NFL Nation: Will Svitek

Manning, Svitek among Bengals cuts

August, 30, 2014
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CINCINNATI -- Along with earlier reported cuts, the Cincinnati Bengals made a series of additional moves Saturday afternoon to reach their 53-man roster limit entering next week's regular season.

Manning
Among the biggest cuts were contract terminations of veteran safety Danieal Manning and offensive tackle Will Svitek. Those cuts were announced by the team not long after reports indicated defensive tackle Devon Still, H-back Orson Charles, offensive lineman Trevor Robinson and receiver Colin Lockett had been waived.

Those reports were all accurate.

In addition, the Bengals waived offensive tackle Dan France, cornerbacks Onterio McCalebb and Victor Hampton, receiver Cobi Hamilton, defensive tackle David King, defensive ends Dontay Moch and Sam Montgomery, fullback Nikita Whitlock and running back James Wilder Jr. All the players who were waived are eligible to join the team's practice squad, which will be named Sunday.

The Bengals expect to use all 10 practice squad spots.

Along with those moves, the Bengals also had a series of others to get down to the 53-man active roster. Offensive guard Trey Hopkins, an undrafted rookie free agent from Texas, was placed on the injured reserve with a leg injury. Hopkins was carted off the field in the fourth quarter of the Bengals' Week 3 preseason game at Arizona. Hopkins joins linebacker J.K. Schaffer on the IR.

In a corresponding move, seventh-round cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks, who cleared waivers this week after getting a thumb injury, was released with an injury settlement Saturday.

Cincinnati made one other injury-list designation when it put quarterback AJ McCarron on the non-football injury list with a shoulder issue that has plagued him since arriving in May. It means the Bengals will keep two quarterbacks, the same as they typically do. As part of the NFI list, McCarron can remain with the team for rehab and meetings but can't practice until Week 7. At that time, he will begin a window of eligibility to return to practice under a roster exemption, if medically cleared.

Additionally, cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris went on the suspension reserve list after violating the league's substance abuse policy in July. He will miss the first two games.

Here is the complete list of moves made Saturday:

Contracts terminated
S Danieal Manning
OT Will Svitek

Waived (but eligible for practice squad)
OT Dan France
OL Trevor Robinson
RB James Wilder Jr.
FB Nikita Whitlock
H-back Orson Charles
WR Cobi Hamilton
WR Colin Lockett
DT David King
DT Devon Still
DE Dontay Moch
DE Sam Montgomery
CB Onterio McCalebb
CB Victor Hampton

Moved to Injured Reserve
OG Trey Hopkins (leg)

Given Injury Settlement
CB Lavelle Westbrooks (thumb)

Suspended (for 2 games)
CB Chris Lewis-Harris

Moved to Non-Football Injury List
QB AJ McCarron (shoulder)

Lining up Patriots 2014 free agents

February, 27, 2014
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With various top free agent lists starting to surface, let's narrow things down to the Patriots with a snapshot look at the team's free agents:

1. CB Aqib Talib -- Difference-maker when healthy and added a different dynamic to the cornerbacks room since November of 2012. A top priority for the team.

2. WR Julian Edelman -- Deserves everything coming to him after a terrific 2013 season. Patriots would obviously like him back, but if another team ups the bidding, he's probably gone.

3. RB LeGarrette Blount -- Mutual interest in his return. A player who seemingly has more value to the Patriots than most others, which makes us think it's a greater likelihood he's back.

4. LB Brandon Spikes -- The way 2013 ended makes it unlikely he returns.

5. C Ryan Wendell -- A scrappy heady performer, Wendell maximizes his talents. I don't evision the Patriots extending their budget to ensure his return, but if a market doesn't develop for him, he'd surely be welcome back in a situation where there might be top competition for the No. 1 job.

6. TE Michael Hoomanawanui-- Played his role well in 2013. Would think he's back unless another team unexpectedly ups the ante.

7. LB Dane Fletcher -- One of the Patriots' best special teams players. Would think there is a competitive bid to retain him.

