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  1. Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman James Stone not caught up in starting role Vaughn McClureFLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When the Atlanta Falcons broke into situational full-team drills Tuesday, the first-team offensive line continued to be left tackle Jake Matthews, left guard James Stone, center Joe Hawley, right guard Chris Chester, and right tackle Ryan Schraeder. The emergence of Stone is part of the reason former starting right guard Jon Asamoah finds himself working with the backups. However, Stone hasn't approached the situation as if he's won a starting job just yet. "I'm just working in camp, man," Stone said when asked about being a starter. "I'm trying to get as good as I can at whatever position and at all the positions in the inside." The Falcons need to find continuity along the line if they hope to run Kyle Shanahan's outside zone blocking scheme effectively. It was quite a challenge at the beginning of training camp, with linemen tripping over each other while trying to get out and run laterally. Tuesday, the line appeared to be much more in sync with the same five working together rather than the mixing and matching of days past. Finding such chemistry in the offseason was impossible with Matthews (Lisfranc foot) and Hawley (ACL/MCL) coming off major surgeries. "It's just good to have the injured guys back and myself, trying to work to get better," Hawley said. "I know Jake is out there. [We're] starting to jell. It's a different kind of system. It relies on a lot of teamwork as an offensive line; combination blocks. And we're starting to jell pretty good.'' Hawley spoke specifically about developing a connection with a new right guard in Chester, who signed with the Falcons this offseason but played under Shanahan in Washington. "I love Chester," Hawley said. "He's a great guy. And having him in our room has helped me out a lot because he's run this offense for a long time with Kyle Shanahan. So having him in the room and playing next to him, he's a very talented player. He has a lot of experience. And just trying to get better like him." We'll see how much Matthews, Stone, Hawley, Chester, and Schraeder play together during Friday's exhibition opener against Tennessee. Falcons coach Dan Quinn wouldn't commit to how long he would play the first units but said some starters will play longer than other starters based on experience. A few quick-hit items from the 10th practice of training camp: Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman remained sidelined by hamstring strains, while outside linebacker Brooks Reed and defensive lineman Cliff Matthews were still out with hip/groin and ankle injuries, respectively. All four players ran through variety of drills on a side field, and Coleman appeared to be quicker and more fluid with his motions than the other three. The strains suffered by Freeman and Coleman last week are expected to be two-week injuries, at minimum. Wide receiver/kick returner Devin Hester returned to practice after sitting out two days with a toe/ankle issue. He did not participate much. Starting linebacker Justin Durant once again saw his practice reps limited, as has been the case at least two other times during camp. Quinn said Durant is "healthy" after previously suffering a groin injury. Joplo Bartu got first-team reps with Durant dressed but resting. Running back Antone Smith ran with the starting offense late in the practice, likely an indication of what to expect in Friday's exhibition. Jerome Smith was second up with undrafted rookie Terron Ward, who played with the starters the last few days, third in the rotation. Rookie pass-rusher Vic Beasley and Matthews had a fierce battle at the start of one-on-one pass-rush drills. The Falcons were down one safety after undrafted rookie Terell Floyd was waived. The music playlist at practice included Nelly ("#1"), Nore ("Nothin'"), and Wiz Khalifa ("Black & Yellow").
  2. Falcons running back Antone Smith ready whenever number called Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer BUFORD, Ga. -- It was no surprise to see the guy wearing the No. 35 jersey bouncing through defenders like a pinball, finding the hole, the exploding up the field. Yes, Atlanta Falcons fans are used to seeing Antone Smith break off big plays. Remember, he scored five touchdowns of 38-plus yards last season and averaged a whopping 51 yards per scoring play. But Smith's big-play ability has been in hibernation ever since he broke his leg last November at Carolina. Friday's practice at Buford High School sure made it look like Smith was back to his old self, even if he didn't want to admit it. "I'm getting there," Smith said. "I'm right where I need to be at this time right now." Smith has been the forgotten man in running back rotation with so much emphasis on the competition between likely starter Devonta Freeman and rookie Tevin Coleman. But with both Freeman and Coleman likely sidelined the next two weeks with hamstring strains, Smith should be featured more in practice. However, the Falcons opted to let undrafted rookie Terron Ward immediately take first-team reps following the injuries to Freeman and Coleman. Maybe it's because the coaches just want to give the younger guys more work. Or maybe folks just don't realize how dynamic a player Smith can me. "If they don't know, the biggest thing is you just have to go there and prove it," Smith said. "It's all about getting a job and making the 53-man roster. You want to show what you can do. That's all you want to do." Of course Smith wants a lot more touches once the regular season rolls around. That might be tough with Freeman having such a strong training camp and showing versatility as a pass catcher out of the backfield. And the Falcons didn't spend a third-round pick on Coleman to make him sit, especially coming off a 2,000-yard season at Indiana. "It's all about competition," Smith said. "Everybody wants to get the guy. Everybody wants to be No. 1. But you know me. I'm patient. Whenever things come my way, I'm going to take it and run with it." Smith was asked about the general concern regarding the injuries suffered by Freeman and Coleman. "It's not a concern at all," he said. "It's the next guy up. You've just got to play to the same expectations." For Smith, expectations are an explosive play with every touch.
  3. Falcons' Paul Worrilow intent on becoming playmaker in new scheme Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer When Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Paul Worrilow huddled with new position coach Jeff Ulbrich this offseason, the goal was to establish a play-making mentality rather than being satisfied just playing a role. For a guy who led the team in tackles the last two seasons, such a conversation might have seemed a little discomforting. However, Worrilow took Ulbrich’s words to heart, particularly coming from a guy who played 10 seasons at linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers. Worrilow knows his coach believes he’ll excel in the Falcons' swarming, attacking 4-3-under a defense that incorporates some 3-4 personnel tendencies. "It’s all about knowing when you can take your shots and knowing where your help is," Worrilow said. "I think in the past, it was like, 'This is my responsibility and this is where I’m going,' instead of taking those shots. "[in this defense], you know what the offense is doing; their tendencies and you know where your help is -- where you can take a shot and you’re not going to hurt the team and the integrity of the defense. It allows you to take those chances and play a lot faster. You want to make plays that change the game. That’s why you’re out there." Worrilow, undrafted out of Delaware in 2013, collected 269 total tackles his first two NFL seasons. He realizes none of those statistics really matter when you're playing on one of the league's worst defenses and making tackles down the field. He's also taken measures to improve his tackling, realizing he's missed his share. "I'm buying into everything [the coaches] have installed," Worrilow said. "We've had a huge emphasis on tackling; being taught a way that you really haven't been taught before. It's a lot of detail, which is good. It's going to be a good payoff." Worrilow is known as a highly intelligent player on the field. Off the field, he continues to put more time into studying tendencies, as Ulbrich encouraged him to do. "I’ve learned a whole lot since Coach Ulbrich came in," Worrilow said. "Getting a different perspective from him has been a big thing. He’s been somebody who has had to prepare for these games. The things that he’s seen … I mean, I feel like I’m light years ahead of before. "I’ve always put in a lot of time. Now, I feel like I’m more dialed in to the things that I need to be." Worrilow dropped weight and improved his flexibility this offseason to better prepare himself for the style of football coach Dan Quinn desires. “He is one of the guys that define grit,'' Quinn said of Worrilow. "He just won’t back off. When you go and see him, and the communication that he has, he is always trying to improve. That part of the game you see it all the time. He is very critical of himself, but at the same time he is really developing into a leader." Worrilow appreciates the high praise but doesn't seek it. "Those are not the things you pay attention to," he said. "I'm just keeping my head down, trying to be vocal out here, and just staying focused on the immediate: what I can do today."
