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  1. Free-agent O'Brien Schofield could return to Falcons Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Free-agent outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield, who brought intensity to the Atlanta Falcons' defense and locker room last season, could find himself back on the team's roster before the regular season begins. Schofield, who was offered a contract early in the free-agency process but never agreed to terms, has been in constant contact with Falcons coach Dan Quinn while awaiting the best opportunity. Schofield said he has options but is looking for the ideal fit at the right price. He made $1.7 million on a one-year contract last season. "If the opportunity presents itself, I'll definitely return," Schofield said Tuesday from Hawaii. "I know the system. I'm comfortable with the organization. I'm still the same guy, but I have a little more to bring to the team this year. My training has changed. I think it would benefit both of us." The Falcons currently have three open roster spots following Tuesday's release of veteran return man Devin Hester. Hester's departure opened up $3 million in cap space, and the Falcons entered the day with about $9.25 million in cap space. In others words, there should be room to sign Schofield, if desired. Quinn admitted that Schofield remains on the radar, as does veteran pass-rusher Dwight Freeney. Nothing appears to be imminent, although it seems likely that the Falcons would bring back Schofield before entertaining the thought of signing Freeney. "Scho's somebody that we certainly keep up with," Quinn said Tuesday. "And as we're going through it, we've had a lot of discussions. We haven't made a final decision on that, but he's certainly someone that comes up a lot for us. "No. 1, he's had a terrific offseason in training. I've communicated with him -- I wouldn't say regularly -- but enough to know that he's really doing well. Somebody that we're definitely keeping in mind, yeah." Schofield continues to train in Hawaii, where he's worked alongside former teammate and current Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett since the middle of March. Schofield said the training sessions with Bennett, which also include tutoring from former two-time Denver Broncos sack leader and one-time Falcon Maa Tanuvasa, have only enhanced his pass-rush ability. "It's helped a lot," Schofield said. "And [Bennett] introduced me to my physical therapist to help with my [left] knee. When I first started off here, I was barely squatting 315. Now I'm at like 520. I've gotten stronger. I've gotten bigger. I'm 254. I was only like 244 last year. I put on 10 pounds." In talking to Quinn, Schofield made sure to emphasize his willingness to help bolster a defense that had a league-low 19 sacks in 2015. Last year, he had just two sacks to go with 13 quarterback hits. However, Schofield was taken out of a pass-rush role the second half of the season to be more of a run-stopper at strongside linebacker. The film showed Schofield was solid against the run in terms of setting the edge. "I'm a versatile player," Schofield said, "but I want to play with my hand in the dirt. My goal is to help rush the passer. I have yet to play a full season just rushing the passer, and I think I can do that." The Falcons report to training camp Wednesday and hold their first training camp practice Thursday morning.
  2. Will five rookies crack starting lineup for Falcons at camp? Vaughn McClure The Atlanta Falcons open training camp on July 28 at their home facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Here’s a closer look at the Falcons' camp, which wraps up on Aug. 16: Top storyline: Rookies could make a significant impact for the Falcons this season, particularly on defense, so it will be worth monitoring how they progress throughout camp. First-round draft pick Keanu Neal already has shown more speed than anticipated while settling in at strong safety. Will Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, the second- and fourth-round selections, join Neal in the starting lineup as the inside linebackers? Campbell sure looks the part at weakside linebacker with his length and speed, but it's early and we have to see how he performs in pads. His instincts are a big question mark. Jones' closing speed is off the charts, which is an element the Falcons sorely need from their linebackers. On offense, sixth-round pick Wes Schweitzer has a legitimate chance to compete at right guard against Chris Chester, Mike Person and Tom Compton. The wild card is third-round pick Austin Hooper, a tight end out of Stanford. He is behind schedule after missing a lot of the offseason work while still in school. Once he gets up to speed, he's expected to be a red-zone threat. A starting role for Hooper will depend on the formation. If Matt Ryan doesn’t make good decisions: If Ryan turns the ball over, he could be in for another long season. Ryan had 21 turnovers last season (16 interceptions, five fumbles lost), including four interceptions in the red zone and two inside the 10-yard line. Ryan knows he didn't play his best last season, and he also admitted to being overwhelmed by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's new scheme. But Ryan contends he is better suited going into his second year in the offense. He needs to take advantage of having a three-time Pro Bowl center in front of him now in Alex Mack, who should anchor the offensive line. Ryan's strength continues to be as a pocket passer, so we'll see if Mack helps alleviate some of the pressure and allows Ryan to fire out of the pocket. And when you have a receiver as dynamic as Julio Jones, life should be a lot easier. Plus Ryan has even more weapons to target this season outside of Jones, so there are no excuses. Player who will have fans buzzing: Mohamed Sanu is extremely motivated to show critics what he can do as the No. 2 receiver behind Jones. People have questioned why Sanu was paid almost $7 million per year after not even having a touchdown reception with the Bengals last season. Well, Sanu is a big, physical receiver who can dominate one-on-one matchups. That should make life easier on Jones and help get Sanu some valuable touches. Sanu had some problems with drops at one point during his career with Cincinnati, but he believes those days are in the past. He'll have some tough shoes to fill with Roddy White, the franchise's all-time leading receiver, no longer in the fold after being released. Sanu's best NFL season in 2014 included 56 catches for 790 yards and five touchdowns, including a 76-yarder. Position battle worth watching: Although Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman is coming off a 1,000-yard, 14-touchdown Pro Bowl season, Tevin Coleman is sure to push for more touches every day. If nothing else, it will make for a pretty potent running back tandem if Freeman plays at the same high level he did a year ago and if Coleman can resolve his fumbling issues. The aspect the coaches love the most about Coleman is his ability to take it the distance with his blazing speed. They drafted him because he's a home run threat. If Coleman continues to improve catching the ball out of the backfield, what a weapon he would become. And Freeman's always going to run with passion, guaranteed. Now they both have to stay healthy. Remember, both were slowed by hamstring injuries last preseason. That rookie should start: It's going to be a close call with Jones, who brings speed the Falcons sorely need at the linebacker position. But with playing middle linebacker comes the big responsibility of relaying the plays and getting everyone on the same page. That's a tall task for a rookie, and incumbent Paul Worrilow knows every aspect of the defense and is a cerebral player. Folks will lobby for Jones because of Worrilow's athletic limitations, but the most likely scenario is Worrilow starting in the base defense and Jones in the nickel, with Jones usually on the field in third-down passing situations for his coverage ability. So, essentially, Jones will get significant reps even if he doesn't start. Veteran whose job is in jeopardy: Keep an eye on Andy Levitre at left guard. He struggled miserably last season and got pushed around way too often. (Just see the film against Kawann Short and Carolina.) Levitre led the team with 11 penalties for 95 yards, with 37 yards nullified as a result of those penalties. He was called for holding five times and had four false starts. The Falcons certainly hope having Mack at center will help compensate for inadequate play at the guard spots, but Levitre has to put it on himself to play better. If not, then maybe the Falcons have to look harder at the rookie Schweitzer, who worked at both guard spots during the offseason and showed signs of promise. Rush to judgment: Vic Beasley Jr. was the first to say he didn't have the type of rookie season he anticipated, although Beasley did finish with a franchise rookie-record four sacks. The Falcons insist moving Beasley from defensive end to Sam linebacker won't take away from his main responsibility of rushing the passer. He'll be a rush end in nickel situations, as the coaches are working tirelessly to help Beasley improve his hand usage. Beasley had two legitimate excuses for not playing at a higher level as a rookie with his mind cluttered by his ill father (who eventually passed away) and his body dealing with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Beasley, who didn't need surgery, said he's healthy now. And he is at peace with his father's death, which should help his focus. The Falcons need Beasley to be dominant, not just good. That's why they made him the eighth overall pick in 2015. But Beasley needs Adrian Clayborn, Derrick Shelby, Grady Jarrett or someone else to have success to free up the blocking schemes.
