been far from normal for the Nicholas family. When practice was over, the father went over to where the son sat with his mother. Within a few seconds, the two were running around and rolling in the grass.
Teammates walked by and smiled at the scene. Their wives and girlfriends watched the two Stephens and there might have been a few tears. This was the happiest ending to the best-kept secret of the 2008 season for the Falcons.
While rookie quarterback Matt Ryan was lighting up the NFL and the Falcons were making a run to the playoffs as the NFL's most surprising team, there was a little family secret that wasn't public because it was a very private matter.
Now Stephen, Irene and the Falcons are ready to tell the story that everyone else helped keep quiet last year.
Stephen and Irene were going through hell, but they had 52 other Falcons, a coaching staff, an owner and an entire building of employees quietly helping them along.
After all the craziness (the Michael Vick saga, Jim Mora melting down and Bobby Petrino walking out on his team) that had surrounded the Falcons in recent years, this story -- even more than the playoff run -- demonstrates a franchise with sanity, compassion and priorities that are very much in order.
It all started soon after Jan. 6, 2008, when Stephen Jr. was born. He was the first child for Stephen and Irene, but the new parents quickly could tell something wasn't right.
"He was sleeping all the time and he barely would eat,'' Irene said.
|Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI|
|Mike Smith told Nicholas not to worry about his job security while he dealt with his son's health issues.|
There was a flurry of visits to pediatricians and the root of the problem wasn't clear at first. A doctor in Gainesville, Ga. decided something was badly wrong with Stephen Jr.'s heart.
More tests only enhanced that idea and, with help from Stephanie Blank, wife of Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Stephen Jr. was airlifted to Atlanta. Stephanie Blank is a board member at Children's Hospital of Atlanta. There, doctors determined the baby had cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart isn't able to properly pump blood throughout the body.
At first, Stephen Jr. was given medication and sent home. There was some mild improvement, but it didn't last long.
"I can't even begin to tell you how many trips we made back to the emergency room,'' Irene said.
A few weeks before Stephen, 26, and the Falcons were scheduled to begin training camp last July, doctors sat him and Irene down.
"They basically said it wasn't getting any better and that just treating it with medication wasn't going to work,'' Stephen said. "He had to have a heart transplant and it would have to come soon. There was no other choice at that point.''
Irene and the baby went to Boston. Stephen went to training camp, where he went through the motions, but his heart was in Boston. For the next four months, Stephen Jr., wired with tubes of medication to help keep his heart functioning, waited for a donor they weren't sure would come in time.
As all this was going on, there was a development that makes you realize the NFL isn't always the cold, hard business we always hear about. First-year coach Mike Smith, a gentle man with a family of his own, sat down Nicholas and told him not to worry about his job security.
"We were very cognizant of what was going on and wanted to make sure he was able to get to Boston as often as possible,'' Smith said. "We wanted him to be with his wife and baby because that was a very trying situation.''
Smith offered a deal. Each Sunday night during the season, Nicholas could fly to Boston from wherever the Falcons were playing. He could take Monday and Tuesday off and fly back to Atlanta in time for Wednesday's practice.
The show of support went even deeper than that. As a second-year backup, Nicholas wasn't making a lot of money. Two veteran teammates, who don't want to be named, helped take care of his travel expenses.
Then there was Kevin Winston. Officially, he's the Falcons' director of player programs. Unofficially, he's the team's social worker and a big brother to the players. Winston looks like he could play linebacker, but has a soft spot for anyone who's going through a tough time.
"Kevin was on the phone with me all the time,'' Irene
said. "He was always checking to see if there was anything I needed or anything the Falcons could do.''
Back in Atlanta, Stephen was able to focus on football for a few hours each day. He was a fixture on special teams and a backup at outside linebacker.
"It says a lot about Stephen's character that he was able to still play football while he was going through all that,'' Smith said. "It also says a lot about our football team and how the guys rallied around him.''
The situation also revealed an awful lot about Irene. She might have been the strongest of all. She was on the front line, sitting with Stephen Jr. every day, not knowing how long his heart would last or if a new one was coming.
