NFL Nation: Chris Owens
One of the normal starting cornerbacks, Sean Smith, has been dropped to second team after his recent arrest for DUI. Smith will eventually be back in the starting lineup, but an NFL suspension for violation of the substance abuse policy looms with him.
The other starter, Brandon Flowers, hasn't been participating in offseason practice and it's unclear whether he will show for next week's minicamp, the only mandatory event of the offseason, or even for training camp. The usual nickelback, Chris Owens, is out with an injury.
So while the start of training camp is more than a month away, it's not too early to be alarmed with what's going on at cornerback. The Chiefs ask much of their cornerbacks. They play a lot of press coverage and are often left without much help from the safety. It's not ideal for the Chiefs to have backups in their starting lineup at those positions or be forced to back off the way coordinator Bob Sutton wants to play because they do.
Maybe Flowers eventually shows up, Smith gets promoted back into the lineup and Owens returns healthy. Then the Chiefs can relax at cornerback. Until all of that happens, they need to be concerned.
The Chiefs last week signed veteran cornerback Chris Owens and, for now at least, he projects as that fourth cornerback. Owens played four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and split last season between the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.
"I’m comfortable [covering] the slot and I’m comfortable [covering outside receivers], so I’m just going to go in and do whatever I’m asked to do to the best of my abilities,” Owens said this week.
The Chiefs prefer larger cornerbacks and Owens, at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, isn't very big. So the Chiefs will ask him to cover a slot receiver, something he's done well during his career.
One of Owens' interesting statistics is that he had 2.5 sacks last season in his 12 games with the Browns. The Browns found him to be effective when he blitzed from the slot and the Chiefs might plan to occasionally use him that way as well.
In 2010, the Chiefs used Javier Arenas, their nickel back of similar size to Owens, to blitz frequently. He had three sacks that season.
Owens joins a group of cornerbacks for the Chiefs that includes starters Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith, backup Marcus Cooper and a group of younger, developmental players that includes Ron Parker, who played well in a limited number of snaps last season. That doesn't account for safety Husain Abdullah, who played some at cornerback in 2013.
That's not a drastic change from last season. Owens in effect takes the roster spot of Dunta Robinson, who was released at the end of last season. Robinson played most of his 252 snaps last season early in the year before he was benched for ineffective play.
I have my doubts whether this group is strong enough to compete week in and week out. The drop in Flowers' play last season was troubling and could be a sign he isn't a good fit in coordinator Bob Sutton's defensive schemes, ones that require the cornerbacks to play a lot of press coverage.
The Chiefs have to match up next season with, among others, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas of the Denver Broncos. Do you feel better about their ability to do that with more success than they did last season?
I didn't think so. So cornerback is on my list of positions to watch for the Chiefs in the first round this year. If, say, Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State is available when the Chiefs make the 23rd overall pick, it would be a mistake for them to pass on him. While the signing of Owens might make for a good start for the Chiefs in upgrading at cornerback, it shouldn't be the end of their effort.
Owens played 13 games last season, recording 58 tackles and 2½ sacks. The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder also broke up three passes.
Owens played 12 games for the Browns before hurting his knee. The Dolphins signed the fifth-year veteran in December after the Browns released Owens following an injury settlement, and he played one game for Miami.
Owens has played for three NFL teams, including the Falcons, who took him in the third round of the 2009 draft, six picks ahead of former Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis.
The Steelers need to add depth at cornerback and Owens, 27, would fit the profile of the kind of player they are looking to sign.
In other Steelers’ news:
- ESPN.com Panthers writer David Newton reported that wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery's two-year deal with Carolina could be worth as much as $5 million. Good for Cotchery, but that price proved to be too far out of the Steelers’ range. Team president Art Rooney II told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that despite the loss of Cotchery and other free agents he is “happy with the progress” the Steelers have made. “I’m satisfied with the progress we've made in general to this date, the signings we've made,” Rooney said. "We have more work to do. It's early in the game as far as preseason preparations. I'm happy with the progress we've made so far.”