  4. Falcons RBs Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman sidelined by hamstring woes Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons starting running back Devonta Freeman suffered a right hamstring strain Thursday and was unable to finish practice. Falcons coach Dan Quinn did not immediately provide a timetable for Freeman's return. "Hopefully, for him, it's a quick turnaround," Quinn said of Freeman. "He's such a passionate competitor. You can see how disappointed he was not to be able to finish today. So hopefully, we'll get him back out here soon. He is an absolute competitor. Just every day, he brings it. And he stands for a lot of the stuff I love about our team: attitude, intensity, toughness and wanting to compete." The Falcons also were without rookie running back Tevin Coleman, who is competing with Freeman for the starting role. Coleman also has a hamstring strain and has missed the past two days of practice. With Freeman and Coleman out of the lineup, undrafted rookie Terron Ward got some first-team reps after an impressive showing in camp the past few days. Returning veteran Antone Smith and second-year player Jerome Smith also are in the running back rotation. "It will be a unique opportunity to get some of the guys some more turns," Quinn said. "Hopefully the other guys will be back quickly, too. But I love the group -- I really do in terms of the attitude they're trying to establish. It's unfortunate, but at the same time, the next guy is up." In other news, first-round pick Vic Beasley was one of a handful of players held out of practice with stomach illnesses. He joined fellow rookie Justin Hardy, right guard Jon Asamoah and outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who is battling a hip-groin injury as well. Quinn expressed hope to get all three players back for the Thursday evening walk-through. The Falcons' first preseason game is Aug. 14 at home against the Tennessee Titans. There is a strong possibility that both Freeman and Coleman could miss the game, depending on the severity of their respective hamstring strains. The lowest grade of hamstring strain typically calls for a 2-to-4 week recovery period.
  5. Matt Ryan looking forward to Falcons establishing run game Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who has absorbed 75 sacks over the last two seasons along with endless hits, is looking forward to establishing the run under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The Falcons continued to work on their new outside zone blocking scheme during Sunday’s initial padded practice of training camp. The goal is to open up holes for quick, one-cut-and-go runs for running backs Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Antone Smith. "I feel like any time you can run the football and obviously when you can run it effectively, it slows down the pass rush,’’ Ryan said. "That’s the goal for us: to be a balanced offense and to get that run game going. And I think Kyle has a great scheme in terms of the zone-blocking scheme. We’ve got to rep it. We’ve got to get better at it. And we’ve all got to get on the same page; all 11 of us on offense. Once we do that, I think it will help.’’ Ryan played in a pass-happy offense the last three seasons under former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. He attempted a career-high 651 passes in 2013 then followed with 628 attempts last year. The Falcons went 4-12 and 6-10 during those seasons, although they did reach the NFC Championship Game in Koetter’s first season (2012) as Ryan attempted 615 passes as opposed to 378 rushes. The offense had much more balance under coordinator Mike Mularkey in 2011, when Ryan attempted 566 passes while the team had 453 rushing attempts. It also was the last time the Falcons boasted a 1,000-yard rusher in Michael Turner, who gained 1,340 yards on 301 carries that season. The Falcons ranked 24th in the league in rushing last season (93.6 yards per game) and last in 2013 (77.9 ypg.). They cut ties with ineffective veteran running back Steven Jackson. Ryan was asked about the importance of the young backs stepping up this season. "I think it’s important for all of us to step up,’’ he said. "I think it’s about 53 guys on our roster pulling their weight, no matter what position it is. And I think all of our guys in that backfield are doing a great job trying to learn this offense as fast as they can, and competing to get playing time. "You know, the more competition that we have at that [running back] position, the better off we’re going to be. You guys know as well as I do that in this league it takes a group at that spot. And I think we’ve got the right ones to do it.’’
  6. 2015 Atlanta Falcons training camp previewVaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer The Atlanta Falcons open training camp on July 31 at the Falcons' headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Here's a closer look at the Falcons camp, which wraps up on Aug. 19: Top storyline: The biggest news going into camp won't be settled on the field. The contract situation of star receiver Julio Jones is certain to grab the headlines. Jones has one year left on his deal and is scheduled to make $10.176 million in 2015. He just saw two other top receivers, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, sign five-year, $70 million deals with more than $40 million guaranteed. Although owner Arthur Blank, general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and coach Dan Quinn all have expressed a desire to keep Jones for years to come, no negotiations occurred while Jones participated in the offseason program. The general feeling around the organization is that Jones will be signed to a lucrative, long-term deal before the start of training camp -- if Blank is comfortable with the price, of course. In the past two years, the Falcons signed franchise quarterback Matt Ryan and veteran wide receiver Roddy White to extensions right at the beginning of camp. We'll see if they follow suit with their best player and most explosive offensive threat. Position battles to watch: The top battle to keep an eye on is the one between second-year running back Devonta Freeman and rookie third-round pick Tevin Coleman. Both players performed well during the offseason, and Freeman really caught Quinn's eye with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Coleman had a minor setback at the end of minicamp with a mild groin strain, but he's pretty confident in his ability to earn the starting job. The battle between Leonard Hankerson and White at receiver could emerge as the most intriguing and talked about of them all. The coaches really love what Hankerson brings to the offense, but White is viewed as the natural starter. If anything, Hankerson's emergence should serve as motivation for White, a guy who has earned the respect of his teammates and opponents over 10 NFL seasons. Folks are accustomed to seeing White as Ryan's second option at wide receiver behind Jones. Three-receiver sets could include Jones, White, and Hankerson. Another clash worth watching will be between third-year cornerback Robert Alford and rookie second-round pick Jalen Collins. The 6-foot-1, 203-pound Collins has the size and length Quinn desires outside in press coverage. However, Alford (5-10, 186) had an outstanding offseason -- particularly competing against one of the league's best big receivers in Jones -- and proved himself worthy of remaining outside opposite Desmond Trufant rather than being kicked inside as a nickelback. And finally, we'll see if converted cornerback Ricardo Allen holds down the starting free safety spot he appeared to earn during the offseason or if Kemal Ishmael or Charles Godfrey challenges to line up next to strong safety William Moore. Veterans to watch: We mentioned White above. He turns 34 in November and knows his body isn't going to hold up like it used to. In fact, his left knee continues to ail him and might lead to some days off during camp, although Quinn wouldn't immediately reveal plans to lighten White's workload. White is eager to show folks he's still got something left in the tank. Defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai both need to show they were worth the hefty investment ($25 million guaranteed combined) that the Falcons made in them prior to the 2013 season. Although Jackson receives the most scrutiny, Soliai has struggled to adjust to the new defense and really could have a minimal role. Newcomers O'Brien Schofield, Adrian Clayborn, Tony Moeaki and Hankerson all signed one year "prove-it" deals coming off injuries, which should serve as added motivation as they attempt to make positive impacts. Linebacker Justin Durant, another newcomer, could emerge as a defensive leader, provided he remains healthy. Rookies to watch: All eyes will be on first-round pick Vic Beasley, a player the Falcons are counting on to immediately revive their pass rush. Beasley already announced his goal to reach double-digit sacks in his first season, which seems attainable based on his tremendous speed and athleticism. Beasley views himself as an every-down player, but the Falcons won't ask him to be such as he settles into the Leo pass-rusher role. He needs to concentrate on his strength, which is pressuring the quarterback. Defending the run will come, in time. Also keep an eye on fourth-round pick Justin Hardy, the receiver from East Carolina. He's an ideal slot receiver and a guy capable of establishing separation with his precise route-running. Hardy immediately impressed Ryan, who said Hardy will play a key role in the offense's success. Of course, Collins and Coleman should have immediate impacts as well, while fifth-round pick Grady Jarrett has the motor to crack the defensive line rotation. Bubble watch: The veteran defensive lineman Jackson, who was the third overall pick in the 2009 draft by Kansas City, hasn't had the type of NFL career most anticipated. Now Jackson finds himself in a position where he needs to experience a revival. He's focused on dropping weight to play defensive end in the new scheme, but Jackson also needs to concentrate on making plays rather than just eating up blocks. Will the Falcons cut him? Well, Quinn said there's a role for a big spacer-eater such as Jackson in this defense. But if Jackson can't fulfill that role, you wonder if the team will go ahead and cut ties despite the $6.4 million in "dead money" tied to Jackson. His release would free up $2.25 million against the cap. Other bubble players include tackle Lamar Holmes, who hasn't impressed the new coaching staff and then suffered a broken foot during minicamp, as well as center/guard Peter Konz, and outside linebacker Stansly Maponga -- three draft picks under Dimitroff. Konz could save himself with his ability to play both guard and center. Tight end Levine Toilolo, a fourth-round pick of Dimitroff's, is likely to fall behind both Jacob Tamme and Moeaki at the position, but the 6-foot-8 Toilolo should at least stick as a red zone target. Linebacker Joplo Bartu, a starter the last two seasons, is on the outside looking in because he lacks special teams value. Not to mention Bartu is coming off a $50,000 fine from the NFL for an alcohol-related arrest. On the line: There is plenty of uncertainty about how the offensive line will hold up or even come together, for that matter. First and foremost, left tackle Jake Matthews (Lisfranc) and center Joe Hawley (ACL/MCL) have to return fully healthy off their respective surgeries. Right guard Jon Asamoah has to show he can get out and run in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's outside-zone blocking scheme, and right tackle Ryan Schraeder has to show he's capable of maintaining a starting role. Veteran newcomer Chris Chester should settle in as the starting left guard if Asamoah pans out on the right side. And with the way injuries crippled the line last season, guys such as James Stone, Mike Person and even Tyler Polumbus have to show they can be reliable backups, something Polumbus was unable to display upon joining the team this offseason. The most pressure of the entire offensive line will be on Matthews, who has to shake off his inconsistent rookie showing that was marred by injury. For daily updates at camp, check out the Atlanta Falcons clubhouse page.