"She's a rock,'' Stephen said. "She held down the fort and told me to keep plugging with football because we had to keep going on. I thank God for giving her to me. Every day when I go home now, I kiss my wife and I kiss my baby. I've been blessed with both of them.''
As Father's Day approaches this weekend, things are back to normal around the Nicholas' house -- as normal as can be expected when you're the proud parents of a rambunctious 18-month-old.
"He's more than normal now and really has been since just a few days after the surgery,'' Irene said. "He's into everything and he never really stops, but that's fine with us.''
Without knowing what was going on behind the scenes last season, some Falcons fans were wondering why Stephen was having a quiet year, after a promising rookie season, and not getting on the field much even though starting linebackers Michael Boley and Keith Brooking weren't having great seasons.
Now, fans know. The Falcons learned plenty about Nicholas last season and that's part of the reason they let Boley and Brooking go.
Nicholas has been working as the starter on the strong side throughout the offseason. Part of that is because the Falcons believe his physical skills are ready to blossom. And part of it may be because Nicholas already has shown he's the strongest player on the roster as a person.
"Stephen and his wife are incredibly strong,'' Smith said. "And they've gotten even stronger because of what they've been through.''
This year, Nicholas is looking forward to training camp and a shot at a starting job. Irene and Stephen Jr. won't be so far away this time. In fact, Nicholas already is looking forward to taking some glances at the bleachers between plays to see his son, safe, sound and healthy.
"It's going to be nice to be out there with a clear mind,'' Nicholas said.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
A look at the key loss and his replacement for each team in the division:
Who's out: Keith Brooking, LB (wasn't re-signed and went to Dallas as a free agent)
Who's in: Mike Peterson, LB (signed as free agent from Jacksonville)
Outlook: On the surface, swapping one aging linebacker for another may look like a wash. But, keep in mind, Peterson played for coach Mike Smith in Jacksonville. That means Peterson is Smith's kind of player -- something Brooking and fellow departed linebacker Michael Boley were not. Brooking may have been an institution in Atlanta, but he looked old last year and looked lost in the playoff loss to Arizona.
Peterson spent most of his career playing middle linebacker, but he'll move to the weak side. Smith already has designated Peterson as a team leader and this is a chance for a fresh start. That's something Peterson wants. His once-sterling reputation was dirtied a bit when he stood up to coach Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville last year. This is Peterson's chance for the last laugh.
Who's out: Ken Lucas, CB (released in a salary-cap move and signed with Seattle)
Who's in: Richard Marshall, CB
Outlook: Marshall had been the nickel back the last couple of years, which essentially meant he was a starter. But Marshall has a bit of an ego (not a bad thing for a cornerback) and quietly kept saying he thought he should be in the starting lineup. Now, he'll get his chance. (Note to Marshall: Be careful what you wish for because now you have to go against Steve Smith in practice every day.)
There really shouldn't be much drop-off because Lucas showed signs of age the second half of last season. In fact, the Panthers believe Marshall can be better than Lucas. The only downside is the Panthers have to find a new nickel back.
Who's out: Deuce McAllister, RB (released and has not signed elsewhere)
Outlook: Yeah, Thomas and Bush were ahead of McAllister last year. But the icon of the Gulf Coast region still was on the team. Even as he stood on the sideline, there was always a suspicion from fans McAllister might be thrust back into a prominent role.
Now that he's really gone, fans don't have a safety net to grasp for. Neither does coach Sean Payton. Thomas showed some signs of being a pretty good back last year, and Bush flashed his usual promise at times. But it's time for Thomas, Bush and, maybe a short-yardage back to be named later to step up. The Saints are going to be a passing team as long as Payton's around, but it sure wouldn't hurt to have at least something that looks like a running game.
Who's out: Derrick Brooks, LB (released and has not signed elsewhere)
Who's in: Jermaine Phillips, LB
Outlook: In the first real move of the new regime of Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik, the Bucs made the bold decision to release Brooks, the best player in franchise history. Yes, he's old and yes, the situation could have been handled better. But it's over now.
