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  1. 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.
  2. The NFL, with the benefit of its regular season still more than five months away, is determined to stick to its calendar during these spring and summer months. The positive aspect of this: The league has dominated the news cycle, providing content for starving sports fans. The negative: A case can be made that it’s creating some poor optics, even looking tone-deaf, as it takes a business-as-usual approach against the backdrop of a deadly spreading virus. Falcons president Rich McKay, a longtime league executive and a chairman of the NFL’s Competition Committee, is well equipped to comment on the league’s approach to this offseason and how the weeks leading up the draft for the Falcons have changed. I’ll get to a transcript of our conversation shortly. But first, a few bullet points. • After going back and forth on this, I don’t consider the NFL’s decision to stick to the draft’s April 23-25 scheduling a bad thing (pending a worsening situation, of course). As long as the draft can be done safely, by phone, the league is taking the same approach as any business, whether it’s your job or The Athletic, trying to operate as best as it can in difficult and unusual circumstances. • But I do have a major problem with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell telling team executives, general managers and coaches in a March 26 memo that “public discussion of issues relating to the draft serves no useful purpose and is grounds for disciplinary action.” This seemed odd, not to mention well out of bounds, given Goodell suggested in the same memo that management was “unanimous and unequivocal” in the decision not to push back the draft. McKay and I got into a back-and-forth on this, which you can read in the transcript. My position: Goodell shouldn’t be telling anybody how to feel on this subject. I’ve had one NFL executive tell me that he should be admonished for those words. • I probably should have led with this: McKay said, to his knowledge, all Falcons employees, including players and coaches, are healthy and virus-free. And now, our conversation: Are we each talking from our protective bubbles at home? Yes. Think about this: Since the day we (closed the Falcons’) office, which I think was the 14th, I’ve driven in my car twice. Once was to go on a Saturday to the Silver Comet (Trail) for a run and then again the following Sunday. So I’ve really been in my bubble. That’s where we are today. Is everybody in the organization healthy, as far as you know? As far as I know, thanks for asking, the answer to that is yes. We do a virtual town hall every Friday, where we kind of reach out and go through, from department to department, like 400 to 500 people. Last week, unfortunately, we only got to 200, and then we had kind of a glitch and the link went away. But we communicate that way. I have two more online meetings (Wednesday), where we drop into different (company) organizations. We’re healthy, and everybody seems to be doing OK. I still get worried. My concern is we have a lot of people who are young and this is their first job, and they’re 26 or 28 and living in an apartment. We tried to make sure everybody got home and could work from home. That’s a tough spot to be in. But players are good. Coaches are good. Dan (Quinn) and Thomas (Dimitroff) have a lot of meetings, as you can imagine. How does all this change draft prep? The great majority of the work is done when the combine is complete. Because we made it through the combine, you could say 90 percent of the work is complete. That last 10 percent is the ultimate cross-check. It’s the opportunity for the position coach to look at that player face to face on a pro day and get a chance to interview them, watch them work out, maybe go to lunch or dinner. The same can be said for the coordinator or the head coach. But it’s that last piece. You’ve got everything else. You’ve been scouting that player for three or four years. You’ve got multiple reports, and you’ve got all the tape you would ever want to watch. To me, the real challenge is you have a rhythm you’ve used as a general manager, and it’s your own rhythm. You have a way you like to meet with all the scouts. Meet in December, come back and meet after the combine, then meet two weeks before the draft. That has all been turned sideways because this just doesn’t give you that opportunity. It changes the way you set your board up. You probably set the board up in December and revise it a little after the combine, but these last meetings, don’t think there’s not a lot of debate and still movement. That’s different. So Thomas and Dan are still doing all their meetings, and scouts are doing all of their cross-checks, but they’re doing it virtually, and it’s definitely different, and it’s challenging. You’re going to have to get very comfortable, I think, with the area scouts and have a little more belief in them because you won’t have that last piece to do yourself. What are some examples of players moving up on your draft board late? I’ve seen Jeff Ulbrich tell the story of De’Vondre Campbell and going to see him and making a case for him. I’ve seen that before. When I first got to Atlanta, (assistant coach) Joe DeCamillis looked at a player who we were not going to take, and he had the whole litany of why we should take the player, and we went back and challenged the area scout on what he had seen as far as character went, and we ended up taking the player, and he played very well for us. (The player was Southern Miss linebacker Michael Boley, who played four seasons for the Falcons and nine in the NFL. But Boley was suspended by the league in 2009 for domestic violence when he was with the Giants.) So basically it’s just about relying more on area scouts now. Yeah, because he will have seen the kid numerous times, he will have been to the campus and seen him practice and have more personal connection than anybody else. Coaches, even GMs, normally can go to a Pro Day and say, “I want to look at this player a little more.” Does this impact players who might’ve been drafted late or signed as an undrafted free agent because you won’t have late information? To me, I don’t think it really hurts anybody because players in the sixth and seventh rounds, supplemental picks and college free agents, they’re pretty much on the same footing. You’re not taking a sixth-round pick and a college free agent who are both cornerbacks and thinking, “I’m keeping the sixth-round pick even if the college free agent plays better.” They may get mixed up a little bit in terms of where they get drafted, but that’s about it. I think I saw Scott Pioli say this the other day, and I agree: The people who are well organized and have their departments in order, they’ll benefit from this. If you’re a team that really depends on the GM, that’s going to be harder to do this year. Do you have any problem with the optics of the NFL sticking to its calendar against the backdrop of everything going on? The backdrop is definitely a challenge for all of us. When we opened free agency, I was nervous. I thought, “Is this not a time we should think about extending it?” But I think it did turn out to be a good distraction for the country, and we were able to do it. What the memo said was: “We can do this. We will be a good distraction. It is something the people will want to consume.” And so I’m comfortable with that. What I’m not comfortable with is what we’re doing today, which we’ve never done in our lives. We’re sitting in our homes, trying to work in our homes, but we’ve also got the television on, and the news is very challenging. About the memo: Do you have any problem with Goodell effectively threatening disciplinary action against those who say anything negative about the decision? I will leave that for you to write about. You must have an opinion. I will just say, I’ll leave that to you to write about. But that’s not the first memo we’ve had that said that in our league or in other leagues. I’m sure that’s the case. But is that the tone he should be using given the backdrop right now? I’ll give the same answer I did before. (Laughter.) Your lack of comment on this speaks volumes. You know my thoughts: He shouldn’t have said that, and if it’s true that everybody is in 100 percent agreement on this, why would he even put that in the memo? Obviously, everybody is not in complete agreement. That’s for you to say, not me. OK, moving on. I know you’re not a soothsayer, but how should we view the future as it relates to the NFL calendar today? We’ve talked about it internally, and what we’ve said is we should focus on the draft because we know that’s what’s on the schedule coming up. Beyond that, let’s wait and see what changes. In the first week, when we closed the offices, people were saying, “I can’t believe you closed your offices,” and three days later everybody’s office was closed. For me to get into the discussion of “What will this mean for the offseason; what will this mean for training camp; what does it mean potentially for the season?” — we haven’t spent any time on it. We’ve spent time on the draft. Today, one of our meetings was just spent with the IT people to understand how we would be connected during the draft and communicate. I’m not going to get caught up in the speculation about what happens after the draft. Notwithstanding what you just said, is the London game in a different category because of travel? We’ve asked the question, and our understanding is the London game will be on our schedule, which I think will be released in the end of the first week in May. I think we’ve said it’ll be scheduled in the first or second week of October (against Denver).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”
  6. The Falcons made a great move in at least one area Friday: marketing. Five years after seemingly every fan wanted them to draft Todd Gurley, they’re bringing whatever remains of the former Georgia running back home to the cheers of everyone who barks on Saturdays and views every former Bulldogs player as an impenetrable force. So it’s a win for sales. It’s a win for social media and advertising and buzz for a franchise that has backslid since the Super Bowl in 2016, failed to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons and has been thirsting for positivity against the backdrop of a doom-and-gloom reality. But is this a win for football? Like many, I had a close-up view of Gurley’s skills and athleticism at Georgia. I believed the Falcons made the right decision when they drafted Vic Beasley eighth overall in the first round in 2015 because they were desperate for pass-rush help. (Beasley’s 15.5 sacks in a Pro Bowl 2016 season affirmed his ability. Then his head got into the way, but that’s another story.) But when the then-St. Louis Rams took Gurley two picks later, I sent a text message to Rams general manager Les Snead congratulating him on the pick. Gurley was the best running back I had seen, college or pro, since covering Eric Dickerson with the Los Angeles Rams. Gurley affirmed his potential in his first four seasons, rushing for 4,547 yards, catching 187 passes, scoring 56 touchdowns and collecting two All-Pro and three Pro Bowl honors. But that was the last time we saw Todd Gurley. An NFL source told The Athletic that there were concerns about his surgically repaired left knee when he came out of Georgia. When asked how bad the knee is now, the source said, “Very bad.” Jeff Howe of The Athletic was the was the first to report in June of 2019 that Gurley was suffering from arthritis in the knee. This was later confirmed when Gurley’s trainer, Travelle Gaines, told CBS Sports: “Everybody knew when Todd came out of Georgia that there would be some kind of arthritic component to his knee, which is part of every surgery whether it’s a shoulder, a knee, an ankle. He’s now at the year-five mark, all we’re doing is managing that. If we can pound him less in the offseason while keeping his weight down, working on his strength, working on his agility in short areas, that’s going to give him a better chance to be healthy Weeks 14 through 17 when they really count.” An NFL source told The Athletic Friday, “Once a player has an arthritic condition, you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s different for every person. You’re sort of playing Russian roulette because you never know how fast it will accelerate.” In the Falcons’ defense, this is a low-risk decision. If Gurley can’t perform or fails his physical, they lose little. Gurley’s salary is only $5 million, as reported by WSB’s Zach Klein. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported it as $6 million from the Falcons and $7.5 million from the Rams, less a $2.5 million “offset.” Either way, it’s not a lot. We also don’t know what of the Falcons’ portion is guaranteed. While there are many fans who view Gurley as damaged goods and aren’t seeing things through Bulldogs-colored glasses, some in team offices right now only know — and care — that they’re getting a lot of marketing juice from this move. Unfortunately, that’s a big part of what they have become. Gurley had career-low numbers last season in carries (223), yards (857), yards per attempt (3.8) and total yards from scrimmage (1,064). He did not look good against the Falcons (18 carries for 41 yards) but had strong games against Pittsburgh (12 for 73) and Arizona (19 for 95). During the course of the season, there appeared to be friction between Gurley and Rams head coach Sean McVay about his workload and perceived abilities in 2019, as outlined in this story by The Athletic’s Rich Hammond. The Falcons loved Gurley coming out of Georgia. So did everybody. But they opted for Beasley for two reasons: 1) pass rush was the greater need; 2) their trust in then-new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and then-running backs coach Bobby Turner led them to believe they didn’t need a star running back and could rely on Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Suffice to say, the 2016 season validated their thinking about the 2015 draft. If anybody’s fortunes have changed more dramatically than the Falcons’, it’s Gurley’s. In July of 2018, he signed a four-year, $57.5 million contract extension with $45 million guaranteed. But he was released one season after that deal kicked in. The Rams tried desperately to trade him the past several weeks. As I reported Thursday, the Falcons were interested but couldn’t absorb the salary cap hit that Gurley’s inherited contract would bring. It was logical the Falcons would circle back if the Rams chose to release Gurley, and they did. L.A. opted to take a $20.15 million “dead money” cap hit the next two years rather than pay Gurley another $10.5 million in bonuses that would’ve come due at 4 p.m. on Thursday. Snead and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff are close, dating back to Snead’s time in Atlanta. It’s logical they’ve had discussions about Gurley’s condition and what should be expected. Nothing is guaranteed — not what Gurley can realistically contribute, not that he’ll even make it out of training camp, not that there will even be a 2020 season. But for now, the Falcons get headlines.