8. DE Andre Carter -- They don't get much better from a locker-room perspective, but we'd be surprised if the team makes his return a priority at this point.

9. TE Matthew Mulligan -- More of a blocking presence, he filled his role well in 2013. Although the Patriots will probably look to add to the position, it wouldn't be a surprise if Mulligan competes for a roster spot again.

10. WR Austin Collie -- Veteran was dependable and should warrant serious consideration to re-sign.

11-. OT Will Svitek -- Smart, versatile veteran probably will see his spot go to a youngster, unless Sebastian Vollmer's recovery doesn't look promising.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Running back Brandon Bolden was not spotted at the start of Friday morning's rainy New England Patriots practice, which sparked the following question: Could this open the door for Stevan Ridley to return to the 46-man game-day roster?

Ridley
Ridley
Bolden hasn't been listed on the team's injury report this week and the absence could be non-injury related. More details regarding Bolden's absence should be learned around 4 p.m. ET when the official participation report is released.

The Patriots dressed three running backs for last Sunday's win against the Texans -- Shane Vereen (41 of 70 snaps), LeGarrette Blount (20 snaps) and Bolden (9) -- which left Ridley on the sidelines. Since that decision, one of the top storylines surrounding the team is if Ridley will continue to be a healthy scratch, or if he might re-emerge in some form. Bolden's status could have a direct impact on the answer.

The other area of note that caught the eye at practice was seeing fill-in starting right tackle Will Svitek's right ankle heavily taped. Svitek landed on the injury report Wednesday, leaving the Patriots vulnerable at tackle because starter Sebastian Vollmer (leg) is on season-ending injured reserve and top backup Marcus Cannon (ankle) remains out of practice.

Also with receiver Aaron Dobson (foot) not practicing, it essentially rules him out Sunday for the second straight game.

Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard wasn't present for the second day in a row as he is due in court for a second day in Nebraska.

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

October, 27, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing a few thoughts at halftime, as the New England Patriots trail the Miami Dolphins, 17-3:

Ugly half of football. This has been one of the Patriots' worst halves of the season. The tone was set by Tom Brady's interception on the team's second offensive play -- an inaccurate delivery to tight end Rob Gronkowski. It was a bad throw by Brady, who might be dealing with discomfort with the middle and ring fingers on his throwing hand.

Where's Ridley? Running back Stevan Ridley, the team's leading rusher in 2012, was limited to six snaps in the first half (not including final kneel-down) as the Patriots went mostly with Brandon Bolden (15 snaps), while mixing in LeGarrette Blount (starter who totaled 5 snaps). A bit of a head-scratcher there.

Cole over Ryan at cornerback. Without top cornerback Aqib Talib, the Patriots started Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington at the position, with Marquice Cole playing the nickelback role. It was Cole who overran receiver Brandon Gibson on the Dolphins' first touchdown. The Patriots used rookie cornerback Logan Ryan in that role last week, but he hasn't played a defensive snap today, with Cole getting the nod over him.

Dolphins sparked by run. Miami ran the ball 21 times in the first half, and you wonder if the same approach would be taken if the Patriots had Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly at defensive tackle, and Jerod Mayo at linebacker. The Patriots just aren't as sturdy in the front seven and the Dolphins are taking it to them. Credit goes to the Dolphins for executing and winning the critical situations.

Injury report. Starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer left with a right leg injury and has already been ruled out. Looked like the season-ending type, but that hasn't been confirmed. That thrusts third-year player Marcus Cannon into the statring mix at right tackle, with veteran Will Svitek now the top backup.

Patriots get the ball. The Patriots had won the opening toss and elected to defer, so they will receive the opening kickoff of the second half. The home crowd booed the Patriots as they kneeled on the ball at the end of the second quarter.
Rex Ryan probably didn't want to come off as a tattletale, but the New York Jets coach left little doubt Monday that he knew about the New England Patriots' previous use of the illegal pushing technique on field goal blocks, and he didn't deny blowing the whistle on them.

In fact, the Jets sideline alerted the officiating crew during the game to watch out for it, a person familiar with the situation said late Monday.

