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  1. https://theathletic.com/1806911/2020/05/14/brandon-browner-from-the-legion-of-boom-to-inmate-no-bl707/ Long read, but good... Kam Chancellor had the microphone first. “L.O.B., baby,” he announced, “we’re gonna sing this song for y’all.” As Brandon Browner settled beside him, a shirtless Earl Thomas grabbed the mic next. They turned toward Richard Sherman, the man of the hour, and began to croon. “Happy birthday to youuu.” Sherman laughed, then pantomimed choir director hand signals as they continued. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to 2-5. Happy birthday to youuu.” It was the final week of March 2018. Sherman had recently signed with the rival 49ers after being cut by the Seahawks. Chancellor was battling a neck injury that would end his football career that summer. Thomas was in a contract dispute that would ultimately end his Seattle tenure. Then there was Browner, the fourth member of the original “Legion of Boom” secondary who was floundering in his post-football life. Browner was in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, simultaneously celebrating Sherman’s 30th birthday and his wedding before a group of 180 friends and family, including nearly half of the starters from the Seahawks’ Super Bowl 48 championship roster. The weather was sunny and relaxing, perfect for the occasion. The former teammates reminisced about their playing days over drinks by the pool or while lounging at the beach. The day of the wedding was one to remember. The guys hung out in Sherman’s room, holding court in a wide-ranging discussion — religion, marriage, children. It was a deeper dive into one another’s lives than they were used to; Sherman calls it one of the best nights of his life. In his five-year NFL career, Browner made the Pro Bowl, won Super Bowl rings under Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick and was named a defensive captain in his lone season with the Saints, but his closest friends were still his LOB co-founders. During a golf cart ride from the beach to the hotel, Browner turned to defensive end Cliff Avril and said, “I needed this, man.” What he needed, even if Browner couldn’t articulate it, was football. He needed the game to contain the aggression and desperation that characterized him as a player. He also needed to be back with his boys, to be part of a team. “I think a lot of us were feeling like that,” Avril said. “That camaraderie, feeling like you’re back in the locker room again.” But by that week in March 2018, the violence that defined Browner’s career had escaped the confines of football. He already had been arrested for drug possession and for threatening his girlfriend, the mother of two of his children. In the months that followed, he would be arrested twice more, the second time for a horrific crime: He broke into his girlfriend’s home, refused to let her leave, then attempted to smother her in the carpet. It was summer 2011, and Browner sat alone in the cafeteria at the Seahawks’ practice facility, a view of Lake Washington outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. Seattle’s offseason program was just days old, and players were still in the process of completing physicals, largely unfamiliar with one another. As a 27-year-old first-year cornerback from the CFL, Browner was especially unknown. But early in camp, Browner was greeted at lunch by another off-the-radar player, a late-round draft pick from Stanford who, like Browner, grew up in the Los Angeles area. “You ain’t about to sit by yourself,” Richard Sherman said. It took a few days, but Browner began to open up to his new teammate. “Every time we talk about it, he’s like, ‘Man, I was trying to get back in the league! I’m ready to eat off anybody’s plate,'” Sherman told The Athletic. “I’m like, ‘BB, everybody is ready to eat off anybody’s plate at that point; that don’t mean you sit by your **** self.'” Browner stayed late after practice and asked questions in meetings — “You could sense the desperation in some of it,” Sherman said — but he knew what his calling card was as a player and encouraged the 23-year-old rookie to follow his example. “They brought us in here to put our mother****ing hands on people,” he told Sherman, “so put your hands on people.” Browner grew up with 15 brothers and sisters in Pacoima, Calif., a neighborhood in the northern San Fernando Valley notorious for gang activity. Many of his family members were, according to people in the know, “in the life.” At one point, Browner said, his dad, little brother, sister, cousin and stepdad were all in prison. Browner’s mother, Brenda Fisher, enrolled him at Monroe High about 20 minutes away in North Hills, a “safer” destination at the time. She wanted her son around people who would care for him — people like Chris Richards. A longtime coach who was involved in Browner’s life since he was a child, Richards knew how important football could be for Browner. “I always told him he was the chosen one for his family,” Richards said. Browner developed into a big, fast, aggressive player who starred at wide receiver and cornerback and attracted attention from Pac-10 powers, but he could also lash out without warning if he felt like his chances of success were endangered. “People handle fear differently,” Richards said. “He only knows one way, just like he only knows one way to play the game. If you look at Brandon, his aggression on the field was no different than his aggression off the field. “When you’re hanging out with Brandon and he’s being Brandon, the clown, the joker, the total opposite. But it didn’t take much to push him to that next level because without football (he thought), ‘Where am I at? Who am I? Who is going to embrace me?'” Browner ended up at Oregon State, where the 6-foot-4, 194-pounder established himself as the team’s most physical defensive back — and as a player who would occasionally cross the line. As a true freshman, Browner had to sit out several plays following a short altercation with a receiver. It then took several players to separate Browner and backup center Jason Fyda when they scrapped after a running play. “I just like to bang,” Browner once said. “If you let him, he would body-slam everybody,” said Nigel Burton, Browner’s defensive backs coach at OSU. “He was one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around. You go to a practice and he’s trying to rip people’s heads off.” Burton decided to build his secondary around that energy, with Browner — who had been named the 2003 Pac-10 freshman of the year — at the forefront. Burton stayed on top of Browner, trying to hold him accountable in the classroom. Sometimes Browner would do his homework in Burton’s office. The coach called Browner one of the “nicest mean guys I know,” but looking back, Burton thinks he might have been too tough on him. “It was out of love,” Burton said. “I just wanted him to succeed and use the game as a tool and not be engulfed in it.” Their relationship soured when Browner decided to leave Oregon State and enter the NFL Draft after his redshirt sophomore season in 2004. (Browner later said he didn’t believe he’d academically qualify to play as a junior.) Oregon State coach Mike Riley disagreed with the decision. Burton did, too. And just like that, his coaches were standing in the way of his success. “I think he took that as I didn’t believe in him,” Burton said, but that wasn’t the case. The two didn’t talk for years. Browner was projected by some to go in the first few rounds of the 2005 draft, but he went undrafted because of a poor combine performance and questions about his on-field discipline and off-field maturity. Disappointed and motivated, Browner signed with the Denver Broncos, but he suffered a broken arm in training camp and spent his rookie season in injured reserve. He failed a drug test and was released the following summer. Unemployed and back in Pacoima, Browner spent his days with Richards’ son Rashaad. Both of their girlfriends were pregnant, and Browner picked up Richards every morning to go work out. “Outside of football, we were lost,” said Rashaad, so the pair joined a local flag football league. Browner’s first son was born in January 2007. He began living off unemployment checks and looking into security jobs in Hollywood. But in the spring, general manager Jim Barker of the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders called, looking for a big, physical corner. During Browner’s first workout with his new team, he wasn’t in good enough shape to keep up. “I couldn’t complete the gassers,” Browner later said. “I was down on the ground, thinking, ‘Man, I’m about to get cut again.'” But even as he worked on his conditioning, his size and play stood out. He appeared in 17 games that first season, finished second on the team with 71 total tackles, forced four fumbles and was in the conversation for the CFL’s rookie of the year. “It was a drive about the cat,” said Stampeders teammate Calvin Bannister. “The way he played, you knew he was playing for his family.” But Browner’s family was falling apart. The relationship with the mother of his first child deteriorated while he was in Calgary. He had hopes of marriage, buying a home, getting a dog, living out the American dream far away from California. Home, Browner said, is “trouble for me.” Without football, he knew he’d be working a security job in Hollywood, asking what-ifs and “telling stories to my son about how great I was.” Browner was named an All-Star in his last three seasons with Calgary, but he struggled to control his aggression. He’d frequently rumble with his road roommate, Dwight Anderson. He had near-scuffles with his offensive teammates and a penchant for drawing penalties. Browner nearly fought defensive coordinator Chris Jones in 2010 when Jones tried to move Browner to the slot to lock down Saskatchewan receiver Andy Fantuz, who had burned Calgary for 255 yards in their previous meeting. Browner couldn’t maul opponents as a slot defender and got his *** whipped in practice. His coaches were once again standing in the way of his success. “I’m an All-CFL corner; you got me playing in the slot,” he told Jones, who responded to Browner with two questions: “Are you scared to play in the slot? Are you scared to match up on Fantuz?” Pride trumped fear, and Browner held Fantuz to zero catches in the game. In 2008, Browner had 75 tackles and three interceptions and the Stampeders won the Grey Cup. After the game, the team celebrated at Moose McGuire’s, a local pub. In the midst of the celebration, the 5-foot-8 Jones stood on a step so he could look his star corner in the face. Browner had tears in his eyes. Jones, now in the NFL as a member of the Browns’ staff, recently recalled the moment and felt chills while sitting in his truck in Cleveland. “He was so thankful,” Jones said. “It was almost like it validated him as a person, to follow through with something and be able to finish and complete something. It was just good to be able to be involved with something like that with someone who feels hollow, and you fill in that little blank.” In January 2011, Browner signed a three-year, $1.29 million contract with the Seahawks, quite the raise for a guy who once said he was “up there in Canada making 50 grand.” But the contract didn’t include any guaranteed money, and since owners and players were about to start a 132-day lockout, Browner went months without a paycheck. His family was looking to him as a provider — his second son was born in August 2010 — and Browner was stressed. “I was loooow,” he recalled during a radio interview that season. “I was down to my last.” When he finally got on the field, he put his hands on people. Now listed at 220 pounds, Browner’s aggression and physicality made him an ideal fit for Carroll’s defense. “He’s out there playing Cover 3, pressing dudes,” recalled linebacker K.J. Wright, another rookie that season. “Dudes couldn’t really get off his press.” It wasn’t much of a surprise that Browner led the NFL in penalties in his first season in Seattle. It was slightly more surprising that he also led the league in passes defensed (23) and interception touchdowns (2) and was named a Pro Bowl alternate. Browner brought the “boom” whenever he had a chance, and to whom it was delivered wasn’t a concern. In 2012 training camp, he bodied Terrell Owens and drove the receiver to the ground in a one-on-one drill. During a 2012 game against the Patriots, he targeted Wes Welker in the flat and flattened the smaller receiver to force an incompletion. “I’m like, ‘Dog, cornerbacks are not supposed to do that,'” Avril said. During the infamous Fail Mary game against Green Bay, Browner dropped Greg Jennings mid-route with a blindside hit. As the receiver rose to his feet, Browner squared up to fight, withstood Jennings’ rush and slammed him into the ground. After the two were separated, Browner emerged, flexing his muscles. “He just manhandled him,” Wright said. By the end of the 2012 season, the LOB’s familial bond had formed. That summer, Thomas, Chancellor, Sherman and Browner took turns visiting one another’s hometowns: Thomas brought them out to little Orange, Texas, near the Louisiana border; Chancellor hosted a cookout in Norfolk, Va.; Sherman had everyone over in Compton; and Browner hosted them in the San Fernando Valley. Browner joined his teammates on a vacation to Miami, Fla., where they strolled up and down Ocean Drive, plotting for the season and getting to know one another even better. “He’s a very unique man who has been through a lot of trauma throughout his life,” Sherman said. “(He’s) been put in a lot of holes that most people never dig themselves out of.” Still, there were setbacks. In November 2012, just as the team was starting its ascent to the NFL’s elite, Browner and Sherman were suspended for failed drug tests, causing the former to miss four regular-season games. (Sherman successfully appealed his suspension.) In 2013, Browner was hit with another drug suspension and missed the final three months as the Seahawks marched to the Super Bowl. While Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor became household names, Browner was quietly bothered by the notion he was the “fourth” member of the Legion of Boom, and being excluded from the brotherhood’s biggest games of the season — including Seattle’s 43-8 blowout of Denver in Super Bowl 48 — didn’t help. At the White House in May 2014, Browner wore a black suit with a purple-and-gold tie and positioned himself proudly behind then-President Barack Obama at the podium. He stood two rows up, just behind receiver Doug Baldwin and Chancellor. “You may have heard about the Legion of Boom,” Obama said. “Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Byron Maxwell, who combined to form the best secondary in football.” One year later, Browner would get another shot at a championship. Prior to Super Bowl 49, Browner, then with New England, told ESPN’s Josina Anderson he would instruct his Patriots teammates to attack Sherman’s injured elbow and Thomas’ injured shoulder. “Try to break it if you can,” Browner said. “You’re going to be my best friend after the game, but at the end of the day, I know you want that Super Bowl just as bad as I do.” Sherman understood what Browner meant and responded to his former teammate via text: “Lol.” Before the game’s decisive play, with Seattle facing second-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Browner recognized what was coming and positioned himself behind teammate Malcolm Butler to thwart the upcoming pick play. At the snap, Browner practiced what he preached — put your hands on people — jamming receiver Jermaine Kearse at the line of scrimmage and clearing the path for Butler’s game-clinching interception. Moments after the pick, he ran over to Sherman. The pair were photographed on the field, their faces pressed against each other in what looked like a heated exchange. But when asked what he said to his former teammate, Browner answered, “I love you, boy.” Browner returned to Pacoima and held free summer camps for children in the neighborhood. Chancellor and Sherman were special guests. He began the process of starting up a youth football league. In 2014, Browner bought a 3,668-square-foot home in Pomona, about an hour east of where he grew up. In the spring of 2016, one year after signing a three-year, $15 million deal with New Orleans, he bought his mother a house. “It took me a while, but I accomplished goal No. 1 from day one,” he announced. Shortly after, his third child, a daughter, was born. Browner spent 2015 with the Saints, where he was voted a defensive captain, but was released following the season. He attempted a comeback with the Seahawks that offseason but was among the team’s final cuts. By the start of the 2016 season, he was out of football. Every player’s career has to end; rarely is the transition easy. For Browner, it had perhaps a higher degree of difficulty. Several former Seahawks made their homes in the Seattle area, where they formed a support system for one another. But Browner headed back to California, where relationships with his family were strained. “He was trying to find himself, but he just lacked the family,” Sherman said. “We’re family. We watch out for each other, and he didn’t have that anymore.” “Nobody can relate to what you’re going through with the transition — or the denial — of your career being over with,” Avril said. “Trying to fit into the real world, trying to find who you are outside of football. It’s just a wide range of different thoughts guys struggle with because they’ve been doing this their whole life. If you can find that community of people who have gone through that … it allows you to be able to vent, and people understand what you’re going through.” But back home, Browner spiraled. He was arrested for cocaine possession in May 2017. Four months later, he was arrested again. His girlfriend sought a restraining order against him, alleging he had assaulted her — leaving her with black eyes, a broken tailbone and a busted eardrum — and threatened to kill her. In June 2018, Browner was sentenced to three years’ probation and served two days in jail after a no-contest plea to battery and child endangerment. He was also ordered to take a 52-week domestic violence treatment program. But just weeks later, police responded to reports of a man attempting to enter Browner’s girlfriend’s home in La Verne, Calif., through a locked window. Police say Browner stole her $20,000 Rolex watch, threatened to kill her, prevented her from leaving the house and attempted to smother her. Browner left the home before the police arrived, but later that day, he was arrested in nearby Azusa. He was charged with attempted murder, robbery, burglary, false imprisonment and child endangerment. The next day, Browner’s arrest was national news. His teammates were shocked. He pleaded no contest to attempted murder and child endangerment and in December 2018 and was sentenced to eight years in prison. A judge denied Browner’s attempt to have the decision vacated in February. On March 9, he was sent to Wasco State Prison, where he is inmate No. BL7078. Browner’s aggression and desperation had helped him become a key player in one of the NFL’s most iconic position groups. He won a Super Bowl and made millions. His family is broken. He has three young children. He is eligible for parole in 2024.
  2. https://theathletic.com/1809424/2020/05/12/projecting-the-falcons-89-man-depth-chart-in-the-middle-of-a-virtual-offseason/ In any other year, the Falcons soon would be holding organized team activities. Given the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, players and coaches have been forced to meet on a virtual basis. These virtual meetings had some rocky moments as players and coaches were forced to grow accustomed to using a video chat to connect with one another. There were miscommunications due to time-zone differences or players not realizing they weren’t on mute. But given the simplicity of the technology, it didn’t take long for everyone to figure out how to communicate properly. With all the quirks worked out, it actually has been an efficient alternative. During these meetings, players will check in with their position coaches to go over film while receiving additional instruction about the scheme. “We’re just trying as many ways as we can to go through it, and then we go through a lot of feedback,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “We ask what the players benefitted from, and we also do that as a staff, what worked well, what didn’t, what can we do more of, and we’re constantly trying to challenge the guys.” There hasn’t been an announcement about when the NFL will be able to resume football activities. In the meantime, various teams are adjusting accordingly. For a team like Atlanta, which is looking to bounce back to the postseason after enduring consecutive 7-9 seasons, it may seem like it is missing an opportunity to get players up to speed by not being able to work out in person during this time. Still, the Falcons are trying to make use of this time the best way they can. “I would say one of my biggest concerns is that we don’t get on the field together and have that type of communication, and there’s no way to do that now, but it doesn’t mean you’re not going to dig in to try and find an edge to find it,” Quinn said. “It’s been a good start. Over the last month, I’ve learned a lot on technology. I love teaching, so finding new ways to connect with the guys, new exercises, new ways to do things, it’s been a challenge but one that’s been fun.” As the Falcons await word on when they can convene again, here’s a projected depth chart for the current group of 89 players. Quarterback Matt Ryan Matt Schaub Kurt Benkert Danny Etling What’s good: Ryan will enter his 13th season. There are no issues surrounding Atlanta’s starting quarterback. What needs to be addressed: While Schaub is the favorite to be the backup once again, it will be interesting to see if Benkert or Etling could challenge him for the spot this preseason. Benkert was off to a good start last year before a toe injury sidelined him for the season. Running back Todd Gurley Ito Smith Brian Hill Qadree Ollison Craig Reynolds Mikey Daniel What’s good: The Falcons released Devonta Freeman and replaced him with Gurley, a 25-year-old who is often talked about as if he’s 35 due to an arthritic knee. The key will be managing Gurley’s workload to prevent his knee from flaring up. And if Atlanta is able to approach this in the right manner, Gurley can be productive. Much of that will have to do with pairing him with another back, or using two, in a committee approach. What needs to be addressed: It’s wide open as for who will get the first crack at spelling Gurley. Smith and Hill are the favorites, with Ollison a potential option for short-yardage and goal-line duty. The true sleeper of this bunch is Daniel, an undrafted rookie out of South Dakota State. Daniel is expected to take snaps at both running back and fullback, as well as potentially carve out an H-back role. Fullback Keith Smith What’s good: Smith signed a three-year contract this offseason and is all but guaranteed a spot on the roster for this season. What needs to be addressed: While Smith is in the fold for the 2020 season, the Falcons structured his three-year contract so the position could be up for grabs in 2021. Smith will need a strong year to prove that he should be retained after the year. Wide receiver Julio Jones Calvin Ridley Russell Gage Laquon Treadwell Olamide Zaccheaus Christian Blake Brandon Powell Devin Gray Chris Rowland Jalen McCleskey Juwan Green What’s good: The numbers are strong at receiver. And with Jones, Ridley and Gage back for this season, Ryan has to be pleased with his targets on the outside and in the slot. What needs to be addressed: Treadwell will offer a veteran presence as a rotational receiver, with Zaccheaus, Blake, Powell and Gray battling for the final spots. Powell, for now, is also the top option at returner. The sleeper of this group is Rowland, who had 1,437 yards and eight touchdowns last season at Tennessee State. Essentially, it’s all about rounding out the final three or four spots at receiver, which looks to be a deep group once again. Tight end Hayden Hurst Jaeden Graham Carson Meier Khari Lee Jared Pinkney Caleb Repp What’s good: Opting to address edge rusher, the Falcons weren’t in a position to re-sign Austin Hooper. Therefore, they executed a trade for Hurst, which the team hopes will pay off in a major way. What needs to be addressed: Behind Hurst, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the position group will turn out. More than likely, this list will be trimmed to three. Graham, an undrafted free agent out of Yale two seasons ago, made the 53-man roster last year and stuck with the group the entire season. Behind Graham, it’s likely going to be a battle between Meier, Lee, Pinkney and Repp for the final spot. Tackle Jake Matthews Kaleb McGary John Wetzel Evin Ksiezarczyk Hunter Atkinson Scottie Dill What’s good: The Falcons are set at left and right tackle, with Matthews and McGary manning those positions, respectively. For now, Wetzel appears poised to begin as one of the team’s top options at swing tackle. What needs to be addressed: The Falcons will carry eight or nine offensive linemen on the 53-man roster. To be the seventh, eighth or ninth lineman, Ksiezarczyk, Atkinson and Dill will need to show they can offer something the team doesn’t already have, particularly when it comes to position flexibility. Guard Chris Lindstrom James Carpenter Matt Hennessy Jamon Brown Matt Gono Justin McCray Justin Gooseberry What’s good: Lindstrom is a lock to start at right guard. The team missed him greatly after he broke his foot in the season opener. What needs to be addressed: Now that the draft and most of free agency are in the books, left guard remains one of the biggest question marks on this team. While Carpenter started 11 games in 2019, Quinn has made it clear that this will be a wide-open competition. Although Hennessy projects to be the team’s long-term option at center, he will begin his pro career at left guard. Gono is one to watch because if he doesn’t win the left-guard job, he could be an option to be the swing tackle. Center Alex Mack Sean Harlow Austin Capps What’s good: Mack is entering his 12th season and is one of the most valuable members of the team. What needs to be addressed: While Harlow and Capps will surely get plenty of reps at center during the preseason, Hennessy can be considered the top option at backup center. Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. Takk McKinley Steven Means Charles Harris Austin Larkin Austin Edwards Bryson Young What’s good: Atlanta hopes Fowler continues the kind of production he had last season with the Los Angeles Rams, which resulted in 11.5 sacks while playing 80 percent of the defensive snaps. What needs to be addressed: The Falcons will look to continue coaching up McKinley, the franchise’s first-round selection in 2017. McKinley set a goal for 10 or more sacks in 2019 but fell short with only 3.5 in 14 games. As a pass-rush unit, Atlanta will look to do much better than the 28 sacks it posted, which ranked tied for 29th last season. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett Tyeler Davison Marlon Davidson Deadrin Senat Hinwa Allieu Sailosi Latu What’s good: Jarrett finally received a Pro Bowl nod, which was a long time coming. Jarrett is one of the defense’s go-to leaders and will look to anchor the defensive line once again. In run downs, he’ll be joined by Davison, who signed a three-year contract to remain with the organization. And then Davidson, Atlanta’s second-round selection in the draft, will look to provide an interior pass rush alongside Jarrett. What needs to be addressed: Davidson’s development will be the biggest area of focus once team activities resume. At Auburn, Davidson played a lot on the edge. With Atlanta, he will be asked to play inside as a three-technique defensive tackle in nickel situations. Getting Davidson accustomed to that role will be an area of emphasis. DE/DT hybrid Allen Bailey John Cominsky Jacob Tuioti-Mariner What’s good: The Falcons are big on position versatility, and they have three players up front who can play both defensive end and defensive tackle. While Bailey and Tuioti-Mariner played both spots a year ago, Cominsky is projected to see more time as a defensive tackle when the defense is in the nickel package. What needs to be addressed: Last year was considered a redshirt year for Cominsky, who saw his limited reps at defensive end. That should change this season as Cominsky adjusts to the role the team envisioned for him when he was selected. Linebacker Deion Jones Foye Oluokun Mykal Walker LaRoy Reynolds Ahmad Thomas Edmond Robinson Jordan Williams What’s good: Jones has amassed a lot of experience as he enters his fifth season with the franchise. Oluokun is entering his third season and could be primed for a starting slot. What needs to be addressed: Depth behind Jones and Oluokun remains a need, with Walker, one of the team’s two fourth-round selections, being a candidate to earn some rotational time. Last year, the Falcons began the season with four linebackers. Reynolds, Thomas, Robinson and Williams could be duking it out for that final spot this preseason. Cornerback Kendall Sheffield A.J. Terrell Isaiah Oliver Blidi Wreh-Wilson Jordan Miller Josh Hawkins Tyler Hall Delrick Abrams Jr. Rojesterman Farris II What’s good: By drafting Terrell in the first round, the Falcons have their top three cornerbacks set. And with Terrell being an outside corner, that allows the team additional flexibility to have Sheffield man the slot when the team is in nickel. What needs to be addressed: Depth behind the top three corners remains a concern. That stated, Wreh-Wilson is a dependable option at corner as he was able to step in and provide some solid play when called upon last season. Safety Ricardo Allen Keanu Neal Damontae Kazee Sharrod Neasman Jamal Carter Jaylinn Hawkins Chris Cooper C.J. Reavis Ray Wilborn What’s good: The Falcons’ top three options at safety return in Allen, Neal and Kazee, and they also have experienced players in Neasman and Carter to battle for backup spots. The Falcons also think highly of Hawkins. What needs to be addressed: Like receiver, this could be a position that is hard to narrow down when it comes to constructing the final roster. But with two practice squad players able to be elevated to the active roster during game weeks, that could create an extra position for one of these safeties. Punter Ryan Allen Sterling Hofrichter What’s good: Allen has plenty of NFL experience, but the Falcons spent a seventh-round draft pick on Hofrichter. This figures to be an intriguing position battle this preseason. What needs to be addressed: Both Allen and Hofrichter have the ability to pin teams inside their own 20-yard line repeatedly. The competition will come down to which punter can limit punt returns from occurring more often than not. Place-kicker Younghoe Koo What’s good: Koo made 23-of-26 field goals in only half of a season. This proved he was worthy of sticking with the team for another season. What needs to be addressed: With 89 players on the roster, the plan remains to add a place-kicker to compete with Koo this preseason. Holding that process up right now has been the inability to work out a place-kicker at Atlanta’s facility. Long-snapper Josh Harris What’s good: Harris will enter his eighth season as Atlanta’s long-snapper, proving his worth at the position along the way. What needs to be addressed: Nothing. Harris is one of the league’s better and more reliable long-snappers.
