NFL Nation: Michael Palmer



PITTSBURGH -- It certainly looked like a fourth preseason game, from the swaths of empty seats at Heinz Field to the uneven play with many starters from each side playing sparingly, if at all.

Carolina parlayed a big pass play into the game’s only touchdown ,and the Panthers beat the Steelers 10-0 Thursday night with the specter of final cuts looming for fringe players on each side.

Landry Jones started at quarterback and completed 14 of 18 passes for 97 yards before giving way to Brendon Kay midway through the third quarter. Jones, a fourth-round pick in 2013, didn’t lead any scoring drives but probably did enough to make the 53-man roster as the Steelers’ No. 3 quarterback.

No Steelers player battling for a roster spot made a particularly compelling argument to stay with the team beyond 4 p.m. ET Saturday, the NFL deadline for finalizing 53-man rosters.

Brad Wing looked like he was on his way to nailing down a roster spot after pinning the Panthers deep in their own territory several times. Then the Aussie unleashed a 25-yard clunker, something that will make the coaches ponder whether Wing is consistent enough to be trusted.

Players such as Wing have made their final argument as far as making the team.

The Steelers’ coaches and front office personnel will meet on Friday to start paring down the roster and could make some cuts then, with the rest coming on Saturday. The Steelers have to cut 22 players to get to the 53-man limit by late Saturday afternoon.

Some other thoughts from the Steelers’ fourth preseason game:
  • It was a very nice bounce-back game for starting outside linebacker Jarvis Jones after the second-year man struggled a week ago in Philadelphia. Jones made his presence felt early against the pass and the run, and the Steelers coaches had to love his hustle after a snap sailed over the head of Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson in the second quarter. Anderson tried to pick the ball up, and when he couldn’t get a handle on it Jones made a diving recovery. He then got up and started to rumble downfield, drawing a personal foul penalty when former Steelers center Fernando Velasco dragged Jones down by his hair. Jones recorded three tackles, including one for a loss, and the fumble recovery before calling it a night.
  • If the Steelers only keep five wide receivers Justin Brown might be headed back to the practice squad. The wide receiver who created such a buzz during offseason practices caught five passes for 32 yards in four preseason games despite playing more snaps than any other Steelers skill player. Hard-charging Darrius Heyward-Bey caught six passes for 44 yards against the Panthers and solidified his spot on the 53-man roster even if the Steelers only keep five wideouts. His speed and experience -- and his production in the Steelers' final two preseason games -- will make Heyward-Bey too difficult to cut
  • David Paulson and Rob Blanchflower needed to beat Michael Palmer for the No. 3 spot at tight end, and neither was able to do it. Palmer had a couple of nice blocks early when the Steelers were able to run the ball, and the fifth-year veteran is solid on special teams. He solidified his spot on the 53-man roster, and Blanchflower looks like a strong candidate for the practice squad.
  • Cornerback Antwon Blake had played well before getting beat badly on a 53-yard catch by wide receiver Philly Brown, setting up the Panthers’ only touchdown. Blake will make the Steelers as a core special-teams player but Brice McCain has clearly established himself as the No. 4 cornerback assuming the groin injury he suffered against the Panthers isn’t serious.
  • The Steelers showed an interesting defensive look late in the second quarter. Josh Mauro, Roy Philon, Daniel McCullers and Ethan Hemer were up front with Vince Williams and Terence Garvin as the only linebackers in the game. However, Shamarko Thomas played close enough to the line of scrimmage that it looked like the Steelers had their big nickel package on the field with four down linemen.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers again worked on their no-huddle offense Thursday, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appears to have more peace of mind about the attack than he did a couple of weeks ago.

“I think everybody’s doing a good job and that we can get back on track pretty quick,” Roethlisberger said following the Steelers’ final practice of this week.

Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger expressed some reservation about the no-huddle offense at the start of organized team activities. He said how much the Steelers use the attack that worked so well for them last season would depend on how quickly the new wide receivers became comfortable with it.