  3. Rookies get their first test at Falcons' OTAs Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The most noticeable difference for the Atlanta Falcons between the first week of organized team activities and the second week was the roles for the rookies. The first week, Falcons coach Dan Quinn kept players such as first-round pick Keanu Neal with the backups while getting accustomed to new surroundings. But during Week 2 on Tuesday, Neal, a projected starter, was running with the first team at strong safety while fourth-round draft pick De'Vondre Campbell was working with the first unit at Will linebacker. With a number of the guys, we wanted to find out 'Let's see what they have and how well they can learn,'" Quinn said. "And there were some busts, for sure. And that's part of it. You have to kind of go through that frustration of, 'Oh, I missed that call. I missed where I was supposed to be.' ... It was good to throw a lot in there today." Deion Jones, the second-round pick from LSU, remained with the second team at middle linebacker as Paul Worrilow kept working with the starters. Fifth-round pick Wes Schweitzer lined up at left guard alongside starters Jake Matthews, Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder for one series with newcomer Tom Compton at right guard. Tight end Austin Hooper, the third-round pick from Stanford, is not with the team right now because classes are ongoing at the school. Here are some other quick observations from Tuesday's OTAs: Vic Beasley Jr. was not working at Sam linebacker with the first unit in the base package. Philip Wheeler took those reps, while Beasley worked primarily as a nickel edge rusher off the left side. Beasley worked with a rush group of Jonathan Babineaux and Derrick Shelby on the interior and Brooks Reed off the right edge. Beasley did play Sam in the base with the second unit, though. When defensive line coach Bryan Cox summoned the three-technique defensive tackles to take part in a 2-on-1 drills, the only two "three-techs" to toe the line were Tyson Jackson and Babineaux. The Falcons moved Ra'Shede Hageman to the four-tech defensive end position. Akeem King saw time with the first unit outside at corner alongside Desmond Trufant in the nickel package. King's presence kicked Robert Alford inside. Cornerback Jalen Collins, who can practice but is suspended the first four games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances, made a nice play on the ball to intercept Matt Schaub during 11-on-11 drills. It's something Collins did not show at all last season.
  4. Falcons' Deion Jones sees no red flags regarding repaired shoulder Vaughn McClure Atlanta Falcons rookie linebacker Deion Jones said there is no reason to be concerned about his surgically repaired left shoulder that drew red flags from at least two teams during the draft process. The second-round draft pick from LSU, who hails from New Orleans and goes by the nickname of "Debo", was surprised about the attention his shoulder received, considering it was an injury dating back to high school. "My shoulder is fine; it’s strong," Jones told ESPN.com. "I had surgery in high school." Jones played in 51 games (13 starts) over four seasons at LSU. LSU coach Les Miles told reporters that Jones started to make "big-time plays" once he came to LSU and was able to rehab the shoulder. So why was the shoulder such a pre-draft issue? "I have no clue," Jones said. Did it make Jones angry? "No, not at all," he said. "I know what it was able to do. It never restricted me in any way. And I’m blessed someone took a chance on me. Like I said, it was something that happened in high school. I didn’t know it would affect me later on, but it’s all good." Wayde Keiser, Jones’ coach at New Orleans Jesuit High School, said he even received a few calls from NFL teams inquiring about Jones' shoulder. The Falcons weren’t one of those teams, although they reportedly called the LSU trainer about it prior to drafting Jones. "It was Week 10 of his senior season and two series before (the game-winning drive) on defense, his shoulder popped out," Keiser recalled. "They worked on him on the sideline and put him back in. He also, when we needed him every now and then, we'd put him in at receiver. ... So he catches the pass that sets up the winning touchdown -- with a hurt shoulder. He goes back in and plays. I mean, it's (separated). He was going to have to have it repaired after the season. So we hold him out one week, then he plays the next three weeks. "What's crazy about it is that many of these NFL teams, they go all the way back to their high school days. It started happening about six or seven years ago when teams would call me about kids who I had coached that were possible draft choices. And I had to let them know that Debo's shoulder was not an issue. He got it cleaned up and went on the play at LSU. He never had a problem in the weight room at LSU. He was phenomenal in the weight room." Jones had 18 bench press reps of 225 pounds during his Pro Day. The Falcons expect the 6-foot-1-inch, 230-plus-pound Jones to make an immediate impact with his blazing speed. He’ll compete with Paul Worrilow at Mike linebacker, a position Jones believes he’s can adjust to instantly after being projected more as a Will linebacker.
  5. Arthur Blank confident coaches will get a rush out of Falcons By Vaughn McClure Although the Atlanta Falcons didn't exactly secure a pass-rush specialist through free agency or the draft, team owner Arthur Blank is confident the pass rush will improve in 2016. The Falcons finished with a league-low 19 sacks last season. Their 73 sacks the past three seasons is 20 fewer than any other team, according to ESPN Stats and Info. And the lack of pressure a year ago is a large part of the reason the Falcons were tied for 26th in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to convert 62.26 percent of the time. Regardless, Blank believes in the plan coach Dan Quinn and the staff has in place to address those woes. "Pressure comes in a lot of different ways, and a lot of different forms, and a lot of different positions," Blank said. "The issue for the coach is not sacks. It's disturbing the quarterback; making the quarterback move. I have confidence we'll be better at that in 2016 than we were in prior years." Blank also has confidence in second-year player Vic Beasley Jr., who didn't meet his own expectations last season despite a franchise rookie-record and team-leading four sacks. Beasley played through a torn labrum in his right shoulder, an injury he said won't require surgery. "I think he had a fine rookie year," Blank said of Beasley. "And I think as he goes his second year, he's only going to get better, as will a lot of players as they get more comfortable with the scheme and more comfortable with their roles." The Falcons appear to be leaning toward a pass-rush foursome of Beasley and Adrian Clayborn on the edges and Grady Jarrett and Derrick Shelby on the interior in nickel situations. The coaches believe a slimmed down Brooks Reed can contribute to the pass rush as well, and veteran Jonathan Babineaux always is capable of adding some push. With more speed at linebacker with rookies Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, maybe the Falcons can be more effective with their blitzes if the four-man rush fails to create pressure. And undrafted outside linebacker Ivan McLennan might have a chance to make the 53-man roster and contribute based on his quick first step. Blank, of course, looks beyond just the pass rush in assessing what product the Falcons will put on the field this coming season. "I'm worried about our overall performance, and I have great confidence in coaching staff -- led by Coach Quinn -- and our players, and our personnel department," Blank said. "I think we had a great offseason. I think we have very, very good free agency. I liked the draft because it was very purposeful in terms of what the coach was trying to accomplish. Every single draft pick fit a specific need." Now the Falcons just need to bolster their pass rush.
  6. Atlanta Falcons will pass on veteran cornerback Leon Hall By Vaughn McClure The Atlanta Falcons are not going to sign veteran cornerback Leon Hall at this time, a league source told ESPN.com. Hall, 31, visited the Falcons' facility last week. Coach Dan Quinn said Hall was a player capable of helping the defense, but Quinn said the team wanted to fully review Hall's medical history before committing to signing him. Hall tore both of his Achilles in separate incidents during the 2011 and 2013 seasons. He also reportedly had a back procedure this offseason. Obviously the Falcons felt it was best to go in another direction. Quinn said he'll always be mindful of cornerbacks and pass-rushers while trying to enhance the roster. The team, of course, has the utmost confidence in Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant and feels fellow starter Robert Alford will flourish as long as he cleans up his technique. The wild card is second-year player Jalen Collins, last year's second-round draft pick out of LSU who had a miserable rookie season. Collins is suspended for the first four games of the 2016 without pay for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances -- an issue that will stunt his growth. If Collins begins to show signs of the potential the coaches saw in him, he could earn more time outside at corner with Alford moving in to cover the slot in the nickel. The Falcons like Collins' length when it comes to defending taller receivers such as Tampa Bay's Mike Evans and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin in the NFC South. However, Collins has showed no ball skills at this point. DeMarcus Van Dyke and Akeem King are the other key figures in the cornerback equation right now in terms of depth. Phillip Adams, who was with the team last season, remains a free agent but wants to return to the Falcons.