- The Steelers were well represented at Notre Dame Pro Day on Thursday. Both general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin attended the workout for Irish draft prospects, according to Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm. Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Truitt could be targets for the Steelers early in the draft.
Here are some thoughts on how the teams have their players stacked up ...
- Jacoby Jones is starting opposite Torrey Smith. The top backups are Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson, both of whom have a shot at unseating Jones.
- The starting defensive line is: Arthur Jones at left defensive tackle, Haloti Ngata at nose tackle and Chris Canty at right defensive end.
- The Ravens obviously don't want to place any rookie atop the depth chart just yet. First-round pick Matt Elam is behind James Ihedigbo at strong safety, and second-rounder Arthur Brown is behind injured Jameel McClain and Josh Bynes at the one inside linebacker spot. My guess is Elam and Brown are starting the season opener. Daryl Smith is the starter at the other inside linebacker spot.
- At cornerback, Lardarius Webb and Corey Graham are listed as starters. Jimmy Smith, who could beat out Graham for a starting job, is behind Webb on the team's depth chart.
- Brandon Ghee. Kirkpatrick, who's had a strong camp, should figure into the team's nickel defense.
- The name that stuck out on offense was Orson Charles. The converted tight end is already ahead of John Conner on the fullback depth chart. Charles, who is more of an H-back, has been among the most pleasant surprises this camp. Chris Pressley, last year's starter, is on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list with a knee injury.
- On special teams, Adam Jones is ahead of Brandon Tate on punt returns. Jones and Tate split time at this spot last season, but I always thought Jones was the more explosive and dangerous returner.
- Brandon Weeden listed as the starting quarterback. He is followed by Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer. This is how I foresee the depth chart looking heading into the regular season.
- Not a good sign for 2011 fourth-round pick Owen Marecic. Chris Ogbonnaya, a third-down back for his career, is currently the starting fullback. He offers more versatility in Norv Turner's offense than Marecic, who was benched last year by the former coaching staff.
- On the offensive line, the Browns have co-starters listed at left guard (John Greco and Jason Pinkston) and right guard (Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao). Given that the Browns signed Greco to a new contract, he is considered the favorite at left guard. Pinkston and Lauvao will compete for the right guard spot.
- On defense, Jabaal Sheard is ahead of rookie first-round pick Barkevious Mingo at outside linebacker and Buster Skrine and Chris Owens are listed as co-starters at right cornerback. Rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden is behind Joe Haden at left cornerback. I project Owens and McFadden will continue to split time at right cornerback, and Skrine will get snaps at the slot corner.
One key positional battle for each AFC North team as training camps get underway.
Baltimore Ravens: No. 2 wide receiver. The Ravens are hoping Jacoby Jones steps up and wins this job. Baltimore named him the No. 2 receiver going into training camp, but there's no guarantee he will remain there. Jones is the most experienced option in a battle that includes Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, David Reed, LaQuan Williams and Tommy Streeter. But Jones has never produced more than 562 receiving yards in any of his six NFL seasons. The Ravens believe Thompson has the talent to develop into a productive receiver at this level, and Doss looks much improved from last season. Thompson is a speed receiver like Jones, but Doss is a better route-runner. David Reed is also in the mix, too.
Cincinnati Bengals: Strong safety. While there will be competition at the cornerback spot opposite Leon Hall, the strong safety position is the most unsettled area on what could be one of the top defenses in the NFL. It's been a trouble spot for years, and the Bengals didn't address it in free agency or in the first two rounds of the draft. Shawn Williams, a third-round pick, is considered the early favorite. The Bengals have been impressed with his ability to pick up the defense and feel he has the physical presence needed to excel at this position. George Iloka is the dark horse in the competition after having a strong offseason. But he might be a better fit at free safety, where the Bengals already have Reggie Nelson. Taylor Mays failed to win the job last season, so it's difficult to project him winning it this year.