  3. https://theathletic.com/1788509/2020/05/01/what-charles-harris-addition-means-to-falcons-defensive-line-rotation/ Back in 2016, Charles Harris was a fourth-year junior in college at Missouri. His Tigers were hosting Georgia in an early season showdown between SEC East teams. The two teams played a thrilling game, with UGA quarterback Jacob Eason finding receiver Isaiah McKenzie for a touchdown on a fourth-down play, which ended up being the game-winning score. But that game became a glimpse at what NFL scouts saw as Harris’ potential. Statistically speaking, his game against Georgia was the best of his collegiate career. He racked up seven tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks and a pass breakup in the 28-27 defeat. That game put him on the map as a potential first-round prospect. Ultimately, Harris decided to bypass his final year of eligibility and declared for the 2017 NFL Draft. It was a good decision as the Miami Dolphins selected Harris with the 22nd overall pick. But Harris hasn’t had the kind of pass-rush production he enjoyed in college, including nine sacks during his final season. And after three years with the Dolphins and just 3.5 sacks, Harris will enter the final year of his rookie contract with a new team. On Friday, the Falcons agreed to trade a 2021 seventh-round selection to the Dolphins to acquire Harris. The Falcons certainly hope they can return Harris to the form he displayed back in his college days. Charles Harris stats SEASON GAMES TACKLES SACKS TACKLES FOR LOSS 2017 16 19 2 5 2018 11 19 1 2 2019 14 23 0.5 3 While the Falcons went with a defense-first philosophy in this year’s draft, they didn’t take a defensive end with any of their six selections. Harris’ addition fills that particular need, which has further rounded out the defensive line rotation for the time being. By surrendering a late draft pick, it’s apparent that while the Dolphins were ready to move on from a previous regime’s first-round pick, the Falcons are more than happy to take a flyer on Harris for one season. Harris is expected to play the LEO role, and he could compete for reps alongside fellow 2017 draft pick Takk McKinley, who Atlanta took four picks later at No. 26 in 2017. By adding another player at this particular position, the Falcons now have three defensive ends who primarily will play off the edge. With Dante Fowler Jr. signing a three-year deal worth up to $48 million, he’s going to get the bulk of the reps among the edge rushers. Fowler played 80 percent of the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive snaps in 2019 and is replacing Vic Beasley, who got 73 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps. McKinley played 53 percent of Atlanta’s defensive reps last season, with Harris seeing 39 percent of Miami’s defensive snaps. It remains to be seen how Atlanta will divide those reps up at the position. But with those three players manning the edge, Atlanta now has further flexibility for some of its other defensive linemen. John Cominsky, who was drafted as a projected pass-rushing defensive tackle, can now focus more time along the interior. Allen Bailey may be able to spend additional reps inside, as well. While Harris has a former first-round tag to his name, this was a move made to aid Atlanta’s rotation. If it works, and if Harris displays the flashes that led to Miami selecting him with a first-round pick, Atlanta can look into signing him to another contract. If it doesn’t, all the organization surrendered was a seventh-rounder. The Falcons are likely to keep eight or nine defensive linemen on the roster for the 2020 season. They value depth and the ability to rotate players so they remain fresh in the fourth quarter. The good news for the franchise is it feels, according to a source, it is getting a “very hard worker” who takes to coaching well. After dealing with two down years and a coaching change in Miami, maybe a change of scenery will do Harris well.
  4. https://theathletic.com/1778262/2020/04/27/thirty-thoughts-on-the-falcons-roster-now-that-the-nfl-draft-is-over/ Now that the NFL Draft has come and gone, here are 30 thoughts about the Falcons’ roster: 1. Out are Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn and Jack Crawford. In are Dante Fowler and Marlon Davidson. It will be a slightly new-look defensive front for the Falcons this season, with the hope that Fowler can add a consistent pass-rushing presence. Fowler recorded 11.5 sacks for the Los Angeles Rams in 2019 and previously played for head coach Dan Quinn during his first year at Florida. The two new additions will be critical in trying to add pressure while producing more sacks. In addition, it will be interesting to see how Takk McKinley responds to having Fowler on the opposite side of the formation. 2. Considering that Davidson was a second-round selection at a position of need, he will get every opportunity to start. The plan is for Davidson primarily to play the nickel defensive tackle role to provide a pass rush up the middle. In that situation, Grady Jarrett would play nose tackle. Of course, Tyeler Davison still will be the primary nose tackle when the Falcons are lining up to defend the run. If Atlanta sticks to the original plan, John Cominsky should start to see some defensive tackle reps, too. 3. With the Falcons addressing cornerback and the trenches with the first three picks, it’s clear that Quinn was telling the truth about Foye Oluokun being a starting linebacker during one of his pre-draft conference calls. Last year, the Falcons asked De’Vondre Campbell to do a lot at linebacker — he covered tight ends, rushed the passer and dropped back as a deep safety. Oluokun actually played safety in college at Yale, so now it looks to be his time to shine in this particular position. 4. While Oluokun figures get the first crack at starting, Mykal Walker, one of Atlanta’s two fourth-rounders, will do his best to vie for a rotational role. Atlanta’s selection of Walker is eerily similar to when it took Campbell four years ago. Campbell was taken with the 115th pick of the fourth round. Walker was selected at pick No. 119, and they have similar builds and athleticism. Both were taken when there was an obvious need at the position. Both are versatile linebackers who can play multiple positions. One thing that stands out about Walker is how instinctive he is on the field. He may not be the plug-and-play starter Campbell was, but Walker could earn some playing time earlier than expected. 5. The Falcons entered the offseason with only Oluokun, Deion Jones and Ahmad Thomas at linebacker. Since then, they have added LaRoy Reynolds and Edmond Robinson before drafting Walker. Jones, Oluokun and Walker seemingly are locks to make the 53-man roster. Last year, the Falcons began the season with four linebackers. If the same holds true for 2020, there will be a competition among Reynolds, Robinson and Thomas for the final linebacker spot. 6. First-rounder A.J. Terrell will start at one of the outside cornerback spots. If last season is an indicator, Kendall Sheffield can be expected to start as the other outside cornerback in the base package. In nickel, Isaiah Oliver may continue to play one of the outside corner spots with Sheffield moving inside to nickel. Blidi Wreh-Wilson once again will be the steady reserve he has become known for. 7. With Sheffield ending the 2019 season as a nickel cornerback, Damontae Kazee will stick to being a safety. But if Sheffield is the first option at nickel, and if Keanu Neal is healthy enough to resume his strong safety spot, who will start at free safety? That job seemingly would go to Ricardo Allen, the smartest player and a team leader on defense. Could Kazee then go back to a backup role? Or could the Falcons play more in a dime defense? Or could the nickel defense actually feature Allen as the slot corner with Sheffield playing primarily outside? It’s possible that Atlanta’s nickel defense, or a variation of it, could feature three safeties and two corners instead of two safeties and three corners. 8. Neal and Kazee are free agents after the 2020 season, which made safety a position the Falcons felt the need to target in the draft. Jaylinn Hawkins, the second of two fourth-round picks selected, has a little bit of both Neal and Kazee in his game. He’s big and can play down in the box like Neal. He also had 10 interceptions in his college career at California, with six coming as a junior in 2018. This season figures to be a developmental year for Hawkins, and if Atlanta doesn’t keep Neal and Kazee in 2021, the ensuing offseason could decide whether he’s a starter. 9. Of all the smokescreens involving Atlanta, the one indicating interest in drafting a quarterback was the biggest. 10. Matt Ryan will start at quarterback for the 13th consecutive season. But the preseason will be interesting as it pertains to his backup. Matt Schaub, who played well in his lone 2019 start against the Seattle Seahawks, is set to make $2 million as the No. 2 QB on the roster. But Kurt Benkert and Danny Etling have the tools to push Schaub for the spot. 11. The Falcons decided they were good enough at running back and didn’t feel the need to draft anyone at the position. Todd Gurley will be the team’s starter but probably won’t see the number of touches he saw with the Rams back in 2017 and 2018. One of the best camp competitions will be at No. 2 running back between Brian Hill and Ito Smith, seeing that the second running back will still see plenty of snaps. Qadree Ollison will be looking for a big jump too. 12. Last year, people wondered if the Falcons would even carry a fullback. After signing Keith Smith to a three-year deal, that’s not a question this offseason. 13. In what was considered a historic class at wide receiver, the Falcons elected to pass on the position in the draft. Like running back, they must feel good about who they already have. 14. Atlanta did add Laquon Treadwell, a former first-round pick, to the roster during free agency. But he is not expected to be in the top three of the receiver rotation, at least for now. His addition is more in line with replacing Justin Hardy. Treadwell is expected to be a No. 4 receiver who can add value on special teams coverage. 15. Of the receivers on Atlanta’s roster, the biggest winner is Russell Gage. After how he finished the 2019 season, he’s expected to remain the No. 3 receiver. 16. The Falcons drafted six players but added seven with the draft picks they had prior to the start of free agency. They traded second- and fifth-round picks to the Baltimore Ravens for Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round selection. The second-rounder can be attributed to Hurst while the original fifth-rounder moved up a round. 17. The second-rounder Atlanta traded was the 55th overall pick. With that slot, the Ravens took Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins. Again, Atlanta’s faith in its existing running backs and the need for a tight end won out over adding to the backfield. 18. Behind Hurst, the Falcons will have a competition to monitor closely. Jaeden Graham is the only returning tight end on the roster and figures to be the lead candidate to be Hurst’s backup. Khari Lee and Carson Meier will compete for a blocking tight end spot. And then there’s undrafted free agent tight end Jared Pinkney, who a lot of analysts expected to be selected during the past weekend. Pinkney’s best year at Vanderbilt came in 2018 when he recorded 50 catches for 774 yards and seven touchdowns. 19. Whenever football activities resume, left guard will involve the most crowded competition. Four players — James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Matt Gono and rookie draft pick Matt Hennessy — will all hope to end the preseason as the starter. Quinn said Hennessy will have a good chance of winning the job. 20. Gono’s offseason is an important one. He began his pro career at tackle in 2018 before seeing some practice reps at guard late in the year. He opened the preseason at guard last year before moving back to tackle. Yet by the end of the year, Gono was back at guard again. Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary are entrenched in their positions. Does Gono also compete with John Wetzel as the swing tackle? Or does Gono stay at guard? 21. The Falcons were strategic with the lone offensive player they took in this year’s draft. As expected, they selected a center who has the versatility to play guard immediately. Hennessy’s long-term future is obviously at center. But with Mack under contract for one more season, Hennessy will start out at left guard. Hennessy was the second center selected in this year’s draft, behind only Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz (New Orleans Saints). 22. If Hennessy, 22 years old, wins the starting job at left guard, the Falcons will have an average age of 26.2 on the offensive line. The other projected starters’ are Matthews (28), Mack (33), Lindstrom (23) and McGary (25). This shows the effort Atlanta has made to scale younger up front the past two offseasons. The average age of the offensive line going into the first week of the 2019 season was 27. In 2018, it was 29.8. 23. With Atlanta deciding to not retain Matt Bosher, the Falcons added punter Sterling Hofrichter in the seventh round. While Ryan Allen finished the 2019 season as the team’s punter, he isn’t a long-term option for the franchise. Hofrichter’s hang time is attractive to this coaching staff, which holds a special teams philosophy in limiting the number of overall returns. 24. Right after the 2019 season ended, Quinn said the team would add competition for place-kicker Younghoe Koo. That hasn’t happened yet, although that remains the expectation. 25. Quinn said receiver Brandon Powell is the leading candidate to be the team’s return specialist. Undrafted free agent defensive back Tyler Hall returned kicks at Wyoming, which could create an avenue for him to make the 53-man roster. 26. In addition to Pinkney and Hall, an undrafted free agent signee to keep an eye on is Buffalo offensive tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk. Ksiezarczyk, at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, was the Bulls’ left tackle who helped lead one of college football’s best rushing attacks. Buffalo finished 10th in the nation and first in the MAC in rushing with 250.5 yards on the ground per game. 27. If Atlanta’s offense has a sleeper, it would have to be Gage. Gage will begin the 2020 season as the top slot option, with skill position players Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Hurst and Gurley working around him. Gage, by default, should find himself open or in single coverage more often than most. 28. On defense, Atlanta’s sleeper is Steven Means. It doesn’t appear the public has taken notice of Means, even if he’s someone Quinn and defensive ends coach Tosh Lupoi have recently raved about. Starting the final three games of the 2018 season, Means recorded seven tackles and a sack off the edge. Returning from an Achilles tear he suffered last offseason, Quinn believes Means will be a significant contributor in 2020. 29. Of last year’s rookies, McGary should see the biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2. McGary showed off his strength as a run blocker but obviously underwent a learning curve as a pass protector. His play improved in the final quarter of the season, which should be a trend that continues in 2020. 30. That stated, barring a sudden change in events during the next two months, the NFL is not expected to have any on-site offseason work until training camp. And even then, no one truly knows if or when that will take place. This lack of offseason work figures to put all rookies across the league at a disadvantage.
  5. Marlon Davidson woke up at 4 a.m. on Friday in a bad mood. He didn’t get much sleep following the end of the first round of the NFL Draft, and when his eyes opened in the early hours of the ensuing morning, they couldn’t shut again. Davidson is confident in who he is as a player. Therefore, he felt he should have been a first-rounder. But after 32 selections Thursday, Davidson was still waiting to hear his name. That didn’t sit too well with him. As a hulking defensive lineman who started all four years at Auburn, Davidson feels he is the best player at his position in this year’s draft class. Being snubbed in the first round wasn’t sitting well with him in the pre-dawn hours of Friday morning. Midway through the second round, the Falcons finally selected him. “I woke up at 4 o’clock this morning because I was mad I didn’t go in the first round,” Davidson said. “Waking up at 4 o’clock, I haven’t been asleep all day. I’ve been waiting on this call, I got it, and now I’m going to give everything I can to this organization. I’m going to give everything I possibly can in my bones to leave everything on the field, every game, to show they did not mess up by picking up Marlon Davidson.” Davidson’s wait didn’t last too long on Day 2 of the draft. The Falcons took him with the 47th overall selection in the second round. Atlanta entered this year’s draft with needs in both the secondary and along the defensive line. After taking Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell in the first round Thursday, the Falcons addressed the interior defensive line in the second round. And the player the franchise is getting has been a big believer in his abilities since the day he arrived on earth almost 22 years ago. “They pulled me out of the womb, and I knew I was destined for greatness,” Davidson said. “I’m 100 percent Marlon Davidson. I’m the best. I’m going to continue to be the best. Whenever you see Marlon Davidson come up in the spot, just know he’s one of those kind of guys. I’m coming in to wreak havoc.” Davidson, like his former Auburn teammate Derrick Brown, had a chance to leave college early and head to the NFL after his junior season. But Davidson, just like Brown, decided to return for his senior season. Davidson felt he didn’t do enough as a junior to put himself in as great of a position as he could have been for the draft. As a senior, he had the best season of his collegiate career. As a big defensive end, Davidson tallied 49 total tackles and 7.5 sacks. At 6-foot-3 and 303 pounds, Davidson has the size to play both inside and on the edge in varying situations. Davidson said if Atlanta asks him to shed some weight and play defensive end at 280 or 285 pounds, he’ll do it. If the Falcons want him to be a three-technique, he’ll be fine with that, as well. During a 17-minute conference call following his selection, Davidson expressed nothing but pure joy about playing for the Falcons. He revealed that he plays “Madden” primarily with the Falcons. Asked if he’s looking forward to playing next to Grady Jarrett, he became excited as he reeled off the players he had familiarized himself with from the popular video game series. “I play with Julio Jones, Matt Ryan. I play with these guys. I know this team,” Davidson said. “Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett. Being small in comparison to everyone else but being this great player, he’s showing everyone he’s great. I watch this every day playing the game. Of course, I want to play next to Grady Jarrett.” While Davidson has scheme versatility, head coach Dan Quinn said the plan at the outset will be to play him as a defensive tackle. Specifically, Quinn said he is looking for Davidson to play a role as a third-down nickel defensive tackle who can create a pass rush up the middle. He also could see some reps in the base package as a defensive end. “He’s been a defensive end, he’s been stand-up, he’s been down,” Quinn said. “We’re going to try to feature him at the defensive tackle spot over the guard. But having a guy with that much versatility, you can imagine we’re going to partner him up as often as we can. His intensity, his physicality, that all shines through.” A shot of Hennessy Prior to the draft, it was believed a run on interior linemen could emerge in the second round. As the round unfolded, only Louisiana guard Robert Hunt was selected in that block of 32 picks. With Atlanta taking a defensive lineman in the second round, the team was able to turn its attention to the offensive line in the third round. Needing a long-term center who can play guard in the short term, the Falcons took Temple’s Matt Hennessy with the 78th overall pick. Hennessy was solely a center with the Owls. A right tackle in high school, he moved to center when he got to Temple for the first day of practice. With Alex Mack entering the final year of his contract, Hennessy has a chance to be Atlanta’s long-term center. In 2020, however, he will compete for what is an open left guard position. Leading up to the draft, Hennessy said it was important to show teams he can play both guard and center. He was able to showcase some reps at guard during the week of the Senior Bowl in late January. “That’s one thing that I’ve really focused on improving throughout this draft process,” Hennessy said. “At Temple, I really just played center because that’s where I was placed, and year to year we felt that put us in the best position to succeed. Going forward, I’m looking forward to playing all three interior spots.” Quinn said Hennessy will start out at left guard and went as far as to say that Hennessy has the potential to eventually win the job. Both Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff lauded Hennessy’s toughness and intelligence as a football player. “With his versatility, athleticism and his full package deal, we were really focused on him being the one we thought we were going to have an opportunity to get,” Dimitroff said. “We, and a lot of people, had him ranked in that second-round area. To feel like we were able to pull him off the board in the third round was fortunate for us.”