  7. Falcons assistant Raheem Morris still believes in Adrian Clayborn Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer Atlanta Falcons assistant head coach Raheem Morris sounded like a proud father in speaking about defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn, and for good reason. Clayborn, in his first year with the Falcons, was the last first-round draft pick Morris selected during his three-year, head-coaching stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Back then in 2011, Morris used words such as "alpha male" and "Rambo" to describe Clayborn. Four years later, his feelings haven’t changed. Then-Bucs head coach Raheem Morris drafted Adrian Clayborn with the 20th pick of the 2011 draft. Cliff Welch/Icon SMI "When we came back here and we talked about free agents, we talked about bringing in tough, competitive guys and when you looked at the free-agent list, Adrian just jumped off the list, in my opinion,’’ Morris said. "Personally, that was my No. 1 guy. When we drafted him in Tampa, that was one of the major things I loved about him: tough, competitive. He brings the nasty demeanor and the attitude, the go-get-it-type guy you want. He fits [Dan Quinn's] type of attitude. He fit Bryan Cox’s attitude.’’ Clayborn is expected to help resuscitate a pass rush considered among the league's worst last season. The Falcons have recorded a league-low 83 sacks over the past three seasons. Last season, the Falcons pressured opposing quarterbacks on just 22 percent of their dropbacks which ranked last in the NFC, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This offseason, Clayborn has shown the ability to bring pressure off the edge and from the interior. In rush situations, the most potent group going into the 2015 season is likely to consist of Clayborn and Jonathan Babineaux on the interior with rookie Vic Beasley and newcomer O'Brien Schofield rushing off the edge. Clayborn, who suffered a season-ending torn biceps one game into last season and missed 13 games in 2012 due to a knee injury, aims to have a healthy, productive season. Morris is confident the guy who recorded 7.5 sacks as a rookie will resurface. "I thought Adrian would be a good fit for the toughness Thomas Dimitroff and his staff wanted to bring to this team, and hopefully he does a great job for us," Morris said. "He’s been out here working his butt off. He’s been out here competing. And I think all the [free-agent guys] are fired up about the role we want those guys to play." Clayborn appreciates the support from Morris. "It feels good that he’s here and he believes in me," Clayborn said. "I know Coach Quinn believes in him. So, it’s just a great feeling to know that you have coaches that stand behind you and how you can play." So has Morris changed since the time he drafted Clayborn? "He’s still the same Rah: still goofy, but serious when he needs to be," Clayborn said. "You can just tell he knows his stuff."
  8. Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn hits home run in creating competitive atmosphere Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer It was far from a clash between Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton, but it had all the intensity of a major league slugfest. Atlanta Falcons starting middle linebacker Paul Worrilow and reserve safety Sean Baker matched each other swing for swing recently in an impromptu home run derby. Coach Dan Quinn, always looking for ways to challenge his players, set up a fence on the practice field. Worrilow and Baker emerged as the top long-ball hitters among a group that included quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Devin Hester, defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman and, representing the coaches, defensive line coach Bryan Cox. Coach Dan Quinn has instituted some fun games throughout the Falcons' offseason practices to create competition and camaraderie. John Bazemore/AP Photo "I don't know how many I hit out," Worrilow said, "but Baker and I went to sudden death at the end of the finals, in which I lost to Baker." As Baker explained, both he and Worrilow started sudden death with home runs. Then they both missed. Finally, Worrilow failed to clear the fence, and Baker blasted his game winner on the third sudden-death attempt. "We're just having fun, with the music and the home run derby and all that stuff," Baker said. "It's just a great environment. And you look forward to coming to work every day." Ryan, who made it to the finals before being eliminated, appreciates the concept behind the competition. "I love it," he said. "It's an opportunity to get away from football for an afternoon and come together as a team and get to spend quality time with your teammates which, to me, is huge. But it also lets guys showcase what else they can do and allows them to compete in a different environment. "It doesn't matter if you're shooting baskets or playing home run derby, it's the same thing: You want to win. You want to beat whoever you're going against. We got to see that. Those guys got fired up." And how did coach Cox fare in the derby? "Uhhhh," Ryan said while shaking his head to indicate not too well. "Don't tell him I said that." Quinn, who didn't pick up a bat, is accustomed to creating such a competitive atmosphere as a team-building mechanism. It was the same concept he used in Seattle while serving as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator. New Falcons LB O'Brien Schofield, a member of the Seahawks the past two seasons, is not much of a baseball guy. But Schofield relishes the basketball competitions in the meeting rooms, where Quinn set up a basketball hoop. "We'll have a shoot-off usually on Wednesdays, or whenever coach feels like he wants to do it," Schofield said. "He'll match up certain guys and it will be offense versus defense. [Robert] Alford, Willy Mo [William Moore], they've been doing pretty good. [Eric] Weems, he's been pretty good. That's it so far. Some of the guys look mediocre right now. "But to hear the guys cheering for one another, it's competition and camaraderie. I think that's going to flow over to the field. Once you get an understanding of who you're playing with and how hard they work, I mean, everything just meshes together. It's really forming a mindset: Everything we do, we're going to compete, but you're going to have fun. You do it so much that it becomes second nature. You go into the game and you compete your butt off, and you'll get teams that aren't used to competing like us." For the record, tight end Tony Moeaki, also a former Seahawk, made a bold statement when asked which players he could beat in a shooting contest. "Anyone on this team," Moeaki said with a smile. "Undefeated." In all seriousness, Moeaki echoed Schofield's words about establishing a competitive mindset. "It just says so much about Coach Quinn really setting the environment and the standard," Moeaki said. "Starting with him and the coaching staff all the way down, they just bring out the best in you. They have fun, but the standard is set so high. "You're either competing or you're not. Competing is just how we do it."