The Bucs had a plan all along. That was moving Phillips from safety to Brooks' spot on the weak side. If Morris, who was Phillips' position coach last year, didn't think this would work, it wouldn't have happened. Phillips might not be the Brooks of five years ago, but he might be better than the Brooks of the last two seasons.
The Atlanta Falcons are the final stop in our series of team-by-team mailbags.
LR in Warner Robins, Ga., writes: Who you think will be the Atlanta Falcons starting Strong Safety, DeCoud or Moore?
Pat Yasinskas: Too early to tell right now. This is going to be one of the more interesting battles in training camp. In the recent minicamp, Thomas DeCoud worked with the first team and William Moore with the second. But it's common to open minicamp with the guy who's been around ahead of the rookie. The Falcons used a second-round pick on Moore and that means they think he can probably start. But that's not a given. DeCoud can win this job if he has the better preseason.
Steve in New Haven, Conn., writes: hey Pat, love the blog, while you were at camp, did you take a look at the CB's? It seems Houston is going to be our RCB, but at LCB we have an open competition. Who do you think will be the other starter? Grimes, Hutchins, Jackson, Owens? I'd like to see Jackson starting, Owens in the nickel, and Grimes or Hutchins fightin for the 4th CB spot. Anyways, how do you think it'll play out??? Thnks
Pat Yasinskas: I think the Falcons definitely view the cornerback spot opposite Chris Houston as an open competition. In this case, I think that's a healthy thing. They're going to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and Chris Owens out there and see who rises up. They're high on Jackson after what he flashed as a rookie and they see Owens as a guy who can be a starter at some point. If Jackson and Owens have solid preseasons, they could join Houston in the trio of top cornerbacks.
Niklas in Aarhus, Denmark, writes: Hey Pat! Who do you see as next year's breakout candidates on the Falcons squad, and why?
Pat Yasinskas: I'll go with linebacker Stephen Nicholas. I think his skills fit what coach Mike Smith wants from the strong side and Nicholas has had time to develop. I know the Falcons lost Keith Brooking and Michael Boley after last season, but I think the linebacker corps can be better than it was a year ago.
Ben in Macon, Ga., writes: How long do you give the rest of the NFC South fans before they start REALLY hating the Falcons? All this national media attention, combined with media darling Matt Ryan, has to be grating on them. Am I right?
Pat Yasinskas: Wow, I'll leave that one up to the NFC South fans to decide. But there's no question the Falcons are becoming somewhat of the media darling of the division and Ryan is at the center of it all. Kind of amazing how much more respect the Falcons are getting than they did this time a year ago. They earned that respect with last season. But now they've got to keep that respect by playing well.
Dash in Nashville writes: Do you think there's any chance the Falcons can get any team to trade for Mike Vick? Even if it's a 7th rounder for next year?
Pat Yasinskas: Doubt it. I just don't see teams willing to give up a pick for a guy who's going to be cut anyway. If Thomas Dimitroff somehow gets anything for Vick, he's even more of a genius than I already think he is.
DBell in Rome, Ga., Writes: With Tony Gonzales giving the Falcons a serious TE threat, how will Ovie Mughelli's role at FB be affected? The Falcons paid him more than any other FB ever, and I feel he's been under-used. Do you think he'll now see less time with the Falcons likely to use more two-TE sets?
Pat Yasinskas: Don't sell Mughelli short. The guy played a huge role as a blocker for Michael Turner last season. Yeah, he doesn't get to catch or run the ball very often, but his role as a blocker is an important part of Atlanta's offense. Yes, you'll see some sets where the Falcons use two tight ends and have Mughelli on the sidelines. But I think he'll be on the field for a lot of running plays and to help protect Ryan on passing downs.
|Dale Zanine/US PRESSWIRE, Paul Abell/Getty Images, David Stluka/Getty Images|
|Peria Jerry, William Moore and Stephen Nicholas are among the young defenders Atlanta coach Mike Smith will be counting on this season.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Take just about any team that was in the playoffs last season and remove five starters from the defense. In theory, that team's probably not going back to the playoffs.
