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  1. https://theathletic.com/1978973/2020/08/06/schultz-why-grady-jarrett-is-the-way-he-is-and-why-falcons-need-more-like-him/ Before anybody knew really who Grady Jarrett was, before he helped elevate a floundering college football program to a national force and an NFL team to near Super Bowl champion, he was off the grid. Major college scouts never ventured out to Conyers because Rockdale County High School wasn’t a Georgia program known to produce high-level talent. The program had one winning season in Jarrett’s four years. Nobody was going to come to watch him. So he went to them. “We had a camp. I think it was before his senior year,” Dan Brooks said. An invitational camp? “No. It was open,” Brooks said. “If it was an invitation deal, we might not have invited him. We didn’t know a lot about him before he came in, other than he could run, and he was a great high school wrestler. People thought he was too short.” This was early in June of 2010, early in Dabo Swinney’s tenure at Clemson. Brooks was the Tigers’ defensive line coach. He watched Jarrett take on bigger linemen in drills and, “He ripped everybody there. I kept telling Coach Swinney, ‘Come here and watch push rush drills.’ We picked the best offensive linemen we had in camp to go against him, and I don’t think Grady lost one (drill) the whole time. I said, ‘We gotta take this guy.’ They said, ‘He’s too short.’ I said, ‘No, he’s not too short!’ I don’t care how tall they are if they play like that.” Brooks won the debate. Swinney made an offer. Jarrett committed to Clemson. Scouting services listed him as a “two-star” or a “three-star.” They also listed him at 6-foot-2, which stretched the truth, which is just what Jarrett wanted. Not that it mattered. He soon proved to everybody what he could do on a football field. I bring this story up now because the Falcons are coming off two miserable and underachieving seasons. Jarrett fits into the category of players who probably is taking this the hardest. He plays beyond what the measurables suggest he should, just as he played beyond what recruiting services thought and what NFL scouts projected, as evidenced by the fact he lasted until the fifth round in 2015. There were 136 players taken before him. The Falcons’ first two picks in that first draft with Dan Quinn as coach: Vic Beasley and Jalen Collins, two players whose physical talents proved to far outweigh their desire and determination. The Falcons always liked Jarrett, but even they never projected he would become a fixture in their starting lineup, a leader of their defense, a Pro Bowler and an “undersized” defensive tackle who sacked Tom Brady three times in the Super Bowl. Jarrett so far outplayed his modest rookie contract that general manager Thomas Dimitroff would not have been surprised if the player complained about his salary and nudged him for a new deal. It never happened. “I’ve never met a player who was more mature in the contract process than Grady Jarrett,” Dimitroff said. “I don’t think I’ll admire anybody more in that setting, He handled it, head-on, no moaning, no agitation. I don’t know how many people would’ve navigated that the way he did. All the times he and I spoke about the team and leadership, he never once pulled me aside to talk about his contract — not that he couldn’t have.” The Falcons rewarded Jarrett before the 2019 season with a four-year, $68 million contract. He was universally recognized as not only a player of NFL caliber but one you build a defense around. But there wasn’t joy in the season that followed. The only thing that frustrates Jarrett more than losing is seeing teammates underachieve. He never would publicly throw anybody under the bus. But the truth is the Falcons had too many players who went south after the 2016 Super Bowl season. They either were not as dedicated as him or were worried more about their paycheck than leading teammates and winning games. Look at some of the players who were let go after the past two seasons, including Beasley. Look at Devonta Freeman, whose then-agent spoke out about his contract during Super Bowl week and never consistently played at the same level after he got the big contract. The losing ate at Jarrett last season, just as it ate at him at Rockdale County. Having varied experiences, from high school to four double-digit-win seasons at Clemson to extreme highs and lows with the Falcons has helped him process things. But it’s not easy. “On a personal level, no matter how good or bad things are going, I’ll always try to be my best and prepare in a way to where I can put my best foot forward no matter how it is,” he said. “Whether things are going good or bad, you always have to try to lead your teammates and encourage them. You can always be better and things could always be worse. So you’ve got to be thankful for where you are. I just want to be that consistent player to try to help us reach the postseason every year and to never give up, no matter the circumstances.” As for the frustrations of consecutive 7-9 seasons, including last year’s 1-7 start against the backdrop of high expectations, Jarrett said, “As a competitor, you always want to play for the championship. You want to win a lot of games. But I wouldn’t compare past success and making it like a frustration point for me. It’s just a point of motivation to try to get better and to try to get back to where I know we can be.” It’s the week-to-week, year-to-year focus great athletes have. But last season’s losing and constantly being one of the few stand-up guys in the locker room after games weren’t easy. After a 37-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, Julio Jones had a fiery postgame speech to teammates and said players were at fault for the 1-6 start, not Quinn. It was notable that Jones, Jarrett and Ricardo Allen, three team leaders, left the stadium without speaking to the media, effectively requiring other players to come out. It clearly bothers Jarrett when others don’t get the most out of their talent because that’s not the way he’s wired. “I don’t want to speak for him,” Dimitroff said. “But given his drive, his personality, his grit, his whole makeup, I’m sure people like that really struggle because they know how good this football team can be. It takes more than just pure talent. It takes being on the front foot and pushing through for everyone. That I’m sure would be agitating for someone like Grady, given his makeup.” Brooks is now retired. He last spoke to Jarrett at a Clemson football function in March, but the two frequently text each other, and Brooks said early on at Clemson he spoke to Jarrett about the frustrations of playing on a losing team. “He and I had a lot of long talks about him trying to motivate teammates to be better,” Brooks said. “Rockdale County didn’t have a run of great success. But he was successful in wrestling, an individual thing, which was something he could control. He was under-recruited because they didn’t have other players, they hadn’t had success, and he had to overcome those things.” Brooks also believes the past two seasons frustrated Jarrett. “He really tries to be a leader but it’s in a real positive way,” Brooks said. “I’ve never been in that locker room. But (at Clemson) he could challenge guys to be their best in my little segment group, in my room or on defense. If he’s talking to a linebacker, it’s, ‘I’ve got this gap, you’re supposed to have that one.’ He could challenge guys to be better. So I’m sure it’s worn on him.” The player nobody wanted, the player Georgia and Georgia Tech didn’t notice until it was too late, went on to become an All-ACC pick and team captain at Clemson. The Tigers, who went 6-7 in Swinney’s second full season as coach in 2010, had an aggregate record of 42-11 with two Orange Bowl appearances in Jarrett’s four seasons. His tenacity, his “motor,” reminded many of his father, Jessie Tuggle, the former Falcons’ linebacker who similarly played beyond his dimensions and expectations. Jarrett had “everything you were looking for,” in a defensive lineman, Brooks said. “Everything except the height,” Brooks said. “But he helped us get that program to where it is today.” In college, Jarrett told anybody who would listen that he was 6-2. Brooks told him he was 6-0. They would go back and forth. “I had a conversation with him once. I said, ‘Grady, when you go to the combine, and you back your butt up against the wall, and they make you take your socks and shoes and everything else off and put a clipboard on top of your head, they’re going to call out 72,” Brooks said. “Do you know what that is?’ He said, ‘Coach. I know what that is. But I’m 6-2.’” Jarrett went to the combine. He officially measured at 72.75 inches. So, 6-1-ish. “Being a quote/unquote undersized guy, I always kept a chip on my shoulder,” Jarrett said. “As I got better and better and started having success, (the chip) never left. So I never got complacent.” He was asked if he had any concerns about the NFL season unfolding despite COVID-19. His response was like a page torn out of his book of daily meditations. “‘I have confidence, and I have faith, not fear, in everything in my life,” he said. “So I’m going to prepare to have a full season. At the end of the day, what’s going to happen is going to happen. I’m going to focus on being in the league that I’m in and that we are going to have success.” The Falcons need more like him.
  2. https://theathletic.com/1974546/2020/08/04/dante-fowler-jr-ready-to-meet-expectations-with-intensity-in-2020/ It was 2012 when Dante Fowler Jr. and Todd Gurley faced each other on a football field for the first time. Not yet pros and still a couple of years away from entering the NFL Draft conversation, Fowler and Gurley were gearing up for the annual Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville, Fla., as freshmen just looking for something to prove. Fowler remembers that first game against his now friend quite clearly. He remembers it because Gurley racked up 118 rushing yards. Or as Fowler put it, “He literally ran all over us.” The next year, Fowler was starting for the Gators and stood in the way of any success Gurley garnered that day. “I didn’t take it easily what he did to us the last year,” Fowler remembered feeling. “So, I was on him super hard.” Fowler had six tackles that day. He said one of them actually ended in a heated moment with Gurley, which makes sense considering Gurley caught a 73-yard touchdown pass and was well on his way to another 100-yard day on the ground, too. He had been a thorn in the Gators’ side for two years now. “We kind of got into a little scuffle in a pile-up,” Fowler said with a laugh. “I had tackled him, and we were fighting a little bit.” Fast forward to 2020, and the two can’t say enough good things about each other. “I’m smiling behind this mask because that’s my guy …” Gurley said during his media availability Monday (the same day that he shares a birthday with Fowler, funny enough). “He has always been a good teammate, always been a good guy and a great competitor, too.” Some 24 hours later, Fowler spoke to his relationship with Gurley relaying memories of Georgia-Florida days past (note: Fowler will call it Florida-Georgia whereas Gurley calls it Georgia-Florida, and if you have any familiarity with the rivalry, you know why). Fowler said he has come up through football with Gurley. They were in the same draft class. They’ve been teammates with the Los Angeles Rams, and now they’re together once more after being picked up by the Falcons this offseason. He said simply, “It’s crazy how the world works.” Truth be told, the Falcons needed them together again in 2020 and need a lot out of them individually: specifically, more rushing yards from Gurley and 2019’s sack count from Fowler. Rushing yards and sacks were areas the Falcons significantly lacked last year having Devonta Freeman only average 3.6 yards per rush and the defense earning just the second-fewest sacks in the NFL. While the Falcons are still figuring out Gurley’s workload this training camp, the same time period for Fowler will be spent going full speed. In fact, the defensive end said things have been moving at an incredibly fast pace the past few days as the team is finally able to get off Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls and out on the field. “They are kind of drilling on us, putting the pressure on us to really know everything because we have to be on top of our stuff,” Fowler said. “We don’t have time to try to teach everything because that’s stuff we’ve already been through in virtual meetings. Now that we’re here we will probably do a virtual meeting the night before, and then that next day, we are going to walk right through at 8 o’clock in the morning.” Time is of the essence right now for Fowler and the defense. The good news for Fowler is that the Falcons’ staff has a clear plan laid out for him. There were some who assumed Fowler’s role with the Falcons would look similar to the way Jacksonville used him, but Fowler said the Falcons are planning to use him more in the ways Los Angeles did. “They let me stand up and put my hand in the dirt,” Fowler said of his time with the Rams. “In Jacksonville, I just had my hand in the dirt the whole time. So, I’ll be able to stand up, move around sometimes, but they’ll also let me put my hand in the dirt and pin my ears back.” Fowler seems to prefer that style of play. He said by allowing him to play that way, the Rams’ coaching staff put him in the right situations to thrive. “They weren’t stubborn; whatever they could do to get sacks and make the team better, that’s what they did,” he said. And Fowler likely would be the first to say he blossomed last year as he was really able to dig his feet in for the first time as a pro. He led the Rams with 11.5 sacks, and his 19 tackles for loss were nothing to ignore. It was the first time many felt he lived up to his first-round draft pick status. And maybe even Fowler would agree. After five years in the league, Fowler joked that he likes to say last year was actually his rookie year since it was his first year as a starter, wiping away his first couple of years in the league. He’s not naive to the fact that those early years didn’t go as planned. But as he looks back, he explains if he was going to have setbacks, he would rather have them happen early because he has been able to grow from them. “I’m ready to be a pro for another 10 years,” he said. The expectation for Fowler has always been high, and he finally reached those heights in 2019. As 2020’s season draws near, there’s a new set of expectations for Fowler: mainly that he repeats the success he had in 2019. This uptick in sacks and pass rush ability is something the Falcons need, and it’s something they spent good money on Fowler to get. He said he still has work to do, trying to sharpen his knife every day, but as he looks ahead to 2020, maybe he looks at it in the same way he looked at that 2013 Georgia-Florida game against Gurley — with a little more intensity. “I feel good,” Fowler said. “I know what my expectations are. I know what I’m going to do. I’m ready to ride with my boys.” One of those boys just happens to be Gurley, again.