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. The Falcons, who for weeks have denied they were in salary cap ****, donned their fire-retardant suits Monday and prepared to take a blow torch to their roster. Welcome to reality. Cornerback Desmond Trufant and running back Devonta Freeman, who never lived up to big contract extensions and for months were considered the most likely veterans to be slashed from the roster, will be released this week, according to reports by the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport, respectively. (Two reserves, tackle Ty Sambrailo and tight end Luke Stocker, also were released, the team announced.) These moves follow the decision to not bring back Vic Beasley (made that mistake once already), let it slip they almost certainly will not exercise the fifth-year option on the sporadic Takk McKinley (lesson learned with Beasley) and the likely exits of free agents Austin Hooper, who reportedly has agreed to a deal with Cleveland, and De’Vondre Campbell for financial reasons. I’ll get to the specific salary cap ramifications of all this shortly. But first, it’s important to understand how the Falcons got into this mess. This franchise has made a number of smart personnel decisions and draft picks during the past decade, fan and media criticism notwithstanding. Before 2008, when general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith took over, the franchise never had consecutive winning seasons. After the regime change, the team had five straight winning seasons and made the playoffs four times, including an NFC title game appearance. It has gone to six postseasons in the past 12 seasons, including a Super Bowl berth. The problem has been what has occurred since 2016: a series of post-Super Bowl bad contracts that contributed to a second-round exit in 2017 and non-playoff seasons the past two years. Dimitroff, with the blessing of owner Arthur Blank, and presumably input from head coaches Smith and Dan Quinn, gave large deals to the wrong players. The Falcons rewarded their draft picks with second contracts that would hamstring them in later years. You may want to sit down for this: • Trufant: He was thought to have the potential to be an elite cornerback. It turned out he was only a good one. He’s well-liked but never grew up into the locker room leader the team hoped for, a problem with so many young players on defense. In short, he didn’t live up to his five-year, $68.75 million extension, even though he was a good player in 2019. He will leave with three years on his deal. It’s important to note that the Falcons went to the Super Bowl in 2016 without Trufant, who suffered a shoulder surgery at midseason. The extension was given to him two months after the Super Bowl. • Freeman: Another miscalculation. He far outperformed his contract for a fourth-round draft pick in 2015 and 2016, making two Pro Bowls and rushing for 22 touchdowns and more than 2,100 yards. He also was genuinely one of the most popular players in the locker room and had an inspiring backstory, having risen from the projects in Miami. But post-Super Bowl was different. Freeman was frequently injured the next three seasons, missing 18 games, and last season rushed for a career-low 3.6 yards per carry (down from 4.8 in 2016) and scored only two touchdowns with 656 yards in 14 games. With one year left on his rookie contract, he was given a five-year, $41.25 million extension before 2017. He leaves with three years left. Freeman’s contract also meant the team could not re-sign Tevin Coleman, who rejoined Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. • Beasley: The oft-repeated misstep of honoring his fifth-year, $12.8 million option squeezed the Falcons in the cap last season. Part of that decision stemmed from their relationship with the sports agency, CAA, which also represented Julio Jones and Grady Jarrett in pending negotiations. But Quinn, who had taken over as defensive coordinator for 2019, also believed he could get more out of Beasley as an edge rusher. He was wrong. • Cornerback Robert Alford signed a four-year, $38 million extension after the Super Bowl. He was released after 2018, saving overall cap space but leaving a $1.2 million dead money hit in 2019. Bottom line: Trufant’s release causes a $10.2 million dead cap hit. The team can more than split that in half if he’s designated for a post-June 1 release, as expected. The 2020 hit would be $4.4 million, according to Spotrac. Freeman likewise would be a $6 million hit, or $3 million each in 2020 and 2021 if it’s post-June 1. This is on top of “dead money” the team will carry in 2020 for Ryan Schraeder ($2.5 million; didn’t live up to a five-year extension given to him in November of 2016), Sambrailo ($2 million; released) and Mohamed Sanu ($1.4 million; traded). The salary cap will increase $10 million to $198.2 million in the new CBA. But teams close to the cap, including the Falcons, were hoping it would be more than $200 million because part of the increase will be consumed by minimum salaries rising $100,000 in the new CBA. This is why re-signing Hooper and Campbell was always considered a longshot. This is why significant improvement this offseason was always considered a longshot. The Falcons, who need to improve their pass rush, could attempt to sign outside linebacker Dante Fowler, who had 11.5 sacks with the Los Angeles Rams last season. Quinn knows Fowler from their Florida days. Fowler also played for two former Dimitroff assistants, Dave Caldwell in Jacksonville and Les Snead in Los Angeles. But Fowler, who suffered a torn ACL in his rookie season, generally underperformed with the Jaguars and his 11.5 sacks in 2019 should be weighed against the advantages of playing in a front with Aaron Donald and Clay Matthews. Other options include free agent Jadeveon Clowney and Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue (who has been franchise tagged at $19.3 million). Both will get big contracts, and Ngakoue would cost the Falcons draft picks assets. NFL teams regularly circumvent the salary cap by restricting deals, moving guaranteed money up front to satisfy the player and borrowing against the future. But at some point, the bill comes due. That’s what we’re seeing here. The Falcons are knee-deep into their second mortgage.
  10. Sorry guys. Missed this one yesterday. Enjoy! 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.
  11. The Baltimore Ravens traded tight end Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round pick to the Atlanta Falcons for second- and fifth-round selections, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. All picks will be made in the 2020 draft. The second-round choice involved will be 55th and was acquired from New England in the Mohamed Sanu trade. Why they made the move The Falcons needed a fallback at tight end after losing starter Austin Hooper to the Cleveland Browns in free agency. Depending upon contract particulars and how Atlanta proceeds in free agency, the Falcons could receive a compensatory choice for Hooper in the third or fourth round in 2021. That doesn’t factor into the trade from Baltimore’s standpoint, but it had to be a consideration for the Falcons as they decided how to proceed at the position. For the Falcons, whose salary-cap situation is tight, the choice could have been between signing Hooper for top dollar at the expense of another veteran or adding Hurst and a fourth-rounder, plus a potential comp pick in 2021, in exchange for second- and fifth-round picks this year. Hurst is under contract through the 2021 season, with Atlanta possessing a fifth-year option. This trade can look very good from the Falcons’ standpoint if Hurst flourishes in a more conventional offense after losing out to Mark Andrews in Baltimore. The Ravens had a glut of talent at tight end and probably could not refuse a second-round pick as part of the deal for Hurst, a 2018 first-round pick who had not met expectations. Baltimore has gotten good production at tight end from 2018 third-round pick Mark Andrews, who had 64 receptions for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and could afford to part with Hurst. The Ravens also still have blocking tight end Nick Boyle, who led Baltimore’s tight ends in playing time last season and basically matched Hurst’s production as a receiver. Trade grade For the Falcons: B-minus. We’re evaluating the merits of this trade in the context of the Falcons’ broader plan (predicament?) at the position and within the context of their salary-cap situation. Atlanta is betting Hurst can replace Hooper and outperform any of the tight ends the Falcons might have selected in the draft. Having an additional second-round pick from New England via the Sanu trade helped enable the deal. The Falcons essentially exchanged Sanu, Hooper at more than $10 million per year and a fourth-round pick for Hurst at less than $3 million per year, a fifth-rounder and a potential 2021 comp pick in the third or fourth round. Hurst averaged more yards per target than Hooper last season on much less volume. Uncertainty over how well Hurst might produce keeps this grade teetering between a B-minus and C-plus for now. For the Ravens: B-plus. Baltimore missed on Hurst in 2018, but that is not what we are grading. Within the narrow scope of this exchange with Atlanta, the Ravens did well to get a second-round choice. They are parting with the 2020 and 2021 seasons of Hurst, who probably was not going to be a candidate for a fully guaranteed fifth-year option or long-term extension down the line. The Ravens moved on quickly from a player whose role had diminished and got value, which seems quite good for them.
  12. 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.
  13. Upon taking the job as the secondary coach and defensive passing game coordinator with the Falcons, Joe Whitt Jr. turned on the game tape to familiarize himself with the players he will be leading. Whitt learned what each of his players did right and what they did wrong, to go with what was corrected over 16 games in 2019. In doing so, he learned a lot about who will line up for him this coming season. One of those players is cornerback Isaiah Oliver, who is set to enter his third season with the Falcons. Oliver, drafted in the second round in 2018, had what could be described as a down-and-up season. As Whitt pored over the game tape, he said Oliver exhibited some glaring issues during the first half of the season. But during the final eight games, Oliver’s play changed tremendously. That happened to coincide with Raheem Morris — now Atlanta’s defensive coordinator — moving from wide receivers coach to defensive backs coach. “I thought in the last eight games, he did a great job of connecting his feet and his hands together in his press game,” Whitt said. “He stayed more square. That gave him the ability, when they got up the field, to connect at the top of routes. Early on in the year, he was doing some things that didn’t connect his feet and hands, and that cleaned up during the year. I think (Morris) and those guys did a very nice job with that.” The Falcons struggled immensely on defense to start 2019. Defensive backs were routinely out of position, getting beat and failing to communicate correctly with one another over the 1-7 start. During the bye week, head coach Dan Quinn moved Morris to coach defensive backs, a move that paid off almost immediately. Morris worked on Oliver’s technique and the change showed in his play. Suddenly, plays weren’t breaking wide open down the field and passes were better contested during the final eight games, which led to a 6-2 finish. The defense’s improvement during that stretch is one of the reasons why owner Arthur Blank elected not to make any major changes to the coaching staff. Morris was credited with much of the turnaround, which led to his promotion. In addition, Atlanta parted ways with Jerome Henderson and hired Whitt to fill his role. Whitt has 13 years of NFL coaching experience and he began as an assistant defensive backs coach with the Falcons in 2007. During 10 of his next 11 years with the Green Bay Packers, with whom he was primarily a defensive backs coach, Whitt’s players picked off 183 passes. His expertise long has been in forcing interceptions, which is what he will look to do with Atlanta, which tied for 17th with 12 interceptions in 2019. “Good guy, lot of experience,” Morris said. “He’s probably another guy on our staff who is able to call (the defense). He’s probably another guy on our staff who is able to be a head coach one day.” By adding someone with Whitt’s experience and track record, Morris should be able to better focus on orchestrating the entire defense. As for Oliver, Whitt said the third-year cornerback can expect a scheme that resembles what was put in place during the latter half of the season, with some additional tweaks. “It’s going to be a little bit different than what they did in the first eight weeks,” Whitt said. “Once we get that scheme understanding down, we’re going to make sure we pull the ball off of people. That’s one thing in Green Bay we did better than anybody in the league. Over the years, I was the secondary coach in Green Bay, we intercepted more balls than anybody else in the league. Hopefully, that’s what we can bring down here, and hopefully, Isaiah will be a part of pulling the ball off of people. He’s doing a better job of connecting at the beginning of the line of scrimmage and down the field. Now, let’s pull the ball off of people.” Working in tandem with the secondary is the pass rush, which the Falcons also improved during the final eight games of 2019. With Atlanta’s defensive backs covering targets for longer, the Falcons had 21 of their 28 sacks during that span. After parting ways with assistant defensive line coach Travis Jones, Quinn and Morris moved Jess Simpson to coach defensive tackles and hired Tosh Lupoi to coach defensive ends. Throughout his coaching career, Lupoi’s specialty has been in coaching the pass rush with edge defenders. “You’re going to see individuals adjusting their stance pre-snap,” Lupoi said. “They’re going to be communicating with each other. We’re going to be anticipating based on the offense, how they’re attacking us and how we prepared each week.” It should help that Lupoi and Whitt have familiarity with one another. The two spent 2019 coaching with the Cleveland Browns. The Browns recorded 14 interceptions (tied for eighth) and 38 sacks (20th). Cleveland also finished eighth in pass defense by allowing 216.9 passing yards per game. “It’s a marriage — pass rush and coverage is pass defense,” Whitt said. “You can’t have one without the other. Tosh is an excellent coach. I’m excited to work with him again because we actually see football very similar. The ability to have those guys rush, understand where they’re going to be, and then on the back end, to make sure they hold the ball that extra second so they can get to the (quarterback). Like I said, it’s a marriage. We didn’t get the job done in Cleveland as a group, but we will get it done here.” As far as getting after the quarterback, Lupoi said his approach will be process oriented. He won’t focus on the end result but instead will coach his players through the steps it takes to get there. In a business like the NFL, however, the end result is what people harp on the most. And the Falcons haven’t had a player record double-digit sacks since Vic Beasley had 15.5 in 2016. The Falcons have said Beasley, a free agent, will not return in 2020. Morris and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said they believe Lupoi is the right fit to help Atlanta with its pass rush. “It’s really hard to replace really good coaches with really good coaches, and I think we did that,” Ulbrich said. “Tosh is huge. He’ll bring a different perspective as far as the pass rush is concerned, with how you teach it, how you game-plan it. All those things. It’s historically what he’s done in his career at a high level. I’m very excited about what he can bring to us.” As it pertains to Atlanta’s pass rush, many eyes will be on how fourth-year defensive end Takk McKinley performs during what could be a contract year. The Falcons are still debating whether to pick up McKinley’s fifth-year option. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the 2017 first-round selection has totaled 16.5 sacks in his three years, with only 3.5 in 14 games in 2019. Lupoi said his early conversations with McKinley, who is rehabbing his shoulder after surgery earlier this offseason, have been positive. The Falcons’ hope is that Lupoi is just what McKinley needs at this stage of his career. “You guys have mentioned some stuff about productivity with Takk,” Lupoi said. “I think what’s glaring about Takk is that he plays the game the right way and hard. That’s a starting point for any great player.”
