NFL Nation: 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.

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
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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.
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.
On the same day the Atlanta Falcons are going to introduce a new cornerback, it looks like they might be saying farewell to an old cornerback.

There are numerous reports out there that the Falcons are working on trading Chris Houston to Detroit. The reports are all over the board in terms of compensation, but look for the Falcons to come out of this one holding anything from a fourth-round pick to a sixth-round pick.

Whatever they can get for Houston will be fine. He’s a guy who has always had some ability, but is not a very aggressive player, which has prevented Houston from endearing himself to the coaching staff. He became expendable after the Falcons agreed to a contract with Dunta Robinson, who will be introduced officially at a news conference Monday afternoon.

Robinson instantly becomes Atlanta’s No. 1 cornerback, and the recent re-signing of Brian Williams probably makes him the other starter. But the Falcons also will let Brent Grimes, Christopher Owens and Chevis Jackson challenge for that job in training camp.

That gives them plenty of depth at cornerback, and getting a draft pick -- any draft pick -- for Houston makes sense for a team that probably is just about done in free agency and will now focus on the draft.
ESPN's John Clayton is reporting the Falcons and cornerback Dunta Robinon have agreed to terms on a six-year deal. They’re going to put the finishing touches on the contract language over the next few hours, but this is basically done.

We’ve known this was coming most of the day and it comes soon after the Falcons prevented Brian Williams from becoming a free agent by giving him a contract extension. Suddenly, the Atlanta secondary looks a lot better than it did at the end of last season.

But what’s it going to look like on opening day?

Well, Robinson’s got the big contract, so pencil him in as the No. 1 cornerback. Take Williams, Chris Houston, Christopher Owens, Brent Grimes and Chevis Jackson and throw them into competition throughout camp and see who steps up. The Falcons were happy with the play of safety Thomas DeCoud in his first year as a starter last season, but not exactly thrilled with the play of veteran safety Erik Coleman. They’ve got William Moore, who missed his rookie season with an injury, ready to step into Coleman’s spot.

One other key point, the Robinson signing means the Falcons now can turn their attention to the front seven in the upcoming draft. They’ve got needs at defensive end and outside linebacker and could fill those needs with their first few picks.

Falcons may not be done at CB

March, 4, 2010
3/04/10
9:25
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The Falcons announced a contract extension for Brian Williams earlier Thursday, but he’s not the only cornerback on their minds.

Robinson
Robinson
Atlanta appears to be the leader in the race to get former Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson. A deal could be finalized within a few hours. Robinson has other options, but the Falcons have the advantage of geography. Robinson went to college at South Carolina and grew up in Athens, Ga. Indications are that he wants to be close to home.

Landing Robinson would put the Falcons in excellent shape at cornerback, a position where they had some problems after Williams got hurt last season. They also have Chris Houston, Brent Grimes, Chevis Jackson and Christopher Owens.

If they finalize a deal with Robinson, the Falcons likely will be able to focus entirely on getting a pass rusher early in the draft.

How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

November, 24, 2009
11/24/09
11:04
AM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Falling

Peppers
Peppers
1. Julius Peppers, Panthers defensive end: Although John Fox, who is extremely guarded about injuries, won’t say it, it sure looks and sounds like Peppers is playing with a broken hand. He’s gone through the last two games with his hand heavily wrapped.

He’s been used only in pass-rush situations and he hasn’t been able to get near the quarterback.

2. Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers receiver He finally got back on the field Sunday, but he didn’t do very much. Then, he said in the post-game interview that the Bucs are too conservative with their game plan because they’re playing rookie quarterback Josh Freeman. Of course they are, but the game plan looks more wide open than it did when Byron Leftwich or Josh Johnson were starting.

If you truly want to be a No. 1 receiver and get a long-term contract, this is not how you play or act.

3. Falcons, the entire secondary: This has been a problem spot all season and it only seems to be getting worse. Corners Chris Houston, Tye Hill, Brent Grimes and Chevis Jackson are getting beat on a regular basis. Safeties Erik Coleman and Thomas DeCoud were able to cover for some of the early mistakes, but they haven’t been able to do that lately.