  9. Still questions about offensive line after Atlanta Falcons' minicampVaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons concluded their three-day mandatory minicamp Thursday and there were plenty of positive signs to take out of it. However, the Falcons took a step back along the offensive line, where plenty of questions still remain. Projected starters Jake Matthews, Joe Hawley and Jon Asamoah never saw extensive time on the field, with Matthews and Hawley recovering from surgeries and Asamoah battling a right ankle injury. Although the Falcons signed veteran Chris Chester to start at one guard spot and Mike Person for depth on the interior, it's obvious more needs to be done to upgrade the line just in case injuries become a recurring theme again like last year. The starting line is projected to be Matthews at left tackle, Chester at left guard, Hawley at center, Asamoah at right guard and fast-rising Ryan Schraeder at right tackle. Sam Baker is no longer in the mix after being released. Coach Dan Quinn was asked if the team might target another veteran offensive lineman prior to training camp. "I think we're always out there at all positions, not just the O-line," Quinn said. "But yeah, certainly as you go through the process, there's always ideas and thoughts to go about looking at not just the O-line, but all the way through. And if there's an opportunity for us to help make our team better, more competitive, more tough, Thomas [Dimitroff] and I are certainly going to look at that." One veteran on the market is two-time Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis, who was released by the Philadelphia Eagles following a contract dispute. Mathis and agent Drew Rosenhaus don't seem to be in a rush to sign with a new team. Mathis, who turns 34 in November, no doubt wants to make at least $5 million per year, like he was with the Eagles. The Falcons currently have just over $16 million in cap space, according to NFLPA records. Quinn was asked if Mathis is a player the team might pursue. "Not necessarily particularly a player I'm not going to get into with you, but we're always going to keep an eye out for guys who have the ability to help fit into what we're doing," Quinn said. "We're always going to keep an eye out for sure, yes; not certain players but players in general." Here are three players that helped their status during minicamp and three players that saw their stock fall: ON THE RISE Jacob Tamme, tight end: The veteran, who last played with Peyton Manning in Denver, looked fluid in everything he did during camp. He catches the ball with ease and knows how to get open. He might be the best compliment to Julio Jones in the passing game. Tamme made things look easy. "I don't know about easy," he said. "I think it's been really good for me. It's been refreshing to see some new stuff, learn new concepts, get plugged in in different places." Vic Beasley, outside linebacker: The rookie first-round draft selection looked as good as advertised with his speed off the edge. He showed his athleticism, leaping in the air in an attempt to swat passes. And Beasley showed versatility in lining up on both sides and playing the Leo hybrid pass-rusher role and the strongside linebacker -- though Beasley will be the Leo this season. Quinn said the next step is getting Beasley to eliminate those plays where he might be a little hesitant. Regardless, he was impressive. "Felt pretty good," Beasley said of minicamp. "I felt the team is off to a great start. Just looking forward to training camp now." Ricardo Allen, free safety: Allen, drafted as a cornerback, created plenty of buzz with his outstanding play at his new position. He showed speed and instincts and had an impressive interception on Day 2 of camp. Right now, Allen has to be in the lead to be the starting free safety next to strong safety William Moore. That seems like quite a surprise, considering Allen was cut following training camp last year but then re-signed to the practice squad. You don't return four interceptions for touchdowns in college by mistake. "Ricardo has been working extremely hard and for a young guy with his ability, you like to see how far he is willing to take his gift," teammate O'Brien Schofield said. ON THE DECLINE Charles Godfrey, free safety: The emergence of Allen might not have occurred had Godfrey shown some authority at the position. Instead, the veteran watched his younger competition surpass him and really didn't show much to earn the No. 1 spot back. Let's see if Godfrey makes more of an impact and plays with a sense of urgency during training camp. Tyler Polumbus, offensive tackle: Polumbus, a newcomer who last played for the Washington Redskins, got an opportunity to show he could contribute with Jake Matthews (foot surgery) limited and Lamar Holmes demoted from first-team left tackle to second-string right tackle. Instead, Polumbus really underwhelmed. Not much else to say. Lamar Holmes, offensive tackle: Speaking of Holmes, his demotion came well before he suffered a broken right foot on Day 2 of camp, an injury that is expected to force a surgical procedure sometime early next week. Holmes lost weight coming off last year's season-ending toe injury. But dropping a few pounds didn't exactly equate to better offensive line play. He's a long shot to make the roster once he gets healthy.
  10. Atlanta Falcons rookie Vic Beasley settling into Leo pass-rush roleVaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons rookie first-round draft pick Vic Beasley knew which defensive role he felt most comfortable playing even before mandatory minicamp began this week. "I do feel most comfortable at Leo," Beasley said, referring to the pass-rusher role. "I think it's a good position for me because I played in a four-down front in college. And I think it's just easier for me because I don't have to transition to a different position. It's pretty much the same thing for me." Falcons coach Dan Quinn initially said Beasley could play either strongside linebacker on the tight end's side or the Leo hybrid defensive end in his 4-3 under defense that incorporates 3-4 personal tendencies. But Quinn probably just wanted to make sure Beasley settled in first before declaring him a Leo, which he did following the end of minicamp. Kroy Biermann was first up at Leo throughout the offseason, allowing Beasley to gradually shift into a flow. So what are Quinn's expectations at the position? "It's a guy who has speed and length, but it's an important part of the defense because the pass rush is not just one player, it's everybody working together with a four-man rush or five-man rush," Quinn said. "So the ability to have a guy you can feature and put in unique spots and then letting it rip on third down with that kind of get-off, those are the things you're looking for from the Leo spot." Cliff Avril, at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, was the primary Leo in Seattle last season, where Quinn was the defensive coordinator. Avril played 73 percent of the defensive snaps and finished the season with 5 sacks, 19 quarterback hits and 6 tackles for a loss. New Falcons linebacker O'Brien Schofield is the same size as Avril and was his backup at the position last year. Schofield finished with two sacks and seven quarterback hits. "I was very comfortable at the position," said Schofield, who is playing strongside linebacker now and rush defensive end in the nickel package. "Personally, I feel like you have to be a very versatile player to play Leo. It's a hybrid defensive end/linebacker who covers the flat, covers the ground game. There are times where you have to run all the way across the field so you have to be able to run and cover. Of course, you have to pass rush. And if you happen to go against the tight end, the expectation is that you have to set that edge. It's very important to set the edge in this defense. "The Leo has a very strong responsibility in this defense. In the nickel defense standpoint, the Leo does a lot of stand-up rushing with the 3-technique [defensive tackle], with the nose, a lot of the blitzes. You've got to be able to stand up and rush against the guards, against the center. It's a very important piece of the nickel package." Beasley, listed at 6-3 and 235 pounds, no doubt needs to put on a little more weight. And he realizes there are questions about his ability to play the run, an element of his game he vowed to improve. First and foremost, the Falcons need Beasley to get after the quarterback and help improve one of the league's weakest pass rushes. Minicamp confirmed he has the speed and athleticism to create havoc on a consistent basis. Quinn was pleased with Beasley's overall performance but pointed to improvement in general terms. "For all the rookies, and Vic included, there's a couple of plays still where there's hesitation," Quinn said. "That's what we're going to try and eliminate. Keep repping those guys. With he and the rest of the rookie class, the work ethic has been outstanding. Then, can we keep detailing their positions? [Then] they can get to the very root of how they want to play."
  11. Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews confident in abilities in new schemeVaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Although Jake Matthews wasn't a full participant during the first day of mandatory minicamp Tuesday, the Atlanta Falcons second year left tackle looked confident on his feet coming back from January foot surgery. Matthews is unlikely to be full speed through the three-day minicamp. The former first-round draft pick, however, expressed no doubt about being back to normal by the time the regular season begins. "I feel like I have that lateral quickness and I can be a big help in this offense," Jake Matthews said. "So I'm excited for it." Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports "I knew it was going to be a (process), but I was surprised how quickly I woke up the next morning and felt good," Matthews said. "It's actually feeling really good. So I'm real confident, real excited for what's to come." Matthews suffered a Lisfranc ligament tear in last season's finale against the Carolina Panthers. The full recovery time from such a surgery is four months, but there was no reason for the Falcons to rush back their prize offensive lineman any sooner than necessary. Although Matthews endured some adversity as a rookie -- most notably a severely sprained ankle early in the season -- he has plenty of ability to thrive in the new offense. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's system relies on athletic linemen capable of getting out and moving in an outside zone blocking scheme. "It's about athleticism and speed," Matthews said. "We're trying to beat the defense off the ball, outwork them and outrun them, and beat them with angles, all that stuff ... cutting them off. I think it something that's well-suited for me. I feel like I have that lateral quickness and I can be a big help in this offense. So I'm excited for it." The Falcons need Matthews to play up to his great potential while remaining durable at the same time. The options at left tackle were reduced after the team released often-injured veteran Sam Baker, the starter at the position before Matthews' arrival. Lamar Holmes was working as the team's first-team left tackle this offseason with Matthews on the mend. However, Holmes was demoted to second-string right tackle for the first day of minicamp, allowing veteran Tyler Polumbus to move in as the first-team left tackle. The scheme might not be an ideal fit for Holmes, although he showed commitment by dropping weight this offseason. No matter how the line is constructed right now -- center James Stone, left guard Mike Person and Polumbus are destined to give way to Joe Hawley, Chris Chester and Matthews -- the Falcons simply need to find a solid five by the start of the season. And Matthews likely has to be the anchor of the group. "If they move me to right tackle again this year, if they move me to center, I don't care," Matthews said in a team-first manner. "I'll play whatever they tell me to. So, I feel confident wherever I am."