Cleveland Browns: Cornerback. The Browns have one of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL in Joe Haden on one side and a major question mark on the other. It will come down to rookie Leon McFadden, Chris Owens and Buster Skrine. McFadden, a third-round pick, has been running primarily with the second team during offseason workouts, but he is the most talented defender in this battle. Even though he lacks size, he is extremely confident and competitive. Owens has been getting time with the starters despite struggling with consistency for most of his career. He was benched at times last season, when he was the nickel back for the Atlanta Falcons. Skrine has the speed you want at this position. He just doesn't have the technique down. Skrine continually put himself in bad situations last season, committing nine penalties.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Running back. While the Steelers have yet to name a starter, there's a feeling that this is rookie Le'Veon Bell's job to lose. The Steelers used a second-round pick on Bell because they felt Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman failed to get the job done last season. Bell was a workhorse in college and brings more big-play ability than Dwyer and Redman. His strength is generating yards after contact. This could end up being more of a competition for the backup job. Dwyer and Redman are both similar running backs, and the Steelers likely will only keep one. LaRod Stephens-Howling, a free-agent pickup from the Arizona Cardinals, will factor in as a third-down back and a returner. He essentially replaces Chris Rainey, who was released in January after getting arrested for a second time on a domestic violence incident.
Baltimore Ravens: Sign a veteran wide receiver in free agency. The Ravens addressed all the losses from their Super Bowl team except one. Baltimore traded Anquan Boldin, its leader in receiving yards the past three seasons, to the San Francisco 49ers and didn't sign a receiver in free agency or draft one until the seventh round. Even though Boldin was never a 1,000-yard receiver for the Ravens, Joe Flacco depended on him in clutch situations. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Boldin led the Ravens with 43 targets on third down this season (including the playoffs) and ranked seventh among wide receivers with 29 catches on third down. The Ravens are banking on Jacoby Jones to replace Boldin, but that could reduce Jones' role as a returner. Tight end Dennis Pitta will likely absorb Boldin's production in the passing game.
Cincinnati Bengals: Add a proven starter at strong safety. This is a move the Bengals have needed to make for a couple of seasons. Cincinnati has talent and depth throughout a defense that should end up being one of the top five in the NFL this season. The soft spot on defense is at safety, where the Bengals will start Taylor Mays, Shawn Williams or George Iloka. This was a trouble spot last season when the Bengals shuffled Mays, Jeromy Miles and Nate Clements at strong safety for the first four games before re-signing Chris Crocker. The Bengals passed on a free-agent safety in his prime, Dashon Goldson, even though they were among the teams with the most salary-cap room entering free agency. At this point, the Bengals have a top-notch free safety in Reggie Nelson and a big question mark at strong safety.
Cleveland Browns: Bring in a starting cornerback. There was no criticism over the Browns not bringing back Sheldon Brown, who started the past three seasons for Cleveland. The second-guessing comes from the fact that the Browns did the minimum to replace him. They drafted Leon McFadden in the third round and didn't sign an established starter in free agency. The most high-profile cornerback signed by the Browns was Chris Owens, who was benched last season when he was the Atlanta Falcons' nickelback. Like the Bengals, Cleveland had the salary-cap room to make a significant upgrade. The Browns had free agent Brent Grimes in for a visit before he signed with the Miami Dolphins, and they didn't actively pursue the likes of free agents Sean Smith, Keenan Lewis, Antoine Cason, Chris Houston and Aqib Talib. There is a big drop-off from Joe Haden to the rest of the cornerbacks.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Add a tight end as insurance for Heath Miller. Some have speculated that the Steelers' ignoring of the tight end position this offseason is a sign the team expects Miller to be ready for the start of the season. Miller, who had a resurgence in Todd Haley's first season as offensive coordinator, tore knee ligaments late in the season and had surgery Jan. 2. The last word on Miller came in late May, when there was a report he was running 100-yard sprints. Still, it's unknown whether Miller will be suiting up for the Sept. 8 opener against the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers have put themselves in a predicament if Miller is sidelined for an extended period. The Steelers signed Matt Spaeth in free agency, but he's a run-blocking tight end. He has averaged eight catches per season. The only other tight end with any experience is David Paulson, who had seven catches last season as a rookie. This combination isn't going to replace Miller's 71 catches and eight touchdowns from a season ago.