  3. https://theathletic.com/1972022/2020/08/03/todd-gurley-is-not-rushing-through-the-early-days-of-training-camp/ It might be a tad bit ironic that in the midst of a pandemic Todd Gurley’s birthday looks fairly similar to the way it always has. As the first Falcons player made available to the media following the team’s first practice Monday, Gurley was asked about six questions via a Microsoft Teams video chat before calling everyone on the call out for their lack of birthday spirit. “First of all, none of y’all have told me happy birthday yet, so I’m kinda upset with you guys,” Gurley joked. “We may be done with this interview right now.” We weren’t. Gurley answered about six more questions after that. Some media members even volunteered to sing “Happy Birthday” to the running back at the end of the call. That didn’t happen either, and that was probably for the best. We write and speak for a living. There’s a reason we aren’t paid to sing. No one wants to hear that rendition of “Happy Birthday.” But in a year in which nothing seems normal, Gurley’s birthday was. Gurley said having a birthday on Aug. 3 usually means he spends his day on a football field. Since his high school days, a practice or workout of sorts has been on the schedule for that day. Maybe that’s why he felt particularly grateful to have a practice schedule for his 26th birthday. Something finally dripped with a little bit of normalcy while everything up to this point has been saturated with change and adjustments. “A lot of people want to die to play this game so for me to be 26, and it (to) be my sixth year in the league and still get an opportunity to play running back, do something I love, do something I’ve always done, I’m always appreciative and grateful,” Gurley said. “There ain’t no better way to come back than on my birthday and be able to go back to work, having a new team, new teammates, new everything, so it’s pretty cool.” The past year for Gurley has been quite the ride as he worked through his yearly recovery process and got picked up by the Falcons. In recent weeks, he has become a source in relaying players’ feelings about playing during the pandemic. Gurley has been outspoken about his thoughts and feelings toward the league and its COVID-19 policies and procedures, wanting to make sure the players’ concerns are heard. There’s a lot of negativity that could have been swirling in his mind, but Gurley said his one positive motivation through it all was to just get back out on the field if and when he was able to. “A lot of guys would be down right now if we didn’t have a chance to play football or go out there and try to do camp because that’s kind of how we’ve always been,” Gurley said. “We’ve had a schedule our whole life, and knowing you have a job, but not being sure that it’s going to actually happen, it gets the best of people so I feel like I’ve been handling it pretty well, just staying positive.” Some of that positivity stems from the situation at hand with the Falcons with Gurley saying he could tell right away the environment was similar to the one he left with the Los Angeles Rams. He said in this business one thing can always be said about coaches: If players don’t like them, new players find that out early. In the case of Dan Quinn, Gurley said he hasn’t heard a bad word spoken about him yet. “I didn’t really have to meet him or talk to him too much to kind of already get a gist of who he is,” Gurley said. On his own call last week, Quinn said he was especially looking forward to getting to know his new running back. Quinn said Gurley was in “fantastic shape” both from a physical and mental standpoint and had a good grasp of the offense already. What Quinn was unsure about at the time, however, was Gurley’s preseason workload. He likened Gurley to Julio Jones, saying Gurley is no different than Jones in regards to making sure they are only taking the best reps, the ones they absolutely have to have. But Quinn also added that it’s not a one size fits all type of plan. “For me getting to know Todd, I’ll have a better sense after the next few weeks of us together,” Quinn said. “What’s the right amount (of reps)? How many back-to-backs? All those things we’ll take into consideration, but (we have) no process together on that yet until we spend some time together.” It’s not a process the Falcons are willing to rush. It’s not one Gurley is either. Monday’s practice was almost like the first day of a new job (which technically, it was, although his office is a bit greener than the rest of ours). It may have been his birthday, but that’s not the reason he’s not looking ahead to the season just yet. There’s a lot to do before then, and who knows what tomorrow will bring? It seems every day during this pandemic brings something new. “I just focus on the day, man,” Gurley said. “Today is Day No. 1. I’m not worried about February. I’m not worried about September. I’m just focused on getting adjusted, getting to know my new teammates, learning about everybody, the whole staff on the Falcons and then just taking it day by day. I don’t look too far in the future. I live for the day and prepare for tomorrow.”
  4. https://theathletic.com/1958630/2020/07/28/schultz-dan-quinn-needs-a-turnaround-but-its-a-tough-time-to-pull-it-off/ Dan Quinn is all about positivity. This might not seem possible for someone who works in the presumed most dangerous sport during a pandemic and for a team that has failed to make the playoffs the past two years and has had declining win totals in the past three and for an owner who came this close to firing him last season. But Quinn is different. The man could be standing alone on a dusty plain, in the path of stampeding rhinos, and scream to the beasts, “I love your passion! I love your brotherhood! What a great opportunity for me to …”* (* Lost transmission.) So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as the Falcons trickle into Flowery Branch for testing and, eventually, training camp, and, hopefully, eventually, an NFL season, Quinn is oozing with confidence. He likes the NFL’s testing protocols. He likes his team. He likes what he thinks his players have accomplished in personal workouts and virtual meetings. At some point, if there’s a season, we’ll learn how much substance there is to this confidence, but in the past two seasons, against the backdrop of a similarly cheery outlook, the Falcons were playoff dead before the Thanksgiving turkey reached the table. I asked Quinn on Tuesday about being in the midst of so much uncertainty, from the pandemic to his own coaching tenure, as camp opened. His response was 100 percent pure DQ. “It’s a fair question, and I definitely get it,” he said. “Having two difficult years, it just crushes you emotionally. I just kind of make it, I’m going to have the best week here. I try to make the big things small. I’m definitely optimistic, but it’s not rose-colored glasses, either. I know where we’re at. I know what we’re doing. I know the difficult challenge ahead of us. But I guess my optimism also fires me up, thinking, I know this is something we can do after being here a while. That’s a good feeling. You’re excited because you want to prove it.” Where some see sunshine on the horizon, others see dust being kicked up by an approaching herd. It’s difficult not to like Quinn. He is as good and genuine a person as you’re going to find in professional sports, especially the NFL. It’s the reason players love him, even if last season affirmed there are limits to his personal connectivity with those players. That likability is, in part, what bought him an extra week or two with owner Arthur Blank last season. But Quinn has made mistakes, and he needs to do better or he’s going to lose his job. The Falcons started the 2018 season 1-4, then went 4-9. They started the 2019 season 1-7. There were late-season winning streaks, but, whatever. Players deserve some level of credit for not mailing it in when both seasons were lost, but there were no real stakes for the team in either second half. The victories carry little weight. All that mattered is they finished 7-9. All that mattered was how they started. That falls on Quinn. Regardless of whatever personnel shortcomings the team had — and, in the case of the 2018 season, some significant player injuries that occurred — nobody can deny that those on the field underachieved. There also were coaching mistakes, some stemming from Quinn’s staffing decisions. It’s important to bring this up now because after backsliding for the past three years — from 11 wins to 10 to 7 and 7 — Quinn and his players will face a difficult start in 2020. The first four opponents: Seattle, Dallas (road), Chicago, Green Bay (road). Quinn’s task: In the midst of COVID-19 protocols, without a normal training camp atmosphere, without an NFL preseason, without even scrimmages against other teams to use as a measuring stick, the coach needs to cultivate a strong bond with the players and correct team flaws to prevent the early-season faceplants of 2018 and 2019. How difficult will it be to build improvement in this environment? He said “a lot of” the success will stem from the individual offseason work by the players in their individualized programs, and there is some truth to that. But there were players last season who, despite their previous offseason’s work, despite singing Quinn’s praises, often came out absent in games. The Falcons are banking on the impact of second-half staff changes, including the shift of Raheem Morris to defensive coordinator, carrying over. But it’s never that simple. There’s also the pandemic factor. More than a dozen NFL players have opted out of the season, none from the Falcons, yet. Quinn’s interestingly worded statement on that: “I haven’t had those conversations (with any players) at this time.” The team is already down one player. One rookie, fourth-round pick and safety Jaylinn Hawkins, has been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Teams aren’t permitted to disclose a player’s medical status, so the Falcons did not announce whether Hawkins tested positive or is merely in quarantine after being exposed to somebody with the virus. But it is known that Hawkins passed previous tests, so the exposure had to come in the previous one to two days. Either way, disruptions are possible in the coming weeks, and the core of last year’s team often did not play like a tight group. Many logically would look at the high-contact sport of football and in a non-bubble setup and think: The NFL can’t possibly get this done. But Quinn said, “I feel like their time here is the safest time in the day because they know the population here, and there’s lots of guidelines. I’m not saying it’s perfect by any means. But (the concern is more about) the time away from it.” These are not optimum conditions for a turnaround, but in Quinn’s world it just makes for a better comeback.
  5. https://theathletic.com/1960547/2020/07/29/what-the-falcons-rookies-have-been-up-to-where-theyre-going-as-camp-begins/?source=dailyemail If you’ve been a college student within the past five years or so, or you have a college student in your home, you are likely familiar with Kahoot. If you are not familiar with the term, don’t worry; it has no foundation in any college drinking game (that I know of). What it is, however, is an online classroom of sorts that allows professors to create customized quizzes that everyone in a class can connect to for some game-based learning. Essentially, students connect via a link to the quiz from their phones or computers. Quizzes normally are timed, and students have a few seconds to read a question and choose a multiple choice answer. The answers are compiled by the service and displayed via a bar graph depicting how many students chose each answer. It’s a simple tool used by teachers everywhere. Some of the Falcons’ rookies may have thought their Kahoot days were behind them when they left their respective universities not too long ago, but the pandemic changed that as everything went remote, including the start of their professional football careers. The past few months have seen the cancellation or rearrangements of important steps rookies normally take in their first few months after the NFL Draft. In 2020, there were no mini-camps, no chances for coaches to see their new crop of players play full speed. Instead, the players were on calls learning the ins and outs of their new organizations and taking Kahoot quizzes. These video call sessions were tailored to each individual player. There was a lot of film watching, players and coaches going back and picking apart the players’ college tape. These weren’t long lectures; instead resembling 25- to 30-minute Q&A periods or film breakdowns followed by a short break and then back at it again. In his first news conference of the training camp season, Falcons coach Dan Quinn likened these rookies’ summer experiences to what the players faced in college. “They’ve been in a football class for a few months,” he said. “Now, here we are at the end of the semester, and now we are able to see what they can do.” No more Kahoot quizzes. Testing season has arrived with training camp. “We’ve done a lot of teaching,” Quinn said of the past few months. “This will be the first time moving forward that we’ll have to do some of the corrections from practice, and those are moments that you like to be in-person for so you can make some eye contact.” Falcons' 2020 draft class Up to this point, no rookie or coach in the league has had that luxury, which is why there is a lot of added stress to this year’s training camp period for these first-year players. There’s already a thought circling that 2020 is the year of the veterans because of everything stacked against rookies entering the league in the midst of a pandemic that has reshaped their first few months as pros. Even while acknowledging that notion, Quinn said he has been impressed with the background knowledge this group came in with, stating he really wanted to test these players to see exactly where they are entering training camp. He said mentally, they passed their first couple of days. But the focus now shifts from what they know to what they can do. “Now, the reaction times are the things that you haven’t had a chance to see, how quickly a player can break on a ball, how quickly they can transition and diagnose plays,” Quinn said. “It’s one thing to understand the concepts. And it’s a whole other thing to go into the format.” Doing those evaluations through practices without having preseason games or exhibitions to lean on prior to the season starting does have its added challenges for players and coaches. Quinn said he recently went back through in his mind and asked himself: “What is the typical amount of reps a rookie might have played in the preseason through the years?” The Falcons had been in talks to schedule joint practices with Buffalo and Miami during the 2020 preseason, but with those no longer available, Quinn said his goal was to give these rookies a similar number of reps that they would have gotten by that time. Those reps just have to be manufactured now where they would have happened organically before. And while there is stress on the coaching staff to be able to do that, there’s even more stress on the rookies to take these very limited chances and make them count. “It’s also a stressor for the player, too, especially the player fighting for a roster spot, you know, ‘When are my moments to prove myself? To show what I can do?'” Quinn said. “So, put yourself into that spot, as well, not just us evaluating but the stress on them. “So, we’re going to try to create some moments that are situation-specific, that will be non-scripted. We’ll do the very best we can to create a game-like situation, a scrimmage so to speak. And we’ll do as many of those leading up to the season as we can. So, that’s the first step to it — to provide moments where it’s not scripted, you don’t know the play, let’s go match up and see how we do. We’re going to try to make as many competitive moments as we can, especially for the players that need a lot of evaluations.” Just like those Kahoot quizzes, time is ticking. While Quinn knows this window of evaluation is a lot smaller than in years past, he said he’s not going to rush through it. “You’re not going to come in and go zero to 120 on the first day,” Quinn said. “We’re going to make sure it’s like climbing a ladder, you don’t skip the rungs as you’re going. Let’s make sure we hit the steps. We need to be at our best moving forward when the season goes, not on Monday, and there’s a lot of work that will go into that.”