  14. These are uncertain times for everyone. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the coronavirus-caused disease, sports are on hold. The NBA, NHL and MLS have suspended their seasons. Major League Baseball’s start has been pushed back. Upcoming PGA Tour events have been canceled. With the ongoing pandemic, there is no telling when sports will resume in American society. The NFL is in a unique position amid the sports landscape, given that it’s at the beginning of its offseason. Even so, teams have been active with work and travel. With the NFL Scouting Combine completed, teams were starting to attend pro days around the country, which require a lot of travel for the area scouts. That came to a screeching halt for most teams Thursday. The Falcons pulled scouts from the road and will restrict coaches from traveling. The team’s facility in Flowery Branch is undergoing a deep cleaning and will be closed until March 27. The NFL’s annual league meetings, which were scheduled from March 29 to April 1, have been canceled. The league is effectively on hold, with the next big event being the NFL Draft. But with scouts off the road, there is no direction for anyone to head in at the present time. And how the Falcons will navigate the offseason will be dramatically different. A total of 337 players were at the NFL Scouting Combine. Each year, however, there are many prospects taken in the NFL Draft who did not attend the combine. Those players need their pro days to stand out in front of scouts and pro personnel. Georgia Tech and Clemson held their pro days this week. Once the NBA suspended its season, the other professional leagues and the NCAA followed suit. Some colleges already have called off their pro days, while others have yet to make a decision. With the Falcons suspending travel for their employees, scouts will not be at any pro days that take place as scheduled. And if programs like Georgia, which announced it has postponed next week’s pro day, are closed for classes, it seemingly would be tough to ask student-athletes to return to campus and participate. For colleges that will hold pro days, there is an option to get their workouts in front of pro personnel eyes. That would involve college players working out in a pro day setting but with no one available except the athletes and those conducting the drills. The drills would be filmed, with that footage sent to each of the 32 teams. But even with this option, there is certainly a concern with having prospects training in one city traveling back to their college towns for a workout. With every sports league exercising caution, the remaining pro days are likely to be an additional deletion from the sports calendar. In addition, the NFL is restricting teams from hosting and visiting draft-eligible prospects for individual workouts. This isn’t too big of a deal for upper-tier prospects who already were scouted and underwent the various medical tests at the scouting combine. And most of these players would have met with the bulk of teams anyway. For those who didn’t go to the scouting combine, it will be a big deal for them and the teams. For players expected to go in the later rounds, it’s imperative for teams to get a good grasp of their medical history and an understanding of how recent injuries have healed. It’s also important for teams to interview those players who they otherwise weren’t able to speak with. Instead of getting that face-to-face interaction, as The Athletic’s Dane Brugler reported Friday, NFL teams can schedule up to three phone or video calls with a prospect that last no longer than an hour. Each of those calls must be documented. Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich estimated he takes up to five personal visits and up to five visits with head coach Dan Quinn each draft season. Ulbrich said Tuesday it was after he met linebacker De’Vondre Campbell in person that he realized the team needed to select Campbell in the 2016 NFL Draft. “It’s critical,” Ulbrich said. “I remember going back to De’Vondre’s draft. There were a lot of things people wanted figured out about him. I remember going out to Minnesota not knowing what to think. I had some other people’s opinions in my brain. I left that day saying, ‘He’s got to be a Falcon.’ The personality, the learner, the football player, the character, the mover, the athlete — the whole package I was sold on. Had I not spent that day with him I could have never jumped on the table for him in that way.” All of this leads to the NFL Draft, which has three options at this point: The draft could go on as scheduled April 23-25 in Las Vegas, if the powers that be feel comfortable with where things are with the coronavirus’ containment. But there is no information whatsoever to predict where the U.S. will be as this pandemic unfolds. The draft could go on as scheduled but without fans in attendance. It presumably would be televised in a studio, with teams calling in their picks from their war rooms. The picks would be revealed live on national television but with a limited number of people involved in the production of the event. The draft could be pushed back to accommodate a revised pre-draft schedule. But this would require containment to occur in mere weeks so that college teams then would feel comfortable in rescheduling pro days. With college conferences pushing back their sports timelines again Friday, this doesn’t seem plausible. With the new league year beginning Wednesday and the legal tampering period starting Monday, there must be some question as to what will happen without the medical process available for free agents. While it seems simple for a team to sign a player without a physical, that’s not seen as a wise approach in the NFL. Teams want to ensure the players they are signing are physically fit for game action. In this case, it would seem likely for free agents to agree to deals pending a physical. And that physical could take a while to occur.
  15. Thomas Dimitroff doesn’t believe the Falcons are in “salary-cap ****.” He also knows they’re far from “salary-cap paradise,” too. With the current contracts on the books, Atlanta is projected to have more than $4 million in cap space. That’s obviously a low number that will involve some nifty maneuvering if the franchise is to bring in some key components to the 2020 roster. There will be some cap casualties to go with a restructured contract or two. As Dimitroff has alluded to in the past, working around Matt Ryan’s $150 million contract hasn’t been easy, since so much of the team’s overall cap figure is tied up in it. A good example of this came last year when the Falcons were unable to be major players when free agency opened. The Falcons have a bevy of needs to address, although much speculation has centered on whether they can afford a top free agent, specifically at edge rusher. As Dimitroff likes to say, the Falcons will need to be “creative” if they are to attract anyone who can help propel them back to the postseason. From the outside, edge rusher would seem to be Atlanta’s greatest need. The Falcons decided not to bring back Vic Beasley, and Takk McKinley will enter the fourth year of his rookie deal, with early signs pointing toward his fifth-year option not being picked up. Adding a pass rusher seems essential to the short- and long-term health of the franchise. The present cap situation would suggest that someone like Jadeveon Clowney, who could make an average of more than $20 million per season, is unattainable. Shaquil Barrett, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2019, also probably falls in that category. Signing someone like Dante Fowler Jr., who could command a salary of more than $15 million per year, also could be tough but perhaps is more doable with the right cuts. Another idea could be to trade for Jacksonville Jaguars edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who will have the franchise tag placed on him. One benefit of this is the Falcons then would be able to keep the 2021 compensatory pick for Austin Hooper’s departure. Of course, this would require a long-term deal for Ngakoue, which figures to get quite expensive. In addition, trading for Ngakoue, who has posted 37.5 sacks in his first four seasons, would probably require at least a 2020 first-round pick. The safest bet likely lies in finding a veteran edge rusher who can help a rookie draft pick develop. With this in mind, Mario Addison, who has 55 career sacks since 2011, seemingly would fit while coming at a much more affordable price than the aforementioned names. If the Falcons are to add one of these edge rushers in free agency, they’ll have to move quickly. There aren’t many on the market this year. “That’s an expensive position,” Dimitroff said. “I think a lot of people are looking at that, trying to compare the worth and the value there. There are some very good football players there.” Falcons’ in-house free-agent predictions Several players from Atlanta’s 2019 roster are expected to hit free agency if new contracts aren’t reached by the new league year’s beginning on March 18. Here are some predictions on whether these players will be back, or if it’s too early to tell. DT Tyeler Davison: Davison put forth a productive season that saw him post a career-best 55 tackles. Davison was stout against the run and impressed the coaching staff with his play. I expect Davison to re-sign. DE Steven Means: A tough edge-setter with some pass-rushing ability, Means tore his Achilles last offseason. The coaches love his game as well as his speed, and missed him a great deal in 2019. I think Means will be back in the fold for 2020 and could even sign a contract before the new league year begins. DE Adrian Clayborn: Clayborn offers an edge-setting presence on the field to go with leadership in the locker room, so a return makes sense. But it’s unknown where the Falcons stand, at least from the outside looking in. RB Kenjon Barner: Barner had a good season as a return specialist and would seemingly have a chance to be back in 2020. That stated, since he’s primarily a special-teamer, Barner probably will be forced to wait until late March or early April to find a landing spot. I’d imagine the Falcons would be willing to bring him back at the right price, although I’d put the odds at 50-50 right now. CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson: Wreh-Wilson held up well when called upon in 2019 and should at least have the Falcons interested in bringing him back on a short-term contract. Wreh-Wilson appeared in 14 games with two starts last season, totaling 25 tackles and seven pass breakups. FB Keith Smith: The Falcons planned to keep Ricky Ortiz if not for a preseason ankle injury. After reaching an injury settlement with Ortiz, they brought on Smith, which shows that the franchise still envisions a role for the fullback position. Smith played well last season and figures to have a shot at returning to the roster. S Sharrod Neasman: With Neasman being a valuable player on special teams, he, like Barner, could be waiting to sign in the second wave of free agency. In addition, Neasman brings value as a backup free safety. It’s unknown where Atlanta views him at the moment. DT Jack Crawford: Having so many needs to fill, the Falcons could take their time with Crawford once free agency begins. If that’s the case, I would have to think Crawford will be with another team in 2020. P Matt Bosher: With the Falcons signing Sam Irwin-Hill and Ryan Allen, the writing appears to be on the wall with Bosher, who was drafted by the team in 2011. LB/S Kemal Ishmael: As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported this week, Ishmael is not expected to return to the Falcons.
