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Found 23 results

  1. I'll just post what ESPN, Bill Barnwell said about the Falcons. The link is below.
  2. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Roddy White knew his standing as the Atlanta Falcons' all-time leading receiver would be in jeopardy sooner than later with Julio Jones still on the roster. But as Jones sits 381 receiving yards from surpassing White's franchise mark of 10,863, White has much loftier goals set for his close friend and former teammate. "The pace that he's at right now, he can not only be the all-time leading receiver in Falcons history, to me he has enough talent to be the all-time leading receiver in the NFL," White said of Jones. "That's if he plays long enough." Hall of Famer Jerry Rice is the league's all-time leading receiver with 22,895 yards. Rice, who retired at age 42, accomplished the feat in 20 seasons while playing 303 games. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald is second with 16,108 yards. Jones, 29, snickered when told of White's thoughts about him catching Rice. "I don't know what's wrong with Roddy, man," Jones said. "Jerry played, what, 20 years? You know what I'm saying? Jerry played a long time." In the same breath, Jones seemed to ponder the thought as a very realistic challenge. "What that says about Roddy is he knows the work ethic, everything I've been through, the way I work ... it's very achievable," Jones said. "But for me, I'm not a numbers guy. I didn't even know when you said that's next for me as far as surpassing Roddy. I didn't even know if I was close or not. I just play ball." Jones, who has 10,483 yards through 108 games, has the highest per-game average for receiving yards in league history at 97.1. Rice averaged 75.6. So, essentially, Jones could break the mark by keeping the same average over 128 more games -- or eight more seasons. He would have to stay healthy, of course. Jones has dealt with his share of nagging injuries and played in only five games during the 2013 season after suffering a foot fracture. The Falcons already announced intentions to address Jones' contract situation with two years remaining after making an adjustment to this year's salary. "I can't tell you how long I want to play," Jones said. "For me, right now, I feel great. I still feel like I'm 17, 18 years old right now. I don't hurt. I can run. I can stop. I can do everything. I can do whatever I want to do. I feel great and I've played eight years. So if I feel like this, I know I can play at least eight [more] years. "But with family and stuff like that, a lot of things happen. That's why I don't like to speak on stuff down the road. I'm one year at a time, and whatever comes." Jones marveled about how Rice was able to play into his 40s and still have an impact. At age 40 in 2002, Rice caught 92 passes for 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns for a Oakland Raiders team that went to the Super Bowl. "Yeah, 22,000 is a lot," Jones said. "I have a lot of respect for Jerry Rice. The way he works, his work ethic, everything about him. He wasn't a guy who was going to wow you with his physical ability. But the way he works, he's going to outwork you. You're not going to outwork Jerry Rice. He's going to make you suffer." Jones has developed a reputation for his relentless work ethic, too, on top of being blessed with tremendous physical size and incredible athleticism. The 2011 sixth overall draft pick, who achieved 10,000 receiving yards faster than any receiver in league history (104 games), reached another milestone this past Sunday when he became the first player in NFL history to post five straight 1,400-yard seasons. Jones leads the league with 1,429 receiving yards on 94 receptions, and that's despite drawing double-team attention regularly. True to his usual modest self, the five-time Pro Bowler dismissed it as no big deal when asked what the accomplishment meant to him. "Nothing," Jones said. "I'm trying to find a way to win. All that stuff is always nice, but I'm trying to find ways to win." The 4-9 Falcons take a five-game losing streak into Sunday's matchup with the 3-10 Arizona Cardinals. With three games remaining, Jones would need to average 127 yards per game -- 17 yards better than his season average -- to break White's franchise mark this season. It's attainable with the Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the final three opponents. Jones' career-high for a game was 300 against the Panthers, and he's gone off for 253 against the Buccaneers and 189 against the Cardinals. "Will he get the [franchise] record this year? Yes. Definitely," White said. "He ain't playing no world-beating secondaries where he can't catch no balls. "Just him getting to 10,000 yards, that's a big feat, especially in this league. When you hit that mark, that means you're playing at a high level in the NFL. The guys that are on that list, frankly, a lot of them are Hall of Famers. To get to that point a good eight years into the league, that's a tremendous accomplishment."
  3. Falcons will consider keeping Freeman-Coleman tandem together FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- At the end of last season, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he could envision a scenario in which the team would re-sign running back Tevin Coleman, even after inking starter Devonta Freeman to a long-term contract. That scenario remains a possibility, according to coach Dan Quinn. As the 4-9 Falcons dig deeper into the process of evaluating the roster approaching the offseason, it's fair to wonder how the running back situation will come together in 2019. Asked Monday if he thought there was a chance of Freeman and Coleman being the team's backfield duo of the future despite Coleman being in the last year of his rookie deal, Quinn didn't rule it out. "Yep. For sure," Quinn said. "Everything's on the table. When we're in the scenario that we're in, which we're not very pleased at, you evaluate anything and everything. So, yeah, we're certainly going to consider every single option in every way." Devonta Freeman, left, and Tevin Coleman have combined to score 64 TDs for the Falcons during their careers. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Whether it all plays out that way remains a question mark, if not doubtful. Freeman, a two-time Pro Bowler, signed a five-year, $41.25 million extension ($22 million guaranteed) through 2022. But he knows nothing is certain about his future with the team despite the deal, especially when folks start throwing around trade scenarios. Freeman played in just two games this season and remains on injured reserve following groin surgery. He is eligible to return for the Dec. 23 game at Carolina, although there is no guarantee he'll be activated despite the optimism Quinn expressed last Friday. "For us, the No. 1 thing is keep making progress," Quinn said of Freeman's status. "When we do that, then we'll cross the bridge of what's next in terms of him playing. But keep making progress, first." Freeman has had a variety of injuries, including multiple concussions and knee problems, which had left some league executives wondering about his durability. But the Falcons, ranked last in the league at 81.2 rushing yards per game, obviously would have fared much better with Freeman's elusiveness and aggressiveness in the lineup. Not to mention Freeman runs routes like a receiver when asked to line up against linebackers. He has 37 touchdowns in 63 career games. "Another player had said, 'At the end of runs, he lets 'em know,' and I thought that's a clear illustration where he's able to drop his shoulder on a guy to finish a run over his pads and downhill," Quinn said of Freeman. "I think I love the fact that at the end of runs, he can really get downhill and finish. The 4-yard run goes for 8 yards. I'd say it's his change of direction. When somebody is ready to size him up thinking they got the hit, the foot goes in the ground and he explodes. ... He brings a lot of energy to the team." Quinn said all that without directly addressing if he has any concerns regarding Freeman's long-term health. At least one opponent believes the absence of Freeman has had a major effect on the Falcons. "I think he's an X factor for them," said Sheldon Rankins, a star defensive tackle for the rival New Orleans Saints. "I think his ability to run as well on the edges as well as he does inside between the tackles, and his ability in the passing game, kind of takes the offense to a whole new dimension. Without him, they had to kind of go to a committee-type role, and you kind of saw they kind of threw the ball a lot more. "And I think when that team is really rolling, you've seen in the past, is when they can feed their running backs and they can gash teams with the run game, the play-action pass, get Julio [Jones] deep and those guys. So I think [Freeman]'s an X factor for them, and they've obviously missed him this year. I know they'll be happy whenever they can get him back." There are mixed reviews about Coleman around the league. One AFC head coach said back in February, "He's a great complement to the starter, and he could fill the role of a starting running back because of his great speed and athleticism. Can't discount his ability to score the football." Meanwhile, an NFC executive said recently he was surprised Coleman hadn't shown a lot more fire and taken full advantage of starting in place of Freeman, which might indicate he is not ready to assume a starting role. Coleman has rushed for 559 yards and two touchdowns on 138 carries while starting 11 games. For his career, Coleman has 27 touchdowns in 53 games. Coleman said during the season that he wants to remain with the Falcons. His agent, Adisa Bakari, is the same agent who represents Pittsburgh Steelers running back holdout Le'Veon Bell. So, it would be hard to imagine Coleman accepting a bargain deal if the chance exists for him to secure more money in free agency. The Falcons have rookie fourth-round pick Ito Smith sharing the load with Coleman, and Smith gives the team a change-of-pace back who can get into the end zone (team-leading four rushing touchdowns). Smith, however, isn't a guy anyone envisions being the Falcons' workhorse back. The Falcons have drafted a running back in four of the past five drafts -- Freeman in 2014 (fourth round), Coleman in 2015 (third), Brian Hill in 2017 (fifth) and Smith in 2018 (fourth). The last free-agent running back the Falcons signed who made a significant impact was Michael Turner, who signed a six-year, $34.5 million deal ($15 million guarantee) in 2008. Turner had three 1,000-yard seasons and rushed for double-digit touchdowns in each of his five seasons with the team. Quinn reiterated how important the running game is to success moving ahead, regardless of which players are carrying the load. "It has to be a part of our identity -- and a big part of that," Quinn said. "I think it adds to the overall circle of the toughness of your team. But it also so clearly sets up the line of scrimmage like we'd like for the run game and the play-action to balance off of one another. Our identity is tied into that." The other important element, of course, is the play of the offensive line. In all fairness to both Coleman and Smith, the holes haven't been there consistently this season, in large part, due to poor blocking. And if the Falcons plan to have success running the ball beyond this season, they'll need to make sure they have linemen physically capable of getting the job done. They'll probably need to address both guard spots, and the benching of Ryan Schraeder leaves doubts about the right tackle situation. "There's always things we can do to improve," said center Alex Mack. "If we just block everybody, you could be back there. Unfortunately, [defenses] are good. That's when you need a running back who is making people miss. Some of the runs are 100 percent on those guys doing really good things and making people miss. "The better we can do to block people, the more space we can open up, the more we can run the ball." ESPN Saints Reporter Mike Triplett contributed to this story