Ryan
While he wouldn't answer directly on whether he was aware the Patriots had used it once the previous week against the New Orleans Saints, Ryan said, "The coaches watch every single play of every single game, so we’re aware of the opponents' tendencies and everything else."

In other words, he knew.

Ryan declined to say if that information was shared with his players ("I'll leave that in-house"), and he also avoided the question of whether he tipped off officials before Sunday's game.

"Again, you know what? My comments with the officials, I’ll just leave that way," he said.

The Jets were well-schooled on the new "push" penalty, players said Monday. In addition to the mandatory tutorital in training camp from officials, who travel the country to educate teams on new rules, the players were "reminded" as recently as early last week, said Damon Harrison, a member of the field-goal unit.

They were reminded because the Patriots got away with it last week. Chris Jones pushed teammate Will Svitek on Garrett Hartley's 39-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter. Jones and Svitek ran the same technique against the Jets, but the umpire saw it and threw a flag -- 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. It nullified a field-goal miss by Nick Folk, who followed up by nailing one from 42 yards in overtime, lifting the Jets to a 30-27 win.

The "push" penalty, on the books this season for the first time, is designed to improve player safety. This was the first time it was enforced.

Former Jets special-teams coach Mike Westhoff, an ESPN Radio analyst, studied a tape of the play and said it was "very, very evident" that it was orchestrated. He said Jones "cheated back in his stance," allowing him to get in position to push Svitek from behind.

"I watched the tape. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes," Westhoff told ESPNNewYork.com. "I can't prove this -- I don't know what they teach -- but those guys are pretty sharp up there [in New England]. I can't imagine them running a technique and not being aware of it. In my opinion, it was coached, taught and implemented that very way. I think they did it on purpose and got caught."

Westhoff said he "blocked a lot of kicks with that same technique," but it was legal up until this season. He said it's an unsafe practice because of "the force it generates," a big body pushing another big body into a blocker.

Demario Davis, another special-teams contributor, said he was "very aware of the rule." Patriots coach Bill Belichick admittedly wasn't, acknowledging Monday his postgame interpretation was wrong. Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3 from the rule book is pretty straight-forward: "Team B players cannot push teammates on the line of scrimmage into the offensive formation."

Willie Colon, another interior blocker on the field-goal unit, said "all coaches should have knowledge of the rules." But he admitted he didn't know what was going on until after the game.

How could a head coach make such an oversight? Ryan didn't want to go there.

"I'm not worried about that," he said, bristling after several questions about the controversy. "The focus is going to be wherever you guys want it to be, but I think we outplayed New England, and I think that’s why we won the game."

Will Svitek looks unlikely to play

September, 6, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Veteran offensive tackle/guard Will Svitek was absent for the start of Friday's practice, as he's missed the entire week with a right knee injury. Svitek, who projects to a backup role at both tackle spots and right guard, is expected to miss Sunday's season opener against the Bills.

Every other player, including tight end Rob Gronkowski, was present for the start of Friday's workout held in shells (light shoulder pads) and helmets. Media members were present for warmup jogging and stretching.

Svitek's absence shines a spotlight on the Patriots' offensive line depth.

The starting line returns intact from 2012 with left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. The top backup is tackle/guard Marcus Cannon.

Svitek projected to the No. 7 spot on the depth chart, and the Patriots generally like to go into games with seven active linemen.

That spot now could be filled by undrafted rookie Chris Barker, a center/guard who was claimed on waivers from the Dolphins, unless the team promotes one of their three offensive linemen from the practice squad (guard Josh Kline, tackle Jordan Devey, or tackle R.J. Dill).

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.
The Seattle Seahawks added defensive end Chris Clemons and kicker Steven Hauschka to their injured reserve lists this week.

Rookie Bruce Irvin, the 15th overall choice in the draft, will start in Clemons' place. Recently signed veteran Ryan Longwell will handle kicking duties for Hauschka.

Those moves led me to compile IR lists for remaining NFC playoff teams. I used the reserve lists at Ourlads.com, which updates its rosters daily.