How does each AFC North team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?
Baltimore Ravens: I expect the Ravens’ secondary, like the rest of their defense, to be vastly improved from a year ago. Of course I realize that nine-time Pro Bowler Ed Reed is gone, along with fellow starting safety Bernard Pollard and starting cornerback Cary Williams. I felt Williams’ value was overblown during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, and, while he is an enforcer, Pollard is a liability in coverage. As for Reed, well, he isn’t what he once was, but of course his ability to quarterback the secondary and make plays on the ball is still very valuable. Reed and Pollard were replaced by veteran Michael Huff and Matt Elam, the 32nd overall pick of the draft. Expect Huff to more often than not play the Reed role, as a deep middle player, but Huff also has cornerback skills and can play man coverage against wide receivers. Elam is a great hitter like Pollard, but is much younger and has tons more upside. Baltimore’s safeties are better in 2013. But the key here is the return of Lardarius Webb, one of the best corners in football who no one seems to know. Corey Graham was very solid for the Ravens last year, but it is Jimmy Smith who needs to step up. If that happens, this secondary should be among the league’s best, but depth here overall isn’t great.
Cincinnati Bengals: Overall, this looks like a fine group, with a lot of able bodies and depth. The safety spot next to Reggie Nelson, who has played at a Pro Bowl level since arriving in Cincinnati, might have been the Bengals’ worst starter in 2012, but the drafting of Shawn Williams in the third round should improve that situation. Expect Williams to unseat Taylor Mays before long. At corner, Leon Hall is the top guy, but the Bengals also get 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick back from injury, so this will more or less be his rookie season. Terence Newman should start if Kirkpatrick isn’t ready; Newman proved to have quite a bit left in the tank during the 2012 season. Adam Jones obviously entered the NFL with a ton of physical ability. At this stage of his tumultuous career, Jones has established himself as one of the top No. 3 cornerbacks in the league. There might not be a true star on the back end of Cincinnati’s defense, but overall it is a quality, well-coached unit with a good blend of veterans and youth. If Kirkpatrick hits big, this secondary could be exceptional.
Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden is the star here. He is a top-five-type corner and is capable of shutting down the opponent’s No. 1 wideout -- and could get better. The only other top-flight member of Cleveland’s secondary is T.J. Ward, a very capable two-way safety who could be on the verge of a true breakout in 2013. Beyond Haden and Ward, the Browns’ secondary has a lot of question marks. Third-round cornerback Leon McFadden is a good-looking prospect, and Cleveland picked up Chris Owens on the cheap for cornerback depth. Is McFadden ready for a starting role that will be sure to attract attention from every quarterback the Browns face? Also in the mix is Buster Skrine, who is best suited as a third corner. Several players will be fighting for playing time at safety alongside Ward, with sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter possessing the most long-term upside of that group of relative unknowns. Overall, the Browns’ secondary might be a major priority for upgrade after the 2013 season, but at least Cleveland looks to have significantly improved its pass rush, which could mask some coverage problems.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Keenan Lewis emerged at cornerback for the Steelers last season, but he is now playing for the Saints. Pittsburgh also allowed its depth safeties, Ryan Mundy and Will Allen, to depart via free agency. The only prominent secondary signing was former Steeler William Gay, who is obviously familiar with the system. Gay isn’t starting caliber, but he can play outside or in the slot as a third or fourth cornerback. Ike Taylor often shadows the opponent’s top wideout and overall has done a very good job. He rarely secures the interception, but Taylor is a high-end coverage player. The Steelers are counting on Cortez Allen to replace Lewis opposite Taylor. From what we saw from Allen in 2012, he should be ready for full-time action. Lewis, Gay, Taylor and Allen were all Pittsburgh mid-round picks that the Steelers developed. This past draft they again used a mid-round pick on the position with Terry Hawthorne. They did the same in 2011 with Curtis Brown. As most of these mid-rounders do, Hawthorne will likely "redshirt" during his rookie season, but Brown’s role could increase. At safety, the Steelers have one of the best starting pairs in the league -- when Troy Polamalu is healthy. Still a superb player, Polamalu just has to stay on the field. The Steelers’ defense with and without Polamalu is remarkably different. Ryan Clark has been Polamalu’s partner in crime for some time and has somewhat quietly put together a very impressive career, including an excellent 2012 season. Wisely, the Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas, who could be Polamalu’s successor -- or his injury replacement. In the meantime, expect this young heat-seeking missile to be a dominant special-teams player.