  6. https://theathletic.com/1773323/2020/04/25/schultz-falcons-dan-quinn-trying-to-fix-defense-without-seahawks-blueprint/ Every draft selection goes something like this: Team drafts player. Player celebrates. Team says it can’t believe the player fell because the team had been targeting him since middle school, and he’s going to be special, and he’s perfect for the system, and he has the perfect attitude, and on the team’s draft board, he was supposed to be taken much, much, earlier, like a week ago Tuesday. Somehow, things still go wrong. Draft bliss has a limited freshness date. So let’s start with this: By all appearances, the Falcons had a really good first two days of the draft. They appeared to fill three important needs in the first three rounds, and even without Thomas “Itchy Triggerfinger” Dimitroff making a trade: They took cornerback A.J. Terrell (Clemson) in the first round, defensive tackle Marlon Davidson (Auburn) in the second and center Matt Hennessy (Temple) in the third. Hennessy is Alex Mack’s heir apparent at center but will start out at left guard. All three draft picks may start next season. It all looks great today. But temper your glee (or outrage). Even game tape, analytics, background checks and Jedi mind tricks in pre-draft interviews can’t elevate most drafts to much more than a refined game of drunk darts. Nobody can predict how players respond to NFL paychecks or pressure. Nobody knows if they peaked in college or if they just won’t care anymore. But Falcons head coach Dan Quinn needs immediate impact from this class, particularly on defense. He needs edge rusher Dante Fowler, a free agent import, to replicate what he did a year ago with the Los Angeles Rams and Terrell and Davidson to have fast learning curves. The Falcons are painfully young and generally unproven at cornerback after the release of Desmond Trufant in a salary-cap move, and their defensive line play last year was uneven. The defense’s entire personality was as split as the season: from 1-7 to 6-2. Quinn believes Terrell and Davidson can have an immediate impact, pointing to the fact both have played in big games at major programs. “Those are usually the guys who transfer well at the NFL level,” he said. With Tom Brady joining Drew Brees in the NFC South, secondary play is crucial. Quinn is largely perceived as a line coach, but he clearly has embraced using early picks on cornerbacks. Why? “It’s really become a passing league first,” he said. “So you better have, on the defensive side, a way to match up.” Here’s the strange part. Remember when Quinn was hired in 2015? He was coming off consecutive Super Bowl appearances as Seattle’s defensive coordinator. The Seahawks’ starting secondary included two players drafted in the fifth round (Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor), one in the sixth (Byron Maxwell) and one not drafted at all (Brandon Browner) to go with first-round pick Earl Thomas at free safety. That might’ve been an aberration, but it didn’t stop the narrative: If the Seahawks can do that, the Falcons can do that. Don’t use early picks on cornerbacks, spend your resources elsewhere. A case could be made it would clash with Dimitroff’s history of drafting a ton of defensive backs, including several in the first two rounds. Terrell is the ninth defensive back the Falcons have drafted since 2015, including four in the first two rounds: cornerback Jalen Collins (second round, 2015, a bust), safety Keanu Neal (first, 2016, solid when healthy), cornerback Isaiah Oliver (second, 2018, struggled until the second half last season) and now Terrell. He’s actually the seventh DB taken by the Falcons in the first two rounds since 2008. There has been no DB drop-off since Quinn replaced Mike Smith. So was the narrative false or did Quinn’s philosophy change? “I don’t think you had it wrong,” Quinn said. “Even now when I think of some of the players in different rounds, there’s names like (Grady) Jarrett and (Ricardo) Allen and (Demontae) Kazee and (Kendall) Sheffield who weren’t always on the first-day picks. It really also involves the rush. So throwing a guy like Marlon into that group, (with an) attacking front, that’s a part of it. Having that connection between the front and the secondary is important.” Was it an overstatement to assume you could build a starting secondary with late-rounders? “That’s fair. The reason (Seattle) played so well is there were good players everywhere — linebacker, in the front and the secondary,” Quinn said. “There was a connection with one another. It wasn’t just one piece.” In 12 drafts from 2008 to 2019, the Falcons drafted 87 players, including 23 defensive backs. So make that 24 defensive backs out of 90 players now (26.7 percent). The Falcons have taken at least one DB in 12 of the 13 drafts and as many as four in 2013 when Trufant and Robert Alford were the first two picks. The draft position breakdown from 2008 through three rounds in 2020: 24 defensive backs, 15 defensive linemen, 14 linebackers, 14 offensive linemen, eight running backs, eight receivers, four tight ends, two quarterbacks and one punter. There’s an argument to support this: Offenses have become increasingly wide open, and the ripple effect is defenses are in nickel a majority of the snaps. But Dimitroff and Quinn valued Terrell so much that they were willing to trade up from 16th in the first round to a pick in the nine to 12 range to ensure they would get him (even apparently ahead of South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and far higher than most mock drafts had Terrell going). Dimitroff maintains he had only “loose” and hypothetical trade discussions, denying he ever made an actual trade offer. A behind-the-scenes story on NFL.com about Jacksonville’s draft painted a more specific picture, saying Dimitroff “proposed a potential trade” that would’ve sent the No. 16 pick, as well as third- and fourth-rounders, to the Jaguars for the No. 9 selection. But Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell, a former Falcons assistant GM, said no, fearing Dimitroff would take one of his preferred players (notably defensive back C.J. Henderson or edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson). That the deal never happened and Dimitroff landed his preferred target regardless doesn’t change how highly the Falcons coveted a cornerback. “Corner was one of the spots that was going to be a big one for us this offseason,” Quinn said. So much for the perceived Seattle blueprint.
  7. Entering the NFL Draft, the Falcons wanted to focus on improving the defense. Needing to fill holes at cornerback and linebacker and on the defensive line, those were positions the team wanted to target in the first four rounds after identifying various targets throughout a yearlong scouting process, which included a hiccup of self-quarantining and social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In the end, the Falcons drafted what appears to be two plug-and-play starters and another player who will be in the conversation for a rotational spot. Cornerback A.J. Terrell and defensive lineman Marlon Davidson will play sizable roles as rookies. Fourth-rounder Mykal Walker, a versatile linebacker who played numerous positions in college, could have a chance to rotate with Foye Oluokun depending on the defensive package. Four of the team’s six draft picks were on defense, with safety Jaylinn Hawkins providing depth and a special-teams role. “We were 100 percent looking to bolster our defense,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It was going to be a defensively dominated draft. We obviously stayed on track.” Of course, everything is rosy right after a draft, with the team excited about the players it scouted and acquired. Time will tell if this class is able to provide the right kind of immediate contributions and long-term success. Before breaking down each of the six picks, here are three things that stood out when looking at this Falcons haul. • Atlanta decided not to take a running back with any of its five picks in the first four rounds. While there was a lot of speculation the Falcons would take a running back, head coach Dan Quinn said he feels good about the players returning behind Todd Gurley. In particular, Quinn said he was feeling great about Ito Smith’s development before his season-ending injury. He said he has been happy with the development of Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison. • The Falcons appear to have three starters, including the aforementioned defensive players, in this year’s class. While the first two picks were expected in terms of what round they went in, the fact that interior offensive lineman Matt Hennessy was available in the middle of the third round was a bit surprising. There were several centers the Falcons felt were considered second-round prospects, with Hennessy being one of them. Zero centers were taken in the second round, however, with the bulk of the players falling to the third through fifth rounds. Hennessy was regarded as a top-three center in this year’s class and was the second one selected behind Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz. • While Ryan Allen ended the 2019 season with the Falcons and is still on the roster, it will be tough for him if he’s to be on the team in 2020. The Falcons decided to draft a player at the position and cut punter Sam Irwin-Hill in the process. Irwin-Hill actually wasn’t a lock to make it to training camp as the team was still dealing with some documentation issues relating to his work visa, which caused him to not stick with the team during the 2019 season. But Dimitroff said the decision to add a punter had nothing to do with Irwin-Hill’s documentation problem and that the Falcons were going to take Syracuse punter Sterling Hofrichter in the seventh round anyway. Also of note is the fact the Falcons didn’t trade any of their picks during the three-day draft. This is the first time Dimitroff has not executed a trade during a draft, which might actually be the most surprising revelation of the past three days. With six players drafted, and at least 18 undrafted free agents to be announced Sunday, the Falcons will have an influx of players to help get them over the 7-9 hump they’ve been stuck at over the past two years. Here’s a look at each of the Falcons’ draft picks. First round, 16th overall: Clemson CB A.J. Terrell The Falcons entered the draft with an emphasis on cornerback with the No. 16. Based on his size (6-foot-1 and 195 pounds), length (31 1/4-inch arms) and speed (4.42-second 40-yard dash), Terrell fits the tangible qualities Quinn is looking for in a cornerback. The coaching staff is truly excited about is how coachable Terrell is. Terrell has a reputation of being a hard worker who’s studious about his position. He got experience pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage and in zone coverage at Clemson. His scheme versatility stood out for Quinn and Dimitroff as those traits fit in with what Atlanta wants to do defensively. Terrell acknowledged he wants to get back to the field after a national championship game against LSU that went poorly for him. While that game did raise some questions, Dimitroff is confident that the rest of Terrell’s body of work is the norm for what kind of player he will be at the NFL level. “That performance wouldn’t have dissuaded us at all,” Dimitroff said. “He was in phase quite a bit. (Joe) Burrow obviously had a **** of a game, dropped the ball in a lot. There were a lot of opportunities there that they really capitalized on. We look at the full picture, as you can imagine. He had a great — very substantial game in the national championship the year before, Alabama game. He had a number of other games where he really stood out in our minds. So one game does not dissuade us.” Second round, 47th overall: Auburn DL Marlon Davidson Davidson sure has a lot of confidence about himself as he repeatedly told the Atlanta media he believes he is the best at his position. He was also miffed that he fell to the second round of the draft, believing himself to be a first-round talent. But with a run on interior defensive linemen not emerging until the second round, Atlanta seemingly got a great value with Davidson, who was ranked as The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s third-overall defensive lineman. Quinn said Davidson will be used a lot as a three-technique defensive tackle when the Falcons are in the nickel package, which is used a lot more these days than base anyway. But Davidson will still see some reps as a 4-3 defensive end. Davidson lauded his own versatility, saying he can do whatever the coaching staff asks of him. “Wherever they want me to be, that’s where I’m going to be,” Davidson said. “If they want me to be 285 (pounds), 280, make a big end on the edge, I can do it all. I have that repertoire in me. Whatever they want me to be, that’s what I’m going to be. I’m coming to Atlanta and coming with everything I’ve got in me and I want to give everything I can to that organization.” Third round, 78th overall: Temple G/C Matt Hennessy Hennessy was moved from right tackle to center the moment he got to Temple for his first practice. From there, Hennessy became one of the Owls’ leaders on offense and was awarded a single-digit jersey at practice, which goes to the toughest players on the team. At the Senior Bowl, Hennessy wanted to show he can do more than just play center. His work at guard during that week of practice solidified the Falcons’ interest. Atlanta does need a left guard in the short term and a center for the long haul with Alex Mack entering the final year of his contract. Quinn said Hennessy will begin his pro career at left guard and noted that he will have a shot to win the starting job. “This kind of smarts and this kind of quickness — we’re a wide-zone team, and he’d better have quickness to come off the ball,” Quinn said. And I think that’s one of the things that jumps out in Matt’s game is urgency off the ball. So his ability to sustain at the second level in the running game, that’s a significant factor. The hardest part for him is the sets are different at guard when you align with guys that are much larger. For him we expect that kind of work to be put in for him at guard, knowing that he has the experience at center, but we’ll start him at guard first.” Fourth round, 119th overall: Fresno State LB Mykal Walker Four years ago, the Falcons selected linebacker De’Vondre Campbell with the 115th overall selection of the fourth round. With Campbell joining the Arizona Cardinals in free agency, a need at the position opened up. And in similar fashion, the Falcons used a fourth-rounder on a linebacker who will at least have a shot to fill the role Campbell is leaving behind. Walker’s strength is how instinctive he is in finding the ball. Beginning at Division II Azusa Pacific, Walker transferred to Fresno State for his final two seasons. He had experience playing inside linebacker and outside linebacker and as an edge defender. “We just talked, and they keyed in on my versatility,” Walker said. “That was something I was trying to show teams. My strong suit is my versatility, and it makes me good for the league. That is something that they brought up. That was one of the first things they said, so I knew we were on the same page. I knew it would be a really good fit.” Fourth round, 134th overall: California S Jaylinn Hawkins Hawkins acknowledged he was surprised to find out the Falcons were taking him. While he received some information that had him as high as the fourth round, most projections had him as a late-round selection or an undrafted free agent. Hawkins went to Cal as a receiver but moved to cornerback during his redshirt season. He then spent the next four years at safety and totaled 10 interceptions, with six coming during his junior year. His penchant for creating turnovers had to have been appealing to this coaching staff, considering Atlanta tied for 17th in the NFL with 12 interceptions in 2019. “Man, my ability is there. Everything I want to do is get the ball,” Hawkins said. “That’s just been my game. It can be from a strip or a pick aspect. I grew up playing offense, now I’m playing defense. My biggest thing is, ‘How can I get to the ball?’ Whatever it is. Rob something or go out there and line something up or strip something. I was a big emphasis not only with myself but with my team at Cal. That was a big emphasis. Get the ball back.” Seventh round, 228th overall: Syracuse P Sterling Hofrichter With 25 minutes to go before the start of the third day of the draft, the Falcons announced they released Irwin-Hill. That proved to be some foreshadowing for Atlanta to either draft a punter or sign a priority free agent upon the draft’s end. After sitting the fifth and sixth rounds out, Atlanta took Hofrichter, who will now compete with Ryan Allen for the starting punter job in 2020. Hofrichter had a good feeling the Falcons were looking to draft him, saying Atlanta was the team that showed the most interest throughout the process. The word on Hofrichter, a 2019 Ray Guy Award finalist, is that he has exceptional hang time and has a penchant for being able to pin the ball inside the 20-yard line. “Hang time is something they value a lot at Syracuse,” Hofrichter said. “It’s about limiting the return as much as possible. That’s something I strive to be as good as I can at.” In addition, Hofrichter, a Jacksonville, Fla, native, might have endeared himself to his soon-to-be new city by saying he grew up a big Braves fan. Hofrichter even chose to wear No. 10 at Syracuse in honor of Braves great Chipper Jones.
  8. https://theathletic.com/1758440/2020/04/23/nfl-draft-aj-terrell-clemson-tigers-atlanta-falcons/?source=dailyemail CLEMSON, S.C. — A.J. Terrell is 6-foot-1 with above-average speed and a strong grasp on how he fits into a team’s defense. He was Clemson’s top cornerback in 2019, finished his career as a first-team All-ACC selection and played 785 snaps last season, second only to linebacker Isaiah Simmons on the Tigers defense. That doesn’t erase the obvious: Terrell struggled in Clemson’s 2019 College Football Playoff when the stakes were raised and he faced receivers from Ohio State and LSU. Yet, his stock trended higher in the buildup to Thursday night’s opening round of the NFL Draft, when the Atlanta Falcons selected him with the 16th pick. “He’s 6-1 with 4.42 speed and length. And solid film. … His body of work is above average,” said Dane Brugler, The Athletic’s draft expert. “Cornerback is a stopwatch position, and teams aren’t afraid to gamble on length and speed traits at corner.” The Georgia native, who decided to forgo his senior season, completed his Clemson career as a two-year starter with 107 career tackles (3.5 for loss), 20 pass breakups and six interceptions. The Tigers went 29-1 with him in a starting role, which included a 29-game winning streak from the beginning of the 2018 season through January. Terrell’s most famous play of his college career was in January 2019. In the national championship against Alabama, he picked off former Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa on Alabama’s first drive and returned the interception 44 yards for a touchdown, sending Clemson on its way to another title. It also set Terrell up for what was to come in 2019. “He’s put the work in,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Obviously, he’s got the natural ability, but he’s physically put the work in and he’s mentally put the work in. “If you go back and look at his picture when he first got here and you look at him now, it’s just physically night and day. With that strength comes confidence. With that experience comes knowledge and confidence.” Teams in 2019 tried to throw away from Terrell when possible, instead hoping to pick on Derion Kendrick, Clemson’s other starting cornerback. Part of that strategy was because Kendrick was new to the position as a former wide receiver. But the other part was respect for Terrell’s experience and athleticism. He finished his junior year with 39 tackles (0.5 for loss), seven pass breakups, two picks and half of a sack. The interceptions were against Louisville and Wake Forest. “Overall, Terrell must develop his hip and lower body mechanics to maintain his balance in coverage,” Brugler wrote in his draft guide. “But he is a well-built athlete with the physical and mental toughness to compete for starting reps early in his NFL career.” Before the 2019 season began, Terrell approached what ultimately became his final year with a new sense of purpose. His son, Aundell, was born in June. “It actually motivated me in all types of ways,” Terrell said prior to the season. “I feel like I have a lot of responsibility now. Not saying that I didn’t before, but now it’s just given me an extra boost of energy to go out there and do what I do best.”
