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Found 99 results

  1. https://www.ajc.com/sports/atlanta-falcons/grady-jarrett-furthers-his-focus-i-think-it-might-even-help-me-be-a-better-player/RHU5PBQHHBESREGQV73SSJUNAY/ He won’t have a choice this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced much of the U.S. either to work from home or take extra precautions when forced to go into an office. That also has been the case for the NFL. And when it comes to the Falcons, coach Dan Quinn already advised the players to be responsible once they leave the team facility. For Jarrett, being asked to stay home by his boss isn’t a problem at all. He now has a valid excuse to tell someone when turning down an invitation to an event he didn’t want to attend anyway. Seemingly a homebody throughout the fall, Jarrett said he has used the lack of normalcy since the pandemic began to further his focus on the coming season. “I don’t see people during the year anyway, I’m kind of just working,” Jarrett said. “Work is work, so I never really have much more than four to five people at my house at a time. I might be by myself most of the time, so it’s not going to be big for me. I’m kind of enjoying it. It gives me another excuse to say I can’t go out or do nothing if I’m invited somewhere. I’m enjoying it, and I think it might even help me be a better player.” Jarrett, who totaled a career-best 7.5 sacks in 2019, is coming off of his first Pro Bowl season, which came after he signed a four-year contract worth $68 million. Over time, Jarrett has earned his spot as one of the team’s go-to leaders on the roster. Considering the situation at hand, Jarrett said he’s doing his part to act as an extension to Quinn when it comes to spreading the message of staying at home when the workday is complete. “I feel like guys around here have a pretty good understanding of how important it is,” Jarrett said. “(Quinn) has done a great job of letting them know and letting us know about that. But absolutely, as a leader it’s my job to make sure guys are taking care of themselves away from the facility because we all want to have a season, and that’s going to be big on how we take care of ourselves away from the facility.” Jarrett is preparing for a season that will be like no other. But amid the uncertainty, the Falcons remained busy this offseason by adding veteran defensive linemen Dante Fowler and Charles Harris to the mix. They also signed defensive back Darqueze Dennard on Monday. The team drafted cornerback A.J. Terrell and defensive lineman Marlon Davidson in the first two rounds of the draft, and both figure to see immediate playing time. Last year, the defense finished 18th in the league in rushing yards allowed at 110.9 and 30th in sacks with 28. With the added pieces, the Falcons hope they can boost those numbers and improve their overall production. Undoubtedly, this offseason has created a challenge like no other when it comes to creating the needed chemistry during OTAs and mandatory minicamp. “You either sulk about it or just find a way to make it best,” Jarrett said. “So it’s totally different around here how you got to handle business, but it is what it is and whether it’s getting tested every morning and the way we get to the locker rooms and stuff like that, it’s all different, but it is what it is. I’m glad we are here.” Although the NFL has a protocol in place, nothing is guaranteed about the coming season. Jarrett, who looks to lead the Falcons to the postseason for the first time since the 2017 season, said all he can do is remain optimistic that the NFL will move forward with its season on schedule. “I’ve got confidence and I have faith, not fear,” Jarrett said. “And that’s in everything in my life. So I’m going to prepare to have a full season. At the end of the day, what’s going to happen is going to happen. I’m excited to go out here every day while I can and get ready for a season and focus on being in the league that I’m in, that we are going to be able to have success and be able to get all the way to February for a Super Bowl.”
  2. https://www.ajc.com/sports/atlanta-falcons/falcons-mcgary-has-better-idea-what-to-expect-physically-and-mentally/COWXF2SY25ADLNFAL4WY55LMYY/ Click on the link to give Jason some traffic. Butr yea.. This is a good article...McGary has alllll the tools to be a really good RT.. from strength to athleticism to mauler attitude... Im glad to hear he has that attitude right and has worked on that technique....... Im extra excited to see what the bash brothers can do on that right side in the run game.
  3. https://theathletic.com/1836596/2020/05/26/its-a-smart-group-while-young-falcons-dbs-are-confident-heading-into-2020/ In what has been a unique NFL offseason, players mostly have been on their own when it comes to staying in shape and staying up to date with the playbook. A few Falcons teammates wanted to make sure they were up to speed with everything during this time when no players or coaches, outside of those receiving rehab and treatment, are allowed at the team facility. Therefore, a group of receivers and defensive backs organized some practice time against one another in the open air of some local parks, back when parks initially were open and after re-opening from a temporary closure due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Third-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver has been among those Falcons teammates frequenting a park or vacant field to log some practice time absent of coaches. With cornerback Desmond Trufant leaving in free agency, this will be a young cornerback group returning, with Oliver, just three years removed from when he was selected in the second round of the 2018 draft, the oldest of the projected top three at the position. Oliver said the key this offseason has been to work his upper body and lower body in sync. That was an area of improvement for Oliver during the final eight games of the 2019 season, and that will continue to be an emphasis so that his progression can continue upward. “The biggest thing was connecting hands and feet at the line of scrimmage, in press technique and things like that,” Oliver said. “I’ve been working on that. I’ve been able to get out to some fields, in limited time, obviously. On a couple of days I’ve been able to get with other guys and some receivers to work the techniques and things like that. I’ve definitely been doing that the last couple of weeks.” Defensive backs working out with Oliver have been Damontae Kazee, Jordan Miller and Chris Cooper. Receivers who have been competing in one-on-one and pass skeleton simulations with the defenders have been Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake and Devin Gray. Without the ability to attend practice, there hasn’t been much else for any of the Falcons’ players to do besides work out at home or at a local gym if one has opened up near their residence. For the teammates who stayed in the Atlanta area this offseason, they’re trying to find any way to ensure they’re ready when the time comes to report to the team facility. “We know what we all have to work on individually,” Oliver said. “But it’s kind of different when there are no coaches or no real practice structure to it. And the competitive aspect, there are some competitive juices that come out of it, as you would expect. We’re all there to compete, and we all expect to win every rep that we do. But it’s still within staying safe and staying healthy. We’re not going to hurt each other. I think we’re capable of doing that, so it’s good work.” With Atlanta deciding to release Trufant, the cornerback position will be one to keep a close eye on during the preseason. As it stands, Oliver, Kendall Sheffield and rookie A.J. Terrell are the projected starters. The only cornerback on the roster who is older than 27 is Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 30, who seemingly would be the first off the bench. Given the fact that Oliver is 26, Terrell is 24 and Sheffield is 23, this is a group that certainly has trended younger with Atlanta’s decision to release Trufant. “It is a young group, but I feel it’s a smart group,” Oliver said. “Even guys like Sheffield and Jordan Miller, guys who are at the level of understanding the defense very well, just having only been in the system for one year. Losing a guy like ’Tru, a guy who’s been playing in the NFL for (the past seven years) and has been playing at a high level consistently the whole time is definitely going to change some things. But I definitely like the group that we have.” While the top three cornerbacks are all but set, how they are used in Atlanta’s defensive packages remains to be seen. In 2019, Sheffield concluded the season manning a starting spot opposite Trufant. Replacing Trufant in the base package could either be Oliver or Terrell. “I’d say personally I feel like I’m going to come in and make an impact and just make my presence known,” Terrell said. “I’ve already got a winning gene inside me and being able to show that to the coaches and join the brotherhood and just make things what it’s supposed to be. Make it great.” Thus far, Oliver said he has been impressed with Terrell during virtual team meetings. “Obviously, we haven’t been able to practice with A.J., but being in meetings with him, he’s a guy who is eager to learn, he’s smart, and it seems he can understand the defense really well,” Oliver said. In nickel packages last season, the Falcons had Sheffield to cover the slot, which could be a likely scenario once again. Although Oliver only has seen time as an outside cornerback, head coach Dan Quinn has mentioned Oliver can defend the slot if needed. At the same time, with a healthy allotment of safeties, Atlanta could opt to play more of the big nickel package, which would put three safeties on the field at the same, with one of those safeties — more than likely Ricardo Allen — playing the nickel spot. In 2019, the Falcons finished 22nd in the NFL, allowing 244.9 passing yards allowed per game. During the final eight games of the season, however, Atlanta ranked 15th, dropping that average to 228.6. In addition, 10 of Atlanta’s 12 interceptions came during those final eight games. The hope is that the secondary, as the entire defense, will be able to carry over the lessons learned from last season’s poor start and keep history from repeating itself. When Raheem Morris moved from receivers coach to defensive backs coach, a big change occurred. Even with Morris moving to defensive coordinator, it’s likely he will remain involved with the defensive backs. “The biggest thing was (Morris) really wanted us to do what we felt like we were really good at doing,” Oliver said. “Whether that be a certain technique or playing receivers a certain way, he kind of wanted us to feel comfortable in whatever it is we were doing, and then work on that one thing. He didn’t want everyone to do the same things. We’re all different types of players.” Said Allen: “We were pushing for greatness, but we were pushing more for statistics than just playing like I know how we could have been played. When (Morris) moved over, him being able to help us as much as he can, telling us exactly what the offense is trying to do against us and teaching us because he was over there for so long, exactly what wide receivers and quarterbacks were trying to do against us.” The Falcons hired longtime NFL secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. to take over the defensive backs. When Whitt went over last year’s Falcons tape, he noticed the communication errors that plagued the group in the early going. He said he doesn’t want that to happen under his watch. “I coach a certain way. I’m very demanding,” Whitt said. “I want to make sure that when we go out there we’re giving ourselves the best chance to win. We don’t need communication errors. It’s too hard to win in this league so we don’t want to beat ourselves.”
  4. https://theathletic.com/1828579/2020/05/21/rookie-mikey-daniel-looking-to-carve-out-a-hybrid-role-in-falcons-backfield/ Mikey Daniel is one of a kind. As an undrafted rookie out of South Dakota State, Daniel is the only member of the Falcons’ backfield who is being tasked with learning two positions at once. A tailback in college, Daniel decided to make the transition to fullback during the pre-draft process because he felt that was the best route for him to take if he was to make an NFL team’s roster. A big back at 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, Daniel certainly has the size to play fullback. But as the Falcons scouted Daniel, they liked his college tape enough to where they still feel he can carry the ball at the next level. “I’m the only one in the room that truly plays both fullback and running back,” Daniel said. “That’s just value. It leads to mismatches, it leads to questionable calls by defenses. Because how do you treat me? Do you treat me as a fullback, do you treat me as a running back? There’s just so much they can do with me that has a lot of upside. I’m really excited about it.” While many NFL teams have a fullback on their roster, it’s not a position that is used as frequently as it once was. Daniel, however, saw a niche that he could carve out thanks to his size and versatility in the backfield. He relied heavily upon Minnesota Vikings fullback C.J. Ham, who has become a mentor for Daniel, when making this switch. While Daniel and Ham first connected on social media, Daniel had followed Ham’s college career at Augustana, a Division II university located directly 60 miles south of South Dakota State in Sioux Falls. Ham, like Daniel, was a tailback in college. Ham, who was also undrafted, recently signed a four-year, $12 million extension. “He was letting me know there was a real market and opportunity for guys like us,” Daniel said. “Obviously it shows. He just got a new contract extension. I knew that being a bigger-body guy that I had the opportunity to make that happen.” Daniel’s path to the NFL follows the customary tale of an often-overlooked player with potential. Growing up originally in Seattle, Daniel’s family moved to Brookings, S.D., where South Dakota State sits, when he was 10 years old. As he became a star at Brookings High School as a freshman and sophomore, Daniel took a chance on himself by accepting a scholarship to attend IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., as a junior. But after one year at IMG, Daniel said he returned to Brookings for family reasons. Back at Brookings as a senior, he rushed for 1,500 yards and 22 touchdowns. But as Daniel put it, recruiting dried up once he returned home. He did hold offers from Army and Mississippi Valley State, but he felt it was best to walk on with the hometown Jackrabbits. Daniel maintained his walk-on status before earning a scholarship during the spring semester leading into his third-year sophomore season. But as he earned more playing time, it never seemed like he could break into a starting role. That wasn’t any fault of Daniel’s. In 2017, three South Dakota State running backs, including Daniel, got at least 100 carries in a committee approach. Daniel actually led the backfield in rushing touchdowns that season with 11. In 2018, Pierre Strong Jr. took over lead-back duties as a talented playmaker, en route to being named the Missouri Valley’s Freshman of the Year. Strong continued lead-back duties in 2019 while posting more than 1,000 rushing yards in consecutive seasons. Meanwhile, Daniel was effective as a change-of-pace back. But as injuries piled up in 2019, including one to Strong, Daniel found himself as the last man standing in the final two games of the regular season. Strong injured his knee against Northern Iowa, which put Daniel in the top spot for the remainder of the game. He finished the 38-7 win with 21 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown. A week later against South Dakota in the annual South Dakota Showdown Series, Daniel carried the ball 17 times for 125 yards and a touchdown in a 24-21 loss. Albeit in a defeat, South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier believes that game served as validation for Daniel. “Deep down inside he probably wanted to say to me, ‘You waited too long, Coach,’” Stiegelmeier said. “But he didn’t. He was just proud to be part of the team and the effort, and against a rival. I couldn’t be more proud of the young man.” Stiegelmeier said he was always a believer in Daniel’s abilities dating back to his freshman season in high school. It just so happened that each of Daniel’s seasons as a key contributor, he was part of talented backfields in each of his years on the roster. Interestingly, South Dakota State’s actual fullback from the 2019 season, Luke Sellers, signed with the Detroit Lions as a priority free agent after the draft. With that in mind, Stiegelmeier noted that Daniel has the potential to make him look silly if Daniel makes the most of his opportunity with the Falcons. “Here’s a guy who was the second- and third-string back in our offense most of his career, and he has a chance in the NFL,” Stiegelmeier said. “Either that says we’re pretty dumb, or he’s a special guy.” Looking at it from the bright side, Daniel said the lack of wear and tear could benefit him in the long term. “Now that I’m on the backside of it, I’m kind of grateful for it,” Daniel said. “In the time, you want to be on the field, you want to be playing, you want to take all the snaps. Definitely having the lower repetition has saved my body.” While Daniel received a good bit of attention from NFL scouts during the pre-draft process, he wasn’t invited to the scouting combine. He was hoping to put forth an impressive pro day showing that could have helped his standing as a potential draft pick. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which canceled those events. Needing to adjust, Daniel traveled to IMG Academy to film a makeshift pro day that was sent to every NFL and CFL team. And the numbers for the new fullback were impressive: a 4.62 40-yard dash, a 37-inch vertical leap, 27 reps on the bench, a 10-foot broad jump and 4.09-second short shuttle. “My numbers were statistically running back numbers with a fullback size body,” Daniel said. Still, without the ability to work out and interview with teams in person, it was always going to be hard for Daniel, like many of the small-school prospects, to be drafted. This year featured a record-low six FCS players who were selected. Along with Atlanta, the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers showed a ton of interest in Daniel during the pre-draft process. But the Monday before the draft, Daniel received a call from Dan Quinn, who was the only NFL head coach to call him. Once the draft ended, Daniel decided the best fit to start his career would be with the Falcons. In addition to being a flexible back who can play running back and fullback, Daniel is also expected to get some preseason reps catching passes. Of course, Quinn wanted to vet Daniel’s special teams background, as well, which is crucial if he’s going to make the roster as a depth addition at this particular position. “I like the versatility of him,” Quinn said. “Fullback, halfback, he has good hands, he has a special teams role. Those are usually the type of players that are going to work hard, find their own niche and carve out that role.” While Daniel can play fullback, the Falcons signed Keith Smith to a three-year contract this offseason. Even though Daniel opted to transition to the position, it’s clear the Falcons do view him as a ballcarrier who can play multiple spots on offense. There was a notion that Atlanta would draft a running back since it was a perceived need. But given the plethora of running backs in every draft class, perhaps scouting and signing someone like Daniel was the plan all along when it came to addressing the position. Daniel figures to enter the preseason as one of the more intriguing rookies on the roster. “The good thing about signing with the Falcons is they don’t just see me as a fullback,” Daniel said. “They see me as a hybrid, a guy that has position flexibility. They want to use me all over the field. It was a good fit for me to go to Atlanta.”
  5. https://theathletic.com/1814404/2020/05/14/dirk-koetter-we-definitely-need-to-run-the-ball-better-than-we-did-last-year/ File this one in the "No Sh*t Sherlock" column.... Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter offered a blunt assessment of the Falcons’ ground game. “We definitely need to run the ball better than we did last year,” he said. Atlanta finished the 2019 season ranked 30th in the NFL with an average of 85.1 rushing yards per game. A couple of factors worked against the Falcons throughout the season. During the first eight games, Atlanta found itself trailing by two scores or more seven times. That forced the Falcons to abandon the run much earlier than they would have liked. And when Atlanta did try to run the ball, it couldn’t churn out the kind of yards per carry it needed to be a true threat. In Atlanta’s first eight games, it averaged only 68.5 rushing yards per outing, which ranked 29th. While that number did improve to 101.6 rushing yards per game during the final eight games, Atlanta still finished in the bottom half of the league in this category for the second consecutive season. While the Falcons aren’t able to work with any players during what Koetter called “the most unique offseason in NFL history,” the overall objective will be to better establish a running game in 2020. An effective run game opens up the pass, particularly with play-action, which is when Atlanta feels its most dangerous on offense. “Your run game sets up the play-action game,” Koetter said. “It never fails every year when you go back and look at the cut-ups, the play-action game is where the explosive plays come. I think 30 percent of our play-action were explosive plays. Your play-action is going to be better if you’re running it better. We have to run the football more efficiently. We just have to do a better job there. It takes all 11 guys. We have to coach it better; we have to execute it better.” Changing up their personnel a bit, the Falcons parted ways with running back Devonta Freeman and brought in Todd Gurley, a two-time All-Pro running back who does have a lingering knee issue. Although he played in 15 of 16 games for the Los Angeles Rams in 2019, Gurley averaged 17 touches (14.9 rushes, 2.1 receptions) per game, which was a career low in a single season. At the same time, 17 touches might be what the Falcons envision for Gurley. A year ago, Freeman averaged 17.3 touches (13.1 rushes, 4.2 receptions) per game. In the majority of head coach Dan Quinn’s seasons with Atlanta, he has favored a committee approach at running back. From 2015-18, Tevin Coleman shared time with Freeman. In 2019, Ito Smith was Freeman’s backup before a season-ending injury put Brian Hill in that role. With Gurley replacing Freeman as Atlanta’s lead back, this philosophy is likely to remain. While the team will need to manage Gurley’s knee on a weekly basis, he wasn’t expected to get an average of more than 20 touches in a 16-game season. In addition, the Falcons are protected contractually if Gurley is unable to pass a physical once he is able to travel to the team facility. “Todd is only 25 years old, and he’s had two seasons where he was arguably the best running back in football,” Koetter said. “You’re just talking about different degrees. When he’s at his best, he’s got speed, he’s got power, he can break tackles, he’s elusive, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. We’ve all seen what he can do. His accolades speak for themselves. We just have to see how healthy he is and how consistently he can do it. He can still do it, it’s just a matter of how often can he do it?” Koetter added that he has a number of carries per game in mind for both Gurley and the rushing offense. He didn’t want to reveal that because, with at least a little jest, “(The media) will bring it up every week.” Last season, the Falcons tied for 29th with an average of 22.6 rushes per game. With better execution and without having to play catch-up early in games, Koetter hopes he will be able to call more runs in 2020. As it pertains to Gurley, Koetter said the Falcons and Rams are similar in philosophy and terminology, which should make Gurley’s addition seamless. If the team does keep Gurley around 17 touches per game — including 15 as a runner — that should open up some opportunities for the other backs, especially if the Falcons are truly committed to increasing its rushing volume. “I’m a big believer that it’s not just about one person running all of the runs, of course,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “We’re a big mix-up team. We think that’s a very important part of making sure that we rotate our guys through there. They all come to the table with different positives and different traits, of course, and I would not — I’m a big believer in making sure that you have the mix.” Behind Gurley, the Falcons either will opt for Smith or Hill to be the No. 2 back. Smith was the team’s No. 2 back a year ago until a neck injury ended his season after only seven games. Hill stepped in as Freeman’s backup after Smith’s injury and earned two starts. This preseason, Qadree Ollison, entering his second NFL season, also will get a shot at a rotational spot, as could undrafted free agent Mikey Daniel. Both Smith and Hill averaged more than 4 yards per carry with Smith tying Freeman with a team-high long of 28 yards. “To their credit, they want more. They want bigger roles,” Koetter said. “That’s what they should do is come in and compete for those bigger roles. Ito was playing well up until the time he got hurt. Like anything else, it’s a work in progress. When the guys get back we’ll figure it out.” Quinn and Dimitroff felt confident enough in Smith and Hill to the point that they didn’t feel like they needed to take another running back in the draft. “When you have a position like that and you’re just wanting those guys to go fight for it and you really believe in them like we do, you want to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Quinn said. “They’re pushing, they’re digging, they’re grinding for it, so you’re always looking like you do at every position. That’s part of the role. But we have a lot of belief in that group for sure.” While Gurley’s touch count went down last season, Koetter pointed to games Gurley had against the Carolina Panthers and the Chicago Bears as ones that showed he still can play at an elite level in the NFL. And Koetter also pointed out that there is no way of knowing what all went into the Rams’ subpar season running the ball. As Gurley drew a lot of attention due to his decreased numbers, it wasn’t like his fellow running backs were succeeding much. Darrell Henderson (3.8 yards per carry) and Malcolm Brown (3.7) also struggled behind a Rams’ offensive line that was unable to generate much in the run game. If Atlanta’s offensive line can offer improved blocking for Gurley, perhaps Gurley will return to the form he previously has displayed. But Koetter, like every other Falcons employee, will be forced to wait a while longer before getting the chance to see Gurley up close. “We’ll find out his health after he gets here,” Koetter said. “He’s saying all the right things. I just talked to him the other day. I know he’s excited. I know the fans are excited, all the Georgia Bulldog fans are excited to get him here. We’ll just see. You can’t deny his talent and what he’s already done in this league. The question is his health and we’ll just have to see.”