  4. Free-falling Falcons start to look to future in fifth straight loss GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A dejected Matt Ryansnapped off his chin strap and screamed in the air after a fumbled snap in the red zone -- when center Alex Mack hit a motioning Mohamed Sanu with the ball -- led to a missed scoring opportunity in the fourth quarter. Ryan's rage was indicative of how frustrating the season has been for the reeling Atlanta Falcons. And Sunday's implosion at Lambeau Field marked another sign of why it's time for the Falcons to turn their attention toward evaluating the roster and fixing the issues for 2019. Coach Dan Quinn figured his team would get things corrected after he called for the locker room leaders to step up and take charge. Instead, turnovers, penalties, execution issues, and an overall lack of discipline plagued the 4-9 Falcons again as they dropped their fifth straight game after a 34-20 loss to the Packers. It assured a below-.500 mark for the first time under Quinn. What was Quinn's message to the team afterward? "I said, 'As dark as it is, the men that will get it right here in these three weeks are the men that are standing in this room,'" Quinn said. "Just wanting it to get better isn't a great way for real progress. You've got to make changes that are consistent to playing better." So what's next for the Falcons? Quinn doesn't want to look at the big picture, but there were signs of the Falcons spinning ahead to see what can be done to resolve a variety of problems, even if those signs were minor. The most obvious was the benching of right tackle Ryan Schraeder, who was signed to five-year, $31.5 million extension ($12.5 million guaranteed) in November 2016. Schraeder, who is signed through 2021, gave way to Ty Sambrailo, acquired from Denver in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick. It was the major move along the offensive line, with right guard Ben Garland benched in favor of Zane Beadles. Schraeder was asked what he believes the benching means regarding his future with the team. The Falcons will have to address the line in the draft. "I'm not to sure, at this point," he said. "We'll see how the rest of the three games play out and go from there. ... I've got to get whatever they're telling me to do right and hopefully get back in the starting lineup." Matt Ryan, getting sacked by Clay Matthews, says "it's OK to be frustrated" about the Falcons' struggles. "It's part of this game." Jeffrey Phelps/AP Photo The Falcons also gave rookie cornerback Isaiah Oliver, a second-round draft pick from Colorado, a more extended look against the Packers after starter Robert Alford struggled early in the contest. But Oliver said being in the rotation was part of the plan going into the game as he lined up at both corner spots and was part of the dime package along with Alford and fellow starter Desmond Trufant. "Just getting more reps, basically," Oliver said. "It was good to get out there and be able to play. I think [my play] was a good. As a team, though, we missed the mark. We need to play a lot better. That goes for everyone across the board. We know what we're capable of." Quinn also utilized running back Brian Hillsome at fullback and gave safety Ryan Neal a look on special teams. But Quinn didn't make a big deal out of giving other players long looks, although it's something that would be wise to do the remainder of the season. Despite some glaring holes, the Falcons have enough talent to be competitive, with players such as the one-time MVP Ryan, five-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones, and one-time Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones, just to name a few. But they've sorely missed key injured players such as two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman (groin), Pro Bowl strong safety Keanu Neal (ACL), free safety Ricardo Allen(Achilles), and Deion Jones (foot) before he returned to the lineup last week against the Ravens. "It just comes down to everyone doing their job," defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. said. "Every team makes mistakes. Whoever makes the most mistakes is probably going to lose the game. Sometimes, things go your way. Teams that normally execute greatly, they are normally great teams, and they normally find themselves in the playoffs."
  5. ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Falcons were supposed to be carried by an explosive offense this year. Sure, it would have been a tall task to ask the Falcons to duplicate what they accomplished during the Super Bowl run in 2016, when they led the league at 33.8 points per game. But when you have a one-time MVP in Matt Ryan, a five-time Pro Bowler in Julio Jones, an electric rookie in Calvin Ridley, and a host of other capable weapons, points are supposed to come a little easier. Such hasn't been the case for the Falcons over the last 22 days during a four-game losing streak that put any playoff talk to rest. They've averaged just 17 points per game over that span while dropping to 4-8. This week's 26-16 loss to the Baltimore Ravensmagnified all that has gone wrong for the Falcons on the offensive side of the ball. They knew they had a challenge against the league's top defense in the Ravens, but no one would have expected the Falcons to gain 131 net yards, their lowest total in a game since managing just 106 in a 26-7 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 12, 1999. Ryan, sacked three times and hit seven times by the Ravens, threw for 131 yards on 16 of 26 passes -- a career-low when he has attempted 20 or more passes, according to ESPN Statistics and Information. And once again, the Falcons failed to put together any semblance of a running game with 34 yards on 15 carries, averaging 2.3 yards per carry. During the current four-game skid, the running back combo of Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith has combined for 159 yards on 54 carries (2.94 yards per carry). It emphasizes how much Devonta Freeman (groin surgery) is missed. Say what you want about the Ravens dominating the time of possession against the Falcons, which they did with having it almost 20 minutes longer. The Falcons didn't take advantage of their opportunities when they did have it, going 2 for 9 on third down and driving into the red zone just once. "It was a point of emphasis for us to get the run game going. We didn't do a good enough job," Ryan said. "We didn't execute as well as we needed to. "We had some [opportunities] that were closer than they might have looked. But consistently, when you're not making first downs, you're not moving the chains, it's hard to get that [run game] going." Going down the field with passes didn't work well either, whether it be due to drops or poor passes. Give Ryan credit for pointing blame at himself for overthrowing Coleman on a wheel route early in the game that might have led to a touchdown rather than settling for a field goal. "I'd love to have that one back," Ryan said. "Just throw it a yard or two shorter and let him kind of take it to the house. You never know if momentum changes from that point." The Falcons have lost a lot of steam, and coach Dan Quinn has noticed. Quinn talked about the effort being their but there being moments where he saw the energy of his team dip. It would seem to be even harder to maintain a high level of energy over the final four games, starting with next week's trip to Green Bay. The Falcons don't have much to play for. "Early on you have that moment where it's `OK, we will get it turned,'" Quinn said. "So I think when you hit the reality where you're fighting to get to .500, yeah, that stinks. And that hurts. ... It's never a group of guys that has been like, `Let's back off and step away.' We're way more of, `Wow do we go about improving and fixing what we need to get done?'" Matt Ryan had the fewest passing yards in a game in which he started and finished in his career on Sunday. John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports Seeing Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones return to the lineup for the first time since right foot surgery and post 15 total tackles and a sack was a positive for the Falcons to build upon, as was seeing quiet first-round pick Vic Beasley Jr. returning a Grady Jarrett forced fumble 74 yards for a touchdown. It was the team's first fumble recovery of the season despite forcing six fumbles. But from an offensive perspective, the Falcons have plenty of work to do to feel positive moving forward. Critics will continue to point to offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian when they see failed run plays up the middle or a pass by Mohamed Sanu out of the Wildcat sail incomplete on third-and-1. But, as Ryan said, there are plays where the players have to execute, and the Falcons didn't. And Quinn continues to support Sarkisian, just like owner Arthur Blank continues to support Quinn. The Falcons already made one change on the offensive line with inserting Zane Beadles at right guard ahead of Ben Garland. The change didn't necessarily keep Ryan off his back or open up holes in the run game, though the blame does not fall directly on Beadles. The line, as a whole, has to do better. And the backs have to pick up blitzers. Ryan has sounded like a broken record in talking about the mindset the Falcons have to possess moving forward. But there's not much else to say. "We've got to get back to work," Ryan said. "We've got to find a good way to win. As far as stay together, I think we have a good group of men in our locker room, coaching staff, and front office that are willing to work."
  6. Despite 4-7 record, Falcons owner Arthur Blank supports coach Dan Quinn NEW ORLEANS -- Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank gave coach Dan Quinn a vote of confidence after Thursday's 31-17 loss to the Saints dropped the Falcons to 4-7 and all but ended their playoff hopes. Blank expressed total faith in Quinn, who guided the Falcons to the 2016 Super Bowl. "Absolutely. We love our coach," Blank told ESPN. "Our coach is not the problem." Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were rewarded with three-year extensions in July. They are signed through 2022. The Falcons have been inconsistent throughout this season, starting 1-4, winning three straight to even their record, then dropping the past three games. Injuries have been an issue, with six starters placed on injured reserve, including Pro Bowlers Devonta Freeman, Keanu Nealand Deion Jones. Falcons coach Dan Quinn is under contract through 2022. AP Photo/Bill Feig "It's a reason, but it's not an excuse," Blank said of the injuries. "That's what the coach would tell you. That's what the players would tell you. There have been some crippling injuries, but other guys have stepped up and played the best they can. Some cases, that's good enough. In some cases, not quite." Blank saw a simple reason behind the implosion in another loss to the rival Saints. "I thought it was pretty obvious tonight: We had a few turnovers, which are always brutal," Blank said. "To have four of them, it's nearly impossible to win. And we couldn't run the ball tonight; couldn't stop the run. That's the story of the game." Quinn implied on Thursday that there could be changes coming to the offensive line after a bad performance against the Saints. As far as any coaching changes, Quinn has expressed confidence in both offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel throughout the entire season.