  9. https://theathletic.com/1765337/2020/04/22/what-happens-when-an-angry-football-fan-emails-an-nfl-general-manager/ Kai Hall wasn’t happy. An otherwise positive person by nature, Hall, a longtime fan of the Falcons, was angry, in fact. Having rooted for the franchise since childhood, Hall felt he was at a breaking point after Atlanta lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018. Atlanta already had suffered three tough one-score losses with significant injuries to Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal and Deion Jones. As a fan, Hall wanted to see something, such as a free-agent acquisition or two, that signaled Atlanta had a plan to replenish these losses. Instead, the Falcons’ plan was to promote from within. At that precise moment, Hall had enough. Done with venting his frustrations on Twitter, he eventually decided to go directly to the source he thought was the cause of all the problems. He figured out Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s email address and fired off a lengthy message detailing his thoughts. Never in a million years did Hall expect a response. Twenty minutes passed by. “Thanks for the email,” Dimitroff wrote back. “Send me your cell and we can talk.” For more than 20 years, Hall has been a die-hard fan of the Falcons. Born in Hawaii, he moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., when he was 4 years old. A few years later, he and his mother moved across the Georgia-Tennessee border to Chickamauga. As a kid, Hall’s connection to the Falcons bloomed thanks to family friend Rich Miano, an NFL defensive back who happened to play the final season of his 10-year career with the franchise in 1995. That season, Hall’s mother and stepfather took him to a game, which ended with a visit to the postgame locker room to meet some of the Falcons’ players. One of Hall’s childhood keepsakes is a photo his mother took — well two, snapped consecutively — of Hall getting an autograph from linebacker Jessie Tuggle. That season cemented Hall’s Falcons fandom. When his mother could afford it, she would take him to Falcons games, which helped further forge their own relationship. Over time, Hall cheered through plenty of down seasons. He was ecstatic during the 1998 season, which resulted in Atlanta reaching Super Bowl XXXIII. Like most Atlanta fans, he was amazed at what Michael Vick could do and devastated in the aftermath of his dogfighting arrest. Hall continued to cheer for the Falcons as they went from a laughingstock in 2007 to a team that established yearly playoff expectations. And in 2009, after moving to Los Angeles to take a job in the nonprofit sector, Hall continued to cheer for the Falcons from afar. Entering the 2018 season, expectations were high for Atlanta. But after the Steelers loss, which dropped the Falcons to 1-4, Hall decided he was done with the Falcons. It wasn’t the losing that drove him to this point. It was that he felt the team was at a crossroads personnel-wise. The Falcons chose not to sign street free agents or make any trades, opting for the next man up philosophy, and Hall said he felt like the team was acting without a sense of urgency. Hall made the decision to root for another team. Living in Los Angeles, he asked his wife, Naomi, who they should cheer for instead. He wanted to go with the Chargers but she wanted the Rams. Naturally, Naomi won, so the two chose the Rams. But Hall didn’t want to be just any bandwagon fan. In his mind, if he was truly to switch teams, he wanted to receive a formal invitation of some sort. Therefore, he sent an email to Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff a day after Atlanta’s loss to Pittsburgh and explained his situation. Hall didn’t write anything negative about the Falcons. He simply wrote it was time for a change since the Rams were the hometown team. “Would you have us?” Hall wrote. Later the same day, Demoff wrote back with what he considered to be an official invite to become a fan of the Rams. Demoff then offered to send the Halls some “welcome goodies.” Within two days, three boxes of Rams apparel arrived at the Halls’ doorstep. With the Halls leaving the Falcons for the Rams, there was one final piece of business to take care of. On Oct. 9, 2018, a day after corresponding with Demoff, Hall decided he would reach out to Dimitroff, the general manager he blamed for Atlanta’s early season mishaps, to explain why he wanted to change teams. Here’s what Hall wrote: Hi Thomas, My name is Kai and I live in Los Angeles with my wife. In 1995, a family friend (Rich Miano) played for the Falcons. As a result, I became a Falcons fan. I have photos of me as a kid rooting the team on from the stands, meeting players after games, and showing off my Falcons gear. That fandom continued on into my adult years. And over the years, I have spent thousands of dollars and given countless hours in support of the team. Now, I am worn down and feel as though I cannot give anything more as a fan. Falcons football is more than a game for me. Growing up without my dad, Falcons football was a way for my mother and to bond over sports. I’ve traveled the Country to support this team. I was there in-person for Matt Ryan’s first playoff game. I was there on Thanksgiving in the Dome when the Falcons lost to Manning’s Colts. My wife and I were in Chicago last season for the team’s first game after that devastating Super Bowl loss. Point of this email is to say that Kevin Demoff of the Rams has extended an official offer to us to become Rams fans here in Los Angeles. It’s incredibly difficult, but we’d like to accept his offer. My wife and I had bought tickets to Sunday’s game against the Bucs, but we sold them and cancelled our travel reservations. I was able to get past the blow out loss against Denver. I made it through the tough times after Vick. I was able to get past the Super Bowl 51 loss and I held hope despite last season’s loss to the Eagles. But it seems like the current team’s philosophy regarding replacing injured players (i.e. next man up) is not working. And it appears the season is all but over, but it’s only October. My heart can only take so much, because I know this team can become so much more. I’ll always love the Falcons, but as a fan it’s so hard to accept the outcome when you have absolutely no control and are completely dependent on the leadership to make the right choices. I want to leave you with a few photos. One is of me as a kid meeting Jessie Tuggle. Which by the way, nearly 22 years later his son Grady gave me a pair of game worn gloves. The other photo is of me and my wife cheering on the Falcons last season at the playoff game here in Los Angeles. Thank you for all the great memories Atlanta Falcons, Kai Dimitroff doesn’t come across as the type to respond to fan emails. Then again, he couldn’t recall if one ever reached him before during his time as Atlanta’s GM. He joked that once this story is published that it “might open Pandora’s Box.” But something about Hall’s email touched him. Perhaps it was the photo with Tuggle. Maybe it was that he could see there was a deep personal connection with the team that Hall developed from childhood. Whatever the case may be, Dimitroff extended the invitation to talk. And two days later, he called. Prior to the call, Dimitroff admitted he wanted to put Hall in his place. “After reading that and hearing that, I thought, ‘You know what? Screw this,’” Dimitroff said. “I’m going to call this guy, and I’m going to show him that we’re good people here, adept people, and it’s worth the time. So that’s what happened. That was the initial (interaction). I was a little agitated myself. I’m sitting there like, ‘Wait a minute. No, no, no, no. Let me have my chance to voice my own opinion.’” Dimitroff figured the conversation could go three ways. • Hall could answer angrily and tee off on Dimitroff without putting much thought into the conversation. • They could both talk through some points but ultimately hang up upset after only a few minutes. • The conversation could be cordial with the two finding common ground. Lo and behold, option No. 3 turned out to be the outcome. The two talked for roughly 45 minutes, going into Dimitroff’s background and philosophy. Hall learned that two of Dimitroff’s influences, as it pertains to leadership and culture, aren’t from football mentors, but from R.C. Buford, the CEO and former general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, and David Brailsford, the cycling coach of Team Ineos who used to lead Team Sky. Dimitroff also explained his reasoning for not making an in-season move after all the injuries that took place in early 2018. “I was able to address my concerns head-on,” Hall said. “Literally, ‘Thomas, why haven’t you gone out and picked up a free agent?’ I was literally asking these questions. Bit by bit he went through and addressed my concerns. That was the coolest thing in the world for me.” Said Dimitroff: “I basically expounded on elements of what we were doing in our approach (in 2018). It wasn’t as easy as just looking at it in black and white. There were so many layers to putting together a football team and a sports franchise. It’s not just on the surface as you may see. I dug into some things that I probably would never have dug into with a fan before. I was appropriate about it, but I believe that was eye-opening for him.” Toward the end of the conversation, Hall said he was convinced to remain a Falcons fan. He asked Dimitroff if he and Naomi made it out to a Falcons game later in the 2018 season, if they could somehow get on the sideline? Dimitroff said that wouldn’t be a problem. The Halls ended up getting tickets to Atlanta’s 2018 game against the Baltimore Ravens. As the game approached, Hall emailed Dimitroff to let him know he would be attending. A week later, Dimitroff called Hall and set him up with sideline passes. The Halls flew to Atlanta and brought along a Los Angeles cycling jersey, with a design featuring palm trees and a sunset, as a thank you gift, with the hope they would run into Dimitroff on the sideline. Sure enough, as Kai and Naomi stood on the visitors’ sideline near the kicking net, Kai received a call from an unknown number. It turned out to be Dimitroff’s assistant at the time, who told them the Falcons’ GM wanted to meet them. The assistant linked up with the Halls and directed them toward Dimitroff. Dimitroff embraced the couple as if they were long lost pals. “It felt like we’ve known him for a long time,” Naomi said. “He treated us like we were friends and family. He gave us a hug. It didn’t feel like we were meeting him for the first time. It was like we were friends catching up.” When Dimitroff walked away, this easily could have marked the end of any future correspondence. Instead, Hall and Dimitroff continued to email back and forth. Then they started texting. They’ll occasionally chat on the phone. Conversations veer well outside of football. Around May of 2019, the Halls found out Naomi was pregnant, which brought joy to Dimitroff when he heard the news. They started sharing personal stories, such as Hall’s on-and-off relationship with his father. Shortly after Hall got a job at a Fortune 500 company he long wanted to work for, Dimitroff offered advice on how to confront certain on-the-job anxieties that were arising. Hall was hopeful his favorite team would bounce back from the 7-9 season in 2018. Of course, a rough 1-7 start ended Atlanta’s playoff hopes before the Falcons ever got off the ground. But in a year’s worth of time, Hall was no longer active, and angry, on Twitter. Sure, he hated it when the team lost. But there was a newfound perspective learned when it came to watching the game. Regardless of a game’s outcome, Hall would text Dimitroff something positive. Seven of the first eight games were rough. During the final eight, the two could celebrate via text after each of the six wins. But one particular game stands out for Hall, especially because he couldn’t watch it. On Dec. 8, 2019, which happened to be Atlanta’s second game against the Carolina Panthers, Naomi went into labor. After their daughter Emilia’s birth, and after Hall saw that the Falcons won 40-20, he congratulated Dimitroff on the win and shared a photo of his baby daughter. Dimitroff was ecstatic and peppered Hall with questions about how Naomi and Emilia were doing, telling the new father how beautiful his new daughter is. Dimitroff’s friendship was much needed in recent weeks. As the NFL operates its business, many citizens around the country have lost their jobs — temporarily or permanently — during the COVID-19 pandemic that has plagued the world. Hall fell into this category. On April 9, Hall received a call that he was being laid off due to the economic impact of the virus. Later that day, he texted Dimitroff about it. Dimitroff vowed to call when he had a free moment. That came two days later, on April 11, shortly after he recorded a podcast with sports reporter Peter King. Dimitroff FaceTimed Hall, to check in and see how he was doing. Sitting with his wife and daughter at their home, Hall was surprised to see a FaceTime request from Dimitroff pop up on his phone. Even though he was let go from his job, Hall has been in good spirits — saying it has allowed him to spend extra time he otherwise wouldn’t have with Emilia. But he felt even better after Dimitroff spoke to him. Dimitroff brought up the attributes he has learned about Hall since meeting him, painting a vivid picture of what his future will be. “When the opportunity was pulled from him I was thinking how difficult it would be to be without a job and compensation during this very precarious time,” Dimitroff said. “Believe me, my focus has been mainly on the draft and building this team. But every once in a while when I have pockets of time to be contemplative, situations like this enter my mind. I am confident that he will not be without a job for long. He’s too bright and intuitive.” On Thursday, Hall will tune into the NFL Draft and hope the Falcons strike gold with their first-round pick. While Dimitroff hasn’t delved into trade secrets regarding the direction they may take, Hall has told him repeatedly who he wants the team to take in the first round. Asked who that prospect is, Hall declined to say, stating he would rather keep that a secret between them. And as it pertains to draft information, Hall certainly pries. Rarely does he receive. Oh yeah — as for the Rams swag Demoff sent the Halls a year-and-a-half ago? Those items were taken to a Goodwill somewhere in the Los Angeles area. What’s crazy to think about, however, is that if Dimitroff never responded, those items would still be in the Hall household. But as things would unfold, Hall’s direct and honest approach struck a chord with Dimitroff. And that chord produced an unlikely friendship that neither could have ever expected. “Through this experience, I decided to remain a fan of my favorite team since the early ’90s,” Hall said. “Also through this experience, and more importantly to my family and I, we forged a friendship and connection with someone who has added tremendous value to our lives, just through the past year or two. To me, that’s invaluable. For that I’m grateful. I developed a friendship with someone who has opened up about their life, and as a result it’s impacted mine. I’ve developed a friendship with someone who has offered mentorship and guidance as it pertains to my profession. My family has gained a genuine friend. When you have a friend you want them to succeed and you’re going to stand by them no matter what.”
  10. https://theathletic.com/1762718/2020/04/21/schultz-falcons-need-to-reverse-past-flubs-if-they-go-defensive-line-in-draft/ Before understanding where the mindset is of the Falcons’ primary decision-makers during this draft, it’s important to understand their agenda in recent weeks. They continued to restructure and front-load contracts, setting up a likely doomsday scenario in the salary cap down the road, all with the objective of clearing space for this crucial offseason. They committed significant money to a pass rusher (Dante Fowler) who was coming off one good season and is now with his third team in five years, unusual for a player taken third overall. They brought back a former Georgia star (Todd Gurley) with the hope that he can still squeeze something out of an arthritic knee. They traded a second-round pick for a tight end (Hayden Hurst) who was drafted in the first round for his perceived talent but sat third on Baltimore’s depth chart in his second season. All three players come with significant risk but a potentially high payoff. When a coaching staff and front office are desperate for a turnaround, they will attempt a couple of, “Hey, watch this!” moves, because they need a big payoff to save their jobs. Which brings us to this week’s draft. The Falcons will draft 16th in the first round Thursday night unless general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn make a move to sacrifice more of the future for the present and leap into the top 10. Trading up has become a calling card of Dimitroff’s, but it’s not like it always has worked out. The Julio Jones trade in 2011 was a success. But the deals for Sam Baker (2008) and Takk McKinley (2017, to this point) did not work. Desmond Trufant (2013) was solid but not elite and therefore a push. The jury remains out on Kaleb McGary (2019). The Falcons need players on all three layers of their defense. The difficulty in determining which direction they will go partly stems from the uncertainty of who’s making the call. Dimitroff tends to favor defensive backs. Quinn likely leans toward an edge rusher or a player in the front seven, particularly with the Falcons going offensive line early last season and McKinley not panning out to this point. Rich McKay, the team president who stands at a splatter-free distance next to owner Arthur Blank, is the only one with job security. When asked on a media conference call about McKay’s role, Dimitroff said, “The final decision stays in my world.” Truth is, we’ll never know, unless somebody does a tell-all book one day, because the McKay factor makes it’s a confusing mess. In his latest mock draft, The Athletic’s Jason Butt has the Falcons taking LSU edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson if they stay at No. 16 or a difference-maker like Derrick Brown, Isaiah Simmons or Javon Kinlaw if they trade up. If the Falcons go defensive line early, Dimitroff will need to do better than he has in the past. Since 2008, he has drafted six defensive linemen in the first three rounds, and only one has panned out (see chart): Corey Peters, a third-round pick who wound up starting for seven seasons. DL in first 3 rounds of draft since 2008 DL in first 3 rounds of draft since 2008 PLAYER YEAR ROUND (PICK) ALL-PRO PRO BOWL YEARS AS STARTER GAMES SACKS Deadrin Senat 2018 3 (90) 0 0 0 17 0 Takkarist McKinley 2017 1 (26) 0 0 2 45 16.5 Vic Beasley 2015 1 (8) 1 1 5 78 37.5 Ra’Shede Hageman 2015 2 (37) 0 0 1 44 4 Corey Peters 2010 3 (83) 0 0 7 None of the other five met expectations. Chronologically: • Peria Jerry (first round, 2009) suffered a major knee injury in his rookie season and never made an impact. He made only 29 starts (in 64 games) in five seasons. • Ra’shede Hageman (second round, 2014) lived up/down to his reputation for being lazy coming out of college, had significant off-field issues, was released, then re-signed, then failed again. In Dimitroff’s defense, Hageman was drafted largely because coaches Mike Smith, Bryan Cox and Mike Nolan believed they could get the most out of him. • Vic Beasley (first round, 2015) had a glorious season in his second year but otherwise failed, and the Falcons compounded the problem by rewarding mediocrity and picking up his fifth-year option. • McKinley (first round, 2017) struggled to get going his rookie year and has underwhelmed since, to the extent that the Falcons are not likely to exercise his fifth-year option. (Dimitroff and Quinn are still trying to get their public soundbites straight on that one.) The Falcons chose to draft McKinley, despite knowing he was inconsistent and emotionally unstable at times in college. Quinn maintained he is “fully expecting Takk to come back and play at the level we want, and he does, too.” It’s what he would say whether he believes that or not. • Deadrin Senat (third round, 2018) was a fixture on the inactive list for all but two games last year in his second season. That qualifies as an unmitigated failure. Having so many washouts is why the Falcons had to take a risk and dip into the free-agent market for Fowler. Dimitroff has had way too many misses on linemen in what should be the money rounds of the NFL Draft. He has fared better finding quality players with later picks, notably Grady Jarrett in the fifth round in 2015 — he’s by far the team’s best and most consistent defender — and Kroy Biermann in the fifth in 2008 (114 games, 23.5 sacks, for a player picked 154th overall). Vance Walker, drafted in the seventh round in 2009, played seven years in the NFL (four with the Falcons). But late-round finds are nice bonuses. A team should make its bones in the early rounds, especially given the salary commitment. Dimitroff said evaluating defensive linemen has proved to be difficult league-wide but acknowledged mistakes. “I’m not saying it’s more difficult than other positions,” he said. “I am saying we’ve been fortunate to hit on some of the guys in the later rounds, and to your point, some of the earlier picks, we’ve gotten certain production out of them at times, and other times we haven’t. We’re hoping to get that right in the future.” That would be now.
  11. https://theathletic.com/1759921/2020/04/20/falcons-mock-draft-4-0-the-case-for-isaiah-simmons-familiar-face-taken-at-16/?source=dailyemail What do Falcons do? Trade up! OK, they might. They also might not. With the NFL Draft approaching in three days, much of the speculation surrounding the Falcons has been whether this team will rise, I mean, move up. And if the Falcons do move up, would it be for a cornerback? A defensive tackle? Could they gamble aggressively and sell the farm to the Washington Redskins for Chase Young? That’s what makes following the draft process fun. Bits of information break off that can’t be placed together. We hear this; we hear that. But there’s really no sense to make of it until the draft actually happens. Sometimes the pre-draft information turns out correct, like when I heard the Falcons were interested in Kaleb McGary a week before last year’s draft. Sometimes it’s not, such as the entire industry not finding out that Chris Lindstrom was viewed as a mid-first round prospect by multiple teams until after the fact. If the Falcons are to trade up, it should only be for a player who will be viewed as a difference-maker from Day 1. When you’re talking about a disruptive play-making rookie who can start from Day 1 and provide the kind of production needed to move a defense into the top half of the league, there may be a few options at Atlanta’s disposal. The aforementioned Young. Auburn’s Derrick Brown. And Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons. For all three, a move into the top-five would be incredibly expensive. Atlanta would have to give up its first-round pick, either the second- or third-rounder and next year’s first-rounder just to get the ball rolling. From there, the Falcons would need to figure out a deal where it can still have enough picks to fill other holes this year. A move like this would be reminiscent of when Atlanta moved from No. 27 to No. 6 to take Julio Jones. History has been quite fond of that trade. Of those prospects, Young is (obviously) expected to be off the board first at No. 2. It Also would be really tough to pry him from Washington. If Atlanta pulled that off, it would be an absolute grand slam. But let’s assume the Falcons are not able to get it done as it seemingly would be difficult to pull the best non-QB prospect away from Washington. The Falcons do love Brown as a prospect, according to a league source, as do most of the teams in the top 10. Brown also could go as high as No. 3 to the Detroit Lions. Then there’s Simmons, the Swiss army knife of defenders. In terms of fit, Simmons makes the most sense, at least in my humble estimation. Simmons has unbelievable size at safety at 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds. He can play down at linebacker to guard tight ends and running backs. He can blitz the quarterback. He can defend slot receivers. In a pinch, he can man the outside. All three of these prospects could prove costly. Atlanta’s defensive scheme is player-friendly and simple by design. It also relies a lot on masking its coverages. And of these three, Simmons might have the best chance of falling outside of the top five. Here’s how it could happen: • At No. 3, the Detroit Lions could either trade out to a QB-needy team, take Brown, select Jeff Okudah or shock the world by drafting Matthew Stafford’s replacement. • At No. 4, the New York Giants either take an offensive tackle or trade out (which could actually make them ideal partners, if needed, for the Falcons since the Giants could then take a tackle at No. 16). • At No. 5, the Miami Dolphins take a quarterback or trade out. • At No. 6, the Los Angeles Chargers either take a quarterback or trade out. • At No. 7, the Carolina Panthers take Brown or Okudah, if available, or trade out. Although, it sure would seem improbable for the Panthers not to take Simmons if he fell in their lap. The Falcons may feel that difference-maker is Brown. Or even Okudah, who is believed to be the best cornerback in this year’s class. But behind Young, Simmons has the greatest potential to be an exceptional addition to Atlanta’s defense. He would be worth a major jump up in this year’s draft. Of course, it won’t be easy to pull off a trade. And there are likely other teams competing for those coveted spots in the top 10. Therefore, I will sidestep what I just wrote and revert to being boring by keeping Atlanta at 16th overall in my final mock draft. And with my final first-round guess, I have Atlanta taking … First round, 16th overall: LSU Edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson Hello again, K’Lavon. Back in the Falcons mock draft 1.0, I went with Chaisson, the speedy edge rusher from LSU. I veered off, imagining scenarios where the team took a linebacker instead. I was close to having the team pull the trigger on a cornerback with this pick, but I decided against it for three reasons: • I actually would not be surprised to see three top options at cornerback — Okudah, Florida’s C.J. Henderson and Clemson’s A.J. Terrell — gone by the time Atlanta picks at No. 16. Most everyone is in agreement that Okudah will be the first cornerback off the board. This year’s cornerback class at the top is not like last year’s. Perhaps draft writers were showing a bit of recency bias with how last year’s cornerback class fared. If Atlanta does want of those three cornerbacks, it might be forced into a trade-up scenario, but perhaps not as high as the top five. • The depth of the cornerback class is great at the top. It’s also pretty solid across the board, which will give Atlanta options in the middle-round range if it is unable to take one in the first round. If Atlanta does indeed pass on a cornerback in the first round, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this team take two in this class. • The Falcons may not feel immense pressure to draft a cornerback if the top options are no longer available. That would have to do with how they feel about Kendall Sheffield, selected in the fourth round last year. On a conference call Monday, head coach Dan Quinn was asked if Sheffield had the makings of being a No. 1 corner for his team. “Yes, I feel that way,” Quinn said. “We played him a ton in the slot when we were playing in the nickel defense. That wasn’t something he had tons of experience, and I thought he kept growing and he was really up for the challenge. In our league, the division, and certainly in the NFC, there are some guys you want, at times, to match up if you need to, and he’s definitely somebody with the speed and short-space quickness to do that. I definitely think he has a shot to do that based on his speed. He’s just going to continue to grow.” At the same time, the Falcons may prefer Sheffield in the slot when in the nickel defense, especially with Quinn’s revelation that Damontae Kazee will play primarily at free safety this year. And if so, that would be the counter to this particular argument. If Okudah, Henderson and Terrell are all gone by No. 16, and the Falcons still want to take a cornerback, TCU’s Jeff Gladney could be of note for the spot. But back to Chaisson: If Atlanta stays at No. 16 and doesn’t select a cornerback, Chaisson has a great chance to be the pick due to Atlanta’s need to further bolster the pass rush for 2020 and for seasons to come. While Atlanta signed Dante Fowler in free agency, Takk McKinley is entering the final year of his contract while rehabbing a third shoulder surgery. John Cominsky could be in line to play more as a nickel defensive tackle, which was the plan for him when Atlanta traded up to take him in the fourth round of last year’s draft. Sometimes it’s more fun to avoid the obvious. But this player and team have been linked for quite some time. If Atlanta is unable to trade up, or ultimately decides not to do so, Chaisson very well could have the best odds of being Atlanta’s first-round pick. What they should do: Do not let Kenneth Murray fall to the New Orleans Saints. You will regret this if it happens, Atlanta. TRADE: Atlanta trades the 47th and 143rd to the Baltimore Ravens for the 60th, 106th and 170th overall selections. Second round, 60th overall pick: Washington C Nick Harris Yes, I’m going back to Harris with this selection as I had two mocks ago. What I know is the Falcons are looking at interior linemen in this range. Harris has been the player most consistently undervalued by draft writers throughout this process. Multiple teams value him as a second-round interior lineman. Now, that doesn’t mean he will go in the second round as there are other talented interior linemen who could push Harris down the draft board. Harris fits Atlanta due to his versatility, seeing as he has played guard and center during his collegiate career. The Falcons would love to add competition at left guard while grooming a center for the future as Alex Mack is entering the final year of his contract. And the interest with Harris has been there for a while. The Falcons spoke with Harris at the Senior Bowl and held a virtual meeting with him during this adjusted offseason draft process. Another option could be Temple’s Matt Hennessy, who is also a highly regarded interior offensive lineman in this year’s class. TRADE: Atlanta trades the 78th overall pick to the Buffalo Bills for the 86th and 167th overall selections. Third round, 86th overall pick: Oklahoma State CB A.J. Green Hey, this name is familiar. But no, the former Georgia star receiver who has spent his entire career with the Cincinnati Bengals did not go back to college to become a cornerback at Oklahoma State. This A.J. Green does have the physical make-up for what the Falcons look for in their corners. He’s 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds with 30 ⅞-inch arms. Adding to this, the Falcons have expressed interest in Green throughout the pre-draft process. If Atlanta doesn’t take a cornerback in the first round, both the second and third rounds will be legitimate possibilities for the position. Third round, 106th overall pick: Arkansas DT McTelvin Agim Two positions that are deep in this year’s class are cornerback and defensive tackle. At least in this surely wrong mock draft, the Falcons are able to turn their attention to defensive tackle late in the third round, thanks to the hypothetical trades I worked out for them. Agim offers the kind of versatility Atlanta covets as he played last season at defensive tackle after previously playing defensive end. He certainly would be a developmental prospect at the position but one who would seemingly fit a 4-3 scheme. Fourth round, 119th overall pick: Maryland RB Anthony McFarland If the Falcons want to add speed in the backfield, they would be able to do so by adding McFarland. Fun fact: McFarland initially wanted to go to Georgia before Mark Richt was fired. In the aftermath, McFarland stayed home and went to Maryland. Unfortunately, the Terrapins were never a good team during his three years with the program. That doesn’t mean McFarland can’t be a good NFL running back, of course. In high school at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., McFarland was a track standout in addition to being a coveted football recruit. He could wind up being one of the biggest sleepers in this year’s draft class at his position. Fifth round, 167th overall pick: Louisiana Tech DB L’Jarius Sneed We all know how much Atlanta loves versatile defenders. Sneed played his senior season at safety after spending his first three at cornerback. Sneed is 6-0 and 192 pounds with 31 ⅜-inch arms, so he passes the Falcons’ eye test at the position. Throw in his 4.37-second 40-yard dash, and you’re talking about a potential find in the later rounds of the draft. Fifth round, 170th overall pick: Portland State TE Charlie Taumoepeau Taumoepeau began catching the eyes of scouts after two games during his junior season in 2018. Against Nevada, he went for three catches, 130 yards and two touchdowns. A week later against Oregon, he caught five passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. He’s also willing to get his nose dirty as a run-blocker. A Senior Bowl participant, Taumoepeau has the chance to be a lot of teams’ mid-to-late-round sleeper. Seventh round, 228th overall pick: Southern Mississippi WR Quez Watkins Watkins’ speed alone might make him worth a late-round flier as he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. He would be a developmental player at receiver who could have the opportunity of contributing on special teams early in his career if he’s able to make a 53-man roster.