Now, take the Atlanta Falcons.
They got rid of almost half their defensive starters and expect to be better on defense. Wishful thinking? Not really.
Think about all the wonderful things that went right for the Falcons in a stunning 11-5 season. The defense wasn't really one of them. This fact kind of got lost in the hysteria of quarterback Matt Ryan having a great rookie season and Michael Turner running wild.
The simple reality is that Atlanta's defense wasn't very good. The Falcons ranked 25th in rush defense, allowing 2,046 yards on the ground. Against the pass, the Falcons allowed 3,526 yards. That's only 21 yards less than New Orleans allowed and the Saints were widely considered one of the league's worst defenses.
|Greg Trott/Getty Images|
|John Abraham collected 16.5 sacks and forced four fumbles last season.|
Sure, Atlanta's defense played well enough to help the Falcons win 11 games, but it was done with smoke, mirrors, John Abraham and a whole lot of luck.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith were painfully aware the defense wasn't going to get any better by standing still and that's why they didn't. Linebacker Keith Brooking, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, cornerback Domonique Foxworth and linebacker Michael Boley were allowed to walk in free agency and safety Lawyer Milloy was released.
The truth is Foxworth was the only one of the bunch the Falcons wanted to keep, but only if they could do it at a reasonable price and that didn't happen. Brooking, Jackson and Milloy were great players -- a few years ago. But last season, they were old guys and liabilities. Boley fell out of favor with the coaching staff and wasn't even starting at the end of last year.
The names of the guys who are going to replace those five aren't going to excite anyone, but maybe they should. Atlanta's defense is going to be better in the long run because of the housecleaning. But it also might be better right away.
"I came into the meeting (on the first day of last week's minicamp) and I saw Abe and a couple old guys," safety Erik Coleman said. "But for the most part, it was first- and second-year guys. I think it's a good thing. We've got a lot of youth on our team and a lot of guys that are hungry to show they can play."
|Falcons head coach Mike Smith talks about sustaining the success of last year's team.|
We won't know for sure if all the young guys can play for a few more months. But they might have a better chance than last year's defense. They at least fit the profile.
When Smith and Dimitroff came in last year, they focused most of their efforts on offense, signing Turner to a big free-agent contract and using the third overall draft pick on Ryan. Smith, who came with a defensive background, didn't truly have the kind of players he wanted on defense, so he had to make do.
But that's no longer an issue. Atlanta's offseason was all about defense and players who fit Smith's scheme. The Falcons are younger and the upgraded speed of the defense was obvious in minicamp.
They used their first-round pick on defensive tackle Peria Jerry and their second-round choice on safety William Moore. They're the likely replacements for Jackson and Milloy. They firmly believe that third-year pro Stephen Nicholas is ready to blossom and take over Boley's old spot on the strong side. They're not sure exactly who will start in Foxworth's spot, but they're going to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and Chris Owens out there and see who rises up.
The Falcons didn't necessarily get younger at weakside linebacker where free-agent Mike Peterson is only a year younger than Brooking. But Peterson spent much of his career under Smith in Jacksonville and he wouldn't have been brought in if he didn't fit the system.
|Sam Greenwood/Getty Images|
|Mike Peterson could provide some of the veteran leadership that the Falcons lost this offseason.|
The one potential downside to the yout
h movement is that the Falcons lost a lot of experience and leadership in Brooking, Milloy and Jackson and nobody is denying that's a concern.
Smith doesn't believe in randomly anointing leaders and he's given a lot of thought to where his defensive leadership will come from.
"When you're a good player and you have success on the field, it leads to leadership," Smith said. "They become leaders."
At the moment, the Falcons don't have as many defensive leaders as a year ago. But Smith thinks that will change quickly.
Abraham's already a leader. Coleman was close to being one last year and should have room to spread his wings with Milloy gone. Peterson's a natural leader and already is getting comfortable with his new team. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was thrust into a leadership role as a rookie by the nature of his position and Smith expects his development in that role will accelerate this year.