So far, so good on that front, said Roethlisberger, who added that the Steelers have worked more on their no-huddle offense in OTAs than they have in past years when it comes to the voluntary practices.

“I think it’s something that we’ve realized what we can be and what we did last year,” Roethlisberger said on one of the nicest days of the year in Pittsburgh. “We’ll use it more. I don’t want to call it our base offense but I think you’ll see more of it so I think it was important for us to get in it early and often.”

Roethlisberger, running the no-huddle offense at the end of practice, led the Steelers on a scoring drive that he capped with a short touchdown pass to Antonio Brown. It was a good way for the first-team offense to end practice, especially since Will Allen had stopped an earlier drive when the veteran safety intercepted a Roethlisberger pass along the left sideline.

“I thought it was a good play and Will came and picked it off,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re not going to score on every series that we go no-huddle.”

Also of note from Thursday’s OTA session:
  • Roethlisberger didn’t bite when asked about the six-year, $110 million contact that quarterback Colin Kaepernick signed with the San Francisco 49ers. “Congratulations to him and his family and the 49ers franchise,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re on opposite sides of the coast. I’m over here just worried about being a Steeler and that’s all that matters with me. It’s just about getting better out here with these guys.” Roethlisberger has two years left on his contract – the same number he had left on his rookie deal when he signed an eight-year, $102 million contract in 2008. The Steelers are expected to sign their franchise quarterback to a new deal at some point though nothing is imminent.
  • Center Maurkice Pouncey and wide receiver Markus Wheaton were among the players who didn’t practice on Thursday. Fullback Will Johnson was out of the walking boot he wore Wednesday but he watched practice on Thursday, as did tight end Michael Palmer. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who is nursing a calf injury, spent part of the practice riding a stationary bike.

Reviewing NFC South free agents

March, 7, 2013
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We’ve shown you the lists of potential NFC South free agents before. But let’s do it again because there have been some minor moves and the free-agency period is getting ready to start Tuesday.

Here’s the list of potential free agents for all four NFC South teams:

Atlanta Falcons. Tony Gonzalez, Brent Grimes, Sam Baker, William Moore, Will Svitek, Mike Cox, Todd McClure, Luke McCown, Christopher Owens, Mike Peterson, Garrett Reynolds, Lawrence Sidbury and Vance Walker all can become unrestricted free agents. Michael Palmer can become a restricted free agent.

Carolina Panthers. The potential unrestricted free agents are Derek Anderson, Antwan Applewhite, Gary Barnidge, Dwan Edwards, Ben Hartsock, Sherrod Martin, Captain Munnerlyn, Louis Murphy and Mike Pollak. Richie Brockel can become an exclusive-rights free agent. Andre Neblett, Nate Ness and Jason Phillips are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

New Orleans Saints. Jermon Bushrod, Jonathan Casillas, Chase Daniel, Sedrick Ellis, Devery Henderson, Ramon Humber, Elbert Mack, Turk McBride, Will Robinson, Courtney Roby and Scott Shanle can become unrestricted free agents. Brian De La Puente, Justin Drescher, Junior Galette and Chris Ivory are scheduled to become restricted free agents. Eric Olsen and Michael Higgins can become exclusive-rights free agents.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ronde Barber, Dallas Clark, Michael Bennett, E.J. Biggers, Andrew Economos, Geno Hayes, Roy Miller, Roscoe Parrish, Sammie Stroughter and Jeremy Trueblood can become unrestricted free agents. LeGarrette Blount, Jacob Cutrera, Corvey Irvin and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

Looking at Atlanta's free agents

February, 11, 2013
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We still have a little more than a month left before the start of free agency, but let’s start taking a look at who the potential free agents are for each NFC South team. Let’s start with the Atlanta Falcons.

Their potential unrestricted free agents are tight end Tony Gonzalez, cornerback Brent Grimes, tackle Sam Baker, safety William Moore, tackle Will Svitek, fullback Mike Cox, center Todd McClure, quarterback Luke McCown, cornerback Christopher Owens, linebacker Mike Peterson, tackle Garrett Reynolds, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury and defensive tackle Vance Walker. Running back Antone Smith and tight end Michael Palmer are potential restricted free agents.