  7. Draft behind, Falcons still need to fix broken pass rush Vaughn McClure FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Two linebackers. A strong safety. A tight end. An offensive guard. A wide receiver. The Atlanta Falcons most definitely addressed some need areas with their six-man draft class. But what about adding a pass-rusher to a team that had a league-low 19 sacks last season? Falcons coach Dan Quinn spoke about the group of draftable pass-rushers, as a whole. "I thought this year's class featured some really good inside guys," Quinn said. "And I think that showed all the way through the draft, where last year maybe there were some guys early on that had some big pass-rush background to them. I think each year, there are ebbs and flows in terms of stacked at this position but not as much at this one. "Certainly at linebacker, felt like the inside guys, especially all the way from Myles (Jack) and Jaylon (Smith) and all the way down at inside linebacker (this year) where maybe the pass rush, although there was some good guys, maybe not as many as another year." Some figured that maybe in the first round the Falcons would have targeted Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson to bolster the pass rush. The Falcons instead went with strong safety Keanu Neal at No. 17 as Lawson went No. 19 to Buffalo. Quinn's explanation was that Neal's physical presence and coverage ability on third down would help the pass rush. When the Falcons initially held the 50th overall pick in the second round, pass-rushers Emmanuel Ogbah (No. 32 to Browns), Kevin Dodd (No. 33 to Titans) and Noah Spence (No. 39 to Buccaneers) were off the board. (The Falcons eventually traded down to No. 52 and selected speedy inside linebacker Deion Jones.) They probably wouldn't have taken a chance on the troubled Spence anyway. Whatever the case, the Falcons still have to proceed with the mindset of fixing a broken pass rush. They'll, of course, rely heavily on second-year player Vic Beasley, who is transitioning to Sam linebacker but expected to be the primary pass-rusher, as long as he perfects his counter moves. The most likely pass-rush foursome as of today would be Beasley and Adrian Clayborn off the edges with newcomer Derrick Shelby and Grady Jarrett on the interior. The Falcons hope to get something out of last year's most costly free-agent acquisition, Brooks Reed, too. "We added Shelby, we're moving Clayborn out to D-end, we're hoping Reed comes alive," Quinn said. "(Reed) was big-time injured last year (groin surgery). We know he's got pass rush to him. And we'll develop some of the guys to come through. "It's not just go out (and get a rusher). There's also the guys that are here in the building. We'll get them better, too. You can count on that." Of course, the Falcons want as much pressure from the front four as possible. Blitzing is an option as well, and the Falcons now have more speed at linebacker to blitz more effectively. Fourth-round pick De'Vondre Campbell (6-foot-4, 232 pounds) from Minnesota might be a key element in the pass-rush equation. He's been working on his pass-rush skills with former Falcon and pass-rush guru Chuck Smith. "We saw him a good blitzer," Quinn said of Campbell, who had a team-high four sacks for the Gophers last season. "I know they didn't use him as a down rusher at Minnesota, but we did see the blitz part of it both as an outside guy and an inside guy. And there is a knack to that. Oftentimes, for the rushers, it's the length. I can use my long arms to get past the guy and the ability to close. So that part, I think, is in his game." So will the Falcons try to make Campbell a down rusher? "Yeah, I'll probably," Quinn said with laugh. "Knowing me, I'll try for a day and, `OK, go back to linebacker.' But this is the time we try to find out as much as we can about a guy because if you have more unique traits, then we can try and feature them. But I totally see him as an inside 'backer first -- but the inside 'backer that has good pass-rush blitzing ability, and that's a unique guy."
  8. Falcons address one big need with center Alex Mack Vaughn McClure ESPN Staff Writer At least the Atlanta Falcons addressed one of their most pressing needs. The acquisition of three-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, which will become official after 4 p.m. ET when the new league year starts -- helps the Falcons find stability at a position where they struggled last season. Mack, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 311 pounds, is a good athlete who is solid in both run blocking and pass protection. Not to mention he is accustomed to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s expectations in the outside zone blocking scheme. Shanahan coached Mack for five games during the 2014 season before Mack suffered a season-ending broken fibula. There will be questions about how much the Falcons decided to pay Mack -- more than $9 million per year according to reports --based on the various other needs, especially at pass-rusher. But if the 30-year-old former first-round draft pick out of Cal holds up health-wise he should be a dependable force for years to come. Center was a position initially anticipated to be solid under Joe Hawley, but Hawley’s lingering knee injury caused the Falcons to cut ties before the start of last season. That led to the experiment of moving guard Mike Person to center, which backfired from the start based primarily on Person’s inexperience snapping the football. James Stone wasn’t the answer, either, despite having starting experience. Stone had issues with snaps and in protection as well. The Falcons ended last season with Gino Gradkowski as the starting center. Although Gradkowski gathered some support to compete for next season’s starting role, he was viewed as undersized from the start. Now with Mack, the Falcons shored up at least one aspect of their shaky interior of the line, although they are in dire need of upgrades at both guards spots as well. Quarterback Matt Ryan felt too much pressure up the middle, so Mack could help alleviate at least some of those concerns. And Mack is very good at getting out and pulling, which makes him an ideal fit as a run blocker. Plus he’s known for making all the right calls up front. One veteran NFL personnel person familiar with Mack offered this scouting report: Smart veteran player at the end of his career. Can offer leadership qualities. Better positional blocker than power type. He will run block better in a zone/stretch scheme than a power type. He will have issues against bigger players and could struggle against divisional defensive line opponents like (Kawann) Short and (Star) Lotulelei of the Carolina Panthers. When Mack decided to opt out of the final three years of his contract, it made sense for the Falcons to investigate the possibility of adding him to the roster. Now that he’s in the fold, the Falcons have to feel comfortable about what they might be able to accomplish offensively, with the defense still needing to make significant strides. It will be the first time the Falcons are truly comfortable at center since the Todd McClure days, and it should help Falcons fans forget about the failed experiment of second-round draft pick Peter Konz. Ryan certainly made it clear after the season what he hoped the Falcons would pursue this offseason. "You never realize how much you rely on those [centers], especially when you have a guy who was as consistent as Todd,’’ Ryan told former teammate Brian Finneran in a season-ending radio interview on 680 the Fan. "[McClure’s] longevity was awesome. He never missed a game. "Hopefully, we’ll be able to find somebody at that spot that can create that kind of longevity that Todd had because I think it’s a really important position, and critical for the offensive line to have a guy at that spot that runs the show.’’ The Falcons now have that guy in Mack.
  9. Falcons Jalen Collins hopes to rebound from rookie disappointmentVaughn McClure ESPN Staff Writer Sift through the list of second-round picks from the 2015 NFL draft and you'll find that 21 of 32 selections started five or more games this past season. Jalen Collins wasn't one of them. The Atlanta Falcons cornerback, considered a first-round talent who dropped due to marijuana issues in college, managed just two starts in 16 games. He had virtually no impact on defense with 12 tackles, no interceptions, and no passes defensed. He didn't see the field on defense in the last four games against Carolina (twice), Jacksonville, and New Orleans. His biggest impact was on special teams, where he was third on the team with five special teams tackles. Collins, the 43rd overall pick, played 282 defensive snaps. The only second-rounders who played fewer snaps on defense were Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory, who missed four games, and Patriots safety Jordan Richards, who played in 14 games. Both Gregory and Richards played 229 defensive snaps. Collins realizes he was a disappointment. "Of course you're frustrated," Collins said of his rookie campaign. "I felt I could have done better. I really didn't play to the best of my ability throughout the whole season. Definitely a little frustrated, but I know it's a process. I'm just going to grind this offseason." Will the Falcons regret selecting Collins? We'll see. Some of the second-rounders selected after him who had pre-draft workouts with the Falcons included Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks, Chargers linebacker Denzel Perryman, Chiefs center Mitch Morse, Ravens tight end Maxx Williams, Gregory, and Richards. Kendricks and Morse were named to the Pro Football Writers of America all-rookie team. As for the 6-foot-1-inch, 203-pound Collins, his length and overall ability were supposed to earn him a spot opposite Pro Bowl alternate Desmond Trufant at cornerback ahead of Robert Alford. The Falcons tried such an alignment with Alford pushed inside as the nickel corner, but the experiment didn't work. Collins obviously didn't play the ball well and got beat athletically. If anything else, at least he ended the season realizing his shortcomings. "My focus is getting stronger, faster," Collins said. "Definitely my lateral quickness and focusing on my technique." We'll see if Collins makes enough strides this offseason to make the coaches gain confidence in him. The Falcons seem likely to target a cornerback in free agency or the draft regardless.
  10. Could change in Atlanta include former Bears GM Phil Emery? Vaughn McClure ESPN Staff Writer The Atlanta Falcons decision to part ways with director of player personnel Lionel Vital this weekend was part of the shakeup owner Arthur Blank cited in a statement announcing he would retain general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Could the next move involve the hiring of former Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery to fill a role? It certainly seems like a possibility based on Emery's mysterious presence throughout this past season. Emery, who was fired by the Bears following the 2014 campaign, made at least two cameo appearances with the Falcons in 2015. He walked off the field alongside the players and coaches after an Aug. 13 practice. Emery also attended at least one Falcons home game, taking notes while sitting in the front row of the press box, just a few seats away from ESPN.com. Though it wasn't evident then, Emery could have been auditioning for a position. He was the Falcons' director of college scouting from 2004-2008 and discovered all-time leading receiver Roddy White at UAB. He held the same role with Kansas City from 2009-2011 under then-Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, who is now the Falcons' assistant general manager. During those years, the Chiefs found safety Eric Berry and pass-rusher Justin Houston. But if Emery reunites with Pioli and Dimitroff in Atlanta, there will be criticism based on Emery's track record with the Bears. In three seasons as the Bears general manager, his decisions included the firing of Lovie Smith after a 10-6 season, the parting of ways with the face of the franchise, Brian Urlacher, the hiring of Marc Trestman as head coach over Bruce Arians, and the signing of quarterback Jay Cutler to a lucrative contract. Both Emery and Trestman were fired after a 5-11 showing in '14. Emery struggled to build the defense in Chicago, and his first draft selection was defensive end Shea McClellin of Boise State, who was a major disappointment as a pass-rusher and was moved to inside linebacker. His best moves with the Bears were the drafting of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and offensive lineman Kyle Long. We'll see how everything unfolds as the Falcons attempt to get it right with free agency and the draft coming off an 8-8 season. But again, is seems like Emery, who turned 57 on Saturday, appeared to hover around the franchise for a reason.