  12. https://theathletic.com/1754981/2020/04/17/falcons-mailbag-given-recent-rumors-will-atlanta-really-trade-up-in-nfl-draft/ With less than one week to go until the NFL Draft, here’s a Falcons Mailbag. What’s more likely, the Falcons trade back in the draft or that they admit the new uniforms were an April Fool’s joke that went too far? — Josh R. Haha! Now, this is actually a tough one. While I know the Falcons would never admit such a thing regarding the uniforms — especially with all the time and preparation they took for what they hoped to be a dramatic release (only to be undercut by a leak) — trading back just doesn’t seem to be in Thomas Dimitroff’s DNA. Sure, there is a first time for everything. But based on history, the Falcons just aren’t likely to trade back. The Falcons have never done so in the first round since Dimitroff took the job in 2008, so why should we believe this could happen now? Now, to be frank, I just don’t care about the team’s new uniforms. But I also don’t hold a fan allegiance the way you guys do. So while it’s not a topic where I put much concern, I get why it’s important to the fan base. But to answer the question about what would happen first, I’d have to lean toward trading back. Jason, do you think the Falcons will actually pick at 16? — David A. Three days ago, I would have said yes. Now, I’m not so sure. And this isn’t necessarily because of recent reports and rumors that the Falcons are exploring options to move up in the draft. Given the circumstances of how this year’s draft is going to occur, I have this great feeling that this could be as unpredictable as we’ve seen in quite some time. I also think that positions like cornerback and offensive tackle could see some runs on prospects much earlier than expected. And without a pro day circuit taking place, each team seemingly has been on its own when it comes to evaluating certain players. It would be amazing to see how different each team’s draft board is. There probably isn’t much of a consensus forming since scouts aren’t convening in almost a daily fashion. It’s actually shaking out for the first round to be widely different from what many of the draft writers have mocked up this offseason. NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport even had a general manager tell him this, which he reported earlier Friday. If there is a player Atlanta felt it could get at No. 16 a week ago but the team has since learned that may not be the case, it very well could trade up. If the Falcons feel they’re getting a good deal to move up for someone like Isaiah Simmons or Derrick Brown, that could be something to consider, as well. During the next six days, the Falcons will have to weigh whether it’s better to wait on a player they’re targeting at No. 16 or if trading up makes more sense. Is it possible we may see the Falcons go safety in the first? Get a guy like Grant Delpit. Had an informal with him. — Michael M. I’m sure it’s possible the Falcons could take a safety in the first round. Whether that’s Delpit, I wouldn’t know. Alabama’s Xavier McKinney could be a first-round option, too. With Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee scheduled to be free agents after the 2020 season, there is a need to have a starting-caliber safety for 2021 if the team doesn’t think it will be able to keep those two. I also think there’s a feeling that some talented safeties will still be available in the middle rounds, so it may not feel too pressing for Atlanta to take one that early. Jason, given that the Falcons seem to surprise us in the draft each year, who do you feel like we take in the first round? For some reason, I lean toward Kenneth Murray, but that may just be me. Thanks for all you do. — Ryan M. I really appreciate those words, Ryan. It means a lot for you and everyone else to still be with us during these trying times around the world. To be honest, I don’t think Murray would be a surprise. And if he’s there at No. 16, there’s a great argument that he would be the best available player at that point and make the most sense to select. I’m a big fan of Murray’s, too. While there are things he can work on, specifically when it comes to anticipating and not overrunning plays, he has everything you want in a modern-day linebacker. He’s exceptionally quick and is stout against the run. He has good speed to cover tight ends and running backs. He’s a perfect fit for Atlanta. But it all comes down to the Falcons’ draft philosophy of taking the best player available at a position of need. If Atlanta feels the cornerback class is more talented at the top than at linebacker and on the defensive line, it would fall in line with their particular strategy to take that position early and follow up on the others in subsequent rounds. So if there is going to be a certain surprise, it may involve taking a cornerback NFL teams are higher on than most of the draft analysts. For now, I’m honestly not sure of a particular player Atlanta will pick. If I had to guess, I do think the position — assuming the Falcons don’t trade up — would be cornerback. Do you realistically think we’ll have a season this year? Seems way too far fetched to happen. — Ankeet C. I would be doing everyone a disservice if I proclaimed what I thought one way or the other as to whether the season takes place. I don’t have a background in epidemiology. I have no earthly idea what is happening behind closed doors in the scientific community when it comes to combating COVID-19. In addition, we’re in mid-April, and the season is scheduled to start in September. We just don’t have enough information at our disposal to make a clear determination as to whether sports will be played or not. That stated, if sports are to be played and there is no vaccine available for the public, it would be really tough for fans to be allowed in the stadiums. On that part, I am willing to offer an opinion. Given the timetable for a safe and effective vaccine to hit the public — which is typically 12 to 18 months — fans attending games seems unlikely for the rest of 2020. Even then, you still could be putting at risk a couple of hundred people participating in, officiating and recording sports games inside a stadium. It’s still too early to rule out a season. But that’s only because of the variable unknowns now. If the Falcons miss or disappoint in the playoffs for the next two seasons, do you think Matt Ryan and/or Julio (Jones’) time in ATL has to come to an end? — Tucker H. They don’t have to come to an end. But it’s an interesting thought to ponder. Ryan will be 35 this season. Jones is 31. If the team disappoints and a new regime comes in, you’d have to think some form of rebuilding will take place. In that scenario, I wouldn’t rule out anything, even with Ryan and Jones. With two seasons down the road in mind, Jones’ dead cap would be $15.5 million in 2022 and $7.75 million in 2023. So there are potential outs in those years — 2023 being the main one. As for Ryan, his dead-cap number is $26.525 million in 2022 and $8.612 million in 2023. And that’s if those contracts stay as-is. When it comes to restructuring a deal like Ryan’s, Atlanta may be done unless it adds years to it. Converting base salaries into signing bonuses ultimately catches up, which is something to be concerned about. So with both of these players, there may not be many more opportunities to relieve the salary cap in the short term without doing great harm in the long term. And if Atlanta (1) doesn’t become a championship contender and (2) undergoes a coach/GM change, then yes, I could see such a scenario as you outlined taking place. If Vic Beasley has a strong year in Tennessee, is that an indictment on (Dan) Quinn that also exonerates Dimitroff? — Jeff R. Going back to 2016, it looked like Dimitroff did a great job with this particular evaluation and that Quinn was doing an exceptional job of coaching Beasley. From there, no one could have seen the next two years occurring — with the team then gambling on an increase in production by picking up his fifth-year option, only to not get the double-digit sacks it was hoping for. Given what he did in 2016, the potential will always be there. How much of tapping into that potential involves the coach motivating him? And how much of it falls on the player? Those are the two questions that have to be answered when it comes to Beasley. I don’t believe all of it should fall on Quinn, as Beasley deserves his share of the blame. But if Mike Vrabel and his staff at Tennessee are able to get more out of Beasley than Atlanta did, this argument certainly will be made.
  13. https://theathletic.com/1747300/2020/04/14/homecoming-todd-gurley-is-ready-to-wear-red-and-black-for-second-time/ Todd Gurley didn’t grow up in Georgia. Born in Baltimore and having attended high school in Tarboro, N.C., it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think he might have a much greater connection to those places than the city and state where he spent three years of college. But as fate would have it, Gurley’s time at the University of Georgia in Athens meant just as much as either of the places he lived beforehand. As one of the best running backs, if not overall players, to ever suit up for Georgia, Gurley routinely visited Athens during his downtime while a member of the Los Angeles Rams. In news conferences, Gurley often would wear UGA gear. When he officially signed with the Falcons last week, he posted a video to his social media accounts not with his new team’s clothing but with a UGA shirt and hat. Athens grew near and dear to Gurley’s heart. His affinity certainly spread to the entire state, considering the legions of Georgia fans who showed up from all over to watch him play. Now that he’s with the Falcons, Gurley is excited to return to the state that catapulted him into the limelight of being an elite player. “It’s really home for me,” Gurley said. “I’m really excited. I’m pretty sure a bunch of Georgia fans are here. It’s really like a little homecoming. I felt like I should’ve been there forever, but it’s perfect timing for sure.” With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the world, and subsequently the ability to travel, Gurley is still residing in Los Angeles and has been unable to make it back to Georgia. He has made his presence felt to his new team’s community by donating meals to low-income and high-risk residents in the area, along with the Ronald McDonald House, Piedmont Hospital and Northside Hospital. When he does arrive in Atlanta, he will put on the familiar colors of red and black in a home stadium 70 miles from where he ran between the hedges. Considering his standing among the Georgia faithful, Gurley’s sheer presence should put a lot more local eyeballs on the Atlanta franchise — whether it’s from tuning in at home or showing up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. There have been many fans who have long clamored for the Falcons to draft or sign some former Georgia players. For those folks, they got their wish in a big way with Gurley’s acquisition. “It will remind a lot of people of his days in college,” said former Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason, who was Gurley’s teammate from 2012-14. “I know he visits here in the offseason a lot. The other part is you get to see the kid play way more. He was on the West Coast, and you never got to see any of his games. You only got to see the ESPN highlights. The thing that’s cool about that, too, is you get to literally watch every one of his games.” Mason, who now co-hosts “The Cheap Seats” on Atlanta Sports X 106.3 FM, was Georgia’s starting quarterback during Gurley’s junior season. What he remembered about Gurley was the positive and jovial attitude he displayed regularly. As he became a college football star in 2012, Gurley didn’t let his success overwhelm him. He could be a jokester at times, sure, which is something Gurley even referenced during a recent conference call with the local Atlanta media. But Mason said that during the three years he got to know him at Georgia, Gurley remained the same kind of person from the moment he arrived on campus. “Super easy to work with, man. No diva to him,” Mason said. “That’s usually always the case when guys come in as a freshman. Guys are hungry, and they want to prove everything. That work ethic and that desire to be the best tends to dip off as the pats on the back increase. That never was a problem with Todd. You saw a kid who made his way in being one of the best running backs in college football and one of the most prominent Georgia football figures of all time. He still, even into his junior year, had the same work ethic he had as a freshman. That always stuck out to me.” When Mason became Georgia’s starting quarterback in 2014, the offense was heavily reliant on Gurley and the ground game, which also featured freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The Bulldogs were very much committed to the run, with Mason chuckling about “how little we threw the ball.” Gurley’s performance through the first five games had him among the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy as he posted 773 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, which was good for a staggering average of 8.2 yards per carry. What followed was an unfortunate turn of events for Gurley and Georgia. He was caught selling autographs and was handed a four-game suspension by the NCAA, which effectively ended those Heisman hopes. When Gurley returned, he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament late in Georgia’s blowout win over Auburn. That ACL tear, and subsequent surgery, reportedly has turned into arthritis, which has become a storyline often attached to Gurley. For as popular as Gurley was, and is, with Georgia fans, it was a less than ideal way to end a collegiate career. But for those Georgia fans who wished the Falcons would have taken him at eighth overall in the 2015 NFL Draft — he went to the Los Angeles Rams two picks later — it’s now a scenario of better late than never. “It’s where I grew up. It’s where I turned into a man,” Gurley said. “It’s where I learned everything that I’ve been able to do these last couple of years. It’s where I developed my football habits, meeting great people, great relationships. I still have friends who are still in Georgia that I stay in contact with. It just feels like home. It’s a great feeling to be back. I’m super excited.” It’s unknown how the Falcons plan to use Gurley. In today’s NFL, very few running backs are taking upwards of 30 carries per game. Since Falcons head coach Dan Quinn took the job, the running back position has mostly involved a rotation. With Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison on the roster, and with the possibility of Atlanta selecting another running back in the draft, a tandem or committee approach could be in store. Both Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff alluded that Gurley’s addition shouldn’t impact how the team approaches the draft. “I think Todd is explosive. I think Todd can still tote the rock very, very well,” Dimitroff said. “He’s going to be a big-time playmaker, I believe. He has the ability to do that. I think we have a group of running backs that can contribute. I’m a big believer, I mentioned before, that it’s not just about one person running all of the runs, of course. We’re a big mix-up team. We think that’s a very important part of making sure that we rotate our guys through there.” Said Quinn: “As far as one player changing the overall framework of it, that’s not as likely.” If the Falcons use Gurley as the lead back in a committee, perhaps they will be able to effectively manage the wear and tear that inevitably comes with the running back position. While Gurley was a terror in 2017 and 2018, his numbers dipped to 3.8 yards per carry last season. Some of that could have been due to his knee. But before Gurley’s big years in 2017 and 2018, he had a statistically dreadful year in 2016, when he started 16 games and ran for only 885 yards and six touchdowns — and there were no injury issues of note then. While Gurley’s arthritic knee is surely a concern, Pro Football Focus graded the Rams as having the fourth-worst offensive line last season. “(Gurley) really takes care of his body well, and he’ll continue to work on it,” Dimitroff said. “We’ll continue to be very mindful about what we are dealing with, and we feel very comfortable with it. Of course, this is a tough game. It’s a warrior game. We know that. I’m not spinning off on that. He’s a hard-charging runner, and he’s an excellent football player, and we are counting on him to be an excellent football player for us.” Todd Gurley’s rushing stats SEASON CARRIES YARDS PER CARRY PER GAME TOUCHDOWNS 2015 229 1,106 4.8 85.1 10 2016 278 885 3.2 55.3 6 2017 279 1,305 4.7 87.0 13 2018 256 1,251 4.9 89.4 17 2019 223 857 3.8 57.1 12 With Gurley stuck in Los Angeles for the time being, he has maintained a regular routine to stay in shape and remain sane amidst the quarantine. He has a neighbor who has all the necessary equipment at his property, so he has been making use of that when working out. He has been getting plenty of sleep, as well, saying that he isn’t rising until 10 a.m. each day. Gurley’s excitement about returning to Georgia is evident. During his five-year career, he was voted to the Pro Bowl three times and named to the All-Pro team twice. Though 2019 didn’t go his way, Gurley is certain he can still produce like he did when he was considered among the best running backs in the NFL. “I’m still creating my legacy and am trying to be the best player I can be,” Gurley said. “I know what I’m capable of, I’ve done it before. It’s just keep doing it again and be consistent. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”
  14. https://theathletic.com/1752749/2020/04/16/dawsons-creek-to-the-nfl-draft-overlooked-alex-highsmith-proving-he-belongs/ He belongs. That’s the mindset Alex Highsmith, a former no-star prospect out of high school, has taken to heart during the process of proving why he’s worthy of being selected in next week’s NFL Draft. Not many college programs wanted Highsmith coming out of high school. Davidson and Furman inquired, with Highsmith eventually walking on at Charlotte. And even that came through Highsmith’s own initiative when he asked a rival head coach if he could send his tape to his son on the Charlotte staff. Through sheer will, work ethic and determination, Highsmith developed into a player who has gone from overlooked to a near-lock to be selected before the end of the draft. But while Highsmith is all but certain to be selected, there’s still a belief that he’s being overlooked again. His numbers as a fifth-year senior are eye-popping. In 2019, he had 14 sacks, which tied for third in all of college football, and only 2.5 behind Ohio State’s Chase Young. Leading up to Charlotte’s game against Clemson, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney declared that Highsmith “could play for anybody in the country.” After the game, Clemson left tackle Jackson Carman said that Highsmith was, “by far the fastest off the ball I’ve ever gone against. Ever.” Still, Highsmith is considered a mid-round selection entering the draft. A part of him still wants to prove how wrong most of the local Power 5 colleges were by overlooking him out Eugene Ashley High School just outside of Wilmington, N.C. At the same time, despite his stellar past two seasons, he’s not getting the kind of attention he otherwise should be getting. Highsmith records these slights in his mind to further add to his desire to prove why he deserves to be considered among the best pass-rushing prospects in this year’s draft class. “The lower I get drafted will be more motivation for me,” Highsmith said. “No matter where I get drafted, I’m going to go into a team’s locker room and work my butt off to be the best I can be and help them win games. I came from that walk-on spot, and I know what it’s like to be at the bottom.” An overlooked star from the beginning Here’s a little-known fact about Highsmith. He appeared for the first time on television when he was a baby on the television program “Dawson’s Creek.” He played the role of the newborn son of characters Bessie Potter (Nina Repeta) and Bodie Wells (Obi Ndefo), making his screen debut near the end of the sixth episode of the first season. Katie Holmes, who rose to stardom after playing the character Joey Potter, held Highsmith in her arms. Despite his rise as a football prospect, this also remains an overlooked aspect of his background. Highsmith was born and raised in Wilmington, so he is frequently asked about “Dawson’s Creek” since the show was filmed there. Little do those questioners know that he played a role in the television series. Highsmith recently made an appearance on Doug Gottlieb’s radio show, with Gottlieb asking the same question. To Gottlieb’s surprise, he found out Highsmith had more than just the coincidence of growing up in the show’s filming location. “That’s something I want people to know, too, that I was a little TV show star as a baby,” Highsmith said. Charlotte head coach Will Healy, who finished his first season with the 49ers, said his wife Emily remains amazed over Highsmith’s brief television career. “My wife talks to him about it more than I do,” Healy said. “She’s starstruck every time she sees him. He’d play pretty well on Saturday and she’s like, ‘No, that was the baby on Dawson’s Creek!’ OK, however you want to talk about him I’m good. He’s a man of a million talents.” In high school, Highsmith didn’t have many suitors wanting to add him to their college teams. He was only a little more than 200 pounds and didn’t hit a growth spurt to 6-foot-1 until later in adolescence. It didn’t help that during his senior season of high school, Eugene Ashley finished with an 0-10 record. “I was pretty skinny,” Highsmith said. “That’s probably why I didn’t get many offers. I hit a late growth spurt; no one knew about me. I feel like I bloomed at the right time; that’s what I’d say.” He didn’t get Charlotte’s attention until he asked then-Hoggard head coach Scott Braswell to pass along his tape to his son, Scotty Braswell Jr., who was a graduate assistant on the Charlotte team’s staff. Sure enough, the 49ers started recruiting Highsmith to walk on to the program. Even so, Highsmith wasn’t sure if he actually had a spot with Charlotte as he was graduating from high school in 2015. He didn’t find out he was a preferred walk-on until the summer before his redshirt freshman season when his college living assignment changed from rooming with some high school friends to the football dorm. From there, Highsmith’s path was anything but conventional. He redshirted but put on 20 pounds of bad weight, he said. After the 2016 season, he lost 20 pounds after pulling a hamstring and getting sick. As a result, he played the 2017 season — he was awarded a scholarship before that season — as a 235-pound outside linebacker, feeling faster but too light against the competition. The 2018 season is when Highsmith began to blossom. Playing in a 3-4 under former head coach Brad Lambert, Highsmith was a 4i-technique defensive end. In this scheme, there weren’t many pass-rushing opportunities, as Highsmith recorded three sacks. But being one of three players rushing the passer, Highsmith was forced to learn a lot about how to best get after the quarterback. While the sack opportunities weren’t there, he was still a disruptive presence with 17.5 tackles for loss, a single-season program record at the time. The following summer, agents began to recruit Highsmith, which marked the first moment that Highsmith realized the NFL might be a reality. Highsmith’s draft stock got a boost when Healy took over and implemented a four-man front. Healy also hired Marcus West to be the team’s co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach after he spent one season at Minnesota, with the two moving Highsmith to a true edge-rusher position. By this point, Highsmith had the cross chop and chop rip moves in his pass-rush arsenal. To counter those, he learned a spin move, which is his favorite. With a new scheme and new coaches, they were able to bring the most out of Highsmith when it came to rushing the passer. “I attribute my production increase to (West), with what he taught me about pass rush and so many things I never known,” Highsmith said. “He broke down so many things about my game that I didn’t know that I could fix. He helped me learn more moves, improve my get-off with my hands, improve my hips. He also put me in a scheme to be an effective pass rusher off the edge, we ran a 4-2-5 last year. He gave me a lot of freedom off the edge.” Healy wanted to put the bulk of Highsmith’s improvements on him and not the new coaching staff. “I love Marcus West, but Marcus isn’t a miracle worker,” Healy said. “Alex already had a lot of that in his repertoire. Maybe how he explained it, and why he used it and when he used it that he fine-tuned. Alex knew how to rush the passer when we got him. It was just giving him some tricks and some tools to where he could do it more effectively. And I think our scheme gave him that opportunity, as well.” The timing worked perfectly with Highsmith exploding as a senior. He recorded two sacks apiece against Gardner-Webb and Appalachian State before recording another sack against Clemson two games later. With 9.5 sacks heading into the regular season-finale at Old Dominion, Highsmith added 4.5 more. But there was a moment during his senior season that stood out to Healy. Before the Appalachian State game, Charlotte held a Friday practice that began with the requisite stretching. Highsmith’s back was giving him an issue, and he grimaced in pain. Healy approached him in the stretching line to ask what the issue was. Highsmith said his back was locking up, to which Healy told him to go get treatment so he would be available for the game the next day. Initially, Highsmith refused, telling his coach he wanted to finish the practice. Healy then demanded Highsmith go get treatment for what turned out to be back spasms. “He went out there Saturday against App, and you would have thought nothing was the matter,” Healy said. “He was going to play through it. Very, very tough. A very low maintenance football player who just loves playing the game, wants to do his job and will do everything you ask him to do exactly like you ask him to do it.” Two words During the 2019 season, every NFL team stopped by a Charlotte practice to get a glimpse of Highsmith. But what further elevated his draft stock was his performance in the East-West Shrine Bowl. At 6-3 and 247 pounds, Highsmith had an excellent week of practice leading into the all-star showcase. Among defensive linemen, he ran the fourth-fastest 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. His 33-inch vertical leap tied for sixth in his position group. His 20-yard shuttle ranked first among defensive linemen at 4.31 seconds. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler has Highsmith pegged as his 14th-ranked edge rusher in this year’s class, although in his yearly draft guide, dubbed “The Beast,” he noted there could be great potential to uncover. “The former walk-on needs to continue to expand his rush plan, but his coaches rave about his ability to quickly adapt to new techniques,” Brugler wrote. “Overall, Highsmith has tweener tendencies with his size and play strength, which especially shows in the run game, but he is an athletic edge player who has yet to reach his ceiling as a pass rusher, projecting as an intriguing mid-round value.” Brugler has a fourth-round grade on Highsmith, with a general consensus being that he could go anywhere from the third to the fifth round. Highsmith met with most teams at the East-West Shrine Bowl and spoke with 20 teams at the combine, which included two formal interviews. For Highsmith, the fact he’s set to be drafted could serve as validation for what he believed all along. Before he was set to go through his drills at the combine, Healy reminded Highsmith about his rise in the college football world, considering he went from a little-known walk-on to being praised by Clemson’s head coach and starting left tackle. “He told me two words. He said, ‘You belong,’” Highsmith said. “I went out there with that mindset, with a chip on my shoulder, to show I have an edge over all these guys.”