Chris Owens, a free-agent pickup from the Atlanta Falcons, has been running with the first-team defense for the last three weeks of offseason workouts, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. In some instances, Owens has been lining up outside and Buster Skrine has been covering the slot, which has put McFadden on the second team.
"You win positions in training camp. I think everybody knows that," Owens told the Beacon Journal. "So we don’t know who’s starting yet. I’m definitely going to compete my butt off, and we’ll see what happens come August.”
Owens, 26, hardly made headlines when he signed a one-year contract with the Browns on March 22, a deal that included $300,000 guaranteed. He was a nickelback for the Falcons last year and was benched at times because of his struggles. The biggest questions are his durability and playmaking skills. He's missed five games over the past two seasons because of two concussions and a hamstring injury.
Owens hasn't displayed much ball skills recently. Over the past two seasons, he's broken up a total of seven passes and hasn't intercepted a pass. His last interception came against Derek Anderson on Sept. 19, 2010.
Of course, as Owens said, it's too early to project who will start at cornerback opposite Joe Haden. The Browns could be bringing McFadden along slowly and end up giving him more first-team reps in training camp.
A month ago, The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto reported that McFadden and Owens will split time as the second starting corner.
Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski is familiar with Owens because he spent the past two seasons going against him as the offensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers.
"He has really good feet, mirror skills and cover skills," Chudzinski said of Owens. "He was a guy that we wanted to bring in and put into the mix with our corners to get a chance to compete. In this league, you need corners and you need to have good corners. Chris has been doing a nice job out there."
The Browns settled on Kellen Davis, a free agent from the Chicago Bears. According to the Akron Beacon Journal, Cleveland signed Davis to a one-year deal.
The addition of a tight end like Davis doesn't preclude the Browns from taking a tight end in the draft or going with Jordan Cameron as the starter. Davis, a two-year starter for the Bears, is considered an underachiever. He has size, athleticism and strength but it hasn't translated on the field. Davis is a solid run-blocker who was a productive red zone target in 2011. Then, in 2012, he caught 19 passes and two touchdowns.
By the Browns signing Kellen Davis and not Fred Davis, the best pass-catching tight end on the roster is Cameron. A fourth-round pick in 2011, Cameron has 26 receptions in limited playing time over the past two seasons.
In other news, the Browns also signed a Falcons free-agent cornerback, but not the one everyone was expecting. While Brent Grimes remains unsigned, Cleveland picked up Chris Owens, who struggled at times as a backup for Atlanta. Owens lost his nickelback job last season and served as the Falcons' dime back (fourth corner). Over his four-year career, he's made 11 starts and has three interceptions.
Most significant move: In yet the latest sign that they’re going to become more of a passing team, the Falcons are going with Lousaka Polite as the only true fullback on their roster. They released Mike Cox, who became the starter last season after Ovie Mughelli suffered a major injury. Throughout Mike Mularkey’s tenure as offensive coordinator, the Falcons used Mughelli extensively as a lead blocker for Michael Turner. Polite’s a solid veteran, but I think the fact the Falcons are going without a true backup fullback says a lot. Tailback Jason Snelling can play fullback if needed, but I think this is an indication that new coordinator Dirk Koetter doesn’t plan on using fullbacks as much as this team did in recent years.