  6. https://theathletic.com/1809424/2020/05/12/projecting-the-falcons-89-man-depth-chart-in-the-middle-of-a-virtual-offseason/ In any other year, the Falcons soon would be holding organized team activities. Given the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, players and coaches have been forced to meet on a virtual basis. These virtual meetings had some rocky moments as players and coaches were forced to grow accustomed to using a video chat to connect with one another. There were miscommunications due to time-zone differences or players not realizing they weren’t on mute. But given the simplicity of the technology, it didn’t take long for everyone to figure out how to communicate properly. With all the quirks worked out, it actually has been an efficient alternative. During these meetings, players will check in with their position coaches to go over film while receiving additional instruction about the scheme. “We’re just trying as many ways as we can to go through it, and then we go through a lot of feedback,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “We ask what the players benefitted from, and we also do that as a staff, what worked well, what didn’t, what can we do more of, and we’re constantly trying to challenge the guys.” There hasn’t been an announcement about when the NFL will be able to resume football activities. In the meantime, various teams are adjusting accordingly. For a team like Atlanta, which is looking to bounce back to the postseason after enduring consecutive 7-9 seasons, it may seem like it is missing an opportunity to get players up to speed by not being able to work out in person during this time. Still, the Falcons are trying to make use of this time the best way they can. “I would say one of my biggest concerns is that we don’t get on the field together and have that type of communication, and there’s no way to do that now, but it doesn’t mean you’re not going to dig in to try and find an edge to find it,” Quinn said. “It’s been a good start. Over the last month, I’ve learned a lot on technology. I love teaching, so finding new ways to connect with the guys, new exercises, new ways to do things, it’s been a challenge but one that’s been fun.” As the Falcons await word on when they can convene again, here’s a projected depth chart for the current group of 89 players. Quarterback Matt Ryan Matt Schaub Kurt Benkert Danny Etling What’s good: Ryan will enter his 13th season. There are no issues surrounding Atlanta’s starting quarterback. What needs to be addressed: While Schaub is the favorite to be the backup once again, it will be interesting to see if Benkert or Etling could challenge him for the spot this preseason. Benkert was off to a good start last year before a toe injury sidelined him for the season. Running back Todd Gurley Ito Smith Brian Hill Qadree Ollison Craig Reynolds Mikey Daniel What’s good: The Falcons released Devonta Freeman and replaced him with Gurley, a 25-year-old who is often talked about as if he’s 35 due to an arthritic knee. The key will be managing Gurley’s workload to prevent his knee from flaring up. And if Atlanta is able to approach this in the right manner, Gurley can be productive. Much of that will have to do with pairing him with another back, or using two, in a committee approach. What needs to be addressed: It’s wide open as for who will get the first crack at spelling Gurley. Smith and Hill are the favorites, with Ollison a potential option for short-yardage and goal-line duty. The true sleeper of this bunch is Daniel, an undrafted rookie out of South Dakota State. Daniel is expected to take snaps at both running back and fullback, as well as potentially carve out an H-back role. Fullback Keith Smith What’s good: Smith signed a three-year contract this offseason and is all but guaranteed a spot on the roster for this season. What needs to be addressed: While Smith is in the fold for the 2020 season, the Falcons structured his three-year contract so the position could be up for grabs in 2021. Smith will need a strong year to prove that he should be retained after the year. Wide receiver Julio Jones Calvin Ridley Russell Gage Laquon Treadwell Olamide Zaccheaus Christian Blake Brandon Powell Devin Gray Chris Rowland Jalen McCleskey Juwan Green What’s good: The numbers are strong at receiver. And with Jones, Ridley and Gage back for this season, Ryan has to be pleased with his targets on the outside and in the slot. What needs to be addressed: Treadwell will offer a veteran presence as a rotational receiver, with Zaccheaus, Blake, Powell and Gray battling for the final spots. Powell, for now, is also the top option at returner. The sleeper of this group is Rowland, who had 1,437 yards and eight touchdowns last season at Tennessee State. Essentially, it’s all about rounding out the final three or four spots at receiver, which looks to be a deep group once again. Tight end Hayden Hurst Jaeden Graham Carson Meier Khari Lee Jared Pinkney Caleb Repp What’s good: Opting to address edge rusher, the Falcons weren’t in a position to re-sign Austin Hooper. Therefore, they executed a trade for Hurst, which the team hopes will pay off in a major way. What needs to be addressed: Behind Hurst, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the position group will turn out. More than likely, this list will be trimmed to three. Graham, an undrafted free agent out of Yale two seasons ago, made the 53-man roster last year and stuck with the group the entire season. Behind Graham, it’s likely going to be a battle between Meier, Lee, Pinkney and Repp for the final spot. Tackle Jake Matthews Kaleb McGary John Wetzel Evin Ksiezarczyk Hunter Atkinson Scottie Dill What’s good: The Falcons are set at left and right tackle, with Matthews and McGary manning those positions, respectively. For now, Wetzel appears poised to begin as one of the team’s top options at swing tackle. What needs to be addressed: The Falcons will carry eight or nine offensive linemen on the 53-man roster. To be the seventh, eighth or ninth lineman, Ksiezarczyk, Atkinson and Dill will need to show they can offer something the team doesn’t already have, particularly when it comes to position flexibility. Guard Chris Lindstrom James Carpenter Matt Hennessy Jamon Brown Matt Gono Justin McCray Justin Gooseberry What’s good: Lindstrom is a lock to start at right guard. The team missed him greatly after he broke his foot in the season opener. What needs to be addressed: Now that the draft and most of free agency are in the books, left guard remains one of the biggest question marks on this team. While Carpenter started 11 games in 2019, Quinn has made it clear that this will be a wide-open competition. Although Hennessy projects to be the team’s long-term option at center, he will begin his pro career at left guard. Gono is one to watch because if he doesn’t win the left-guard job, he could be an option to be the swing tackle. Center Alex Mack Sean Harlow Austin Capps What’s good: Mack is entering his 12th season and is one of the most valuable members of the team. What needs to be addressed: While Harlow and Capps will surely get plenty of reps at center during the preseason, Hennessy can be considered the top option at backup center. Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. Takk McKinley Steven Means Charles Harris Austin Larkin Austin Edwards Bryson Young What’s good: Atlanta hopes Fowler continues the kind of production he had last season with the Los Angeles Rams, which resulted in 11.5 sacks while playing 80 percent of the defensive snaps. What needs to be addressed: The Falcons will look to continue coaching up McKinley, the franchise’s first-round selection in 2017. McKinley set a goal for 10 or more sacks in 2019 but fell short with only 3.5 in 14 games. As a pass-rush unit, Atlanta will look to do much better than the 28 sacks it posted, which ranked tied for 29th last season. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett Tyeler Davison Marlon Davidson Deadrin Senat Hinwa Allieu Sailosi Latu What’s good: Jarrett finally received a Pro Bowl nod, which was a long time coming. Jarrett is one of the defense’s go-to leaders and will look to anchor the defensive line once again. In run downs, he’ll be joined by Davison, who signed a three-year contract to remain with the organization. And then Davidson, Atlanta’s second-round selection in the draft, will look to provide an interior pass rush alongside Jarrett. What needs to be addressed: Davidson’s development will be the biggest area of focus once team activities resume. At Auburn, Davidson played a lot on the edge. With Atlanta, he will be asked to play inside as a three-technique defensive tackle in nickel situations. Getting Davidson accustomed to that role will be an area of emphasis. DE/DT hybrid Allen Bailey John Cominsky Jacob Tuioti-Mariner What’s good: The Falcons are big on position versatility, and they have three players up front who can play both defensive end and defensive tackle. While Bailey and Tuioti-Mariner played both spots a year ago, Cominsky is projected to see more time as a defensive tackle when the defense is in the nickel package. What needs to be addressed: Last year was considered a redshirt year for Cominsky, who saw his limited reps at defensive end. That should change this season as Cominsky adjusts to the role the team envisioned for him when he was selected. Linebacker Deion Jones Foye Oluokun Mykal Walker LaRoy Reynolds Ahmad Thomas Edmond Robinson Jordan Williams What’s good: Jones has amassed a lot of experience as he enters his fifth season with the franchise. Oluokun is entering his third season and could be primed for a starting slot. What needs to be addressed: Depth behind Jones and Oluokun remains a need, with Walker, one of the team’s two fourth-round selections, being a candidate to earn some rotational time. Last year, the Falcons began the season with four linebackers. Reynolds, Thomas, Robinson and Williams could be duking it out for that final spot this preseason. Cornerback Kendall Sheffield A.J. Terrell Isaiah Oliver Blidi Wreh-Wilson Jordan Miller Josh Hawkins Tyler Hall Delrick Abrams Jr. Rojesterman Farris II What’s good: By drafting Terrell in the first round, the Falcons have their top three cornerbacks set. And with Terrell being an outside corner, that allows the team additional flexibility to have Sheffield man the slot when the team is in nickel. What needs to be addressed: Depth behind the top three corners remains a concern. That stated, Wreh-Wilson is a dependable option at corner as he was able to step in and provide some solid play when called upon last season. Safety Ricardo Allen Keanu Neal Damontae Kazee Sharrod Neasman Jamal Carter Jaylinn Hawkins Chris Cooper C.J. Reavis Ray Wilborn What’s good: The Falcons’ top three options at safety return in Allen, Neal and Kazee, and they also have experienced players in Neasman and Carter to battle for backup spots. The Falcons also think highly of Hawkins. What needs to be addressed: Like receiver, this could be a position that is hard to narrow down when it comes to constructing the final roster. But with two practice squad players able to be elevated to the active roster during game weeks, that could create an extra position for one of these safeties. Punter Ryan Allen Sterling Hofrichter What’s good: Allen has plenty of NFL experience, but the Falcons spent a seventh-round draft pick on Hofrichter. This figures to be an intriguing position battle this preseason. What needs to be addressed: Both Allen and Hofrichter have the ability to pin teams inside their own 20-yard line repeatedly. The competition will come down to which punter can limit punt returns from occurring more often than not. Place-kicker Younghoe Koo What’s good: Koo made 23-of-26 field goals in only half of a season. This proved he was worthy of sticking with the team for another season. What needs to be addressed: With 89 players on the roster, the plan remains to add a place-kicker to compete with Koo this preseason. Holding that process up right now has been the inability to work out a place-kicker at Atlanta’s facility. Long-snapper Josh Harris What’s good: Harris will enter his eighth season as Atlanta’s long-snapper, proving his worth at the position along the way. What needs to be addressed: Nothing. Harris is one of the league’s better and more reliable long-snappers.
  7. https://theathletic.com/1788509/2020/05/01/what-charles-harris-addition-means-to-falcons-defensive-line-rotation/ Back in 2016, Charles Harris was a fourth-year junior in college at Missouri. His Tigers were hosting Georgia in an early season showdown between SEC East teams. The two teams played a thrilling game, with UGA quarterback Jacob Eason finding receiver Isaiah McKenzie for a touchdown on a fourth-down play, which ended up being the game-winning score. But that game became a glimpse at what NFL scouts saw as Harris’ potential. Statistically speaking, his game against Georgia was the best of his collegiate career. He racked up seven tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks and a pass breakup in the 28-27 defeat. That game put him on the map as a potential first-round prospect. Ultimately, Harris decided to bypass his final year of eligibility and declared for the 2017 NFL Draft. It was a good decision as the Miami Dolphins selected Harris with the 22nd overall pick. But Harris hasn’t had the kind of pass-rush production he enjoyed in college, including nine sacks during his final season. And after three years with the Dolphins and just 3.5 sacks, Harris will enter the final year of his rookie contract with a new team. On Friday, the Falcons agreed to trade a 2021 seventh-round selection to the Dolphins to acquire Harris. The Falcons certainly hope they can return Harris to the form he displayed back in his college days. Charles Harris stats SEASON GAMES TACKLES SACKS TACKLES FOR LOSS 2017 16 19 2 5 2018 11 19 1 2 2019 14 23 0.5 3 While the Falcons went with a defense-first philosophy in this year’s draft, they didn’t take a defensive end with any of their six selections. Harris’ addition fills that particular need, which has further rounded out the defensive line rotation for the time being. By surrendering a late draft pick, it’s apparent that while the Dolphins were ready to move on from a previous regime’s first-round pick, the Falcons are more than happy to take a flyer on Harris for one season. Harris is expected to play the LEO role, and he could compete for reps alongside fellow 2017 draft pick Takk McKinley, who Atlanta took four picks later at No. 26 in 2017. By adding another player at this particular position, the Falcons now have three defensive ends who primarily will play off the edge. With Dante Fowler Jr. signing a three-year deal worth up to $48 million, he’s going to get the bulk of the reps among the edge rushers. Fowler played 80 percent of the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive snaps in 2019 and is replacing Vic Beasley, who got 73 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps. McKinley played 53 percent of Atlanta’s defensive reps last season, with Harris seeing 39 percent of Miami’s defensive snaps. It remains to be seen how Atlanta will divide those reps up at the position. But with those three players manning the edge, Atlanta now has further flexibility for some of its other defensive linemen. John Cominsky, who was drafted as a projected pass-rushing defensive tackle, can now focus more time along the interior. Allen Bailey may be able to spend additional reps inside, as well. While Harris has a former first-round tag to his name, this was a move made to aid Atlanta’s rotation. If it works, and if Harris displays the flashes that led to Miami selecting him with a first-round pick, Atlanta can look into signing him to another contract. If it doesn’t, all the organization surrendered was a seventh-rounder. The Falcons are likely to keep eight or nine defensive linemen on the roster for the 2020 season. They value depth and the ability to rotate players so they remain fresh in the fourth quarter. The good news for the franchise is it feels, according to a source, it is getting a “very hard worker” who takes to coaching well. After dealing with two down years and a coaching change in Miami, maybe a change of scenery will do Harris well.