  7. A little something positive in this season ATLANTA -- If he could walk, Louisiana native Kyron Greenup probably would strut into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Thursday, proudly wearing his custom-made Atlanta Falcons jersey. If he could move his hands freely, Greenup probably would pump his fist every time the Falcons score a touchdown, especially if his new friend, tight end Austin Hooper, is the one crossing the goal line. But Greenup can't perform the simplest movements -- not with multiple bullet fragments still lodged in the back of his head. He's in a wheelchair and has been since 2014. That year, a dispute he had no part of, according to a police report, resulted in random shots being fired around his Reserve, Louisiana, neighborhood, an area known for gun violence. The shot that pierced his skull altered his life. "I've come from not being able to talk, not being able to move nothing at all," Greenup said with optimism. "I had a feeding tube. I had a catheter. But it's all eliminated now. I'm working on standing. I'm doing squats. I've come a long, long way." The shooting occurred less than a year after Greenup's younger brother, Kyrian Gray, was shot and killed by gunfire during a graduation party 30 miles west of New Orleans. Doctors have told Greenup that he has a chance to walk again, but they won't put a timetable on his recovery, so three or four days a week, he turns what are supposed to be one-hour rehab sessions into three-hour grinds. His relentless spirit not only caught the eye of his therapists at Atlanta's Shepherd Center, where Greenup has spent time since exiting two nursing homes. It also drew the attention of Hooper. After hearing Greenup's story, Hooper made a few calls to Falcons' staff members and helped arrange for Greenup to be a guest at the Saints-Falcons game in Week 3. The organization took matters a step further, designating Greenup an honorary game captain. "It was good that everyone rallied to make Kyron's day," Hooper said. "If he can go through life the way he does, with such a positive attitude, what are our everyday problems? Little things that you go through, they're meaningless. Kyron's outlook is the way more people should be." Greenup, 25, grew up in Louisiana rooting for Deuce McAllister and the Saints. But the generosity displayed by Hooper and the Falcons made him switch sides. He'll cheer for the visiting team when the Falcons (4-6) battle the Saints (9-1) on Thursday (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). "I'm a Dirty Bird," Greenup said. "I like the Falcons. Those are my brothers. I'm in the brotherhood for life now." Nothing short of a miracle One person was killed and another wounded Tuesday evening in St. John the Baptist Parish. That was the lead of the news story posted on a Louisiana television station's website on May 7, 2014, the day after Greenup was shot. "I was the one dead," Greenup said. "They had pronounced me dead." According to a St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff's report, Greenup, then 20, was found slumped over near the side of the street in a "pool of bright red blood" as a number of men and women screamed for help. Another victim, a 15-year-old boy, had been shot in the leg and survived. Deputies on the scene discovered 15 bullet casings and one live round on the ground near Greenup, who remembered none of it. "I wasn't even paying attention when the shots were fired," Greenup said. "It was broad daylight, and I had just come from work at the warehouse. I still don't remember that day vividly or visually. All I can tell you is when I woke up, I was in a hospital." From what a friend told Greenup, the shooting occurred after a stranger drove into the neighborhood, was stopped and questioned by one of the residents, and then engaged in an argument with that resident. Shortly after, shots were fired. An ambulance arrived, and one of the paramedics, Tony Grandolfo Jr., performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Greenup. Grandolfo, now a patrol officer, remains a family friend to this day. "He was the one who saved my life," Greenup said of Grandolfo. "He told me, 'I actually felt your heart stop. I did all I could. After that, you just kept fighting.'" Greenup was transported to River Parish Hospital in LaPlace, Louisiana, then airlifted to University Hospital in downtown New Orleans. He was treated by neurosurgeon Gabriel Tender. "I'm glad that he's alive, and I'm very happy that he's going to walk again," Tender said. "He came in in really bad shape. I'm surprised he's still alive, to be honest with you. But the fact that he's going to walk again is nothing short of a miracle, with the type of damage he had and the shape he was in." Greenup, who was on a ventilator for an extended time, had to undergo a decompressive craniectomy, a procedure in which part of the skull is removed to allow a swelling brain to expand without being squeezed. After the swelling subsided, Tender inserted an artificial skull graph. The bullet traveled from one side of Greenup's head to the other. Tender opted not to remove the bullet fragments because doing so could have punctured the superior sagittal sinus, which, when bleeding, becomes nearly impossible to stop. "We risked killing him by trying to take those out," Tender said of the fragments. The bullet penetrated the motor cortex, which controls the movement of the arms and legs, on both sides of Greenup's brain. The damage left him in a wheelchair. But, as Tender explained, surrounding areas of the brain attempt to compensate and assume functions, which is why Greenup is on the path to walk again after recovering his speech. Michelle Greenup, a mother of five boys and one girl before the murder of her son, Kyrian Gray, moved to the Atlanta area in an attempt to start a new life after she received the call about Kyron. She knew the hostile atmosphere in Louisiana was no good for her family, which is why she had moved to Jacksonville, Florida, years before. She left Kyron and Kyrian with their grandmother so they could finish high school. "I just prayed, cried and was like, 'I'm not going to see a body. I'm going to see my child,'" Michelle Greenup said of her emotions upon hearing the news on Kyron. "When I got to the hospital, he was disfigured. But I was glad just to know he was still here with us, laying up there living." Two men were arrested the week after the shooting. The one who shot Greenup, Jontrell Cosey, initially was charged with attempted second-degree murder but eventually plead guilty to aggravated battery and aggravated criminal damage to property. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Michelle asked to meet with Cosey following the trial. "I forgave him," she said. "I truly forgave him. It wasn't for the public or nobody else. I forgave him because I had to go on. Seeing him have life [in prison] or hating him, it wouldn't have changed my baby's situation. He's still in a chair. And that's just me. I'm going to show love, however. I love God for real. So showing compassion was not a problem." Police concluded that there was no motive behind the shooting. They were surprised Greenup was hit because witnesses said he was nowhere near Cosey. Cosey, who lived in the neighborhood, was someone Greenup had known since childhood. "He wasn't my best friend or anything, but I'd speak to him," Greenup said of Cosey. "I've known him all my life. They were just shooting. That's it. It wasn't gang-related or anything, just shooting. "What would I say to him now? I have nothing to say. We don't have anything to talk about. He can't change my situation. I can't change his situation. Just go ahead with your life, and I'm going to do the same." Part of the Falcons' brotherhood Greenup beamed as he directed his eyes toward the signed white football bearing the Falcons' logo sitting on his living room shelf. It was a birthday present from coach Dan Quinn, who added a team beanie in the surprise package. On the ball is the following message from Quinn: "Kyron, Happy birthday. We admire your toughness & resiliency. In Brotherhood." For Greenup, the gift serves as a daily reminder of his moment as the Falcons' honorary captain. The surprise was supposed to be revealed to him the Friday before that Sept. 23 Saints-Falcons game. But Greenup's therapist let the secret out Tuesday of that week. "She wasn't going to be there Friday, so she wanted to see my facial expression," Greenup said. "She told me about it, and I was like, 'Wow, are you serious? Y'all playing.' And she was like, 'Nah, I'm serious. Guys are going to come to get you that morning. So be ready.'" He was. Greenup could barely control his excitement while he was shuttled to the stadium. When he arrived on the sideline for warm-ups, he met Hooper. "He came over and gave me some dap," Greenup said of Hooper. "He was like, 'It's nice to meet you, man, but let me go ahead and get back over here to warm-ups before I get in trouble. We can talk more after the game.'" Greenup, wearing his No. 1 captain's jersey, posed for pictures with Falcons owner Arthur Blank. He sat in awe as Quinn came over and addressed him. "He really gave me some motivational words," Greenup said of Quinn. "He was just telling me to keep working and don't give up because anything is possible. He was like, 'You're in the best place for rehab. You're going to see the outcome at the end of it all.' His message was just to not give up." Greenup was wheeled to midfield for the coin toss alongside Falcons game captains Tevin Coleman, Robert Alford and Justin Bethel. Across from him stood Drew Brees and Cam Jordan, but he didn't mention growing up a Saints fan. Greenup was hoping for a Falcons victory, but the Saints pulled off an overtime thriller 43-37. Regardless, Greenup came away a winner. Hooper made good on his promise to catch up afterward. He invited Greenup to a friend's home that night for steak fajitas and to watch the Sunday night game between the Patriots and Lions. "We actually, actually hung out after the game," Greenup said. "It felt really good. I was like, 'Wow, I'm really hanging out with Austin Hooper. I got him to sign a ball and that hat you see right up there." Hooper brought a couple friends with him: five-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mackand defensive end Derrick Shelby. Both Mack and Shelby walked away impressed by Greenup's upbeat demeanor. "It was just cool to hang out and tell stories, and I know he really appreciated it," Mack said. "I know his life is difficult, and he has a great attitude. The things that you think are easy, like taking a sip of water, is, like, a struggle. But he's really working hard, and it's cool to see that." Said Shelby, "Just visiting with people that are going through hard times, it uplifts their spirits and helps them not think about the situation. You just try and treat him like he's one of the guys and have fun." Greenup and Hooper have maintained their friendship. Hooper recently sent Greenup a bed for his new apartment, which he moved into three weeks ago. Greenup's mother and younger brother, Kyree, live 30 minutes away but sometimes stay the night to help him get around. Otherwise, Greenup gets assistance from a certified nursing assistant. Hooper also checked into getting Greenup into Thursday night's game in New Orleans, but Greenup said his family's plan to spend the holiday in Louisiana changed. Maybe one day, Greenup will walk the sideline by himself prior to a Falcons-Saints game. "They just told me I'm going to have to put in the hard work and that it's 'going to be up to you' when I walk again," Greenup said. "I just don't give up. Never."