  6. https://theathletic.com/1953310/2020/07/28/ten-things-a-football-nerds-guide-to-the-2020-atlanta-falcons/?source=dailyemail Going into the bye last season, it seemed like only a matter of time before the Atlanta Falcons announced major organizational changes. At 1-7, they were the biggest underachievers in the league. But Dan Quinn shuffled around some members of his coaching staff — most notably moving Raheem Morris from wide receivers coach to secondary coach — and the Falcons went 6-2 in the second half of the season. Owner Arthur Blank announced before Week 17 that Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff would return in 2020. Now after back-to-back 7-9 seasons, the pressure is on for a turnaround. During the offseason, Atlanta signed edge rusher Dante Fowler and running back Todd Gurley. The Falcons also traded for Hayden Hurst. And Morris officially has been elevated to defensive coordinator. So what will it take for Atlanta to get back to the postseason? Below is a preview of the Falcons’ upcoming season that includes analysis of 2019, their offseason moves and their offensive and defensive schemes. Expected points added (EPA) and coverage data is courtesy of Sports Info Solutions. You can find a primer on EPA here or just view it as a success metric that measures a play’s impact on the score of the game. All other numbers are from Sportradar, unless otherwise noted. 1. The Falcons finished 15th in offensive efficiency last season — their second-lowest ranking in Matt Ryan’s 12 seasons as the starting quarterback. And that was with the benefit of good injury luck. The Falcons ranked fifth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric. While Quinn’s big change came on defense, it’s fair to wonder whether he should have taken a closer look at Dirk Koetter’s performance as offensive coordinator. Koetter is in his second stint with Atlanta. During the first one, the Falcons finished 12th, 14th and 10th in offensive efficiency. That’s four years with Koetter calling plays for a Ryan-led offense and mostly mediocre results. The Falcons used 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs) on 59 percent of their offensive snaps last season. They were in 12 personnel (one RB, two TEs, two WRs) 15 percent of the time, 21 personnel (two RBs, one TE, two WRs) 12 percent and 22 personnel (two RBs, two TEs, one WR) 4 percent. Offense (new starters in green) POSITION PLAYER WR Julio Jones WR Calvin Ridley WR Russell Gage LT Jake Matthews LG James Carpenter/Matt Hennessy C Alex Mack RG Chris Lindstrom RT Kaleb McGary TE Hayden Hurst QB Matt Ryan RB Todd Gurley The biggest competition will come at left guard where it’ll be either veteran James Carpenter or third-round pick Matt Hennessy. The Falcons will get Chris Lindstrom back at right guard after he was limited to five games as a rookie because of a foot injury. Atlanta sent a second-round pick to the Ravens for Hurst. The Falcons let Devonta Freeman walk in free agency and signed Gurley. When Atlanta uses 21 and 22 personnel, fullback Keith Smith will get on the field. The Falcons also took a flier on wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. One way to gauge whether a team is pass heavy or run heavy is to look at what it does on early downs when games are still competitive. The Falcons ranked 15th in pass frequency. In terms of success, the Falcons ranked 18th in both EPA per dropback and EPA per rush on early downs. But since passing is more efficient than rushing (and offers more upside with Ryan at quarterback), the Falcons likely would benefit from throwing the ball more on early downs. 2. The Falcons were not a good rushing team last season, ranking 22nd in efficiency. Freeman led the team with 656 rushing yards but was among the least efficient backs in the league. Among the 50 backs who had at least 75 carries, Freeman ranked 48th in EPA per rush. He produced a positive result on just 31 percent of his attempts, which ranked last. Falcons rushing efficiency CATEGORY EPA/RUSH RANK Shotgun 0.04 15th out of 30 Under center -0.12 20th 11 personnel -0.06 23rd 12 personnel 0.01 7th out of 29 2-RB sets -0.17 N/A The one area where the Falcons had some success was running out of 12 personnel. Their projected tight ends for 2020 are Hurst, Jaeden Graham and Khari Lee. Using a fullback in 21 and 22 personnel produced terrible results for Atlanta. Football Outsiders uses a metric called adjusted line yards to measure run blocking. The Falcons ranked 24th. And their backs didn’t maximize the opportunities they had to break big runs. Atlanta ranked 25th in second-level yards and 27th in open-field yards. As for Gurley, he carried 223 times for 857 yards last season, averaging 3.8 YPC. He ranked 39th out of 50 backs in EPA per rush. There were a couple of encouraging metrics. One was that he produced a positive result on 43.9 percent of his carries, which ranked 15th. The other was that he broke a tackle on 17 percent of his attempts, which ranked 20th. The Falcons are counting on their young offensive linemen to improve and for Gurley to offer upside. But overall, this looks like a mediocre run game. 3. Here’s how Ryan’s overall 2019 performance stacked up. ATL - QB Matt Ryan 2019 QBR 57.6 14th ANY/A 6.08 19th DVOA 7.0% 14th EPA/PLAY 0.1 18th EPA/play accounts only for plays where each team had a win probability of at least 20%. He was by all accounts a mediocre starter. Next Gen Stats tracks a metric called completion percentage above expectation. It looks at the probability of a completion on every throw, based on factors like how far the throw is, how open the receiver is and how much pressure the quarterback is under. It then comes up with an expected completion percentage and compares that number to the quarterback’s actual completion percentage. Ryan ranked 11th out of 39 quarterbacks. He produced a negative result (sack, fumble or interception) on 9.9 percent of his plays, which ranked 23rd among starters. Football Outsiders uses adjusted interception rate to measure how often quarterbacks throw balls that should be picked off. They remove interceptions that can be blamed on wide receiver drops and Hail Mary attempts. But they add interceptions that are dropped by defenders. Ryan’s 2.9 percent adjusted interception rate ranked 18th among starters. He also fumbled nine times. 4. Here’s how Ryan performed in a number of different categories: Breaking down Matt Ryan CATEGORY EPA/DROPBACK RANK Vs. man 0.02 14th Vs. zone 0.11 14th 11 personnel 0.07 10th 12 personnel 0.04 15th out of 22 In pocket 0.1 10th Out of pocket -0.37 22nd out of 23 Play-action 0.03 26th He was better against zone than man, but the league-wide ranks were identical. The coverage that gave Ryan the most trouble was Cover-3 (a three-deep zone with four underneath defenders). Ryan ranked 21st among starters in EPA per dropback when facing Cover-3. The Falcons’ passing numbers were similar in both 11 and 12 personnel. Ryan got into all kinds of trouble when he left the pocket, performing as one of the worst quarterbacks in the league in those situations. Atlanta ranked 25th in play-action frequency, and those plays didn’t give them much. Ryan performed well when throwing downfield, ranking eighth in EPA per dropback on passes that traveled at least 20 yards. The problem? The Falcons didn’t throw downfield a lot. Just 3.8 percent of Ryan’s dropbacks resulted in downfield completions, and that ranked 21st. Atlanta’s lack of explosive plays reflects poorly on Koetter. Ryan produced an explosive play (20 yards or more) on just 7.9 percent of his dropbacks, which ranked 30th. How does that happen on a team that has Julio Jones? 5. Speaking of Jones, here’s a look at how the Falcons’ pass-catchers performed last season: Falcons pass-catchers in 2019 PLAYER YARDS YDS/ROUTE RANK Julio Jones 1,394 2.52 5th out of 111 Calvin Ridley 866 1.75 42nd out of 111 Austin Hooper 787 1.73 15th out of 67 Russell Gage 446 1.24 82nd out of 111 Devonta Freeman 410 1.34 26th out of 58 Mohamed Sanu 313 1.18 87th out of 111 Jones continues to be among the best — if not the best — wide receivers in the NFL. Calvin Ridley was a fine No. 2 and could see increased opportunities in 2020. Russell Gage caught 49 balls but averaged just 9.1 yards per reception and ranked 82nd in yards per route run. Hurst is the big new addition. He averaged 1.8 yards per route run last year, which was 12th among tight ends and slightly better than Austin Hooper (1.73). But Hurst had just 349 receiving yards. The best-case scenario would be him matching Hooper’s production from 2019. Up front, the Falcons ranked 29th in ESPN’s pass-block win rate metric, which measures how often protection holds up for at least 2.5 seconds. They’re counting on right tackle Kaleb McGary to take a step forward in his second season. Getting Lindstrom back healthy should help. But center Alex Mack turns 35 in November. With Jones and Ridley, Ryan has talented players to target, but it’s tough to project a big leap for the Falcons unless the offensive line is much improved. 6. It was a tale of two seasons for the Falcons’ defense. Quinn took over as defensive coordinator before the 2019 season and was a disaster. During the first half of the season, the Falcons unofficially led the NFL in coverage busts and plays when two defenders confusingly stared at each other with their arms up while opponents scampered to the end zone. According to the Football Outsiders’ Almanac, the defense ranked 29th in the first half of the season. After Quinn handed the keys over to Morris, the results were much better. Atlanta ranked 10th in the second half of the season, although it’s worth pointing out that it was facing an easier schedule. Overall, the Falcons’ defense settled in at 20th in efficiency and had just about league-average (18th) injury luck. The Falcons played nickel on 69 percent of their snaps and were in base 25 percent of the time. Defense (new starters in green) POSITION PLAYER Edge Dante Fowler DL Grady Jarrett DL Tyeler Davison Edge Takkarist McKinley LB Deion Jones LB Foye Oluokun CB Kendall Sheffield CB A.J. Terrell CB Isaiah Oliver S Ricardo Allen S Keanu Neal The big free-agent addition was Fowler. The Falcons used a second-round pick on versatile defensive lineman Marlon Davidson, who could be counted on immediately to provide some interior pass rush. Atlanta also has Allen Bailey to rotate in at defensive tackle. Foye Oluokun played 30 percent of the snaps last season and will take over for De’Vondre Campbell at linebacker. The Falcons selected cornerback A.J. Terrell with the 16th overall pick and will pair him with Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Oliver. Safety Keanu Neal suffered a season-ending Achilles’ injury last year. He has appeared in four total games during the past two seasons. 7. The Falcons ranked 14th against the run last season. Football Outsiders uses a metric called adjusted line yards to measure defensive line play against the run, and Atlanta was 19th. Falcons run defense PERSONNEL EPA/RUSH RANK Base -0.1 14th Nickel -0.02 17th Vs. 11 0.06 24th Vs. 12 -0.23 4th Vs. 2-RB sets -0.04 N/A The Falcons were mostly mediocre against the run across the board. They held up well when teams tried to run out of 12 personnel. Campbell led the Falcons with 71 tackles against the run, followed by Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, who combined for 13 tackles for loss. Overall, Atlanta’s run defense will most likely be middle of the pack and perform similarly to last season. 8. Quinn comes from the Pete Carroll tree, which typically means a lot of Cover-3 (a three-deep zone with four underneath defenders), but the Falcons changed things up. They actually played man coverage at the fifth-highest rate of any defense. Atlanta was heavy with its single-high safety coverages (Cover-1 and Cover-3), playing them at the third-highest rate. Falcons pass defense: Man vs. zone COVERAGE EPA PER DROPBACK RANK Man 0.14 28th Zone 0.12 23rd The Falcons’ performance was similar, regardless of whether they were playing man or zone. Cover-1 (man coverage with a single deep safety) was their most popular coverage, but the Falcons ranked 26th in EPA per dropback when playing it. They ranked 19th when playing Cover-3. And they were the worst defense in the league when they tried to switch things up and play Cover-2 (a two-deep zone with five underneath defenders). Falcons pass defense by personnel PERSONNEL EPA/DROPBACK RANK Base 0.45 28th Nickel 0.07 23rd Vs. 11 0.06 23rd Vs. 12 0.3 31st The Falcons got crushed when they faced the pass out of their base defense. They also struggled against 12 personnel. Limiting explosive plays was a problem for Atlanta. The Falcons ranked 24th in EPA per attempt when opponents threw the ball 20 yards or more downfield. Overall, they gave up explosive plays (20 yards or more) 11.1 percent of the time, which ranked 25th. Here is how the Falcons performed against different positional targets: Pass defense vs. different targets TARGET DVOA/EPA WR 32nd TE 6th RB 13th Opposing wide receivers lit the Falcons up. They ranked 31st in EPA per attempt to outside wide receivers and 24th when slot receivers were targeted. The Falcons were mediocre against running backs and good against tight ends. As for personnel, Sheffield played 67 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie. Oliver was a 16-game starter. The Falcons parted ways with mainstay Desmond Trufant. Terrell almost certainly will be asked to play a big role as a rookie. 9. The advanced numbers suggest that the Falcons’ biggest issues were more in coverage than with their pass rush. Atlanta ranked second in ESPN’s pass-rush win-rate metric, which tracks how often the defense gets pressure within 2.5 seconds of the snap. But the Falcons were 28th in percentage of dropbacks with a sack or QB hit. Why the discrepancy? Opponents got rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less on 54.5 percent of their dropbacks against the Falcons. That was the highest percentage any defense faced. It signals that the coverage was leaky, and receivers were getting open quickly. The glass-half-full perspective would be that the pass rush could put up big numbers if the coverage improved to even mediocre levels. Vic Beasley had an eight-sack season but left for Tennessee in free agency. Jarrett was the Falcons’ best defensive player, producing 7.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits. He ranked second among defensive tackles in pass-rush win rate, behind only Aaron Donald. Takk McKinley had 3.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits. The Falcons did not pick up his fifth-year option, so this could be McKinley’s final season in Atlanta. As for Fowler, he has had an up and down career but will be just 26 going into Week 1. Last offseason, Fowler had to settle for a one-year deal to return to the Los Angeles Rams. It paid off. He produced career highs with 11.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits. The numbers weren’t empty either. Fowler ranked ninth among all edge rushers in pass-rush win rate. The Falcons ranked 21st in blitz frequency. They gave up a first down on 36.6 percent of the plays in which they blitzed, which ranked 22nd. Overall, this group has potential. Jarrett is one of the best defensive tackles in the league, and if Fowler can perform like he did last season, they’ll be a tough tandem to block. The Falcons could be really good if McKinley emerges or if Davidson looks good as a rookie. But again, last year showed that a strong pass rush can be negated if they can’t cover. Atlanta needs to find a way to force quarterbacks to hold on to the ball longer in 2020. 10. In terms of in-game decision-making, it’s a small sample, but Quinn has somehow not won a challenge (0-for-6) in the past two seasons. He was, however, on the aggressive end with his fourth-down decision-making. The Falcons had the fifth-best injury luck last season but ranked 24th in fumble luck. They were tied for 24th in turnover margin and ranked 28th in special teams efficiency. The Falcons went 3-4 in one-score games. Atlanta has the toughest projected strength of schedule in the league going by Vegas win totals. William Hill has them at +600 to win the NFC South, well behind the New Orleans Saints (+100) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+140). Their over/under for wins is 7.5. The Falcons have some upside. If Ryan can get hot, and if the pass rush can tee off on opposing quarterbacks, earning a playoff spot and even winning the division are realistic outcomes. If Atlanta misses the postseason for the third straight year, the organization likely will enter an offseason of significant change.