  8. https://theathletic.com/1778262/2020/04/27/thirty-thoughts-on-the-falcons-roster-now-that-the-nfl-draft-is-over/ Now that the NFL Draft has come and gone, here are 30 thoughts about the Falcons’ roster: 1. Out are Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn and Jack Crawford. In are Dante Fowler and Marlon Davidson. It will be a slightly new-look defensive front for the Falcons this season, with the hope that Fowler can add a consistent pass-rushing presence. Fowler recorded 11.5 sacks for the Los Angeles Rams in 2019 and previously played for head coach Dan Quinn during his first year at Florida. The two new additions will be critical in trying to add pressure while producing more sacks. In addition, it will be interesting to see how Takk McKinley responds to having Fowler on the opposite side of the formation. 2. Considering that Davidson was a second-round selection at a position of need, he will get every opportunity to start. The plan is for Davidson primarily to play the nickel defensive tackle role to provide a pass rush up the middle. In that situation, Grady Jarrett would play nose tackle. Of course, Tyeler Davison still will be the primary nose tackle when the Falcons are lining up to defend the run. If Atlanta sticks to the original plan, John Cominsky should start to see some defensive tackle reps, too. 3. With the Falcons addressing cornerback and the trenches with the first three picks, it’s clear that Quinn was telling the truth about Foye Oluokun being a starting linebacker during one of his pre-draft conference calls. Last year, the Falcons asked De’Vondre Campbell to do a lot at linebacker — he covered tight ends, rushed the passer and dropped back as a deep safety. Oluokun actually played safety in college at Yale, so now it looks to be his time to shine in this particular position. 4. While Oluokun figures get the first crack at starting, Mykal Walker, one of Atlanta’s two fourth-rounders, will do his best to vie for a rotational role. Atlanta’s selection of Walker is eerily similar to when it took Campbell four years ago. Campbell was taken with the 115th pick of the fourth round. Walker was selected at pick No. 119, and they have similar builds and athleticism. Both were taken when there was an obvious need at the position. Both are versatile linebackers who can play multiple positions. One thing that stands out about Walker is how instinctive he is on the field. He may not be the plug-and-play starter Campbell was, but Walker could earn some playing time earlier than expected. 5. The Falcons entered the offseason with only Oluokun, Deion Jones and Ahmad Thomas at linebacker. Since then, they have added LaRoy Reynolds and Edmond Robinson before drafting Walker. Jones, Oluokun and Walker seemingly are locks to make the 53-man roster. Last year, the Falcons began the season with four linebackers. If the same holds true for 2020, there will be a competition among Reynolds, Robinson and Thomas for the final linebacker spot. 6. First-rounder A.J. Terrell will start at one of the outside cornerback spots. If last season is an indicator, Kendall Sheffield can be expected to start as the other outside cornerback in the base package. In nickel, Isaiah Oliver may continue to play one of the outside corner spots with Sheffield moving inside to nickel. Blidi Wreh-Wilson once again will be the steady reserve he has become known for. 7. With Sheffield ending the 2019 season as a nickel cornerback, Damontae Kazee will stick to being a safety. But if Sheffield is the first option at nickel, and if Keanu Neal is healthy enough to resume his strong safety spot, who will start at free safety? That job seemingly would go to Ricardo Allen, the smartest player and a team leader on defense. Could Kazee then go back to a backup role? Or could the Falcons play more in a dime defense? Or could the nickel defense actually feature Allen as the slot corner with Sheffield playing primarily outside? It’s possible that Atlanta’s nickel defense, or a variation of it, could feature three safeties and two corners instead of two safeties and three corners. 8. Neal and Kazee are free agents after the 2020 season, which made safety a position the Falcons felt the need to target in the draft. Jaylinn Hawkins, the second of two fourth-round picks selected, has a little bit of both Neal and Kazee in his game. He’s big and can play down in the box like Neal. He also had 10 interceptions in his college career at California, with six coming as a junior in 2018. This season figures to be a developmental year for Hawkins, and if Atlanta doesn’t keep Neal and Kazee in 2021, the ensuing offseason could decide whether he’s a starter. 9. Of all the smokescreens involving Atlanta, the one indicating interest in drafting a quarterback was the biggest. 10. Matt Ryan will start at quarterback for the 13th consecutive season. But the preseason will be interesting as it pertains to his backup. Matt Schaub, who played well in his lone 2019 start against the Seattle Seahawks, is set to make $2 million as the No. 2 QB on the roster. But Kurt Benkert and Danny Etling have the tools to push Schaub for the spot. 11. The Falcons decided they were good enough at running back and didn’t feel the need to draft anyone at the position. Todd Gurley will be the team’s starter but probably won’t see the number of touches he saw with the Rams back in 2017 and 2018. One of the best camp competitions will be at No. 2 running back between Brian Hill and Ito Smith, seeing that the second running back will still see plenty of snaps. Qadree Ollison will be looking for a big jump too. 12. Last year, people wondered if the Falcons would even carry a fullback. After signing Keith Smith to a three-year deal, that’s not a question this offseason. 13. In what was considered a historic class at wide receiver, the Falcons elected to pass on the position in the draft. Like running back, they must feel good about who they already have. 14. Atlanta did add Laquon Treadwell, a former first-round pick, to the roster during free agency. But he is not expected to be in the top three of the receiver rotation, at least for now. His addition is more in line with replacing Justin Hardy. Treadwell is expected to be a No. 4 receiver who can add value on special teams coverage. 15. Of the receivers on Atlanta’s roster, the biggest winner is Russell Gage. After how he finished the 2019 season, he’s expected to remain the No. 3 receiver. 16. The Falcons drafted six players but added seven with the draft picks they had prior to the start of free agency. They traded second- and fifth-round picks to the Baltimore Ravens for Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round selection. The second-rounder can be attributed to Hurst while the original fifth-rounder moved up a round. 17. The second-rounder Atlanta traded was the 55th overall pick. With that slot, the Ravens took Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins. Again, Atlanta’s faith in its existing running backs and the need for a tight end won out over adding to the backfield. 18. Behind Hurst, the Falcons will have a competition to monitor closely. Jaeden Graham is the only returning tight end on the roster and figures to be the lead candidate to be Hurst’s backup. Khari Lee and Carson Meier will compete for a blocking tight end spot. And then there’s undrafted free agent tight end Jared Pinkney, who a lot of analysts expected to be selected during the past weekend. Pinkney’s best year at Vanderbilt came in 2018 when he recorded 50 catches for 774 yards and seven touchdowns. 19. Whenever football activities resume, left guard will involve the most crowded competition. Four players — James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Matt Gono and rookie draft pick Matt Hennessy — will all hope to end the preseason as the starter. Quinn said Hennessy will have a good chance of winning the job. 20. Gono’s offseason is an important one. He began his pro career at tackle in 2018 before seeing some practice reps at guard late in the year. He opened the preseason at guard last year before moving back to tackle. Yet by the end of the year, Gono was back at guard again. Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary are entrenched in their positions. Does Gono also compete with John Wetzel as the swing tackle? Or does Gono stay at guard? 21. The Falcons were strategic with the lone offensive player they took in this year’s draft. As expected, they selected a center who has the versatility to play guard immediately. Hennessy’s long-term future is obviously at center. But with Mack under contract for one more season, Hennessy will start out at left guard. Hennessy was the second center selected in this year’s draft, behind only Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz (New Orleans Saints). 22. If Hennessy, 22 years old, wins the starting job at left guard, the Falcons will have an average age of 26.2 on the offensive line. The other projected starters’ are Matthews (28), Mack (33), Lindstrom (23) and McGary (25). This shows the effort Atlanta has made to scale younger up front the past two offseasons. The average age of the offensive line going into the first week of the 2019 season was 27. In 2018, it was 29.8. 23. With Atlanta deciding to not retain Matt Bosher, the Falcons added punter Sterling Hofrichter in the seventh round. While Ryan Allen finished the 2019 season as the team’s punter, he isn’t a long-term option for the franchise. Hofrichter’s hang time is attractive to this coaching staff, which holds a special teams philosophy in limiting the number of overall returns. 24. Right after the 2019 season ended, Quinn said the team would add competition for place-kicker Younghoe Koo. That hasn’t happened yet, although that remains the expectation. 25. Quinn said receiver Brandon Powell is the leading candidate to be the team’s return specialist. Undrafted free agent defensive back Tyler Hall returned kicks at Wyoming, which could create an avenue for him to make the 53-man roster. 26. In addition to Pinkney and Hall, an undrafted free agent signee to keep an eye on is Buffalo offensive tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk. Ksiezarczyk, at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, was the Bulls’ left tackle who helped lead one of college football’s best rushing attacks. Buffalo finished 10th in the nation and first in the MAC in rushing with 250.5 yards on the ground per game. 27. If Atlanta’s offense has a sleeper, it would have to be Gage. Gage will begin the 2020 season as the top slot option, with skill position players Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Hurst and Gurley working around him. Gage, by default, should find himself open or in single coverage more often than most. 28. On defense, Atlanta’s sleeper is Steven Means. It doesn’t appear the public has taken notice of Means, even if he’s someone Quinn and defensive ends coach Tosh Lupoi have recently raved about. Starting the final three games of the 2018 season, Means recorded seven tackles and a sack off the edge. Returning from an Achilles tear he suffered last offseason, Quinn believes Means will be a significant contributor in 2020. 29. Of last year’s rookies, McGary should see the biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2. McGary showed off his strength as a run blocker but obviously underwent a learning curve as a pass protector. His play improved in the final quarter of the season, which should be a trend that continues in 2020. 30. That stated, barring a sudden change in events during the next two months, the NFL is not expected to have any on-site offseason work until training camp. And even then, no one truly knows if or when that will take place. This lack of offseason work figures to put all rookies across the league at a disadvantage.
  9. Marlon Davidson woke up at 4 a.m. on Friday in a bad mood. He didn’t get much sleep following the end of the first round of the NFL Draft, and when his eyes opened in the early hours of the ensuing morning, they couldn’t shut again. Davidson is confident in who he is as a player. Therefore, he felt he should have been a first-rounder. But after 32 selections Thursday, Davidson was still waiting to hear his name. That didn’t sit too well with him. As a hulking defensive lineman who started all four years at Auburn, Davidson feels he is the best player at his position in this year’s draft class. Being snubbed in the first round wasn’t sitting well with him in the pre-dawn hours of Friday morning. Midway through the second round, the Falcons finally selected him. “I woke up at 4 o’clock this morning because I was mad I didn’t go in the first round,” Davidson said. “Waking up at 4 o’clock, I haven’t been asleep all day. I’ve been waiting on this call, I got it, and now I’m going to give everything I can to this organization. I’m going to give everything I possibly can in my bones to leave everything on the field, every game, to show they did not mess up by picking up Marlon Davidson.” Davidson’s wait didn’t last too long on Day 2 of the draft. The Falcons took him with the 47th overall selection in the second round. Atlanta entered this year’s draft with needs in both the secondary and along the defensive line. After taking Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell in the first round Thursday, the Falcons addressed the interior defensive line in the second round. And the player the franchise is getting has been a big believer in his abilities since the day he arrived on earth almost 22 years ago. “They pulled me out of the womb, and I knew I was destined for greatness,” Davidson said. “I’m 100 percent Marlon Davidson. I’m the best. I’m going to continue to be the best. Whenever you see Marlon Davidson come up in the spot, just know he’s one of those kind of guys. I’m coming in to wreak havoc.” Davidson, like his former Auburn teammate Derrick Brown, had a chance to leave college early and head to the NFL after his junior season. But Davidson, just like Brown, decided to return for his senior season. Davidson felt he didn’t do enough as a junior to put himself in as great of a position as he could have been for the draft. As a senior, he had the best season of his collegiate career. As a big defensive end, Davidson tallied 49 total tackles and 7.5 sacks. At 6-foot-3 and 303 pounds, Davidson has the size to play both inside and on the edge in varying situations. Davidson said if Atlanta asks him to shed some weight and play defensive end at 280 or 285 pounds, he’ll do it. If the Falcons want him to be a three-technique, he’ll be fine with that, as well. During a 17-minute conference call following his selection, Davidson expressed nothing but pure joy about playing for the Falcons. He revealed that he plays “Madden” primarily with the Falcons. Asked if he’s looking forward to playing next to Grady Jarrett, he became excited as he reeled off the players he had familiarized himself with from the popular video game series. “I play with Julio Jones, Matt Ryan. I play with these guys. I know this team,” Davidson said. “Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett. Being small in comparison to everyone else but being this great player, he’s showing everyone he’s great. I watch this every day playing the game. Of course, I want to play next to Grady Jarrett.” While Davidson has scheme versatility, head coach Dan Quinn said the plan at the outset will be to play him as a defensive tackle. Specifically, Quinn said he is looking for Davidson to play a role as a third-down nickel defensive tackle who can create a pass rush up the middle. He also could see some reps in the base package as a defensive end. “He’s been a defensive end, he’s been stand-up, he’s been down,” Quinn said. “We’re going to try to feature him at the defensive tackle spot over the guard. But having a guy with that much versatility, you can imagine we’re going to partner him up as often as we can. His intensity, his physicality, that all shines through.” A shot of Hennessy Prior to the draft, it was believed a run on interior linemen could emerge in the second round. As the round unfolded, only Louisiana guard Robert Hunt was selected in that block of 32 picks. With Atlanta taking a defensive lineman in the second round, the team was able to turn its attention to the offensive line in the third round. Needing a long-term center who can play guard in the short term, the Falcons took Temple’s Matt Hennessy with the 78th overall pick. Hennessy was solely a center with the Owls. A right tackle in high school, he moved to center when he got to Temple for the first day of practice. With Alex Mack entering the final year of his contract, Hennessy has a chance to be Atlanta’s long-term center. In 2020, however, he will compete for what is an open left guard position. Leading up to the draft, Hennessy said it was important to show teams he can play both guard and center. He was able to showcase some reps at guard during the week of the Senior Bowl in late January. “That’s one thing that I’ve really focused on improving throughout this draft process,” Hennessy said. “At Temple, I really just played center because that’s where I was placed, and year to year we felt that put us in the best position to succeed. Going forward, I’m looking forward to playing all three interior spots.” Quinn said Hennessy will start out at left guard and went as far as to say that Hennessy has the potential to eventually win the job. Both Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff lauded Hennessy’s toughness and intelligence as a football player. “With his versatility, athleticism and his full package deal, we were really focused on him being the one we thought we were going to have an opportunity to get,” Dimitroff said. “We, and a lot of people, had him ranked in that second-round area. To feel like we were able to pull him off the board in the third round was fortunate for us.”
  10. Entering the NFL Draft, the Falcons wanted to focus on improving the defense. Needing to fill holes at cornerback and linebacker and on the defensive line, those were positions the team wanted to target in the first four rounds after identifying various targets throughout a yearlong scouting process, which included a hiccup of self-quarantining and social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In the end, the Falcons drafted what appears to be two plug-and-play starters and another player who will be in the conversation for a rotational spot. Cornerback A.J. Terrell and defensive lineman Marlon Davidson will play sizable roles as rookies. Fourth-rounder Mykal Walker, a versatile linebacker who played numerous positions in college, could have a chance to rotate with Foye Oluokun depending on the defensive package. Four of the team’s six draft picks were on defense, with safety Jaylinn Hawkins providing depth and a special-teams role. “We were 100 percent looking to bolster our defense,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It was going to be a defensively dominated draft. We obviously stayed on track.” Of course, everything is rosy right after a draft, with the team excited about the players it scouted and acquired. Time will tell if this class is able to provide the right kind of immediate contributions and long-term success. Before breaking down each of the six picks, here are three things that stood out when looking at this Falcons haul. • Atlanta decided not to take a running back with any of its five picks in the first four rounds. While there was a lot of speculation the Falcons would take a running back, head coach Dan Quinn said he feels good about the players returning behind Todd Gurley. In particular, Quinn said he was feeling great about Ito Smith’s development before his season-ending injury. He said he has been happy with the development of Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison. • The Falcons appear to have three starters, including the aforementioned defensive players, in this year’s class. While the first two picks were expected in terms of what round they went in, the fact that interior offensive lineman Matt Hennessy was available in the middle of the third round was a bit surprising. There were several centers the Falcons felt were considered second-round prospects, with Hennessy being one of them. Zero centers were taken in the second round, however, with the bulk of the players falling to the third through fifth rounds. Hennessy was regarded as a top-three center in this year’s class and was the second one selected behind Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz. • While Ryan Allen ended the 2019 season with the Falcons and is still on the roster, it will be tough for him if he’s to be on the team in 2020. The Falcons decided to draft a player at the position and cut punter Sam Irwin-Hill in the process. Irwin-Hill actually wasn’t a lock to make it to training camp as the team was still dealing with some documentation issues relating to his work visa, which caused him to not stick with the team during the 2019 season. But Dimitroff said the decision to add a punter had nothing to do with Irwin-Hill’s documentation problem and that the Falcons were going to take Syracuse punter Sterling Hofrichter in the seventh round anyway. Also of note is the fact the Falcons didn’t trade any of their picks during the three-day draft. This is the first time Dimitroff has not executed a trade during a draft, which might actually be the most surprising revelation of the past three days. With six players drafted, and at least 18 undrafted free agents to be announced Sunday, the Falcons will have an influx of players to help get them over the 7-9 hump they’ve been stuck at over the past two years. Here’s a look at each of the Falcons’ draft picks. First round, 16th overall: Clemson CB A.J. Terrell The Falcons entered the draft with an emphasis on cornerback with the No. 16. Based on his size (6-foot-1 and 195 pounds), length (31 1/4-inch arms) and speed (4.42-second 40-yard dash), Terrell fits the tangible qualities Quinn is looking for in a cornerback. The coaching staff is truly excited about is how coachable Terrell is. Terrell has a reputation of being a hard worker who’s studious about his position. He got experience pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage and in zone coverage at Clemson. His scheme versatility stood out for Quinn and Dimitroff as those traits fit in with what Atlanta wants to do defensively. Terrell acknowledged he wants to get back to the field after a national championship game against LSU that went poorly for him. While that game did raise some questions, Dimitroff is confident that the rest of Terrell’s body of work is the norm for what kind of player he will be at the NFL level. “That performance wouldn’t have dissuaded us at all,” Dimitroff said. “He was in phase quite a bit. (Joe) Burrow obviously had a **** of a game, dropped the ball in a lot. There were a lot of opportunities there that they really capitalized on. We look at the full picture, as you can imagine. He had a great — very substantial game in the national championship the year before, Alabama game. He had a number of other games where he really stood out in our minds. So one game does not dissuade us.” Second round, 47th overall: Auburn DL Marlon Davidson Davidson sure has a lot of confidence about himself as he repeatedly told the Atlanta media he believes he is the best at his position. He was also miffed that he fell to the second round of the draft, believing himself to be a first-round talent. But with a run on interior defensive linemen not emerging until the second round, Atlanta seemingly got a great value with Davidson, who was ranked as The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s third-overall defensive lineman. Quinn said Davidson will be used a lot as a three-technique defensive tackle when the Falcons are in the nickel package, which is used a lot more these days than base anyway. But Davidson will still see some reps as a 4-3 defensive end. Davidson lauded his own versatility, saying he can do whatever the coaching staff asks of him. “Wherever they want me to be, that’s where I’m going to be,” Davidson said. “If they want me to be 285 (pounds), 280, make a big end on the edge, I can do it all. I have that repertoire in me. Whatever they want me to be, that’s what I’m going to be. I’m coming to Atlanta and coming with everything I’ve got in me and I want to give everything I can to that organization.” Third round, 78th overall: Temple G/C Matt Hennessy Hennessy was moved from right tackle to center the moment he got to Temple for his first practice. From there, Hennessy became one of the Owls’ leaders on offense and was awarded a single-digit jersey at practice, which goes to the toughest players on the team. At the Senior Bowl, Hennessy wanted to show he can do more than just play center. His work at guard during that week of practice solidified the Falcons’ interest. Atlanta does need a left guard in the short term and a center for the long haul with Alex Mack entering the final year of his contract. Quinn said Hennessy will begin his pro career at left guard and noted that he will have a shot to win the starting job. “This kind of smarts and this kind of quickness — we’re a wide-zone team, and he’d better have quickness to come off the ball,” Quinn said. And I think that’s one of the things that jumps out in Matt’s game is urgency off the ball. So his ability to sustain at the second level in the running game, that’s a significant factor. The hardest part for him is the sets are different at guard when you align with guys that are much larger. For him we expect that kind of work to be put in for him at guard, knowing that he has the experience at center, but we’ll start him at guard first.” Fourth round, 119th overall: Fresno State LB Mykal Walker Four years ago, the Falcons selected linebacker De’Vondre Campbell with the 115th overall selection of the fourth round. With Campbell joining the Arizona Cardinals in free agency, a need at the position opened up. And in similar fashion, the Falcons used a fourth-rounder on a linebacker who will at least have a shot to fill the role Campbell is leaving behind. Walker’s strength is how instinctive he is in finding the ball. Beginning at Division II Azusa Pacific, Walker transferred to Fresno State for his final two seasons. He had experience playing inside linebacker and outside linebacker and as an edge defender. “We just talked, and they keyed in on my versatility,” Walker said. “That was something I was trying to show teams. My strong suit is my versatility, and it makes me good for the league. That is something that they brought up. That was one of the first things they said, so I knew we were on the same page. I knew it would be a really good fit.” Fourth round, 134th overall: California S Jaylinn Hawkins Hawkins acknowledged he was surprised to find out the Falcons were taking him. While he received some information that had him as high as the fourth round, most projections had him as a late-round selection or an undrafted free agent. Hawkins went to Cal as a receiver but moved to cornerback during his redshirt season. He then spent the next four years at safety and totaled 10 interceptions, with six coming during his junior year. His penchant for creating turnovers had to have been appealing to this coaching staff, considering Atlanta tied for 17th in the NFL with 12 interceptions in 2019. “Man, my ability is there. Everything I want to do is get the ball,” Hawkins said. “That’s just been my game. It can be from a strip or a pick aspect. I grew up playing offense, now I’m playing defense. My biggest thing is, ‘How can I get to the ball?’ Whatever it is. Rob something or go out there and line something up or strip something. I was a big emphasis not only with myself but with my team at Cal. That was a big emphasis. Get the ball back.” Seventh round, 228th overall: Syracuse P Sterling Hofrichter With 25 minutes to go before the start of the third day of the draft, the Falcons announced they released Irwin-Hill. That proved to be some foreshadowing for Atlanta to either draft a punter or sign a priority free agent upon the draft’s end. After sitting the fifth and sixth rounds out, Atlanta took Hofrichter, who will now compete with Ryan Allen for the starting punter job in 2020. Hofrichter had a good feeling the Falcons were looking to draft him, saying Atlanta was the team that showed the most interest throughout the process. The word on Hofrichter, a 2019 Ray Guy Award finalist, is that he has exceptional hang time and has a penchant for being able to pin the ball inside the 20-yard line. “Hang time is something they value a lot at Syracuse,” Hofrichter said. “It’s about limiting the return as much as possible. That’s something I strive to be as good as I can at.” In addition, Hofrichter, a Jacksonville, Fla, native, might have endeared himself to his soon-to-be new city by saying he grew up a big Braves fan. Hofrichter even chose to wear No. 10 at Syracuse in honor of Braves great Chipper Jones.