Falcons' faith in Sam Baker paying off

September, 27, 2012
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Sam BakerAP Photo/Paul Abell Sam Baker's improved play at left tackle is one reason the Atlanta Falcons are 3-0.
You need to go back to what seemed like the winter of Sam Baker's NFL career to fully understand why everything is in full bloom these days.

The left tackle is playing the best he ever has and it’s no coincidence the Atlanta Falcons are off to a 3-0 start.

It wasn’t always like this. In fact, it’s never even been close to this for Baker, whose first four seasons were filled with injuries and criticism. It got so bad in a 2011 season in which Baker lost his starting job that he was pretty sure his days in Atlanta were over.

But two intertwined events happened last winter that changed Baker’s perspective on life and maybe -- just maybe -- will go a long way toward changing the fortunes of a franchise.

The first came on Christmas. That’s the day Baker and wife Antoinette had their first child. That’s the day Gunnar Harvey Baker was born.

“All of the sudden, you realize it’s not all about you,’’ Baker said. “All of the sudden, I realized it doesn’t matter if everybody in the world hates me and says I can’t play because he was there to love me and he didn’t care one bit about football. He needed me and was going to love me no matter what.’’

It’s ironic because within the next couple of weeks, Baker would get a similar message from someone else. Even with Gunnar around, nothing else was guaranteed for Baker.

Atlanta’s season, one in which the Falcons seemingly had gone all-in for the Super Bowl with the draft-day trade to get Julio Jones, ended long before anyone expected. It ended with an ugly 24-2 loss to the New York Giants in the first round of the playoffs.

“I had struggled and hadn’t played well at all,’’ Baker said. “I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I thought I might be gone.’’

A lot of people just assumed Baker would be gone. Before the team buses even departed the Meadowlands that day, fans already were talking about how the Falcons needed to go find a new left tackle to protect quarterback Matt Ryan's blind side. The Falcons didn’t have a first-round draft pick, but maybe they could trade for one. Or maybe they could go out and find one in free agency.

[+] EnlargeAtlanta's Sam Baker
Fernando Medina/US PRESSWIRE"I really wasn't sure what was going to happen," Sam Baker said of his status following last season. "I thought I might be gone."
As the brain trust got settled back into the team’s Flowery Branch facility and brought in new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and offensive line coach Pat Hill, there were some high-level meetings about Baker’s future.

That’s when public opinion and reality went in different directions. That’s when coach Mike Smith, who often comes across as a father figure to his players, called in Baker and talked to him like a son.

“I told Sam we were sticking with him, but that he needed to get away from football for a bit,’’ Smith said. “I told him to go get his body rested up and healthy. The guy has always been tough and resilient, but the fact of the matter is Sam rarely was truly healthy from the day he first got here.’’

Baker walked out of the meeting as surprised as fans would be as time went on and they realized they weren’t getting a new left tackle.

“To be totally honest, I went in there with a ton of uncertainty on my part,’’ Baker said. “I felt honored that they still had faith in me. You don’t get a lot of loyalty in the NFL. I decided right then that I needed to listen to him, put my head down and go all out.’’

Baker went to his offseason home in California. He spent time with Gunnar and the rest of his family.

“I unplugged mentally,’’ Baker said. “My wife had been telling me for years that I needed to unplug once in a while; that I wore it all on my sleeve and took it too hard when things weren’t going well.’’

There was time for Baker’s soul to heal. Same for his body, especially the back and elbow problems that bothered him so much last season. Within a few weeks, Baker began working with some personal trainers.

It wasn’t the heavy weightlifting he usually did in the offseason and there wasn’t anything focused specifically on football.

“The emphasis was on movement and just getting my body loose,’’ Baker said.

The funny thing here is that even though he’s 6-foot-5 and 301 pounds, the ability to move fairly well was the one bright spot early in Baker’s career. Scouts and coaches said he had remarkably quick feet for a guy his size.

But, as the injuries piled up, Baker couldn’t even move well anymore. That’s why the Falcons gave his starting job to journeyman Will Svitek and briefly -- and unsuccessfully -- tried Baker at guard.