  7. https://theathletic.com/1958278/2020/07/28/dan-quinn-breaks-down-policies-and-procedures-as-falcons-return-to-work/ On a video call Tuesday morning, Falcons coach Dan Quinn joked with the 2020 rookies that they weren’t even born when driving laws didn’t mandate seat belts be worn at all times like they are today. “When I was a kid,” Quinn said, “you were climbing from the front to the back, you didn’t need a seat belt. But now, you wouldn’t even think about going anywhere without a seat belt. “Wearing a mask? That’s our seat belt.” Tuesday marked the official return of the final wave of veteran players to the Falcons’ practice facility in Flowery Branch to get its first of two COVID-19 tests done before strength and conditioning workouts begin next week (players being tested must be negative for two tests before being allowed entrance into the facility). Rookies, quarterbacks, injured players and coaches were all tested last week, and the rookies began walkthroughs with the staff on Monday and Tuesday. But Tuesday afternoon, the Falcons announced rookie safety Jaylinn Hawkins was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The organization is not permitted to comment on a player’s medical status and may not disclose whether a player on the list is in quarantine or has tested positive for COVID-19. Quinn spoke Tuesday afternoon before the news about Hawkins was released and broke down some of the protocols that have been set in place for the start of training camp. Logistics for better social distancing practices In a quick note, Quinn joked that the past few days have almost felt like moving old furniture into a new house as the staff works to figure out the best way to socially distance during in-person meetings throughout the next few weeks of training camp. With some meetings now moving to a face-to-face setting instead of via Zoom or Microsoft Teams video calls, various position groups had to move out of their original meeting rooms to places with more space. For example, the offensive line will meet in the team’s draft room while wide receivers will meet in the team room. “The position groups that had more players, you needed bigger spaces to do that,” Quinn said. He said scheduled full team meetings will be held in the indoor practice facility. “I think (it will be) like a clinic setting where we have some chairs out and do it in the indoor field,” Quinn said. “That way we will put a screen up there and do some of it that way.” How practices change with no preseason games and exhibitions Quinn said he had not had any conversations with players about opting out of the 2020 season, so with that in mind, he and his staff will have a slew of decisions to make regarding roster construction once training camp begins. Without preseason games and exhibitions, Quinn said there will be changes to the way the coaching staff and players attack training camp and the way coaches evaluate the players. He explained that with preseason games coaches get to see the unscripted moments, a luxury teams do not have this year after the NFL canceled preseason games. The staff is going to have to replicate that as much as it can in practices and scrimmages so it can get the full picture of a players’ potential. “Those scrimmage days, I think, are going to be an important part of the evaluation because that’s the very best that we can do at the moment,” Quinn said. “We’re gonna try and create those opportunities and moments to let those players do their thing and get a real chance to evaluate.” Quinn said these will be meticulously planned moments to evaluate specific players because those will be the only chances this staff will see players against players. They will be player-specific matchups, so coaches can answer the question of what happens, for example, when a running back faces off with a linebacker. “We’ll do a little setup. Let’s put runners on second and third and put the guy at the plate at practice, so to speak,” he said. Questions regarding roster construction In a memo sent to clubs obtained by The Athletic, teams may begin training camp with 90 players on their active list as has been the rule in years past. But if they so choose to keep 90 players, they must split the team into two groups: rookie and first-year players in one group and veterans in another. Clubs must reduce that number to 80 on or before Aug. 16. If a team chooses to reduce its roster to 80 before Aug. 16, players can practice together. When asked about this new rule, Quinn said this is a decision the Falcons are weighing. “If you split, there’s a good chance your rookie players wouldn’t know a veteran player because they wouldn’t be there together,” Quinn said. “So, how quickly do you want to act on that, (adding someone like) A.J. (Terrell) and Marlon (Davidson) to the group?” Where the hole in protocols can be found Quinn said he felt that when the players are at the facility that time will be the safest part of their day. The players know the people they are around, they know everyone in the building has received two negative tests, and they know there are protocols and guidelines everyone must follow. He said it’s not a perfect situation, but having safety protocols in place is something that can’t be said for everywhere these players can go once they leave the facility. That is where the questions arise because without a bubble protocol like in the NBA, MLS, NHL or WNBA, it falls on the players to make a conscious decision to limit their circle. “It’s been helpful to know that there’s lots of space, lots of testing, lots of protocols, meals separated. Coming in, you just have to follow the rules. You know, you put your mask on and follow the rules, and everything kind of takes care of itself,” Quinn said. “Away is where I think it’ll feel different.” And this leads to an important note Quinn had for the team during this time … “Be the best teammate you’ve ever been” There is a certain responsibility every player and coach have to one another now that training camp is set to begin. Quinn said that he has learned the past few months that you can do all of the right things, take all of the right steps and still have a positive test. The team has protocols in place and should be ready for when that moment comes, but it’s important everyone is on the same page in the meantime. And that page is everyone being disciplined even when the players and coaches leave the facilities. “A lot of us are going to have to be the best teammates we have ever been because we’re not only trying to take care of one another but we’re looking after our families, too,” Quinn said. “We’ve got to make the best decisions off the field.”
  8. New Falcons beat writer for The Athletic https://theathletic.com/1944948/2020/07/22/how-the-falcons-are-planning-for-limited-seating-at-games-in-2020/?source=emp_shared_article Don Rovak said when his family of four goes to Falcons games during the season, it can be split into two demographics of game-goers. His sons, who are 12 and 14 years old, like their space. “Usually the biggest gripe for them is someone tall sitting in front of them,” said Rovak, who is the vice president of ticket sales and services for the Falcons. But his wife falls into another category. Like many others, games are social events for her. She’s there to have a drink with some friends or to chat up a stranger or two. It’s a chance to get to know more people, to high-five the person sitting next to her in the excitement of the moment. Rovak said if he were to take her to a game in 2020, it probably wouldn’t be a fun experience for her as it had been in the past. Simply speaking, all the things that draw her to a game, “that’s not going to exist,” Rovak said. As of the third full week in July, Rovak, his team and all of the Falcons’ organization are planning on having limited capacity seating during the season. It’s important to note that this is the plan right now. During a pandemic, time has had a way of changing plans, so the Falcons’ plan very well could change at any point prior to the season starting or even once it does. But the Falcons are hopeful they’re doing right by fans with the plan they have currently set up. Last week, an outline of that plan was sent to Falcons’ PSL and season ticket holders. “I think the big positives are if anybody missed a PSL payment this past year or has an upcoming PSL payment for next year and they want to extend that financial agreement to the backend of their deal they can do so,” Rovak said. “So, basically, we will only be collecting one of the PSL payments over the course of the two years. Another benefit that we communicated was for anybody who is keeping their money on the account and moving their money towards next year, they would get a price freeze for 2021.” He said in a normal year, that would be an average deal, but it could be a bigger deal next year with the NFL expanding to a 17-game regular season with the potential for a ninth home game in 2021. But looking specifically to the 2020 season, Rovak explained the next steps the organization is planning on taking will give the group a better understanding of what it will really be undertaking once the season begins with limited fan seating for games. Beginning on Wednesday, PSL and season ticket holders will receive a survey to fill out regarding their interest in attending the first four home games of the season. If they do wish to attend games, they will rank, in order, their preferences for which games they would like to attend. For reference, the first four home games of the season are against Seattle, Chicago, Carolina and Detroit. Capacity will be limited to between 10,000 and 20,000 fans, which Rovak said is around 20 percent of the seats that can be used in the stadium. He said the operations team has been walking Mercedes-Benz Stadium to figure out exactly how many seats can be accommodated. What it has decided on is an almost checker-board-like seating. So, if you take the 70,000 seat venue, there will be pods of seat sizes ranging from one single seat to a group of six seats together spread out across the stadium. These pods will be designated with different price categories, so when PSL or season ticket holders are chosen for one of those first four games, they will have to select seats within their price category. So, who will be chosen for which games and how many games of those first four will a single PSL or season ticket member be allowed access to? Rovak said the team is hoping the surveys can help answer that question, but the organization is currently projecting that most season-ticket holders will be able to go to one, maybe two, of those first four home games. When asked which way he felt fans are leaning between not feeling comfortable to go to games vs. being absolutely willing to go, Rovak said he thinks there will be more fans upset they didn’t get chosen to go to one of those first four home games than the ones upset that they have to opt out completely on their own accord. “That’s my personal belief because I just think when I picture who I am going to be hearing from more, we are going to be hearing from fans that have been going to games for 20 years and now, ‘You’re only allowing me to go to one game in the next two months? That’s ridiculous,'” Rovak said. “I think we are going to hear from that guy a lot. And I feel for that guy. It pains me.” Rovak said this is why teams have these big stadiums: to fill them. But obviously with a season-ticket base of 55,000 to 60,000 but a single game capacity of only 10,000 to 20,000 pleasing everyone just isn’t possible. “We have thousands of season ticket members who haven’t missed a game in four decades, and it sucks,” Rovak said. The reality of the situation is that if chosen, this isn’t really a golden ticket. Rovak said he and his team are trying to be as honest as possible with game-attending fans about what their expectation could be if chosen to attend games. There’s a certain responsibility a fan has to keep others safe, as well. “Coming to a football game this year — in September — is going to be very different,” Rovak said. “It’s going to be: You have a mask, nobody is sitting next to you, we are not going to encourage those social spaces, there’s not going to be a big pregame show, there isn’t going to be access on the field. You’re going to have to come, and you’re going to have to really like football. … To some people, that’s awesome. To other people, like my wife, it’s not.” From a business model standpoint, Rovak believes even with the unfortunate short-term effects of the pandemic that the long term plans won’t be much impacted and that every decision made was with the fans in mind. He hopes that comes across. “This should set us up to be in a really good place in 2021,” he said. “Listen, none of us want to deal with limiting capacity in 2020; we much prefer selling out the full venue, but at the same time it allows us to focus on the servicing of our fans now but also I think having a long-term retention because we expect to get a pent up demand for next year.”