  11. https://theathletic.com/1765337/2020/04/22/what-happens-when-an-angry-football-fan-emails-an-nfl-general-manager/ Kai Hall wasn’t happy. An otherwise positive person by nature, Hall, a longtime fan of the Falcons, was angry, in fact. Having rooted for the franchise since childhood, Hall felt he was at a breaking point after Atlanta lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018. Atlanta already had suffered three tough one-score losses with significant injuries to Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal and Deion Jones. As a fan, Hall wanted to see something, such as a free-agent acquisition or two, that signaled Atlanta had a plan to replenish these losses. Instead, the Falcons’ plan was to promote from within. At that precise moment, Hall had enough. Done with venting his frustrations on Twitter, he eventually decided to go directly to the source he thought was the cause of all the problems. He figured out Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s email address and fired off a lengthy message detailing his thoughts. Never in a million years did Hall expect a response. Twenty minutes passed by. “Thanks for the email,” Dimitroff wrote back. “Send me your cell and we can talk.” For more than 20 years, Hall has been a die-hard fan of the Falcons. Born in Hawaii, he moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., when he was 4 years old. A few years later, he and his mother moved across the Georgia-Tennessee border to Chickamauga. As a kid, Hall’s connection to the Falcons bloomed thanks to family friend Rich Miano, an NFL defensive back who happened to play the final season of his 10-year career with the franchise in 1995. That season, Hall’s mother and stepfather took him to a game, which ended with a visit to the postgame locker room to meet some of the Falcons’ players. One of Hall’s childhood keepsakes is a photo his mother took — well two, snapped consecutively — of Hall getting an autograph from linebacker Jessie Tuggle. That season cemented Hall’s Falcons fandom. When his mother could afford it, she would take him to Falcons games, which helped further forge their own relationship. Over time, Hall cheered through plenty of down seasons. He was ecstatic during the 1998 season, which resulted in Atlanta reaching Super Bowl XXXIII. Like most Atlanta fans, he was amazed at what Michael Vick could do and devastated in the aftermath of his dogfighting arrest. Hall continued to cheer for the Falcons as they went from a laughingstock in 2007 to a team that established yearly playoff expectations. And in 2009, after moving to Los Angeles to take a job in the nonprofit sector, Hall continued to cheer for the Falcons from afar. Entering the 2018 season, expectations were high for Atlanta. But after the Steelers loss, which dropped the Falcons to 1-4, Hall decided he was done with the Falcons. It wasn’t the losing that drove him to this point. It was that he felt the team was at a crossroads personnel-wise. The Falcons chose not to sign street free agents or make any trades, opting for the next man up philosophy, and Hall said he felt like the team was acting without a sense of urgency. Hall made the decision to root for another team. Living in Los Angeles, he asked his wife, Naomi, who they should cheer for instead. He wanted to go with the Chargers but she wanted the Rams. Naturally, Naomi won, so the two chose the Rams. But Hall didn’t want to be just any bandwagon fan. In his mind, if he was truly to switch teams, he wanted to receive a formal invitation of some sort. Therefore, he sent an email to Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff a day after Atlanta’s loss to Pittsburgh and explained his situation. Hall didn’t write anything negative about the Falcons. He simply wrote it was time for a change since the Rams were the hometown team. “Would you have us?” Hall wrote. Later the same day, Demoff wrote back with what he considered to be an official invite to become a fan of the Rams. Demoff then offered to send the Halls some “welcome goodies.” Within two days, three boxes of Rams apparel arrived at the Halls’ doorstep. With the Halls leaving the Falcons for the Rams, there was one final piece of business to take care of. On Oct. 9, 2018, a day after corresponding with Demoff, Hall decided he would reach out to Dimitroff, the general manager he blamed for Atlanta’s early season mishaps, to explain why he wanted to change teams. Here’s what Hall wrote: Hi Thomas, My name is Kai and I live in Los Angeles with my wife. In 1995, a family friend (Rich Miano) played for the Falcons. As a result, I became a Falcons fan. I have photos of me as a kid rooting the team on from the stands, meeting players after games, and showing off my Falcons gear. That fandom continued on into my adult years. And over the years, I have spent thousands of dollars and given countless hours in support of the team. Now, I am worn down and feel as though I cannot give anything more as a fan. Falcons football is more than a game for me. Growing up without my dad, Falcons football was a way for my mother and to bond over sports. I’ve traveled the Country to support this team. I was there in-person for Matt Ryan’s first playoff game. I was there on Thanksgiving in the Dome when the Falcons lost to Manning’s Colts. My wife and I were in Chicago last season for the team’s first game after that devastating Super Bowl loss. Point of this email is to say that Kevin Demoff of the Rams has extended an official offer to us to become Rams fans here in Los Angeles. It’s incredibly difficult, but we’d like to accept his offer. My wife and I had bought tickets to Sunday’s game against the Bucs, but we sold them and cancelled our travel reservations. I was able to get past the blow out loss against Denver. I made it through the tough times after Vick. I was able to get past the Super Bowl 51 loss and I held hope despite last season’s loss to the Eagles. But it seems like the current team’s philosophy regarding replacing injured players (i.e. next man up) is not working. And it appears the season is all but over, but it’s only October. My heart can only take so much, because I know this team can become so much more. I’ll always love the Falcons, but as a fan it’s so hard to accept the outcome when you have absolutely no control and are completely dependent on the leadership to make the right choices. I want to leave you with a few photos. One is of me as a kid meeting Jessie Tuggle. Which by the way, nearly 22 years later his son Grady gave me a pair of game worn gloves. The other photo is of me and my wife cheering on the Falcons last season at the playoff game here in Los Angeles. Thank you for all the great memories Atlanta Falcons, Kai Dimitroff doesn’t come across as the type to respond to fan emails. Then again, he couldn’t recall if one ever reached him before during his time as Atlanta’s GM. He joked that once this story is published that it “might open Pandora’s Box.” But something about Hall’s email touched him. Perhaps it was the photo with Tuggle. Maybe it was that he could see there was a deep personal connection with the team that Hall developed from childhood. Whatever the case may be, Dimitroff extended the invitation to talk. And two days later, he called. Prior to the call, Dimitroff admitted he wanted to put Hall in his place. “After reading that and hearing that, I thought, ‘You know what? Screw this,’” Dimitroff said. “I’m going to call this guy, and I’m going to show him that we’re good people here, adept people, and it’s worth the time. So that’s what happened. That was the initial (interaction). I was a little agitated myself. I’m sitting there like, ‘Wait a minute. No, no, no, no. Let me have my chance to voice my own opinion.’” Dimitroff figured the conversation could go three ways. • Hall could answer angrily and tee off on Dimitroff without putting much thought into the conversation. • They could both talk through some points but ultimately hang up upset after only a few minutes. • The conversation could be cordial with the two finding common ground. Lo and behold, option No. 3 turned out to be the outcome. The two talked for roughly 45 minutes, going into Dimitroff’s background and philosophy. Hall learned that two of Dimitroff’s influences, as it pertains to leadership and culture, aren’t from football mentors, but from R.C. Buford, the CEO and former general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, and David Brailsford, the cycling coach of Team Ineos who used to lead Team Sky. Dimitroff also explained his reasoning for not making an in-season move after all the injuries that took place in early 2018. “I was able to address my concerns head-on,” Hall said. “Literally, ‘Thomas, why haven’t you gone out and picked up a free agent?’ I was literally asking these questions. Bit by bit he went through and addressed my concerns. That was the coolest thing in the world for me.” Said Dimitroff: “I basically expounded on elements of what we were doing in our approach (in 2018). It wasn’t as easy as just looking at it in black and white. There were so many layers to putting together a football team and a sports franchise. It’s not just on the surface as you may see. I dug into some things that I probably would never have dug into with a fan before. I was appropriate about it, but I believe that was eye-opening for him.” Toward the end of the conversation, Hall said he was convinced to remain a Falcons fan. He asked Dimitroff if he and Naomi made it out to a Falcons game later in the 2018 season, if they could somehow get on the sideline? Dimitroff said that wouldn’t be a problem. The Halls ended up getting tickets to Atlanta’s 2018 game against the Baltimore Ravens. As the game approached, Hall emailed Dimitroff to let him know he would be attending. A week later, Dimitroff called Hall and set him up with sideline passes. The Halls flew to Atlanta and brought along a Los Angeles cycling jersey, with a design featuring palm trees and a sunset, as a thank you gift, with the hope they would run into Dimitroff on the sideline. Sure enough, as Kai and Naomi stood on the visitors’ sideline near the kicking net, Kai received a call from an unknown number. It turned out to be Dimitroff’s assistant at the time, who told them the Falcons’ GM wanted to meet them. The assistant linked up with the Halls and directed them toward Dimitroff. Dimitroff embraced the couple as if they were long lost pals. “It felt like we’ve known him for a long time,” Naomi said. “He treated us like we were friends and family. He gave us a hug. It didn’t feel like we were meeting him for the first time. It was like we were friends catching up.” When Dimitroff walked away, this easily could have marked the end of any future correspondence. Instead, Hall and Dimitroff continued to email back and forth. Then they started texting. They’ll occasionally chat on the phone. Conversations veer well outside of football. Around May of 2019, the Halls found out Naomi was pregnant, which brought joy to Dimitroff when he heard the news. They started sharing personal stories, such as Hall’s on-and-off relationship with his father. Shortly after Hall got a job at a Fortune 500 company he long wanted to work for, Dimitroff offered advice on how to confront certain on-the-job anxieties that were arising. Hall was hopeful his favorite team would bounce back from the 7-9 season in 2018. Of course, a rough 1-7 start ended Atlanta’s playoff hopes before the Falcons ever got off the ground. But in a year’s worth of time, Hall was no longer active, and angry, on Twitter. Sure, he hated it when the team lost. But there was a newfound perspective learned when it came to watching the game. Regardless of a game’s outcome, Hall would text Dimitroff something positive. Seven of the first eight games were rough. During the final eight, the two could celebrate via text after each of the six wins. But one particular game stands out for Hall, especially because he couldn’t watch it. On Dec. 8, 2019, which happened to be Atlanta’s second game against the Carolina Panthers, Naomi went into labor. After their daughter Emilia’s birth, and after Hall saw that the Falcons won 40-20, he congratulated Dimitroff on the win and shared a photo of his baby daughter. Dimitroff was ecstatic and peppered Hall with questions about how Naomi and Emilia were doing, telling the new father how beautiful his new daughter is. Dimitroff’s friendship was much needed in recent weeks. As the NFL operates its business, many citizens around the country have lost their jobs — temporarily or permanently — during the COVID-19 pandemic that has plagued the world. Hall fell into this category. On April 9, Hall received a call that he was being laid off due to the economic impact of the virus. Later that day, he texted Dimitroff about it. Dimitroff vowed to call when he had a free moment. That came two days later, on April 11, shortly after he recorded a podcast with sports reporter Peter King. Dimitroff FaceTimed Hall, to check in and see how he was doing. Sitting with his wife and daughter at their home, Hall was surprised to see a FaceTime request from Dimitroff pop up on his phone. Even though he was let go from his job, Hall has been in good spirits — saying it has allowed him to spend extra time he otherwise wouldn’t have with Emilia. But he felt even better after Dimitroff spoke to him. Dimitroff brought up the attributes he has learned about Hall since meeting him, painting a vivid picture of what his future will be. “When the opportunity was pulled from him I was thinking how difficult it would be to be without a job and compensation during this very precarious time,” Dimitroff said. “Believe me, my focus has been mainly on the draft and building this team. But every once in a while when I have pockets of time to be contemplative, situations like this enter my mind. I am confident that he will not be without a job for long. He’s too bright and intuitive.” On Thursday, Hall will tune into the NFL Draft and hope the Falcons strike gold with their first-round pick. While Dimitroff hasn’t delved into trade secrets regarding the direction they may take, Hall has told him repeatedly who he wants the team to take in the first round. Asked who that prospect is, Hall declined to say, stating he would rather keep that a secret between them. And as it pertains to draft information, Hall certainly pries. Rarely does he receive. Oh yeah — as for the Rams swag Demoff sent the Halls a year-and-a-half ago? Those items were taken to a Goodwill somewhere in the Los Angeles area. What’s crazy to think about, however, is that if Dimitroff never responded, those items would still be in the Hall household. But as things would unfold, Hall’s direct and honest approach struck a chord with Dimitroff. And that chord produced an unlikely friendship that neither could have ever expected. “Through this experience, I decided to remain a fan of my favorite team since the early ’90s,” Hall said. “Also through this experience, and more importantly to my family and I, we forged a friendship and connection with someone who has added tremendous value to our lives, just through the past year or two. To me, that’s invaluable. For that I’m grateful. I developed a friendship with someone who has opened up about their life, and as a result it’s impacted mine. I’ve developed a friendship with someone who has offered mentorship and guidance as it pertains to my profession. My family has gained a genuine friend. When you have a friend you want them to succeed and you’re going to stand by them no matter what.”
  12. https://theathletic.com/1759921/2020/04/20/falcons-mock-draft-4-0-the-case-for-isaiah-simmons-familiar-face-taken-at-16/?source=dailyemail What do Falcons do? Trade up! OK, they might. They also might not. With the NFL Draft approaching in three days, much of the speculation surrounding the Falcons has been whether this team will rise, I mean, move up. And if the Falcons do move up, would it be for a cornerback? A defensive tackle? Could they gamble aggressively and sell the farm to the Washington Redskins for Chase Young? That’s what makes following the draft process fun. Bits of information break off that can’t be placed together. We hear this; we hear that. But there’s really no sense to make of it until the draft actually happens. Sometimes the pre-draft information turns out correct, like when I heard the Falcons were interested in Kaleb McGary a week before last year’s draft. Sometimes it’s not, such as the entire industry not finding out that Chris Lindstrom was viewed as a mid-first round prospect by multiple teams until after the fact. If the Falcons are to trade up, it should only be for a player who will be viewed as a difference-maker from Day 1. When you’re talking about a disruptive play-making rookie who can start from Day 1 and provide the kind of production needed to move a defense into the top half of the league, there may be a few options at Atlanta’s disposal. The aforementioned Young. Auburn’s Derrick Brown. And Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons. For all three, a move into the top-five would be incredibly expensive. Atlanta would have to give up its first-round pick, either the second- or third-rounder and next year’s first-rounder just to get the ball rolling. From there, the Falcons would need to figure out a deal where it can still have enough picks to fill other holes this year. A move like this would be reminiscent of when Atlanta moved from No. 27 to No. 6 to take Julio Jones. History has been quite fond of that trade. Of those prospects, Young is (obviously) expected to be off the board first at No. 2. It Also would be really tough to pry him from Washington. If Atlanta pulled that off, it would be an absolute grand slam. But let’s assume the Falcons are not able to get it done as it seemingly would be difficult to pull the best non-QB prospect away from Washington. The Falcons do love Brown as a prospect, according to a league source, as do most of the teams in the top 10. Brown also could go as high as No. 3 to the Detroit Lions. Then there’s Simmons, the Swiss army knife of defenders. In terms of fit, Simmons makes the most sense, at least in my humble estimation. Simmons has unbelievable size at safety at 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds. He can play down at linebacker to guard tight ends and running backs. He can blitz the quarterback. He can defend slot receivers. In a pinch, he can man the outside. All three of these prospects could prove costly. Atlanta’s defensive scheme is player-friendly and simple by design. It also relies a lot on masking its coverages. And of these three, Simmons might have the best chance of falling outside of the top five. Here’s how it could happen: • At No. 3, the Detroit Lions could either trade out to a QB-needy team, take Brown, select Jeff Okudah or shock the world by drafting Matthew Stafford’s replacement. • At No. 4, the New York Giants either take an offensive tackle or trade out (which could actually make them ideal partners, if needed, for the Falcons since the Giants could then take a tackle at No. 16). • At No. 5, the Miami Dolphins take a quarterback or trade out. • At No. 6, the Los Angeles Chargers either take a quarterback or trade out. • At No. 7, the Carolina Panthers take Brown or Okudah, if available, or trade out. Although, it sure would seem improbable for the Panthers not to take Simmons if he fell in their lap. The Falcons may feel that difference-maker is Brown. Or even Okudah, who is believed to be the best cornerback in this year’s class. But behind Young, Simmons has the greatest potential to be an exceptional addition to Atlanta’s defense. He would be worth a major jump up in this year’s draft. Of course, it won’t be easy to pull off a trade. And there are likely other teams competing for those coveted spots in the top 10. Therefore, I will sidestep what I just wrote and revert to being boring by keeping Atlanta at 16th overall in my final mock draft. And with my final first-round guess, I have Atlanta taking … First round, 16th overall: LSU Edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson Hello again, K’Lavon. Back in the Falcons mock draft 1.0, I went with Chaisson, the speedy edge rusher from LSU. I veered off, imagining scenarios where the team took a linebacker instead. I was close to having the team pull the trigger on a cornerback with this pick, but I decided against it for three reasons: • I actually would not be surprised to see three top options at cornerback — Okudah, Florida’s C.J. Henderson and Clemson’s A.J. Terrell — gone by the time Atlanta picks at No. 16. Most everyone is in agreement that Okudah will be the first cornerback off the board. This year’s cornerback class at the top is not like last year’s. Perhaps draft writers were showing a bit of recency bias with how last year’s cornerback class fared. If Atlanta does want of those three cornerbacks, it might be forced into a trade-up scenario, but perhaps not as high as the top five. • The depth of the cornerback class is great at the top. It’s also pretty solid across the board, which will give Atlanta options in the middle-round range if it is unable to take one in the first round. If Atlanta does indeed pass on a cornerback in the first round, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this team take two in this class. • The Falcons may not feel immense pressure to draft a cornerback if the top options are no longer available. That would have to do with how they feel about Kendall Sheffield, selected in the fourth round last year. On a conference call Monday, head coach Dan Quinn was asked if Sheffield had the makings of being a No. 1 corner for his team. “Yes, I feel that way,” Quinn said. “We played him a ton in the slot when we were playing in the nickel defense. That wasn’t something he had tons of experience, and I thought he kept growing and he was really up for the challenge. In our league, the division, and certainly in the NFC, there are some guys you want, at times, to match up if you need to, and he’s definitely somebody with the speed and short-space quickness to do that. I definitely think he has a shot to do that based on his speed. He’s just going to continue to grow.” At the same time, the Falcons may prefer Sheffield in the slot when in the nickel defense, especially with Quinn’s revelation that Damontae Kazee will play primarily at free safety this year. And if so, that would be the counter to this particular argument. If Okudah, Henderson and Terrell are all gone by No. 16, and the Falcons still want to take a cornerback, TCU’s Jeff Gladney could be of note for the spot. But back to Chaisson: If Atlanta stays at No. 16 and doesn’t select a cornerback, Chaisson has a great chance to be the pick due to Atlanta’s need to further bolster the pass rush for 2020 and for seasons to come. While Atlanta signed Dante Fowler in free agency, Takk McKinley is entering the final year of his contract while rehabbing a third shoulder surgery. John Cominsky could be in line to play more as a nickel defensive tackle, which was the plan for him when Atlanta traded up to take him in the fourth round of last year’s draft. Sometimes it’s more fun to avoid the obvious. But this player and team have been linked for quite some time. If Atlanta is unable to trade up, or ultimately decides not to do so, Chaisson very well could have the best odds of being Atlanta’s first-round pick. What they should do: Do not let Kenneth Murray fall to the New Orleans Saints. You will regret this if it happens, Atlanta. TRADE: Atlanta trades the 47th and 143rd to the Baltimore Ravens for the 60th, 106th and 170th overall selections. Second round, 60th overall pick: Washington C Nick Harris Yes, I’m going back to Harris with this selection as I had two mocks ago. What I know is the Falcons are looking at interior linemen in this range. Harris has been the player most consistently undervalued by draft writers throughout this process. Multiple teams value him as a second-round interior lineman. Now, that doesn’t mean he will go in the second round as there are other talented interior linemen who could push Harris down the draft board. Harris fits Atlanta due to his versatility, seeing as he has played guard and center during his collegiate career. The Falcons would love to add competition at left guard while grooming a center for the future as Alex Mack is entering the final year of his contract. And the interest with Harris has been there for a while. The Falcons spoke with Harris at the Senior Bowl and held a virtual meeting with him during this adjusted offseason draft process. Another option could be Temple’s Matt Hennessy, who is also a highly regarded interior offensive lineman in this year’s class. TRADE: Atlanta trades the 78th overall pick to the Buffalo Bills for the 86th and 167th overall selections. Third round, 86th overall pick: Oklahoma State CB A.J. Green Hey, this name is familiar. But no, the former Georgia star receiver who has spent his entire career with the Cincinnati Bengals did not go back to college to become a cornerback at Oklahoma State. This A.J. Green does have the physical make-up for what the Falcons look for in their corners. He’s 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds with 30 ⅞-inch arms. Adding to this, the Falcons have expressed interest in Green throughout the pre-draft process. If Atlanta doesn’t take a cornerback in the first round, both the second and third rounds will be legitimate possibilities for the position. Third round, 106th overall pick: Arkansas DT McTelvin Agim Two positions that are deep in this year’s class are cornerback and defensive tackle. At least in this surely wrong mock draft, the Falcons are able to turn their attention to defensive tackle late in the third round, thanks to the hypothetical trades I worked out for them. Agim offers the kind of versatility Atlanta covets as he played last season at defensive tackle after previously playing defensive end. He certainly would be a developmental prospect at the position but one who would seemingly fit a 4-3 scheme. Fourth round, 119th overall pick: Maryland RB Anthony McFarland If the Falcons want to add speed in the backfield, they would be able to do so by adding McFarland. Fun fact: McFarland initially wanted to go to Georgia before Mark Richt was fired. In the aftermath, McFarland stayed home and went to Maryland. Unfortunately, the Terrapins were never a good team during his three years with the program. That doesn’t mean McFarland can’t be a good NFL running back, of course. In high school at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., McFarland was a track standout in addition to being a coveted football recruit. He could wind up being one of the biggest sleepers in this year’s draft class at his position. Fifth round, 167th overall pick: Louisiana Tech DB L’Jarius Sneed We all know how much Atlanta loves versatile defenders. Sneed played his senior season at safety after spending his first three at cornerback. Sneed is 6-0 and 192 pounds with 31 ⅜-inch arms, so he passes the Falcons’ eye test at the position. Throw in his 4.37-second 40-yard dash, and you’re talking about a potential find in the later rounds of the draft. Fifth round, 170th overall pick: Portland State TE Charlie Taumoepeau Taumoepeau began catching the eyes of scouts after two games during his junior season in 2018. Against Nevada, he went for three catches, 130 yards and two touchdowns. A week later against Oregon, he caught five passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. He’s also willing to get his nose dirty as a run-blocker. A Senior Bowl participant, Taumoepeau has the chance to be a lot of teams’ mid-to-late-round sleeper. Seventh round, 228th overall pick: Southern Mississippi WR Quez Watkins Watkins’ speed alone might make him worth a late-round flier as he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. He would be a developmental player at receiver who could have the opportunity of contributing on special teams early in his career if he’s able to make a 53-man roster.