"Instead of having one or two leaders, you've got to have eight or nine leaders throughout the entire team," Smith said. "There has to be a balance there."
Balance really is what the Falcons are aiming for on defense. They've got veterans in Abraham, Coleman and Peterson, young guys in the rookies and second-year players and some guys in between like defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and cornerback Chris Houston.
"We've got enough veteran leadership that can work out with the younger players to be a great blend," defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. "With young players, it's always a process. Right now, it's crucial that we work hard to allow them to get comfortable so they can attach themselves to the leadership and let it shine through."
|How will NFC South defensive backs fare against the bevy of tight ends including Tony Gozalez, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
With the NFC South suddenly becoming a hub for tight ends, a very big question rises.
Who's going to cover all these guys?
Presumably, the outside linebackers and safeties. Does the NFC South have enough talent at those positions to keep up with Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey? We'll find out in the fall, but I'm thinking linebackers and safeties could have a lot more value in the NFC South in this weekend's draft.
Think about it a bit.
Let's say you're the Saints and you're sitting there at No. 14. There's been lots of talk about taking running back Chris "Beanie'' Wells, defensive back Malcolm Jenkins or maybe even a defensive tackle. But, after Thursday's trade of Gonzalez to Atlanta, you're suddenly faced with the prospect of facing him and Winslow in four games.
You've got experience at outside linebacker in Dan Morgan, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle, but do any of those guys have the legs to run with Gonzalez or Winslow? If you're the Saints, you suddenly might want to slide Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, the two USC linebackers who could be available when you pick, up a few spots on your draft board.
Same story for the Bucs, who are sitting at No. 19. They've already overhauled their linebacker corps by signing Angelo Crowell and moving safety Jermaine Phillips to weak-side linebacker. But the thought of facing Shockey and Gonzalez on a regular basis might make it difficult to pass on Matthews or Cushing. For that matter, the Bucs would have to think hard about Jenkins, if he's available.
Part of the reason for moving Phillips to linebacker was a desire to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. But is Piscitelli ready to line up against Shockey and Gonzalez?
The Falcons, who hold the No. 24 pick, have needs at defensive tackle, defensive end and cornerback. But they might have to put more emphasis on their needs at safety because of changing landscape of tight ends in the NFC South. Matthews, Cushing and Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas might have jumped up Atlanta's board in recent days.
Carolina doesn't pick until the second round (No. 59 overall) and the Panthers are in good shape at outside linebacker. They've got some big needs on the defensive line, but they might not be able to sit still at safety in the second or third round. Strong safety Chris Harris isn't known for his coverage skills and second-year pro Charles Godfrey still is trying to grow into the free safety job.
How NFC South defenses try to counter the upgrades at tight end is one story line to follow throughout the draft. Here are four more NFC South story lines to follow.
What happens with Julius Peppers? This situation has been simmering in Carolina for months and it could be ready to boil over. Peppers has said he wants out of Carolina and the Panthers have said they want him back.
But Peppers has strapped Carolina's cap situation with his $17 million franchise tag. If some other team steps forward with a deal that includes a first-round pick, the Panthers almost have to take it. The alternative is to hang on to Peppers at his current price and the Panthers are ready to do that.
In that situation, the common assumption is that Peppers has no choice but to put in another season with the Panthers. But don't assume anything with Peppers. This thing has never been about money and Peppers is a very unique individual. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he would hold out and pass on the $17 million.
Will Sean Payton be able to keep his hands off the offense? That's not going to be easy for the New Orleans coach. Payton's background and passion is on the offensive side, but his future is on the defensive side. As tempting as it may be to draft Wells to give the Saints a power back, Payton may have to go outside his comfort zone.
The defense is the reason the Saints haven't made the playoffs the last two seasons. They've spent the offseason overhauling the defense. Now, it's time to finish the job. Payton has switched defensive coordinators and that pulls away a layer of insulation on his own job security. If defense keeps this team out of the playoffs again, it might be Payton's turn to take the fall.