  9. https://theathletic.com/1862904/2020/06/09/schultz-matt-ryan-on-social-justice-colin-kaepernick-and-a-strange-offseason/ These past several weeks of sports’ virtual reality, from team meetings to news conferences, reached Matt Ryan’s home Tuesday. The Falcons’ quarterback met with Atlanta media members Tuesday via his son’s iPad mini. It wouldn’t seem like an ideal backdrop for Ryan to open up, but he had a number of interesting comments, including what moved him to start a GoFundMe page to support the black community (he donated $500,000, and the fund has surpassed $1 million); his thoughts on police brutality and regrets about not paying more attention to issues in the past, Colin Kaepernick, the Falcons’ future and even a joke about the possibility of fake crowd noise being pumped into empty stadiums next season. Ryan is the most recent high-profile white athlete to step up in a major way. The interview lasted 40 minutes. Some comments have been edited for redundancy and grouped by subject. Take it all in. There’s some good stuff here. On his social action effort, police brutality and self-reflection On his GoFundMe account surpassing $1 million: “I’m obviously really excited about the response the last four or five days. I’m overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity and commitment to wanting to make change. My hope is to make a real impact on the city of Atlanta and this community and make a start at improving the current climate and the current situation. There’s a lot that needs to be done.” His role as a team leader, as it relates to social justice issues: “The biggest thing is encouraging everybody to talk and have discussions about their feelings and to listen. It’s like anything in life. When issues come up, it’s better to get them out in the open and discuss and go through why certain people are feeling a certain way. That to me as a leader would be the thing I would encourage. Get people together, open the forum for discussion and encourage people to listen to people and to be empathetic and learn from others’ experiences.” Dan Quinn said he felt his past actions in social action have felt “hollow,” compared to today. Have you also felt a greater need for pushing the dialogue forward? “I absolutely feel that way. Part of responding now is acknowledging that what I’ve done to this point hasn’t been good enough. I can’t really change what I’ve done, and I do wish I would’ve done more. But I can change, and I can be better moving forward. That’s more of where my mindset has gone to — to not just sit on the sidelines and silently have people’s backs. The time has come where silence isn’t good enough. That’s what I’m hoping to do, hoping to have an impact, moving forward.” Have there been any discussions with teammates over kneeling before games? “That hasn’t come up. I expect to see that, for sure, in different ways throughout the season. Most of the discussions have been about what is going on right now, talking about the images, the protests, the police brutality. That’s really where our concentration and effort has been. As we get closer to the season and that opportunity comes up, it’s going to be about unity within our team and creating an open forum for teammates.” On what tangible changes he wants to see: “That’s been an ongoing discussion with a number of people. One of the things I’ve learned is I like to surround myself with people smarter than I am and are more informed on situations than myself, and that’s been the process the last couple of days. I have some meetings set up with people who are more informed on where you can get the most impact.” On where he would like money to go: “One of the things that has come up with teammates and friends is police brutality. I’m certainly looking into ways that you can address that and having discussions with people who know more about it than I do.” On his comfort level wading into current issues: “Whether it’s positive or negative reactions to what you’re doing, if you believe it’s the right thing to do, that’s what matters. I believe this is the right thing to do, and I stand with my teammates and with my friends.” On a specific moment that drove him in this direction: “The George Floyd video — that was incredibly tough to watch. It’s watching that, it’s a number of different things that have come up in the last few months, it’s having talked with guys about this for the better part of a decade. It’s just a culmination of all of it. And just being in a virtual setting and listening to guys talk. For whatever reason, it just felt like the right time. It was time to do something different because what I was doing wasn’t good enough.” On the Falcons’ virtual meeting with Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: “The mayor was unbelievable. Listening to her and her reaction on all this has been admirable. She’s certainly somebody moving forward I’d love to have conversations with her about, where impact can best be made and things we can do to improve the climate here in Atlanta.” On impactful conversations with teammates: “What has opened my eyes is how many guys have had such similar situations come up, in terms of racial profiling, and how uncomfortable it is listening to them, how uncomfortable it was for them. There have been so many guys who have had the exact same treatment. More than anything, that’s the thing that has hit home for me.” Colin Kaepernick On whether he should be on an NFL roster and the league’s treatment of the quarterback: “Part of the comment that was made by the league the other day is they’ve made mistakes in treating this and how they’ve handled peaceful protests and players voicing their opinions. I think they recognize they’ve made mistakes there. As far as Colin being back in the league, he should have every opportunity to. He created awareness. It’s taken some time, but people are becoming more active in terms of their response to it. From that standpoint, his protest is being heard at this point. It might’ve taken too long. But he should have every opportunity to have a job and a spot in this league.” On it taking four years for more players to speak up about Kaepernick: “I think finally we’ve gotten to a point of enough is enough. I wish it would’ve been sooner. I wish awareness collectively and speaking out would’ve been sooner. I’m just happy we’re in a space now where we can begin to make some changes and to push this in a direction that improves the lives of our friends and teammates and people within our community.” On football, including no mini-camps, Gurley and Koetter On his workouts with Todd Gurley and Hayden Hurst: “I’m excited about both of them. I’ve probably been able to work with Hayden a little more than Todd. I’ve been incredibly impressed with Hayden’s work ethic. He has great speed, great athleticism. He wants to be a great player. The effort, the attitude all that stuff is there. He’s gotten to know some of our teammates, which is a great thing. I spent some time with (Gurley) in California and was able to spend a couple of weeks getting to know him a little better, getting a feel for him as an athlete. He’s extremely versatile out of the backfield. He looked great. He looked healthy and ready to go. The thing that struck me the most though was how smart of a player he is and his ability to retain information and to not have to circle back on things the next day. If I told him once how we were trying to work something or route concept or what we were expecting (from) him, he doesn’t forget it. So I’m impressed with both those guys.” On the impact of not having OTAs or mini-camps: “I feel really good. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of our guys, specifically individually, early on, practicing social distancing, making sure groups were not too big. I feel like there’s an advantage to the intimacy of working with just one guy at a time and for us to be able to spend an hour-and-a-half or two hours together and go through things in a methodical and deliberate way. In certain ways, maybe we’re ahead. When you’re in the normal structure of the offseason, there are time constraints. So there are positives. The one area where we’re probably behind is on the field in terms of work with our units together. That’s going to be the same for everybody.” On whether, given this offseason, having more veterans benefits Falcons: “I think it does. There are not a lot of guys who have to learn a new system. There’s a sense of familiarity with the coaching staff, with the playbook, player-to-player. All of those things are a positive for us.” On differences working with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in 2019 as opposed to previous seasons: “It’s a completely different system in terms of terminology from the first time we worked together. In terms of knowing what to expect from each other, having worked together before we were in sync. I feel like he’s much more comfortable in this system in Year 2, just having a feel for the terminology, why we’re doing certain things. It feels like to me he’s a lot further along and feels comfortable with it.” On what the 2020 season will look like and if he would be comfortable playing in full stadiums: “I have no idea how it’s going to look. I’m sure it’ll be different from any other I’ve been a part of. As far as playing in front of full-capacity stadiums, you have to trust people who are better informed of making those decisions than I would be. If they say we’re healthy and we have a good process set up, I have to trust (them). I’ll trust the people who are experts.” On possibly playing in empty stadiums with fake crowd noise: “I’m not sure our organization should be talking about pumping in crowd noise. I think we had a small issue with that a little while ago. But whatever they want to do with me, I’ll be ready to go.” (The Falcons forfeited a fifth-round 2016 draft pick and were fined $350,000 for pumping in fake crowd noise at home games in 2013 and 2014.) On being in the same division with Tom Brady: “Yeah. It’s like, ‘Man, really?’ The NFC South. It’s going to be a tough division. Tom’s a great player. Any time you add a guy who’s won that many championships, that many games, you know he’s going to be tough to beat. It’s about us, though. We have to have ourselves ready to go because I have to believe we’re right there with all of those teams. They have to deal with us, as well.”
  10. https://theathletic.com/1836596/2020/05/26/its-a-smart-group-while-young-falcons-dbs-are-confident-heading-into-2020/ In what has been a unique NFL offseason, players mostly have been on their own when it comes to staying in shape and staying up to date with the playbook. A few Falcons teammates wanted to make sure they were up to speed with everything during this time when no players or coaches, outside of those receiving rehab and treatment, are allowed at the team facility. Therefore, a group of receivers and defensive backs organized some practice time against one another in the open air of some local parks, back when parks initially were open and after re-opening from a temporary closure due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Third-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver has been among those Falcons teammates frequenting a park or vacant field to log some practice time absent of coaches. With cornerback Desmond Trufant leaving in free agency, this will be a young cornerback group returning, with Oliver, just three years removed from when he was selected in the second round of the 2018 draft, the oldest of the projected top three at the position. Oliver said the key this offseason has been to work his upper body and lower body in sync. That was an area of improvement for Oliver during the final eight games of the 2019 season, and that will continue to be an emphasis so that his progression can continue upward. “The biggest thing was connecting hands and feet at the line of scrimmage, in press technique and things like that,” Oliver said. “I’ve been working on that. I’ve been able to get out to some fields, in limited time, obviously. On a couple of days I’ve been able to get with other guys and some receivers to work the techniques and things like that. I’ve definitely been doing that the last couple of weeks.” Defensive backs working out with Oliver have been Damontae Kazee, Jordan Miller and Chris Cooper. Receivers who have been competing in one-on-one and pass skeleton simulations with the defenders have been Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake and Devin Gray. Without the ability to attend practice, there hasn’t been much else for any of the Falcons’ players to do besides work out at home or at a local gym if one has opened up near their residence. For the teammates who stayed in the Atlanta area this offseason, they’re trying to find any way to ensure they’re ready when the time comes to report to the team facility. “We know what we all have to work on individually,” Oliver said. “But it’s kind of different when there are no coaches or no real practice structure to it. And the competitive aspect, there are some competitive juices that come out of it, as you would expect. We’re all there to compete, and we all expect to win every rep that we do. But it’s still within staying safe and staying healthy. We’re not going to hurt each other. I think we’re capable of doing that, so it’s good work.” With Atlanta deciding to release Trufant, the cornerback position will be one to keep a close eye on during the preseason. As it stands, Oliver, Kendall Sheffield and rookie A.J. Terrell are the projected starters. The only cornerback on the roster who is older than 27 is Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 30, who seemingly would be the first off the bench. Given the fact that Oliver is 26, Terrell is 24 and Sheffield is 23, this is a group that certainly has trended younger with Atlanta’s decision to release Trufant. “It is a young group, but I feel it’s a smart group,” Oliver said. “Even guys like Sheffield and Jordan Miller, guys who are at the level of understanding the defense very well, just having only been in the system for one year. Losing a guy like ’Tru, a guy who’s been playing in the NFL for (the past seven years) and has been playing at a high level consistently the whole time is definitely going to change some things. But I definitely like the group that we have.” While the top three cornerbacks are all but set, how they are used in Atlanta’s defensive packages remains to be seen. In 2019, Sheffield concluded the season manning a starting spot opposite Trufant. Replacing Trufant in the base package could either be Oliver or Terrell. “I’d say personally I feel like I’m going to come in and make an impact and just make my presence known,” Terrell said. “I’ve already got a winning gene inside me and being able to show that to the coaches and join the brotherhood and just make things what it’s supposed to be. Make it great.” Thus far, Oliver said he has been impressed with Terrell during virtual team meetings. “Obviously, we haven’t been able to practice with A.J., but being in meetings with him, he’s a guy who is eager to learn, he’s smart, and it seems he can understand the defense really well,” Oliver said. In nickel packages last season, the Falcons had Sheffield to cover the slot, which could be a likely scenario once again. Although Oliver only has seen time as an outside cornerback, head coach Dan Quinn has mentioned Oliver can defend the slot if needed. At the same time, with a healthy allotment of safeties, Atlanta could opt to play more of the big nickel package, which would put three safeties on the field at the same, with one of those safeties — more than likely Ricardo Allen — playing the nickel spot. In 2019, the Falcons finished 22nd in the NFL, allowing 244.9 passing yards allowed per game. During the final eight games of the season, however, Atlanta ranked 15th, dropping that average to 228.6. In addition, 10 of Atlanta’s 12 interceptions came during those final eight games. The hope is that the secondary, as the entire defense, will be able to carry over the lessons learned from last season’s poor start and keep history from repeating itself. When Raheem Morris moved from receivers coach to defensive backs coach, a big change occurred. Even with Morris moving to defensive coordinator, it’s likely he will remain involved with the defensive backs. “The biggest thing was (Morris) really wanted us to do what we felt like we were really good at doing,” Oliver said. “Whether that be a certain technique or playing receivers a certain way, he kind of wanted us to feel comfortable in whatever it is we were doing, and then work on that one thing. He didn’t want everyone to do the same things. We’re all different types of players.” Said Allen: “We were pushing for greatness, but we were pushing more for statistics than just playing like I know how we could have been played. When (Morris) moved over, him being able to help us as much as he can, telling us exactly what the offense is trying to do against us and teaching us because he was over there for so long, exactly what wide receivers and quarterbacks were trying to do against us.” The Falcons hired longtime NFL secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. to take over the defensive backs. When Whitt went over last year’s Falcons tape, he noticed the communication errors that plagued the group in the early going. He said he doesn’t want that to happen under his watch. “I coach a certain way. I’m very demanding,” Whitt said. “I want to make sure that when we go out there we’re giving ourselves the best chance to win. We don’t need communication errors. It’s too hard to win in this league so we don’t want to beat ourselves.”