  13. https://theathletic.com/1754981/2020/04/17/falcons-mailbag-given-recent-rumors-will-atlanta-really-trade-up-in-nfl-draft/ With less than one week to go until the NFL Draft, here’s a Falcons Mailbag. What’s more likely, the Falcons trade back in the draft or that they admit the new uniforms were an April Fool’s joke that went too far? — Josh R. Haha! Now, this is actually a tough one. While I know the Falcons would never admit such a thing regarding the uniforms — especially with all the time and preparation they took for what they hoped to be a dramatic release (only to be undercut by a leak) — trading back just doesn’t seem to be in Thomas Dimitroff’s DNA. Sure, there is a first time for everything. But based on history, the Falcons just aren’t likely to trade back. The Falcons have never done so in the first round since Dimitroff took the job in 2008, so why should we believe this could happen now? Now, to be frank, I just don’t care about the team’s new uniforms. But I also don’t hold a fan allegiance the way you guys do. So while it’s not a topic where I put much concern, I get why it’s important to the fan base. But to answer the question about what would happen first, I’d have to lean toward trading back. Jason, do you think the Falcons will actually pick at 16? — David A. Three days ago, I would have said yes. Now, I’m not so sure. And this isn’t necessarily because of recent reports and rumors that the Falcons are exploring options to move up in the draft. Given the circumstances of how this year’s draft is going to occur, I have this great feeling that this could be as unpredictable as we’ve seen in quite some time. I also think that positions like cornerback and offensive tackle could see some runs on prospects much earlier than expected. And without a pro day circuit taking place, each team seemingly has been on its own when it comes to evaluating certain players. It would be amazing to see how different each team’s draft board is. There probably isn’t much of a consensus forming since scouts aren’t convening in almost a daily fashion. It’s actually shaking out for the first round to be widely different from what many of the draft writers have mocked up this offseason. NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport even had a general manager tell him this, which he reported earlier Friday. If there is a player Atlanta felt it could get at No. 16 a week ago but the team has since learned that may not be the case, it very well could trade up. If the Falcons feel they’re getting a good deal to move up for someone like Isaiah Simmons or Derrick Brown, that could be something to consider, as well. During the next six days, the Falcons will have to weigh whether it’s better to wait on a player they’re targeting at No. 16 or if trading up makes more sense. Is it possible we may see the Falcons go safety in the first? Get a guy like Grant Delpit. Had an informal with him. — Michael M. I’m sure it’s possible the Falcons could take a safety in the first round. Whether that’s Delpit, I wouldn’t know. Alabama’s Xavier McKinney could be a first-round option, too. With Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee scheduled to be free agents after the 2020 season, there is a need to have a starting-caliber safety for 2021 if the team doesn’t think it will be able to keep those two. I also think there’s a feeling that some talented safeties will still be available in the middle rounds, so it may not feel too pressing for Atlanta to take one that early. Jason, given that the Falcons seem to surprise us in the draft each year, who do you feel like we take in the first round? For some reason, I lean toward Kenneth Murray, but that may just be me. Thanks for all you do. — Ryan M. I really appreciate those words, Ryan. It means a lot for you and everyone else to still be with us during these trying times around the world. To be honest, I don’t think Murray would be a surprise. And if he’s there at No. 16, there’s a great argument that he would be the best available player at that point and make the most sense to select. I’m a big fan of Murray’s, too. While there are things he can work on, specifically when it comes to anticipating and not overrunning plays, he has everything you want in a modern-day linebacker. He’s exceptionally quick and is stout against the run. He has good speed to cover tight ends and running backs. He’s a perfect fit for Atlanta. But it all comes down to the Falcons’ draft philosophy of taking the best player available at a position of need. If Atlanta feels the cornerback class is more talented at the top than at linebacker and on the defensive line, it would fall in line with their particular strategy to take that position early and follow up on the others in subsequent rounds. So if there is going to be a certain surprise, it may involve taking a cornerback NFL teams are higher on than most of the draft analysts. For now, I’m honestly not sure of a particular player Atlanta will pick. If I had to guess, I do think the position — assuming the Falcons don’t trade up — would be cornerback. Do you realistically think we’ll have a season this year? Seems way too far fetched to happen. — Ankeet C. I would be doing everyone a disservice if I proclaimed what I thought one way or the other as to whether the season takes place. I don’t have a background in epidemiology. I have no earthly idea what is happening behind closed doors in the scientific community when it comes to combating COVID-19. In addition, we’re in mid-April, and the season is scheduled to start in September. We just don’t have enough information at our disposal to make a clear determination as to whether sports will be played or not. That stated, if sports are to be played and there is no vaccine available for the public, it would be really tough for fans to be allowed in the stadiums. On that part, I am willing to offer an opinion. Given the timetable for a safe and effective vaccine to hit the public — which is typically 12 to 18 months — fans attending games seems unlikely for the rest of 2020. Even then, you still could be putting at risk a couple of hundred people participating in, officiating and recording sports games inside a stadium. It’s still too early to rule out a season. But that’s only because of the variable unknowns now. If the Falcons miss or disappoint in the playoffs for the next two seasons, do you think Matt Ryan and/or Julio (Jones’) time in ATL has to come to an end? — Tucker H. They don’t have to come to an end. But it’s an interesting thought to ponder. Ryan will be 35 this season. Jones is 31. If the team disappoints and a new regime comes in, you’d have to think some form of rebuilding will take place. In that scenario, I wouldn’t rule out anything, even with Ryan and Jones. With two seasons down the road in mind, Jones’ dead cap would be $15.5 million in 2022 and $7.75 million in 2023. So there are potential outs in those years — 2023 being the main one. As for Ryan, his dead-cap number is $26.525 million in 2022 and $8.612 million in 2023. And that’s if those contracts stay as-is. When it comes to restructuring a deal like Ryan’s, Atlanta may be done unless it adds years to it. Converting base salaries into signing bonuses ultimately catches up, which is something to be concerned about. So with both of these players, there may not be many more opportunities to relieve the salary cap in the short term without doing great harm in the long term. And if Atlanta (1) doesn’t become a championship contender and (2) undergoes a coach/GM change, then yes, I could see such a scenario as you outlined taking place. If Vic Beasley has a strong year in Tennessee, is that an indictment on (Dan) Quinn that also exonerates Dimitroff? — Jeff R. Going back to 2016, it looked like Dimitroff did a great job with this particular evaluation and that Quinn was doing an exceptional job of coaching Beasley. From there, no one could have seen the next two years occurring — with the team then gambling on an increase in production by picking up his fifth-year option, only to not get the double-digit sacks it was hoping for. Given what he did in 2016, the potential will always be there. How much of tapping into that potential involves the coach motivating him? And how much of it falls on the player? Those are the two questions that have to be answered when it comes to Beasley. I don’t believe all of it should fall on Quinn, as Beasley deserves his share of the blame. But if Mike Vrabel and his staff at Tennessee are able to get more out of Beasley than Atlanta did, this argument certainly will be made.
  14. https://theathletic.com/1747300/2020/04/14/homecoming-todd-gurley-is-ready-to-wear-red-and-black-for-second-time/ Todd Gurley didn’t grow up in Georgia. Born in Baltimore and having attended high school in Tarboro, N.C., it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think he might have a much greater connection to those places than the city and state where he spent three years of college. But as fate would have it, Gurley’s time at the University of Georgia in Athens meant just as much as either of the places he lived beforehand. As one of the best running backs, if not overall players, to ever suit up for Georgia, Gurley routinely visited Athens during his downtime while a member of the Los Angeles Rams. In news conferences, Gurley often would wear UGA gear. When he officially signed with the Falcons last week, he posted a video to his social media accounts not with his new team’s clothing but with a UGA shirt and hat. Athens grew near and dear to Gurley’s heart. His affinity certainly spread to the entire state, considering the legions of Georgia fans who showed up from all over to watch him play. Now that he’s with the Falcons, Gurley is excited to return to the state that catapulted him into the limelight of being an elite player. “It’s really home for me,” Gurley said. “I’m really excited. I’m pretty sure a bunch of Georgia fans are here. It’s really like a little homecoming. I felt like I should’ve been there forever, but it’s perfect timing for sure.” With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the world, and subsequently the ability to travel, Gurley is still residing in Los Angeles and has been unable to make it back to Georgia. He has made his presence felt to his new team’s community by donating meals to low-income and high-risk residents in the area, along with the Ronald McDonald House, Piedmont Hospital and Northside Hospital. When he does arrive in Atlanta, he will put on the familiar colors of red and black in a home stadium 70 miles from where he ran between the hedges. Considering his standing among the Georgia faithful, Gurley’s sheer presence should put a lot more local eyeballs on the Atlanta franchise — whether it’s from tuning in at home or showing up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. There have been many fans who have long clamored for the Falcons to draft or sign some former Georgia players. For those folks, they got their wish in a big way with Gurley’s acquisition. “It will remind a lot of people of his days in college,” said former Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason, who was Gurley’s teammate from 2012-14. “I know he visits here in the offseason a lot. The other part is you get to see the kid play way more. He was on the West Coast, and you never got to see any of his games. You only got to see the ESPN highlights. The thing that’s cool about that, too, is you get to literally watch every one of his games.” Mason, who now co-hosts “The Cheap Seats” on Atlanta Sports X 106.3 FM, was Georgia’s starting quarterback during Gurley’s junior season. What he remembered about Gurley was the positive and jovial attitude he displayed regularly. As he became a college football star in 2012, Gurley didn’t let his success overwhelm him. He could be a jokester at times, sure, which is something Gurley even referenced during a recent conference call with the local Atlanta media. But Mason said that during the three years he got to know him at Georgia, Gurley remained the same kind of person from the moment he arrived on campus. “Super easy to work with, man. No diva to him,” Mason said. “That’s usually always the case when guys come in as a freshman. Guys are hungry, and they want to prove everything. That work ethic and that desire to be the best tends to dip off as the pats on the back increase. That never was a problem with Todd. You saw a kid who made his way in being one of the best running backs in college football and one of the most prominent Georgia football figures of all time. He still, even into his junior year, had the same work ethic he had as a freshman. That always stuck out to me.” When Mason became Georgia’s starting quarterback in 2014, the offense was heavily reliant on Gurley and the ground game, which also featured freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The Bulldogs were very much committed to the run, with Mason chuckling about “how little we threw the ball.” Gurley’s performance through the first five games had him among the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy as he posted 773 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, which was good for a staggering average of 8.2 yards per carry. What followed was an unfortunate turn of events for Gurley and Georgia. He was caught selling autographs and was handed a four-game suspension by the NCAA, which effectively ended those Heisman hopes. When Gurley returned, he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament late in Georgia’s blowout win over Auburn. That ACL tear, and subsequent surgery, reportedly has turned into arthritis, which has become a storyline often attached to Gurley. For as popular as Gurley was, and is, with Georgia fans, it was a less than ideal way to end a collegiate career. But for those Georgia fans who wished the Falcons would have taken him at eighth overall in the 2015 NFL Draft — he went to the Los Angeles Rams two picks later — it’s now a scenario of better late than never. “It’s where I grew up. It’s where I turned into a man,” Gurley said. “It’s where I learned everything that I’ve been able to do these last couple of years. It’s where I developed my football habits, meeting great people, great relationships. I still have friends who are still in Georgia that I stay in contact with. It just feels like home. It’s a great feeling to be back. I’m super excited.” It’s unknown how the Falcons plan to use Gurley. In today’s NFL, very few running backs are taking upwards of 30 carries per game. Since Falcons head coach Dan Quinn took the job, the running back position has mostly involved a rotation. With Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison on the roster, and with the possibility of Atlanta selecting another running back in the draft, a tandem or committee approach could be in store. Both Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff alluded that Gurley’s addition shouldn’t impact how the team approaches the draft. “I think Todd is explosive. I think Todd can still tote the rock very, very well,” Dimitroff said. “He’s going to be a big-time playmaker, I believe. He has the ability to do that. I think we have a group of running backs that can contribute. I’m a big believer, I mentioned before, that it’s not just about one person running all of the runs, of course. We’re a big mix-up team. We think that’s a very important part of making sure that we rotate our guys through there.” Said Quinn: “As far as one player changing the overall framework of it, that’s not as likely.” If the Falcons use Gurley as the lead back in a committee, perhaps they will be able to effectively manage the wear and tear that inevitably comes with the running back position. While Gurley was a terror in 2017 and 2018, his numbers dipped to 3.8 yards per carry last season. Some of that could have been due to his knee. But before Gurley’s big years in 2017 and 2018, he had a statistically dreadful year in 2016, when he started 16 games and ran for only 885 yards and six touchdowns — and there were no injury issues of note then. While Gurley’s arthritic knee is surely a concern, Pro Football Focus graded the Rams as having the fourth-worst offensive line last season. “(Gurley) really takes care of his body well, and he’ll continue to work on it,” Dimitroff said. “We’ll continue to be very mindful about what we are dealing with, and we feel very comfortable with it. Of course, this is a tough game. It’s a warrior game. We know that. I’m not spinning off on that. He’s a hard-charging runner, and he’s an excellent football player, and we are counting on him to be an excellent football player for us.” Todd Gurley’s rushing stats SEASON CARRIES YARDS PER CARRY PER GAME TOUCHDOWNS 2015 229 1,106 4.8 85.1 10 2016 278 885 3.2 55.3 6 2017 279 1,305 4.7 87.0 13 2018 256 1,251 4.9 89.4 17 2019 223 857 3.8 57.1 12 With Gurley stuck in Los Angeles for the time being, he has maintained a regular routine to stay in shape and remain sane amidst the quarantine. He has a neighbor who has all the necessary equipment at his property, so he has been making use of that when working out. He has been getting plenty of sleep, as well, saying that he isn’t rising until 10 a.m. each day. Gurley’s excitement about returning to Georgia is evident. During his five-year career, he was voted to the Pro Bowl three times and named to the All-Pro team twice. Though 2019 didn’t go his way, Gurley is certain he can still produce like he did when he was considered among the best running backs in the NFL. “I’m still creating my legacy and am trying to be the best player I can be,” Gurley said. “I know what I’m capable of, I’ve done it before. It’s just keep doing it again and be consistent. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”
  15. https://theathletic.com/1752749/2020/04/16/dawsons-creek-to-the-nfl-draft-overlooked-alex-highsmith-proving-he-belongs/ He belongs. That’s the mindset Alex Highsmith, a former no-star prospect out of high school, has taken to heart during the process of proving why he’s worthy of being selected in next week’s NFL Draft. Not many college programs wanted Highsmith coming out of high school. Davidson and Furman inquired, with Highsmith eventually walking on at Charlotte. And even that came through Highsmith’s own initiative when he asked a rival head coach if he could send his tape to his son on the Charlotte staff. Through sheer will, work ethic and determination, Highsmith developed into a player who has gone from overlooked to a near-lock to be selected before the end of the draft. But while Highsmith is all but certain to be selected, there’s still a belief that he’s being overlooked again. His numbers as a fifth-year senior are eye-popping. In 2019, he had 14 sacks, which tied for third in all of college football, and only 2.5 behind Ohio State’s Chase Young. Leading up to Charlotte’s game against Clemson, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney declared that Highsmith “could play for anybody in the country.” After the game, Clemson left tackle Jackson Carman said that Highsmith was, “by far the fastest off the ball I’ve ever gone against. Ever.” Still, Highsmith is considered a mid-round selection entering the draft. A part of him still wants to prove how wrong most of the local Power 5 colleges were by overlooking him out Eugene Ashley High School just outside of Wilmington, N.C. At the same time, despite his stellar past two seasons, he’s not getting the kind of attention he otherwise should be getting. Highsmith records these slights in his mind to further add to his desire to prove why he deserves to be considered among the best pass-rushing prospects in this year’s draft class. “The lower I get drafted will be more motivation for me,” Highsmith said. “No matter where I get drafted, I’m going to go into a team’s locker room and work my butt off to be the best I can be and help them win games. I came from that walk-on spot, and I know what it’s like to be at the bottom.” An overlooked star from the beginning Here’s a little-known fact about Highsmith. He appeared for the first time on television when he was a baby on the television program “Dawson’s Creek.” He played the role of the newborn son of characters Bessie Potter (Nina Repeta) and Bodie Wells (Obi Ndefo), making his screen debut near the end of the sixth episode of the first season. Katie Holmes, who rose to stardom after playing the character Joey Potter, held Highsmith in her arms. Despite his rise as a football prospect, this also remains an overlooked aspect of his background. Highsmith was born and raised in Wilmington, so he is frequently asked about “Dawson’s Creek” since the show was filmed there. Little do those questioners know that he played a role in the television series. Highsmith recently made an appearance on Doug Gottlieb’s radio show, with Gottlieb asking the same question. To Gottlieb’s surprise, he found out Highsmith had more than just the coincidence of growing up in the show’s filming location. “That’s something I want people to know, too, that I was a little TV show star as a baby,” Highsmith said. Charlotte head coach Will Healy, who finished his first season with the 49ers, said his wife Emily remains amazed over Highsmith’s brief television career. “My wife talks to him about it more than I do,” Healy said. “She’s starstruck every time she sees him. He’d play pretty well on Saturday and she’s like, ‘No, that was the baby on Dawson’s Creek!’ OK, however you want to talk about him I’m good. He’s a man of a million talents.” In high school, Highsmith didn’t have many suitors wanting to add him to their college teams. He was only a little more than 200 pounds and didn’t hit a growth spurt to 6-foot-1 until later in adolescence. It didn’t help that during his senior season of high school, Eugene Ashley finished with an 0-10 record. “I was pretty skinny,” Highsmith said. “That’s probably why I didn’t get many offers. I hit a late growth spurt; no one knew about me. I feel like I bloomed at the right time; that’s what I’d say.” He didn’t get Charlotte’s attention until he asked then-Hoggard head coach Scott Braswell to pass along his tape to his son, Scotty Braswell Jr., who was a graduate assistant on the Charlotte team’s staff. Sure enough, the 49ers started recruiting Highsmith to walk on to the program. Even so, Highsmith wasn’t sure if he actually had a spot with Charlotte as he was graduating from high school in 2015. He didn’t find out he was a preferred walk-on until the summer before his redshirt freshman season when his college living assignment changed from rooming with some high school friends to the football dorm. From there, Highsmith’s path was anything but conventional. He redshirted but put on 20 pounds of bad weight, he said. After the 2016 season, he lost 20 pounds after pulling a hamstring and getting sick. As a result, he played the 2017 season — he was awarded a scholarship before that season — as a 235-pound outside linebacker, feeling faster but too light against the competition. The 2018 season is when Highsmith began to blossom. Playing in a 3-4 under former head coach Brad Lambert, Highsmith was a 4i-technique defensive end. In this scheme, there weren’t many pass-rushing opportunities, as Highsmith recorded three sacks. But being one of three players rushing the passer, Highsmith was forced to learn a lot about how to best get after the quarterback. While the sack opportunities weren’t there, he was still a disruptive presence with 17.5 tackles for loss, a single-season program record at the time. The following summer, agents began to recruit Highsmith, which marked the first moment that Highsmith realized the NFL might be a reality. Highsmith’s draft stock got a boost when Healy took over and implemented a four-man front. Healy also hired Marcus West to be the team’s co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach after he spent one season at Minnesota, with the two moving Highsmith to a true edge-rusher position. By this point, Highsmith had the cross chop and chop rip moves in his pass-rush arsenal. To counter those, he learned a spin move, which is his favorite. With a new scheme and new coaches, they were able to bring the most out of Highsmith when it came to rushing the passer. “I attribute my production increase to (West), with what he taught me about pass rush and so many things I never known,” Highsmith said. “He broke down so many things about my game that I didn’t know that I could fix. He helped me learn more moves, improve my get-off with my hands, improve my hips. He also put me in a scheme to be an effective pass rusher off the edge, we ran a 4-2-5 last year. He gave me a lot of freedom off the edge.” Healy wanted to put the bulk of Highsmith’s improvements on him and not the new coaching staff. “I love Marcus West, but Marcus isn’t a miracle worker,” Healy said. “Alex already had a lot of that in his repertoire. Maybe how he explained it, and why he used it and when he used it that he fine-tuned. Alex knew how to rush the passer when we got him. It was just giving him some tricks and some tools to where he could do it more effectively. And I think our scheme gave him that opportunity, as well.” The timing worked perfectly with Highsmith exploding as a senior. He recorded two sacks apiece against Gardner-Webb and Appalachian State before recording another sack against Clemson two games later. With 9.5 sacks heading into the regular season-finale at Old Dominion, Highsmith added 4.5 more. But there was a moment during his senior season that stood out to Healy. Before the Appalachian State game, Charlotte held a Friday practice that began with the requisite stretching. Highsmith’s back was giving him an issue, and he grimaced in pain. Healy approached him in the stretching line to ask what the issue was. Highsmith said his back was locking up, to which Healy told him to go get treatment so he would be available for the game the next day. Initially, Highsmith refused, telling his coach he wanted to finish the practice. Healy then demanded Highsmith go get treatment for what turned out to be back spasms. “He went out there Saturday against App, and you would have thought nothing was the matter,” Healy said. “He was going to play through it. Very, very tough. A very low maintenance football player who just loves playing the game, wants to do his job and will do everything you ask him to do exactly like you ask him to do it.” Two words During the 2019 season, every NFL team stopped by a Charlotte practice to get a glimpse of Highsmith. But what further elevated his draft stock was his performance in the East-West Shrine Bowl. At 6-3 and 247 pounds, Highsmith had an excellent week of practice leading into the all-star showcase. Among defensive linemen, he ran the fourth-fastest 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. His 33-inch vertical leap tied for sixth in his position group. His 20-yard shuttle ranked first among defensive linemen at 4.31 seconds. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler has Highsmith pegged as his 14th-ranked edge rusher in this year’s class, although in his yearly draft guide, dubbed “The Beast,” he noted there could be great potential to uncover. “The former walk-on needs to continue to expand his rush plan, but his coaches rave about his ability to quickly adapt to new techniques,” Brugler wrote. “Overall, Highsmith has tweener tendencies with his size and play strength, which especially shows in the run game, but he is an athletic edge player who has yet to reach his ceiling as a pass rusher, projecting as an intriguing mid-round value.” Brugler has a fourth-round grade on Highsmith, with a general consensus being that he could go anywhere from the third to the fifth round. Highsmith met with most teams at the East-West Shrine Bowl and spoke with 20 teams at the combine, which included two formal interviews. For Highsmith, the fact he’s set to be drafted could serve as validation for what he believed all along. Before he was set to go through his drills at the combine, Healy reminded Highsmith about his rise in the college football world, considering he went from a little-known walk-on to being praised by Clemson’s head coach and starting left tackle. “He told me two words. He said, ‘You belong,’” Highsmith said. “I went out there with that mindset, with a chip on my shoulder, to show I have an edge over all these guys.”