Are the Bucs really content with their quarterback situation? Kansas State's Josh Freeman is at least a consideration in the first round. But Tampa Bay has so many other needs that it might not make a lot of sense to take a quarterback who might not be ready to play right away.
The Bucs signed Byron Leftwich and he certainly is a candidate to start. But think back to one of the first moves coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik made when they took over. They re-signed Luke McCown and paid him pretty good money. There was a reason for that. Morris and Dominik want McCown to be their starter.
Can Atlanta rebuild its defense in one draft? That's pretty much what the Falcons have to do after parting ways with Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy, Grady Jackson, Domonique Foxworth and Michael Boley. The Gonzalez move means that the Falcons will focus almost their entire draft on defense, except for possibly adding a little depth on the offensive line.
Atlanta's only addition on defense was adding linebacker Mike Peterson. There's some good, young talent in place with defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Chris Houston.
But the Falcons need some more young talent on this defense. They need to walk out of this draft with at least two defensive starters.
Team needs: Defensive line, outside linebacker, safety
|The Falcons could use some pass-rush help in the form of Georgia Tech's Michael Johnson.|
Dream scenario: The Falcons already had the ultimate dream scenario last year when they hit big at quarterback (Matt Ryan), left tackle (Sam Baker) and middle linebacker (Curtis Lofton). Still, their defense wasn't that good last year and Atlanta is looking to get younger in several areas. The best way to improve a defense overall is to start with the pass rush. In that area, the Falcons, who have the 24th pick in the first round, have nothing but John Abraham. They could get him some help and score some major points with the hometown fans if they can land Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson.
Plan B: Drafting so late in the first round means the Falcons can't lock in on any one position. If Johnson or another quality pass-rusher isn't available, it will be easy for Atlanta to move in another direction. The Falcons let outside linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley go through free agency. Although they brought in free agent Mike Peterson, they need another starting outside linebacker. USC's Brian Cushing or Clay Matthews could fit nicely.
Scouts Inc.'s take: "It's a defensive pick, obviously. When you're picking that late, it's the best available defensive player. Thomas Dimitroff is a Scott Pioli guy, so there's always the chance they could trade and go back a few picks if the defensive player they want is there. The one thing that kind of intrigues me is Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas. Would the Falcons take a chance on him? It's a potential-type pick, but he has the athletic ability and size to be a top-flight NFL safety. But how quick is a guy from Western Michigan going to be able to step in?" -- Jeremy Green of Scouts Inc.
Who has final say: Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff are one of the most harmonious duos in the league. They almost always come to a mutual conclusion because they're usually on the same page. But Dimitroff does have the final say if a dispute ever arises.
Now on the clock: New England Patriots, March 24.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
There's a pretty wide assumption out there that the Atlanta Falcons will use an early draft pick on a linebacker in April.
It could happen, but I'm not so sure it's the given thing many fans expect. After letting outside linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley walk through free agency, the only sure thing is the Falcons have Curtis Lofton as their starting middle linebacker.
But the roster is not as depleted as you might think. As Daniel Cox points out, the Falcons are high on linebacker Stephen Nicholas, who will be entering his third season. Nicholas has been mostly a backup linebacker and special teams player in his first two seasons, but I keep hearing word out of Atlanta that the Falcons think he can at least be in the mix for a starting job next season.
Again, there could be more coming in the draft, but the Falcons already have some decent options. Nicholas has some good speed and young legs. The Falcons also signed veteran Mike Peterson, who has a history with coach Mike Smith, and Coy Wire replaced Boley as the starter on the strong side late last season.
Peterson's history was mostly as a middle linebacker, but the Falcons are planning to play him on the outside. Even if the Falcons don't add a linebacker in the early rounds, they've already set up some decent competition with Nicholas, Wire and Peterson competing for two starting jobs.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
The Atlanta Falcons are the final stop for today's team-by-team mailbags.