  12. Catches could give Atlanta Falcons' Devonta Freeman edge at running back Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer Watching Devonta Freeman sprint deep down the left sideline and corral a Matt Ryan pass behind the defense shouldn't have been much of a surprise to observers last week. Freeman, the Atlanta Falcons' second-year running back, takes pride in every aspect of his game, including pass-catching. He showed flashes of sure hands last season, such as an impressive, 36-yard reception in a late-season win at New Orleans. On that particular play, Freeman motioned out wide right against Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton. He blew by Lofton on the go route and even adjusted to make the catch, much like a seasoned wide receiver would do. So when Freeman made that grab during organized team activities last week, it looked routine. "I feel like I don't want to come off the field," Freeman said."I want to do everything that they say running backs can't do. I want to be a complete back: the third-and-1s, the catching out the backfield. Whatever it takes to stay on the field, that's my mentality. I feel like running backs kind of get downgraded. But me, I want to bring it back to where we're able to do everything." Freeman's ability to catch balls and run routes should bode well for his chances of staying ahead of rookie Tevin Coleman and explosive Antone Smith in the running back competition. New Falcons offensive Kyle Shanahan has had some capable pass-catching running backs in the past such as Steve Slaton in Houston and Roy Helu in Washington. But Shanahan has never had a great one. Maybe Freeman is the guy. "Devonta has a chance to really excel in both the run and pass game," Shanahan said. Freeman had 30 catches for 225 yards and a touchdown as a rookie. Sometimes such numbers can be inflated when a quarterback throws check downs regularly for minimal gains. However, Freeman truly showed versatility in catching screen passes, deep balls and even quick slants. So what's the secret to his hands? Freeman had to give some credit to former Florida State teammate Jameis Winston, the first-overall draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Jameis, being the guy that he is, he doesn't mind checking the ball down to you," said Freeman, who caught 22 passes for 278 yards and a touchdown during Florida State's national title season. "And I was the type of athlete that I didn't want to get out the game. So I had to make sure I had hands. We created that relationship, and he just trusted me. Jameis would check it down, hit me out in the flat or whatever it took to get a first down. Jameis helped me out a lot. So did Jacob Coker and E.J. Manuel. I've been around a few great quarterbacks." Freeman politely declined to reveal all his pass-catching secrets, but he did offer a little more insight. He previously worked out with fellow Miami native and current Cleveland Browns receiver Dwayne Bowe. He often caught passes in the offseason from Canadian Football League quarterback Rakeem Cato, another Miami native who played college ball at Marshall. Not to mention catching the football is something Freeman grew accustomed to even back to his Pop Warner days. "I've always been in a pass-run balanced offense, so I've always kind of had to work on my hands," Freeman said. "It's kind of natural for me." Balance is the key word for the Falcons going into the 2015 season. Strong running from Freeman, Coleman and Smith in Shanahan's outside-zone blocking scheme should help set up explosive passing plays to the likes of Julio Jones off play action. Having a pass-catching threat such as Freeman out of the backfield simply allows Shanahan to open up the play book a bit more. Falcons coach Dan Quinn gushed over Freeman as a receiver from the outset. Quinn, formerly the defensive coordinator in Seattle, was asked about pass catching being a determining factor in the running back competition. The final four playoff teams from a year ago -- the Patriots, Colts, Packers and Quinn's Seahawks -- all boasted running backs with 37 or more receptions and three or more touchdown catches to their credit. "It's such a huge factor for a running back who can catch coming out of the backfield," Quinn said. "For the guy who are suspect hands, well, that's not as big a threat when a guy like that goes into the game. So fortunately for us, with the guys we're going to feature, pass catching is going to be a big part, whether we bring him out of the backfield, aligning them empty, motion out to empty. All that is going to be a factor." http://espn.go.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/13892/hands-could-give-atlanta-falcons-devonta-freeman-edge-in-running-back-battle
  13. Julio Jones wants more in 2015 Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who set a franchise record with 1,593 receiving yards last season, was not content with his overall performance in 2014 and is intent on elevating his game this season. "I definitely can improve," Jones said Thursday night during the team's annual state-of-the-franchise meeting with season-ticket holders, streamed live on the team's website. "I don't feel like I did my best last year. I'm bigger, faster, stronger than I ever was, to this point now. Shoutout to the trainers. They helped me out. But I definitely can improve on everything." A record-setting 2014 wasn't enough for Julio Jones, who is pushing for better numbers this season. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Jones led the league last season with 31 catches of 20-plus yards and finished third with 104 receptions (164 targets). He did so despite missing one game with an oblique injury and being nagged by an ankle injury. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Jones had four drops last season, which was tied for 24th-fewest among the 48 players with at least 100 targets. His drop percentage of 2.5 was 31st among 84 qualified wide receivers in 2014. Jones said practicing daily against talented cornerbacks such as Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford should enhance his game. "Tru, Alford, we work together," Jones said. "We try to compete every day, try to get better. And Coach [Dan Quinn] challenges us every day to go out there and be the best we can possibly be. And that's what we do." Jones did not discuss his contract situation, although the topic was brought up through the course of the event. Owner Arthur Blank, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Quinn all have expressed a desire to keep Jones around for the long term. Jones has one year remaining on his deal and will make $10.2 million this season. As Jones sat in the audience, Dimitroff was asked when a new contract is expected to be completed. Dimitroff said it's coming soon. "We're obviously keyed up about working on Julio and having him here for a long, long time," Dimitroff said. "He's obviously an incredibly important part to this offense."
  14. Dan Quinn praises pass-rushers on Day 1 of OTAsVaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn singled out several pass-rushers while reflecting on Day 1 of organized team activities (OTAs) Tuesday. Quinn mentioned Adrian Clayborn, Kroy Biermann and rookie Vic Beasley as players who caught his eye in third-down situations. "The big thing that we're going to preach is trying to move the quarterback off the spot; how many times can we get that quarterback to move," Quinn said. "So the speed and the effort and the way that we come off the ball, that's some of the things that you try and implement on third down. Some of it was pressure, some of it was rush so for the first day, I have to take a look back at the film. "I thought inside, Clayborn was one that jumped out. I saw Beasley jumped out for one. Biermann, I thought, had a good one. Those three jumped out in that period (where) we had about eight plays of third down competition at the end where you win it or lose it based on that down and distance.'' There was a couple times throughout the day when Beasley dominated left tackle Lamar Holmes, including on a bull rush. Beasley also showed off his spin move and got grabbed around the neck by undrafted rookie offensive tackle Matt Huffer. So what does Quinn think of the spin moves? "I think it depends on the player," Quinn said. "If a guy who has really good sudden [movement] and can spin, then it's something that we'd utilize. And if it's a bigger guy who uses more power, well, we kind of avoid it. So it's really like as a player, knowing who you are. If it's something that a guy who's got great quickness can use, we'll use it. And if it's a guy who doesn't have that kind of quickness, then we tend to stay away from it. "If you can't shoot from the top of the key, we're not going to put you out there." The Falcons sorely need to upgrade their pass rush. Their 83 sacks over the last three seasons are the fewest in the NFL over that span. Here are some other observations from the first day of OTAs: Julio Jones, who showed up despite there being no new negotiations toward a long-term contract, looked like his typical self in tiptoeing the sideline and reeling in a catch essentially with one hand. There was a moment late in practice when Jones was on the ground getting stretched out by the medical staff but he was right back in after one play. Devonta Freeman was first up at running back through the entire day, but rookie Tevin Coleman got plenty of chances to carry the ball and catch out of the backfield while working with the second unit. Coleman had one nifty cut and explosion during teams drills, while Freeman was as impressive as he was this time last year, save for one drop. Justin Hardy didn't get a lot of opportunities to shine, but the rookie fourth-round draft pick from East Carolina did look rather fluid with his route running. O'Brien Schofield had an impressive speed rush going up against right tackle Tyler Polumbus. Leonard Hankerson had a great catch down the sideline against linebacker Nate Stupar. An obvious mismatch, of course. In the two-minute drill with the first-team offense, Jacob Tamme was in at tight end and Devin Hester in as third receiver alongside Jones and Roddy White. Linebacker Prince Shembo made a play in 7-on-7 drills in knocking the ball away from running back Jerome Smith. Newcomer Phillip Adams was the primary nickelback with Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford playing outside at cornerback. Corners Dez Southward (knee) and Jalen Collins (foot) were sidelined. The first-team offensive line was the following: Holmes (left tackle), Mike Person (left guard), James Stone (center), Jon Asamoah (right guard), Ryan Schraeder (right tackle).