  11. https://theathletic.com/1828579/2020/05/21/rookie-mikey-daniel-looking-to-carve-out-a-hybrid-role-in-falcons-backfield/ Mikey Daniel is one of a kind. As an undrafted rookie out of South Dakota State, Daniel is the only member of the Falcons’ backfield who is being tasked with learning two positions at once. A tailback in college, Daniel decided to make the transition to fullback during the pre-draft process because he felt that was the best route for him to take if he was to make an NFL team’s roster. A big back at 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, Daniel certainly has the size to play fullback. But as the Falcons scouted Daniel, they liked his college tape enough to where they still feel he can carry the ball at the next level. “I’m the only one in the room that truly plays both fullback and running back,” Daniel said. “That’s just value. It leads to mismatches, it leads to questionable calls by defenses. Because how do you treat me? Do you treat me as a fullback, do you treat me as a running back? There’s just so much they can do with me that has a lot of upside. I’m really excited about it.” While many NFL teams have a fullback on their roster, it’s not a position that is used as frequently as it once was. Daniel, however, saw a niche that he could carve out thanks to his size and versatility in the backfield. He relied heavily upon Minnesota Vikings fullback C.J. Ham, who has become a mentor for Daniel, when making this switch. While Daniel and Ham first connected on social media, Daniel had followed Ham’s college career at Augustana, a Division II university located directly 60 miles south of South Dakota State in Sioux Falls. Ham, like Daniel, was a tailback in college. Ham, who was also undrafted, recently signed a four-year, $12 million extension. “He was letting me know there was a real market and opportunity for guys like us,” Daniel said. “Obviously it shows. He just got a new contract extension. I knew that being a bigger-body guy that I had the opportunity to make that happen.” Daniel’s path to the NFL follows the customary tale of an often-overlooked player with potential. Growing up originally in Seattle, Daniel’s family moved to Brookings, S.D., where South Dakota State sits, when he was 10 years old. As he became a star at Brookings High School as a freshman and sophomore, Daniel took a chance on himself by accepting a scholarship to attend IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., as a junior. But after one year at IMG, Daniel said he returned to Brookings for family reasons. Back at Brookings as a senior, he rushed for 1,500 yards and 22 touchdowns. But as Daniel put it, recruiting dried up once he returned home. He did hold offers from Army and Mississippi Valley State, but he felt it was best to walk on with the hometown Jackrabbits. Daniel maintained his walk-on status before earning a scholarship during the spring semester leading into his third-year sophomore season. But as he earned more playing time, it never seemed like he could break into a starting role. That wasn’t any fault of Daniel’s. In 2017, three South Dakota State running backs, including Daniel, got at least 100 carries in a committee approach. Daniel actually led the backfield in rushing touchdowns that season with 11. In 2018, Pierre Strong Jr. took over lead-back duties as a talented playmaker, en route to being named the Missouri Valley’s Freshman of the Year. Strong continued lead-back duties in 2019 while posting more than 1,000 rushing yards in consecutive seasons. Meanwhile, Daniel was effective as a change-of-pace back. But as injuries piled up in 2019, including one to Strong, Daniel found himself as the last man standing in the final two games of the regular season. Strong injured his knee against Northern Iowa, which put Daniel in the top spot for the remainder of the game. He finished the 38-7 win with 21 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown. A week later against South Dakota in the annual South Dakota Showdown Series, Daniel carried the ball 17 times for 125 yards and a touchdown in a 24-21 loss. Albeit in a defeat, South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier believes that game served as validation for Daniel. “Deep down inside he probably wanted to say to me, ‘You waited too long, Coach,’” Stiegelmeier said. “But he didn’t. He was just proud to be part of the team and the effort, and against a rival. I couldn’t be more proud of the young man.” Stiegelmeier said he was always a believer in Daniel’s abilities dating back to his freshman season in high school. It just so happened that each of Daniel’s seasons as a key contributor, he was part of talented backfields in each of his years on the roster. Interestingly, South Dakota State’s actual fullback from the 2019 season, Luke Sellers, signed with the Detroit Lions as a priority free agent after the draft. With that in mind, Stiegelmeier noted that Daniel has the potential to make him look silly if Daniel makes the most of his opportunity with the Falcons. “Here’s a guy who was the second- and third-string back in our offense most of his career, and he has a chance in the NFL,” Stiegelmeier said. “Either that says we’re pretty dumb, or he’s a special guy.” Looking at it from the bright side, Daniel said the lack of wear and tear could benefit him in the long term. “Now that I’m on the backside of it, I’m kind of grateful for it,” Daniel said. “In the time, you want to be on the field, you want to be playing, you want to take all the snaps. Definitely having the lower repetition has saved my body.” While Daniel received a good bit of attention from NFL scouts during the pre-draft process, he wasn’t invited to the scouting combine. He was hoping to put forth an impressive pro day showing that could have helped his standing as a potential draft pick. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which canceled those events. Needing to adjust, Daniel traveled to IMG Academy to film a makeshift pro day that was sent to every NFL and CFL team. And the numbers for the new fullback were impressive: a 4.62 40-yard dash, a 37-inch vertical leap, 27 reps on the bench, a 10-foot broad jump and 4.09-second short shuttle. “My numbers were statistically running back numbers with a fullback size body,” Daniel said. Still, without the ability to work out and interview with teams in person, it was always going to be hard for Daniel, like many of the small-school prospects, to be drafted. This year featured a record-low six FCS players who were selected. Along with Atlanta, the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers showed a ton of interest in Daniel during the pre-draft process. But the Monday before the draft, Daniel received a call from Dan Quinn, who was the only NFL head coach to call him. Once the draft ended, Daniel decided the best fit to start his career would be with the Falcons. In addition to being a flexible back who can play running back and fullback, Daniel is also expected to get some preseason reps catching passes. Of course, Quinn wanted to vet Daniel’s special teams background, as well, which is crucial if he’s going to make the roster as a depth addition at this particular position. “I like the versatility of him,” Quinn said. “Fullback, halfback, he has good hands, he has a special teams role. Those are usually the type of players that are going to work hard, find their own niche and carve out that role.” While Daniel can play fullback, the Falcons signed Keith Smith to a three-year contract this offseason. Even though Daniel opted to transition to the position, it’s clear the Falcons do view him as a ballcarrier who can play multiple spots on offense. There was a notion that Atlanta would draft a running back since it was a perceived need. But given the plethora of running backs in every draft class, perhaps scouting and signing someone like Daniel was the plan all along when it came to addressing the position. Daniel figures to enter the preseason as one of the more intriguing rookies on the roster. “The good thing about signing with the Falcons is they don’t just see me as a fullback,” Daniel said. “They see me as a hybrid, a guy that has position flexibility. They want to use me all over the field. It was a good fit for me to go to Atlanta.”
  12. https://theathletic.com/1814404/2020/05/14/dirk-koetter-we-definitely-need-to-run-the-ball-better-than-we-did-last-year/ File this one in the "No Sh*t Sherlock" column.... Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter offered a blunt assessment of the Falcons’ ground game. “We definitely need to run the ball better than we did last year,” he said. Atlanta finished the 2019 season ranked 30th in the NFL with an average of 85.1 rushing yards per game. A couple of factors worked against the Falcons throughout the season. During the first eight games, Atlanta found itself trailing by two scores or more seven times. That forced the Falcons to abandon the run much earlier than they would have liked. And when Atlanta did try to run the ball, it couldn’t churn out the kind of yards per carry it needed to be a true threat. In Atlanta’s first eight games, it averaged only 68.5 rushing yards per outing, which ranked 29th. While that number did improve to 101.6 rushing yards per game during the final eight games, Atlanta still finished in the bottom half of the league in this category for the second consecutive season. While the Falcons aren’t able to work with any players during what Koetter called “the most unique offseason in NFL history,” the overall objective will be to better establish a running game in 2020. An effective run game opens up the pass, particularly with play-action, which is when Atlanta feels its most dangerous on offense. “Your run game sets up the play-action game,” Koetter said. “It never fails every year when you go back and look at the cut-ups, the play-action game is where the explosive plays come. I think 30 percent of our play-action were explosive plays. Your play-action is going to be better if you’re running it better. We have to run the football more efficiently. We just have to do a better job there. It takes all 11 guys. We have to coach it better; we have to execute it better.” Changing up their personnel a bit, the Falcons parted ways with running back Devonta Freeman and brought in Todd Gurley, a two-time All-Pro running back who does have a lingering knee issue. Although he played in 15 of 16 games for the Los Angeles Rams in 2019, Gurley averaged 17 touches (14.9 rushes, 2.1 receptions) per game, which was a career low in a single season. At the same time, 17 touches might be what the Falcons envision for Gurley. A year ago, Freeman averaged 17.3 touches (13.1 rushes, 4.2 receptions) per game. In the majority of head coach Dan Quinn’s seasons with Atlanta, he has favored a committee approach at running back. From 2015-18, Tevin Coleman shared time with Freeman. In 2019, Ito Smith was Freeman’s backup before a season-ending injury put Brian Hill in that role. With Gurley replacing Freeman as Atlanta’s lead back, this philosophy is likely to remain. While the team will need to manage Gurley’s knee on a weekly basis, he wasn’t expected to get an average of more than 20 touches in a 16-game season. In addition, the Falcons are protected contractually if Gurley is unable to pass a physical once he is able to travel to the team facility. “Todd is only 25 years old, and he’s had two seasons where he was arguably the best running back in football,” Koetter said. “You’re just talking about different degrees. When he’s at his best, he’s got speed, he’s got power, he can break tackles, he’s elusive, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. We’ve all seen what he can do. His accolades speak for themselves. We just have to see how healthy he is and how consistently he can do it. He can still do it, it’s just a matter of how often can he do it?” Koetter added that he has a number of carries per game in mind for both Gurley and the rushing offense. He didn’t want to reveal that because, with at least a little jest, “(The media) will bring it up every week.” Last season, the Falcons tied for 29th with an average of 22.6 rushes per game. With better execution and without having to play catch-up early in games, Koetter hopes he will be able to call more runs in 2020. As it pertains to Gurley, Koetter said the Falcons and Rams are similar in philosophy and terminology, which should make Gurley’s addition seamless. If the team does keep Gurley around 17 touches per game — including 15 as a runner — that should open up some opportunities for the other backs, especially if the Falcons are truly committed to increasing its rushing volume. “I’m a big believer that it’s not just about one person running all of the runs, of course,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “We’re a big mix-up team. We think that’s a very important part of making sure that we rotate our guys through there. They all come to the table with different positives and different traits, of course, and I would not — I’m a big believer in making sure that you have the mix.” Behind Gurley, the Falcons either will opt for Smith or Hill to be the No. 2 back. Smith was the team’s No. 2 back a year ago until a neck injury ended his season after only seven games. Hill stepped in as Freeman’s backup after Smith’s injury and earned two starts. This preseason, Qadree Ollison, entering his second NFL season, also will get a shot at a rotational spot, as could undrafted free agent Mikey Daniel. Both Smith and Hill averaged more than 4 yards per carry with Smith tying Freeman with a team-high long of 28 yards. “To their credit, they want more. They want bigger roles,” Koetter said. “That’s what they should do is come in and compete for those bigger roles. Ito was playing well up until the time he got hurt. Like anything else, it’s a work in progress. When the guys get back we’ll figure it out.” Quinn and Dimitroff felt confident enough in Smith and Hill to the point that they didn’t feel like they needed to take another running back in the draft. “When you have a position like that and you’re just wanting those guys to go fight for it and you really believe in them like we do, you want to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Quinn said. “They’re pushing, they’re digging, they’re grinding for it, so you’re always looking like you do at every position. That’s part of the role. But we have a lot of belief in that group for sure.” While Gurley’s touch count went down last season, Koetter pointed to games Gurley had against the Carolina Panthers and the Chicago Bears as ones that showed he still can play at an elite level in the NFL. And Koetter also pointed out that there is no way of knowing what all went into the Rams’ subpar season running the ball. As Gurley drew a lot of attention due to his decreased numbers, it wasn’t like his fellow running backs were succeeding much. Darrell Henderson (3.8 yards per carry) and Malcolm Brown (3.7) also struggled behind a Rams’ offensive line that was unable to generate much in the run game. If Atlanta’s offensive line can offer improved blocking for Gurley, perhaps Gurley will return to the form he previously has displayed. But Koetter, like every other Falcons employee, will be forced to wait a while longer before getting the chance to see Gurley up close. “We’ll find out his health after he gets here,” Koetter said. “He’s saying all the right things. I just talked to him the other day. I know he’s excited. I know the fans are excited, all the Georgia Bulldog fans are excited to get him here. We’ll just see. You can’t deny his talent and what he’s already done in this league. The question is his health and we’ll just have to see.”