When the Falcons started their offseason program in the spring and Baker returned to Atlanta, he continued working with director of athletic performance Jeff Fish on his movement. When training camp rolled around, Smith noticed a huge difference in Baker. It’s carried over into the regular season and Smith said Baker is playing better than ever.

“Absolutely,’’ Smith said. “Sam’s healthy and that makes a big difference. “You can see that he’s moving much more fluidly. He’s playing very well and so is our entire offensive line. They’re doing a great job protecting Matt and when Matt is able to stay on his feet, he’s able to distribute the ball and make a lot of good things happen.’’

The way the offensive line is playing brings us back to another story about Gunnar. The Bakers chose his middle name as a way to honor Harvey Dahl. He was a guard for the Falcons when Baker first came into the league and the two built a strong friendship. Dahl left Atlanta as a free agent last season and those that weren’t blaming Baker for all the offensive line’s problems last season were pointing to Dahl’s departure as the reason for the downfall.

Dahl, Baker, center Todd McClure, guard Justin Blalock and tackle Tyson Clabo had been together since 2008. Garrett Reynolds, who ended up in Dahl’s spot last year and remains there, joined the Falcons in 2009.

“When Harvey left and we had some injuries early last year, I think there were some issues with continuity on the line,’’ Baker said. “But this is a great group and most of us have been together for five years. We all love each other and you can really see the continuity coming through now.’’

Maybe that continuity is shining because the Falcons gave Baker some emotional nurturing and allowed him to grow as a person. And, perhaps most of all, they gave him time to heal and become the player they always thought he could be.

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.
METAIRIE, La. -- I’m getting ready to catch a flight to Atlanta. Then, I’ll be driving up to the Falcons’ training camp complex in Flowery Branch. (Note to New Orleans fans: We’re not done with the Saints yet. Their Camp Confidential profile is scheduled to run Monday).

I won’t arrive until after Saturday morning’s practice concludes, but I should be able to catch the late-afternoon session, and will be with the Falcons through Monday. Every camp has storylines, and the Falcons are no exception.

Here’s a list of five things I’ll be watching during my visit:

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Bob Donnan/US PresswireAtlanta quarterback Matt Ryan might throw a better deep ball if his protection improved.
Matt Ryan’s arm: There are a ton of critics out there that say Ryan doesn’t have the arm to throw the deep ball. I’ve always disagreed with that. While Ryan’s arm might not be as strong as Cam Newton’s or Josh Freeman’s, I think it’s strong enough. I’d put him on a par with New Orleans’ Drew Brees, who has had plenty of success with long passes. I think the real problem is that Ryan’s offensive line didn’t protect him long enough to give him time to effectively throw the deep ball last season. But I’m going to pay particular attention to Ryan’s arm this camp to make sure my eyes aren’t deceiving me.

The left tackle situation: This is a natural follow-up to the item on Ryan. Left tackle was a big problem last season. Sam Baker, who was taken in the same draft as Ryan to protect the quarterback’s blind side, lost his starting job to Will Svitek last season. The Falcons are giving Baker first crack at the job this season, and the company line is that he was hurt worse than fans realized last season. The Falcons know more about Baker’s medical situation than we do, so we’ll take their word for it -- for now. But the Falcons can’t really turn back to Svitek this season, because he has no upside. Baker needs to go out and show why he was a first-round pick in 2008.

Dirk Koetter’s offense: I was critical of some of the things former coordinator Mike Mularkey did, and so were a lot of Atlanta fans. But we’re about to find out if Mularkey really deserved blame or if it was the personnel he had to work with. I’m pretty sure Koetter has been given instructions to open up the offense. That doesn’t mean simply throwing more deep passes. It means more variety all the way around. Things like screen passes and a running game that features a little bit of speed, not just power.