  16. With 51 days remaining before the NFL Draft, a lot can happen when it comes to how the Falcons attack each of their seven selections. Much of the attention has been on how the Falcons will address the many needs they have through the 2020 draft class. The obvious needs are at edge rusher, defensive tackle, linebacker, tight end and cornerback. Running back figures to be one, as well, with Devonta Freeman’s future very much up in the air. Then there are the long-term needs, such as interior offensive line and safety. Of course, with the Falcons deciding not to negotiate further with Austin Hooper and De’Vondre Campbell before the new league year, and with the likelihood of making some cap cuts once a decision on the collective bargaining agreement is reached, it will be interesting to see how Atlanta addresses some of these needs via free agency, as well. But for now, we don’t know exactly how the Falcons plan to hit free agency, which is scheduled to begin March 18. Therefore, this first seven-round mock draft — conducted via an online simulator — is done with the present needs in mind and not with anticipating what might occur in free agency. In addition, this first mock draft features no trades. First round, 16th overall: LSU Edge K’Lavon Chaisson The Falcons, with a head coach and general manager who held a news conference announcing they were remaining on staff, can’t afford to be complacent in free agency. Therefore, you have to wonder if this team will make some internal moves to free up some cash so they can, in turn, go sign a bigger-named edge rusher. For now, however, it remains unknown what Atlanta’s plan is in this area. And therefore, with the first pick of this mock draft, Atlanta addresses this particular need with the best edge rusher available. At the 16th pick, a case can be made for Chaisson or Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa. Both were productive in college and can get after the quarterback. The difference lies in how they get it done. Chaisson has an explosive first step. Epenesa relies on his power and fundamental hands. Considering the fact that head coach Dan Quinn loves defensive ends with a strong initial burst, the pick here is Chaisson, who at the scouting combine likened himself to someone who can speak three languages — rushing the passer, stopping the run and dropping into coverage. Second round, 47th overall: Clemson CB A.J. Terrell If the Falcons decide to keep Desmond Trufant, they should have a starting trio of Trufant, Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver. Even so, adding depth to the position will remain important, considering the fourth corner on the roster for the time being, Jordan Miller, is suspended for the first three games of the 2020 season. But if Trufant does become a cap casualty, the Falcons almost assuredly will need to draft a corner in their first three picks. And Terrell will be among the best at the position in this year’s draft class. At 6-foot-1 with 31 ¼-inch arms, Terrell has good length for Quinn’s defense. Second round, 55th overall: Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins Under general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons have not selected a running back higher than the third round. Entering this particular mock draft, I planned to stay true to history and do everything I could not to take a player at the position this early. And then the 55th overall selection came, and Dobbins, who fits a position of need, was there as the best player available. At that point, Dobbins had to be the pick. The Falcons haven’t given Freeman any ringing endorsements this offseason, which has led to the speculation that he could be a cap casualty. If a new collective bargaining agreement is reached in the near future, NFL teams will have the post-June 1 designation for cuts available again. And if so, the Falcons will save more money than the $3.5 million they can free up with Freeman’s immediate release. Dobbins made plenty of plays during his three years at Ohio State but ran roughshod over teams in 2019 to the tune of 2,003 yards and 21 touchdowns. His vision is exceptional on zone runs, which would make him a fit in Atlanta. Third round, 78th overall: Dayton TE Adam Trautman By letting Hooper test free agency, this signals he is all but gone from the franchise. Atlanta will need another tight end, since the three on the roster now are Jaeden Graham, Luke Stocker and Carson Meier, with Meier spending most of the 2019 season on the practice squad. When looking for a tight end who has similar attributes to Hooper, 6-foot-4 and 254 pounds, the one who stands out the most is Trautman, who happens to be a near carbon copy at 6-5 and 251 pounds. While Trautman played against FCS competition, he showed the ability to win one-on-one matchups with regularity. He has a basketball background, which shows on the football field with how he positions his body on contested catches. Trautman shined during Senior Bowl week, too, which should help his draft standing in late April. Fourth round, 109th overall: Louisiana G Robert Hunt Last year, the Falcons’ plan on the offensive line was to add more size up front to prevent teams from getting a pass rush up the middle. But then James Carpenter ended the year on injured reserve, and Jamon Brown turned into a healthy scratch in some of Atlanta’s late-season games. While finding a center for the long term will be important, Hunt’s potential as a guard is too much to pass on, especially in the fourth round. Hunt was a four-year starter for the Ragin’ Cajuns, playing tackle and guard. At 6-5 and 336 pounds, Hunt has exceptional power but also possesses good lateral movement. While there is still plenty to work on with his game, Hunt has a lot of upside, especially considering the value in the fourth round. Fifth round, 140th overall: LSU DL Rashard Lawrence At the scouting combine, Chaisson was asked which teammate he would like to play with at the professional level. His answer? Lawrence. “I know he would 100 percent give everything he’s got,” Chaisson said. “I’ve watched this man cry in front of my face when he got injured. Not because he couldn’t play and put stats on the board. But because he wanted to play all-out for his brothers. The ability he could give, I would want something like that.” Lawrence has a high motor, which certainly has to stand out to Atlanta’s coaching staff. With the Falcons needing defensive line depth, Lawrence could prove to be a worthy later-round addition. Seventh round, 206th overall: Penn State LB Cameron Brown If the Falcons are unable to sign a free agent linebacker or select one in the earlier rounds, they gladly will take a project player with hopes of him turning into the next Foye Oluokun. Brown worked at multiple positions in college and has plenty of experience playing in a zone defense. While there will be plenty for Brown to work on if he’s to make it in the NFL, he fits the mold of being a new-age linebacker with a lean body and speed.
  17. Don't know if it's Falcons related, but it's the Falcons beat writer, so..... INDIANAPOLIS — Leki Fotu towers over most people he meets. He’s a mountain of a man at 6-foot-5 and 335 pounds, with nearly 11-inch hands engulfing those of the mere mortals he meets. As a result, it typically turns into a tough day at the office for those who encounter him on the football field. But inside that massive frame, which is menacing for opponents on the field, is a gentle soul, which has been shaped by tragedy, sorrow and pain. Life hasn’t been easy for Fotu, who has been forced to deal with heartbreak and unexpected loss at a very young age. It’s why, if you’ve noticed, before every game’s kickoff, Fotu takes a knee behind his team’s bench to say a prayer. “We were struggling our whole life,” he said. “Before it happened, there was a beauty in the struggle.” ‘One day he’s going to help take care of you’ Fotu’s parents, mother Toa and father Likiliki, were raised in Tonga, a Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean, more than 3,000 miles east of Australia. With Toa’s relatives living in the United States, his parents began thinking of relocating to the U.S. as they were already traveling frequently between countries. In 1996, Toa decided she wanted the family, with children Alice, Joe and Anthony, to live in the U.S. As she put it, she and Likiliki made the risky decision to overstay their visas and settled in Oakland, Calif. The parents were now living undocumented and finding work — Toa as an elderly caregiver and Likiliki as a landscaper — through friends at the church they joined. By 1998, Toa and Likiliki were still struggling financially in their quest to save up enough money to apply for permanent residency. That’s when Toa became pregnant with Leki, which turned into the toughest pregnancy of her six children. Battling a bout of pneumonia around the same time, Toa said she couldn’t hold any food down. Trips to the hospital for intravenous fluids became regular. “I was so sick — morning sickness — and I didn’t eat anything for almost three months,” Toa said. “The doctor suggested that if I wanted to have an abortion that it would help me. I was just skin and bones.” Toa’s mother cried at the mere suggestion of an abortion, suggesting her daughter would be just fine if she should stay strong through it all. “One day he’s going to help take care of you,” Toa’s mother told her. After four months of what was a self-described ****, Toa’s pregnancy with Leki began to ease. She could eat and drink again. On Aug. 23, 1998, Leki was born. Toa and Likiliki had two more children in the following years: David and Ema. Ema, the baby of the bunch, was admired by everyone. Leki referred to her as the “light in our family.” While the first five of the Fotu clan were soft-spoken and reserved, Ema was an extrovert. At an early age, Ema would prance into her mother’s closet and emerge in oversized clothing and three-sizes-too-big high heels. Ema commanded the attention of everyone around her, and her brothers and sisters loved her for it. As a young family, Toa and Likiliki continued to save money to afford permanent U.S. residency. In 2004, eight years after overstaying their visas, Toa said she paid an attorney $17,000 to apply for permanent residency for herself, Likiliki, Joe and Anthony — Alice, the oldest, actually was born in the U.S. while Toa was visiting family. Shortly after, they received work permits that allowed them to work legally in the U.S. Toa continued to work as a caregiver but was now able to work both in a facility as a certified nursing assistant and in people’s private homes. Likiliki was battling health problems stemming from diabetes and high blood pressure. The decision was made for Likiliki to be a stay-at-home father and take care of the six children while Toa worked around the clock as the family’s breadwinner. Likiliki cherished this role. “He would wake us up early from school,” Leki said. “He’d have a whole setup of breakfast on the table. He tried his best and hardest to make sure we felt like we had the best life ever. That, to me, just shows how much he cared, not just for his kids but for other people as well, from what I’ve been told by family members and friends, about how selfless he was.” The Fotu family may not have had much money, but there was more than enough love in the household. Long term, the goal was to raise the Fotu children in the U.S. and to ensure they had greater opportunities than what was available in Tonga. Ten years into their life in America, the family’s world would come crashing down. ‘Our whole lives changed’ When Toa and Likiliki lived in Tonga, Likiliki worked as a DJ at nightclubs. In the U.S., as they were saving to apply for permanent American residency, the family also put some money aside to buy a DJ kit so Likiliki could get part-time work. Once they were able to purchase the needed equipment, Likiliki was able to charge between $200 and $300 per gig. One such assignment was to work for a family member’s graduation party at a San Francisco hotel. It was like any other day in June of 2006. Likiliki asked Toa and Alice to join him for the event and to bring Ema along, as well. As Likiliki DJed, Ema wandered off — and in a split instance — into an open elevator. The elevator went up a couple of floors before Ema walked out. Seeing a potted plant by an overlooking balcony, the toddler curiously started to climb on it. It was then that she lost her balance. “She fell to her death,” Toa said. They rushed her to the hospital. Ema fought for her life, but she died that night, at the age of 3. Back in Oakland, Leki and his brothers were with their cousins and had no idea what happened. The next morning, Toa, Likiliki and Alice returned home and gathered everyone together. It was then they learned what happened. “I was confused about what my mom was telling us,” Leki said. “Just seeing everyone’s reaction, it broke my heart, not only that I found out about the news, but to see my parents like that at a young age — broken down. We tried to regroup as a family during that time. The only person that took it worse was my dad.” Leki was only 8 years old at the time, but he understood clearly that Ema wasn’t coming home. The family grieved hard. Leki especially adored his little sister. “She’d probably be the most popular girl in school,” Leki said. “Just from what we grew up with her, we just knew she was going to be someone special.” Already battling health issues, Likiliki became increasingly depressed. One month passed and almost another until Likiliki’s body couldn’t take anymore. The stress, pain and sadness became too much to the point, along with his high blood pressure and diabetes, that he suffered a stroke. In nearly a two-month span, Leki lost his 3-year-old sister and father. “He dropped dead in front of the kids one evening,” Toa said, sobbing. “It’s so hard to explain the pain.” Said Leki: “Just from that point, our whole lives changed.” The wake-up call There was a profound sadness in the Fotu household. Toa’s mother moved in with the family, as did Likiliki’s first cousin, Viliami Mafi, who offered to help raise the children prior to later marrying Toa in 2010. In between Ema and Likiliki’s passing, the family moved from Oakland to San Leandro, which is where they eventually settled for some time. Continuing as a caregiver, Toa started a homecare agency two years later where she would screen and hire her own employees so she could be at home for her children. With such tragedy condensed into a two-month span, it was recommended to put the Fotu boys in sports to keep them busy. It didn’t hurt that 5-7 Likiliki and 5-8 Toa somehow produced four sons who would far surpass them in height — all measure in at around 6-5. Given their size, football made sense for the boys. Joe and Anthony were the first to play college football — Joe at Illinois via a junior college; Anthony at Arizona and West Georgia. They were also rugby standouts who were named All-Americans. But growing up, Leki wasn’t initially a fan of football. He didn’t particularly like it at the Pop Warner level. He didn’t play the sport in middle school but picked it back up as a freshman at San Leandro High School. Leki also played basketball, where he was dunking and breaking backboards at a young age. As a junior, however, Leki stopped playing football. Toa suggested her son participate in rugby, just like his older brothers. Toa drove Leki across the bay from San Leandro to Redwood City to play for the local rugby club. Not a fan at first, Leki warmed up to rugby after he received some positive reinforcement from his new teammates. “Everybody loved him,” Toa said. “Everybody told him how lucky he is to have the size. They praised