  15. Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco welcomes competitionVaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer When the Atlanta Falcons signed fullback Collin Mooney a few weeks ago, it didn't take incumbent Patrick DiMarco by surprise. DiMarco understood there would be competition across the board under new coach Dan Quinn. "It's just going to push me to be a better player," DiMarco said. "When competition comes to you, you've got to step up to the plate and you've got to play good. That's my whole thing. There's nothing that he's going to do that's going to change me. I've just got to continue to work on my craft and continue to get better every day." DiMarco, with 14 starts over the past two seasons, had a rough end to the 2014 campaign. Remember, he dropped a sure touchdown in the second quarter of a 34-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers, a game which decided the NFC South title. Despite the blunder, the Falcons signed DiMarco to a two-year contract extension. Now he has to go out and prove he belongs in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's system. Last year, DiMarco played 209 offensive snaps and outside of blocking, contributed nine catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. He's spent part of the offseason working with a personal trainer to improve his quickness, speed and strength in preparation for the offensive adjustment. "It's been good so far," DiMarco said of the new scheme. "Guys have been out there flying around. The tempo and the all-around attitude of everybody is real high." If DiMarco continues to show up on special teams, he should have a place on the roster regardless. Special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong has often singled out DiMarco's contributions. "Yes, having Keith on my side is definitely great," DiMarco said. "Being there the last two years, he knows what I'm capable of. So, it's definitely an asset." Surely Mooney, who last played in a regular-season game for Tennessee in 2013, will try to make his mark on special teams as well. "He seems like a great dude, a tough kid," DiMarco said of Mooney. "I'm excited to play with him and kind of just feed off each other."
  16. Five thoughts after Falcons rookie minicampVaughn McClure, ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter The Atlanta Falcons concluded rookie minicamp camp Sunday with a closed practice. Although not much was revealed during the 60 combined minutes available to the media on Friday and Saturday, here are five thoughts based on some observations: Seventh-round pick Akeem King, a cornerback from San Jose State, is a player to keep an eye on. Just based on drills, he seems to have solid footwork and just looked like a legit NFL defensive back. Plus King, who played safety for the Spartans last season, is sure to get better when he's asked to go up against elite wide receiver Julio Jones in practice. King was recruited to college as a wide receiver himself, so that background could work to his advantage. Not to mention King should get plenty of opportunities to prove his value this offseason with second-round pick Jalen Collins still recovering from foot surgery. King mentioned how much it helps to have a position coach who went through the NFL grind in Marquand Manuel, who played eight years in the league at safety before concluding his career in 2009. Manuel should help improve all the defensive backs, but he should particularly be beneficial to Robert Alford. The third-year player has all the ability in the world, but needs to improve his technique -- especially when it comes to his hands. Alford picked up his share of defensive penalties last season. Manuel is very hands-on with his coaching approach and surely will ride Alford until Alford gets it right. Alford already is getting an earful from one former NFL safety; close friend Ryan Clark, an ESPN analyst who has trained Alford this offseason. Pass-rusher Vic Beasley's impact won't be just on Sundays for the Falcons. The rookie first-round draft pick's quick first step off the edge should help all the offensive tackles improve. Beasley probably didn't have much competition during rookie minicamp based on the marginal group of offensive linemen on the field. It should be at least a little tougher in organized activities and at mandatory minicamp (June 16-18) as he goes up against guys such as Lamar Holmes, Ryan Schraeder and perhaps Jake Matthews (if Matthews recovers from surgery to repair a Lisfranc ligament tear in his foot). Practicing against Beasley should help the tackles prepare for guys such as Connor Barwin (Eagles), Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants) and J.J. Watt (Texans) in the first four games of the season. I have to agree with NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks on this one: third-round pick Tevin Coleman's running style is ideal for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's outside-zone blocking scheme, which emphasizes a one-cut-and-go mentality for the running backs. Some folks tried to argue otherwise, but Coleman's explosive, big-play ability is an asset for any offensive scheme. Judging by watching Coleman closely during drills, he showed no signs of being limited by December surgery on his right big toe. Coleman and Devonta Freeman have the potential to be a dynamic duo. Time didn't allow media members to see how Coleman caught the ball at rookie camp. The Falcons took every necessary precaution after undrafted safety Terell Floyd from Louisville fell on the field because of the extreme heat. He was taken to the hospital as a precaution and is expected to be back on the field sometime this week after suffering from dehydration. The extreme heat in Atlanta always is a concern, and you wonder how much time the Falcons will spend in their indoor practice facility this summer to help beat the heat.
  17. Falcons' salary pool for draft class set Vaughn McClure, ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter The Atlanta Falcons' salary pool for their 2015 draft class is $6,212,005. According to the NFL Players Association's updated figures, the Falcons currently stand $17,352,126 under the cap. They should have around $11 million in salary-cap space once their seven draft picks are signed. None have signed as of yet with rookie minicamp set to begin on Friday. Rookie contracts are basically slotted under the collective bargaining agreement, and deals are expected to increase no more than 10 percent over last season. Last year, Falcons' first-round pick Jake Matthews, the sixth-overall pick, was signed to a four-year deal worth a fully guaranteed $16,434,400 that included a fifth-year option. He received a signing bonus of $10,268,728. The Falcons' total rookie cash allocation for 2015 is $34,166,029. Last year, the Falcons rookie pool cap number was $7,382,238.
  18. Falcons still trying to upgrade offensive line Vaughn McClure, ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter The Atlanta Falcons continue to search for ways to enhance their offensive line. As ESPN Insider Field Yates reported, the team had free-agent tackle Joe Barksdale in for a workout on Monday, although Barksdale did not immediately sign. The St. Louis Rams expressed an interest in bringing back Barksdale, last year's starting right tackle, but that might not happen. The Falcons are also one of probably 32 teams waiting to see what happens with LSU undrafted rookie tackle La'el Collins, who met with police Monday about the shooting death of his ex-girlfriend but is not a suspect. Collins was expected to be drafted in the first round. "I think when you look at any of the players that are up there that have talent, you consider [them]," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said when asked if he eyed drafting Collins. "I would prefer not to go into the specifics of our discussion. Suffice to say, there's no question that we always look and consider those players, and always try to determine whether they are right for our system or not. We obviously didn't bring [Collins] in here right now. I'll be interested to track that. I just think everyone in the league is going to be interested to track how that all plays out." A change in philosophy has the Falcons looking for more athleticism along the line. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan desires offensive linemen capable of running in his outside-zone blocking scheme. Such change is the reason why the Falcons released veteran left guard Justin Blalock, a stout pass-protector not known for his ability to get out and run. The Falcons have a handful of linemen still recovering from surgeries: starting left tackle Jake Matthews (Lisfranc), starting center Joe Hawley (ACL, MCL), offensive tackle Sam Baker (knee) and guard/center Peter Konz (ACL). With those injuries, the team went with a slimmed down Lamar Holmes at left tackle, newcomer Mike Person at left guard, James Stone at center, Jon Asamoah at right guard and Ryan Schraeder at right tackle during last week's voluntary minicamp. Once everyone is healthy, it will be interesting to see how the battle at left guard pans out, with Stone possibly the lead candidate over Person since Hawley is expected back at center. Harland Gunn and Konz also might get looks at left guard. Baker's status remains a mystery since Matthews is now the team's left tackle. And if Holmes' improved physique is any indication of how motivated he is this season, he could push Schraeder at right tackle, provided the Falcons don't sign Barksdale or Collins. "We continue to believe that this offensive line has some really good football players, some upside that fit the scheme that we're going with," Dimitroff said. "We are encouraged by that, for sure. A lot of our guys are healing up very well and things are going to work out well that way." The Falcons drafted Eastern Washington's Jake Rodgers in the seventh round to get a look at both tackle spots. Another player to keep an eye on is 6-foot-3, 305-pound undrafted center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke from New Mexico State. He'll be one of the players participating in the team's rookie minicamp starting Friday.