  11. Next playoff round shows how tough Falcons' 2016 schedule truly isVaughn McClure ESPN Staff Writer The Atlanta Falcons could have used a break coming off an 8-8, postseason-less season. They didn't get one. As the NFL prepares for the next round of this year's playoffs, the eight teams remaining emphasize just how tough a road the Falcons face in 2016. Six of the teams playing in next weekend's divisional round are on the Falcons' schedule next season: Carolina, Arizona, Green Bay, Seattle, Kansas City, and Denver. Those teams had a combined regular-season record of 71-25 in 2015, with all six winning 10 or more games. The Chiefs, Packers, and Seahawks all pulled off road victories in this past weekend's wild-card matchups, while the Panthers, Cardinals, and Broncos all had first-round byes. Falcons owner Arthur Blank showed a lot of faith by keeping general manager Thomas Dimitroff in place to work alongside head coach Dan Quinn, with some changes to the pro personnel and college scouting department currently underway. But Blank certainly will shake things up if the Falcons continue to play below standard again next season. So, Quinn and Dimitroff better conjure up quite a plan to upgrade the roster to compete against that taxing schedule. Playing on the road at Seattle and Denver will be difficult enough, regardless of what type of offseason facelift each of those franchises undergoes. Although the Falcons have won their past two trips to Seattle, they've dropped three of the last four in Denver. The suffocating defenses possessed by the Broncos and Seahawks -- ranked first and second in the NFL this season while both allowing less than 300 yards per game -- are capable of giving Matt Ryan fits, particularly if holes remain on the offensive line. The Falcons are well aware of what to expect from the Panthers, although they were the lone team to knock off the NFC South champions during the regular season. And there's no underestimating anyone else in the division, considering the Falcons are fresh off being swept by both New Orleans and Tampa Bay. From a defensive perspective, the Falcons face the reality of having to contend with Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson -- not to mention up-and-coming Jameis Winston and Derek Carr. That's a stark contrast from Brandon Weeden, Ryan Mallett, Zach Mettenberger, Blaine Gabbert and Matt Hasselbeck. And there will be three rushers coming off of 1,000-yard seasons on next year's slate: Tampa Bay's Doug Martin (1,402), St. Louis' Todd Gurley (1,106) and Oakland's Latavius Murray (1,066). This offseason should give Quinn a chance to put more of his stamp on the roster. The former Seattle defensive coordinator will need some Seahawk-like talent to break a three-year playoff drought.
  12. With upper management status quo, Falcons can't afford many more misses Vaughn McClure ESPN Staff Writer Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank gave a clue which direction he was leaning with general manager Thomas Dimitroff after his team lost to the New Orleans Saints in the season finale. "They've had a great partnership this year, and I think that's a good reflection on both of them," Blank said, referring to the tandem of Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn. So it wasn't shocking when Blank released a statement Friday saying the partnership with Quinn and Dimitroff would continue into the 2016 season, with Scott Pioili remaining on board to assist Dimitroff. The restructuring of the pro personnel and college scouting departments has already begun, although the specifics of those moves have yet to be announced. The next step for the Falcons? Getting things right. They can't afford too many more misses in free agency or the draft. Although Dimitroff can pound his chest a little for the drafting of Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, and Desmond Trufant, he also might want to cover his head about the selections of Peria Jerry, Peter Konz, and Dezmen Southward, as well as having an entire 2012 draft class that is not currently on any NFL 53-man roster. Although Dimitroff traded for Hall of Fame-bound tight end Tony Gonzalez, free-agent acquisitions such as Osi Umenyiora and Steven Jackson never panned out as expected. Neither has the free-agent class of 2014, which included run-stuffers Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai and offensive lineman Jon Asamoah, who is now gone after an injury settlement. Those three received a combined $33 million guaranteed. The first year of the Quinn-Dimitroff partnership had mixed results regarding bolstering the roster. Sure, the Falcons got a pass-rusher in Vic Beasley, but the rookie first-round draft pick had an average season with four sacks and revealed he played the entire season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. The grade is incomplete on Beasley for that reason. The Falcons' big free-agent "splash" was outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who signed five-year, $22.5 million deal that included $9 million guaranteed. Reed walked in the door dealing with groin injuries and eventually had preseason surgery. His impact was minimal, with 17 tackles in 331 snaps played. Second-round draft pick Jalen Collins was supposed to be an immediately contributor with first-round talent, but the cornerback was an extreme disappointment and rarely saw the field on defense at season's end. And the decision to cut ties with center Joe Hawley and put the position in the hands of converted guard Mike Person turned out to be costly. Person was abysmal snapping the ball, although he wasn't pulled until the last game of the season in favor of Gino Gradkowski. It's no wonder Ryan went on radio this week and said finding longevity at center is must. Not to be forgotten was the acquisition of left guard Andy Levitre via a trade with the Tennessee Titans. The Falcons lost a sixth-round draft pick in 2016 and a conditional 2017 pick in the trade, and Levitre struggled when the team needed him to hold up the most. If the Falcons happen to part ways with Levitre, who is due base salaries $4 million, $5.25 million, and $7 million the next three seasons, it would leave another black mark regarding their decision-making. Getting it right means securing protection for Ryan, and the entire interior of the offensive line should be addressed with bigger, more athletic players. Securing another pass-rusher opposite Beasley is a must, as is landing a playmaking linebacker. And the Falcons need a big receiver capable of beating one-on-one coverage to help alleviate the pressure on top target Julio Jones. Often-injured Leonard Hankerson wasn’t the answer. The Falcons have five draft picks as it stands now after losing the sixth-rounder with Levitre and a fifth-rounder as result of the crowd noise violation from piping in sound. Regarding cap space, the Falcons are looking at about $20 million of space right now. That's before any players are released or any restructurings or extensions, so that number is sure to fluctuate. Quinn was given final say over the 53-man roster, so it's time for him to really put his stamp on it. When he was the defensive coordinator in Seattle, he had players who had a certain edge to them. Not that the current group of Falcons is soft, but they could use a little more nastiness. That's why a player such as linebacker Bruce Irvin of the Seahawks makes sense, if he reaches free agency. Most importantly for the Falcons is getting back into postseason contention. Mediocre won't be tolerated by the fans anymore, and Blank is extremely conscious of public opinion. He doesn't want a streak of four straight seasons without the playoffs going into the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017. Coming off an 8-8 season, the only place the Falcons can afford to go is up.