Onward and upward: More than any other franchise in the NFC South, the Falcons pride themselves on keeping their team together. That’s why I’m fairly surprised that third-year cornerback Dominique Franks was waived. He seemed to be in the lead for the job as the punt returner and he also made several nice plays as a cornerback in the preseason. Take this as a sign that the Falcons think more highly of fourth-year corner Chris Owens, who they also drafted and have developed. Owens will be the fourth corner after Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel. There is some mileage on the guys ahead of him, so Owens could end up in a bigger role as the season goes on. Also, this pretty much means the Falcons plan to use wide receiver Harry Douglas as their main punt returner. Franks shouldn’t have a problem landing on another roster.
What’s next: Quarterback Matt Ryan is “the franchise’’ in Atlanta. I know fans aren’t sold on left tackle Sam Baker. But I’m a little more concerned that all the Falcons have behind Baker, who has had injury problems in the past, is rookie Lamar Holmes, who missed a chunk of the preseason with an injury. I think the Falcons need to find a bit of insurance with a left tackle that’s had a little experience in the NFL. Until Holmes has a little more time to get coached up, this team is one Baker injury away from disaster.
It will be interesting to see if Williams' injury compels the Green Bay Packers to use their five-receiver set. They used it 14 times in the teams' Week 12 meeting.
Meanwhile, the Packers deactivated safety Atari Bigby (groin) and fullback Korey Hall (knee). Both had been listed as questionable on the injury report.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
Nice move by Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff on Tuesday morning as he traded for cornerback Tye Hill.
We don’t know exactly what kind of draft-pick compensation the Falcons had to give to the Rams yet, but credit Dimitroff with seeing a need for help in the secondary and addressing it. Also give him credit for not panicking and going after some aging player.
Hill is a guy who still has some upside. In fact, Hill is the kind of first-round talent the Falcons haven’t had on their roster since ... well, DeAngelo Hall, but that’s a bad example. Atlanta went through last season kind of patching things together at cornerback and they seemed destined to do the same thing this year.
They didn’t have any blue-chip corners and appeared ready to go into the season with Chris Houston and Brent Grimes as the starters and rookie Chris Owens and second-year pro Chevis Jackson as the backups. Houston’s been good at times, but not so good at other times. He came into the league as a second-round draft pick and Grimes came in as an undrafted free agent. Owens and Jackson were third-round choices.
There’s a belief in the NFL that top-flight cornerbacks come only in the first round. Hill was a first-round pick by the Rams in 2006. He had a very good rookie season, but has been limited the last two seasons by injuries.
Is he a true shutdown corner? You can’t call him that at the moment. But he was viewed as a first-round talent at one point and he has the potential to develop into a shutdown corner. Even if he’s just a decent corner, he’s probably an upgrade.
Although the Falcons love Grimes’ athletic ability, they’re concerned about other teams trying to exploit his size. Grimes is listed as 5-foot-9, which may be generous. Hill’s listed as 5-foot-10. He’s not known for being the most physical corner.
But Hill can cover receivers and that’s something the Falcons really needed.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
I'll be back in a bit with some analysis of what this means for the Falcons, but wanted to make sure you heard the news quickly. Here's a copy of the story I sent over to our news folks:
The Atlanta Falcons, apparently concerned after their secondary struggled in preseason games, have traded for cornerback Tye Hill.
The Falcons sent an undisclosed draft pick to the Rams for Hill, who was a first-round pick by St. Louis in 2006. Hill started 10 games and had three interceptions as a rookie, but his playing time has been limited to 12 games over the past two seasons because of injuries.
The Falcons have been starting Chris Houston and Brent Grimes at cornerback throughout the preseason and also have rookie Chris Owens and second-year pro Chevis Jackson.
|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 Thomas 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.
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