This is a group that’s heavy at the top. Gonzalez, Moore, Baker and Grimes all are starters and potentially expensive. McClure might be near the end of the line, but he started last season and brings valuable leadership.

The Falcons are pleading heavily with Gonzalez to return for one more season. If he decides to retire, they’ll have to make major changes to their offensive scheme because you just don’t find another tight end with the same skill set.

The Falcons have limited salary-cap space, but, much like last offseason, they’ll make a strong effort to keep their team together.

Moore has turned into a Pro Bowler and Baker had a very solid 2012 season. The beauty of Moore is that he’s a safety and the market price shouldn’t be that high at that position. Left tackles are more expensive, but the Falcons have built a level of trust with Baker and they might be able to keep him at a reasonable rate. Besides, it would be difficult and expensive to go out and find a new left tackle in free agency or the draft.

Grimes is likely to be the biggest challenge in this free-agency class. Although he is undersized and coming off a major injury, Grimes is likely to command big money on the open market. The Falcons also have decent money tied up in Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel, and Robert McClain showed strong signs he can be a solid No. 3 or No. 2 corner. The Falcons are likely to treat Grimes the same way they did linebacker Curtis Lofton last year. They’ll draw a line in the sand as far as what they’re willing to pay and won’t go over it if he gets a bigger offer elsewhere.

The Falcons have invested a fair amount of draft picks on the interior of the offensive line in recent years, so I can’t see them paying more than the minimum to bring McClure back. They also should be able to retain McCown and Cox for the minimum or close to it. Sidbury, Reynolds and Owens have had plenty of chances, but haven’t developed into impact players. If they get decent offers elsewhere, I don’t see the Falcons making a big effort to keep them. Peterson is a veteran who could come back for one more year at the minimum to provide some linebacker depth.

Walker is a solid role player on the defensive line. But he could get more money elsewhere and I don’t see the Falcons going out of their way to keep him.

Falcons tinker with roster

November, 13, 2012
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The Atlanta Falcons shook up their roster a bit Tuesday evening, but it wasn’t anything as major as when they released defensive end Ray Edwards on Monday night.

They had Edwards’ roster spot to work with and another came available as the Falcons placed reserve tight end Tommy Gallarda on injured reserve.

To fill those two spots, the Falcons signed wide receiver Tim Toone and promoted tight end Chase Coffman from the practice squad. They also signed tight end Andrew Szczerba to the practice squad.

Toone was with the Falcons in the preseason but was waived-injured on Sept. 6. Toone’s presence possibly could help free up wide receiver Harry Douglas to handle punt returns. Dominique Franks has been doing that without much success and Douglas has had some past success on punt returns. Although Toone has never played in a regular-season NFL game, it also is possible the Falcons consider him as a punt returner. Toone earned the Mr. Irrelevant title by being the last player chosen in the 2010 draft and had some long punt returns in college.

The loss of Gallarda hurts because he was often used as the team’s blocking tight end. Starter Tony Gonzalez doesn’t get asked to do a lot of blocking, so Coffman will be asked to share blocking duties with backup Michael Palmer.

Nicholas, Babineaux will play Sunday

October, 14, 2012
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ATLANTA -- Linebacker Stephen Nicholas and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who had been listed as questionable with injuries, are expected to start Sunday’s game with the Oakland Raiders.

The Falcons just gave out their list of inactives and Nicholas and Babineaux aren’t on it.

Quarterback Dominique Davis, cornerback Terrence Johnson, running back Antone Smith, offensive tackle Lamar Holmes, tight end Michael Palmer, defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi and defensive end Cliff Matthews are inactive.

Jon Beason to play against Falcons

September, 30, 2012
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ATLANTA -- Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Jon Beason, who was listed as questionable with knee and shoulder injuries, will be active for Sunday’s game with the Atlanta Falcons.