  13. Dirk Koetter: Roddy White single-most competitive player Vaughn McClureESPN Staff Writer Dirk Koetter has been in the NFL since 2007, so he's acquired a good feel for the players he's coached and coached against. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator makes reference to toughness, only one player comes to mind. It's the same player who was an integral part of his offenses for three seasons in Atlanta. "I tell friends of mine all the time that Roddy White is the single-most competitive football player I've ever met in my life," Koetter said. "I've just never been around a guy that his desire to win and compete would let him overcome injuries. He would do whatever it takes -- whether it be blocking, catching, running with the football -- just whatever you needed to help you win a game, Roddy would try to do it." Koetter used an anecdote to illustrate his point. He recalled a ritual the Falcons had during their 13-3 season in 2012, when they made it to the NFC Championship Game. "Every week, Smitty [coach Mike Smith] would have the offensive coaches pick a game-ball winner, and I swear to God I think Roddy got the vote 11 out of 13 times," Koetter said. "He didn't always get the game ball because we wanted to spread it around. But up in the coaches' room upstairs, we were saying, 'OK, who else are we going to give this game ball to besides Roddy?'" It might be fitting for White to earn the game ball following Sunday's season finale against the New Orleans Saints. There is speculation that it could be his last game as a Falcon, though White in intent on playing out his contract through 2017 and playing his final year in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Although White's cap number is just over $6 million for next year, he doesn't believe financial matters will have anything to do with the decision to keep him. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan already is planning for next year, and it's been well-documented how White is not an ideal fit in Shanahan's scheme. But the 34-year-old White showed during last week's upset of Carolina how he could still be a reliable pass-catching threat with five catches for 67 yards, including four first downs. Whatever happens, White appreciates the respect he's earned over the years from the fans cheering "Rod-dy, Rod-dy," to his teammates, to coaches such as Koetter. "Dirk's my guy, but he's watched me and how I grinded over the years, just dealing with injuries and going out there playing football," White said. "He knows me in and out as a player; my strengths and my weaknesses. He put me in a lot of positions to make plays in his offense, and I had a lot of success. It's just kudos to him to say I'm one of the toughest guys he's ever been around, that he's ever coached. That speaks volumes of how I've just tried to come to work and be on my game to help our team win." White, a 2005 first-round draft pick out of UAB, is the franchise's all-time leader in receiving yards (10,853), receptions (807) and total touchdowns (63). He had six consecutive seasons of 1,000 yards receiving from 2007-2012. Quarterback Matt Ryan said White is "the best" and has been for a long time. Wide receiver Julio Jones said, "Roddy's definitely still a playmaker." Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he appreciates the leadership White has displayed here at the end of the season. At the beginning of the year, some folks questioned White after he lobbied for more touches following a 5-0 start. He's never been one to bite his tongue. That's an aspect Koetter always appreciated about White. "I always liked players who could tell you the truth," Koetter said. "Sometimes after an emotional game, Roddy sometimes could say some things. But Roddy knows football, now. Roddy really understands football. If Roddy told me something like, 'We need to throw it more' or 'We need to run it more,' I'd have to give it a good hard look because a lot of times, Roddy was probably right. "I felt like Roddy always was going to be honest with you, so you'd better be honest with him."
  14. Kyle Shanahan already excited about next year with FalconsVaughn McClure ESPN Staff Writer FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has taken his share of criticism from the outside world this season while his players struggled to adjust to the new scheme. Shanahan, who is confident in his system, isn't worried about such perception. He just wants the offense to keep making strides going into next season. Maybe Dan Quinn will make some coaching changes after the season concludes Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. But Shanahan, in the first year of a three-year contract, sounded confident about continuing to build his relationship with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and the rest of the offense. The 8-7 Falcons enter their final game Sunday ranked ninth in total offense at 371.4 yards per game, but 21st in scoring at 21.5 points per game, an indication of their struggles in the red zone. They rank 17th in rushing yards per game at 101.3, with Freeman carrying the bulk of the load, 20 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. But the offensive balance Shanahan has desired all season hasn't been consistent. "I think we have accomplished some things this year, but we definitely didn't accomplish what we set out to do," Shanahan said. "And I've never been looking forward to an offseason so much to where I think we can improve in a lot of ways, and I know we're going to. And I really look forward to getting this started next year." Shanahan was asked about his biggest regret this season. "Not getting a chance to go to the playoffs," Shanahan said. "You know, that's everyone's goal, to get into the playoffs so you have a chance of reaching the goal that everyone has, and that's winning the Super Bowl. Anytime you don't make the playoffs, that's a big disappointment. And usually, when it's all said and done, there's usually only one team at the end that's happy. I'm pretty much upset every year because I haven't been a part of winning a Super Bowl yet."
  15. Falcons linebackers coach pleased with Paul Worrilow's play Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Paul Worrilow knows he's sometimes a target of criticism. He just goes about his business and works to get better. Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich, who played 10 NFL seasons at inside linebacker with San Francisco, understands solid linebacker play. That's why Ulbrich isn't overly concerned about the outside perception of Worrilow. "He continues to improve, particularly from a coverage standpoint,'' Ulbrich said. "It starts with pre-snap indicators and really identifying when the play-action is coming, when the bootlegs are coming, and when the threat of checkdowns is coming based on the formation and based on the splits. These are all the things that we've studied throughout the week. "He's gaining a better understanding every single week of when he has a threat; when he has a crossing route that he's got to respect; when he's got a checkdown and when he doesn't have a checkdown. And then beyond that, when the ball is snapped, just his fundamentals as far as his footwork and understanding leverage and that in our defense, we always have help -- always, when we tackle. So that's understanding where my help is and playing to that, and then taking my shots when I can. He's find inches in his game every single day. He's just the ultimate competitor that way.'' Worrilow, who led the team with 142 and 127 tackles the previous two seasons, enters Sunday's game at Tennessee with a team-leading 41 tackles. He never focuses on numbers, however. His words following last week's 31-21 loss to the New Orleans Saints were about cleaning up communication issues, a big part of his responsibility playing the middle in a 4-3 defense. Plus Worrilow said he made a mistake by not dropping into coverage on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to tight end Benjamin Watson. "I'd say it's been adequate,'' Ulbrich said of the communication aspect. "And not making any excuses, but you've got a group that's very new to this defense and this scheme and the detail within it. We're still ironing out every single detail because every team is going to present a different challenge to us; a different look and scheme. Finding ways to adapt this defense to other offenses is still a challenge because it's the first time our guys have gone through this process. "Because when you're so simplistic, in time you'll see virtually every way a team will try to attack us. Last week was a little bit unique, and give credit to New Orleans, but we can be so much better. I think communication was part of it. We just weren't ourselves. We didn't play at our standards. It was disappointing, but it also was a great opportunity for our guys to learn.'' Ulbrich appreciates the fact Worrilow holds himself accountable. "We've got a group of guys that always point the finger at themselves, and that starts with a Worrilow who has been here for a while and is respected at a high level,'' Ulbrich said. "He's a guy who's always going to point the finger at himself. It starts with him doing that and taking great accountability, and it takes every coach doing that. If you've got a group that's committed to doing that and improving and pointing the finger at themselves and being accountable, then I think you have a great chance to be successful.'' Here's Ulbrich's quick breakdown of the linebackers who have played the most snaps (excluding newcomer Philip Wheeler, signed this week): Worrilow : "He is absolutely finding his voice as a leader on this defense. He's always been kind of the underdog and maybe viewed himself as a guy who's just clawing to survive. But we're past the survival mode with him. Let's start excelling. Let's start thinking elite-type thoughts. He's starting to view himself a different way, so that's been encouraging.'' Justin Durant: "We love it when J.D. is in there (elbow injury) because he's been a great addition. He's provided a great voice and a model of what a pro looks like. He's just very serious and very detailed with his preparation. He's a guy who plays hit butt off. He excels not only in the pass game -- which I think people expected of him because he's an undersized guy, an athletic guy -- but he's done a great job in the run game.'' Joplo Bartu: "He's shown to be a great in between the tackles run defender right now. He's powerful and a strong tackler. He's got good run instincts. We've just got to keep refining his game as far as really seeing the pre-snap indicators and taking all the information the offense is giving us, and then really working out the kinks in his pass coverage. He will because he's committed to it.'' Nate Stupar: "A ton of versatility, which has been great for us. He can play [strongside] for us. He's started for us at SAM and played a lot snaps, but then has also stepped in as a nickel [weakside] linebacker. And he's played a little [middle] for us. Everywhere he's played, he's played at a high level. He's a great guy to have on your roster. If anybody goes down or anybody gets moved around, you feel great about him take the field.'' Brooks Reed: "He's the head-banger, tough guy that we were hoping that we would get. He's an excellent run defender. If you run his way ... he's just very tough, very physical, very heavy-handed from that standpoint. His pass coverage stuff, we just continue to work on it. It's still fairly new to him, but he gets better every day as he gets healthier (groin surgery), because that's been our biggest obstacle with him. He didn't practice virtually at all during the offseason. As he gets healthier and feels better and gets in better shape, we'd like him to really get involved in the pass rush, too.''