  19. Expert view on Falcons' draft options at pass-rusherVaughn McClure, ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter Anything can happen from now until the NFL draft actually begins Thursday night. For the Atlanta Falcons, the focus appears to be on improving the pass rush by any means necessary, although late talk has surfaced about the possibility of trading for Seattle's Bruce Irvin, a pass-rusher Falcons coach Dan Quinn had while the Seahawks' defensive coordinator. There is a possibility the Falcons will trade up from the eighth-overall selection to land the guy many consider the most dominant defensive player in the draft, USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams. Such a transaction would all depend on how hefty the cost would be. There also might be a need to trade up a few spots if the Falcons desire coveted edge rusher Vic Beasley. The Clemson outside linebacker might not fall to No. 8. Barring a Williams or Irvin trade, securing one of the top edge-rushers would likely be the Falcons' focus, with Florida's Dante Fowler Jr., Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Missouri's Shane Ray, Kentucky's Bud Dupree and Beasley comprising the group. But with the Falcons losing a fifth-round pick next year plus being fined $350,000 after the embarrassment of piping crowd noise into the Georgia Dome, one would think team owner Arthur Blank would discourage drafting a guy such as Gregory, who admitted testing positive for marijuana at the combine, or perhaps even Ray, who was recently cited for marijuana possession. Quinn insisted Ray remains on the Falcons' draft board despite the misstep. We talked to one AFC executive who gave his honest assessment of each of the five aforementioned pass-rushers: Vic Beasley (6-3, 246), Clemson: "Vic is probably the best in terms of speed off the edge with initial speed and quickness off the edge. He's going to win it with speed in this group because he gets off the ball so quickly. He and Ray are about the same size, but Vic just has the most speed. What will be his flaw? Just his size and how he adjust to playing the run in the NFL. That will be it. But he's been really productive." Bud Dupree (6-4, 269), Kentucky: "Of all those guys, he's the biggest. And he can play with his hand down as a defensive end for a 4-3 or he can play standing up as he has. He did it as a junior and they stood him up this past year. So his sack production wasn't as good as it was before because they asked him to do more in terms of coverage standing up. To me, his best ball is ahead of him once he gets locked into one spot. He's 265 pounds so he's got versatility in terms of being an every-down guy. The knock is he doesn't have much production in terms of sack numbers and sack production overall." Shane Ray (6-3, 245), Missouri: "Highest motor of the group. Plays the hardest in terms of pursuit to the football. He's probably the least athletic of the group, but the toughness comes out in his play. When the ball is snapped, this dude goes. I don't know enough about his [toe injury], just from what I'm hearing. He was at workouts and it didn't seem like it was an issue, but now we're hearing that there might be issues. We have to find out what happened with the follow-up from Indy. You've heard all speculation about it but we'll find out more. It's a concern, obviously. And yes, it's hard to trust him in the first round after making that poor decision (marijuana possession) so close to the draft." Randy Gregory (6-5, 235), Nebraska: "Oh man, he has the best length and ability to bend and turn the edge. He's the tallest and all that, but his body in terms of filling out, he has room to grow. His weight has been up and down throughout his career. But to me, he's got the most upside of the group, still. Anytime you know the history of [the marijuana use], and then you go to the combine which is technically their biggest interview of their life and you test positive ... I think it will hurt him. He will go later than he should. He has a test or two at Nebraska that were positive then the combine test. So, yes, that's a concern." Dante Fowler Jr. (6-3, 261), Florida: "He's like a more complete version of Dupree because he's played so many positions. Throwing Fowler in the group, he's the most versatile of the group because he's played so many spots. He's played standing up. He's played defensive end. He played like an outside linebacker. Early in his career, they had him playing some inside, with some packages as the [middle] linebacker. He's probably the best pure football player of the group. He and Bud Dupree both are equal in terms of sack production, but once Fowler gets put in one spot, you'll see who he is."
  20. Open workout should provide more clarity to Falcons' injuries Vaughn McClure, ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter The Falcons began the offseason workout program on Monday, and coach Dan Quinn will address the media Thursday for the first time since having his team together. After the open workout session, Quinn is likely to provide some sort of update of the players recovering from injuries. A number of key players are coming off major surgeries in preparation for the 2015 season. Left tackle Jake Matthews had surgery to repair a Lisfranc ligament tear in his foot, while fellow offensive linemen Joe Hawley and Peter Konz both are recovering from ACL tears. Tackles Sam Baker (knee) and Lamar Holmes (toe) had season-ending surgeries. Running back Antoine Smith still hasn't been fully cleared to run after breaking his leg. On defense, starting strong safety William Moore had a significant shoulder surgery but said he expects to be fully ready by training camp. Cornerback Robert Alford is on the mend from a season-ending broken wrist while Dezmen Southward, a free safety who appears destined to be converted to cornerback, also had a procedure involving his wrist. Linebackers Prince Shembo (knees) and Tyler Starr (shoulder) also are trying to get back to 100 percent. Quinn talked in general terms about the health of his team going into the offseason program. "It's been an important offseason for these guys who have had those surgeries," Quinn said. "It was such a tough season for some of these guys to have to go through, especially a position like offensive line where there are a number of guys that were banged up. "The offseason for these guys has been great. All of them are working as hard as they can and are going to be back here in some phase of the offseason." Quinn was asked specifically if Matthews and Hawley, two starters on the offensive line at the beginning of the 2014 regular season, would be ready this offseason. "To a certain degree, everybody's going to be ready for some part of it," Quinn said. "Those guys have been (at the facility) and have worked extremely hard. It's been good just kind of going in and seeing their progress even in my short time there."
  21. Paul Worrilow ready to elevate his game for Falcons Vaughn McClure, ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter The Atlanta Falcons started their offseason workout program Monday, because they have a new coach in Dan Quinn. For Paul Worrilow, offseason workouts started as soon as the 2014 season concluded. The former undrafted linebacker from Delaware has been known for his work ethic from the moment he stepped in the building. That hasn't stopped Worrilow from putting forth even more effort to prepare for the 2015 campaign. One of the biggest changes in Worrilow's workout routine? A lot more yoga. "A great deal of time has been spent with yoga and stretching, stuff like that," Worrilow said. "I've never really done yoga consistently. I've done it at times throughout my football career. But this year, it's been kind of a everyday thing, or at least five days a week. "Some days, I'll do it for an hour. The program I follow, it's just about relaxing in different positions and allowing your body to move naturally to increase your range of motion. And you'll last longer." There has been another noticeable change for Worrilow. His desire to improve mobility has made him more drill-oriented rather than consumed with building his physique. "The drills that I'm working on are focused on me playing low," he said. "If I had to compare this offseason to last offseason, I'd look at it and say I'm spending a lot more time doing things on the field where last year, I was a little more weight room-oriented." Worrilow hopes is all translates to more success in the middle of Quinn's defensive scheme. Although he has led the Falcons in tackles each of the past two seasons (142 last season, 127 in 2013), some still question Worrilow's abilities, at times. "I don't read that stuff," Worrilow said. "You've got to worry about yourself. I mean, nobody puts more pressure on me than myself, and that's a constant day in and day out. I feel the pressure to improve and be the best that I can be for myself and for my family." Several conversations with Quinn have only helped increase Worrilow's confidence about his role. "I've run into him a couple times and he emphasized to me to have the best offseason I've ever had," Worrilow said. "I think it's about just improving on everything: tackling and everything. The fast and physical part, that fits my mentality very well." Quinn talked about what he sees in Worrilow. "I think the first thing that jumps out right off the bat when you watch the tape is that this guy has command of everything," Quinn said. "His football smarts, his intelligence, his grit, the work ethic, all those things. It's easy to see why he's made such a big impact on the team. "And for us, where we play more 3 deep when we're playing more zone, those are the things where we can see him improve in his tackling. Going into the offseason, each player will have a couple of things they are already doing well and here's a couple of things we can improve on. And collectively, we'll all get better. But I can't wait to see what he can become." There will be one other significant change for Worrilow this offseason. He is set to become a first-time father to a baby girl. "I'm excited," Worrilow said. "It's always what I've thought about; having a family. I come from a good-sized family. I hope to have the same and to raise them right."
  22. Dan Quinn plans to have officials at Falcons practices Vaughn McClure, ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn has a plan for cutting down defensive penalties during the 2015 season. Quinn said he intends to have officials at practice regularly to make sure his players get a better sense of when they cross the line. Last year, the Falcons were whistled for 14 defensive holds and five illegal contacts, the two main points of emphasis in officiating. They gave up 11 first downs as a result of those infractions. Starting cornerback Robert Alford had four such penalties along with four flags for pass interference in 10 games before suffering a season-ending broken wrist. The penalties accepted against Alford accounted for 100 total yards and five first downs for opponents. Returning starting cornerback Desmond Trufant and departed cornerback Robert McClain, now with the New England Patriots, combined for four defensive holds and three illegal contacts. Nine Falcons players were whistled for defensive holding, four for illegal contact. Both fouls result in a 5-yard penalty and automatic first down. "In terms of playing smart, it's one thing for us to say as a coaching staff that it's a penalty, but to have the actual officials at practice each day and they throw the flag, it allows us to emphasize it more," Quinn said. "It will be a part of our program from here on." So how often will the officials come to practices? "All the time," Quinn said. "I mean, not like at a walkthrough. But if we're practicing, we're going to have an official there." The Falcons had officials at their facility during joint training camp practice with the Tennessee Titans last preseason. It is an uncommon procedure during the regular season, although Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin summoned high school officials in-season last year to help his players cut down on a rash of penalties. Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said having officials at practice was part of the routine when he was the defensive coordinator in San Diego. "I think it helps," Rivera said. "Guys can get instant feedback." Teams can work through the NFL's officiating department for practice officials or can hire them independently. In the latter case, teams do not have to inform the league of their intentions. The fast and physical Seattle Seahawks defense that Quinn coordinated the previous two seasons was believed to be the reason behind the rules emphasis. Last year, the Seahawks were flagged 14 times for defensive holding and a league-best twice for illegal contact.