  16. https://theathletic.com/1743772/2020/04/13/its-my-time-now-dante-fowlers-ready-to-prove-2019-wasnt-a-one-year-wonder/ Dante Fowler is primed to enter the third stage of his career. The first stage lasted three-and-a-half seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. And by no means did it go as expected for someone who was taken with the third overall selection of the 2015 NFL Draft. Fowler’s rookie season was lost after a torn left ACL during offseason activities. After totaling four sacks in 2016, Fowler had eight in 2017. Even so, Jacksonville declined to position Fowler as a starter or pick up his fifth-year option. And in 2018, after two sacks through seven games, the Jaguars traded Fowler to the Los Angeles Rams. On the jet to his new team, Fowler knew immediately it was time for a fresh beginning — the second stage of his NFL career. “I told myself I wasn’t going to look back,” Fowler said. “It’s a new start. It was basically me going out there to show L.A., and everybody else, who I was and that I can play and I’m actually the football player I was drafted to be.” He finished 2018 on a high note as a part of a Rams team that reached the Super Bowl. He then took the rest of the offseason to further learn the Rams’ defensive system. He signed a one-year prove-it contract and needed a big season so that he could earn a lucrative contract. He got that, with 11.5 sacks as a full-time starter on the Rams’ defense. It was simple, Fowler said. If more reps came, the production would follow. Perhaps there was a trust issue back in Jacksonville that prevented Fowler from earning those extra snaps. With the Jaguars, Fowler never went a full season when he logged more than 53 percent of the snaps on defense, even as he was available for 39 games from 2016 to 2018. In 2019 with the Rams, Fowler’s snaps ballooned to 80 percent of the defense’s plays. The more chances Fowler had, the more he capitalized. “Just the situations that I was going in Jacksonville, not playing and stuff — I feel like that was the reason, as how they were viewing me as a person off the field,” Fowler said. “I don’t know, it definitely changed my life around in a lot of ways. When I got to the L.A. Rams, they gave me an opportunity to basically start over again. I took advantage of that because I didn’t make the most of the opportunity the first time. I said, ‘If I ever get it again, I’ll never mess it up again.’” Fowler noted, and apologized for, two incidents that occurred while in Jacksonville — one that involved two women fighting in front of him and another when he punched a man during a verbal altercation in a parking lot. Maybe the Jaguars judged him for these events. Maybe not. What is apparent is that his time in Los Angeles turned out to be the best thing for his career. With Fowler pricing himself out of the Rams’ salary cap, the Falcons, needing pass rush help, elected to bring him on board for the third stage of his young career. In 2015, Fowler was a wide-eyed rookie who still needed some maturing. In 2018, Fowler knew he needed a change. Now, Fowler said it’s like he has been drafted all over again. But this time, Fowler said Atlanta will be getting a different player than the one who showed up six years ago in Jacksonville. “Like I said, I didn’t take the most advantage of my opportunity in Jacksonville,” Fowler said. “Knowing the things I did is going to help me a lot in this run with what I want to be. It’s definitely another opportunity to be the player that I always wanted to be for a franchise. This is really big to me, and I’m not taking it lightly at all. I love the game of football, and it’s never been about the money. It’s always been about my legacy, my career and my last name.” In his early seasons, Fowler said he played football like a “street fighter.” He admitted that it took some time to realize he couldn’t get away with certain things he grew accustomed to in college anymore. In the NFL, players are much more refined and detailed. Fowler said he needed to adjust and act accordingly if he was to compete like the player he knows he can be. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has known Fowler for many years, dating back to when Quinn recruited the pass-rusher as Florida’s defensive coordinator. While Quinn left Florida after the 2012 season, he said he maintained a relationship with Fowler. Fowler even admitted that when Quinn took the defensive coordinator job with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, the thought of transferring briefly popped into his mind. After Fowler suffered his ACL tear, Quinn immediately reached out. When it came time for free agency, this relationship helped elevate Atlanta to among the top teams on his wish list. “Through the years, certainly, we’ve kept up, and I’ve seen his career progress from college,” Quinn said. “He ended up being a top-10 pick. I’m really pumped to get a chance to coach him again, for sure. He’s made a lot of progress in 10 years.” Said Fowler: “Everything was genuine. Just over that one year span, me being there with him and him being with me at UF. I went to his house, met his wife, had Thanksgiving with him before.” Fowler said he was hoping either the Falcons or Jaguars drafted him in 2015. Atlanta never had a chance since the Jaguars got him third overall. While Fowler acknowledged the need to smooth his playing style, general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he has seen this improvement in recent seasons, which made it appealing to bring him to the team. “I think he was a little more free flow then. I think he's still free flow,” Dimitroff said. “Don't get me wrong, we love that edgy side of him as far as on the field, the way that he plays, the way he pins his ears back and just goes, and I will never see anything different than that. He is getting more and more just fine-tuned as far as his skill and his technique, something that I know Dan will continue to work with, along with (defensive ends coach) Tosh (Lupoi). I think it's going to be really good for him.” In a recent conference call with the Atlanta media, Fowler said all the right things. He said pass rushers must commit to stopping the run first and foremost. Once he gets to Atlanta, he wants to become involved in the community for charitable endeavors — to which he has backed up already by donating $100,000 to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' #ATLStrong Fund, which assists residents enduring health-related and economic issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the locker room, he hopes to emerge as a leader in his own right after listening to Calais Campbell and Aaron Donald in his past two stops. And like most great edge rushers, Fowler said his sights are on reaching double-digit sacks regularly and to one day break Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22. Fowler came across as more than excited to be with the Falcons. At the young age of 25, Fowler is ready for this third stage, in which he hopes to blossom from his first statistically great year in Los Angeles to a full-fledged star off the edge. “It’s my time now,” Fowler said. “I’m definitely ready to show you guys the player that I am. My mentality coming in is to be one of the best edge rushers in the NFL, one of the best linebackers in the NFL — whatever you want to call it. Last year was my first year. I’m just scratching the surface to be honest with you. I’m coming with a different type of mentality. I’m out here to prove something. I know my team is out here to prove something as well. That’s how it’s been forever, and it’s not going to change.”
  17. https://theathletic.com/1735735/2020/04/09/after-xfl-stints-two-new-falcons-ready-to-prove-they-still-belong-in-nfl/ For those who played in both the AAF and XFL, it must have felt like history was repeating itself — albeit due to a completely different set of circumstances. A year after the AAF folded after eight games, the XFL was entering its sixth week before it was forced to shut down. While the AAF ran out of money, the XFL canceled the remainder of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has put most of the world on lockdown. For linebacker Edmond Robinson, who played with the AAF’s Arizona Hotshots before joining the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks, it was certainly concerning. At 28 years old, Robinson, drafted in the seventh round by the Minnesota Vikings in 2015, felt he had perhaps one more shot to get back to the NFL. And now, this? Again? “My initial thought was that it was like déjà vu all over again for me,” Robinson said. Tight end Khari Lee was also using the XFL as an opportunity to return to the NFL. During the 2018 season, Lee was cut by the Buffalo Bills and wasn’t picked up by an NFL team in 2019. But D.C. Defenders operations manager Gerald Dixon, who knew Lee from Dixon’s time as a pro scout with the Bills, reached out and asked Lee if he was interested in trying out the XFL. Lee agreed, believing if he could put together some good film, he would be able to get some NFL interest again. “It was a thing where I wanted to prove that I can still compete and make plays,” Lee said. “I think I did that.” Clearly, both Robinson and Lee did enough during their five games in the XFL to warrant another NFL opportunity. While there was some initial concern as to what would happen when the 2020 XFL season abruptly ended, both players were signed by the Falcons. For whatever reason, Atlanta didn’t sign a player from the AAF until adding place-kicker Younghoe Koo during the bye of the 2019 season. This time, the Falcons identified both Robinson and Lee as potential players who could help the roster. Once the XFL season came to a halt, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said the team identified six or seven players who deserved a closer look. From there, Atlanta narrowed it down to two or three players who had the particular traits to join the roster. “We thought if we get them here, they can develop into a role on our team,” Quinn said. “They are definitely motivated guys. They want to reconnect and recapture things. We definitely want to give them the avenue to do that.” Once the XFL canceled the remainder of its season, Robinson said it was time to put a plan together about his next step. He decided to move from Houston back home to Charleston, S.C., to keep training. In Charleston, Robinson has been able to work out at a gym his friend owns, all while it’s closed to the public. The gym contains a turf field, sleds, tires, weights and treadmills, so Robinson can get most of his needed physical activity done to stay in shape for whenever football activities are able to resume. When Robinson works out, he said only two or three people are inside with him as they adhere to social distancing guidelines. When Robinson came out of Division II program Newberry in 2015, Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich actually traveled to Robinson’s campus to work him out. After Robinson signed with Atlanta recently, Ulbrich spoke with Robinson and remembered everything about their previous encounter. While he didn’t meet Quinn as a pro prospect, Robinson received a text message from his new head coach shortly after joining the team. “This is the first time I’ve ever had a head coach text me welcoming me to the team, telling me they’re excited to have me, telling me they have a plan and how I fit into the plan — all that kind of stuff,” Robinson said. “I was definitely happy and excited to get that because I’ve never had a head coach at any level say anything like that to me. It made me feel good. It showed me what kind of guy he is. If he does that type of stuff I have to go hard for him and the whole team. I appreciated him for that.” Lee, who is from the Baltimore area and went to college at Division II program Bowie State, didn’t have to travel far once the XFL season abruptly ended since he played for the D.C. Defenders. Lee has continued to work out at home while getting cardio in by running around his neighborhood. While Lee was a small-school prospect who went undrafted in 2015, he was able to hang around on NFL rosters for almost four years. When it suddenly came to an end, it was a bit of a surprise. Taking the XFL opportunity served as a chance to prove he still belonged on an NFL roster. “Being not on an NFL team was a shock to me,” Lee said. “For the greater part of four years I’d been playing (professional) football — dating back to college, I played football for the last 20-something-odd years. It was definitely a different feeling. I felt I had the résumé and the tape to be on a ballclub. You just have to put your head down and grind.” At 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds, Lee will compete for a spot as a blocking tight end with the Falcons. But in the XFL, he also showed he has the ability as a receiver, evidenced by a 39-yard touchdown reception he had in the season opener against the Seattle Dragons. If Lee learned everything from getting cut by the Bills and seeing the XFL season end prematurely, it’s to not assume anyone’s job security is safe as a professional athlete. “I think it’s really never taking a snap for granted,” Lee said. “Playing this game, there’s a 100 percent injury rate. There’s guys who make it to their pension, there’s guys who don’t make it to their pension. There’s guys who play a year and who go to a training camp and never play a down again. I was blessed to play my four years and follow it up with my XFL experience. I think it’s cherishing every moment. It sounds cliché, but it can all be taken away from you so fast. We got a call, and our whole league was over, XFL-wise. It’s really to play every play like it’s your last because it really could be.” In five games, Robinson totaled 22 tackles and two sacks for Houston — the XFL’s best team with a 5-0 record. Robinson, who has the kind of speed the Falcons love their linebackers to possess, could earn a special teams role if he makes the 53-man roster. For Robinson and Lee, they will look to make the most of their second — and possibly final — opportunities to make it in the NFL. “Everything just worked out,” Robinson said. “I’m definitely grateful for the Falcons organization that they were that one team, or if there were others, but they were one who said they were going to give this kid a chance, not knowing that it could be my last chance or whatever the case may be. They gave me a chance, and I’m going to make the most of it.”
  18. https://theathletic.com/1719349/2020/04/02/falcons-mailbag-is-it-more-likely-for-thomas-dimitroff-to-trade-up-or-back/ Having gotten through the first wave of free agency, the Falcons are now less than a month away from the NFL Draft. That makes this a good time for a good old fashioned mailbag. As always, thanks for the questions. I hope everyone is remaining safe and at home during this troubling time. What’s the likelihood that the Falcons will trade up in the draft as they have done in the past? — Michael M. Do you think it’s more likely that (Thomas Dimitroff) trades up or down in the first? — Devin C. At this time, I wouldn’t rule out anything. But history would indicate the greater chance lies with Dimitroff trading up in the first round of the upcoming draft. Since he took over as the Falcons’ general manager in 2008, Dimitroff has not once moved back in the opening round. In comparison, he used the team’s original first-round selections to move up to take Julio Jones (2011) and Takk McKinley (2017). Dimitroff also made moves to acquire additional first-round picks twice, which were used on Sam Baker (2008) and Kaleb McGary (2019). But given the number of needs to address, it would not be surprising to see Dimitroff trade back in the first round. It could be seen as a wise idea to trade back and acquire additional selections since the odds of hitting on players increases with volume. But as it is with anything, the past is often the best way to judge the present. So while I wouldn’t rule out a trade back, the odds have to favor moving up. Jason, do you still think the Falcons will target DL early in the draft? Cornerback is a need, too, but (Jeff) Okudah won’t be there, and the better value seems to be going with someone like Damon Arnette or Bryce Hall in the second/third rounds as opposed to taking CJ Henderson 10 spots too early in the first. — David A. One thing that has been glossed over when discussing Atlanta’s need at cornerback is Kendall Sheffield’s standing with the team. By the end of the 2019 season, and with Desmond Trufant’s injury knocking him out for the final three games, Sheffield was the top corner in Atlanta’s base coverage. He also happened to defend the slot when the team was in nickel. With this in mind, it comes down to how the coaches view Sheffield moving forward. If they believe Sheffield is a true No. 1 cornerback, they may not feel like they have to take one early. Corner is still an obvious need even if they are high on Sheffield’s potential. After all, there are only four cornerbacks on Atlanta’s roster — Sheffield, Isaiah Oliver, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Jordan Miller. And Miller will be suspended for the first three games of the upcoming season. Therefore, you can bet the team will take a cornerback or two in the draft. But when they decide to take a cornerback could depend a lot on how they view Sheffield. With that in mind, to answer your question, I can only say that it remains possible for the Falcons to target a defensive lineman early. The link to Javon Kinlaw is obvious, although I just don’t see him falling to No. 16 overall. Derrick Brown’s ability to move linemen back with power would be an appealing fit, as well, although he also will be off the board early. TCU’s Ross Blacklock is an intriguing prospect, and he should be there at No. 16 overall. But linebacker is the other position the Falcons could focus on early in the draft, too. The Todd Gurley signing seems to shore up RB as much as the Vic Beasley fifth-year (option) shored up the pass rush last year — even if it works, he’ll demand too much money, and the Falcons will move on next offseason. With that in mind, do you expect the team to try and draft a replacement now and possibly cut someone at the position? Or do you think the team enters training camp with the current group and looks to add someone again this time next year? — Mark H. Signing Gurley to a one-year deal is most certainly a win-now move. The worst-case scenario is that he’s a third-down back in the passing game. The best-case is his knee holds up and he returns to his 2018 form. Regardless, the option of retaining Gurley past 2020 does seem slim for the reasons you outlined. I do expect the Falcons to address running back in this year’s draft. As it stands, if Gurley can’t handle the entire load, it will be on either Brian Hill, Ito Smith or Qadree Ollison to work in tandem with him. The Falcons would need to be very confident in one of those three players to step up alongside Gurley to help improve a running game that struggled throughout the 2019 season. But assuming Gurley is one and done with Atlanta, it would be wise for Atlanta to have another running back ready to go for 2021. Still expecting the Falcons’ first two picks to be on defense for sure … while A.J. Epenesa does not fulfill many Falcons fan fantasies of flying around the edge to get to the QB, he still would bring a lot of value — setting the edge and also providing some pressure inside with his power. Don’t see a LB value at No. 16 and only Henderson as a CB if he’s still there … and I really think (K’Lavon) Chaisson could be a bust. Do you think the Falcons might do as the Oakland Raiders did last season with Clelin Ferrell … just draft a good solid football player like Epenesa and move forward? — James F. The Raiders were high on Ferrell the whole time. The Falcons would have to feel that way about Epenesa while also believing he would be a good fit for their scheme. This front office has shown that it will go after the players it wants, regardless of where the outsiders project them to fall. In 2016, the Falcons took Keanu Neal 16th overall, with analysts grading him as a late-first and early second round prospect. Last year, Atlanta took Chris Lindstrom 14th overall, with most of the Monday morning quarterbacking suggesting the team should have traded back if they were to take a guard that high. The point is, when Dimitroff has identified a particular player, he has moved forward with the plan. I could see that being the case this year. I don’t know if Epenesa would be that particular player, but there are probably several prospects who would fit the scenario you outlined. Jason, hope you are staying well throughout this crazy time. What second-wave free agents (if any) do you see the Falcons targeting? I hear a lot of speculation on Michael Bennett, but I’d love to see Nigel Bradham shore up the LB spot and draft along the D-line. — Ryan M. Thanks, Ryan. I hope you’re staying safe, as well. I’m not expecting anything major in the second wave. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’d think the next round of players for Atlanta would continue to address special teams and depth for training camp. Someone like Kenjon Barner comes to mind since the Falcons still need a return specialist. Now, if the Falcons were able to add a player like Bradham, that certainly would allow them a little more freedom in the draft. I also think the Falcons could benefit from adding a veteran presence to their locker room. What are your thoughts on (Russell) Gage? Will he be a reliable slot guy or do you think he ends up as more of a depth player? — Dario B. I definitely expect Gage to open offseason activities — whenever those do begin — as the team’s top slot option. I thought his play down the stretch warrants the extra playing time, and it’s apparent the coaching staff believes in his abilities. Of course, the draft could change things if Atlanta ends up taking a receiver in a middle round of what appears to be one of the deepest classes in history at that position. I don’t think the Falcons will let Gage enter the preseason without competition. But I do expect Gage to open as the top slot option for the 2020 season. Are there any uniform updates or dates for when they will be revealed? Have you seen or heard any details on them? — Parker C. The team originally had a uniform reveal slated for the middle of April. With current events what they are, it is obvious this reveal will not happen as planned. It may be a little while longer before we find out. And no, I have unfortunately not heard any details on what they look like. I definitely think the Falcons should send me an advance photo so I give our subscribers a first look. Right? Sensing a lot less skepticism from the local fan base after the flurry of moves by the front office in free agency — but have seen little from (Dan Quinn) and TD about the outlook for the team. — David H. Seeing as the spring meetings were virtual, will you be able to speak with DQ and TD post-first wave free agency and pre-draft? Love to hear TD talk about the “group chat” 2020 NFL Draft with trades (up or down). — Andy S. Skepticism from the Atlanta fan base? You don’t say! OK, in all seriousness, I think it’s understandable and reasonable for any Falcons fan to be cynical after the way the past two seasons have gone. Going 7-9 in consecutive seasons is unacceptable when you take into account the talent on the roster, specifically on offense. As for why you haven’t seen comments from Quinn and Dimitroff, they haven’t been made available to the media since the NFL Scouting Combine. But that has to do with the coronavirus pandemic locking things down. The media would have had a chance to interview Quinn at the annual league meeting, but that was canceled. Whenever Gurley’s contract is finalized — which could happen as soon as Thursday — the plan is to make Quinn and Dimitroff available via conference call. When that occurs we can ask them those questions about the outlook of the team following those free-agent acquisitions. And Andy, I actually hope to have a story in the coming weeks that will touch on the adjustments the front office and coaching staff have had to make this offseason. Does coaching staff and ownership give off the vibe of a team that has turned the corner and has what is needed to field a playoff team in 2020? — David H. That has certainly been the perception the team has wanted to put out there thus far — that the way things finished during the final eight games in 2019 is more indicative of where this team is going. Arthur Blank has stated that reaching the postseason is the expectation for the 2020 season. From there, it’s easy to connect the dots on what needs to happen for everyone involved on this coaching staff and front office. Any rumors on what contingency plans the Falcons’ brass is bracing for in regards to the upcoming season? Games with no fans, shortened season, no season, etc? — David G. I imagine there’s some sort of contingency plan in place that the NFL won’t reveal unless it gets to that point. From the Falcons’ side of things, they’re at the NFL’s mercy. While the league is keeping the business side of things moving, everything remains up in the air when it comes to the upcoming season. We just don’t know what will happen over the next few months. Do you think the Falcons have a plan for the post-June 1 cut of Trufant ? — Andre P. Yes, the plan is to use that money — $10.75 million — to sign draft picks and to have an emergency allotment for in-season signings.