The biggest item of note on Carolina’s list of inactives is that rookie receiver/return man Joe Adams will not play. Adams muffed a punt and fumbled on a kickoff return last week. Kealoha Pilares is expected to handle kickoff returns and Armanti Edwards is likely to handle punt returns.

Carolina’s other inactives are Jimmy Clausen, D.J. Campbell, Bruce Campbell, Mike Pollak, Antwan Applewhite and Frank Kearse.

As expected, Atlanta fullback Lousaka Polite, cornerback Chris Owens, tight end Michael Palmer and running back Antone Smith are inactive due to injuries. The other inactives for the Falcons are Dominique Davis, Lamar Holmes and Jonathan Massaquoi.

Checking the injuries that matter most

September, 28, 2012
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The final injury reports are in for Sunday’s game, so let’s take a look at the most significant injuries around the division.

The news isn’t good for a New Orleans defense that already was struggling. Linebackers David Hawthorne and Jonathan Casillas and defensive end Turk McBride have been declared out for Sunday’s game at Green Bay. Casillas had been backing up Hawthorne. With both of them out, Will Herring appears likely to get the start.

Carolina middle linebacker Jon Beason (knee and shoulder) practiced Friday. Coach Ron Rivera said the team will see how sore Beason is Sunday before making a decision on his status. If Beason can’t play against Atlanta, Jason Phillips is expected to start in the middle. Running back Jonathan Stewart is listed as probable and expected to play for just the second time this season.

The Falcons have declared tight end Michael Palmer, cornerback Christopher Owens, running back Antone Smith and fullback Lousaka Polite out for Sunday. That means Dominique Franks likely will be used as the nickel back and running back Jason Snelling probably will get some time at fullback. Tommy Gallarda is expected to take Palmer’s place as the backup tight end.

The Buccaneers are relatively healthy compared to the other three teams. Reserve cornerback Anthony Gaitor is out for Sunday, but everyone else (including guard Carl Nicks and cornerback E.J. Biggers) is no worse than probable.

Camp Confidential: Atlanta Falcons

August, 2, 2012
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As you first watch and listen to the Atlanta Falcons in training camp, you quickly realize something is different.

They’ve got a bunch of marquee players (Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner, John Abraham and Asante Samuel), but the buzz isn’t about them. Instead, most of the talk is about two new assistant coaches -- offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. That’s understandable, because a lot of people thought the Falcons needed some major changes after they got thumped by the New York Giants in the first round of last season’s playoffs.

With offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey (now head coach in Jacksonville) and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (now defensive coordinator at Auburn) leaving, Koetter and Nolan are big storylines. They might not have star power all by themselves, but watch and listen a little more and you’ll see the two new coaches have plenty of star power behind them.

“Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter have done a fine job of bringing their respective systems to the table and working with (coach) Mike Smith and the rest of the staff and developing a system that is melding well with all of our coaching opinions,’’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It’s a collaborative effort. It’s not just one stamp from one coordinator or the other. It’s been really interesting seeing everyone come together on the respective sides of the football to develop this new system.’’

In conversations with Smith and Dimitroff, each repeatedly emphasized that key players (the guys listed above and a few others) have had extensive input into what the Falcons will do on each side of the ball. As soon as league rules allowed coaches and players to get together in the offseason, Ryan and Koetter began meeting regularly and discussing what the playbook should look like.

“There are a lot of things we’ve done well over the last few years, and the first thing Dirk asked me was what I liked and what I felt most comfortable with,’’ Ryan said. “Then, we took the things I said and looked at our production in those situations and some of it was surprising because we didn’t have as much success as I would have thought in some of the things I said I was most comfortable with, and we had some pretty good success with some of the things I didn’t necessarily think I liked.

"We also watched a lot of film of Jacksonville (where Koetter was offensive coordinator last year), and we talked a lot about why they did certain things at certain times. There was a lot of very good give-and-take. He’s extremely open to input, which is great for players, and I know he sat down and did the same thing with some other guys. But he also has his own opinions and is firm on his own opinions, and I like that about him.’’