If the Falcons are going to have any shot at the playoffs, they’ve got to find a way to start covering some receivers.

Rising

Meachem
Meachem
1. Robert Meachem, Saints receiver: The third-year receiver suddenly has become a touchdown machine. He had two Sunday against Tampa Bay. Meachem definitely has turned the corner this season and has become a dependable part of the offense after two years of struggling.

Sure, it helps that he’s working with Drew Brees. But Meachem has made his increased role possible with a lot of hard work.

2. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints cornerback: The rookie was pushed into a start Sunday because of injuries to starters Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. He responded with an interception and made several nice tackles.

The Saints had brought Jenkins along slowly early in the year, but he has shown he can handle some playing time.

3. Matt Ryan, quarterback, Falcons. After struggling for several games, Ryan rallied in the second half of Sunday’s overtime loss to the Giants. He looked like the Ryan of last year -- decisive and accurate.

Although the Falcons ended up losing the game, it was no fault of Ryan’s. If he can keep playing the way he did in the second half, he could help the Falcons end their slump.

Midseason Report: Falcons

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:33
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

Power Rankings: Preseason: 8. This week: 9.

2009 Schedule/Results

Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI
Michael Turner has started to get on track the past two games.
Where they stand: The Falcons are 5-3, but we’re still trying to figure out who they really are. So are they. The charmed life of last season is a thing of the past with the Falcons having to deal with a brutal schedule and some adversity. They’ve looked great at times, like when they went out to San Francisco. But losses at New Orleans and New England have showed they’re not quite an elite team. The potential for that is there, but lots of things have to be worked out. Michael Turner and the running game have been at their best the last couple of weeks and that’s a big stride if the Falcons can continue on that path. Quarterback Matt Ryan has had a tough time when the running game hasn’t been there, and the defense remains very much a work in progress.

Disappointments: After hitting a grand slam with his first draft class, general manager Thomas Dimitroff hasn’t looked as brilliant with his second. Top two picks, Peria Jerry and William Moore, are out for the year with injuries and that’s part of the reason the defense hasn’t shown the improvement the Falcons were hoping for. The secondary’s been a big problem spot, particularly at cornerback. With veteran Brian Williams out for the season with an injury, the Falcons have turned to Chevis Jackson, Brent Grimes and Tye Hill to go with Chris Houston. No one in that trio has really stepped forward.

Surprises: The Falcons have made the most out of what was a bad situation by sliding former first-round pick Jamaal Anderson from defensive end to defensive tackle. Anderson’s at least competent in that role and playing Kroy Biermann in Anderson’s old spot at least gives the Falcons the threat of a pass rush. With Moore’s injury, second-year pro Thomas DeCoud won a starting safety job and he isn’t likely to lose it any time soon. DeCoud has been perhaps the only bright spot in the secondary.

Outlook: We’re going to find out a lot about the Falcons in the second half of the season. The schedule doesn’t get any easier and they probably have no chance of catching the Saints in the NFC South race. But the Falcons are very much in the playoff hunt. Can they stay in it? Well, much will depend on Turner. If he can run like he’s run the past two weeks -- and like he did last season -- that’s going to solve a lot of problems. There’s no doubt Ryan has to be more consistent, but that will happen if Turner can take pressure of him. The biggest question is the defense. It’s not like this unit is loaded with talent, so Mike Smith and Brian VanGorder will have to do some strong coaching.
 
 AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
 Drew Brees and the Saints will look to exploit Atlanta’s struggling secondary.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

On paper, it might be the biggest mismatch of the NFL season.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees and his army of receivers, which just might be the deepest stable in the league, vs. Atlanta’s much-maligned secondary.

You could say this one is Goliath going against David again. But that one doesn’t quite fit because David also had a bit of a pass rush to compensate for his lack of size.
Related Coverage
• Jaws: Falcons must slow Saints' run game
• Saints: Will they go undefeated?
• Film Room notes: Pressure on this Falcon
• Monday Night HQ


The Falcons simply don’t have a lot going for them in the secondary right now, and that could end up costing them any shot at the NFC South title. At 4-2, they’re already on the verge of playing only for a wild-card spot as they head into the Superdome to play the undefeated Saints on "Monday Night Football."