Greg in CT writes: Those who have questioned the Falcons tepid off season are told to relax that Dimitroff has never been wrong before. How can one (admittedly very successful) draft exempt him from scrutiny? The Falcons were VERY lucky in 2008, especially on defense, and nothing has been done to address defensive deficiencies. I would think after 40 years, Falcon fans have earned the right to be pessimistic. And until Dimitroff has a clear PATTERN of success, it's premature to start comparing the Falcons to the Patriots.
Pat Yasinskas: That's a very valid point. As of the moment, the Falcons haven't done much with their defense. In fact, they've gotten rid of players like Keith Brooking, Grady Jackson, Lawyer Milloy, Domonique Foxworth and Michael Boley. But that was mostly by design. Foxworth was the only one of that bunch the Falcons truly wanted to keep, but he got a big offer from Baltimore that the Falcons couldn't compete with. Brooking, Jackson and Milloy all were near the end of their careers and the Falcons want to get younger at those positions. They haven't done much in free agency so far, but that's mainly because they don't have a lot of salary-cap room. But the wave of big money in free agency is over and I think you'll see the Falcons start making some moves. Thomas Dimitroff had an excellent draft last year, but he can't fill all the defensive holes through the draft. In essence, the Falcons lost five starters on defense and you're not going to get five starters in the draft. The Falcons need to sign two or three free agents who can start for them.
Atljbo in Atlanta writes: Will the Atlanta Falcons go after Leigh Bodden ? I think he would fit in Falcons scheme nicely.
Pat Yasinskas: Oops. In the short time between when I first answered this question and now, Leigh Bodden has signed with the Patriots. So scratch him off the list. I agree he would have been a nice fit in Atlanta, but I'm not sure the Falcons thought he was worth the money and I don't think they were very involved in this one. Von Hutchins, Chris Houston, Brent Grimes and Chevis Jackson are all young cornerbacks with upside. But I'd like to see the Falcons add one experienced cornerback to the mix and I think they'll continue to look for one at a reasonable price.
Pabst in Vegas writes: Falcons signed Mike Peterson, what are your thoughts on this? Back-up? Starter? Improvement over Brooking? Or is this just loyalty from Mike Smith? Thanks, I read the column everyday. Keep up the good work, and go Falcons!
Pat Yasinskas: I'm having a tough time getting excited about the Mike Peterson move. He's only a year younger than Keith Brooking and most of his experience is in the middle. The Falcons are set with Curtis Lofton in the middle, so it's a pretty fair assumption they're planning on using Peterson on the outside. And they're paying him starter money -- a two-year deal that could be worth up to $6.6 million. Mike Smith has history with Peterson and knows his abilities. I'm hoping Smith sees something that's not very apparent to me right now.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Just got the numbers on Mike Peterson's deal with Atlanta and they're pretty interesting.
Peterson didn't get the one-year deal you'd expect for a 32-year-old linebacker on the downside of his career. He got a two-year deal that could be worth as much as $6.6 million. That's a pretty good indication that the Falcons plan to use Peterson as a starter.
That's a little bit of a gamble. Peterson's spent much of his career as a middle linebacker. The Falcons are set there with Curtis Lofton and they apparently will shift Peterson to the outside after letting Keith Brooking and Michael Boley walk in free agency.
I know coach Mike Smith has a history with Peterson in Jacksonville and knows his abilities. But you have to wonder how much Peterson has left and how he'll handle a move to the outside? I'm not sure that Peterson is any better than Brooking at this point in their careers.
Brooking got a four-year deal in Dallas that averages $2.6 million. In other words, the Falcons could have kept Brooking for less money than it took them to get Peterson. Yes, Brooking struggled at times last season, but I'm not sure Peterson will be an upgrade.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
After letting former starting outside linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley walk in free agency, the Falcons had glaring needs at outside linebacker. Peterson has spent much of his career in the middle, although he did play on the outside early on.
He's also 32 years old, only a year younger than Brooking, who was viewed as being on the decline. Peterson, who played for Atlanta coach Mike Smith in Jacksonville, may get a shot at winning one of the outside spots. But it's also possible the Falcons are still looking for answers on the outside and could use Peterson as the backup to Curtis Lofton in the middle.