The Falcons have been very public about some of the ways their offense will change. They said they don’t want Turner having to endure a 300-carry season. They said they want to use the screen pass more, after almost completely ignoring it in recent years. And they’ve made it very clear that they want to improve their downfield passing game.

What the actual playbook looks like is likely to be a combination of what both Koetter and the Falcons have done in the past.

The changes on defense are likely to be similar because Nolan also has consulted extensively with his key players. Nolan has spent 14 years as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, seven of them in the 4-3 defense and seven in the 3-4. The Falcons will continue to use the 4-3 as their base, but there could be some 3-4 looks and principles.

“We just have a lot of different things that we can do,’’ outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re not being passive at all. Our mindset is that we want to go out there and dictate. We don’t want to adjust to what an offense is doing. We want to put it on them to make changes.’’

That would be a change from the VanGorder days, when the Falcons had some individual talent and a fair amount of overall success, but never really had an identity as a defense. The Falcons will be different on both sides of the ball.

“When you have new eyes, so to speak, you get a different view,’’ Smith said. “We may have had a view that this guy’s strengths are A, B and C and his weaknesses are D, E and F, and a new guy comes in and, because he’s coming from a different perspective, he sees it differently. I think that’s interesting in terms of evaluating your roster because you have two new sets of eyes.’’

Maybe the eyes will have it. Maybe the new coordinators and new playbooks will be enough to help the Falcons win a playoff game for the first time since Smith, Dimitroff and Ryan arrived in 2008.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Jacquizz Rodgers
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireSecond-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers could play a larger role in the running game this season.
1. The running game with Turner’s limit on carries. Despite all the talk about the downfield passing game, I don’t think the Falcons want to suddenly just abandon the running game. Turner still is powerful and can help open things up for the passing game. The Falcons just don’t want to wear him out. They’ve used Jason Snelling at times to give Turner some rest, and Snelling will be involved again this season. But I don’t think he’s really the guy the Falcons are looking at to pick up a big chunk of Turner’s carries.

I’m almost certain they have big plans for second-year pro Jacquizz Rodgers, and I think those plans might be a lot bigger than people realize. That’s largely because Rodgers is bigger than the Falcons realized when they drafted him last year.

“Jacquizz is not little,’’ Smith said. “He’s short, but he’s thick. People projected him to be a third-down back, a change-of-pace back. I think the guy has the skill set to play on all three downs. One of the things that stood out to me more than anything is his ability to pass protect. A lot of times, your change-of-pace back, you’ve got to get him the ball and not ask him to be a part of the protection. I don’t think that’s the case with Jacquizz. I think Jacquizz is an all-around back that can play on all three downs.’’

Translation: The Falcons aren’t looking for Rodgers to be what Jerious Norwood once was. They want him to be more like what Warrick Dunn once was.

2. Positive reinforcement. I don’t know if they were veiled shots at Mularkey, VanGorder and former middle linebacker and defensive leader Curtis Lofton, but I think it was significant that Smith and Dimitroff repeatedly used the word “positive’’ when they talked about the coaching styles of Koetter and Nolan, and as they talked about the leadership qualities Samuel brings, and what kind of leader they expect Weatherspoon to become.

“Sean is such a positive guy,’’ Smith said. “He is vocal, but he’s never negative in the way he speaks. He’s always very positive.’’

Samuel was described in the same way. So were Nolan and Koetter.

I never sensed a lot of negativity from Mularkey, VanGorder or Lofton, but I also never sensed any of them were rah-rah guys. It sure seems like Smith and Dimitroff feel their team needed more positive reinforcement.

3. The pass rush. For far too long, Atlanta’s pass rush has consisted of Abraham and almost nothing else. Maybe fellow defensive end Ray Edwards steps up after an injury-filled season that limited him to 3.5 sacks. Or maybe reserves Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann produce more. But I get the sense Nolan isn’t looking to have only defensive ends rush the passer.

“The way practice is going right now, we’re really excited about getting the linebackers more involved in rushing the passer,’’ Weatherspoon said. “Even in seven-on-seven, we’re going. That will help those guys out there on the edge because now offenses are going to have to account for us all day. It’ll be better because we’ll be able to keep them on their heels.’’