  8. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones has picked up quite a few fans during his 32-game NFL stint. Brian Urlacher is among them. Urlacher, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker who starred for the Chicago Bears, didn't hold back on the superlatives when discussing Jones' likely return to the lineup from early-season foot surgery. "That's a bad mother f-----," Urlacher said of Jones. "Is he coming back? I know he got hurt the first game of the year. I like that he can come back from [injured reserve] later in the season. That's a good move. "He's already a star, dude. He's the fastest middle linebacker in the NFL. He can cover anybody. He's great in the run game. He's so athletic. He's one of the guys I really love watching play." The Falcons (4-5) would love to watch Jones makes plays rather than run ladder drills on a side field. Coach Dan Quinn reiterated Monday that the team will take things "step by step" with Jones despite Jones being eligible to return off IR for Sunday's matchup against the Dallas Cowboys (4-5). Quinn said he won't put Jones back out there until Jones' repaired broken right foot is completely healed. But the return of Jones would be critical for the Falcons' playoff hopes, with the NFC picture far from undecided. The Falcons' struggling defense sorely needs him. A 28-16 loss to rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns emphasized how much the Falcons miss Jones in the middle of the field. Speed erases mistakes, and Jones is a 4.38 40-yard dash guy who could track down a running back before a 92-yard touchdown. He has developed into a solid tackler, and missed tackles have been a glaring issue for the Falcons. Plus, Jones knows how to find the ball with seven career interceptions -- including two pick-sixes -- and a forced fumble. If Jones returns this week, he'll be counted upon to help slow down Ezekiel Elliott, the league's second-leading rusher with 831 ground yards. If Jones doesn't return until the Thanksgiving night showdown against his hometown New Orleans Saints, then he'll give Drew Brees something to think about, with three interceptions of Brees in four meetings. Not to mention the Falcons had trouble defending running backs out of the backfield such as Carolina's Christian McCaffrey (14 catches, 102 yards) and New Orleans' Alvin Kamara (15 catches, 124 yards), something Jones could help minimize the second time around with his coverage skills "I know Deion as a person and I know he wants to be out there with us," fellow linebacker De'Vondre Campbell said. "The fact that he can't be, it kills him. I let him know, 'Maybe this was a sign from God that you needed this rest.' "Him coming back, that's huge for your defense in general. He's the captain of the defense. He's the Mike. He's does some things really well that not a lot of people can do. Just having him back is going to be huge in general." Said pass-rusher Vic Beasley Jr.: "It's going to be awesome to get Deion back. He's a great player, a great leader for our team. We're looking forward to having him back and we're excited for him." The Falcons enter Sunday's Dallas game ranked second-to-last in the league in third-down defense (51.9 percent conversion rate), yards allowed per play (6.54), and yards allowed per rush (5.19). They lost starting safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) to season-ending injuries, and Jones hasn't played since the season opener in Philadelphia. The Falcons, who have placed six starters on IR, are allowed to designate two players to return. Jones' return appears imminent, and the Falcons could bring back two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman from groin surgery for the Carolina game (Dec. 23).
  9. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper wore a smirk on his face when asked about the early-season criticism directed toward offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "In the city of Atlanta, everyone's a critic," Hooper said. "When we were 1-4, everyone hated us. Now everybody seems to be back on the train. All we worry about is the guys who are in the building. So, we had Sark's back from Day 1. And that's all that matters: The connection we have to each other. People outside the building are always going to say what they're going to say." Said receiver Julio Jones: "For us, in-house -- we try to keep everything in-house -- we always believed in Sark. And we're going to continue to believe in Sark." Well, the people outside suddenly are calling Sarkisian brilliant, with the offense clicking on all cylinders and the Falcons riding a three-game winning streak into Sunday's road contest against the Cleveland Browns (1 p.m. ET, Fox). Sarkisian's offense ranks first in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (53.3 percent), fifth in points per game (28.5 PPG) and seventh in red zone efficiency (69.2 percent). A reporter asked Sarkisian on Thursday if he felt like giving a verbal middle finger to his critics. "No, not at all," Sarkisian chuckled. "I've said this before: I've been in this business for a long enough time now to know it comes with the territory. When things are good, people probably think you're better than you are. And when things aren't going great, they probably think you're worse than you are. "The challenge as a coach and a player, really, is not to ride the emotional roller coaster of what's going on outside of the building. And not getting too high and not getting too low, but finding that even keel. You trust your process, you trust your work, and you believe in yourself and you believe in the people you have around you. And you do the best job you can do. That hasn't changed for me." Quarterback Matt Ryan, who is having an MVP-caliber season while completing 70.8 percent of his passes, pointed to one play in particular that illustrated just how much Sarkisian should be respected as a playcaller. It was the screen pass to Jones on third-and-2 in the fourth quarter Sunday in Washington. Jones followed his blocks, shook off a tackle attempt by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at the 5-yard line and backed into the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown -- Jones' first score of the season. "Well, we had that up here for a few weeks, and we had been practicing that play," Sarkisian said. "I actually didn't call it in practice in a competitive period against defense, and Matt and Julio were giving me a hard time about, 'Just call it, Coach. Just call it.' "When the situation came up in the game and I called it and it scored, they were kind of ribbing me pretty good, 'See, if you would have called it in practice, the same thing would have happened.'" Here's a little of what the players had to say about Sarkisian using that play in Washington: Tight end Logan Paulsen: "It's three tight ends, so 13 personnel. Only one receiver on the field. That's a personnel group that you predominately run the ball out of. We got into a formation where we run like a very specific type of run, so I think it kind of gets the defense thinking, 'Oh, they're running a crack toss to the right.' You could see everyone's eyes. They're like looking over here [to offense's right]. They think action's coming over here. We fake the pitch, right. The whole defense runs over. Basically, it turned into a one-on-one situation with Josh Norman and Julio. And we had the left tackle get out there, and Jake [Matthews] did such a good job of knocking [Norman] down. And everyone else kind of sucked over that the guard [Wes Schweitzer] was able to come out and kind of seal the defense off. So it was just one-on-one with the middle-of-the-field safety. And that's how you draw it up." Jones: "We talked about it for two weeks or so, about running that particular screen to me. I was like, 'Sark, what's up? I need a screen. I need a screen.' He finally called it, and I was like, 'OK, it's money time.' It's like one of those things, you're going to make it work regardless. If I had to run around the whole field, I probably would have done it." Hooper: "In that situation of the game, we were trying to run the ball so much to close out the game by running out the clock that we did a fake toss sweep to the right and turned around and threw a quick screen left. The whole defense was pursuing the run action, which was the fake toss to the right, so it created a lot of space for Julio. It was the perfect call for the defense at the right time of the game."
  10. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Alex Mack might soon be subject to a fine under the category of excessive celebration. No, the Atlanta Falcons center hasn't orchestrated a touchdown dance with props hidden inside goal posts. Actually, the circumstances surrounding such a punishment would be beyond Mack's control. As right tackle Ryan Schraeder explained, the entire Falcons' offensive line assessed a "fine" to Mack when the team visited Cleveland in the preseason of 2016. It didn't carry a monetary figure, but the "fine" was a result of Mack being recognized with a brief video tribute and ovation at First Energy Stadium for the seven seasons he spent with the Browns. "Yeah, the guys made fun of me for that one, helping the enemy," Mack said with a laugh. "They showed a couple of highlights, and it was my first year gone. It was a preseason game, so it didn't really matter." Another such highlight video is unlikely to be part of the plan this go around, but Mack could get another warm reception when he returns to Cleveland for the first time in the regular season. Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game has a bit more meaning, with the 4-4 Falcons trying to keep a three-game winning streak rolling against the falling Browns (2-6-1). "It will be a little weird again, I assume," Mack said of the homecoming, of sorts. "I went to a friend's wedding in Cleveland this offseason. To fly in there and for it to not be home, it's a bit of a weird feeling. And I wasn't going to my house. Plus a lot of people I used to know there on the team are no longer there. It's just strange." The five-time Pro Bowler, now the unquestioned leader of the Falcons' offensive line, doesn't reflect on his time in Cleveland as a complete disaster despite never winning more than five games in any season. In 101 starts with the Browns, Mack's teams went 29-72. The 2009 first-round pick (No. 21 overall) played for four different head coaches and seemed to snap to a new quarterback on a weekly basis. "It was pretty frustrating when coaches would get fired," Mack said. "You believe in the rhetoric of turning things around, and they would fire a coach after a season and not give him a chance. I never had a coach for more than two seasons there." It didn't prevent Mack from developing into arguably the best player at his position. He established an unbreakable bond with his entire line, including future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Joe Thomas. "We had an excellent offensive line, and Alex was one of the leaders of the group, being the center and being the All-Pro that he is," Thomas said. "We shared struggles and hardship with the record that we had, but we still put forward some good performances, from an offensive line standpoint." Mack credited his first NFL offensive line coach, current Tampa Bay assistant George Warhop, for guiding him through the nuances of the center position. Mack was known as a highly intelligent player from Day 1. "Cleveland made me a great player," Mack said. "I had great coaches. I had great teammates. We had a good O-line. I wouldn't be the guy I am today if I didn't have Cleveland and the Browns to thank for that." Something cooking Mack's transition from California to Cleveland wasn't so seamless. He recalled one of his first dining experiences one night when he craved Bay Area-type Chinese food. "I was tired, I was hungry, so I was like, 'I'll just go order some chicken chow mein,'" Mack explained. "Chicken chow mein on the West Coast is chicken and noodles. Well, that's chicken lo mein, I guess, on the East Coast and in Ohio. "So when I got home with my to-go box of chicken chow mein, it was just this bean-sprout mix of gross food. I was like really disheartened." That would explain why cooking became one of Mack's primary hobbies during his time in Cleveland. The offensive line would hold potluck dinners, and Mack often came through with his Korean short-rib recipe he borrowed from the wife of one of his college coaches. Mack even signed up for a vegetable farm share program where he would get a box of customized food to cook for himself. "I think one of the things for that offensive line, and Alex was one of the ring-leaders, was how much they liked to cook," Thomas said. "Mitchell Schwartz and Alex and John Greco, they were like almost Cordon Bleu chefs. They were fantastic. It was pretty amazing." Mack didn't spend all his time away from football in the kitchen. He picked up on duck hunting from the Wisconsin-born Thomas and ventured out to some farmland an hour outside Cleveland to get his fix. Oh, and Mack eventually took a liking to Cleveland cuisine, specifically Crop Bistro and Bar, Nuevo Acapulco, and Mitchell's Ice Cream. "Mitchell's, to this day, is the best ice cream I've ever had," Mack said. "I would recommend for anybody to get the Buckeye, which is like a peanut butter ice cream with fudge and cherry toppings. It's truly amazing." If only playing with Browns quarterbacks was as much of a treat as the local ice cream. Quarterback carousel Mack paused for a moment when asked how many different starting quarterbacks he snapped to during his days with the Browns. "Well, you obviously know the answer," Mack said with sarcasm. "I would say two or three a year in seven years. I would say it would probably be around 12." Good guess. Mack would have played with 13 different Browns quarterbacks had he not suffered a broken leg that limited him to five games in 2014. During Mack's rookie season in 2009, coach Eric Mangini played musical chairs with Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. "Brady wanted to make every call; he wanted full control, and that's what he wanted to do," Mack said. "The quarterback's always right. That's the important thing for any offense I've ever been in. The quarterback has the final call and what they say goes. He's the one that ultimately controls everything. So, that made a lot of sense. "But when Derek would be in, he didn't really care about making all the calls. He only wanted to worry about a couple calls. So everything else it was like, 'Yeah, you just do what you need to do. Make the calls at center yourself. Go ahead.' And so when Derek was in, I had to make all the calls and do everything and try to do adjustments. And as a rookie, I don't know how I even did anything right." The list of Browns' signal-callers behind Mack also included Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, Thaddeus Lewis, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Jason Campbell, Josh McCown, Brian Hoyer, Austin Davis, and, of course, Johnny Manziel. Mack admired the cool, calm demeanor of Campbell and Wallace, while he praised the field vision of both Delhomme and McCown. For McCown, the respect was mutual. "What makes Alex unique, in my opinion, it's his high level of both athleticism and strength," McCown said. "It allows him to be effective in both the run and pass. He's also one of the smartest guys I've played with. So when you add that to those other traits, you can see why he is one of the best in the game." Of all those quarterbacks, Manziel probably was the one who garnered the most attention, although Manziel played just two seasons with the Browns. "It was nice that he was so mobile," Mack said of Manziel. "You just had to watch out, because when he scrambled around to throw, you never really knew where he was going to be. But, yeah, that one didn't work out too well." Mack made no secret he was looking for stability, not only at quarterback but in a franchise as a whole. He attracted a variety of interest during free agency in 2016. The Falcons made him the highest-paid center with a five-year, $45 million contract that included $28.5 million guaranteed. "I think the combination of everything: A big, vibrant city with a lot going on, a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, and it had an offense that I really enjoyed and the outside zone scheme that I think suits me really well," Mack said. "And I think Dan Quinn's attitude, his approach to football with competing every day and the positive vibes he's built around the building, it's something really powerful. Like, I enjoy going to work. And I think it's a great atmosphere. People are willing to work hard, and everyone takes care of their business. I couldn't be happier." Cleveland's loss certainly has been Atlanta's gain. Mack made the Super Bowl in his first season with the Falcons and has a 25-15 record in his 40 starts (3-2 record in the playoffs, including the Super Bowl loss to New England.) "With Mack, it's his consistency," Julio Jones said of his teammate. "He's a great leader. He's a great role model, especially for the offensive line. He's the quarterback of the offensive line. He's making sure his guys are on the same page. And I always talk to him, too. He's just a great teammate." Quinn pointed to a play during last week's win against the Washington Redskins when Mack hustled down the field after Mohamed Sanu caught a pass and pushed Sanu for some extra yardage. "It's the downfield plays that he's able to finish," Quinn said. "From the first time being here, I knew he was smart. Probably what I didn't have the appreciation for his how tough he is, and he's demonstrated that over and over and over again. ... I would say the finish that he has in his game probably shows as good an example as anybody how it can be done."
  11. Projecting what an NFL team is going to look like in two years is hard. Go back to Week 1 of the 2016 season and you'll see what I mean. Drew Brees was throwing to Brandin Cooks and Coby Fleener. The 49ers shut out the Rams and starting quarterback Case Keenum 28-0 in a game in which Blaine Gabbertstarted ahead of Colin Kaepernick. The starting running backs in the Dolphins-Seahawks game were Arian Foster and Christine Michael. Things change quickly. Recently, I was talking to Lindsay Jones of The Athletic on my podcast, and we started wondering what the 2020 Raiders' roster might look like as Jon Gruden & Co. make their move to Las Vegas. We didn't get very far, and that was before the Amari Cooper trade happened. I think it's an interesting exercise, though, so I've gone ahead and tried to project which players from each team's 2018 roster are likely to make it onto their roster come Week 1 of 2020. Those rosters will obviously include 2019 and 2020 draft picks, and there are young players who will emerge as meaningful contributors between now and then, so consider this an imperfect look into what each team's long-term core currently looks like, nearly halfway through the 2018 campaign. I've split each team into three groups. The virtual locks section is for players I think have at least a 90 percent shot of making the 2020 roster, given their contract situation and draft status. In most cases, I would expect 2017 and 2018 draft picks taken in the top three rounds to make it to 2020, which is reflected here. The on the bubble group is for the players I think have something closer to a 55 percent shot of appearing on the roster in 2020. They might be starring veterans who have onerous contracts in the future, young players who haven't found their role, or placeholders who are likely to be usurped by a draft pick or let go as part of a regime change. Finally, the unlikely notables section is for players who have no more than a 15 percent shot of making it to 2020 on the same team. This section is for mid-30s veterans who are likely to retire, young players who are riding pine, and regulars whose contracts will be even more difficult to swallow by the 2020 offseason. I've tried to limit this to more notable players, if only to avoid listing every practice-squad member or backup long-snapper and make this column five times as long. As always, I'm sure a player or two sneaked through the list, but this should be some comparative insight into what each NFL organization has built for the future. Some of the cores surprised me. Let's start with a team in the middle of a massive rebuild and go in alphabetical order: Atlanta Falcons Virtual locks: QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones, T Jake Matthews, DE Takkarist McKinley, S Keanu Neal, LB Deion Jones, CB Isaiah Oliver, DT Deadrin Senat, WR Calvin Ridley All the agents for Deion Jones and Neal have to do to point out their clients' value is show tape of the 2018 Falcons' defense after they went on injured reserve. Ridley has nearly as many touchdowns in a half-season (six) as the three top-10 wideouts of the 2017 class have over their first year and a half combined (seven). On the bubble: DE Vic Beasley, C Alex Mack, CB Robert Alford, T Ryan Schraeder, CB Desmond Trufant, S Ricardo Allen, RB Tevin Coleman, DT Grady Jarrett, LB De'Vondre Campbell, RB Ito Smith, CB Brian Poole, TE Austin Hooper, LB Duke Riley Atlanta's defensive collapse might call its cornerbacks into question, with Alford standing out as a frequently burned problem. The Falcons will have to work out new deals for Jarrett after 2018 and Beasley after 2019; given Beasley's lack of production since leading the league in sacks in 2016, the Falcons should lean toward renewing Jarrett and letting Beasley test the market. Unlikely notables: WR Mohamed Sanu, RB Devonta Freeman, G Andy Levitre, G Brandon Fusco, K Matt Bryant Freeman has missed time in both 2017 and 2018 since signing a five-year, $41.3 million extension before the 2017 campaign; the Falcons can get out of his deal with $6 million in dead money before 2020 and might be better off using the savings elsewhere.
  12. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman, sidelined the past three games due to a right knee contusion, will play in Sunday's matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Thursday that Freeman will play. Freeman said Wednesday that he was comfortable enough to return to action. "I'm in-tune with my body and myself, so I know when I can be me,'' Freeman told reporters Wednesday. "Just getting back out there when I'm comfortable enough. I think right now, I'm comfortable enough to get out there. I feel good. I feel explosive. I'm ready to run.'' Freeman injured the posterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in the same knee during last year's regular-season finale, although he did not undergo surgery. He re-injured the knee after playing 39 snaps in the Falcons' 18-12 season-opening loss at Philadelphia. Freeman returned to practice in a limited role last week but was inactive against Cincinnati. "I feel good,'' Freeman said. "I feel real good, excited, about being out here. Coming out doing something I love to do is always a good time. I'm just excited to be out here.'' Tevin Coleman started at running back the last three games with rookie Ito Smith as the backup. The Falcons have found success in the past with the two-headed attack of Freeman and Coleman, with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian even using them as the same time, on occasion. The Falcons currently rank 21st in the league with an average of 96 rushing yards per game. The Falcons are 1-3 heading into the matchup with the 1-2-1 Steelers. The Steelers allow 115.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks tied for 21st in the league.
  13. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank shook his head about the commotion created by top wide receiver Julio Jones not catching a touchdown pass through the first four games. "Julio doesn't care about stuff like that," Blank told ESPN. "Julio is a very selfless player. He cares about the team." Blank pointed to the last play of last week's 37-36 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals as evidence of what type of mentality Jones plays with on a weekly basis. "If you watch the replay on that, that was a [45]-yard pass, he caught it at the [10]-yard line, and he almost dragged three guys," Blank said. "He just doesn't give up. I mean, he's blocking all over the field, too. That's the kind of role model you want for a young player like Calvin Ridley. And Calvin's an anxious learner." Jones' lack of touchdown production might frustrate fantasy football owners, but he doesn't care. He often talks about how statistics are meaningless to him, especially if the team isn't winning. And the Falcons are 1-3 right now going into Sunday's crucial road game against the 1-2-1 Pittsburgh Steelers (1 p.m. ET, Fox). Jones leads the NFL with 502 receiving yards on 29 catches, and his 125.5 receiving yards per game puts him on pace to become the first player in NFL history to reach 2,000 receiving yards. However, the focus from the outside always appears to shift to why Jones hasn't scored a touchdown, particularly coming off three total touchdowns last season. In 2017, he didn't score his first touchdown until Oct. 22 against the Patriots. "His production is through the roof," quarterback Matt Ryan said in defense of Jones. "I think he's leading the league in yards. ... He's going to find the end zone. People are accounting for him and are continuing to account for him, even with the production of other guys. So he stays unselfish when he gets his opportunities and makes plays. Nobody plays harder than him. We'd love for him to get in the end zone, but we have to find ways to get into the end zone, whoever [it] is. And he's 100 percent on board with that, too." The Falcons are 12-of-18 in the red zone this season with Ryan throwing eight touchdowns, four to the rookie Ridley, who leads the NFL with six touchdown receptions. Jones has been targeted three times on 25 routes in the red zone and has no catches to show for it. All three targets were in a season-opening loss at Philadelphia, and the last one could have been a game winner had it been placed where Ryan wanted to throw it. In taking a look back at Ryan's eight red zone touchdown passes, each went to the side opposite of where Jones was lined up. Last week against the Bengals, Jones was bracketed out of the slot to the right when Ryan found Ridley for an 11-yard touchdown off a slant to the left. And Ryan found tight end Logan Paulsen for a touchdown on the right side as Jones and Mohamed Sanu aligned left with three defenders, with the safety ready to double either one. "Going into a game, D-coordinators, they're usually going to take me away, and I'm completely fine with that," Jones said. "We've got guys to make them pay. As you see, Calvin's been taking advantage of his opportunities, and that's why we drafted him here, to do those things. Mohamed is another guy. Austin Hooper is another one. I mean, it goes on. A lot of guys are stepping up and making plays when they get their one-on-one matchups." Former NFL coach Bruce Arians, now an analyst for CBS, was impressed with Jones' selfless approach when he sat down with the Falcons star last week. "Julio just wants to win," Arians said. "In talking to Julio, he's so happy for Calvin, and that's what it takes. You need a leader in the room that is unselfish and just wants to win, and they have that." Maybe Jones will find the end zone Sunday in Pittsburgh. Besides, the Steelers have allowed 12 touchdown passes to opponents, the second most in the league behind Tampa Bay (13). But for Jones, a win is much more important than breaking his personal scoreless streak. Right now the Falcons need the offense to carry the load with so many injuries on defense, and Jones firmly believes the offense hasn't played a complete game yet. "It's all about my teammates and being successful, at the end of the day," Jones said. "I've had a lot of success by myself, but it's not good when you can't go and accomplish things as a team and have success as a team."