him right there. I think that made him feel good. It gave him confidence. It’s just the brotherhood of being a rugby player. The brotherhood of being on a rugby team is different than being on a football team.” At the time, Leki was already 6-5 and weighed roughly 265 pounds. With his lower body built powerfully, it became increasingly tough for his opponents to stop him when he had the ball. In only one season, Leki, like his brothers, became a rugby high school All-American. Past the early hardship and tragic deaths, it seemed like the family was finally moving forward. But just as there seemed to be a sense of normalcy, the family would take another crushing blow. Due to an unforeseen hardship, Toa was suddenly unavailable to afford the San Leandro house where the family resided. During his junior year of high school, Leki and his family moved to Herriman, Utah, where Toa knew one relative. After enduring great sadness before, the family was forced to start over again. “We ended up losing our house in California, which made us bounce around for a little bit, not knowing where to live,” Leki said. “My mom put a bet on our family to move out to Utah to start fresh. I didn’t really know anyone in Utah at all. I knew my mom had a cousin out there. I think that’s all the family we knew. Losing our house in California, I think that was my wake-up call, despite everything that already happened. My two older brothers were already in college. It was just me and my little brother, my uncle, my mom and my oldest sister. I think that event was a wake-up call for me.” ‘Very honest, very loyal’ It’s quite possible that Leki would have been content with playing rugby had his mother never lost the house. But all of the children were given an edict to do everything in their power to not only go to college but to graduate. Realizing his mother was going through some financial hardship again, Leki turned back to football as his key to securing an education. Upon moving to Utah, Leki approached Herriman head coach Dustin Pearce, who was floored that a player of his size had all but fallen into his program. “I’m thanking the Lord above,” Pearce said. Leki’s approach to football was much different this time around. There was a purpose involved to be among the best. And the camaraderie he established playing rugby transitioned to the Herriman football team. Pearce notified the Utah football coaching staff that Leki moved to the area. And once the Utah coaches saw him at a team camp, there was no time wasted in extending a scholarship offer. “We took one look at him and it was like, ‘Yes. Absolutely. This is a real guy,’” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. Pearce recalled almost vividly the sequence where he realized Leki was going to be a behemoth for opposing teams to deal with. “We did a 10-play scrimmage and ran a double tight formation, and he was the right tight end,” Pearce said. “We ran a toss to the right. He reached a wide, wide, wide nine — you could call it a 15 if you wanted to. He reached the guy. I was like, ‘Whoa!’ And the next series on defense, you’re supposed to not touch the quarterback, and sure enough, he comes off the edge and launches himself. I thought the quarterback was dead.” An unknown prospect in recruiting circles before Utah offered, Leki’s name got around to just about everyone in the Pac-12 not long after. He also had a dominant senior season for Herriman, helping lead the high school to its first-ever state championship. In a semifinal game, Fotu actually caught a 24-yard touchdown pass on a trick play. As the other schools came calling, Leki remained loyal to the first team that offered and signed with the Utes. That fact isn’t lost to Whittingham. “He’s very honest, very loyal,” Whittingham said. “We were able to gain his trust and the family’s trust. It speaks volumes to who he is because he stuck with that commitment from start to finish.” Appearing in only one game as a freshman, Leki became a key contributor during the ensuing three years. He recorded 25 tackles in 2019, with his primary responsibility being to occupy blockers. As a nose tackle, teams were forced to dedicate two or three men to block him on any given play. When they didn’t, he typically got into the backfield, either redirecting runners or making the stops himself. The attention he required helped free up his teammates. “Oh my gosh, it’s incredible,” former Utah linebacker Francis Bernard said. “Having a guy who can take two guys, three guys on at a time, just by his size and his athletic ability. His presence is key for me because it allows me to run free and make plays on the ball. When guys try to take him one on one, that’s when he shines. Guys aren’t really able to do that against him.” It’s worth noting that his senior season could have been more productive had he not suffered a calf injury before the season began. Leki didn’t want to miss any game action, choosing to be there for his teammates instead. It was yet another sign of loyalty for a player who didn’t want to let anyone associated with Utah down. “The fact he came and played the bowl game with us says a lot,” defensive tackles coach Sione Po’uha said. “He said, ‘We started together, we’ll end together.’ I’d add to do that, ‘We go through it together.’ That was his motto.” Po’uha first got to know Leki as a student assistant in 2016 before moving to a director of player development in position. After coaching at Navy in 2018, Po’uha came back to lead the defensive tackles in 2019. What stood out to Po’uha was that Leki was the same person in each role he has held at Utah. “He was always at my meetings 20 minutes early,” Po’uha said. “We talk about being five, eight minutes early. This guy is sitting over there, no worries. I never had to check his classes. I never had to wonder if this guy was going to be here for a 6:30 meeting. There was not a worry at all for me. He was a self-governed type of guy who is loyal to the people he is around.” As for using football to secure an education, Leki will soon follow through with that responsibility bestowed upon him. As he finishes his final class while preparing for the NFL Draft, Leki will soon hold an undergraduate degree in family consumer studies and human development from the University of Utah. Sharing the moment With everything Leki’s family has been through, the fact he has a chance to be selected during the first three rounds of next month’s NFL Draft is incredibly meaningful. For the pain and sadness Leki has experienced, this now marks a new chapter, one where he can ensure his mother never has to worry another day in her life. During the week leading up to the NFL Scouting Combine, Toa texted Leki to let him know how proud she is of how he turned out. “I don’t think anyone understands that more than the people who went through it,” Leki said. “But to know whatever you’re going through or been through, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Working hard and knowing your goals in life, with the help of the right people and the right guidance, anything is possible. I believe that I am one of those living proof of going through something me and my family went through and still having those struggles here and there. But to make it this far, it’s living proof you can get through anything with the right direction and right people in your life.” At the scouting combine, Leki met with teams, ran the 40-yard dash in 5.15 seconds and put up 21 reps on the bench press. Up next will be Utah’s pro day. After that, all he can do is wait for the draft. And that weekend, Leki plans to have those who have been by side through all the tough times with him. He wants to take in that moment with them first and foremost. Not long after he finds out where he will begin his professional career, he plans to visit Ema and Likiliki’s gravesite, where the two rest next to one another. When he prays before each game, he’s asking Ema and Likiliki to watch over him. He said he can feel their presence, knowing how proud they would be with how far he has come. It’s certainly a sad affair to deal with such loss as a youth. With Leki’s professional career set to begin, the daunting toll it has taken will never be forgotten. “Sometime after the draft, I plan to go back and share that moment with my dad and my little sister back in the Bay Area, where they’re buried at,” Leki said. “I’ll go see them there and hopefully get my family there. We’ll share the special moment of everything we’ve been working on.”
  18. INDIANAPOLIS — Chauncey Rivers wanted to make a new name for himself. His freshman year at Georgia, back in 2016, ended with a dismissal after a third marijuana-related arrest. In only seven months, Rivers went from being a rotating contributor on Georgia’s defense to needing a new place to play and a new university to attend. The place to begin his turnaround would be at East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Miss., the location where the Netflix docu-series “Last Chance U” was filmed for its first two seasons. Rivers was one of the featured players during the second season, which went into detail with his story. In the year he spent at East Mississippi, Rivers’ goal was to re-create the narrative he set for himself as a freshman. And even with the Netflix camera crew following him, Rivers credited his turnaround to the year he spent in a city that can be considered the middle of nowhere. “It really helped me just rebuild my character and rebuild my image, to show people that I wasn’t the same guy I was at the University of Georgia,” Rivers said. “I don’t want to be portrayed as the same guy that I was back then. It took a lot of me just to dig myself out of the hole I dug myself in. I just want to be the guy that shows up positive in the community and be a guy who is a positive person and a person who can lead a team and a person who can be counted on.” Numbers are thin on the Falcons’ roster at defensive end heading into the 2020 season. Rivers said he hasn’t met with the Falcons, but he is a local product. Aside from starting his college career at Georgia, he attended Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain. While edge rusher could be a position Atlanta targets in the early rounds, it would not be a surprise to grab another in a later round, as well as a couple of undrafted free agents. Rivers’ draft standing is mixed from draft analysts. He’s considered anywhere from a mid-rounder to a priority free agent. Rivers was one of East Mississippi’s team leaders and parlayed his lone season in Scooba into a scholarship opportunity at Mississippi State. Rivers was forced to take an academic redshirt in 2017 before finishing his final two seasons as a focal point of Mississippi State’s defense. He started all 13 games as a senior in 2019, totaling 43 tackles and five sacks, including 1 1/2 sacks against LSU’s Joe Burrow. Being kicked out of a place like Georgia might have been the end for a lot of players. Instead of wallowing in his sorrow, Rivers reinvented himself, which has given him the opportunity to work out in front of NFL coaches and general managers at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine. Rivers said every team he has spoken with brought up his past at Georgia. He wants to let everyone know he’s not going to put himself in the positions he was in as an 18-year-old. “I don’t want to be the same person,” he said. “I had to look at myself in the mirror and show what kind of person I wanted to be portrayed as, what kind of person I want people to look me in my eyes and see. It’s one of the biggest things I had in my life, one of the biggest things I’ve had to overcome. That’s one of the things I pride myself on. I’m happy that I turned it around.” Notable quotes from 10 potential Falcons prospects LSU edge K’Lavon Chaisson: “I’m going to be honest. I’m actually the most valuable player in the draft, when it comes to it. We all know that. When you hire someone, do you want to hire someone who speaks one language or do you want to hire someone that speaks three languages? I speak three languages. I do pass rush. I can drop in coverage and cover anybody you want me to cover. I can play the run. And no offensive lineman has ever just moved me off the ball or bullied me. So I feel like that’s what makes me more dimensional. And a more valuable player than anybody else in the draft.” Iowa edge A.J. Epenesa: “I’m confident that my best abilities are in the power rush, just using length and using speed and kind of combining it together to move people backwards and make the quarterback uncomfortable by getting in his face.” Oklahoma LB Kenneth Murray: “I think I’m an extremely instinctual player. I watch between five to six hours of tape every day. First guy in the building in the morning with my position coach watching film. All those things, they pay off, and (I’m) able to use them on Saturdays. So I think my intelligence — something that here I’m just trying to harp on when I’m in meetings, formal interviews with teams is just letting guys know, letting guys see how smart I am.” Utah DT Leki Fotu: “In making the transition from rugby to football, I knew right away I wanted to play defense. It felt more comfortable on that side. I started off playing D-end in high school. When I got to Utah, that’s when I started putting on more weight and moved inside to D-tackle. Now I’m here where I am.” Alabama edge Terrell Lewis: “I feel like what I’m trying to tell teams is I’m basically a funny guy. I’m a guy that’s comfortable playing any role in a team. Obviously, I feel like I’m versatile as far as the player on the field. You’ve seen me play at the edge, rush from three-technique, play at the nose, play stack backer and drop back into space and stuff like that. I try to express to teams that I can play in multiple ways as far as the team.” Florida State RB Cam Akers: “I’ve always been a willing receiver. I do a lot of studying of other backs in the league and my peers who also do the job well receiving. I take a lot of notes and pick up a lot from that.” Florida RB Lamical Perine: “You can’t be one-dimensional in this game. I feel like you have to be able to do everything, and that is one of my biggest traits. I am not just a one-dimensional guy; I am able to catch the ball out of the backfield and do everything the NFL wants these days. I feel like I can contribute really early.” Washington OL Nick Harris: “I’m an outgoing guy. Vibrant. A lot of people are attracted to that. Being at the center position, I think that’s important, especially at the next level. Being able to command the huddle. Being able to run the show up there and tell guys what to do. You have to be able to show that in the interview because you only get so many football reps to show it. So being able to present yourself as such is important. I want to make that known to them.” LSU C Lloyd Cushenberry: “I’m a low-maintenance guy. Don’t have a lot to say. But on the field, I flip that switch. In my first years, it took longer to develop that vocal leadership, but once I took over the center job, I knew I had to step up. As soon as 2018 came around, I was more vocal, and I had no problem with it. … Once I got the starting center job, all of that went out the window. I felt like I worked hard enough to be able to speak my mind when I wanted to and guys respected me. It’s not a problem at all.” Dayton TE Adam Trautman: “(I bring) a relentless style of play along with an edge. Every level I’ve been at, I’ve been not good enough. Coming out of high school, you’re not good enough to play FBS. And then going to Dayton, no one’s ever really played in the NFL — especially drafted since the ’70s. I’m here to keep fighting that and always use that edge and carry it with me.”