The Saints have Brees, Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey and a whole bunch of other guys who can catch the ball all over the field. They’ve also got the tape of last week’s Atlanta loss to Dallas -- a game in which the shortcomings of the Falcons’ secondary were exposed repeatedly.

“They got hit in a couple of pressures when they weren’t able to get to the quarterback so they had receivers with a lot of time to work downfield and the Cowboys did a good job of taking advantage of some of those,’’ Brees said.

That’s just Brees being politically correct, as he always is. But, you have to figure that Brees and coach Sean Payton have spent the week watching the Atlanta-Dallas film and getting more than a little excited about the possibilities. If Tony Romo and Miles Austin can batter the Atlanta secondary, Brees, Colston and company could absolutely shred it.

The Falcons don’t have anything close to a shutdown corner, and two of their top three cornerbacks wouldn’t be among top three cornerbacks on any other team. Although Atlanta coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have done a great job since taking over a franchise in total disarray, cornerback might be the one spot they’re not better off than they were when they took charge in 2008.
 
 Tim Heitman/US Presswire
 Dallas’ Miles Austin torched the Falcons for 171 yards and two touchdowns.


Part of it is bad luck. The Falcons lost veteran cornerback Brian Williams to a season-ending injury. But part of it is that the Falcons largely have ignored this position. That’s been showing up recently and it could be completely exploited by the Saints. If that happens, Dimitroff and Smith have no one to blame but themselves.

They didn’t have a strong stable of cornerbacks last year, but they were able to hide that. They had an entire offseason to get better and they didn’t. They let Domonique Foxworth go in free agency and decided to stick with Chris Houston, Chevis Jackson and Brent Grimes -- and that’s a little scary.

Houston’s the best of the bunch, but he’s a decent No. 2 cornerback being asked to be a shutdown guy. Grimes is athletic, but woefully undersized. Jackson showed some big promise as a rookie, but hasn’t been able to cover anyone this year.

The problems became apparent in the preseason and training camp and that’s why the Falcons went out and signed Williams and traded for Tye Hill at the last minute. Williams was decent before his injury, but Hill hasn’t shown anything to convince the coaching staff to let him on the field.

The Falcons also have rookie Christopher Owens and there are hopes that he could be an impact player down the road. Don’t be surprised if Owens gets some playing time against the Saints because his size might allow him to match up better than Grimes against the New Orleans receivers, but Owens isn’t going to fix all of the problems in one game.

If there is any hope for the Atlanta cornerbacks to at least slow down Brees and the passing game, they’ll have to have help -- lots of it -- and there haven’t been many signs that anyone is ready to come to the rescue.

The Falcons were able to hide their deficiencies in coverage last year mainly by putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That came almost entirely from veteran pass-rush specialist John Abraham, but he’s been relatively quiet this season.

At times in the Dallas game, Abraham was seen dropping into pass coverage, which makes about as much sense as putting Brees in the Wildcat formation. You have to let your best players do what they do best and the Falcons need to let Abraham focus solely on getting to Brees. They also need some help from their other starting defensive end, Kroy Biermann, who started the season fast, but has cooled off recently.

Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder tried to give the pass rush some help against Dallas by blitzing frequently, but that didn’t really work out. The blitzers seldom got close to Romo and he was able to find the weak spots in the secondary.

“You live by the pressure and you die by the pressure,’’ Brees said. “You might make a few plays when you pressure, but you’re leaving yourself open to giving up some big plays. That’s the pros and cons on a pressure defense.’’

Those are the pros and cons facing Smith and VanGorder. They have to generate a pass rush to keep their cornerbacks from being stuck in coverage too long. But Brees and the Saints are pretty good at handling pressure. Brees gets rid of the ball quickly and doesn’t take many sacks.

“I figure, with these guys, they’ve shown to pressure a lot at times and do some things that they haven’t done in the past,’’ Brees said.

Maybe that’s the key for the Falcons. Maybe they need to do something they haven’t done in the past -- like have their cornerbacks actually cover some receivers.

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