  15. https://theathletic.com/1743772/2020/04/13/its-my-time-now-dante-fowlers-ready-to-prove-2019-wasnt-a-one-year-wonder/ Dante Fowler is primed to enter the third stage of his career. The first stage lasted three-and-a-half seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. And by no means did it go as expected for someone who was taken with the third overall selection of the 2015 NFL Draft. Fowler’s rookie season was lost after a torn left ACL during offseason activities. After totaling four sacks in 2016, Fowler had eight in 2017. Even so, Jacksonville declined to position Fowler as a starter or pick up his fifth-year option. And in 2018, after two sacks through seven games, the Jaguars traded Fowler to the Los Angeles Rams. On the jet to his new team, Fowler knew immediately it was time for a fresh beginning — the second stage of his NFL career. “I told myself I wasn’t going to look back,” Fowler said. “It’s a new start. It was basically me going out there to show L.A., and everybody else, who I was and that I can play and I’m actually the football player I was drafted to be.” He finished 2018 on a high note as a part of a Rams team that reached the Super Bowl. He then took the rest of the offseason to further learn the Rams’ defensive system. He signed a one-year prove-it contract and needed a big season so that he could earn a lucrative contract. He got that, with 11.5 sacks as a full-time starter on the Rams’ defense. It was simple, Fowler said. If more reps came, the production would follow. Perhaps there was a trust issue back in Jacksonville that prevented Fowler from earning those extra snaps. With the Jaguars, Fowler never went a full season when he logged more than 53 percent of the snaps on defense, even as he was available for 39 games from 2016 to 2018. In 2019 with the Rams, Fowler’s snaps ballooned to 80 percent of the defense’s plays. The more chances Fowler had, the more he capitalized. “Just the situations that I was going in Jacksonville, not playing and stuff — I feel like that was the reason, as how they were viewing me as a person off the field,” Fowler said. “I don’t know, it definitely changed my life around in a lot of ways. When I got to the L.A. Rams, they gave me an opportunity to basically start over again. I took advantage of that because I didn’t make the most of the opportunity the first time. I said, ‘If I ever get it again, I’ll never mess it up again.’” Fowler noted, and apologized for, two incidents that occurred while in Jacksonville — one that involved two women fighting in front of him and another when he punched a man during a verbal altercation in a parking lot. Maybe the Jaguars judged him for these events. Maybe not. What is apparent is that his time in Los Angeles turned out to be the best thing for his career. With Fowler pricing himself out of the Rams’ salary cap, the Falcons, needing pass rush help, elected to bring him on board for the third stage of his young career. In 2015, Fowler was a wide-eyed rookie who still needed some maturing. In 2018, Fowler knew he needed a change. Now, Fowler said it’s like he has been drafted all over again. But this time, Fowler said Atlanta will be getting a different player than the one who showed up six years ago in Jacksonville. “Like I said, I didn’t take the most advantage of my opportunity in Jacksonville,” Fowler said. “Knowing the things I did is going to help me a lot in this run with what I want to be. It’s definitely another opportunity to be the player that I always wanted to be for a franchise. This is really big to me, and I’m not taking it lightly at all. I love the game of football, and it’s never been about the money. It’s always been about my legacy, my career and my last name.” In his early seasons, Fowler said he played football like a “street fighter.” He admitted that it took some time to realize he couldn’t get away with certain things he grew accustomed to in college anymore. In the NFL, players are much more refined and detailed. Fowler said he needed to adjust and act accordingly if he was to compete like the player he knows he can be. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has known Fowler for many years, dating back to when Quinn recruited the pass-rusher as Florida’s defensive coordinator. While Quinn left Florida after the 2012 season, he said he maintained a relationship with Fowler. Fowler even admitted that when Quinn took the defensive coordinator job with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, the thought of transferring briefly popped into his mind. After Fowler suffered his ACL tear, Quinn immediately reached out. When it came time for free agency, this relationship helped elevate Atlanta to among the top teams on his wish list. “Through the years, certainly, we’ve kept up, and I’ve seen his career progress from college,” Quinn said. “He ended up being a top-10 pick. I’m really pumped to get a chance to coach him again, for sure. He’s made a lot of progress in 10 years.” Said Fowler: “Everything was genuine. Just over that one year span, me being there with him and him being with me at UF. I went to his house, met his wife, had Thanksgiving with him before.” Fowler said he was hoping either the Falcons or Jaguars drafted him in 2015. Atlanta never had a chance since the Jaguars got him third overall. While Fowler acknowledged the need to smooth his playing style, general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he has seen this improvement in recent seasons, which made it appealing to bring him to the team. “I think he was a little more free flow then. I think he's still free flow,” Dimitroff said. “Don't get me wrong, we love that edgy side of him as far as on the field, the way that he plays, the way he pins his ears back and just goes, and I will never see anything different than that. He is getting more and more just fine-tuned as far as his skill and his technique, something that I know Dan will continue to work with, along with (defensive ends coach) Tosh (Lupoi). I think it's going to be really good for him.” In a recent conference call with the Atlanta media, Fowler said all the right things. He said pass rushers must commit to stopping the run first and foremost. Once he gets to Atlanta, he wants to become involved in the community for charitable endeavors — to which he has backed up already by donating $100,000 to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' #ATLStrong Fund, which assists residents enduring health-related and economic issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the locker room, he hopes to emerge as a leader in his own right after listening to Calais Campbell and Aaron Donald in his past two stops. And like most great edge rushers, Fowler said his sights are on reaching double-digit sacks regularly and to one day break Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22. Fowler came across as more than excited to be with the Falcons. At the young age of 25, Fowler is ready for this third stage, in which he hopes to blossom from his first statistically great year in Los Angeles to a full-fledged star off the edge. “It’s my time now,” Fowler said. “I’m definitely ready to show you guys the player that I am. My mentality coming in is to be one of the best edge rushers in the NFL, one of the best linebackers in the NFL — whatever you want to call it. Last year was my first year. I’m just scratching the surface to be honest with you. I’m coming with a different type of mentality. I’m out here to prove something. I know my team is out here to prove something as well. That’s how it’s been forever, and it’s not going to change.”
  16. https://theathletic.com/1735735/2020/04/09/after-xfl-stints-two-new-falcons-ready-to-prove-they-still-belong-in-nfl/ For those who played in both the AAF and XFL, it must have felt like history was repeating itself — albeit due to a completely different set of circumstances. A year after the AAF folded after eight games, the XFL was entering its sixth week before it was forced to shut down. While the AAF ran out of money, the XFL canceled the remainder of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has put most of the world on lockdown. For linebacker Edmond Robinson, who played with the AAF’s Arizona Hotshots before joining the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks, it was certainly concerning. At 28 years old, Robinson, drafted in the seventh round by the Minnesota Vikings in 2015, felt he had perhaps one more shot to get back to the NFL. And now, this? Again? “My initial thought was that it was like déjà vu all over again for me,” Robinson said. Tight end Khari Lee was also using the XFL as an opportunity to return to the NFL. During the 2018 season, Lee was cut by the Buffalo Bills and wasn’t picked up by an NFL team in 2019. But D.C. Defenders operations manager Gerald Dixon, who knew Lee from Dixon’s time as a pro scout with the Bills, reached out and asked Lee if he was interested in trying out the XFL. Lee agreed, believing if he could put together some good film, he would be able to get some NFL interest again. “It was a thing where I wanted to prove that I can still compete and make plays,” Lee said. “I think I did that.” Clearly, both Robinson and Lee did enough during their five games in the XFL to warrant another NFL opportunity. While there was some initial concern as to what would happen when the 2020 XFL season abruptly ended, both players were signed by the Falcons. For whatever reason, Atlanta didn’t sign a player from the AAF until adding place-kicker Younghoe Koo during the bye of the 2019 season. This time, the Falcons identified both Robinson and Lee as potential players who could help the roster. Once the XFL season came to a halt, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said the team identified six or seven players who deserved a closer look. From there, Atlanta narrowed it down to two or three players who had the particular traits to join the roster. “We thought if we get them here, they can develop into a role on our team,” Quinn said. “They are definitely motivated guys. They want to reconnect and recapture things. We definitely want to give them the avenue to do that.” Once the XFL canceled the remainder of its season, Robinson said it was time to put a plan together about his next step. He decided to move from Houston back home to Charleston, S.C., to keep training. In Charleston, Robinson has been able to work out at a gym his friend owns, all while it’s closed to the public. The gym contains a turf field, sleds, tires, weights and treadmills, so Robinson can get most of his needed physical activity done to stay in shape for whenever football activities are able to resume. When Robinson works out, he said only two or three people are inside with him as they adhere to social distancing guidelines. When Robinson came out of Division II program Newberry in 2015, Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich actually traveled to Robinson’s campus to work him out. After Robinson signed with Atlanta recently, Ulbrich spoke with Robinson and remembered everything about their previous encounter. While he didn’t meet Quinn as a pro prospect, Robinson received a text message from his new head coach shortly after joining the team. “This is the first time I’ve ever had a head coach text me welcoming me to the team, telling me they’re excited to have me, telling me they have a plan and how I fit into the plan — all that kind of stuff,” Robinson said. “I was definitely happy and excited to get that because I’ve never had a head coach at any level say anything like that to me. It made me feel good. It showed me what kind of guy he is. If he does that type of stuff I have to go hard for him and the whole team. I appreciated him for that.” Lee, who is from the Baltimore area and went to college at Division II program Bowie State, didn’t have to travel far once the XFL season abruptly ended since he played for the D.C. Defenders. Lee has continued to work out at home while getting cardio in by running around his neighborhood. While Lee was a small-school prospect who went undrafted in 2015, he was able to hang around on NFL rosters for almost four years. When it suddenly came to an end, it was a bit of a surprise. Taking the XFL opportunity served as a chance to prove he still belonged on an NFL roster. “Being not on an NFL team was a shock to me,” Lee said. “For the greater part of four years I’d been playing (professional) football — dating back to college, I played football for the last 20-something-odd years. It was definitely a different feeling. I felt I had the résumé and the tape to be on a ballclub. You just have to put your head down and grind.” At 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds, Lee will compete for a spot as a blocking tight end with the Falcons. But in the XFL, he also showed he has the ability as a receiver, evidenced by a 39-yard touchdown reception he had in the season opener against the Seattle Dragons. If Lee learned everything from getting cut by the Bills and seeing the XFL season end prematurely, it’s to not assume anyone’s job security is safe as a professional athlete. “I think it’s really never taking a snap for granted,” Lee said. “Playing this game, there’s a 100 percent injury rate. There’s guys who make it to their pension, there’s guys who don’t make it to their pension. There’s guys who play a year and who go to a training camp and never play a down again. I was blessed to play my four years and follow it up with my XFL experience. I think it’s cherishing every moment. It sounds cliché, but it can all be taken away from you so fast. We got a call, and our whole league was over, XFL-wise. It’s really to play every play like it’s your last because it really could be.” In five games, Robinson totaled 22 tackles and two sacks for Houston — the XFL’s best team with a 5-0 record. Robinson, who has the kind of speed the Falcons love their linebackers to possess, could earn a special teams role if he makes the 53-man roster. For Robinson and Lee, they will look to make the most of their second — and possibly final — opportunities to make it in the NFL. “Everything just worked out,” Robinson said. “I’m definitely grateful for the Falcons organization that they were that one team, or if there were others, but they were one who said they were going to give this kid a chance, not knowing that it could be my last chance or whatever the case may be. They gave me a chance, and I’m going to make the most of it.”
  17. https://theathletic.com/1719349/2020/04/02/falcons-mailbag-is-it-more-likely-for-thomas-dimitroff-to-trade-up-or-back/ Having gotten through the first wave of free agency, the Falcons are now less than a month away from the NFL Draft. That makes this a good time for a good old fashioned mailbag. As always, thanks for the questions. I hope everyone is remaining safe and at home during this troubling time. What’s the likelihood that the Falcons will trade up in the draft as they have done in the past? — Michael M. Do you think it’s more likely that (Thomas Dimitroff) trades up or down in the first? — Devin C. At this time, I wouldn’t rule out anything. But history would indicate the greater chance lies with Dimitroff trading up in the first round of the upcoming draft. Since he took over as the Falcons’ general manager in 2008, Dimitroff has not once moved back in the opening round. In comparison, he used the team’s original first-round selections to move up to take Julio Jones (2011) and Takk McKinley (2017). Dimitroff also made moves to acquire additional first-round picks twice, which were used on Sam Baker (2008) and Kaleb McGary (2019). But given the number of needs to address, it would not be surprising to see Dimitroff trade back in the first round. It could be seen as a wise idea to trade back and acquire additional selections since the odds of hitting on players increases with volume. But as it is with anything, the past is often the best way to judge the present. So while I wouldn’t rule out a trade back, the odds have to favor moving up. Jason, do you still think the Falcons will target DL early in the draft? Cornerback is a need, too, but (Jeff) Okudah won’t be there, and the better value seems to be going with someone like Damon Arnette or Bryce Hall in the second/third rounds as opposed to taking CJ Henderson 10 spots too early in the first. — David A. One thing that has been glossed over when discussing Atlanta’s need at cornerback is Kendall Sheffield’s standing with the team. By the end of the 2019 season, and with Desmond Trufant’s injury knocking him out for the final three games, Sheffield was the top corner in Atlanta’s base coverage. He also happened to defend the slot when the team was in nickel. With this in mind, it comes down to how the coaches view Sheffield moving forward. If they believe Sheffield is a true No. 1 cornerback, they may not feel like they have to take one early. Corner is still an obvious need even if they are high on Sheffield’s potential. After all, there are only four cornerbacks on Atlanta’s roster — Sheffield, Isaiah Oliver, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Jordan Miller. And Miller will be suspended for the first three games of the upcoming season. Therefore, you can bet the team will take a cornerback or two in the draft. But when they decide to take a cornerback could depend a lot on how they view Sheffield. With that in mind, to answer your question, I can only say that it remains possible for the Falcons to target a defensive lineman early. The link to Javon Kinlaw is obvious, although I just don’t see him falling to No. 16 overall. Derrick Brown’s ability to move linemen back with power would be an appealing fit, as well, although he also will be off the board early. TCU’s Ross Blacklock is an intriguing prospect, and he should be there at No. 16 overall. But linebacker is the other position the Falcons could focus on early in the draft, too. The Todd Gurley signing seems to shore up RB as much as the Vic Beasley fifth-year (option) shored up the pass rush last year — even if it works, he’ll demand too much money, and the Falcons will move on next offseason. With that in mind, do you expect the team to try and draft a replacement now and possibly cut someone at the position? Or do you think the team enters training camp with the current group and looks to add someone again this time next year? — Mark H. Signing Gurley to a one-year deal is most certainly a win-now move. The worst-case scenario is that he’s a third-down back in the passing game. The best-case is his knee holds up and he returns to his 2018 form. Regardless, the option of retaining Gurley past 2020 does seem slim for the reasons you outlined. I do expect the Falcons to address running back in this year’s draft. As it stands, if Gurley can’t handle the entire load, it will be on either Brian Hill, Ito Smith or Qadree Ollison to work in tandem with him. The Falcons would need to be very confident in one of those three players to step up alongside Gurley to help improve a running game that struggled throughout the 2019 season. But assuming Gurley is one and done with Atlanta, it would be wise for Atlanta to have another running back ready to go for 2021. Still expecting the Falcons’ first two picks to be on defense for sure … while A.J. Epenesa does not fulfill many Falcons fan fantasies of flying around the edge to get to the QB, he still would bring a lot of value — setting the edge and also providing some pressure inside with his power. Don’t see a LB value at No. 16 and only Henderson as a CB if he’s still there … and I really think (K’Lavon) Chaisson could be a bust. Do you think the Falcons might do as the Oakland Raiders did last season with Clelin Ferrell … just draft a good solid football player like Epenesa and move forward? — James F. The Raiders were high on Ferrell the whole time. The Falcons would have to feel that way about Epenesa while also believing he would be a good fit for their scheme. This front office has shown that it will go after the players it wants, regardless of where the outsiders project them to fall. In 2016, the Falcons took Keanu Neal 16th overall, with analysts grading him as a late-first and early second round prospect. Last year, Atlanta took Chris Lindstrom 14th overall, with most of the Monday morning quarterbacking suggesting the team should have traded back if they were to take a guard that high. The point is, when Dimitroff has identified a particular player, he has moved forward with the plan. I could see that being the case this year. I don’t know if Epenesa would be that particular player, but there are probably several prospects who would fit the scenario you outlined. Jason, hope you are staying well throughout this crazy time. What second-wave free agents (if any) do you see the Falcons targeting? I hear a lot of speculation on Michael Bennett, but I’d love to see Nigel Bradham shore up the LB spot and draft along the D-line. — Ryan M. Thanks, Ryan. I hope you’re staying safe, as well. I’m not expecting anything major in the second wave. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’d think the next round of players for Atlanta would continue to address special teams and depth for training camp. Someone like Kenjon Barner comes to mind since the Falcons still need a return specialist. Now, if the Falcons were able to add a player like Bradham, that certainly would allow them a little more freedom in the draft. I also think the Falcons could benefit from adding a veteran presence to their locker room. What are your thoughts on (Russell) Gage? Will he be a reliable slot guy or do you think he ends up as more of a depth player? — Dario B. I definitely expect Gage to open offseason activities — whenever those do begin — as the team’s top slot option. I thought his play down the stretch warrants the extra playing time, and it’s apparent the coaching staff believes in his abilities. Of course, the draft could change things if Atlanta ends up taking a receiver in a middle round of what appears to be one of the deepest classes in history at that position. I don’t think the Falcons will let Gage enter the preseason without competition. But I do expect Gage to open as the top slot option for the 2020 season. Are there any uniform updates or dates for when they will be revealed? Have you seen or heard any details on them? — Parker C. The team originally had a uniform reveal slated for the middle of April. With current events what they are, it is obvious this reveal will not happen as planned. It may be a little while longer before we find out. And no, I have unfortunately not heard any details on what they look like. I definitely think the Falcons should send me an advance photo so I give our subscribers a first look. Right? Sensing a lot less skepticism from the local fan base after the flurry of moves by the front office in free agency — but have seen little from (Dan Quinn) and TD about the outlook for the team. — David H. Seeing as the spring meetings were virtual, will you be able to speak with DQ and TD post-first wave free agency and pre-draft? Love to hear TD talk about the “group chat” 2020 NFL Draft with trades (up or down). — Andy S. Skepticism from the Atlanta fan base? You don’t say! OK, in all seriousness, I think it’s understandable and reasonable for any Falcons fan to be cynical after the way the past two seasons have gone. Going 7-9 in consecutive seasons is unacceptable when you take into account the talent on the roster, specifically on offense. As for why you haven’t seen comments from Quinn and Dimitroff, they haven’t been made available to the media since the NFL Scouting Combine. But that has to do with the coronavirus pandemic locking things down. The media would have had a chance to interview Quinn at the annual league meeting, but that was canceled. Whenever Gurley’s contract is finalized — which could happen as soon as Thursday — the plan is to make Quinn and Dimitroff available via conference call. When that occurs we can ask them those questions about the outlook of the team following those free-agent acquisitions. And Andy, I actually hope to have a story in the coming weeks that will touch on the adjustments the front office and coaching staff have had to make this offseason. Does coaching staff and ownership give off the vibe of a team that has turned the corner and has what is needed to field a playoff team in 2020? — David H. That has certainly been the perception the team has wanted to put out there thus far — that the way things finished during the final eight games in 2019 is more indicative of where this team is going. Arthur Blank has stated that reaching the postseason is the expectation for the 2020 season. From there, it’s easy to connect the dots on what needs to happen for everyone involved on this coaching staff and front office. Any rumors on what contingency plans the Falcons’ brass is bracing for in regards to the upcoming season? Games with no fans, shortened season, no season, etc? — David G. I imagine there’s some sort of contingency plan in place that the NFL won’t reveal unless it gets to that point. From the Falcons’ side of things, they’re at the NFL’s mercy. While the league is keeping the business side of things moving, everything remains up in the air when it comes to the upcoming season. We just don’t know what will happen over the next few months. Do you think the Falcons have a plan for the post-June 1 cut of Trufant ? — Andre P. Yes, the plan is to use that money — $10.75 million — to sign draft picks and to have an emergency allotment for in-season signings.