  19. INDIANAPOLIS — Shortly after news leaked on the subject, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff had what he described as a “heart-to-heart conversation” with running back Devonta Freeman about the potential of trading him to another organization. Near the 2019 trade deadline, the Detroit Lions, in particular, inquired about Freeman, with Dimitroff listening to the overture general manager Bob Quinn was presenting. The Falcons drafted Freeman in 2014 and rewarded him with a hefty extension worth $41.25 million during the 2017 offseason. But as Atlanta struggled to a 1-7 start last season, Dimitroff picked up the phone and at least listened to what the Lions had to say. According to a source at the time, the Falcons ultimately decided certain internal factors, one regarding the locker room dynamic, wouldn’t have been worth the compensation Detroit probably was willing to offer. Therefore, while discussions took place, Atlanta pulled away before anything got too serious. In the end, Dimitroff said Freeman left their midseason conversation understanding the team’s situation at hand. “It wasn’t contentious in any way,” Dimitroff said. “It was a reality of people being interested in good football players. That’s what happens. It’s going to happen more and more with how trades are going right now.” At the time, Atlanta’s situation was dire on the field. While the defense was off to a horrid start, the running game struggled to gain much ground. In Atlanta’s first eight games, Freeman had 97 carries for 333 yards. He also added 35 receptions for 272 yards and three touchdowns. Leading up to the trade deadline, the Falcons placed defensive end Vic Beasley on the block and also were willing to listen to suitors who wanted to inquire about Freeman and cornerback Desmond Trufant. Of the three, Freeman was the one who received the most interest. Speaking to a local contingency of reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine, Dimitroff was asked how close the Falcons were to trading Freeman. “It wasn’t like we were close or not close,” Dimitroff said. “We were having discussions. They weren’t benign, of course. They were just discussions about like I do with most of my contemporaries in the league — especially with people like Bob Quinn, people like that who I know very well from the days when we worked together in New England. We have discussions, sometimes light and sometimes they are put off for another time to think about if it’s real or not. The reality is ‘Free’ is a very good football player, and the league knows that. There are always going to be discussions about people like that on where the compensation is going to be. As far as seriousness, I can’t gauge that. The reality is they were legitimate discussions. They weren’t just fly by night, fly by the seat of your pants.” With that as the backdrop, the Falcons are now tasked with a similar decision to make regarding Freeman. On one hand, if the Falcons truly want to keep Freeman, they probably would have stated that publicly by now. But the reality is that the Falcons are open to options regarding his future with the franchise. Much of that has to do whether there is a new collective bargaining agreement in place by the end of the week. If so, numerous options could arise as to what the Falcons may want to do with Freeman. With a new CBA beginning in the 2020 league year, NFL teams would have a post-June 1 designation to use when cutting players. Since there is no 2021 league year for the time being, teams don’t have this tool at their disposal. If Atlanta released Freeman before June 1, it would save $3.5 million in cap space. Doing so after June 1 would be significantly more in savings. The Falcons could try to restructure Freeman’s contract if they still believe he can return to the form he presented during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Those were the only seasons Freeman ran for more than 1,000 yards. The Falcons could try to trade Freeman, which would reduce Atlanta’s 2020 salary cap number while receiving some compensation in return. During the season, even with the 1-7 record, the Falcons might not have wanted to disrupt the locker room dynamic. In the offseason, that’s a much easier thing to work through. Although Freeman’s numbers were down in 2019, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said there was still a lot to like about his play. Freeman finished the season with 656 rushing yards and two touchdowns while also posting 59 receptions, 410 receiving yards and four touchdowns. “You always look at the tape and say, ‘Where is the player at today?’” Quinn said. “I think ‘Free’ showed the explosiveness he’s had and that he’s definitely not into a declining part of his game.” If the Falcons move on from Freeman this offseason, running back seemingly would be another position the team will address, whether through the NFL Draft or through free agency. Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison are the only other running backs currently under contract. Brian Hill will soon be a restricted free agent, and Kenjon Barner will be an unrestricted free agent. Historically, Dimitroff has opted to take running backs in the middle rounds, with Tevin Coleman, a third-rounder in the 2015 draft, being his highest-selected player at the position. Dimitroff also has added running backs through free agency during his tenure in Atlanta as he signed Michael Turner in 2008 and Steven Jackson in 2013. While addressing the running back position through the draft would seem to be the more likely option, free agency could remain a possibility, especially with backs like Jordan Howard, Matt Breida and Carlos Hyde hitting the open market. Publicly, the Falcons aren’t distancing themselves from Freeman just yet. Dimitroff, who drafted Freeman, brought up the value Freeman has had on the Falcons’ franchise throughout his career. “A guy like ‘Free,’ who is so important to the organization, of course you’re always going to want to envision the idea of him being a part of what we’re trying to do here,” Dimitroff said. “That’s an important part. He’s always been an important part for us. He continues to be an adept runner for us and an important part of our run game.”
  20. INDIANAPOLIS — When it comes to fifth-year options being exercised, history has fared well for Falcons players under head coach Dan Quinn. Vic Beasley, a first-round pick in 2015, had his option picked up and exercised for the 2019 season. Keanu Neal, a 2016 first-rounder, had his option picked up with the expectation being that it will be exercised when the time comes. Takk McKinley, a 2017 first-rounder, could be the first to buck this trend in the Quinn era. For context, shortly after the 2018 season concluded, the Falcons revealed their intention to pick up Neal’s fifth-year option. Conversely, the team has remained mum on McKinley’s status all offseason. Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were asked at the NFL Scouting Combine about McKinley’s standing with the team after the 2020 season. Dimitroff was asked first about McKinley in a scrum with local reporters. “We haven’t planned on anything yet,” Dimitroff said. “We’re still talking about it. Those aren’t easy situations as you can imagine. It doesn’t always indicate your fondness for a player. Sometimes it has a lot to do with other situations as you can imagine. We’ve exercised it over the years. We’re big believers in keeping the people we drafted, of course. You can’t make mistakes on that, and we’ll keep our eye on that.” Dimitroff noted that a recent trend suggests teams aren’t picking up the fifth-year option. In 2019, 12 teams declined to pick up the option, and two released their first-round pick prior to their contract’s expiration. With the New England Patriots forfeiting their 2016 first-round pick because of the Deflategate scandal, the remaining 17 teams exercised the fifth-year option. Shortly after Dimitroff spoke to reporters, it was Quinn’s turn to hold court with the local media contingency. After McKinley was brought up, Quinn was asked about his status following the 2020 season. From the interview: So are you guys close to a decision on picking up his fifth-year option or not, for Takk? “Yes,” Quinn replied. So you are going to? “No.” No, you’re not going to? “Correct.” A few questions later, the topic was brought back up, with Quinn being told that Dimitroff said the team was still deliberating McKinley’s fifth-year option. Quinn then said that Dimitroff’s depiction was accurate and that the team was “still deciding” whether to pick up the option. About 30 minutes after Quinn’s media availability wrapped up, a team official told The Athletic that Quinn misinterpreted the original line of questioning and that Atlanta’s official stance is that no decision has been made regarding McKinley’s future. NFL clubs have until May 4 to execute the fifth-year option on players taken in the first round of the 2017 draft. Two years ago, the Falcons elected to execute Beasley’s option and honored it last offseason. While teams execute fifth-year options heading into a player’s fourth season, those agreements guarantee for injury only and can be voided prior to the subsequent league year’s beginning of that player’s fifth year. Last offseason, Atlanta felt it could get Beasley back into 2016 form when he totaled 15.5 sacks en route to helping the franchise reach the Super Bowl. Considering McKinley is also a pass-rushing defensive end, the situation seems similar, although McKinley has yet to post a season with double-digit sacks. “In our situation with Vic, we felt strongly that we wanted his pass-rush prowess around for another year,” Dimitroff said. “That was important for us. We decided to go forward with him. He had eight sacks. Would we have liked for him to have 16? Potentially. He has the ability to do it. Unfortunately, we didn’t get there. He obviously played better in the second half of the season.” Dimitroff said the franchise is hopeful that defensive ends coach/defensive run game coordinator Tosh Lupoi’s addition will help McKinley put forth a strong campaign this coming season. Lupoi was with the Cleveland Browns in 2019 and spent the previous five years at the college level with Alabama. Lupoi’s expertise has long been in the edge-rushing area, which will be needed if the Falcons are to improve upon the 27 sacks they posted in 2019. While McKinley underwent a second shoulder surgery early this offseason, Quinn is remaining positive about his potential for the 2020 season. “I think we’re going to get the best version of him,” Quinn said. “He’s really putting out in getting strong. To have a second shoulder surgery, that’s a big deal. You want to make sure you’re going to hit every marker as strongly as he can.” Said Dimitroff: “I think Takk has really good upside about him. I think if Takk stays healthy, continues to have a coach he works well with, who continues to push him, we’re excited about having Tosh here. I think that’s going to be an important thing for that D-line, as well. We’ll see how he continues to develop.” McKinley’s standing with the team wasn’t the only news Atlanta’s brass made during its appearance at the scouting combine. Dimitroff revealed that the Falcons will allow tight end Austin Hooper, outside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and offensive lineman Wes Schweitzer to test free agency. Hooper is coming off his best season, which saw him catch 75 passes for 787 yards and six touchdowns. As perhaps the top free agent at his position, Hooper could command a salary well above $10 million per year in average annual value. Campbell led the Falcons with 129 tackles, which marked the second consecutive season he was able to accomplish that. He also should see some sizable contract offers come his way. While he began each of the past two seasons in a backup role, Schweitzer was plugged in as a starter in both years because of injuries along the offensive line. While the Falcons are planning to allow these players to hit free agency, Dimitroff said he will keep the lines of communication open with their respective representation. “In no way does that mean we’re not interested in continuing to negotiate,” Dimitroff said. “It’s just we need to get to the market to help us gauge where we are, being one of the teams that’s right in the spot where we need to be smart about how we approach our salary cap into the future.”