  16. Don't let 6-1 record fool you, Falcons are in offensive funkVaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer NASHVILLE -- Roddy White knew not to boast much about Sunday's 10-7 win over the Tennessee Titans. Sure, the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver and his teammates are 6-1 and have equaled their win total from last season. At the same time, White realizes his team is capable of playing much better, particularly from an offensive standpoint. "We're in a funk right now on offense, and we've got to play our way out," White said. "We've been struggling, so we have to find a way. We've got to keep grinding. "People might not care about this game in a couple of weeks, but we care because we know we can be better. ... I felt like we had maybe two drives that were good out of [10]. We had two the whole game. And the rest were penalties or little setbacks that got us down and distances that we couldn't recover from. We just have to find a way to get out of this funk before we get to a team like Carolina that is really good, that when you get behind the sticks, you're going to get blown out." The Falcons offense managed just one touchdown Sunday, Julio Jones' 8-yard reception in the third quarter, but it was enough to beat the Titans. AP Photo/Weston Kenney White's words should be echoed throughout the locker room. Yes, the Falcons found a way to finish, thanks in large part thanks to timely interceptions by undrafted rookie safety Robenson Therezie and middle linebacker Paul Worrilow. However, the offense has to find a way to start. In the past three games against the Redskins, Saints and Titans, the Falcons have failed to score in the first quarter. Throw in a variety of turnovers and mental mistakes and its all a recipe for disaster in the future, if it's not cleaned up now. Sunday's offensive blunders included quarterback Matt Ryan throwing another ill-advised interception on a screen pass to Tevin Coleman, a Ryan interception in the end zone on a ball tipped away from tight end Jacob Tamme, an illegal block on White that wiped away a 47-yard run by Devonta Freeman, and three offensive holding penalties attributed to left guard Andy Levitre (two) and left tackle Jake Matthews. "We are disappointed with the turnover [and penalties], especially the one resulting in a long play coming back from Devonta, so those are the ones we would like to have over," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. The Falcons, who entered the game converting close to 50 percent on third down, were 5-of-14 (36 percent) on third down Sunday. They were 0-for-2 on fourth down, where they were 7-of-8 coming into the game. And 10 points is their lowest scoring output since the 34-3 shellacking in last year's regular-season finale against Carolina. Matt Bryant missed his third field goal of the season -- a 47-yarder -- adding to the offensive woes. But at least Julio Jones was back to his spectacular self with nine catches for 92 yards and an 8-yard touchdown reception. He should have had two scores, but the officials said he came up short on what appeared to be 4-yard touchdown reception at the pylon with 7 minutes, 38 seconds left in regulation. "I thought it was [a touchdown]," Jones said. "The whole discussion that I heard from the referees was, 'Did the ball break the plane?' They weren't questioning was I [in bounds] or not. And I guess when they went to the replay, it wasn't conclusive. But I was still in with my foot. It goes like that." Ryan, who surpassed 30,000 passing yards for his career but posted a passer rating of just 64.7 on Sunday, tried to explain the offense's issues. He completed 22 of 38 passes for 251 yards, a touchdown and those two interceptions. "You have to convert more third downs and, when we have more opportunities in the red zone, we've got to score touchdowns," Ryan said. "We had a chance on fourth down, maybe in the first half, when we went for it around midfield and didn't get it done. We've got to convert there to get more points. And obviously when we've got the ball on the 1-yard line, we've got to get it in." Ryan was referring to the two failed attempts after Jones' near-touchdown. The first was a fullback dive by Patrick DiMarco on third-and-goal for no gain. Then the tipped interception occurred on fourth-and-goal on a play designed to go to tight end Tony Moeaki. Quinn said he was disappointed those plays didn't work but did not regret the decisions made by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, although running the ball with Freeman looked like a better option, at least on third down. The Falcons still got back on a winning track following last week's loss to the Saints. Winning games without offensive flow and with Ryan struggling could be a sign of great things to come. "We've got to fix what we've got going on," Jones said. "We came here to get the W, and we got the W. It's on to the next team, and that's the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This game is over and done with. Nobody's going to look back at it. Like I said, we just came here to get the W. It wasn't pretty, but it shows we're just going to fight to the end."
  17. Super Bowl champ Joe Theismann praises Falcons Matt Ryan Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer ATLANTA -- Hours before Matt Ryan had three turnovers and posted a 55.1 passer rating in last week's 25-19 overtime win against the Washington Redskins, a former Super Bowl champion raved about how talented the Atlanta Falcons quarterback truly is. Joe Theismann always admired Ryan's game going back to Boston College. Now, Theismann has even more respect for Ryan. "I love him. I loved him from the beginning," Theismann said. "The quarterback position is the single-most dependent position on the field. A lot of people don't understand that. The last couple of years, the defense hasn't really been able to hold up its end. So, you're out there trying to score points, or you're out there trying to catch up to teams who scored a lot of points. Then Julio (Jones) gets hurt (2013). Then he loses Tony Gonzalez. But nobody wants to recognize that there has to be a period of adjustment for everybody, especially the quarterback. "Matt has been extremely consistent. Extremely. Now, you can see his confidence continue to grow. Once you have somebody who can throw it like he can throw it -- I always felt like he was extremely accurate -- now all of sudden you have Julio making all types of plays. You start to believe that you can do certain things that maybe a year or two ago, you wouldn't even try. And that's where he is. Plus, it's great to have a little running back (Devonta Freeman) who can go the distance in a heartbeat." Ryan knows he hasn't played at an elite level this season while adjusting to new targets and Kyle Shanahan's scheme, but he has played his best under pressure. Going into Thursday night' matchup with the rival New Orleans Saints, Ryan has completed 76 percent of his passes during fourth-quarter comebacks against the Eagles, Giants, Cowboys and Redskins compared to 58.3 during the rest of those games, according to ESPN Stats and Info. In those fourth-quarter comebacks, Ryan has three touchdowns and no interceptions. His Thursday matchup with old friend Drew Brees is sure to spark the topic of elite quarterbacks. "You define elite by championships," Theismann said. "Matt had a thing to overcome a few years ago because the big knock on him was, 'Yeah, he gets to the playoffs, but he can't win a playoff game.' Then he won the playoff game. You don't hear that conversation anymore. The position is so scrutinized, and folks focus on such minutiae that you reach a point that you just have to not worry about it and go out and play and feel like the team is going to get better around you. "That's what I say: It's the most dependent position on the field. Where would Tom Brady be without Gronk and Edelman? Aaron (Rodgers) has James Jones back and he's got Randall Cobb there. He has people he can rely on. I think Matt feels that same way about Julio. And now you have a running back. If you have a running back who can make plays for you and you have a receiver who can make plays for us, you've got what you need."
  18. Falcons rookie Vic Beasley ditching fast food for healthier dietVaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When you're a rookie pass-rusher battling Pro Bowl offensive tackles seemingly every Sunday, any added edge could help. Atlanta Falcons first-round draft pick Vic Beasley possesses the type of speed and athleticism great ones are made of. But Beasley would be the first to say his eating habits aren't up to par, which could negatively impact him physically. So he started seeing the team nutritionist two weeks ago and stopped frequenting fast food restaurants for beef & cheddar sandwiches. "I eat out a lot, and I'm trying to live a long life," Beasley said. "They've got me on a little diet. I'm just trying to eat healthy. ... Anywhere you get fast food, you've got to get fries, so I'm trying to cut that out. "I talked to the nutritionist, and the Falcons have a plan for me. It's just eating more vegetables, fruits; things that you normally need to function throughout the day." Before anyone gets the wrong idea here, Beasley isn't trying to cut weight. Many wondered how his already slender, 6-foot-3-inch, 235-pound frame would hold up in the transition from college to the NFL, specifically in defending the run. "If I work out harder and just continue to replace the calories that I burn in practice, I'll be fine," Beasley said. "I want to be 238, 240. Being in that range, I'll be good." A now health-conscious Beasley realized he needs as much juice as possible to contend with some of the quality opponents he'll face the remainder of the season. He already battled three Pro Bowl tackles in Philadelphia's Jason Peters, Dallas' Tyron Smith and Houston's Duane Brown. Now he'll face yet another this Sunday in Washington left tackle Trent Williams, a three-time Pro Bowl selection. "He reminds me a lot of Peters," Beasley said of Williams. "I think Williams (6-5, 337) is a bigger guy and he seems to be very athletic. I'm just going to try to get his feet moving to open up some rushes." Beasley, who stated a goal to reach double-digit sacks in his first season, has two sacks, three disrupted dropbacks, a forced fumble and 11 tackles in 140 snaps played this season. He got a little nudge from Falcons coach Dan Quinn following a quiet 24 snaps in last Sunday's 48-21 win over Brown and the Texans. Beasley had just one tackle and one quarterback hit in the game. "I didn't get any production," Beasley said. "Coach let me know, 'We need you, man. We need you to show up.' Of course, we won the game, but he wants to see me making an impact on the game. I do that by having production." Quinn was asked about Beasley's play thus far. "I thought there have been some flashes where we’ve seen some good stuff," Quinn said. "It’s the initial quickness that you see off the ball. Going through that process with him is day in and day out. How do I keep working on my counter? How do I keep working how to finish? As you know, the pass-rush part of it is the finish, so I think he’s playing well and it’s all out there in front of him for where he’s going to get to. He’s a real hard worker at it, and he wants to do it. I think it’s the initial quickness. We knew that was there. Now it’s that finishing part of the rush." Naturally, Quinn and the staff want Beasley to get after Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins as much as possible on Sunday. However, Beasley has to be effective against the run as well, with the Redskins touting the league's top-ranked rushing attack (139.5 yards per game), led by Alfred Morris and Matt Jones. "Facing these Pro Bowl (tackles) every week, it's helping me take my game to another level," Beasley said. "I'm studying guys harder. You have to look at the tackle's feet and how they set. That will tell you run or pass. You have to have a good feel of what the next play is expected to be." And how will the diet factor into Beasley's play? "It's going to give me more energy," he said. "Hopefully I'll be able to play lights out every play."