And it won’t be just the linebackers. Look for the cornerbacks and safeties to also get plenty of opportunities to blitz.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Matt Ryan
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireIs this the season Matt Ryan puts it all together and joins the echelon of elite quarterbacks?
Time to fly. A lot of great young quarterbacks have seemed to hit a wall early in their careers. Even Peyton Manning had a reputation for not being able to win the big one early in his career, and look how that’s worked out. I’m not saying Ryan is going to turn into the second coming of Manning, but I think this is the year in which Ryan finally can earn a firm spot in the category of elite quarterbacks.

The guy has done some very good things in his first four seasons and he’s worked very hard to bulk up this offseason, so that he’s not worn down when the playoffs roll around. Ryan has a good arm, excellent mental skills and a strong work ethic. But, for some reason, he just hasn’t been able to take the next step. Last year, the Falcons brought in Jones to give him another weapon to go with White and Gonzalez. This year, they brought in Koetter, who has obvious instructions to get the most out of Ryan’s skills.

When you keep doing things the right way, sooner or later it’s all bound to click.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The offensive line. This was a big problem spot last year. Ryan frequently didn’t have enough time to throw the deep ball. The Falcons got rid of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau and replaced him with Pat Hill, who has a nice history with offensive lines. They also used their second-round pick on guard Peter Konz.

But were those two moves enough to bring dramatic improvement up front? Should the Falcons really be sticking with Sam Baker at left tackle? And even if they want to give Baker another shot, shouldn’t they at least have brought in a viable alternative in case he struggles?

I know a lot of fans think the Falcons should have done more up front. But the Falcons think they’ve done enough. We’ll find out who is right soon enough.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Falcons lost a steady return man when Eric Weems left as a free agent. They’ve thrown out a lot of names, including some undrafted rookies, as candidates to take Weems’ spot as the punt and kickoff returner. But this is a team with a lot at stake this season, and I don’t see the Falcons handing either job to an untested rookie. I think they play it safe and go with third receiver Harry Douglas as their punt returner. He could also be an option on kickoff returns. If not, reserve cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Christopher Owens, as well as Rodgers, could be possibilities.
  • Ever since he was drafted in 2010, I’ve been expecting to see some flash from wide receiver Kerry Meier. Part of that is because the Atlanta coaches still talk about the former college quarterback as a guy that can play just about any position. Meier missed his rookie season with an injury and didn’t get a lot of playing time last year. But I did see him make a couple of nice catches in camp and also saw him getting work as the backup holder on field goals and extra points. Meier may have a tough time getting much playing time at wide receiver because the Falcons are so deep. But Koetter might be able to throw off some defenses by lining up Meier at H-back, fullback and tight end at various times.
  • I don’t want to raise hopes artificially, but I saw defensive tackle Peria Jerry working with the first-team defense while I was at camp. He seemed to show a little of the burst that made him a first-round pick in 2009. But Jerry tore up his knee early in his rookie season and has been reduced to a role player. He’s getting the first-team work because Corey Peters is temporarily sidelined with an injury. Peters’ starting job will be there when he gets back. But the Falcons would get a tremendous boost if Jerry can give them some production as a backup.
  • Veteran center Todd McClure has been getting all the first-team work early in camp. But I think the Falcons would be wise to take a long look at Joe Hawley and maybe even start him in a preseason game or two. McClure is 35, and there is no question he’s slowing down. I can see a scenario in which McClure wears out or gets hurt as the season goes on, and Hawley gets thrown into the starting lineup. The better long-term approach might be to go with Hawley as the starter and have McClure as a fallback option.
  • I don’t know what the Falcons are going to do about a No. 3 tight end after Gonzalez and Michael Palmer. They have six tight ends in camp. At least while I was there, the one that seemed to stand out was Tommy Gallarda. He looks like he can catch the ball a bit. More importantly, he’s 6-foot-5 and 259 pounds and looks like he can block.
  • A lot of fans are excited about third-round pick Lamar Holmes. They believe he could end up beating out Baker for the starting left tackle job in training camp. That’s not going to happen. The Falcons are going to give Baker every benefit of the doubt. If he’s injured or really struggles, they’ll turn to Will Svitek. Holmes is viewed as a project, and it could be a couple of years before he gets on the field.
  • Since the arrival of Samuel, the common assumption among many fans is that Dunta Robinson will be the nickelback and Samuel will start opposite Brent Grimes. That’s not as automatic as most think. Yes, Robinson will play the nickel position, lining up inside against slot receivers on passing downs. But that doesn’t mean Robinson won’t be starting and playing the outside on running downs. Samuel’s age, 31, is a concern, and the Falcons may not want to overuse him. They may start Robinson and, when they go to the nickel package, insert Samuel on the outside and slide Robinson inside.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Falcons coach Mike Smith termed the release of veteran guard Vince Manuwai as a "football decision.''