  23. Falcons should be relieved to escape harsh punishment from NFL By Vaughn McClure | ESPN.com The Atlanta Falcons were expected to get stung by the NFL. Instead, they got off somewhat unscathed. On Monday, the league announced a $350,000 fine and the loss of a fifth-round draft pick in 2016 as punishment for the Falcons for piping in crowd noise to the Georgia Dome over the past two seasons. Former director of marketing Roddy White, who was fired due to the incident, was determined to be directly responsible for the violation. Although no one else was cited for having knowledge of the situation, team president Rich McKay also was suspended from his role as chairman of the league’s competition committee from Wednesday until at least the end of June. The organization might view the punishment as "severe" but that would be far from the case. The league could have really crippled the Falcons by taking away their first-round draft pick and their ability to secure one of the top pass-rushers in this year’s draft class. In regards to the financial penalty, even a billionaire such as Arthur Blank should be infuriated about having to pay a six-figure fine, particularly for such a foolish act that was totally unnecessary. "What took place was wrong and nowhere near the standards by which we run our business," Blank said in a statement. "Anytime there are actions that compromise the integrity of the NFL or threaten the culture of our franchise, as this issue did, they will be dealt with swiftly and strongly." The most significant development involves the draft pick. Even the loss of a second- or third-rounder this year would have been debilitating for a team trying to rebuild under new coach Dan Quinn. Instead, the Falcons get to keep their 2015 draft plans intact with eight selections. The Falcons’ most pressing needs, outside of a pass-rusher, are at free safety, inside linebacker and cornerback. They struck out in free agency at safety when Darian Stewart agreed to sign with Denver while visiting Atlanta and when Ron Parker's asking price became too high before he re-signed with Kansas City. At inside linebacker, the Falcons brought in veteran Justin Durant, who should help if he remains healthy. However, the team still needs a young talent to help shore up the position for years to come. Again, no team wants to lose a draft pick. The Falcons simply should breathe a sigh of relief knowing guys such as Missouri’s Shane Ray, Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and Clemson’s Vic Beasley can remain on their draft board in the first round and that they can take their pick of what needs to address as they progress through the second, third and fourth rounds. In recent years, the Falcons have selected players such as Ricardo Allen, Marquis Spruill, Stansly Maponga, Bradie Ewing, Jonathan Massaquoi, Jacquizz Rodgers and Dominique Franks in the fifth round. Rodgers is the only one you could say made a great impact and he wasn’t re-signed this offseason. Massaquoi, Ewing and Franks are no longer members of the team. The NFL obviously takes the integrity of the game seriously. The Falcons broke that trust with stupidity. However, they should be grateful that the league didn’t create much more noise with their disciplinary measures.
  24. Dan Quinn not panicking over nickelback spot By Vaughn McClure | ESPN.com The Atlanta Falcons entered free agency with thoughts of upgrading the nickelback position. Right now, they find themselves without a reliable or experienced third cornerback to fill such a role. Last season, Robert McClain, Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas competed for time at the position. McClain signed with New England this offseason while Wilson and Arenas remain on the street after not being re-signed. The Falcons targeted Walter Thurmond from the New York Giants, but Thurmond ended up signing with Philadelphia. Falcons coach Dan Quinn isn't overly concerned about nickelback situation or the cornerback spot as a whole. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are projected to be the corners on the outside with free safety Dezmen Southward expected to get an extensive look at corner, too. "The good thing is, I like having corners that can play nickel but I don't want to necessarily have a guy that's just a nickel,'' Quinn said. "Of all the guys, I know Trufant can move down inside. Alford can move down inside. So those are two guys that, if we feature them, they can do some stuff inside for us.'' Alford, who is recovering from a season-ending broken wrist, seems like a more likely candidate to shift inside with Trufant established outside and the strong possibility of the speedy, lanky Southward also playing outside at corner. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Southward has been working on his press-coverage technique in preparation for the transition. Second-year player Ricardo Allen, who was promoted from the practice squad at the end of last season, and newcomer Philip Adams are the other cornerbacks on the depth chart right now. Quinn was asked if drafting a cornerback is a priority. "Yes, absolutely,'' Quinn said. "Just the fact to have speed and length with guys who can play on the outside because there's some big receivers in the division, too. So we want a guy who can get his hands on them.'' It's still unclear where the Falcons will draft a corner, with pass-rusher their primary focus in the first round and the possibility of losing a second- or third-round pick as a result of the NFL's punishment for piping crowd noise into the Georgia Dome. Some of the tall, athletic corners projected to go after the first round include LSU's Jalen Collins (4.48), Connecticut's Byron Jones, Stanford's Alex Carter, USC's Josh Shaw, Utah's Eric Rowe and Mississippi State's Justin Cox.
  25. Randy Gregory should remain on Falcons' draft board By Vaughn McClure | ESPN.com The news of the day, so far, is draft prospect Randy Gregory's admission to the NFL Network's Kim Jones that he tested positive for marijuana at the NFL combine Gregory, from Nebraska, is one of the top-flight pass-rushers the Atlanta Falcons have kept a close watch on through the draft process thus far. They probably plan to conduct a private workout with him, if they haven’t already. And being that Clemson’s Vic Beasley and Missouri’s Shane Ray have visits lined up to Atlanta, there’s a strong possibility Gregory has a trip scheduled to Flowery Branch as well. But is the latest development with Gregory a red flag that would cause the Falcons to avoid him totally? It depends. In my opinion, new coach Dan Quinn seems like a guy who is willing to take a chance on players who come with a little baggage. That's not necessarily the way the Falcons have operated in recent years with general manager Thomas Dimitroff and former head coach Mike Smith. However, the is Quinn's team now. He makes the final decisions. He has control over the roster. In Seattle, Quinn was the defensive coordinator for two seasons alongside a pass-rusher who had a lot of ``baggage'' in Bruce Irvin. Of course, that was Pete Carroll's call because Irvin was the team's first-round selection before Quinn arrived. However, Quinn no doubt emulates aspects of Carroll's coaching style, and Quinn obviously has a way of relating with players no matter what backgrounds or issues they have. With the Gregory situation, first and foremost, the Falcons have to worry about their own baggage. As ESPN Insider Adam Schefter reported, the NFL is about to levy a ``severe'' penalty against the Falcons for piping in crowd noise to the Georgia Dome over the past two seasons. ProFootballtalk.com implied it could be a second or third-round draft pick. But what if the league truly makes a statement and takes away the first-rounder? That would be devastating for a team sorely in need of a pass-rusher. And the top pass-rushers such as Dante Fowler, Beasley, Ray and even Gregory are expected to be off the board possibly in the first 10 picks. I'm guessing the Falcons keep their first-round selection, which would mean deciphering which of the pass-rushers would have the most immediate impact for them. The test scores at the combine would suggest Beasley is a perfect fit, but Ray impresses with his pure speed off the edge and his confidence. There have been concerns expressed about Gregory being too light, but no one doubts he'll be an impact player. Quinn talked Wednesday about all the top pass-rushers, in general terms. ``Well all of them have, No. 1, I thought [with] those guys that it starts for pass-rushers first, is the motor,'' Quinn said. ``It's the effort. And then you really look in to say, 'What is a guy's get-off? Can you get the tackle bailing early on?' So all of those guys have that as well. And then there's different levels of technique that all these guys are at now. But the one common thread for all of them is that these guys can all go. They've got speed. And as a pass-rusher, that's really where is starts first. I think those guys are going to have a huge future.'' So what if draft night comes and Fowler, Ray, and Beasley are off the board when the Falcons make the eighth-overall selection? Do they ignore Gregory and go with a player such as Kentucky's Bud Dupree? I don't think so. Unless the marijuana use is a habit Gregory refuses to break, it would be foolish to overlook him.
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