  19. Matt Ryan, undefeated Falcons believe, but can be even betterVaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer ARLINGTON, Texas -- Atlanta Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews paid close attention when quarterback Matt Ryan decided to deliver an impromptu sermon in the locker room during Sunday's halftime. The Falcons were down 11 points on the road to the undermanned Dallas Cowboys, who were playing without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. The defense was getting dominated by the Cowboys' vaunted offensive line. Regardless, Ryan's confidence never wavered. "He's going around at halftime saying, 'We're going to win this game,' and everyone was fired up," Matthews said. "He said, 'Let's just keep doing what we're doing offensively, and we're going to win.' And we did. So it was exciting." Ryan's speech, which helped lead to a 39-28 victory, symbolized the manner in which these 3-0 Falcons are supporting each other. It's a product of a coach, Dan Quinn, who is intent on making the struggles of the past two seasons a distant memory. And it's a reflection of a quarterback who is a respected leader as one of the team's captain. Ryan, who completed 24 of 36 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns, downplayed the significance of his locker room pep talk. "It's just my message to those guys was, 'Hey listen, we're going to do this,'" Ryan said. "'We're going to go out there and play the way that we're capable of. We just have to take it one play at a time and just do your job. You don't have to do any more.' And I thought guys did a great job with that in the second half." The Falcons are starting to develop a reputation as the comeback kids. They have overcome fourth-quarter deficits in each of their first three games. So imagine what could happen if they put it all together, particularly with what is, on paper, the league's weakest schedule. Sunday was another step. The Falcons sought offensive balance going into the game and got it with 36 passes and 32 rushing attempts -- including Ryan's key, 18-yard scramble to preserve a scoring drive. Ryan targeted Julio Jones 20 times, and Jones responded with 12 receptions for 164 yards and two touchdowns, his third consecutive 100-yard game. But more importantly, second-year running back Devonta Freeman had a breakout performance with a career-high 141 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns on 30 carries. "He's just one of the most relentless competitors that's on our club," Quinn said of Freeman. "He just wants to battle for it. The toughness just comes through. "For us to get that run game going today, more time together with the line and more time together with the whole group, it's a real style about how we want to play. And one that's going to be really important moving forward. It opens up so many of the key versions of play action, which is such a big important part of what we do. So for that to come alive today, I thought the offense just kept attacking." Now the defense needs to learn how to do the same with consistency. Sure, there were some signature moments, such as linebacker Nate Stupar's key tackle for loss on the Cowboys' second drive of the second half that essentially forced a punt. Rookie Vic Beasley's sack of Brandon Weeden in the fourth quarter that kept the Cowboys from responding to the go-ahead touchdown run also was key. But the defense still missed too many tackles and gave up 131 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns before halftime. Once the defense comes around and plays the fast and physical style of football Quinn desires without the mental mistakes, the rest of the league might be in trouble. "We haven't reached our potential yet; that's what the mindset is," veteran defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. "We know what type of team we are. We're a finishing team. Obviously, we didn't finish the first half like we wanted to or start the first half like we wanted to. They got 131 yards in the first half and minus [four yards] in the second half, so we came out and played Falcon ball in the second half." The last two times the Falcons started the season 3-0 (2004, 2011), they ended up going to the NFC Championship Game. Does that carry any significance? "Not at all," Babineaux said. "We're taking it one week at a time. All we can do now is look back at the things that we did wrong in the first half, correct them, and get ready for Houston next Sunday."
  20. Undefeated start quite a birthday gift for Falcons owner Arthur Blank Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer ARLINGTON, Texas -- Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank turned 73 on Sunday and he received the perfect birthday gift: a 3-0 start for his team after a 39-28 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. "It means a lot to be 3-0, period, no matter when it is," Blank told ESPN.com. "But on my birthday, it's a special present for me, my family, for Atlanta and for our fans. I'm thrilled for our coach [Dan Quinn]. I'm thrilled for the players, the coaching staff. So, I couldn't be happier. It's a wonderful gift." Julio Jones is the gift that keeps on giving. The two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver recorded his third consecutive 100-yard receiving game to start the season with 12 catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns. According to NFL records, Jones has the most catches (34) through the first three games of the season for any player in league history. "He's doing everything we had hoped he would do and then some," Blank said. "His attitude is unbelievable. And his big-play ability ... the way they keep moving him around. There's so much confusion on how to cover him. He's so physical. He's so strong. He's such a great athlete that he can do that -- play all those different positions. So, I couldn't be happier for him." The last two times the Falcons started the season 3-0 (2004, 2012), they went on to play in the NFC Championship Game.
  21. vaughn mcclure ‏@vxmcclure23 3h3 hours ago No signing bonus in that Jake Long contract and no guaranteed money (1-year, $1,168,750 prorated over 16 weeks)
  22. Monday, August 24, 2015 Falcons LB Vic Beasley a big thumbs-up so far By Vaughn McClure Falcons rookie Vic Beasley is putting on an impressive display on defense through two preseason games. A quick observation of first-round pick Vic Beasley and how he played through training and two preseason games: Beasley has been dominant, to say the least, over the last three weeks. In practice, his tremendous speed off the edge is evident daily, and his battles with left tackle Jake Matthews have been quite a spectacle. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox said he was pleasantly surprised by the rookie's toughness, something Cox didn't necessarily see from Beasley coming out Clemson. Then when the lights came on against the Tennessee Titans and the New York Jets, Beasley showed his full arsenal while rushing from both sides. Against the Jets, Beasley manhandled former first-round pick and three-time Pro Bowl left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, bull-rushing Ferguson back into quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to create a sack for teammate Adrian Clayborn. In the same game, Beasley pulled off a devastating spin move against Ferguson on third-down that caused an incompletion by Fitzpatrick. Beasley looked unstoppable rushing alongside Clayborn on the right side, with both batting down passes while running twists rushes together. Against the Titans, Beasley fought off a block from left tackle Taylor Lewan to chase down running back Bishop Sankey. His ability to play the run was the biggest question mark surrounding him coming to Atlanta. The early indication is he's ready to be an every-down player, but his primary focus is being the dominant pass-rusher the Falcons expect him to be. Beasley's goal is double-digit sacks in his first season.
  23. Joe Hawley won't let knee soreness deter his season plans Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons center Joe Hawley knew before training camp started his surgically repaired right knee wouldn't be back to full strength anytime soon. With camp now complete, Hawley stopped short of saying his knee feels closer to normal. He went through a full day of work Wednesday during a pad-less practice. "Yes, it's sore," Hawley said. "It hurts every day coming out. It's structurally stable; strong. It's more of the fatigue I get in the atrophy I had in trying to build the muscle up. So, just trying to get in the weight room and continue to strengthen it. I'm doing like leg press and different rehab stuff. Just keeping the muscle strong is the important thing. "The knee is stable itself. It's just kind of nicks and pains here and there. It's something I'm going to have to deal with the whole year, probably." Hawley tore the anterior crucial ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL) in the knee last September at Minnesota. He had surgery Oct. 9 of last year, then was limited during the offseason. Hawley didn't participate much in 11-on-11 drills at the start of camp. Then he gradually saw his workload increase, although the coaches also increased center reps for Mike Person as added insurance. James Stone, who started at center in place of Hawley last season, emerged as the best option at left guard over Person. Now, the Falcons head into their second preseason game against the New York Jets Friday with a first-team line of tackle Jake Matthews, left guard Stone, right guard Chris Chester, and right tackle Ryan Schraeder, and Hawley. This appears to be the group set to start the Sept. 14 season opener against Philadelphia. The only question mark might be if Hawley's knee can hold up through an entire game. "Oh yeah it can," Hawley said. "Like I said, it's not structural. It's just a fatigue thing. It's staying on top of it; making sure it doesn't get too swollen. Has it gotten swollen? Not really." Falcons coach Dan Quinn was asked if Hawley's knee is something the coaches will monitor. "Not necessarily monitor for us," Quinn said. "We have monitored all of the guys. But with Joe, the strength is there. For him to continue to battle, I think that's part of the rehab process of him getting back. We're anxious for him to keep developing and keeping pushing with that confident like, 'OK, I've got it.' " Hawley, even if not 100 percent, will be a key figure for the Falcons as they adjust to an outside zone blocking scheme. Former Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice often praised Hawley for having the athleticism to get out and pull from the center spot. Such good movement and lateral quickness are essential in the new scheme as the Falcons look to establish the running game. A few quick-hit items from the 15th and final practice of training camp on Wednesday: Quinn singled out second-year outside linebacker Tyler Starr, who made some nice tackles in last Friday's preseason opener against Tennessee and also had an interception near the end of Wednesday's practice. "We're training him at Sam and also some at Leo," Quinn said. "We're trying to look at him as the nickel pass-rusher. We like the length. We like the strength that he's playing with. So, yeah, he's in there battling for it." Starr entered this season coming off major shoulder surgery. Robert Alford got a little more work at nickel back with Phillip Adams and Jalen Collins playing outside at cornerback. Quinn loves the versatility Alford has and still likes Alford outside opposite Desmond Trufant. (Trufant remained sidelined with a shoulder strain.) Although they've had very strong camps, both wide receiver Leonard Hankerson and tight end Levine Toilolo had noticeable drops Wednesday. The music playlist included Run DMC ("It's Tricky") and Fetty Wap ("Trap Queen").