The translation there is simple. Manuwai, who sat out last season and spent part of his career with Smith in Jacksonville, wasn’t injured. The Falcons simply decided they like what they’ve seen out of their younger guards early in training camp and they’re going to go in that direction.

Garrett Reynolds, who started seven games at right guard last season, seemed to get most of the first-team work during Saturday afternoon’s practice. But rookie Peter Konz, Joe Hawley, Mike Johnson and Andrew Jackson also are in the mix. Hawley also can play center, while Johnson also can play tackle.

“We’ve got a real competitive situation across the board on the offensive line,’’ Smith said. “I think you’ll notice that we’re rolling the guys. They’re not all going out right now, first team or second team. We’re going to roll them in and out, look at the different combinations and come up with the best combination of seven offensive linemen. That’s important, it’s not just the first five, but seven offensive linemen because you’ve got to have the backups cross-train. We’ve got to have a second snapper, an emergency snapper. We’ve got to have tackles that can play guard and guards that can play center.’’

Left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo might be the only guys who are penciled in as starters right now. The Falcons also are hoping left tackle Sam Baker can bounce back from the injuries that hampered him last season. If not, Will Svitek could be an option. Veteran Todd McClure is the incumbent starter at center. But McClure is 35 and, if he’s showing signs of slowing down, Hawley could be a candidate to start at center.

Some other quick notes out of Saturday’s practice:
  • Brent Grimes, who is carrying the franchise tag, might have another role than just playing cornerback: He has been getting some work as a punt returner. That’s a job that’s wide open after the departure of Eric Weems via free agency. Smith said wide receiver Harry Douglas and cornerback Dominique Franks also have been fielding some punts. Smith said he also may look at some young players on punt returns soon.
  • The play of the day came on a jump ball between two of Atlanta’s best athletes. Grimes had good coverage on a pass that was thrown high for wide receiver Julio Jones. Grimes, whose vertical leap has been measured at more than 40 inches, went up as high as he could. But Jones, who also has some spring in his legs, came down with the ball.
  • The runner-up for play of the day came from a surprising combination. Backup quarterback Chris Redman hooked up with undrafted free agent Kenny Stafford on a touchdown pass of about 45 yards.
  • Speaking of backup quarterbacks and undrafted free agents, I was pretty impressed by the arm strength of Dominique Davis from East Carolina. He can throw the heck out of the ball. But the potential problem I see is that every pass comes at full speed and there’s not a lot of touch.
  • The Falcons are currently carrying six tight ends. Veteran Tony Gonzalez is the starter and Michael Palmer did some good things last season. But the third roster spot at tight end appears to be up for grabs. There’s a lot of camp and four preseason games ahead that will determine a lot. But I did see Tommy Gallarda make one very nice catch in traffic over the middle.
  • I got some one-on-one time with veteran defensive end John Abraham, who touched on a lot of subjects (including his thoughts on new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, his decision to return to Atlanta after testing free agency, his belief that maligned teammate Ray Edwards is ready for a big season and some other things). I’ll share those with you over the coming days. I’ll be back out Sunday and Monday, watching the Falcons practice and doing interviews, and we’ll run their Camp Confidential profile later next week.
The Atlanta Falcons quietly continue to move through the process of getting ready for the start of free agency.