  21. INDIANAPOLIS — Since Thomas Dimitroff became the Falcons’ general manager in 2008, the franchise’s draft philosophy has been to take the best player at a position of need. Sometimes, there aren’t that many positions of need, which allows the team to home in on a specific group. This year seems a bit different. While edge rusher is probably the most glaring need, there are plenty of other positions the Falcons need to address. For instance: • Edge rusher: The Falcons will not re-sign Vic Beasley after five years with the franchise. Takk McKinley is coming off a season during which he recorded only 3.5 sacks. The Falcons need another edge presence who can get after the quarterback, considering the team hasn’t had a player record double-digit sacks since 2016. • Defensive tackle: Two of Atlanta’s top three defensive tackles are slated to be free agents in Tyeler Davison and Jack Crawford. While it would be wise to re-sign Davison, who is only 27 years old, the Falcons could bolster their depth at the position for pass-rushing purposes. • Linebacker: If De’Vondre Campbell is allowed to leave via free agency, there will be a major hole at the position. In this scenario, Atlanta would have only one proven player in Deion Jones at linebacker, with Foye Oluokun suddenly propelled into a bigger role. • Cornerback: If the Falcons decide to make Desmond Trufant a cap casualty — the team can save $4.95 million with his release — there will be a major need at the position with only Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver returning to the roster at the present time. If the Falcons decide to part with Trufant because of financial concerns, cornerback actually could jump to the top of the needs list. • Safety: While the Falcons will be fine at safety in 2020, Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee are all set to be free agents entering 2021. With three standout players at the position for the upcoming season, this might not be a position to target in the first round, but it could be one to look at in the middle rounds. • Interior offensive line: Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary will return as starters up front. Left guard remains the only position to fill. In addition, Mack is entering the final year of his contract, so it could be useful to find someone who can fill in at left guard in the short term but projects as the center for the future. • Tight end: Austin Hooper is set to break the bank this offseason, and the Falcons might not be able to afford him. If not, there will be a glaring absence at tight end. Hooper was valuable to Atlanta’s offense, setting career bests in 13 games with 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns. • Running back: Much of this hinges on whether Atlanta releases or trades Devonta Freeman, which would save $3.5 million against the salary cap. Dimitroff has stated that his preference is to use the middle rounds to find running back talent, and for now, there is no reason to suggest he wouldn’t take that approach with the 2020 draft. There is a lot to sort through when it comes to Atlanta’s seven picks. But the franchise will have plenty of opportunities to find some upper-tier talent since it has four picks in the top 100: Nos. 16, 47, 55 and 78 overall. With the NFL Scouting Combine beginning this week, here are 15 prospects who could pique the Falcons’ interest: 1. Auburn DT Derrick Brown 2. South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw 3. Clemson LB/S Isaiah Simmons It would take a rather unlikely and unforeseen scenario for the Falcons to be able to trade all the way up to No. 2 overall to take Ohio State defensive end Chase Young. But there are still some players at positions of need the Falcons could trade into the top 10 for if they feel that works in their best interest. Brown began the draft season as the top defensive tackle in this year’s class but has seen some competition come forward with Kinlaw’s rise. Kinlaw had a spectacular showing during Senior Bowl week, which seemed to propel him from the middle of the first round and into the top 10. Brown and Kinlaw are explosive and seemingly would pair well with Grady Jarrett along the interior. With the quick game becoming more popular with offenses around the NFL, applying an interior pass rush has become vital. Pairing either of those prospects with Jarrett likely would make head coach Dan Quinn a happy camper. The wild-card prospect the Falcons could also trade up for is Simmons. Simmons is perhaps the most intriguing prospect in this class since he can play either at linebacker or safety. Teams might even want to design a hybrid role for Simmons because of his versatility. Linebacker and safety are positions of need for Atlanta, with the Falcons possibly addressing two positions if they were to draft Simmons. Simmons also can rush the passer when needed. 4. LSU edge K’Lavon Chaisson 5. Iowa edge A.J. Epenesa 6. Oklahoma LB Kenneth Murray Behind Young, Chaisson and Epenesa are the next pass rushers considered to be first-rounders, at least at this time. Chaisson, at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, boasts great athleticism off of the edge and checks all the boxes when it comes to physical ability. Epenesa is the other edge defender of note, although he’s bigger and not as explosive. At 6-6 and 280 pounds, Epenesa offers great length and is fundamentally sound at the position. If both edge defenders are available, and this is the route the Falcons want to take at No. 16 overall, it will all come down to preference considering the differences in the players. But if the Falcons don’t go with an edge defender in the first round, it could be due to someone like Murray standing out among everyone else. A smart player at linebacker, Murray has exceptional speed for his size and possesses great instincts. With Campbell’s future uncertain, someone like Murray could wind up stepping in if that particular position needs to be filled. After the first round: 7. Utah DT Leki Fotu If the Falcons wait on a defensive tackle, Fotu could make a great fit in the second round. He has great agility and movement for someone who happens to be 6-5 and 337 pounds. His days as a high school All-American in rugby helped develop this as there might not be a better athlete at his body type in this year’s draft. 8. Mississippi State CB Cameron Dantzler Even if the Falcons decide to keep Trufant, adding a cornerback isn’t a bad idea, simply because of the adage that you can never have enough at the position. Dantzler fits the mold of what the Falcons typically look for with their cornerbacks. He’s 6-2 and 185 pounds with great arm length. 9. LSU C Lloyd Cushenberry Cushenberry is exceptionally durable since he hasn’t missed a start since his sophomore season. If the Falcons wanted to get a head start on finding Mack’s replacement once his contract expires, Cushenberry could be someone to watch throughout the draft season. 10. Dayton TE Adam Trautman If the Falcons are unable to keep Hooper, they could find themselves trying to find a player at the position with a similar skill set. Known for being an athletic tight end with a basketball background, Trautman is an intriguing prospect for teams looking to find a tight end near the end of day two. 11. Washington C/G Nick Harris Harris is intelligent and versatile, which are great traits for interior offensive linemen. While only 6-1, Harris is great at identifying certain checks before the snap and offers great agility after the snap. He played both interior offensive line positions at Washington, which should bode well to any team, such as Atlanta, needing short term help at guard while holding a long-term need at center. 12. Lenoir-Rhyne S Kyle Dugger Dugger needed to impress at the Senior Bowl and did just that, wowing scouts with his athleticism, speed and ball skills. A late bloomer, Dugger has all physical makeup to play at the next level but obviously will see a tremendous uptick in competition going from Division II to the NFL. 13. Florida RB Lamical Perine If the Falcons stay true to philosophy, they shouldn’t take a running back until the third round at the earliest. A slew of quality backs should still be on the board then, including Perine. While the Florida rushing game struggled at times, Perine managed to average 5.1 yards per carry in 2019. He has good vision as a runner and solid power to break tackles. In the late rounds: 14. Southern Miss WR Quez Watkins 15. Tulsa CB Reggie Robinson II Late-round prospects must be ready to contribute on special teams immediately. Before he earned rotational time last season, receiver Russell Gage was primarily a special-teams contributor. Now that he’s set to play more on offense, the Falcons could use another receiver who could offer good value in this department. Watkins is 6-2 and 190 pounds with good speed. He caught 64 passes for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns in 2019. Robinson is the true definition of a sleeper at this year’s combine. He has great height at 6-2, but more importantly, his arm length of 32 3/8 inches will draw a lot of scouts’ eyes his way.
  22. The Falcons’ 2016 draft class proved fruitful during the past four seasons. Safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones have reached the Pro Bowl. Tight end Austin Hooper is in line for a big paycheck after his four years with the franchise. In addition, fourth-round linebacker De’Vondre Campbell has been an instrumental presence on Atlanta’s defense since he was selected. While Jones recently was re-signed to a big deal, salary-cap concerns could keep the Falcons from doing the same with Campbell. And with linebacker already a thin position, this figures to be a position of major interest that the Falcons address this offseason. While linebacker is important, so are the two specialist positions that Atlanta will hold competitions for throughout the offseason and preseason. The Falcons are carrying two punters, Ryan Allen and Sam Irwin-Hill, on inexpensive one-year contracts. Atlanta reached a similar agreement with place-kicker Younghoe Koo, who was an exclusive-rights free agent, before the beginning of the new league year. Although Koo performed well for the Falcons — 23-of-26 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 50 yards — the team is likely to bring in a competitor at some point this offseason. Here’s an early offseason look at where Atlanta stands at linebacker and with its specialists: Linebacker Under contract: Jones, Foye Oluokun. Free agents: Campbell. The starters: Jones finished his 2019 season on a high note by recording a pick-six against Jameis Winston in the season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which gave the Falcons a victory. It also made Winston the first player in NFL history to throw for at least 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season. Jones broke his foot in 2018 and continued to deal with some lingering effects from that in 2019. Jones, who signed a four-year, $57 million deal last offseason, should be closer to 100 percent healthwise this coming season. Oluokun, regarded as Atlanta’s best value pick of the 2018 draft, will have a great opportunity for more playing time as he enters his third season. Oluokun also has been instrumental on special teams during his first two seasons. Backing up: As it stands, Jones and Oluokun are the only linebackers on Atlanta’s roster, so this figures to be a position the team addresses this offseason. There is an argument to be made that the Falcons should draft a linebacker in the early rounds to ensure the appropriate depth is in place while bolstering the talent group at the position. The Falcons must target numerous positions of need, which makes it difficult to pinpoint when, where and how they will address linebacker. Regardless, adding quality depth players who can step up in case of injury will be important. Offseason outlook: While teams employ the nickel package more than the base package these days, the Falcons probably will want to have at least four linebackers on the roster — although they did finish the 2019 season with only three. Campbell figures to be in for a sizable payday in free agency, which could be too rich for the Falcons under the expected 2020 salary cap. Of course, if a new collective bargaining agreement is reached that expands the cap by a greater-than-expected margin, then perhaps Atlanta can bring Campbell back. Atlanta, like many teams, is in a holding pattern with many of these decisions until the new cap agreement is finalized. Specialists Under contract: Koo, Allen, Josh Harris, Irwin-Hill. Free agents: Matt Bosher. The starters: The only guaranteed starter returning is Harris, who has been the Falcons’ long-snapper since 2012. While it wouldn’t be a surprise for the Falcons to add a long-snapper to keep him fresh during training camp, Harris, regarded as one of the NFL’s best, is set to be Atlanta’s starter once again. Competition: This offseason will feature competition at punter and place-kicker. The Falcons have two punters under contract in Allen and Irwin-Hill. Allen finished this past season as Atlanta’s starting punter and averaged 41.9 yards with a 37.5 net average. Allen landed 14 of his 28 punts inside the 20-yard line and performed well with his coffin-corner punts near midfield. But before Allen’s arrival, Irwin-Hill was given a crack at the job before Atlanta’s game against Arizona, only to be released due to an issue with his work visa. The Australian’s work visa has now been fixed to where he can compete with Allen this offseason. Irwin-Hill last played with the defunct Alliance of American Football’s San Diego Fleet and posted an overall average of 43.7 yards per punt, with a net average of 38.6. Koo is the only place-kicker on the roster now, but the Falcons are expected to add another player at the position this offseason, perhaps after the NFL Draft. Koo will be given every chance to win the job, but it won’t come without competition. Offseason outlook: With two punters on the roster, the natural assumption is that the team will move on from Bosher, who has been Atlanta’s punter since 2011. Bosher, a sixth-round selection in 2011, accounted for a $2.545 million cap hit in 2019, which is something that can be reduced to a league-minimum number with either Allen or Irwin-Hill as the starting punter. Considering the decision to put two punters under contract before free agency began, the likelihood that Bosher returns appears slim to none. As for place-kicker, if Atlanta is serious about an actual competition, it would be wise to bring in a priority undrafted free agent — much like the Baltimore Ravens did in 2012, when they brought Justin Tucker in to compete with Billy Cundiff.
  23. The Falcons were a completely different team during the second half of the 2019 season. Much of that had to do with how the secondary improved almost instantaneously following the Week 9 bye. Throughout a 1-7 start, the Falcons found themselves missing assignments and unable to communicate on the back end. During this time, there were no signs that such a sudden improvement could take place. Conventional wisdom suggested that, after the bye, the Falcons’ defense would remain easy to attack for any opposing offense. As it turned out, head coach Dan Quinn moved then-receivers coach Raheem Morris to defensive backs, and Morris got to work fixing some technical issues with the young cornerbacks. Atlanta went into a Week 10 meeting against the New Orleans Saints and held them to nine points and fewer than 300 passing yards. During the first eight games, Atlanta allowed 31.3 points and 261.1 passing yards. That number dropped to 18.6 points and 228.6 passing yards during the final eight games. With a lot of attention focused on Atlanta’s lack of a pass rush, the secondary’s inability to cover led to easy pick-ups and easy third-down conversions. In addition, sacks became hard to come by for Atlanta’s defensive line. During the first eight weeks, Atlanta led the NFL by allowing teams to pick up 65.6 passing yards per game when a quarterback releases the ball in two seconds or fewer, according to radar360. That number fell to 56.8 passing yards per game, albeit still third-worst in the league, from weeks 10-17. More importantly, however, is that the Falcons went from the worst team in defensive third-down percentage (53 percent) in the first half of the season to the best during the second half of the season (25.8 percent). While the Falcons only had two interceptions during those first eight games, they tied for the league-lead with 10 during those final eight games. Totaling a league-worst seven sacks during the first eight games, Atlanta ranked tied for 10th during the final eight-game stretch with 21 sacks. There was a lot to like about the secondary’s dramatic improvement, although it came without a chance at a berth to the postseason. While coaches and players often say that seasons are independent of one another, Atlanta certainly will hope certain aspects of how the secondary finished will carry over into the 2020 season. Here’s an early offseason look at where Atlanta stands with its secondary: Cornerback Under contract: Desmond Trufant, Kendall Sheffield, Isaiah Oliver, Jordan Miller. Free agents: Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Jamar Taylor. The starters: The big question at cornerback is whether Trufant will be back next season. The Falcons could free $4.95 million with his release. While that’s the case, the Falcons certainly will wait for the new collective bargaining agreement to be reached before deciding what decision works in their best interest. If Trufant stays in Atlanta, there should be a good competition for the other starting spot between Sheffield and Oliver. Oliver opened the 2019 season as a starter but Sheffield took that role in Atlanta’s base package by the end of this past season. With Morris moving to defensive coordinator and Joe Whitt Jr. coaching the secondary, the Falcons should be much more fundamentally sound at the start of this coming season. Therefore, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Oliver position himself back into a starter’s role. And if that’s the case, Sheffield could once again be the team’s top nickel back — unless safety Damontae Kazee gets another look at the spot. Of course, if Trufant is a cap casualty, that opens up many different avenues the Falcons could take. Backing up: As of now, it’s fairly thin at cornerback. Behind the top three corners, Miller is the only other under contract. And Miller is suspended for the first three games of the 2020 season due to violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. If Trufant is released or traded, the Falcons likely will add quite a few players to the group. Offseason outlook: Wreh-Wilson has been a solid contributor when called upon the past four years. Bringing him back to the fold shouldn’t cost too much against the salary cap, and the Falcons would love to have his experience on the roster once again. With how the position group improved during the second half of the season, there’s enough optimism to think that this could be a solid group if everyone returns. At the same time, adding a proven player or someone in the early rounds of the draft to bolster the unit even further could be something worth considering. And if Trufant is gone, the Falcons may want to heavily consider drafting a cornerback in the early rounds. Safety Under contract: Kazee, Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal, Jamal Carter, Chris Cooper, CJ Reavis, Ahmad Thomas. Free agents: J.J. Wilcox, Kemal Ishmael, Sharrod Neasman, Johnathan Cyprien. The starters: While Allen, who suffered a season-ending injury in 2018, was able to start every game this past season, Neal went down with a serious injury for the second consecutive season. After tearing his ACL in Week 1 of the 2018 season, Neal tore his Achilles in Week 3 of 2019. Rehabbing since, Neal certainly will hope the 2020 season has a much better outcome than the previous two seasons. If Allen and Neal man the starter positions for an entire season, the Falcons will need to figure out a plan for Kazee. Some three-safety sets could be in store to ensure Kazee, arguably Atlanta’s best ball hawk, isn’t on the sideline for long periods of time. Backing up: Cooper is an interesting name to monitor throughout the offseason. He had a good offseason and preseason in 2019 but didn’t make the 53-man roster out of training camp due to the players ahead of him on the depth chart. Atlanta was fortunate to keep him on the practice squad for the majority of the season until calling him up for the final game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But with Allen, Neal and Kazee at the position, there might only be one or two other spots available for the 53-man roster. The Falcons likely will want any additional safeties to contribute on special teams, which would be reasons to bring back players like Ishmael or Neasman to short-term deals. Offseason outlook: The Falcons must start thinking about the future at safety. Allen, Neal and Kazee are all set to be free agents after the 2020 season. It seems tough to assume Atlanta will be able to keep all three safeties and, therefore, may consider drafting a safety in the early rounds. The Falcons will have four picks in the top 100 and could snag a safety with one of those selections.