  24. Falcons WR Leonard Hankerson not caught up in preseason hype Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer He was the talk of Atlanta Falcons' training camp, yet Leonard Hankerson would rather not even talk about it. The fifth-year receiver doesn't walk around thinking he's accomplished anything because he really hasn't. Any whispers of Hankerson being the “X-factor” for the Falcons this season is meaningless to him right now. “I mean, my job is to just go out there and do whatever I can, whatever is possible, to help the team out,” Hankerson said. “Whether it’s making a block, whether it’s special teams, whether it’s catching the ball or whether it’s coaching up young guys, I feel like I can bring a lot to the team. Whatever I’m called upon to do, that’s what I’ll do.” If Hankerson can consistently play in the same fashion has has during the offseason and preseason, his number could be called often. He looks like a legitimate option behind Julio Jones. And Hankerson's role could become even more important if the swollen elbow that veteran Roddy White started experiencing the last few days turns into a significant issue. Falcons receiver Leonard Hankerson scores during Friday's preseason game against the Jets. Bill Kostroun/AP The 6-foot-2, 211-pound Hankerson gave the NFL world a glimpse of what has been going on at Falcons headquarters when he scored on 2-yard touchdown reception from Matt Ryan in Friday's 30-22 preseason loss to the New York Jets. Hankerson had three catches for 15 yards while running the same offensive system he grew accustomed to in Washington under Kyle Shanahan, now his coordinator again in Atlanta. Ryan seems extremely comfortable targeting Hankerson. “I think Hank is doing an awesome job,” Ryan told Falcons radio analyst Dave Archer during a postgame interview. “He's a guy that shows up every day. He works extremely hard. He's a quieter guy, but he's intense. I've been really pleased with what he's brought to our team.” Hankerson's familiarity with the scheme has made his transition seamless. His size and speed is an asset, and he's shown a willingness to catch the ball over the middle and absorb contact. He looked nearly flawless throughout training camp. “I feel like I had good one,” Hankerson said of camp. “It’s probably been my best so far. But there are still things I can go out and get better on – whether it’s my route-running. I feel like my job is to catch the ball. I think I probably had one drop, maybe. You always want to come out perfect, but it happens. But I feel like I had a good one. I went out and I did what I wanted to get done. I competed. And that’s all I can do.” Moving forward, health is the biggest concern tied to Hankerson. He suffered anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament tears in his left knee back in 2013 that limited him to 11 games in the last two seasons. Hankerson said there is no lingering pain in the knee. But watching Carolina top receiver Kelvin Benjamin go down with a season-ending ACL tear only reinforced to Hankerson how quickly things can turn for the worse. “That’s a tough situation,” Hankerson said of Benjamin. “The NFL, it's like a band of brothers. You want everybody to come out healthy. Unfortunately, it’s a tough sport. When something like that happens, you hate to see it. At the same time, you’ve got to have each and everybody protecting each other. But it’s just the nature of the game.”
  25. Leonard Hankerson rises, Jalen Collins falls during camp Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In general, Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn was pleased with his first training camp, which concluded Wednesday. Before camp even began, Quinn said he wouldn't have any joint training camp practices with other teams, as the Falcons did last year and in the past. It appears they won't be happening in the immediate future, either -- which might be a positive, considering all the fights at joint practices league-wide. "That's out of my mind right now," Quinn said. "I like the way that we've worked against each other, so I don't feel that we've lost a competitive edge anywhere to say, 'Well we're really going to have to bring it out on somebody else.' I felt like the guys battled and went for it against one another." Of course, players such as Matt Ryan and Julio Jones looked spectacular in camp. And rookie first-round draft pick Vic Beasley was as good as advertised. But there were others who stood out -- and those who didn't. Here are five players we picked who helped their status, and five we think hurt their standing: FIVE ON THE RISE: Leonard Hankerson, WR He was signed as a free agent primarily because of his familiarity with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme from Washington. Hankerson made plays that make you wonder why he wasn't more productive with the Redskins. Then again, he had a serious knee injury in 2013 that stunted his growth. If Hankerson continues to shine on Sundays like he did in practice, then the Falcons might be unstoppable in the passing game. Adrian Clayborn, DE: The 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers first-round pick can revive his career in Atlanta. Based on his camp showing, Clayborn is on his way up. He rushed from the right edge and the interior and showed jaw-dropping speed and explosiveness. Anyone familiar with Clayborn's visits with former Falcon and pass rush guru Chuck Smith understands how serious he is about being an impact performer. Ricardo Allen, FS: The once-cut, ex-practice squad cornerback is one of the feel-good stories of camp. He made the transition to safety look easy and has earned a chance to start next to likely strong safety William Moore. Allen has the range, athleticism and intelligence to be effective as the Falcons' last line of defense, even if his 5-foot-9, 186-pound frame says otherwise. James Stone, LG: Stone spent the offseason and the start of camp filling in at center as Joe Hawley continued to work back from knee surgery. Then the coaches saw something they liked when Stone was moved to guard. Stone and veteran Chris Chester at right guard helped the whole line function better in the new outside zone blocking scheme. Plus, Stone's versatility in playing center makes him that much more valuable. Allen Bradford, LB: Quinn, formerly the Seattle Seahawks' defensive coordinator, obviously felt a level of comfort with a player who previously played in his defense. Bradford, who was converted from running back to linebacker with the Seahawks, showed up in camp with his speed and nose for the football. He's got an edge to him, and the Falcons needed more nastiness on defense. Bradford can bring it, even if in a reserve and special teams role. FIVE TAKING A FALL: Jalen Collins, CB: The rookie second-round draft pick from LSU was expected to immediately challenge Robert Alford for a starting role outside at corner. Instead, Collins struggled with his technique and discipline, making him a daily punching bag for Jones and other receivers. In all fairness, Collins' growth was stunted by pre-draft foot surgery. He's going to make rookie mistakes, but Collins has to start showing signs of the promise the Falcons saw in him. Jon Asamoah, RG: Asamoah was the one starter to lose his job during camp when he was demoted in favor of Chester. He doesn't have the foot quickness or build to thrive in the zone blocking scheme, but Asamoah still has value for a team needing offensive line depth. The one aspect the Falcons might miss is Asamoah as a pass protector and another big body in short-yardage situations. Dezmen Southward, CB: The 2014 third-round draft pick is on the outside of the roster bubble after making the switch from free safety. Injuries haven't helped Southward's cause. First, he had offseason wrist surgery. Then he had a knee scope. Even if the knee still bothered him during camp, Southward needed to show something. He didn't. Peter Konz, G/C: Konz started 25 games his first two seasons. Now, the 2012 second-round draft pick might be out of a job. He is another player who needed to make progress coming off a serious injury after last year's ACL tear. Instead of turning to Konz behind Hawley when Stone switched to guard, the Falcons gave tackle/guard Mike Person reps at center. Then Konz doesn't even practice the last day of camp because of knee soreness. He brings no value. Kroy Biermann, OLB: Biermann has been the target of much criticism. He had an opportunity to flash with newcomer Brooks Reed sidelined most of camp by a groin injury. However, Biermann didn't show much while working with the first-team defense. The jury is still out on whether he'll be an asset or liability. The next three preseason games should provide an answer.
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