After placing the franchise tag on cornerback Brent Grimes, the Falcons are now dealing with some other players that were not under contract for 2012.

The team announced Tuesday morning that tight end Michael Palmer and running back Antone Smith have signed their exclusive-rights tenders.

Palmer, who joined the Falcons in 2010, isn’t known as a pass-catcher, and that’s not needed because Atlanta has Tony Gonzalez in that role. But Palmer has played an important role in the offense as a blocker.

Smith has spent the past two seasons with the Falcons, playing primarily on special teams. But he also has some ability as a running back, and he could get a chance to show more of that moving forward. The Falcons have made it clear they want to lighten the load of feature back Michael Turner.

They have Jacquizz Rodgers, who is likely to get more use as a speed back in his second season. But Smith could compete with Jason Snelling as part of the rotation.

Brian Williams out for Falcons

January, 15, 2011
1/15/11
7:18
PM ET
ATLANTA -- As expected, Atlanta cornerback Brian Williams will miss tonight’s playoff game against Green Bay.

He didn’t practice all week due to a knee injury and has been put on the inactive list tonight. That means Christopher Owens will have to step into Williams’ role as a nickel back. A second-year pro, Owens isn’t nearly as experienced as Williams. Owens runs well, but is undersized and isn’t known as a physical player. The Packers may try to target Owens when he’s on the field.

Also inactive for the Falcons are linebacker Spencer Adkins, offensive tackle Garrett Reynolds, guard Mike Johnson, tight end Michael Palmer, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury and defensive tackle Trey Lewis. John Parker Wilson has been designated as the third quarterback.

Inactives for the Falcons

November, 28, 2010
11/28/10
11:37
AM ET
ATLANTA -- Just received the official list of inactives for the Falcons and it contains no major surprises. The biggest news is who is active. As expected, defensive end John Abraham, who sat out last week with a groin injury is active and expected to start.

That leaves Lawrence Sidbury, who started in Abraham's place last week, as the biggest name on the list of inactives. Also on that list are defensive tackle Trey Lewis, tight end Michael Palmer, tackle Garrett Reynolds, guard Mike Johnson, running back Antone Smith and cornerback Dominique Franks.

John Parker Wilson has been designated as the third quarterback.

Falcons sticking with 'the process'

September, 6, 2010
9/06/10
12:57
PM ET
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.

It's a wrap on the preseason

September, 3, 2010
9/03/10
9:25
AM ET
The preseason ended last night, so now we can get onto the real thing. But let’s take one very quick look back at what happened around the NFC South last night.

Carolina managed to go through the preseason without scoring an offensive touchdown.

Perhaps the biggest news out of Carolina is that right tackle Jeff Otah is not expected to be healthy enough to play in the season opener and, beyond that, there’s a question of when he’ll be able to return. Geoff Schwartz has been working in his place. Otah reportedly had a setback in his recovery from a knee injury.

New Orleans running back Chris Ivory, who has been a big hit throughout the preseason, left the game against the Titans with a knee injury. The Saints weren’t offering any details. Same with linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who left with a foot injury. The team said both players will be evaluated Friday.

Quarterbacks Patrick Ramsey and Chase Daniel each did some good things as they concluded their battle for the backup job behind Drew Brees. What’s going to be interesting here is if the Saints carry three quarterbacks. They often have carried only two in coach Sean Payton’s tenure.

Receiver Arrelious Benn and defensive back Corey Lynch each had big games in Tampa Bay’s preseason finale.

The biggest news out of Tampa Bay’s preseason finale was that quarterback Josh Freeman, recovering from a fractured thumb, threw extensively before the game. Freeman is likely to begin practicing soon and is expected to be ready for the season opener.

The Falcons sat virtually all of their starters in the preseason finale. That gave players like safety William Moore, receiver Andy Strickland and tight end Michael Palmer a chance to make positive impressions.

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