Jacquizz Rodgers: This is a follow-up to the part I just mentioned about speed in the backfield. I saw Rodgers in camp last season, and it was hard to tell much because he was working with the third team. I saw him in some regular-season games, and it was hard to tell much because his playing time was minimal. But the one thing that jumped out about Rodgers even in those situations is that he’s very fast. The Falcons need to take advantage of that and use him as a runner and a receiver. Michael Turner is going to be the main runner on this team, but the Falcons need some variety in their backfield.

Mike Nolan’s defense: Former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took just as much heat from fans as Mularkey. Nolan’s got a strong background, and everything he’s hinted at suggests he wants to build a more aggressive defense. With guys like Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters, John Abraham, Asante Samuel, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, he’s inheriting plenty of talent. But some of those guys didn’t always play up to their potential in the past. Nolan’s best chance for success might be to light some fires to get this defense properly motivated.

Minicamp hot spots for Falcons

June, 15, 2012
6/15/12
9:34
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The Panthers, Buccaneers and Saints have completed their minicamps.

The Atlanta Falcons are next. They’ll hold their minicamp Tuesday through Thursday and then break until the start of training camp. It’s kind of fitting that the Falcons chose to do their minicamp the latest of the four in the NFC South. This offseason, the Falcons elected to take a different path than the Panthers and Bucs. And the Falcons certainly didn’t have to deal with any of the things the Saints had thrown at them.

Atlanta has had -- by far -- the quietest and calmest offseason in the NFC South. The Falcons chose to re-sign most of their own free agents and not pursue any big names from the outside. They didn’t have a first-round draft pick and their only major move was trading for cornerback Asante Samuel. There is a school of thought within the Falcons that they already had a pretty good roster and the additions of coordinators Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter could be all that’s needed for this team to start winning postseason games.

[+] EnlargeSam Baker
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Falcons need improved play on the offensive line and may give Sam Baker another shot at left tackle.
But that doesn’t mean the Falcons are completely sitting still. There might not be much drama, but the Falcons have some things that have to be settled between now and the start of the regular season. Let’s take a look at a few hot spots.

The offensive line: This was a problem area last year, as the Falcons weren’t able to protect quarterback Matt Ryan well enough to allow him to successfully throw a lot of deep balls. The Falcons know that has to change and they used their second-round draft pick on guard/center Peter Konz and a third-round choice on tackle Lamar Holmes. Konz is very much in the mix for a starting job immediately. Holmes won’t be fully healthy until training camp, but it’s not all that realistic to expect a third-round choice to start immediately at tackle because Tyson Clabo is set on the right side and the Falcons don’t want a rookie trying to protect Ryan’s blind side to open the season. The Falcons seem ready to give Sam Baker another chance at left tackle. They believe injuries held him back last year and that he’s healthy now.

If not, the Falcons might have to turn back to Will Svitek, who took Baker’s job last season. Aside from Clabo, guard Justin Blalock is the only certain starter on the offensive line. The Falcons have been working Konz at guard and he likely will stay there because he’s taller (6-foot-5) than the prototype center. If Konz shows he’s ready to start, the Falcons will let Joe Hawley compete with veteran center Todd McClure. Although McClure’s been the line’s leader for a long time, he’s nearing the end of his career and the Falcons would like to get younger on the line.

The pass rush: Veteran defensive end John Abraham still produced 9.5 sacks last season and the Falcons are betting he can have another similar season. But they need more than Abraham. Ray Edwards, Kroy Biermann, Lawrence Sidbury and Jonathan Massaquoi are being watched closely and there is hope that one, or several, of them can impact the pass rush. But I think Nolan is going to have to get creative and bring some blitzes to really have much of a chance at disrupting passing games.

Jacquizz Rodgers: The Falcons repeatedly have said they plan to limit Michael Turner's carries. They also have said they want to get Rodgers, a second-year pro, more involved in the offense. Rodgers needs to use minicamp, training camp and the preseason to show he’s ready for an increased role. Koetter also will have to be creative in carving out that role. Turner’s a power back and Rodgers is a speed back. The previous offense didn’t have a lot of things designed for speed backs. But Koetter fared pretty well with Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, so I’m sure he’s got some new twists for Rodgers.
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.

[+] EnlargeDouglas
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.

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