  19. https://theathletic.com/1702758/2020/03/26/as-falcons-top-tight-end-hayden-hurst-ready-to-flourish-with-new-team/ Hayden Hurst had a plan. Knowing that his preferred place to work out could shut its doors due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Hurst wanted to ensure he could stockpile weightlifting equipment to stay in shape throughout the offseason. Like previous years, Hurst was back home in Jacksonville, Fla., visiting The Bolles School, his former high school, to work out on a regular basis. For a month-and-a-half, Hurst was able to hit the Bolles’ weight room. But as COVID-19 spread across the U.S., The Bolles School was forced to shut its doors. The school’s headmaster stayed in touch with Hurst about it, with the savvy tight end asking if he could borrow some equipment if closure happened. When The Bolles School went on lockdown, and with the headmaster’s blessing, Hurst and his father drove their Chevrolet Silverados to the school and loaded the beds with numerous weights. “We backed our trucks up, loaded it up with dumbbells, barbells, all sorts of stuff,” Hurst said. “I have a whole old school weight room going on in my garage right now.” Hurst moved a bench and a squat rack from his parents’ house to his garage. He was able to snag eight 45-pound plates and two 100-pound plates for those. He grabbed numerous dumbbells weighing from 60 to 100 pounds. Hurst, whose trade from the Baltimore Ravens to the Falcons became official once the new league year began on March 18, was fortunate enough to put together a home gym setup at the beginning of what’s amounted to a quarantine. Included in this setup are a sled and some bungees. His Jacksonville house is located behind his parents’ home, which includes almost three acres of land on it. With that space, Hurst has been able to get plenty of cardio in. “It’s not exactly like a turf field, but it gets the job done nonetheless,” Hurst said. Since becoming a professional athlete, which goes back to when he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates organization as a pitcher out of high school, Hurst has trained with Mike Barrett, a longtime Bolles football coach who still runs the school’s strength and conditioning program. Upon leaving baseball and pursuing football, Hurst continued to train with Barrett. Now, the two have worked together each offseason to tailor workout programs to Hurst’s liking. These workouts are now taking place in Hurst’s garage as he prepares for a new season with a new team. “I’ll tell you what, man, I’m already up to 266 (pounds) right now, and I feel great,” Hurst said. “It’s what I did last season. His program is tough. The workouts kick my butt. But it’s definitely worth it.” Hurst, drafted 25th overall in 2018, had a feeling his second season with Baltimore would be his last. During a phone interview with The Athletic, Hurst spoke about his trade to Atlanta and why he expected it to occur. He also touched on how he fits into the Falcons’ offense and what to expect from him this coming season. Let’s go back to what would have been a week-and-a-half ago when you got the news that the Ravens were trading you to Atlanta. What’s your first thought? And did it catch you by surprise or was it something you were expecting? It was something I was expecting, just because of the rumors that had gone on throughout the year. Before the trade deadline happened midseason, I think I was rumored to be getting moved. So I was expecting something after the season. I told (Ravens general manager) Eric (DeCosta), too, that I wanted an opportunity to play and to start. I think he heard me loud and clear. As far as knowing I was going to the Falcons, I don’t think I knew that was happening until the first week or two of March. I think I officially found out on March 9 or something like that. I knew I was going to get moved, but to what team, (my agent) Hadley (Engelhard) wasn’t 100 percent sure. But I guess through his relationships with Thomas (Dimitroff) and those guys, he worked something out for me. Obviously you were taken in the first round, before Lamar Jackson, and a lot of people have pointed that out. With the (stress fracture in the foot), the injury in your first year, did that slow things down when it came to the opportunities in the passing game in that offense? I think so. I was playing at such a high level before that. It’s just unfortunate that it happened, but it’s part of my path. I went down, and Mark (Andrews) just flourished. He caught fire. He’s an incredible athlete and an incredible football player. He played in the Pro Bowl. With him having so much success it was hard for me to scratch and claw my way back in. They were winning, and coaches don’t want to change anything when you’re winning. I had to scratch and claw for my opportunities, but I think I showcased my talent a little bit. But this opportunity with Atlanta is going to be great. The tight end position is pretty much wide open. I get to go in there and do my thing, so I’m very excited about it. I don’t know how much you know of Atlanta’s offense in general, but when you have Julio Jones taking a ton of attention on one side of the field, I imagine as a receiving option that has to be exciting for you. Then you got Calvin (Ridley) as well, and the addition of LaQuon Treadwell. What, 11 picks in the first round are slated to start on this offense? It’s kind of crazy to be honest. It’s pick your poison. You got Todd Gurley in the backfield. Then, of course, Matt Ryan doing his thing. To be a part of that offense is exciting, on paper. We just got to go out and do it now. Have you had a chance to speak Matt, whether it’s on the phone or through text? He texted me the day my trade was official. He kept it short. He said he was excited I was a part of the brotherhood in Atlanta now. Very excited to get to work and that we’re going to do some special things. I reiterated that back to him, that I was really excited to be in Atlanta, and that I would do anything I can to work with him so we can have success. What do you know about (offensive coordinator Dirk) Koetter and the style of offense he likes to run and how it suits the tight end position? Me and Coach Koetter have talked a few times on the phone. He just let me know the things he was able to do with Cameron Brate (in Tampa Bay). I think the red-zone opportunities are going to be there for the tight end. He let me know that. We talked about what he thought of my skill set — stretching the field vertically, being a presence in the red zone. And then obviously with what (Austin) Hooper did last year, he put up personal bests the entire year. He had 75 catches, (787) yards, six touchdowns. It was pretty incredible what he did. I think my skill set is really going to flourish, as well. I’m just really happy to be a part of it. It’s going to do wonderful things for my career. When it comes to you on the field, and also off the field, what can the city of Atlanta expect once you’re able to officially get with this group, practice and get going with this team? For me, I always like to play 100 mph. I think that’s when I’m at my best when I go out there and cut it loose. I’m a big effort guy. I’ll go out there and lay it on the line. I’m not a big talker. I’m not going to be a rah-rah leader that’s in your face. I’ll lead by example; that’s what I did at South Carolina. And as far as off the field stuff, I started a foundation with my mom that focuses on mental health and suicide prevention. We’ve done a lot of great work in Jacksonville, where I was born and raised. We’ve done some stuff in Baltimore. Now we’re shifting our focus to Atlanta and Jacksonville. Those will be the two cities where we do a lot of stuff and help a lot of kids.
  20. https://theathletic.com/1713808/2020/03/31/roster-reset-analyzing-the-falcons-after-first-wave-of-free-agency/ The Falcons were busier than expected in the early going of free agency. The team addressed needs at edge rusher and running back and also filled holes from a depth perspective. Still, the upcoming NFL Draft will be important to take care of those final needs, such as cornerback and linebacker. For now, here’s a close look at where the Falcons’ roster stands for the (hopefully) 2020 season. Offense Quarterback: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Kurt Benkert, Danny Etling. Analysis: Ryan will be Atlanta’s starting quarterback for the 13th consecutive season. Last year marked only the third time he had to miss a game in the NFL. Ryan has thrown for more than 4,000 years in each of the past nine years. Schaub’s team option was picked up, which makes him the veteran backup, and that should still be expected once the season draws close to beginning. Benkert and Etling should battle it out for the third quarterback/practice squad spot. And if one of the two happens to impress more than expected, perhaps Schaub is suddenly found in a competitive spot. Running back: Todd Gurley, Brian Hill, Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison, Craig Reynolds. Analysis: In a worst-case scenario, Gurley, due to his lingering knee issue, is a third-down back who can contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. The best-case scenario involves Gurley managing his knee just fine while breaking off big plays as a runner or receiver, much like he did during the bulk of his time with the Los Angeles Rams. Regardless, the risk of adding Gurley to the roster was low and well-calculated. Behind Gurley, Hill and Smith will be the top two competitors to engage in a timeshare. Of course, the Falcons could add a running back in the first four rounds of the upcoming draft. Fullback: Keith Smith. Analysis: Smith signed a three-year contract to remain as Atlanta’s primary fullback. His roster spot is practically guaranteed entering the preseason. Wide receiver: Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Laquon Treadwell, Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake, Brandon Powell, Devin Gray. Analysis: Jones is the gold standard for X receivers in the NFL as he embarks on his 10th season. Opposite of Jones once again will be Ridley, who is making a name for himself as a young play-maker. Working the slot primarily will be Gage, who took that role after Atlanta shipped Mohamed Sanu to the New England Patriots. Backing up those three receivers is where competition comes into play. Treadwell, a former first-round selection, can be seen as Justin Hardy’s replacement on this offense. Zaccheaus, who had a 93-yard touchdown reception at home against the Carolina Panthers last season, will have every opportunity to back up Ridley once again. Blake, in practice, replicates a lot of what Jones does, making him an ideal backup at the X receiver spot. Tight end: Hayden Hurst, Jaeden Graham, Carson Meier, Khari Lee. Analysis: Knowing they would be unable to keep Austin Hooper, the Falcons used the second-round pick they acquired from the Sanu trade in a package to land Hurst from the Baltimore Ravens. As a result, Hurst will enter this season as Atlanta’s top tight end target in the passing game. With Jones and Ridley drawing a ton of attention on the outside, there should be plenty of opportunities for Hurst in single coverage over the middle of the field. Backing up Hurst as the primary receiving tight end will be Graham, who filled in for Hooper while he missed three games due to a knee injury in 2019. For now, Meier and Lee will compete for Atlanta’s primary blocking tight end spot, a role held by Luke Stocker last season. Stocker became a cap casualty this offseason. Tackle: Jake Matthews, Kaleb McGary, John Wetzel. Analysis: The only change at tackle, for the time being, is who the primary backup happens to be. Matthews once again will start at left tackle and McGary will man the right side. With Ty Sambrailo becoming a cap casualty, Wetzel — the on-again-off-again lineman from a season ago — is positioned as the only backup tackle on the roster for the time being. Guard: Chris Lindstrom, James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Matt Gono, Justin McCray. Analysis: Lindstrom is the only sure thing at guard, with his right guard position solidified. Whenever football activities are able to resume again, there should be a wide-open competition at left guard between Carpenter, Brown, Gono and McCray. And if the Falcons draft an interior offensive lineman in the first three rounds of the upcoming draft, that player also could enter the mix. Center: Alex Mack, Sean Harlow. Analysis: While the Falcons could have saved $8 million in cap space with Mack’s release, his value to the offensive line is way too much to overcome in the short term. There was no way Atlanta was going to let Mack go. But considering he is entering the final year of his contract, the Falcons do need a plan for the future at the position. Defense Defensive end: Dante Fowler, Takk McKinley, Steven Means, Austin Larkin. Analysis: The key to the upcoming season could hinge on Fowler and McKinley’s abilities to get after the quarterback. The Falcons have been unable to rush the quarterback at a consistent enough rate the past three years. Fowler is coming off a season when he had 11.5 sacks for the Rams. Atlanta certainly will hope that kind of production continues now that he has reunited with head coach Dan Quinn, who recruited Fowler when Quinn was the defensive coordinator at Florida. McKinley is set to enter a make-or-break year since he’s coming off a season that saw him only record 3.5 sacks. Means, a speedy and fundamental defensive end who missed the 2019 season with an Achilles tear, will factor a great deal into the team’s plan at the position, too. Defensive tackle: Grady Jarrett, Tyeler Davison, Deadrin Senat. Analysis: Jarrett is coming off of his best season as a professional, which saw him record 7.5 sacks. If Fowler’s production carries over from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Jarrett could be seen as a huge benefactor and vice versa. Jarrett can do everything along the interior and was able to celebrate his individual accomplishment a year ago with a Pro Bowl berth. Davison was re-signed as Atlanta’s primary run-stuffer after putting in the best season of his young career. Senat will be entering an ever-important third preseason. DE/DT hybrid: Allen Bailey, John Cominsky, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. Analysis: While he didn’t put up gaudy numbers, Bailey was used as both a defensive end and defensive tackle and was particularly impressive against the run. Cominsky’s development will be interesting to see, especially since there won’t be many, or perhaps any, offseason workouts. When he was drafted, Cominsky was projected in the long-term to be a pass-rushing defensive tackle, similar to how Jack Crawford was used the past couple of seasons. Without the offseason reps, it remains to be seen if that remains the plan for 2020. Linebacker: Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun, Ahmad Thomas, LaRoy Reynolds, Edmond Robinson. Analysis: Jones will enter his fifth season as Atlanta’s top Mike linebacker. Injured for most of 2018, it took some time for Jones to get close to full health this past year. In 2020, Jones should be as close to 100 percent as he has been since before the foot fracture. But the big question will be who mans the Sam linebacker position that De’Vondre Campbell played the past four years. For now, Oluokun would be the top option, but that position always can be addressed in the upcoming draft. Depending on how Oluokun is used, the Falcons must also have a plan at Will linebacker, too. Cornerback: Kendall Sheffield, Isaiah Oliver, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Jordan Miller. Analysis: Entering the offseason, the Falcons only have four corners on the roster. And Miller will be suspended for the first three games of the season. That alone makes it easy to believe that Atlanta will add a corner, or two, in this year’s draft. As for the four on the roster right now, Sheffield’s play down the stretch of the 2019 season might have earned him the right to be the team’s top option at cornerback. Oliver improved considerably during the second half of the 2019 season, and Wreh-Wilson proved to be reliable as a stand-in if called upon. Safety: Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, Damontae Kazee, Sharrod Neasman, Jamal Carter, Chris Cooper, C.J. Reavis. Analysis: While thin at corner, the Falcons are deep in numbers at safety. Neal, Allen and Kazee figure to play a lot as Atlanta employs even more three-safety sets. Neasman, signed to a one-year deal recently, is a standout on special teams. Carter should have a solid chance to back Neal up at strong safety. Nickel: Allen, Kazee, Cooper. Analysis: Given the numbers at safety, it makes sense for the Falcons to use that position when it comes to defending the slot. With Atlanta releasing Desmond Trufant, Sheffield’s priority — depending on how the Falcons attack the upcoming draft — will shift to being an outside cornerback. If this in fact becomes the case, a rotation of Allen and Kazee in nickel situations seems likely to be in store. This would allow the Falcons to disguise their looks even better, which is a big component of the defense’s player-friendly scheme. Specialists Place-kicker: Younghoe Koo. Analysis: The Falcons figure to add another place-kicker, whether it’s late during or after the upcoming draft. But the Falcons were happy with Koo, who came in during the bye week and made 23-of-26 field goals with a long of 50 yards. Punter: Ryan Allen, Sam Irwin-Hill. Analysis: The Falcons are moving on from Matt Bosher, with Allen and Irwin-Hill set to compete at punter. Both were on the roster last year at different times, although Irwin-Hill, a native Australian, dealt with a work visa issue that resulted in his stint lasting less than a full week. Allen averaged 41.9 yards per punt in eight games, with a net of 37.5, and put 14 attempts inside the 20-yard line. Long-snapper: Josh Harris. Analysis: Harris will enter his ninth season as the Falcons’ long-snapper. He figures to be the only specialist not to undergo a competition at the position.