  24. The last Falcons defender to record 10 or more sacks in a season will not be on the roster in 2020. Two weeks ago, the Falcons announced they would not pursue a second contract with defensive end Vic Beasley before the new league year begins on March 18. Beasley totaled 15.5 sacks during his second season in 2016, which led many to believe he was on pace for a great career with the franchise. It wasn’t meant to be as Beasley tallied 18 sacks during the subsequent three seasons. Beasley did flirt with double digits this past season by getting 6.5 of his eight sacks during the final eight games. It proved to not be enough, however, as the Falcons elected to go in a different direction. Under head coach Dan Quinn, getting after the quarterback has been problematic for Atlanta, despite Beasley’s big year in 2016. Not once in Quinn’s five seasons have the Falcons cracked the top 10 in sack totals or totaled 40 sacks in a single season. 2019: 28 sacks, 29th in the NFL 2018: 37 sacks, 22nd in the NFL 2017: 39 sacks, (tie) 13th in the NFL 2016: 34 sacks, 16th in the NFL 2015: 19 sacks, 32nd in the NFL Last year, Quinn tweaked the defensive line’s front to apply better pressure but to no avail. This year, he and the front office must add a difference-maker to the roster if the results are to improve up front. One thing that should help the defensive line will be if the secondary continues to perform well. During the second half of the 2019 season, the defensive backs covered better, which allowed the defensive line to have more time to get after opposing quarterbacks. If the secondary continues to improve, that should further help the defensive line’s ability to apply pressure. But it has been quite some time since the Falcons had a dependable edge rusher who could be counted on week after week. Before Beasley, John Abraham was the last defender to reach double digits in sacks with 10 in 2012. During his seven seasons with the Falcons, Abraham accomplished this feat four times. Salary-cap issues aside, the Falcons need to figure out how they can find a player of that caliber for the upcoming 2020 season. Here’s an early offseason look at where Atlanta stands with its defensive line: Defensive end Under contract: Takk McKinley, Allen Bailey, John Cominsky, Austin Larkin. Free agents: Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Steven Means. The starters: With the Falcons electing to move on from Beasley, the only true returning starter is McKinley, who is entering the fourth year of his rookie contract. Selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, McKinley has totaled 16.5 sacks in three seasons. Statistically, he’s coming off his worst season in 2019, which saw him total 3.5 sacks before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. The Falcons publicly haven’t declared whether they are picking up McKinley’s fifth-year option yet. Even if they do pick up the option, they still could terminate the agreement before the 2021 league year begins. Therefore, McKinley needs to produce like he was expected this season if he’s to earn a sizable second contract with the team that drafted him. Backing up: As of now, the depth, in terms of experience, is fairly thin. Bailey is set to enter the second season of a two-year deal after playing primarily as a run defender last season. With Beasley gone, perhaps Bailey will get some additional chances to rush the passer. In his final season with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018, Bailey sacked the quarterback six times. With the Falcons in 2019, he recorded only one sack. Cominsky and Larkin are intriguing players for varying reasons. Cominsky is a defensive end for now, although the Falcons previously stated they see him as a pass-rushing defensive tackle in the future. Larkin turned some heads last preseason and ended up seeing action in two games. His development will be something to watch through the offseason. Offseason outlook: When it comes to the draft, signs seemingly would point to the Falcons taking an edge rusher early. While Atlanta would love to get a defensive end who can hit double digits in sacks through free agency, its salary-cap situation might prevent itself from doing so. Therefore, the draft might be the best avenue for an edge rusher, even if that comes with the risk of the player not panning out (see: Beasley). Needing depth, the Falcons also could look to re-signing Clayborn and Means, who are two dependable defenders on run downs. Defensive tackle Under contract: Grady Jarrett, Deadrin Senat, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. Free agents: Tyeler Davison, Jack Crawford, Michael Bennett. The starters: As the Falcons continue to figure out what to do on the edge, they can at least be reassured that their best defensive tackle, and overall defender, will be back. After signing his four-year, $68 million contract, Jarrett put forth his best season to date, which culminated in a Pro Bowl berth. This past season, he worked alongside Davison and Crawford, with both of those players slated to be free agents. Davison proved valuable on run downs and could be someone the Falcons try to sign to a multi-year extension. Backing up: Tuioti-Mariner got some run late in the year and showed his versatility by playing on the edge and inside. That experience could bode well as he enters his third season with the franchise after spending the bulk of his first two seasons on the practice squad before being called up late in 2019. Senat might be in a prove-it year with the Falcons. As a former third-round selection, Senat was only active in two games last season, which could put him in on the bubble for a roster spot in 2020. Offseason outlook: It seems like the Falcons at least will make an attempt to re-sign Davison. It remains to be seen whether Atlanta wants to bring back Crawford. The Falcons will need to ensure they have depth while possibly adding another defensive tackle in the draft. An early projection by analysts had South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw going to Atlanta at No. 16, only to see Kinlaw’s stock rise considerably during Senior Bowl week. With Jarrett, the Falcons have an elite-level defensive tackle on the roster. But adding a bigger body with athleticism, perhaps in the second or third round, might help Jarrett even more in passing situations.
  25. The last time the Falcons returned at least four starters on the offensive line came in 2018 when they brought back everyone up front and added Brandon Fusco to start at right guard. Unfortunately for the Falcons, that season didn’t go too well from a protection standpoint as quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked 42 times. That stated, much of the line’s unraveling in 2018 had to do with injuries to Fusco and Andy Levitre, as well as a sudden drop in play from right tackle Ryan Schraeder. As a result, the 2019 offensive line was practically a new-look unit, with only left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack holding down their respective positions. And the results were worse. Ryan was sacked a career-worst 48 times — although that number isn’t as ****ing as it appeared since the Falcons threw a league-most 684 times this past season. Even with such a staggering number, Football Outsiders ranked the Falcons’ pass protection 13th in the NFL with a 6.6 percent adjusted sack rate. Still, the Falcons are well aware they need to do better in pass protection. And they do return four starters from the 2019 team, which adds confidence inside the team facility, even if that didn’t work so well in 2018. Here’s an early offseason look at where Atlanta stands with its offensive line: Tackle Under contract: Matthews, Kaleb McGary, Ty Sambrailo, Lukayus McNeil. The starters: Both of Atlanta’s starting tackles will return, with the veteran Matthews entering his seventh season and the young McGary set to play his second season. Matthews put forth another solid campaign and was able to once again play in all 16 games. McGary had his share of ups and downs as a rookie but showed improvement as the season progressed. As a run blocker, McGary had his best moments, especially when he was able to show his strength and tenacity on zone plays. As a pass protector, the goal will be for a full offseason to help get him further up to speed with the NFL game, which features tough edge rushers every week. Backing up: With Matthews and McGary appearing in each game, the only backup at tackle in 2019 was Ty Sambrailo, who rotated with McGary in the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings and subbed in when the rookie had to leave Week 2’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles momentarily with a knee injury. McNeil joined the Falcons’ practice squad in early October and then signed a futures deal shortly after the season ended. Offseason outlook: Sambrailo’s status is one to monitor since the Falcons could save $3.75 million with his release. But by doing so, they would be parting ways with a swing tackle who can back up both Matthews and McGary while filling a jumbo package role. Sambrailo has plenty of experience, and it’s hard to make up for that when it comes to filling depth on the offensive line. If the Falcons were to part ways with him due to financial reasons, his replacement could come either via the middle-to-later rounds of the draft or through free agency. Guard Under contract: Chris Lindstrom, James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Matt Gono, Sean Harlow. Free agent: John Wetzel. The starters: Heading into the offseason, Lindstrom is the only confirmed starter as the Falcons’ brass has stated that there is a hole at left guard to fill. And that was said knowing that Carpenter, the starter until concussions knocked him out for the season, is still under contract. Unfortunately for the Falcons, Lindstrom missed 11 games due to a broken foot that was suffered in the season opener against the Vikings. But Lindstrom showed signs of why he was the 14th overall pick in the final four games. Backing up: Carpenter and Brown were signed to compete for the starting left guard spot and to provide adequate depth. After 16 games, that position once again will be up for grabs based on results. The wild card here is Gono, who moved to guard late during the 2019 season. While Gono cross-trained at guard late in 2018, he ultimately was moved back to tackle for most of the 2019 season. If Sambrailo sticks with the Falcons in 2020, it’s possible Gono will continue to rep at guard this offseason. Offseason outlook: All signs point to the Falcons adding a left guard, whether it’s through free agency or the draft. And depending on who that player ends up being, that could mean either Carpenter or Brown, or both, could lose a roster spot. It also seems like now should be the time to ramp up Gono’s development at guard, considering the undrafted lineman out of Division III Wesley College has been on the 53-man roster for consecutive seasons. Center Under contract: Mack. Free agent: Wes Schweitzer. The starter: Mack played through an injured elbow for a good portion of the season, which only further defines how tough he has been during his 11-year NFL career. While Mack has been exceptional from a physical standpoint, his mental acumen separates him from many of the other centers in the NFL. He makes certain checks to his fellow linemen, which takes away from Ryan’s responsibilities at the line of scrimmage. While the Falcons could save $8 million with his release, the line — on a team with a coach and general manager needing a big season to continue their tenures — most certainly would suffer in the short term. Backing up: As of now, there isn’t a player slated to be on the roster in 2020 who has center experience. While Mack has been durable and has shown the propensity to play through injury, the Falcons obviously would want a backup center they can depend on in the event something happens to Mack in the middle of the game. When it comes to an interior lineman acquisition this offseason, whether through free agency or the draft, versatility will be key. Offseason outlook: Although it would be a surprise to not see Mack on the roster in 2020, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Atlanta address the need for a center for the foreseeable future. It could be with a draft pick or free-agent acquisition, perhaps in the form of someone who has played both guard and center snaps in the NFL. That also could mean Schweitzer is brought back due to the coaches’ comfort of knowing he can both back up Mack and step in as a guard if needed.