  18. https://theathletic.com/1715315/2020/03/31/schultz-rich-mckay-on-falcons-draft-prep-optics-roger-goodells-memo-threat/ The NFL, with the benefit of its regular season still more than five months away, is determined to stick to its calendar during these spring and summer months. The positive aspect of this: The league has dominated the news cycle, providing content for starving sports fans. The negative: A case can be made that it’s creating some poor optics, even looking tone-deaf, as it takes a business-as-usual approach against the backdrop of a deadly spreading virus. Falcons president Rich McKay, a longtime league executive and a chairman of the NFL’s Competition Committee, is well equipped to comment on the league’s approach to this offseason and how the weeks leading up the draft for the Falcons have changed. I’ll get to a transcript of our conversation shortly. But first, a few bullet points. • After going back and forth on this, I don’t consider the NFL’s decision to stick to the draft’s April 23-25 scheduling a bad thing (pending a worsening situation, of course). As long as the draft can be done safely, by phone, the league is taking the same approach as any business, whether it’s your job or The Athletic, trying to operate as best as it can in difficult and unusual circumstances. • But I do have a major problem with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell telling team executives, general managers and coaches in a March 26 memo that “public discussion of issues relating to the draft serves no useful purpose and is grounds for disciplinary action.” This seemed odd, not to mention well out of bounds, given Goodell suggested in the same memo that management was “unanimous and unequivocal” in the decision not to push back the draft. McKay and I got into a back-and-forth on this, which you can read in the transcript. My position: Goodell shouldn’t be telling anybody how to feel on this subject. I’ve had one NFL executive tell me that he should be admonished for those words. • I probably should have led with this: McKay said, to his knowledge, all Falcons employees, including players and coaches, are healthy and virus-free. And now, our conversation: Are we each talking from our protective bubbles at home? Yes. Think about this: Since the day we (closed the Falcons’) office, which I think was the 14th, I’ve driven in my car twice. Once was to go on a Saturday to the Silver Comet (Trail) for a run and then again the following Sunday. So I’ve really been in my bubble. That’s where we are today. Is everybody in the organization healthy, as far as you know? As far as I know, thanks for asking, the answer to that is yes. We do a virtual town hall every Friday, where we kind of reach out and go through, from department to department, like 400 to 500 people. Last week, unfortunately, we only got to 200, and then we had kind of a glitch and the link went away. But we communicate that way. I have two more online meetings (Wednesday), where we drop into different (company) organizations. We’re healthy, and everybody seems to be doing OK. I still get worried. My concern is we have a lot of people who are young and this is their first job, and they’re 26 or 28 and living in an apartment. We tried to make sure everybody got home and could work from home. That’s a tough spot to be in. But players are good. Coaches are good. Dan (Quinn) and Thomas (Dimitroff) have a lot of meetings, as you can imagine. How does all this change draft prep? The great majority of the work is done when the combine is complete. Because we made it through the combine, you could say 90 percent of the work is complete. That last 10 percent is the ultimate cross-check. It’s the opportunity for the position coach to look at that player face to face on a pro day and get a chance to interview them, watch them work out, maybe go to lunch or dinner. The same can be said for the coordinator or the head coach. But it’s that last piece. You’ve got everything else. You’ve been scouting that player for three or four years. You’ve got multiple reports, and you’ve got all the tape you would ever want to watch. To me, the real challenge is you have a rhythm you’ve used as a general manager, and it’s your own rhythm. You have a way you like to meet with all the scouts. Meet in December, come back and meet after the combine, then meet two weeks before the draft. That has all been turned sideways because this just doesn’t give you that opportunity. It changes the way you set your board up. You probably set the board up in December and revise it a little after the combine, but these last meetings, don’t think there’s not a lot of debate and still movement. That’s different. So Thomas and Dan are still doing all their meetings, and scouts are doing all of their cross-checks, but they’re doing it virtually, and it’s definitely different, and it’s challenging. You’re going to have to get very comfortable, I think, with the area scouts and have a little more belief in them because you won’t have that last piece to do yourself. What are some examples of players moving up on your draft board late? I’ve seen Jeff Ulbrich tell the story of De’Vondre Campbell and going to see him and making a case for him. I’ve seen that before. When I first got to Atlanta, (assistant coach) Joe DeCamillis looked at a player who we were not going to take, and he had the whole litany of why we should take the player, and we went back and challenged the area scout on what he had seen as far as character went, and we ended up taking the player, and he played very well for us. (The player was Southern Miss linebacker Michael Boley, who played four seasons for the Falcons and nine in the NFL. But Boley was suspended by the league in 2009 for domestic violence when he was with the Giants.) So basically it’s just about relying more on area scouts now. Yeah, because he will have seen the kid numerous times, he will have been to the campus and seen him practice and have more personal connection than anybody else. Coaches, even GMs, normally can go to a Pro Day and say, “I want to look at this player a little more.” Does this impact players who might’ve been drafted late or signed as an undrafted free agent because you won’t have late information? To me, I don’t think it really hurts anybody because players in the sixth and seventh rounds, supplemental picks and college free agents, they’re pretty much on the same footing. You’re not taking a sixth-round pick and a college free agent who are both cornerbacks and thinking, “I’m keeping the sixth-round pick even if the college free agent plays better.” They may get mixed up a little bit in terms of where they get drafted, but that’s about it. I think I saw Scott Pioli say this the other day, and I agree: The people who are well organized and have their departments in order, they’ll benefit from this. If you’re a team that really depends on the GM, that’s going to be harder to do this year. Do you have any problem with the optics of the NFL sticking to its calendar against the backdrop of everything going on? The backdrop is definitely a challenge for all of us. When we opened free agency, I was nervous. I thought, “Is this not a time we should think about extending it?” But I think it did turn out to be a good distraction for the country, and we were able to do it. What the memo said was: “We can do this. We will be a good distraction. It is something the people will want to consume.” And so I’m comfortable with that. What I’m not comfortable with is what we’re doing today, which we’ve never done in our lives. We’re sitting in our homes, trying to work in our homes, but we’ve also got the television on, and the news is very challenging. About the memo: Do you have any problem with Goodell effectively threatening disciplinary action against those who say anything negative about the decision? I will leave that for you to write about. You must have an opinion. I will just say, I’ll leave that to you to write about. But that’s not the first memo we’ve had that said that in our league or in other leagues. I’m sure that’s the case. But is that the tone he should be using given the backdrop right now? I’ll give the same answer I did before. (Laughter.) Your lack of comment on this speaks volumes. You know my thoughts: He shouldn’t have said that, and if it’s true that everybody is in 100 percent agreement on this, why would he even put that in the memo? Obviously, everybody is not in complete agreement. That’s for you to say, not me. OK, moving on. I know you’re not a soothsayer, but how should we view the future as it relates to the NFL calendar today? We’ve talked about it internally, and what we’ve said is we should focus on the draft because we know that’s what’s on the schedule coming up. Beyond that, let’s wait and see what changes. In the first week, when we closed the offices, people were saying, “I can’t believe you closed your offices,” and three days later everybody’s office was closed. For me to get into the discussion of “What will this mean for the offseason; what will this mean for training camp; what does it mean potentially for the season?” — we haven’t spent any time on it. We’ve spent time on the draft. Today, one of our meetings was just spent with the IT people to understand how we would be connected during the draft and communicate. I’m not going to get caught up in the speculation about what happens after the draft. Notwithstanding what you just said, is the London game in a different category because of travel? We’ve asked the question, and our understanding is the London game will be on our schedule, which I think will be released in the end of the first week in May. I think we’ve said it’ll be scheduled in the first or second week of October (against Denver).
  19. https://theathletic.com/1702758/2020/03/26/as-falcons-top-tight-end-hayden-hurst-ready-to-flourish-with-new-team/ Hayden Hurst had a plan. Knowing that his preferred place to work out could shut its doors due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Hurst wanted to ensure he could stockpile weightlifting equipment to stay in shape throughout the offseason. Like previous years, Hurst was back home in Jacksonville, Fla., visiting The Bolles School, his former high school, to work out on a regular basis. For a month-and-a-half, Hurst was able to hit the Bolles’ weight room. But as COVID-19 spread across the U.S., The Bolles School was forced to shut its doors. The school’s headmaster stayed in touch with Hurst about it, with the savvy tight end asking if he could borrow some equipment if closure happened. When The Bolles School went on lockdown, and with the headmaster’s blessing, Hurst and his father drove their Chevrolet Silverados to the school and loaded the beds with numerous weights. “We backed our trucks up, loaded it up with dumbbells, barbells, all sorts of stuff,” Hurst said. “I have a whole old school weight room going on in my garage right now.” Hurst moved a bench and a squat rack from his parents’ house to his garage. He was able to snag eight 45-pound plates and two 100-pound plates for those. He grabbed numerous dumbbells weighing from 60 to 100 pounds. Hurst, whose trade from the Baltimore Ravens to the Falcons became official once the new league year began on March 18, was fortunate enough to put together a home gym setup at the beginning of what’s amounted to a quarantine. Included in this setup are a sled and some bungees. His Jacksonville house is located behind his parents’ home, which includes almost three acres of land on it. With that space, Hurst has been able to get plenty of cardio in. “It’s not exactly like a turf field, but it gets the job done nonetheless,” Hurst said. Since becoming a professional athlete, which goes back to when he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates organization as a pitcher out of high school, Hurst has trained with Mike Barrett, a longtime Bolles football coach who still runs the school’s strength and conditioning program. Upon leaving baseball and pursuing football, Hurst continued to train with Barrett. Now, the two have worked together each offseason to tailor workout programs to Hurst’s liking. These workouts are now taking place in Hurst’s garage as he prepares for a new season with a new team. “I’ll tell you what, man, I’m already up to 266 (pounds) right now, and I feel great,” Hurst said. “It’s what I did last season. His program is tough. The workouts kick my butt. But it’s definitely worth it.” Hurst, drafted 25th overall in 2018, had a feeling his second season with Baltimore would be his last. During a phone interview with The Athletic, Hurst spoke about his trade to Atlanta and why he expected it to occur. He also touched on how he fits into the Falcons’ offense and what to expect from him this coming season. Let’s go back to what would have been a week-and-a-half ago when you got the news that the Ravens were trading you to Atlanta. What’s your first thought? And did it catch you by surprise or was it something you were expecting? It was something I was expecting, just because of the rumors that had gone on throughout the year. Before the trade deadline happened midseason, I think I was rumored to be getting moved. So I was expecting something after the season. I told (Ravens general manager) Eric (DeCosta), too, that I wanted an opportunity to play and to start. I think he heard me loud and clear. As far as knowing I was going to the Falcons, I don’t think I knew that was happening until the first week or two of March. I think I officially found out on March 9 or something like that. I knew I was going to get moved, but to what team, (my agent) Hadley (Engelhard) wasn’t 100 percent sure. But I guess through his relationships with Thomas (Dimitroff) and those guys, he worked something out for me. Obviously you were taken in the first round, before Lamar Jackson, and a lot of people have pointed that out. With the (stress fracture in the foot), the injury in your first year, did that slow things down when it came to the opportunities in the passing game in that offense? I think so. I was playing at such a high level before that. It’s just unfortunate that it happened, but it’s part of my path. I went down, and Mark (Andrews) just flourished. He caught fire. He’s an incredible athlete and an incredible football player. He played in the Pro Bowl. With him having so much success it was hard for me to scratch and claw my way back in. They were winning, and coaches don’t want to change anything when you’re winning. I had to scratch and claw for my opportunities, but I think I showcased my talent a little bit. But this opportunity with Atlanta is going to be great. The tight end position is pretty much wide open. I get to go in there and do my thing, so I’m very excited about it. I don’t know how much you know of Atlanta’s offense in general, but when you have Julio Jones taking a ton of attention on one side of the field, I imagine as a receiving option that has to be exciting for you. Then you got Calvin (Ridley) as well, and the addition of LaQuon Treadwell. What, 11 picks in the first round are slated to start on this offense? It’s kind of crazy to be honest. It’s pick your poison. You got Todd Gurley in the backfield. Then, of course, Matt Ryan doing his thing. To be a part of that offense is exciting, on paper. We just got to go out and do it now. Have you had a chance to speak Matt, whether it’s on the phone or through text? He texted me the day my trade was official. He kept it short. He said he was excited I was a part of the brotherhood in Atlanta now. Very excited to get to work and that we’re going to do some special things. I reiterated that back to him, that I was really excited to be in Atlanta, and that I would do anything I can to work with him so we can have success. What do you know about (offensive coordinator Dirk) Koetter and the style of offense he likes to run and how it suits the tight end position? Me and Coach Koetter have talked a few times on the phone. He just let me know the things he was able to do with Cameron Brate (in Tampa Bay). I think the red-zone opportunities are going to be there for the tight end. He let me know that. We talked about what he thought of my skill set — stretching the field vertically, being a presence in the red zone. And then obviously with what (Austin) Hooper did last year, he put up personal bests the entire year. He had 75 catches, (787) yards, six touchdowns. It was pretty incredible what he did. I think my skill set is really going to flourish, as well. I’m just really happy to be a part of it. It’s going to do wonderful things for my career. When it comes to you on the field, and also off the field, what can the city of Atlanta expect once you’re able to officially get with this group, practice and get going with this team? For me, I always like to play 100 mph. I think that’s when I’m at my best when I go out there and cut it loose. I’m a big effort guy. I’ll go out there and lay it on the line. I’m not a big talker. I’m not going to be a rah-rah leader that’s in your face. I’ll lead by example; that’s what I did at South Carolina. And as far as off the field stuff, I started a foundation with my mom that focuses on mental health and suicide prevention. We’ve done a lot of great work in Jacksonville, where I was born and raised. We’ve done some stuff in Baltimore. Now we’re shifting our focus to Atlanta and Jacksonville. Those will be the two cities where we do a lot of stuff and help a lot of kids.
  20. https://theathletic.com/1713808/2020/03/31/roster-reset-analyzing-the-falcons-after-first-wave-of-free-agency/ The Falcons were busier than expected in the early going of free agency. The team addressed needs at edge rusher and running back and also filled holes from a depth perspective. Still, the upcoming NFL Draft will be important to take care of those final needs, such as cornerback and linebacker. For now, here’s a close look at where the Falcons’ roster stands for the (hopefully) 2020 season. Offense Quarterback: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Kurt Benkert, Danny Etling. Analysis: Ryan will be Atlanta’s starting quarterback for the 13th consecutive season. Last year marked only the third time he had to miss a game in the NFL. Ryan has thrown for more than 4,000 years in each of the past nine years. Schaub’s team option was picked up, which makes him the veteran backup, and that should still be expected once the season draws close to beginning. Benkert and Etling should battle it out for the third quarterback/practice squad spot. And if one of the two happens to impress more than expected, perhaps Schaub is suddenly found in a competitive spot. Running back: Todd Gurley, Brian Hill, Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison, Craig Reynolds. Analysis: In a worst-case scenario, Gurley, due to his lingering knee issue, is a third-down back who can contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. The best-case scenario involves Gurley managing his knee just fine while breaking off big plays as a runner or receiver, much like he did during the bulk of his time with the Los Angeles Rams. Regardless, the risk of adding Gurley to the roster was low and well-calculated. Behind Gurley, Hill and Smith will be the top two competitors to engage in a timeshare. Of course, the Falcons could add a running back in the first four rounds of the upcoming draft. Fullback: Keith Smith. Analysis: Smith signed a three-year contract to remain as Atlanta’s primary fullback. His roster spot is practically guaranteed entering the preseason. Wide receiver: Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Laquon Treadwell, Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake, Brandon Powell, Devin Gray. Analysis: Jones is the gold standard for X receivers in the NFL as he embarks on his 10th season. Opposite of Jones once again will be Ridley, who is making a name for himself as a young play-maker. Working the slot primarily will be Gage, who took that role after Atlanta shipped Mohamed Sanu to the New England Patriots. Backing up those three receivers is where competition comes into play. Treadwell, a former first-round selection, can be seen as Justin Hardy’s replacement on this offense. Zaccheaus, who had a 93-yard touchdown reception at home against the Carolina Panthers last season, will have every opportunity to back up Ridley once again. Blake, in practice, replicates a lot of what Jones does, making him an ideal backup at the X receiver spot. Tight end: Hayden Hurst, Jaeden Graham, Carson Meier, Khari Lee. Analysis: Knowing they would be unable to keep Austin Hooper, the Falcons used the second-round pick they acquired from the Sanu trade in a package to land Hurst from the Baltimore Ravens. As a result, Hurst will enter this season as Atlanta’s top tight end target in the passing game. With Jones and Ridley drawing a ton of attention on the outside, there should be plenty of opportunities for Hurst in single coverage over the middle of the field. Backing up Hurst as the primary receiving tight end will be Graham, who filled in for Hooper while he missed three games due to a knee injury in 2019. For now, Meier and Lee will compete for Atlanta’s primary blocking tight end spot, a role held by Luke Stocker last season. Stocker became a cap casualty this offseason. Tackle: Jake Matthews, Kaleb McGary, John Wetzel. Analysis: The only change at tackle, for the time being, is who the primary backup happens to be. Matthews once again will start at left tackle and McGary will man the right side. With Ty Sambrailo becoming a cap casualty, Wetzel — the on-again-off-again lineman from a season ago — is positioned as the only backup tackle on the roster for the time being. Guard: Chris Lindstrom, James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Matt Gono, Justin McCray. Analysis: Lindstrom is the only sure thing at guard, with his right guard position solidified. Whenever football activities are able to resume again, there should be a wide-open competition at left guard between Carpenter, Brown, Gono and McCray. And if the Falcons draft an interior offensive lineman in the first three rounds of the upcoming draft, that player also could enter the mix. Center: Alex Mack, Sean Harlow. Analysis: While the Falcons could have saved $8 million in cap space with Mack’s release, his value to the offensive line is way too much to overcome in the short term. There was no way Atlanta was going to let Mack go. But considering he is entering the final year of his contract, the Falcons do need a plan for the future at the position. Defense Defensive end: Dante Fowler, Takk McKinley, Steven Means, Austin Larkin. Analysis: The key to the upcoming season could hinge on Fowler and McKinley’s abilities to get after the quarterback. The Falcons have been unable to rush the quarterback at a consistent enough rate the past three years. Fowler is coming off a season when he had 11.5 sacks for the Rams. Atlanta certainly will hope that kind of production continues now that he has reunited with head coach Dan Quinn, who recruited Fowler when Quinn was the defensive coordinator at Florida. McKinley is set to enter a make-or-break year since he’s coming off a season that saw him only record 3.5 sacks. Means, a speedy and fundamental defensive end who missed the 2019 season with an Achilles tear, will factor a great deal into the team’s plan at the position, too. Defensive tackle: Grady Jarrett, Tyeler Davison, Deadrin Senat. Analysis: Jarrett is coming off of his best season as a professional, which saw him record 7.5 sacks. If Fowler’s production carries over from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Jarrett could be seen as a huge benefactor and vice versa. Jarrett can do everything along the interior and was able to celebrate his individual accomplishment a year ago with a Pro Bowl berth. Davison was re-signed as Atlanta’s primary run-stuffer after putting in the best season of his young career. Senat will be entering an ever-important third preseason. DE/DT hybrid: Allen Bailey, John Cominsky, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. Analysis: While he didn’t put up gaudy numbers, Bailey was used as both a defensive end and defensive tackle and was particularly impressive against the run. Cominsky’s development will be interesting to see, especially since there won’t be many, or perhaps any, offseason workouts. When he was drafted, Cominsky was projected in the long-term to be a pass-rushing defensive tackle, similar to how Jack Crawford was used the past couple of seasons. Without the offseason reps, it remains to be seen if that remains the plan for 2020. Linebacker: Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun, Ahmad Thomas, LaRoy Reynolds, Edmond Robinson. Analysis: Jones will enter his fifth season as Atlanta’s top Mike linebacker. Injured for most of 2018, it took some time for Jones to get close to full health this past year. In 2020, Jones should be as close to 100 percent as he has been since before the foot fracture. But the big question will be who mans the Sam linebacker position that De’Vondre Campbell played the past four years. For now, Oluokun would be the top option, but that position always can be addressed in the upcoming draft. Depending on how Oluokun is used, the Falcons must also have a plan at Will linebacker, too. Cornerback: Kendall Sheffield, Isaiah Oliver, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Jordan Miller. Analysis: Entering the offseason, the Falcons only have four corners on the roster. And Miller will be suspended for the first three games of the season. That alone makes it easy to believe that Atlanta will add a corner, or two, in this year’s draft. As for the four on the roster right now, Sheffield’s play down the stretch of the 2019 season might have earned him the right to be the team’s top option at cornerback. Oliver improved considerably during the second half of the 2019 season, and Wreh-Wilson proved to be reliable as a stand-in if called upon. Safety: Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, Damontae Kazee, Sharrod Neasman, Jamal Carter, Chris Cooper, C.J. Reavis. Analysis: While thin at corner, the Falcons are deep in numbers at safety. Neal, Allen and Kazee figure to play a lot as Atlanta employs even more three-safety sets. Neasman, signed to a one-year deal recently, is a standout on special teams. Carter should have a solid chance to back Neal up at strong safety. Nickel: Allen, Kazee, Cooper. Analysis: Given the numbers at safety, it makes sense for the Falcons to use that position when it comes to defending the slot. With Atlanta releasing Desmond Trufant, Sheffield’s priority — depending on how the Falcons attack the upcoming draft — will shift to being an outside cornerback. If this in fact becomes the case, a rotation of Allen and Kazee in nickel situations seems likely to be in store. This would allow the Falcons to disguise their looks even better, which is a big component of the defense’s player-friendly scheme. Specialists Place-kicker: Younghoe Koo. Analysis: The Falcons figure to add another place-kicker, whether it’s late during or after the upcoming draft. But the Falcons were happy with Koo, who came in during the bye week and made 23-of-26 field goals with a long of 50 yards. Punter: Ryan Allen, Sam Irwin-Hill. Analysis: The Falcons are moving on from Matt Bosher, with Allen and Irwin-Hill set to compete at punter. Both were on the roster last year at different times, although Irwin-Hill, a native Australian, dealt with a work visa issue that resulted in his stint lasting less than a full week. Allen averaged 41.9 yards per punt in eight games, with a net of 37.5, and put 14 attempts inside the 20-yard line. Long-snapper: Josh Harris. Analysis: Harris will enter his ninth season as the Falcons’ long-snapper. He figures to be the only specialist not to undergo a competition at the position.