  14. Don't shoot the messenger. Just posting it up.... FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons linebacker Duke Riley laughed sarcastically while reflecting on the "hate" that followed a subpar individual showing in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers. Critics flexed their Twitter muscles at Riley, who was thrust into the spotlight at middle linebacker after foot surgery landed Pro Bowler Deion Jones on injured reserve. They jabbed at Riley about his performance, particularly after he failed to wrap up and tackle Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore down the middle on a play resulting in Moore's 51-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. Riley clapped back. "Honestly, I like it," Riley said of being the target of criticism. "It motivates me. I go on Twitter now and people are just dogging me. But it's like, 'Y'all don't know me. If y'all knew me, you wouldn't say nothing, because y'all would [know] what I put in, what I've been through.' "You know what they were saying. You can type my name and look for whatever. Yeah, I missed the tackle at the end. Everybody misses tackles. But at the end of the day, I should have made the play. Of course I should have made it." Riley has grown accustomed to being doubted. The Louisiana native always was the kid viewed as too slow to ever really excel in football, baseball or whatever other sport he chose. "Where I'm from, even some of your family members dog you," Riley said. "Cousins dog you like, 'You ain't never going to be good enough.' Like, I was told [by family] I would never make it to the NFL and I'd never go to college -- by cousins and everybody." As Riley attempts to rebound with Sunday's NFC South clash (1 p.m. ET, Fox) against his home-state New Orleans Saints, he's always mindful of how his rugged, humbling, yet enjoyable past -- which included a brief bout with a potentially deadly illness and being displaced by Hurricane Katrina -- set him up for success today. Riley, a 2017 third-round draft pick from LSU, defied the odds. But he's far from content with just making it to the NFL. Growing pains Riley was too young to remember every detail, but he recalled sprawling across a hospital bed and being able only to wave to his parents through a glass window. At age 7, Riley said doctors told him he developed spinal meningitis, an infection of the fluid and membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. According to Mayo Clinic studies, the majority of spinal meningitis cases evolve from a viral infection, although bacterial, parasitic and fungal infections are other causes. "You know when somebody is in the hospital really sick and they have kids sending them letters? I was the one getting 'Get well' letters from kids I didn't even know," Riley said. "That's how bad it was. I really don't even know how I got over it. They were surprised I didn't die or even go blind." After a short hospital stay and treatment, Riley proceeded with living what to him was a normal life. He spent his early years in Buras, Louisiana, described by one tourism site as a "small town on a ribbon of road traversing the water-pocked islands and peninsulas of southernmost Louisiana." His father, Duke, worked in the oil fields while his mother, Kesha, was for the most part a stay-at-home mom who also owned a catering business and sometimes moonlighted as a chef. While other kids his age attempted swinging a bat or throwing a football, Riley fired his first BB gun at age 5 and was shooting a 12-gauge before the age of 10. He hunted squirrels, rabbits, ducks and hogs. And the days spent trolling down at the bayou created everlasting memories. "You know how you see people catching those shrimp in the big nets? Oh yeah, I loved it, man," Riley said. "Especially as a kid, sometimes you'd pick up a **** ... we picked up alligators in the trolley net before. We picked up stingrays." Riley said he lived in a three-bedroom trailer with at least 10 other family members, including his mother and grandmother, in 2005. "We used to sleep on a pad, but it was like blankets in the living room," Riley said. "The trailer was so messed up. They used to have holes in the floor. If you were outside, and someone who was walking in the house fell through the floor, you could see their legs. That's how bad it was. "But we were young. We didn't care. We were outside. I was happy. I think life was better back then." Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, and Riley and his family evacuated to Baton Rouge to escape harm. The only item remaining in the trailer in Buras after the storm passed was a Bible, which Riley said miraculously managed to stay dry while sitting atop a mattress. Riley and his family moved to the town of Kaplan for the rest of '05, then eventually settled in Belle Chasse, 10 miles south of New Orleans. He still considers Buras home, which is why he plans to own a place there one day. "I just want my 2-year-old son [Elijah] to live the life I had as a kid, you know what I mean?" Riley said. "I want him to know what it's like to really use your hands. I don't want to live there because there's nothing there -- before Katrina, there was no Walmarts, and there's not a red light -- but I want a place there so I can get away and hunt and fish and spend the weekends down there with my son." The next phase Riley doesn't take for granted having a starting position in the NFL. He was somewhat of an afterthought coming out of John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge, Louisiana, when LSU didn't offer him a scholarship until a week before signing day. Even with the Tigers, he didn't become a regular starter until his final season in 2016. As a rookie starter at weakside linebacker for the Falcons last season, Riley encountered another obstacle when a meniscus tear set him back. "I don't worry about looking ahead anymore," Riley said. "I looked ahead last year, and I got hurt. I'm not doing that anymore. I'm taking everything day by day, moment by moment, and just enjoying it." The next step is proving the doubters wrong and showing he's a quality starter in the middle (until Jones returns, possibly Nov. 18) or at weakside linebacker. He is sure to be tested Sunday against one of the best quarterbacks of all time in Drew Brees and a dual-threat running back in Alvin Kamara, whom Riley might have match up with out of the backfield in coverage. Kamara had a team-high seven catches for 58 yards on nine targets when the Saints defeated the Falcons, 23-13, last December. Last week, the Falcons had trouble covering Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield as McCaffrey caught 14 passes for 102 yards on 15 targets. Riley tied teammate De'Vondre Campbell with a team-high nine combined tackles in the game, but he missed tackling McCaffrey across the middle right before surrendering the long touchdown to Moore. Falcons coach Dan Quinn wasn't too down on Riley's performance despite the noticeable hiccups. "I definitely thought he had emptied the bucket, in fact so much so at the end we put Foye [Oluokun] in at the end of the game where Duke had really played himself -- OK, he needs a blow and the next guy goes through, too," Quinn said. "So on the first game for him taking all the calls, we were encouraged. Is there going to be some on-the-job learning for him? You bet. But he was definitely ready for the challenge." The injured Jones offered Riley strong words of encouragement, telling Riley he did "a lot of great things" in the game. It would be hard for any player to give the Falcons the same time of production as Jones, who has developed into arguably the best coverage linebacker in the league with his 4.38 40-yard dash speed. Riley, a 4.58-guy, needs to be sound with his tackling and more disciplined with his angles and technique. "The next step for me is to take this next practice and go all out and do what I can," Riley said. "I'm not even worried about the game yet. I'm worried about improving today. "The more reps I get, the better I'll be. The story is always going to flip around. It always has done that throughout my life, so I know it will. I just keep digging. I keep doing what I do."