  21. https://theathletic.com/1302848/2019/10/17/coverage-woes-go-hand-in-hand-with-falcons-inability-to-rush-the-passer/ A lot of time has passed since the Falcons recorded a sack. The most recent instance when this occurred was Sept. 22 against the Indianapolis Colts, when Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley shared a sack in the third quarter. Since then, the Falcons have only five quarterback hits the past three weeks. Against Arizona in Sunday’s 34-33 loss, Atlanta registered zero sacks and zero quarterback hits, even with the team dialing up what head coach Dan Quinn said was 17 blitzes. Given this tough stretch to open the year, Atlanta’s defensive line has received the brunt of the criticism for failing to get after the quarterback. And it is more than fair to place a good bit of the blame on the defensive line, considering there are two first-rounders at defensive end whose primary objective is to rush the passer. But the defensive line shouldn’t be asked to absorb all of the scrutiny. While the pass rush has struggled, so has the coverage unit. Those two groups are married together. Without a solid pass rush, the secondary is forced to cover for too long, which inevitably will result in a receiving option getting open. Without good coverage, a quarterback can get the ball out quickly and negate good pass rushers. In last week’s game, the Cardinals got the ball out quickly on a lot of plays, sometimes in fewer than two seconds. This helped prevent the Falcons from getting to rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, who had a banner day. Atlanta’s secondary did little to stop Arizona’s quick game, or even when it went vertical, as Murray racked up 340 passing yards and three touchdowns. Quinn wouldn’t publicly point to whether the pass rush or coverage was more to blame for the team’s inability to affect the quarterback the way he would like. But he noted the two facets of the defense haven’t been aligned properly. “I think the whole thing ties together,” Quinn said. “To be really good on defense, you have to have the whole thing going together. I don’t know if I’d put it on to one or the other. It usually comes down to a combination of things.” The Falcons have allowed numerous completions to take place in three seconds or fewer. They rank 25th in the league at passing yards allowed in three seconds or fewer with 185.7 per game and 27th in defensive completion percentage at 75.2, according to radar360. When that number drops to two seconds or fewer, Atlanta has allowed 67.7 yards per game (30th in the NFL) with an 87.9 completion percentage (32nd in the NFL). In total, teams have completed 71.4 percent of their throws against the Falcons, the third-worst mark in the league. Atlanta’s base defense is a Cover 3 zone, which isn’t too difficult when it comes to concept and terminology. Players have described the defense as simple to understand, with it designed to allow them to read what opposing teams are doing and to react swiftly. The Falcons have struggled with the zone, which prompted defensive passing game coordinator Jerome Henderson to be asked if the unit should turn to more man-to-man defense. But that hasn’t exactly been a strong suit either. “You always have those thoughts,” Henderson said. “When you look at it, we’ve struggled a little bit there, too. We’ve just got struggles in coverage right now. We’ve got to get them fixed.” During the playoffs of Atlanta’s Super Bowl run in 2016, the Falcons executed this defense at a high level. This year, with Quinn taking over play-calling duties for the second time as a head coach, there have been numerous breakdowns in communication. Considering the experience across the board on defense, FOX Sports analyst Charles Davis has been surprised by Atlanta’s defensive performance. “That’s the great mystery to me,” Davis said. “A team like that should have pretty good communication. You have the linebackers who have been out there who ostensibly make the calls. In the secondary, you lose Keanu Neal, but you’ve got Ricardo Allen. That’s another guy who makes calls in the secondary. Yet I’m seeing breakdown after breakdown, big play after big play. That doesn’t make sense to me because this defense is really set up to take away big plays. It’s a defense that’s set up to where if you’re going to get them you’re going to have to bleed it downfield to get them.” Davis said that for this defense to work, the pass rush has to apply pressure on the quarterback, which forces short throws underneath. Defenders are then in place to keep the gains at a minimum. On third down, the pass rush starts from the middle with the rest of the defense working in conjunction. Although Davis called Neal “one of the great chess pieces when he’s healthy,” Davis doesn’t have an explanation as to why the Falcons have performed as poorly as they have on that side of the ball. He did mention, however, that he has seen the Falcons’ cornerbacks struggle quite a bit when reviewing the tape. And that’s an area NFL defenses can’t help with extra defenders too often, considering the hole that rolling a safety could leave elsewhere. “All in all, it’s not a defense that you look at on the surface and say, ‘OK, that’s one of the more complex terminologies in the league,’” Davis said. “They know what the coverages are, they play them, they tune them up, they play them well. I think that’s why I’m surprised at the number of breakdowns and big plays that have been given up.” The Falcons rank 27th in pass defense (271.2 yards per game), and they are tied for 32nd in sacks with five through six games. If Atlanta is to turn its season around, these numbers need to somehow turn around quickly. “The pass rush and the coverage go hand in hand,” Henderson said. “If we don’t buy them time, they can’t get there. Sometimes, they can help our coverage with their rush. It works hand in hand, and we need to have a partner relationship, that the coverage is working and the rush is working. We’re trying this week to get that fixed.”
  22. https://theathletic.com/1689722/2020/03/20/five-years-after-passing-on-him-in-draft-falcons-sign-todd-gurley/ Not often have the Falcons signed an upper-tier running back in free agency during the Thomas Dimitroff era. Dimitroff did so in 2008 when he signed Michael Turner. That worked out considerably well, with Turner totaling 6,081 yards and 60 touchdowns. Dimitroff signed Steven Jackson in 2013 in free agency. That one didn’t pan out. Dimitroff went back to the free-agent well on Friday for a third time to sign a No. 1 running back. This time, he landed local folk hero Todd Gurley, who famously ran over and around everyone during his three years between the hedges in college at Georgia. A source confirmed to The Athletic that the Falcons will sign Gurley to a one-year deal pending a physical. WSB’s Zach Klein first reported that the compensation will be worth $5 million. If the Falcons were looking to sign a player to draw some major attention, both locally and nationally, they got it with Gurley’s addition. Of course, this has been a long time coming for many of the Falcons’ faithful considering Atlanta selected Vic Beasley two spots ahead of Gurley in the 2015 NFL Draft. That was then, when the Falcons had a glaring hole at pass rusher. This is now, with Atlanta needing to address the running back position now that the front office decided to move on from Devonta Freeman. Gurley’s five years with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams were mostly exceptional. He has been named to the Pro Bowl three times and earned first-team All-Pro status twice. His best seasons came in those All-Pro years of 2017 and 2018 when he rushed for 1,305 yards and 1,251 yards, respectively. He totaled 1,368 receiving yards during that time, as well. Gurley was instrumental in the Los Angeles Rams’ 2018 campaign that eventually led the team to the Super Bowl. But for all of his achievements, the reason Gurley was even available was out of his control. He would still be on the roster if the Rams weren’t concerned about Gurley’s ailing knee over the long haul. With his long-term health a concern, combined with the need to clear some salary-cap space, the Rams elected to release him Thursday after finding zero suitors for a trade. The Falcons became interested in his acquisition when it was apparent Gurley was on the trading block. But the cap number they would be forced to take on in a trade — more than $13 million — was never going to work. Therefore, if the Falcons were going to snag Gurley, they would have to hope he hit free agency. As it turns out, no one else wanted to take on that contract either, which led to Gurley’s release. It didn’t take long for the Falcons to pounce. Like it was with the Rams, Gurley’s knee will remain a concern for the Falcons, but signing him to a one-year deal does mitigate the risk. If Gurley’s health continues to be an issue, Atlanta can employ him as a third-down back or in a rotation. If Gurley’s knee holds up during the 2020 season, the Falcons will look like geniuses. For all the worry and concern over Gurley’s health, it should be noted that he has appeared in a total of 73 regular-season games — out of a possible 80 — during his five-year career. His snaps dwindled due to his knee issue during the 2018 NFL playoffs, but he averaged 14.9 carries per game during the 2019 season. His yardage total did dip to 857 and his yards-per-carry average was only 3.8. Therefore, it’s easy to wonder whether Atlanta will be able to see a return of the sensational player Gurley was both at Georgia and during his first four years with the Rams. And because of that wonder, the Falcons probably won’t be ready to scratch drafting a running back in the upcoming draft. Considering the risk Gurley’s additional carries, having another starting-caliber running back — a young one at that — will be important. (Of course, Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison will have plenty to say about that whenever football activities begin again.) Gurley figures to bring plenty of excitement to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, just with his mere presence. There’s no doubt that a lot of Georgia fans, who otherwise may not feel the need to go to Falcons games, will want to see Gurley play football in person again. For both the Falcons and Gurley, this can be seen as a win-win scenario. The Falcons are adding a player with exceptional name recognition who the state of Georgia loves and adores. Gurley gets a prove-it deal with the hope of showing that he can still perform at a high level. Dimitroff has done his part this offseason in addressing three team needs. First, he executed a trade with the Baltimore Ravens for tight end Hayden Hurst. Second, he signed edge rusher Dante Fowler in free agency. He now has Gurley, the player he passed on five years ago. For the hybrid UGA-Falcons fans, this is better late than never.
  23. https://theathletic.com/1685338/2020/03/18/dante-fowlers-addition-addresses-pass-rush-concern-in-qb-loaded-nfc-south/ Tom Brady. Drew Brees. Teddy Bridgewater. These are the quarterbacks the Falcons will face twice each next season. With the prevalence of the quick game permeating through the NFL, teams need quarterbacks who can get the ball out quickly against the pass rush, and all three of these quarterbacks possess quick releases. While these quarterbacks aren’t exceptionally mobile, the ability to get the ball out swiftly is a great counter to an opposing defense’s ability to bring them down. To combat these NFC South quarterbacks, having a pass rusher who can wreak havoc has become increasingly important. The Atlanta Falcons addressed that need near the end of the legal tampering period before free agency, as The Athletic was able to confirm they will sign edge rusher Dante Fowler to a three-year contract. Fowler later tweeted confirmation, as well. The NFL Network reported the contract is valued at a maximum of $48 million. While the contract is agreed to, it will be pending a physical, which can’t happen at team headquarters since the NFL has instituted a travel ban for team employees to meet with free agents and draft prospects. Until a physical occurs, whether through an off-site doctor or by the team itself, the team can’t officially announce the move. Looking back on the past few days, it’s clear the legal tampering period of 48 hours felt like 48 days. Throughout Monday and Tuesday, the only Falcons acquisition reported was the trade for Hayden Hurst. As news leaked of what other teams were doing, it seemed like an eternity passed as to whether Atlanta would be able to address its primary need of edge rusher. There will be plenty of familiarity for Fowler and head coach Dan Quinn, as Quinn recruited Fowler to play at Florida when Quinn was the defensive coordinator under head coach Will Muschamp. Fowler played under Quinn for one season in 2012 before Quinn returned to be the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator in 2013. Fowler played three years for the Gators before electing to turn pro. His potential has always been high, considering he was the third overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. The start of his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars had plenty of ups and downs: His rookie season began with an ACL tear, followed by two seasons when he totaled 12 sacks in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams during the middle of the season, recording four sacks total with both teams. Signed to a one-year prove-it deal in 2019, Fowler produced in a big way, notching 11.5 sacks and six pass breakups in 16 games, which included 14 starts. The Falcons felt his wrath as he recorded three sacks in the Rams’ 37-10 victory over the Falcons. While he only has one year of consistent play, it came at a crucial time in his career. As a result, he’s being rewarded with a three-year contract valued at $16 million per season. Considering the familiarity between coach and player, the likely assumption is that Quinn pushed hard for Fowler’s addition. But it’s also evident general manager Thomas Dimitroff wanted to be aggressive by snagging one of the upper-tier free-agent pass rushers. While much of the conversation has centered on cap space, credit for this signing should also go to director of football operations Nick Polk, who was tasked with poring over the new collective bargaining agreement to figure out how they could bring in a player of Fowler’s caliber and price tag. Given Fowler’s age, 25, Atlanta certainly will hope it has its defensive playmaker for the future. The Falcons also will hope his performance in 2019 will be the new normal and not the exception. The worry when signing someone coming off one big season is that he’s a one-season wonder. The Falcons learned this can happen with Vic Beasley, the former eighth-overall pick who totaled 15.5 sacks in 2016. While it seemed Beasley was destined for greatness in Atlanta after that campaign, he never could reclaim the magic he had during his former team’s Super Bowl run. And after betting on Beasley by picking up his fifth-year option, the Falcons had no choice but to let him walk this offseason. The upside to Fowler is tremendous. And it will be on Quinn, defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and defensive ends coach Tosh Lupoi to put him in the best position to succeed at the Leo defensive end position. Just like it did for Fowler in Los Angeles, it helps to play with other great players. He had Aaron Donald with the Rams. In Atlanta, Fowler will work alongside Grady Jarrett. Fowler’s addition now allows the Falcons to address their many other needs in the draft. With edge rusher and receiving tight end checked off, the remaining top needs include cornerback, linebacker, running back and interior offensive line. Secondary needs to include interior defensive line and safety. Snagging Fowler addresses a major hole. But with this new deal, it’s on Fowler to live up to the expectations this franchise has for him.
  24. Sorry guys. Missed this one yesterday. Enjoy! https://theathletic.com/1681049/2020/03/17/where-free-agency-stands-for-falcons-following-trade-for-hayden-hurst/ The Falcons are making a move to replace tight end Austin Hooper, who will officially become the NFL’s highest-paid tight end when his new deal with the Cleveland Browns becomes official Wednesday. That same day, Hooper’s replacement will be officially announced. With Hooper cashing in, the Falcons needed an immediate replacement. They found one by trading a second-round pick (55th overall) and a fifth-round pick (157th overall) to the Baltimore Ravens for tight end Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round pick (143rd overall). This acquisition addressed what was suddenly a pressing need, with Atlanta able to cross starting tight end off its to-do list. It comes at a cheaper cost, with Hurst’s 2020 cap figure checking in at $1.48 million. But what about the other positions of need? The Falcons seemingly still have a plethora of positions to fill if they are to be competitive for a playoff spot in 2020. With the team planning to cut Desmond Trufant and Devonta Freeman, to go along with announced cuts of Luke Stocker and Ty Sambrailo, Atlanta now has immediate needs at cornerback, edge rusher, running back, linebacker, blocking tight end and interior offensive line. It has secondary needs at interior defensive line and safety. According to Over The Cap, Atlanta was a projected $2.1 million below the salary cap before Monday, which was less than anticipated after the NFL announced the cap would be at $198.2 million this season. Releasing Sambrailo and Stocker will save a total of $6.35 million against the salary cap. There is a good chance that Trufant is a post-June 1 cut, which would save an estimated $10.75 million, but that has not been announced by the team. As a post-June 1 cut, Trufant’s savings will not apply to the cap until June 2, meaning the money saved with his release cannot go toward signing anyone until the money officially comes off the books. Instead, the money saved from such a post-June 1 release will go toward any moves made leading up to the preseason, during the preseason and during the season. If Trufant is not a post-June 1 cut, the move saves $4.95 million now. It’s also not known yet what Freeman’s designation will be. Teams do get two post-June 1 cuts. If Atlanta designates Freeman’s release after June 1, $6.5 million would free up as opposed to $3.5 million in immediate funds. Again, that money wouldn’t be off the books until June 2 if he received that designation. If Freeman and Trufant are immediate cuts, the Falcons figure to have an estimated $15.42 million available in cap space, factoring in Monday’s cuts and Hurst’s addition. If only Trufant is a post-June 1 cut, the number is an estimated $10.47 million. If Trufant and Freeman are post-June 1 cuts, the estimated cap space would be $6.97 million. The Falcons could still add to the cap casualty count or figure out a way to tweak an existing player’s contract, either through a restructured agreement or an adjustment. If they are to add an edge rusher in free agency, another tweak to lower the cap number further may have to be done. What the immediate numbers suggest is that if the Falcons are to add a pass rusher, it will probably have to be among a veteran group of players still producing at consistent rates. One such player is already off the board in Mario Addison, who, according to ESPN, signed a three-year deal with the Buffalo Bills late Monday. Two remaining potential veteran defensive end options include: Everson Griffen: Griffen posted eight sacks in 2019 and has three seasons when he topped double digits. Griffen, 32, would offer a needed veteran presence as a player who can still produce. But like Quinn, what will it cost to sign him? Markus Golden: Golden, 29, recorded 10 sacks with the New York Giants in 2019 while starting every game for the first time in his career. Golden played last season on a one-year prove-it deal and figures to see his compensation increase with his next contract. Of course, the Falcons could wait out the first wave of free agency and add some other pass-rushing pieces to the group. Or they could wind up deciding not to add an edge rusher while plugging other holes with affordable rotational players. From there, the Falcons would then be forced to address edge rusher in the early rounds of the draft. How Hurst fits the Falcons To a degree, Atlanta is taking a risk with Hurst by further addressing the offense with a high 2020 draft pick. As mentioned, the bulk of the team’s needs are on defense. By trading a second-round pick for a tight end, Atlanta can’t use such a favorable selection to address the defensive line, cornerback or linebacker. Atlanta is hoping the initial scouting report on Hurst out of college proves true in its offensive system. Hurst, taken 25th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft and ahead of former Ravens teammate Lamar Jackson, has good hands and great speed, especially for his position. In Baltimore, Mark Andrews, the third-round selection in that same draft, just happened to be the better pass-catching option for Baltimore’s offense. It works that way sometimes. But just because Andrews proved to be better for Baltimore doesn’t mean Hurst can’t be a productive player elsewhere. Now, Hurst will arrive in Atlanta as the top tight end option. Hurst is an athletic tight end who should see plenty of targets right away. In 13 games, quarterback Matt Ryan threw the ball to Hooper 97 times. He caught 75 of those passes for 787 yards and six touchdowns. With Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley demanding attention on the outside, Hurst should see a lot of single coverage over the middle. The fit is perfect, and the value is tremendous, considering he has two years on his rookie deal before what should be an affordable fifth-year option. The only unknown is Hurst himself. While the athleticism is apparent, the pro tape has yet to materialize as he has posted 43 catches for 512 yards and three touchdowns over two seasons. Based on potential alone, Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, tweeted that he believes the Falcons actually might be improving their offense with Hurst. Now, that does seem like quite the leap to make, considering how valuable Hooper was for Atlanta the past four years. It’s true that Hurst has a lot of upside to his game. But now that he is atop the tight end group in Atlanta, it’s time for Hurst to show why he was viewed as a first-round pick just two years ago.
  25. https://theathletic.com/1675202/2020/03/13/arthur-blank-to-pay-all-hourly-employees-during-coronavirus-shutdown/ In response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has halted sports in the U.S., owner Arthur Blank has pledged to continue paying hourly employees who work for each of the businesses he owns. Speaking with The Athletic on Friday afternoon, Falcons team president Rich McKay said the decision to ensure hourly employees were not affected negatively during the pandemic was an easy one to make. McKay mentioned there are numerous hourly employees who work for Atlanta United and the Falcons and also at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the remaining companies that are a part of The Blank Family of Businesses, which is managed by the AMB Group. McKay said AMB Group CEO Steve Cannon distributed a video communication to all employees to ease any concern they may have. “We’ve tried to over-communicate at a time where there’s no question people have personal angst and anxiety,” McKay said. “You’ve got to be empathetic towards it because it’s real.” One of the major economic issues facing the U.S. is how hourly employees will continue to collect paychecks if they become sick or if their place of work is forced to close. Sports teams are no different. Almost immediately after the NBA announced it was suspending its season, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he would ensure hourly employees were taken care of. The Hawks also will pay their hourly employees during this time of crisis. McKay said he was in constant communication with Hawks CEO Steve Koonin and Atlanta Braves president/CEO Derek Schiller about the topic. “One thing we’re led by is our core values and the way Arthur looks at it,” McKay said. “That’s going to lead us in how we treat our people, which I can assure you we’ll do the right thing that way. The financial side of our business and the impact of that side of our business is not something we’re concerned about. It is not something we’ve spent time talking about.” What hasn’t been decided just yet is how game-day workers will be paid. The upcoming schedule at Mercedes-Benz Stadium included a game between Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, with a long break before the Final Four from April 4-6. The MLS is suspended for 30 days, at least for now, with Atlanta United’s home game against the Portland Timbers scheduled for April 19. As it pertains to the employees who work games, McKay said a policy is still being drafted to ensure payouts for missed work are fairly distributed. “Some work one event, some work two events, some work all events,” McKay said. “We’re working through all those details as we speak. We’ll give it to you when we finish it and hopefully we will finish it within the next day.” Both Atlanta United and the Falcons are in a holding pattern as COVID-19, the coronavirus-caused disease, continues to spread through the U.S. The Falcons initially were closing their facility until Monday but decided to close up shop until March 27. The NFL has yet to make a final determination on whether it will hold its annual draft in Las Vegas in front of fans or if it will alter its plans. Plans all over the sports world have been changing seemingly by the hour, with everyone involved continuing to try to figure out how to best approach sports during a pandemic. “It’s uncharted territory,” McKay said.
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