  21. https://theathletic.com/1302848/2019/10/17/coverage-woes-go-hand-in-hand-with-falcons-inability-to-rush-the-passer/ A lot of time has passed since the Falcons recorded a sack. The most recent instance when this occurred was Sept. 22 against the Indianapolis Colts, when Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley shared a sack in the third quarter. Since then, the Falcons have only five quarterback hits the past three weeks. Against Arizona in Sunday’s 34-33 loss, Atlanta registered zero sacks and zero quarterback hits, even with the team dialing up what head coach Dan Quinn said was 17 blitzes. Given this tough stretch to open the year, Atlanta’s defensive line has received the brunt of the criticism for failing to get after the quarterback. And it is more than fair to place a good bit of the blame on the defensive line, considering there are two first-rounders at defensive end whose primary objective is to rush the passer. But the defensive line shouldn’t be asked to absorb all of the scrutiny. While the pass rush has struggled, so has the coverage unit. Those two groups are married together. Without a solid pass rush, the secondary is forced to cover for too long, which inevitably will result in a receiving option getting open. Without good coverage, a quarterback can get the ball out quickly and negate good pass rushers. In last week’s game, the Cardinals got the ball out quickly on a lot of plays, sometimes in fewer than two seconds. This helped prevent the Falcons from getting to rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, who had a banner day. Atlanta’s secondary did little to stop Arizona’s quick game, or even when it went vertical, as Murray racked up 340 passing yards and three touchdowns. Quinn wouldn’t publicly point to whether the pass rush or coverage was more to blame for the team’s inability to affect the quarterback the way he would like. But he noted the two facets of the defense haven’t been aligned properly. “I think the whole thing ties together,” Quinn said. “To be really good on defense, you have to have the whole thing going together. I don’t know if I’d put it on to one or the other. It usually comes down to a combination of things.” The Falcons have allowed numerous completions to take place in three seconds or fewer. They rank 25th in the league at passing yards allowed in three seconds or fewer with 185.7 per game and 27th in defensive completion percentage at 75.2, according to radar360. When that number drops to two seconds or fewer, Atlanta has allowed 67.7 yards per game (30th in the NFL) with an 87.9 completion percentage (32nd in the NFL). In total, teams have completed 71.4 percent of their throws against the Falcons, the third-worst mark in the league. Atlanta’s base defense is a Cover 3 zone, which isn’t too difficult when it comes to concept and terminology. Players have described the defense as simple to understand, with it designed to allow them to read what opposing teams are doing and to react swiftly. The Falcons have struggled with the zone, which prompted defensive passing game coordinator Jerome Henderson to be asked if the unit should turn to more man-to-man defense. But that hasn’t exactly been a strong suit either. “You always have those thoughts,” Henderson said. “When you look at it, we’ve struggled a little bit there, too. We’ve just got struggles in coverage right now. We’ve got to get them fixed.” During the playoffs of Atlanta’s Super Bowl run in 2016, the Falcons executed this defense at a high level. This year, with Quinn taking over play-calling duties for the second time as a head coach, there have been numerous breakdowns in communication. Considering the experience across the board on defense, FOX Sports analyst Charles Davis has been surprised by Atlanta’s defensive performance. “That’s the great mystery to me,” Davis said. “A team like that should have pretty good communication. You have the linebackers who have been out there who ostensibly make the calls. In the secondary, you lose Keanu Neal, but you’ve got Ricardo Allen. That’s another guy who makes calls in the secondary. Yet I’m seeing breakdown after breakdown, big play after big play. That doesn’t make sense to me because this defense is really set up to take away big plays. It’s a defense that’s set up to where if you’re going to get them you’re going to have to bleed it downfield to get them.” Davis said that for this defense to work, the pass rush has to apply pressure on the quarterback, which forces short throws underneath. Defenders are then in place to keep the gains at a minimum. On third down, the pass rush starts from the middle with the rest of the defense working in conjunction. Although Davis called Neal “one of the great chess pieces when he’s healthy,” Davis doesn’t have an explanation as to why the Falcons have performed as poorly as they have on that side of the ball. He did mention, however, that he has seen the Falcons’ cornerbacks struggle quite a bit when reviewing the tape. And that’s an area NFL defenses can’t help with extra defenders too often, considering the hole that rolling a safety could leave elsewhere. “All in all, it’s not a defense that you look at on the surface and say, ‘OK, that’s one of the more complex terminologies in the league,’” Davis said. “They know what the coverages are, they play them, they tune them up, they play them well. I think that’s why I’m surprised at the number of breakdowns and big plays that have been given up.” The Falcons rank 27th in pass defense (271.2 yards per game), and they are tied for 32nd in sacks with five through six games. If Atlanta is to turn its season around, these numbers need to somehow turn around quickly. “The pass rush and the coverage go hand in hand,” Henderson said. “If we don’t buy them time, they can’t get there. Sometimes, they can help our coverage with their rush. It works hand in hand, and we need to have a partner relationship, that the coverage is working and the rush is working. We’re trying this week to get that fixed.”
  22. https://theathletic.com/1690145/2020/03/20/schultz-buzz-aside-todd-gurleys-knee-very-bad-falcons-cant-assume-much/ The Falcons made a great move in at least one area Friday: marketing. Five years after seemingly every fan wanted them to draft Todd Gurley, they’re bringing whatever remains of the former Georgia running back home to the cheers of everyone who barks on Saturdays and views every former Bulldogs player as an impenetrable force. So it’s a win for sales. It’s a win for social media and advertising and buzz for a franchise that has backslid since the Super Bowl in 2016, failed to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons and has been thirsting for positivity against the backdrop of a doom-and-gloom reality. But is this a win for football? Like many, I had a close-up view of Gurley’s skills and athleticism at Georgia. I believed the Falcons made the right decision when they drafted Vic Beasley eighth overall in the first round in 2015 because they were desperate for pass-rush help. (Beasley’s 15.5 sacks in a Pro Bowl 2016 season affirmed his ability. Then his head got into the way, but that’s another story.) But when the then-St. Louis Rams took Gurley two picks later, I sent a text message to Rams general manager Les Snead congratulating him on the pick. Gurley was the best running back I had seen, college or pro, since covering Eric Dickerson with the Los Angeles Rams. Gurley affirmed his potential in his first four seasons, rushing for 4,547 yards, catching 187 passes, scoring 56 touchdowns and collecting two All-Pro and three Pro Bowl honors. But that was the last time we saw Todd Gurley. An NFL source told The Athletic that there were concerns about his surgically repaired left knee when he came out of Georgia. When asked how bad the knee is now, the source said, “Very bad.” Jeff Howe of The Athletic was the was the first to report in June of 2019 that Gurley was suffering from arthritis in the knee. This was later confirmed when Gurley’s trainer, Travelle Gaines, told CBS Sports: “Everybody knew when Todd came out of Georgia that there would be some kind of arthritic component to his knee, which is part of every surgery whether it’s a shoulder, a knee, an ankle. He’s now at the year-five mark, all we’re doing is managing that. If we can pound him less in the offseason while keeping his weight down, working on his strength, working on his agility in short areas, that’s going to give him a better chance to be healthy Weeks 14 through 17 when they really count.” An NFL source told The Athletic Friday, “Once a player has an arthritic condition, you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s different for every person. You’re sort of playing Russian roulette because you never know how fast it will accelerate.” In the Falcons’ defense, this is a low-risk decision. If Gurley can’t perform or fails his physical, they lose little. Gurley’s salary is only $5 million, as reported by WSB’s Zach Klein. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported it as $6 million from the Falcons and $7.5 million from the Rams, less a $2.5 million “offset.” Either way, it’s not a lot. We also don’t know what of the Falcons’ portion is guaranteed. While there are many fans who view Gurley as damaged goods and aren’t seeing things through Bulldogs-colored glasses, some in team offices right now only know — and care — that they’re getting a lot of marketing juice from this move. Unfortunately, that’s a big part of what they have become. Gurley had career-low numbers last season in carries (223), yards (857), yards per attempt (3.8) and total yards from scrimmage (1,064). He did not look good against the Falcons (18 carries for 41 yards) but had strong games against Pittsburgh (12 for 73) and Arizona (19 for 95). During the course of the season, there appeared to be friction between Gurley and Rams head coach Sean McVay about his workload and perceived abilities in 2019, as outlined in this story by The Athletic’s Rich Hammond. The Falcons loved Gurley coming out of Georgia. So did everybody. But they opted for Beasley for two reasons: 1) pass rush was the greater need; 2) their trust in then-new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and then-running backs coach Bobby Turner led them to believe they didn’t need a star running back and could rely on Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Suffice to say, the 2016 season validated their thinking about the 2015 draft. If anybody’s fortunes have changed more dramatically than the Falcons’, it’s Gurley’s. In July of 2018, he signed a four-year, $57.5 million contract extension with $45 million guaranteed. But he was released one season after that deal kicked in. The Rams tried desperately to trade him the past several weeks. As I reported Thursday, the Falcons were interested but couldn’t absorb the salary cap hit that Gurley’s inherited contract would bring. It was logical the Falcons would circle back if the Rams chose to release Gurley, and they did. L.A. opted to take a $20.15 million “dead money” cap hit the next two years rather than pay Gurley another $10.5 million in bonuses that would’ve come due at 4 p.m. on Thursday. Snead and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff are close, dating back to Snead’s time in Atlanta. It’s logical they’ve had discussions about Gurley’s condition and what should be expected. Nothing is guaranteed — not what Gurley can realistically contribute, not that he’ll even make it out of training camp, not that there will even be a 2020 season. But for now, the Falcons get headlines.
  23. https://theathletic.com/1689722/2020/03/20/five-years-after-passing-on-him-in-draft-falcons-sign-todd-gurley/ Not often have the Falcons signed an upper-tier running back in free agency during the Thomas Dimitroff era. Dimitroff did so in 2008 when he signed Michael Turner. That worked out considerably well, with Turner totaling 6,081 yards and 60 touchdowns. Dimitroff signed Steven Jackson in 2013 in free agency. That one didn’t pan out. Dimitroff went back to the free-agent well on Friday for a third time to sign a No. 1 running back. This time, he landed local folk hero Todd Gurley, who famously ran over and around everyone during his three years between the hedges in college at Georgia. A source confirmed to The Athletic that the Falcons will sign Gurley to a one-year deal pending a physical. WSB’s Zach Klein first reported that the compensation will be worth $5 million. If the Falcons were looking to sign a player to draw some major attention, both locally and nationally, they got it with Gurley’s addition. Of course, this has been a long time coming for many of the Falcons’ faithful considering Atlanta selected Vic Beasley two spots ahead of Gurley in the 2015 NFL Draft. That was then, when the Falcons had a glaring hole at pass rusher. This is now, with Atlanta needing to address the running back position now that the front office decided to move on from Devonta Freeman. Gurley’s five years with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams were mostly exceptional. He has been named to the Pro Bowl three times and earned first-team All-Pro status twice. His best seasons came in those All-Pro years of 2017 and 2018 when he rushed for 1,305 yards and 1,251 yards, respectively. He totaled 1,368 receiving yards during that time, as well. Gurley was instrumental in the Los Angeles Rams’ 2018 campaign that eventually led the team to the Super Bowl. But for all of his achievements, the reason Gurley was even available was out of his control. He would still be on the roster if the Rams weren’t concerned about Gurley’s ailing knee over the long haul. With his long-term health a concern, combined with the need to clear some salary-cap space, the Rams elected to release him Thursday after finding zero suitors for a trade. The Falcons became interested in his acquisition when it was apparent Gurley was on the trading block. But the cap number they would be forced to take on in a trade — more than $13 million — was never going to work. Therefore, if the Falcons were going to snag Gurley, they would have to hope he hit free agency. As it turns out, no one else wanted to take on that contract either, which led to Gurley’s release. It didn’t take long for the Falcons to pounce. Like it was with the Rams, Gurley’s knee will remain a concern for the Falcons, but signing him to a one-year deal does mitigate the risk. If Gurley’s health continues to be an issue, Atlanta can employ him as a third-down back or in a rotation. If Gurley’s knee holds up during the 2020 season, the Falcons will look like geniuses. For all the worry and concern over Gurley’s health, it should be noted that he has appeared in a total of 73 regular-season games — out of a possible 80 — during his five-year career. His snaps dwindled due to his knee issue during the 2018 NFL playoffs, but he averaged 14.9 carries per game during the 2019 season. His yardage total did dip to 857 and his yards-per-carry average was only 3.8. Therefore, it’s easy to wonder whether Atlanta will be able to see a return of the sensational player Gurley was both at Georgia and during his first four years with the Rams. And because of that wonder, the Falcons probably won’t be ready to scratch drafting a running back in the upcoming draft. Considering the risk Gurley’s additional carries, having another starting-caliber running back — a young one at that — will be important. (Of course, Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison will have plenty to say about that whenever football activities begin again.) Gurley figures to bring plenty of excitement to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, just with his mere presence. There’s no doubt that a lot of Georgia fans, who otherwise may not feel the need to go to Falcons games, will want to see Gurley play football in person again. For both the Falcons and Gurley, this can be seen as a win-win scenario. The Falcons are adding a player with exceptional name recognition who the state of Georgia loves and adores. Gurley gets a prove-it deal with the hope of showing that he can still perform at a high level. Dimitroff has done his part this offseason in addressing three team needs. First, he executed a trade with the Baltimore Ravens for tight end Hayden Hurst. Second, he signed edge rusher Dante Fowler in free agency. He now has Gurley, the player he passed on five years ago. For the hybrid UGA-Falcons fans, this is better late than never.
  24. https://theathletic.com/1685338/2020/03/18/dante-fowlers-addition-addresses-pass-rush-concern-in-qb-loaded-nfc-south/ Tom Brady. Drew Brees. Teddy Bridgewater. These are the quarterbacks the Falcons will face twice each next season. With the prevalence of the quick game permeating through the NFL, teams need quarterbacks who can get the ball out quickly against the pass rush, and all three of these quarterbacks possess quick releases. While these quarterbacks aren’t exceptionally mobile, the ability to get the ball out swiftly is a great counter to an opposing defense’s ability to bring them down. To combat these NFC South quarterbacks, having a pass rusher who can wreak havoc has become increasingly important. The Atlanta Falcons addressed that need near the end of the legal tampering period before free agency, as The Athletic was able to confirm they will sign edge rusher Dante Fowler to a three-year contract. Fowler later tweeted confirmation, as well. The NFL Network reported the contract is valued at a maximum of $48 million. While the contract is agreed to, it will be pending a physical, which can’t happen at team headquarters since the NFL has instituted a travel ban for team employees to meet with free agents and draft prospects. Until a physical occurs, whether through an off-site doctor or by the team itself, the team can’t officially announce the move. Looking back on the past few days, it’s clear the legal tampering period of 48 hours felt like 48 days. Throughout Monday and Tuesday, the only Falcons acquisition reported was the trade for Hayden Hurst. As news leaked of what other teams were doing, it seemed like an eternity passed as to whether Atlanta would be able to address its primary need of edge rusher. There will be plenty of familiarity for Fowler and head coach Dan Quinn, as Quinn recruited Fowler to play at Florida when Quinn was the defensive coordinator under head coach Will Muschamp. Fowler played under Quinn for one season in 2012 before Quinn returned to be the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator in 2013. Fowler played three years for the Gators before electing to turn pro. His potential has always been high, considering he was the third overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. The start of his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars had plenty of ups and downs: His rookie season began with an ACL tear, followed by two seasons when he totaled 12 sacks in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams during the middle of the season, recording four sacks total with both teams. Signed to a one-year prove-it deal in 2019, Fowler produced in a big way, notching 11.5 sacks and six pass breakups in 16 games, which included 14 starts. The Falcons felt his wrath as he recorded three sacks in the Rams’ 37-10 victory over the Falcons. While he only has one year of consistent play, it came at a crucial time in his career. As a result, he’s being rewarded with a three-year contract valued at $16 million per season. Considering the familiarity between coach and player, the likely assumption is that Quinn pushed hard for Fowler’s addition. But it’s also evident general manager Thomas Dimitroff wanted to be aggressive by snagging one of the upper-tier free-agent pass rushers. While much of the conversation has centered on cap space, credit for this signing should also go to director of football operations Nick Polk, who was tasked with poring over the new collective bargaining agreement to figure out how they could bring in a player of Fowler’s caliber and price tag. Given Fowler’s age, 25, Atlanta certainly will hope it has its defensive playmaker for the future. The Falcons also will hope his performance in 2019 will be the new normal and not the exception. The worry when signing someone coming off one big season is that he’s a one-season wonder. The Falcons learned this can happen with Vic Beasley, the former eighth-overall pick who totaled 15.5 sacks in 2016. While it seemed Beasley was destined for greatness in Atlanta after that campaign, he never could reclaim the magic he had during his former team’s Super Bowl run. And after betting on Beasley by picking up his fifth-year option, the Falcons had no choice but to let him walk this offseason. The upside to Fowler is tremendous. And it will be on Quinn, defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and defensive ends coach Tosh Lupoi to put him in the best position to succeed at the Leo defensive end position. Just like it did for Fowler in Los Angeles, it helps to play with other great players. He had Aaron Donald with the Rams. In Atlanta, Fowler will work alongside Grady Jarrett. Fowler’s addition now allows the Falcons to address their many other needs in the draft. With edge rusher and receiving tight end checked off, the remaining top needs include cornerback, linebacker, running back and interior offensive line. Secondary needs to include interior defensive line and safety. Snagging Fowler addresses a major hole. But with this new deal, it’s on Fowler to live up to the expectations this franchise has for him.
  25. https://theathletic.com/1678965/2020/03/16/schultz-bad-contract-decisions-after-super-bowl-led-to-falcons-roster-slash/?source=shared-article The Falcons, who for weeks have denied they were in salary cap ****, donned their fire-retardant suits Monday and prepared to take a blow torch to their roster. Welcome to reality. Cornerback Desmond Trufant and running back Devonta Freeman, who never lived up to big contract extensions and for months were considered the most likely veterans to be slashed from the roster, will be released this week, according to reports by the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport, respectively. (Two reserves, tackle Ty Sambrailo and tight end Luke Stocker, also were released, the team announced.) These moves follow the decision to not bring back Vic Beasley (made that mistake once already), let it slip they almost certainly will not exercise the fifth-year option on the sporadic Takk McKinley (lesson learned with Beasley) and the likely exits of free agents Austin Hooper, who reportedly has agreed to a deal with Cleveland, and De’Vondre Campbell for financial reasons. I’ll get to the specific salary cap ramifications of all this shortly. But first, it’s important to understand how the Falcons got into this mess. This franchise has made a number of smart personnel decisions and draft picks during the past decade, fan and media criticism notwithstanding. Before 2008, when general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith took over, the franchise never had consecutive winning seasons. After the regime change, the team had five straight winning seasons and made the playoffs four times, including an NFC title game appearance. It has gone to six postseasons in the past 12 seasons, including a Super Bowl berth. The problem has been what has occurred since 2016: a series of post-Super Bowl bad contracts that contributed to a second-round exit in 2017 and non-playoff seasons the past two years. Dimitroff, with the blessing of owner Arthur Blank, and presumably input from head coaches Smith and Dan Quinn, gave large deals to the wrong players. The Falcons rewarded their draft picks with second contracts that would hamstring them in later years. You may want to sit down for this: • Trufant: He was thought to have the potential to be an elite cornerback. It turned out he was only a good one. He’s well-liked but never grew up into the locker room leader the team hoped for, a problem with so many young players on defense. In short, he didn’t live up to his five-year, $68.75 million extension, even though he was a good player in 2019. He will leave with three years on his deal. It’s important to note that the Falcons went to the Super Bowl in 2016 without Trufant, who suffered a shoulder surgery at midseason. The extension was given to him two months after the Super Bowl. • Freeman: Another miscalculation. He far outperformed his contract for a fourth-round draft pick in 2015 and 2016, making two Pro Bowls and rushing for 22 touchdowns and more than 2,100 yards. He also was genuinely one of the most popular players in the locker room and had an inspiring backstory, having risen from the projects in Miami. But post-Super Bowl was different. Freeman was frequently injured the next three seasons, missing 18 games, and last season rushed for a career-low 3.6 yards per carry (down from 4.8 in 2016) and scored only two touchdowns with 656 yards in 14 games. With one year left on his rookie contract, he was given a five-year, $41.25 million extension before 2017. He leaves with three years left. Freeman’s contract also meant the team could not re-sign Tevin Coleman, who rejoined Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. • Beasley: The oft-repeated misstep of honoring his fifth-year, $12.8 million option squeezed the Falcons in the cap last season. Part of that decision stemmed from their relationship with the sports agency, CAA, which also represented Julio Jones and Grady Jarrett in pending negotiations. But Quinn, who had taken over as defensive coordinator for 2019, also believed he could get more out of Beasley as an edge rusher. He was wrong. • Cornerback Robert Alford signed a four-year, $38 million extension after the Super Bowl. He was released after 2018, saving overall cap space but leaving a $1.2 million dead money hit in 2019. Bottom line: Trufant’s release causes a $10.2 million dead cap hit. The team can more than split that in half if he’s designated for a post-June 1 release, as expected. The 2020 hit would be $4.4 million, according to Spotrac. Freeman likewise would be a $6 million hit, or $3 million each in 2020 and 2021 if it’s post-June 1. This is on top of “dead money” the team will carry in 2020 for Ryan Schraeder ($2.5 million; didn’t live up to a five-year extension given to him in November of 2016), Sambrailo ($2 million; released) and Mohamed Sanu ($1.4 million; traded). The salary cap will increase $10 million to $198.2 million in the new CBA. But teams close to the cap, including the Falcons, were hoping it would be more than $200 million because part of the increase will be consumed by minimum salaries rising $100,000 in the new CBA. This is why re-signing Hooper and Campbell was always considered a longshot. This is why significant improvement this offseason was always considered a longshot. The Falcons, who need to improve their pass rush, could attempt to sign outside linebacker Dante Fowler, who had 11.5 sacks with the Los Angeles Rams last season. Quinn knows Fowler from their Florida days. Fowler also played for two former Dimitroff assistants, Dave Caldwell in Jacksonville and Les Snead in Los Angeles. But Fowler, who suffered a torn ACL in his rookie season, generally underperformed with the Jaguars and his 11.5 sacks in 2019 should be weighed against the advantages of playing in a front with Aaron Donald and Clay Matthews. Other options include free agent Jadeveon Clowney and Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue (who has been franchise tagged at $19.3 million). Both will get big contracts, and Ngakoue would cost the Falcons draft picks assets. NFL teams regularly circumvent the salary cap by restricting deals, moving guaranteed money up front to satisfy the player and borrowing against the future. But at some point, the bill comes due. That’s what we’re seeing here. The Falcons are knee-deep into their second mortgage.
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