  15. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Logan Paulsen almost got stumped by his own game. The Atlanta Falcons veteran introduced Austin Hooper and his other fellow tight ends to a trivia contest in which he would say a letter of the alphabet and challenge them to name movie titles starting with that letter. Hooper admitted the older Paulsen is undefeated, dating to when Paulsen first started the competition during organized team activities. So how about the letter E, Logan? "Let's see, 'Ever After' ... s---, E is a tough letter," Paulsen said with a laugh. "Let me think. Let me think. 'Everlasting,' that's a new one, right? 'Enchanted.' There we go. There's a couple." The levity and football IQ that Paulsen, 31, has brought to the tight end room already has rubbed off on the 23-year-old Hooper, who is looking to have a breakout year in his third season. The two have bonded like "Step Brothers," although you're unlikely to catch them wearing matching sweater vests. "I mean, Logan is like the mentor in our room," Hooper said. "He's a nine-year vet. He's seen it all, done it all. Just to have him as a resource in the room is amazing. He'll tell you what's about to happen before it even happens, tell you small nuggets of information that you might miss. "In the film room, he'll be like, 'I played this guy in 2015. He likes to do this. His tell is this.' Me still being a young player in the league, I haven't played a lot of these guys multiple times over the years, and he has. He has a lot of good insight into any opponent and any situation." Hooper and Paulsen share the same agent, Steve Caric, so they spoke on the phone multiple times before Paulsen signed a one-year deal with the Falcons in March. Hooper, "The California Kid" from San Ramon who played college football at Stanford, appreciated having another Cali guy in the room after fellow Stanford Cardinal and San Diego native Levine Toilolo was cut. Paulsen comes from the southern part of the state and played his college ball at UCLA. "It was a pretty easy friendship," Paulsen said. "He's a different kind of guy, a little bit more free-spirited. I'm pretty boring, to be totally honest. I've got a wife. I've got two kids. That's kind of what I do when I'm not here." When at the facility, Paulsen's daily routine offers a blueprint for Hooper to follow. His day starts with a meal that includes chicken, vegetables, oatmeal and orange juice or milk. He welcomes Hooper to join his "Breakfast Club" at any time, although eggs aren't always on the menu. "Eggs are one of these foods, they're really good for you, but if you eat too much eggs, you're likely to develop a food allergy," Paulsen explained. "So I try to take a couple of months just eating chicken in the morning. I find it helps decrease some of the inflammation. It doesn't have to be chicken, but some alternate source of protein as opposed to eggs every single day." Paulsen, who learned work habits from watching London Fletcher and Phillip Daniels in Washington, typically studies film for about an hour after breakfast, dissecting different defensive fronts to get ahead on the game plan. Every day is "Training Day" when it comes to the weight room, as Paulsen goes through stretching exercises and completes overhead squats post-practice to get his body to reset. "He's just a professional," Hooper said of Paulsen. "His whole day, he has it down to a science. The stretching, the pre-practice, the post-practice -- it's just incredible all the stuff he does. It makes me question and say, 'I really need to be doing more than I thought was enough.' It's great to have a guy like that." Maybe most important of all, Paulsen has helped Hooper develop in the run game. The Falcons signed Paulsen because he's a true "Y" blocking tight end, but he's shown good hands, too. Paulsen already had familiarity with the offense having played under ex-Falcons coordinator Kyle Shanahan last season in San Francisco and in the past with Washington. Hooper, as the "F" in this offense, is more of a pass-catcher who is trying to enhance his blocking skills. He's not all the way there yet, but Hooper has had some "Raging Bull" moments this preseason that show more of a willingness to mix it up as a blocker. The Falcons even experimented with three tight ends lined up next to each other in the formation -- Hooper, Paulsen, and fast-rising Eric Saubert -- which was an indication of how vital the tight end role will be as the offense tries to regain its swagger. The tight ends' ability to block certainly will be tested in next Thursday's season opener against Philadelphia's swarming defense and sometimes-unstoppable edge rushers. Paulsen played in the NFC East his first five seasons with the Washington Redskins and is familiar with the Eagles. He could offer more insight to Hooper, who saw Philly in last season's NFC playoff loss. "Obviously, my career is not super-storied, and nobody's going to remember me when we're done playing football, but my impact on these young people, it's really important to me," Paulsen said. "I've had the privilege of playing with some very good young tight ends: Niles Paul, Jordan Reed, George Kittle, Ben Braunecker, Dan Brown. Just being able to teach those guys what it means to be a pro and that they should take advantage of this opportunity, I think that's something that's really special to me." If Hooper lives up to the preseason hype and Paulsen does his job blocking, the offense certainly will benefit. Both know they could be called upon to make a big play on "Any Given Sunday" in 2018.
  16. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Calvin Ridley has heard nothing but praise for months, but the Atlanta Falcons rookie wide receiver realizes he's not immune to criticism. Such was the case following Saturday's preseason loss at Jacksonville. Ridley had his first taste of NFL adversity when he dropped a pass from Matt Ryan that would have been a first down right in front of Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Ridley also had another play that went through his hands although defensive back Tyler Patmon made a good play on the ball. Falcons coach Dan Quinn wasn't pleased. "That's part of 'Tell the Truth [Monday],"' Quinn said. "Nobody escapes that. ... That's part of the process that we go through to say, 'Hey man, we expect you to own that moment.' It wasn't just him. There were other people that had that. "I'm sure he doesn't like having that play in front of the rest of his teammates in the team meeting, just like Matt [Ryan] doesn't on a play or anyone else." "But I think to be a true team, you have to show all the examples: the ones that he really lights him up good and the ones that he had a drop," Quinn continued on about Ridley. "Last week, he was on his way to becoming the next Pro Bowl rookie receiver, and then he had a drop and [the media] brings it up. Welcome to the NFL." Quinn isn't overly concerned, though. He knows his first-round draft pick won't sulk over such a mishap. "He's really detailed and a really prideful guy," Quinn said of Ridley. "And I'm sure you guys have noticed too the way he practices. There's an intensity about him that he brings that's past maybe the age of him. So I really respect that part of his game." One of the reasons why the Falcons are so excited about Ridley is that he already has proved to be mature beyond his years. A big part of that maturity has to do with Ridley already having a firm grasp of the playbook. Mastering the offense Ridley displayed a confident smile when asked how much of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian's offense he knew upon joining the Falcons. "Forty percent," Ridley said. "The majority of the formations and some of the plays." The head start had to do with Ridley playing college football at Alabama, where Sarkisian served as an offensive analyst and offensive coordinator during the 2016 season. Such familiarity made Ridley's transition much easier. "A lot of things, from the formational standpoint, make sense to him," Sarkisian said. "I think a lot of the concepts make sense to him. The words are different, but the concepts make sense. So, I can see where his comfort level feels pretty good, just from a formational standpoint." Sarkisian said knowing where to line up is pretty much the same for Ridley, "which is a big task for people breaking the huddle." Ridley has moved around in the offense both outside and in the slot, but he only has been asked to master the "Z" receiver role, which typically lines up off the line of scrimmage. That hasn't prohibited him from getting up to speed with all the receivers and their routes. Although the playbook only comes in a digital format, he takes down extensive notes on a separate piece of paper. "Pretty much for me when I'm studying, I learn concepts," Ridley said. "When there's a play, I learn every route for each position. I write down the whole concept, and that's how I study. If I studied just one, I'd be really confused. "With every install, I write every route. Say I get Install I. I'm going to write out every single route on the top of the page. It could be 50 routes out there, I'm going to write down every route. I write every concept out so I can learn them." So how long does Ridley study his hand-written notes? "Not that long because I'll get off focus and watch TV," Ridley said with a laugh. "To tell you the truth, for like an hour. Once I come from the facility, with the veterans and good coaches we have, I've pretty much got it. I leave here, we go over it and then I've pretty much got it." That doesn't mean the offense is easy to digest, by any means. As explained, the previous time spent under Sarkisian certainly has helped Ridley's cause as the Falcons move into Year 2 under Sarkisian. The "new wrinkles" Sarkisian has put in after basically adjusting to and continuing to implement the previous offensive scheme installed by former Falcons coordinator Kyle Shanahan are aspects that all the players are getting accustomed to now. Fellow wide receiver Mohamed Sanu admires Ridley's ability to pick things up quickly. "This offense, when I first got here, it took me a while to get ... about Week 7, Week 8," said Sanu, who came in during Year 2 with Shanahan. "This offense is very detailed at little things, just with route running and where to be, how to be there, blocking. It's a lot of details. "I'm surprised that [Ridley is] picking it up as fast as he is, but I'm not surprised because of the amount of work he puts in. It's a great thing for him to be able to pick it up this fast and just keep growing and growing, because that's what we need. We need him." The plan in motion There was one element of the offense that threw Ridley for a loop from the outset. "I'd say when I first got here -- not much is difficult for me anymore -- but when I first got here, the details of how they wanted the routes ran," Ridley said. "There were just weird routes that I never ran. I was like, 'OK, I've got to do this; put my shoulder a certain way and my body a certain way.' So it was just kind of confusing. I didn't understand." It all became simplified when Ridley joined Ryan, Sanu, Julio Jones and a group of other offensive players in California for a weeklong passing camp. "I went to L.A. with Matt, and they taught me all the details," Ridley said. "I feel great about it now." Ridley has stated numerous times how Jones and Sanu have helped him adjust to the nuances of the offense. One could see Jones, who has been held out of game action this preseason, giving Ridley detailed instruction on the sideline during the last game. "They know where to be," Ridley said of his fellow veteran receivers. "They know how Matt wants you to look and how he wants to run it. It's just little things that are going to make me a better player." Ridley, drafted for his speed and ability to create separation, made his presence felt in live action with three catches for 49 yards and a touchdown, along with two kickoff returns for 52 yards, in the second preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. His outing included a 36-yard hook-up with Ryan, the type of explosive, down-the-field plays that will help open up the offense and alleviate some of the load from Jones. "I had a deep post, they motioned me down, and the guy had outside leverage," Ridley explained. "So I wanted him to think I was about to run around him, and I just put a foot in it and I created a little bit of separation. And Matt put a great ball on me." Now it's up to Ridley to sustain that type of playmaking ability while eliminating drops and negative plays heading into the Sept. 6 season opener (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. He could emerge as the No. 2 receiver behind Jones, who led the Falcons with 88 receptions for 1,444 yards and three touchdowns on 148 targets last season. Last season's No. 2 receiver, Sanu, had 67 catches for 703 yards and five touchdowns on 97 targets. Ridley averaged 74.7 catches, 927 receiving yards, 6.3 touchdown receptions and 112.3 targets per season at Alabama. Teammates constantly rave about Ridley's work ethic and big-play potential. Ridley brushes it off as simply doing his job. "It makes you feel good, but I know I need to continue to keep getting better and better," Ridley said. "I mean, it's a compliment, so, 'Thank you,' but I just have to keep moving ahead."
  17. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Everytime Julio Jones steps to the podium, he's asked a question about the Atlanta Falcons' red zone offense. And every time, Jones' tone seems to become more defiant, as if he's eager to shut up all the nonbelievers. Fixing last season's red zone woes continues to be an emphasis for the Falcons throughout training camp. Jones scoring a red zone touchdown on a jump ball from Matt Ryan in front of cornerback Robert Alford and free safety Ricardo Allen on Tuesday didn't stop the Falcons from putting in extra work on the same throw 10 minutes after practice. "It's very important for me and Matt to be on the same page down there in the red zone," Jones said. "Over the years, I have the ability to make plays, and he has the ability to put balls there. But it's all about us being on the same page, not having to think when we get down there, knowing where he's going to put the ball, and knowing what I can do before he puts the ball in there." The Falcons finished 23rd in the league in red zone offense a year ago, converting at a 50 percent clip (27-of-54). During the Super Bowl run in 2016, the Falcons ranked ninth in red zone offense, hitting on 61.9 percent of those opportunities (39-of-63). It was part of the reason their scoring average dipped from a league-best 33.8 points per game to a pedestrian 22.1 points per game last season. Jones had nine receptions on 24 red zone targets last season, including the playoffs. His two red zone touchdowns came in a Week 7 loss at New England and in the playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Rams. Although Jones doesn't play for statistics, he surely wants to score more than the three touchdowns he had during the 2017 regular season, with two of those scores coming against struggling Tampa Bay. Jones emphasized, as he has multiple times, how the Falcons have to be smart in scoring situations and not try to force him the ball. "It's one of those things when you're down in the red area, a lot of teams double me," Jones explained. "Two-man, guys sit underneath me, so I can't really slant. They have a safety kind of cheated out, as far as the fade balls and things like that. But when we get our opportunities, we've got to make people pay." Maybe those one-on-one opportunities will arise more often based on personnel. The addition of playmaking rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley should take some of the defensive attention away from Jones. During 11-on-11 drills Tuesday, the Falcons showed a look with Jones wide left, Ridley wide right, and Mohamed Sanu in the slot, a look that could become familiar during the regular season. During a 10-play drive near the end of Tuesday's practice, when the offense seemed to work on certain clock situations as it approached the end zone, Ryan targeted tight end Austin Hooper five times with four completions, including a red zone score for Hooper. The possible emergence of Hooper as a legitimate red zone threat is another factor that could create more opportunities for Jones. Plus, the Falcons have a strong two-headed monster out of the backfield in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and running the ball effectively in the red zone is equally important. The secret weapon could be newcomer Logan Paulsen, a blocking tight end who can catch the ball as well. Paulsen could help give his teammates much-needed space by clearing holes. But everyone knows the Ryan-Jones connection is the one that will strike fear in opponents, especially when clicking at a high level. A reporter asked Jones if he felt he wasn't always on the same page with Ryan last season. "No, not at all," Jones said, dismissing any such disconnect. "It's just that the more you work something, the better you get. That's all it is. We worked on it, but we're making it a big emphasis this year for us to just be more on the same page. "We were on the same page. Like I said, I make plays when the ball is in the air, and he can throw some balls down there. But it's another thing to know what each other's thinking, and [at] a certain time, where the defense is at, things like that."
  18. I hope Beasley get Takk and Grady to go there
  19. I am not the kind to embrace rookies. I'm old school and I say trite things like, "I won't give you a dime for me," all the time. Until now. I'm hitching my fan wagon to a rookie WR. I've seen young guys who work hard (Worrilow). I've seen guys who have talent (Hageman). It is different when you have a guy who has innate mental talent, innate physical talent, and a desire to outwork the guy next to him. Freeman is that type of guy. Coleman is that type of guy. Ryan is that type of guy. J. Jones is that type of guy. The Falcons are loading up on that type of guy. We haven't even got to the defensive side of the ball yet. Every word that is written about Ridley slides me further into his corner. This article is a good summary of everything I've read. This man will not settle for being the 3rd of 4th WR. He will work until he has earned the right to be on the field for every significant snap. It may not happen this year, but I suspect it will. This guy will work and he can play. Buy his jersey. He's a keeper. Article Link
  21. FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn dropped a NFL draft hint months ago. Back during his season-ending news conference alongside general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the defensive-minded Quinn started rattling off numbers tied to the offense's lack of big plays in 2017. He mentioned the 19 explosive plays outside the red zone that the Falcons had in 2016 -- when the Falcons led the league with 33.8 points per game -- and how those plays dropped to just seven last season, when the Falcons averaged 22.1 points and ranked 15th in the league. Quinn wanted to jump-start the offense. Enter wide receiver Calvin Ridley, the Falcons' first-round draft pick from Alabama and the player ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper said for weeks the team should target because of his dynamic ability. "He's a great route runner who knows how to use his speed and play fast," one AFC executive said of Ridley. "A true threat to score both vertically and with his patterns. He can separate from defenders with relative ease. He just needs to get stronger, but he was my favorite wide receiver in the draft and has a chance to make an immediate impact. A poor man's Marvin Harrison type." Does that mean the Falcons have the offensive woes from last season solved? Not exactly. But things appear to be pointing in the right direction when it comes to a more explosive attack heading into Year 2 with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "Explosive plays often times lead to scoring plays, so every offense that really has their game together, those scoring opportunities are where it's at," Quinn said. "By adding guys like C-Rid to the group, you add your explosiveness. You add [opportunities] for scoring plays. That's what we're looking to do all the time: keep attacking. In [Ridley's] instance, he definitely adds to that just because of the nature and style of his play. You've got to have real speed to make big plays, and he has that." In order to have offensive success all-around, the Falcons will have to rely on much more than just the addition of one rookie. Quarterback Matt Ryan said the Falcons need to find more consistency, and he put it on himself to make more plays when they present themselves. The receivers, running backs and tight ends have to do a better job securing the ball after dropping 34 passes last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The offensive line has to do its part to protect Ryan and allow him adequate time to make throws down the field. The Falcons didn't address the guard spot in the draft and seem content to move forward with Andy Levitre and free-agent addition Brandon Fusco, which might not be ideal with defensive lines around the NFC bulking up this offseason. "I think we need to continue to build off last year," right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. "We need focus on execution for all 11 players, every play and every game." Naturally, the Falcons hope five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones dominates and becomes much more of a scoring threat after just three touchdowns last season. If Jones continues to attract all the defensive attention, the Falcons will look to Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy and tight end Austin Hooper to make plays. Last season in the red zone, Jones was targeted just 18 times and had five receptions for 33 yards with one touchdown. Adding Ridley should help. In three seasons at Alabama, Ridley was targeted 43 times in the red zone and caught 20 passes for 107 yards with 10 touchdowns. An underrated element of the offensive equation might be the addition of a true blocking fullback who will not only clear holes in short-yardage situations but also give Ryan more time to throw against blitzing teams. The Falcons are auditioning undrafted fullbacks Luke McNitt (Nebraska) and Daniel Marx (Stanford) beginning at rookie minicamp on Mother's Day weekend. The Falcons must trust in Sarkisian to implement a strong game plan after he drew criticism in his debut last season, and he's expected to throw in some more wrinkles to keep defenses guessing. Remember, the Falcons didn't exactly flow smoothly in their first season under Kyle Shanahan, but they came back strong in Year 2 and rode the high-powered offense all the way to the Super Bowl. "I have complete faith in Coach Sark," Hooper said. "He's very professional, very matter of fact. He's smart. I think he has a good feel on how to use his personnel, put the right guys in the right positions to be successful. But a lot of that comes with time, right? The more you're around people, the more you know people, in general, better."
  22. Love me some Debo!! FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Deion Jones initially tried to brush it off as no big deal, but the Atlanta Falcons' Pro Bowl middle linebacker's smile revealed just how flattered he was about the high praise. A number of folks going through this year's draft process -- executives, coaches, agents and prospects themselves -- have mentioned Jones as the type of linebacker teams are trying to add to their roster. It's quite the compliment, considering the 6-foot-1 Jones, who plays at around 230 pounds, is entering just his third season and has much more to accomplish. But his blazing speed and playmaking ability -- 246 tackles, six interceptions, two defensive touchdowns and 13 pass breakups through 31 games -- already speak volumes. Deion Jones has been mentioned as an example of the type of linebacker teams are seeking to draft into their rosters. Patrick Smith/Getty Images "It's a blessing," Jones said of being mentioned in such high regard. "Just a little kid from New Orleans who never even fathomed that he would be like the prototypical linebacker that people are looking for. It moves me. But I don't want nobody to be me. I want everybody to hone their own game and play their own style. Nobody has to be me." Top linebacker prospect Roquan Smith said he's drawn comparisons to Jones through the draft process. The 6-1, 236-pound Georgia product is projected as a top-10 pick by ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. "I haven't talked to him but the games I did see, he has motor," Jones said of Smith. "He plays fast. He plays with all his heart. That's a good thing. That's definitely going to help him out in the league." Another linebacker compared to Jones is Oren Burks, a fast-rising prospect from Vanderbilt. Burks (6-3, 233) might not have the same blazing speed, but his athleticism [39.5 vertical] and long arms have NFL teams intrigued. Burks has studied film of Jones. "More recently, I've followed his game a lot more, trying to watch some highlights of how he made that transition to the league and became an impact player," said Burks, projected as possibly a second-day pick. "Look at the combine numbers, I thought I stacked up pretty well to him. It's kind of interesting to see how you match up with guys who have proven they can do it." Burks and Jones each ran the 40 in 4.59 seconds at the combine. However, Jones' stock soared to another level when he turned around at LSU pro day and ran a blistering 4.38. It certainly got the Falcons' attention, as they went on to select Jones in the second round of the 2016 draft. "Pro day, that clock helped a lot," Jones said with a laugh. "I knew I was a 4.4 guy. That's what I was hitting when I was training. It was very intimidating at the combine, to tell you the truth. At LSU, I had my support behind me, my brothers. I knew I had put on for my boys." Talk of being undersized never fazed Jones because he knew what he was capable of being a playmaker. The prospects in this year's draft should carry the same mentality based how the perception of the type of linebacker has changed. "That old-time, prototypical, downhill inside linebacker who stuffs the run, all that point-of-attack stuff is secondary to coverage," said one NFC assistant who works with linebackers. "People are looking more for that guy who has coverage ability who can cover those backs who are coming out. And the NFC South might be the toughest division in terms of covering running backs. "From an athletic standpoint, there's probably about a half a dozen guys in this draft like [Jones] that people know about. The reason people overlooked Deion is because he was a bit undersized. But some people just don't do their homework, and they miss an opportunity to get a guy like that."