  13. https://theathletic.com/1806911/2020/05/14/brandon-browner-from-the-legion-of-boom-to-inmate-no-bl707/ Long read, but good... Kam Chancellor had the microphone first. “L.O.B., baby,” he announced, “we’re gonna sing this song for y’all.” As Brandon Browner settled beside him, a shirtless Earl Thomas grabbed the mic next. They turned toward Richard Sherman, the man of the hour, and began to croon. “Happy birthday to youuu.” Sherman laughed, then pantomimed choir director hand signals as they continued. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to 2-5. Happy birthday to youuu.” It was the final week of March 2018. Sherman had recently signed with the rival 49ers after being cut by the Seahawks. Chancellor was battling a neck injury that would end his football career that summer. Thomas was in a contract dispute that would ultimately end his Seattle tenure. Then there was Browner, the fourth member of the original “Legion of Boom” secondary who was floundering in his post-football life. Browner was in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, simultaneously celebrating Sherman’s 30th birthday and his wedding before a group of 180 friends and family, including nearly half of the starters from the Seahawks’ Super Bowl 48 championship roster. The weather was sunny and relaxing, perfect for the occasion. The former teammates reminisced about their playing days over drinks by the pool or while lounging at the beach. The day of the wedding was one to remember. The guys hung out in Sherman’s room, holding court in a wide-ranging discussion — religion, marriage, children. It was a deeper dive into one another’s lives than they were used to; Sherman calls it one of the best nights of his life. In his five-year NFL career, Browner made the Pro Bowl, won Super Bowl rings under Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick and was named a defensive captain in his lone season with the Saints, but his closest friends were still his LOB co-founders. During a golf cart ride from the beach to the hotel, Browner turned to defensive end Cliff Avril and said, “I needed this, man.” What he needed, even if Browner couldn’t articulate it, was football. He needed the game to contain the aggression and desperation that characterized him as a player. He also needed to be back with his boys, to be part of a team. “I think a lot of us were feeling like that,” Avril said. “That camaraderie, feeling like you’re back in the locker room again.” But by that week in March 2018, the violence that defined Browner’s career had escaped the confines of football. He already had been arrested for drug possession and for threatening his girlfriend, the mother of two of his children. In the months that followed, he would be arrested twice more, the second time for a horrific crime: He broke into his girlfriend’s home, refused to let her leave, then attempted to smother her in the carpet. It was summer 2011, and Browner sat alone in the cafeteria at the Seahawks’ practice facility, a view of Lake Washington outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. Seattle’s offseason program was just days old, and players were still in the process of completing physicals, largely unfamiliar with one another. As a 27-year-old first-year cornerback from the CFL, Browner was especially unknown. But early in camp, Browner was greeted at lunch by another off-the-radar player, a late-round draft pick from Stanford who, like Browner, grew up in the Los Angeles area. “You ain’t about to sit by yourself,” Richard Sherman said. It took a few days, but Browner began to open up to his new teammate. “Every time we talk about it, he’s like, ‘Man, I was trying to get back in the league! I’m ready to eat off anybody’s plate,'” Sherman told The Athletic. “I’m like, ‘BB, everybody is ready to eat off anybody’s plate at that point; that don’t mean you sit by your **** self.'” Browner stayed late after practice and asked questions in meetings — “You could sense the desperation in some of it,” Sherman said — but he knew what his calling card was as a player and encouraged the 23-year-old rookie to follow his example. “They brought us in here to put our mother****ing hands on people,” he told Sherman, “so put your hands on people.” Browner grew up with 15 brothers and sisters in Pacoima, Calif., a neighborhood in the northern San Fernando Valley notorious for gang activity. Many of his family members were, according to people in the know, “in the life.” At one point, Browner said, his dad, little brother, sister, cousin and stepdad were all in prison. Browner’s mother, Brenda Fisher, enrolled him at Monroe High about 20 minutes away in North Hills, a “safer” destination at the time. She wanted her son around people who would care for him — people like Chris Richards. A longtime coach who was involved in Browner’s life since he was a child, Richards knew how important football could be for Browner. “I always told him he was the chosen one for his family,” Richards said. Browner developed into a big, fast, aggressive player who starred at wide receiver and cornerback and attracted attention from Pac-10 powers, but he could also lash out without warning if he felt like his chances of success were endangered. “People handle fear differently,” Richards said. “He only knows one way, just like he only knows one way to play the game. If you look at Brandon, his aggression on the field was no different than his aggression off the field. “When you’re hanging out with Brandon and he’s being Brandon, the clown, the joker, the total opposite. But it didn’t take much to push him to that next level because without football (he thought), ‘Where am I at? Who am I? Who is going to embrace me?'” Browner ended up at Oregon State, where the 6-foot-4, 194-pounder established himself as the team’s most physical defensive back — and as a player who would occasionally cross the line. As a true freshman, Browner had to sit out several plays following a short altercation with a receiver. It then took several players to separate Browner and backup center Jason Fyda when they scrapped after a running play. “I just like to bang,” Browner once said. “If you let him, he would body-slam everybody,” said Nigel Burton, Browner’s defensive backs coach at OSU. “He was one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around. You go to a practice and he’s trying to rip people’s heads off.” Burton decided to build his secondary around that energy, with Browner — who had been named the 2003 Pac-10 freshman of the year — at the forefront. Burton stayed on top of Browner, trying to hold him accountable in the classroom. Sometimes Browner would do his homework in Burton’s office. The coach called Browner one of the “nicest mean guys I know,” but looking back, Burton thinks he might have been too tough on him. “It was out of love,” Burton said. “I just wanted him to succeed and use the game as a tool and not be engulfed in it.” Their relationship soured when Browner decided to leave Oregon State and enter the NFL Draft after his redshirt sophomore season in 2004. (Browner later said he didn’t believe he’d academically qualify to play as a junior.) Oregon State coach Mike Riley disagreed with the decision. Burton did, too. And just like that, his coaches were standing in the way of his success. “I think he took that as I didn’t believe in him,” Burton said, but that wasn’t the case. The two didn’t talk for years. Browner was projected by some to go in the first few rounds of the 2005 draft, but he went undrafted because of a poor combine performance and questions about his on-field discipline and off-field maturity. Disappointed and motivated, Browner signed with the Denver Broncos, but he suffered a broken arm in training camp and spent his rookie season in injured reserve. He failed a drug test and was released the following summer. Unemployed and back in Pacoima, Browner spent his days with Richards’ son Rashaad. Both of their girlfriends were pregnant, and Browner picked up Richards every morning to go work out. “Outside of football, we were lost,” said Rashaad, so the pair joined a local flag football league. Browner’s first son was born in January 2007. He began living off unemployment checks and looking into security jobs in Hollywood. But in the spring, general manager Jim Barker of the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders called, looking for a big, physical corner. During Browner’s first workout with his new team, he wasn’t in good enough shape to keep up. “I couldn’t complete the gassers,” Browner later said. “I was down on the ground, thinking, ‘Man, I’m about to get cut again.'” But even as he worked on his conditioning, his size and play stood out. He appeared in 17 games that first season, finished second on the team with 71 total tackles, forced four fumbles and was in the conversation for the CFL’s rookie of the year. “It was a drive about the cat,” said Stampeders teammate Calvin Bannister. “The way he played, you knew he was playing for his family.” But Browner’s family was falling apart. The relationship with the mother of his first child deteriorated while he was in Calgary. He had hopes of marriage, buying a home, getting a dog, living out the American dream far away from California. Home, Browner said, is “trouble for me.” Without football, he knew he’d be working a security job in Hollywood, asking what-ifs and “telling stories to my son about how great I was.” Browner was named an All-Star in his last three seasons with Calgary, but he struggled to control his aggression. He’d frequently rumble with his road roommate, Dwight Anderson. He had near-scuffles with his offensive teammates and a penchant for drawing penalties. Browner nearly fought defensive coordinator Chris Jones in 2010 when Jones tried to move Browner to the slot to lock down Saskatchewan receiver Andy Fantuz, who had burned Calgary for 255 yards in their previous meeting. Browner couldn’t maul opponents as a slot defender and got his *** whipped in practice. His coaches were once again standing in the way of his success. “I’m an All-CFL corner; you got me playing in the slot,” he told Jones, who responded to Browner with two questions: “Are you scared to play in the slot? Are you scared to match up on Fantuz?” Pride trumped fear, and Browner held Fantuz to zero catches in the game. In 2008, Browner had 75 tackles and three interceptions and the Stampeders won the Grey Cup. After the game, the team celebrated at Moose McGuire’s, a local pub. In the midst of the celebration, the 5-foot-8 Jones stood on a step so he could look his star corner in the face. Browner had tears in his eyes. Jones, now in the NFL as a member of the Browns’ staff, recently recalled the moment and felt chills while sitting in his truck in Cleveland. “He was so thankful,” Jones said. “It was almost like it validated him as a person, to follow through with something and be able to finish and complete something. It was just good to be able to be involved with something like that with someone who feels hollow, and you fill in that little blank.” In January 2011, Browner signed a three-year, $1.29 million contract with the Seahawks, quite the raise for a guy who once said he was “up there in Canada making 50 grand.” But the contract didn’t include any guaranteed money, and since owners and players were about to start a 132-day lockout, Browner went months without a paycheck. His family was looking to him as a provider — his second son was born in August 2010 — and Browner was stressed. “I was loooow,” he recalled during a radio interview that season. “I was down to my last.” When he finally got on the field, he put his hands on people. Now listed at 220 pounds, Browner’s aggression and physicality made him an ideal fit for Carroll’s defense. “He’s out there playing Cover 3, pressing dudes,” recalled linebacker K.J. Wright, another rookie that season. “Dudes couldn’t really get off his press.” It wasn’t much of a surprise that Browner led the NFL in penalties in his first season in Seattle. It was slightly more surprising that he also led the league in passes defensed (23) and interception touchdowns (2) and was named a Pro Bowl alternate. Browner brought the “boom” whenever he had a chance, and to whom it was delivered wasn’t a concern. In 2012 training camp, he bodied Terrell Owens and drove the receiver to the ground in a one-on-one drill. During a 2012 game against the Patriots, he targeted Wes Welker in the flat and flattened the smaller receiver to force an incompletion. “I’m like, ‘Dog, cornerbacks are not supposed to do that,'” Avril said. During the infamous Fail Mary game against Green Bay, Browner dropped Greg Jennings mid-route with a blindside hit. As the receiver rose to his feet, Browner squared up to fight, withstood Jennings’ rush and slammed him into the ground. After the two were separated, Browner emerged, flexing his muscles. “He just manhandled him,” Wright said. By the end of the 2012 season, the LOB’s familial bond had formed. That summer, Thomas, Chancellor, Sherman and Browner took turns visiting one another’s hometowns: Thomas brought them out to little Orange, Texas, near the Louisiana border; Chancellor hosted a cookout in Norfolk, Va.; Sherman had everyone over in Compton; and Browner hosted them in the San Fernando Valley. Browner joined his teammates on a vacation to Miami, Fla., where they strolled up and down Ocean Drive, plotting for the season and getting to know one another even better. “He’s a very unique man who has been through a lot of trauma throughout his life,” Sherman said. “(He’s) been put in a lot of holes that most people never dig themselves out of.” Still, there were setbacks. In November 2012, just as the team was starting its ascent to the NFL’s elite, Browner and Sherman were suspended for failed drug tests, causing the former to miss four regular-season games. (Sherman successfully appealed his suspension.) In 2013, Browner was hit with another drug suspension and missed the final three months as the Seahawks marched to the Super Bowl. While Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor became household names, Browner was quietly bothered by the notion he was the “fourth” member of the Legion of Boom, and being excluded from the brotherhood’s biggest games of the season — including Seattle’s 43-8 blowout of Denver in Super Bowl 48 — didn’t help. At the White House in May 2014, Browner wore a black suit with a purple-and-gold tie and positioned himself proudly behind then-President Barack Obama at the podium. He stood two rows up, just behind receiver Doug Baldwin and Chancellor. “You may have heard about the Legion of Boom,” Obama said. “Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Byron Maxwell, who combined to form the best secondary in football.” One year later, Browner would get another shot at a championship. Prior to Super Bowl 49, Browner, then with New England, told ESPN’s Josina Anderson he would instruct his Patriots teammates to attack Sherman’s injured elbow and Thomas’ injured shoulder. “Try to break it if you can,” Browner said. “You’re going to be my best friend after the game, but at the end of the day, I know you want that Super Bowl just as bad as I do.” Sherman understood what Browner meant and responded to his former teammate via text: “Lol.” Before the game’s decisive play, with Seattle facing second-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Browner recognized what was coming and positioned himself behind teammate Malcolm Butler to thwart the upcoming pick play. At the snap, Browner practiced what he preached — put your hands on people — jamming receiver Jermaine Kearse at the line of scrimmage and clearing the path for Butler’s game-clinching interception. Moments after the pick, he ran over to Sherman. The pair were photographed on the field, their faces pressed against each other in what looked like a heated exchange. But when asked what he said to his former teammate, Browner answered, “I love you, boy.” Browner returned to Pacoima and held free summer camps for children in the neighborhood. Chancellor and Sherman were special guests. He began the process of starting up a youth football league. In 2014, Browner bought a 3,668-square-foot home in Pomona, about an hour east of where he grew up. In the spring of 2016, one year after signing a three-year, $15 million deal with New Orleans, he bought his mother a house. “It took me a while, but I accomplished goal No. 1 from day one,” he announced. Shortly after, his third child, a daughter, was born. Browner spent 2015 with the Saints, where he was voted a defensive captain, but was released following the season. He attempted a comeback with the Seahawks that offseason but was among the team’s final cuts. By the start of the 2016 season, he was out of football. Every player’s career has to end; rarely is the transition easy. For Browner, it had perhaps a higher degree of difficulty. Several former Seahawks made their homes in the Seattle area, where they formed a support system for one another. But Browner headed back to California, where relationships with his family were strained. “He was trying to find himself, but he just lacked the family,” Sherman said. “We’re family. We watch out for each other, and he didn’t have that anymore.” “Nobody can relate to what you’re going through with the transition — or the denial — of your career being over with,” Avril said. “Trying to fit into the real world, trying to find who you are outside of football. It’s just a wide range of different thoughts guys struggle with because they’ve been doing this their whole life. If you can find that community of people who have gone through that … it allows you to be able to vent, and people understand what you’re going through.” But back home, Browner spiraled. He was arrested for cocaine possession in May 2017. Four months later, he was arrested again. His girlfriend sought a restraining order against him, alleging he had assaulted her — leaving her with black eyes, a broken tailbone and a busted eardrum — and threatened to kill her. In June 2018, Browner was sentenced to three years’ probation and served two days in jail after a no-contest plea to battery and child endangerment. He was also ordered to take a 52-week domestic violence treatment program. But just weeks later, police responded to reports of a man attempting to enter Browner’s girlfriend’s home in La Verne, Calif., through a locked window. Police say Browner stole her $20,000 Rolex watch, threatened to kill her, prevented her from leaving the house and attempted to smother her. Browner left the home before the police arrived, but later that day, he was arrested in nearby Azusa. He was charged with attempted murder, robbery, burglary, false imprisonment and child endangerment. The next day, Browner’s arrest was national news. His teammates were shocked. He pleaded no contest to attempted murder and child endangerment and in December 2018 and was sentenced to eight years in prison. A judge denied Browner’s attempt to have the decision vacated in February. On March 9, he was sent to Wasco State Prison, where he is inmate No. BL7078. Browner’s aggression and desperation had helped him become a key player in one of the NFL’s most iconic position groups. He won a Super Bowl and made millions. His family is broken. He has three young children. He is eligible for parole in 2024.
  14. https://theathletic.com/1809424/2020/05/12/projecting-the-falcons-89-man-depth-chart-in-the-middle-of-a-virtual-offseason/ In any other year, the Falcons soon would be holding organized team activities. Given the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, players and coaches have been forced to meet on a virtual basis. These virtual meetings had some rocky moments as players and coaches were forced to grow accustomed to using a video chat to connect with one another. There were miscommunications due to time-zone differences or players not realizing they weren’t on mute. But given the simplicity of the technology, it didn’t take long for everyone to figure out how to communicate properly. With all the quirks worked out, it actually has been an efficient alternative. During these meetings, players will check in with their position coaches to go over film while receiving additional instruction about the scheme. “We’re just trying as many ways as we can to go through it, and then we go through a lot of feedback,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “We ask what the players benefitted from, and we also do that as a staff, what worked well, what didn’t, what can we do more of, and we’re constantly trying to challenge the guys.” There hasn’t been an announcement about when the NFL will be able to resume football activities. In the meantime, various teams are adjusting accordingly. For a team like Atlanta, which is looking to bounce back to the postseason after enduring consecutive 7-9 seasons, it may seem like it is missing an opportunity to get players up to speed by not being able to work out in person during this time. Still, the Falcons are trying to make use of this time the best way they can. “I would say one of my biggest concerns is that we don’t get on the field together and have that type of communication, and there’s no way to do that now, but it doesn’t mean you’re not going to dig in to try and find an edge to find it,” Quinn said. “It’s been a good start. Over the last month, I’ve learned a lot on technology. I love teaching, so finding new ways to connect with the guys, new exercises, new ways to do things, it’s been a challenge but one that’s been fun.” As the Falcons await word on when they can convene again, here’s a projected depth chart for the current group of 89 players. Quarterback Matt Ryan Matt Schaub Kurt Benkert Danny Etling What’s good: Ryan will enter his 13th season. There are no issues surrounding Atlanta’s starting quarterback. What needs to be addressed: While Schaub is the favorite to be the backup once again, it will be interesting to see if Benkert or Etling could challenge him for the spot this preseason. Benkert was off to a good start last year before a toe injury sidelined him for the season. Running back Todd Gurley Ito Smith Brian Hill Qadree Ollison Craig Reynolds Mikey Daniel What’s good: The Falcons released Devonta Freeman and replaced him with Gurley, a 25-year-old who is often talked about as if he’s 35 due to an arthritic knee. The key will be managing Gurley’s workload to prevent his knee from flaring up. And if Atlanta is able to approach this in the right manner, Gurley can be productive. Much of that will have to do with pairing him with another back, or using two, in a committee approach. What needs to be addressed: It’s wide open as for who will get the first crack at spelling Gurley. Smith and Hill are the favorites, with Ollison a potential option for short-yardage and goal-line duty. The true sleeper of this bunch is Daniel, an undrafted rookie out of South Dakota State. Daniel is expected to take snaps at both running back and fullback, as well as potentially carve out an H-back role. Fullback Keith Smith What’s good: Smith signed a three-year contract this offseason and is all but guaranteed a spot on the roster for this season. What needs to be addressed: While Smith is in the fold for the 2020 season, the Falcons structured his three-year contract so the position could be up for grabs in 2021. Smith will need a strong year to prove that he should be retained after the year. Wide receiver Julio Jones Calvin Ridley Russell Gage Laquon Treadwell Olamide Zaccheaus Christian Blake Brandon Powell Devin Gray Chris Rowland Jalen McCleskey Juwan Green What’s good: The numbers are strong at receiver. And with Jones, Ridley and Gage back for this season, Ryan has to be pleased with his targets on the outside and in the slot. What needs to be addressed: Treadwell will offer a veteran presence as a rotational receiver, with Zaccheaus, Blake, Powell and Gray battling for the final spots. Powell, for now, is also the top option at returner. The sleeper of this group is Rowland, who had 1,437 yards and eight touchdowns last season at Tennessee State. Essentially, it’s all about rounding out the final three or four spots at receiver, which looks to be a deep group once again. Tight end Hayden Hurst Jaeden Graham Carson Meier Khari Lee Jared Pinkney Caleb Repp What’s good: Opting to address edge rusher, the Falcons weren’t in a position to re-sign Austin Hooper. Therefore, they executed a trade for Hurst, which the team hopes will pay off in a major way. What needs to be addressed: Behind Hurst, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the position group will turn out. More than likely, this list will be trimmed to three. Graham, an undrafted free agent out of Yale two seasons ago, made the 53-man roster last year and stuck with the group the entire season. Behind Graham, it’s likely going to be a battle between Meier, Lee, Pinkney and Repp for the final spot. Tackle Jake Matthews Kaleb McGary John Wetzel Evin Ksiezarczyk Hunter Atkinson Scottie Dill What’s good: The Falcons are set at left and right tackle, with Matthews and McGary manning those positions, respectively. For now, Wetzel appears poised to begin as one of the team’s top options at swing tackle. What needs to be addressed: The Falcons will carry eight or nine offensive linemen on the 53-man roster. To be the seventh, eighth or ninth lineman, Ksiezarczyk, Atkinson and Dill will need to show they can offer something the team doesn’t already have, particularly when it comes to position flexibility. Guard Chris Lindstrom James Carpenter Matt Hennessy Jamon Brown Matt Gono Justin McCray Justin Gooseberry What’s good: Lindstrom is a lock to start at right guard. The team missed him greatly after he broke his foot in the season opener. What needs to be addressed: Now that the draft and most of free agency are in the books, left guard remains one of the biggest question marks on this team. While Carpenter started 11 games in 2019, Quinn has made it clear that this will be a wide-open competition. Although Hennessy projects to be the team’s long-term option at center, he will begin his pro career at left guard. Gono is one to watch because if he doesn’t win the left-guard job, he could be an option to be the swing tackle. Center Alex Mack Sean Harlow Austin Capps What’s good: Mack is entering his 12th season and is one of the most valuable members of the team. What needs to be addressed: While Harlow and Capps will surely get plenty of reps at center during the preseason, Hennessy can be considered the top option at backup center. Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. Takk McKinley Steven Means Charles Harris Austin Larkin Austin Edwards Bryson Young What’s good: Atlanta hopes Fowler continues the kind of production he had last season with the Los Angeles Rams, which resulted in 11.5 sacks while playing 80 percent of the defensive snaps. What needs to be addressed: The Falcons will look to continue coaching up McKinley, the franchise’s first-round selection in 2017. McKinley set a goal for 10 or more sacks in 2019 but fell short with only 3.5 in 14 games. As a pass-rush unit, Atlanta will look to do much better than the 28 sacks it posted, which ranked tied for 29th last season. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett Tyeler Davison Marlon Davidson Deadrin Senat Hinwa Allieu Sailosi Latu What’s good: Jarrett finally received a Pro Bowl nod, which was a long time coming. Jarrett is one of the defense’s go-to leaders and will look to anchor the defensive line once again. In run downs, he’ll be joined by Davison, who signed a three-year contract to remain with the organization. And then Davidson, Atlanta’s second-round selection in the draft, will look to provide an interior pass rush alongside Jarrett. What needs to be addressed: Davidson’s development will be the biggest area of focus once team activities resume. At Auburn, Davidson played a lot on the edge. With Atlanta, he will be asked to play inside as a three-technique defensive tackle in nickel situations. Getting Davidson accustomed to that role will be an area of emphasis. DE/DT hybrid Allen Bailey John Cominsky Jacob Tuioti-Mariner What’s good: The Falcons are big on position versatility, and they have three players up front who can play both defensive end and defensive tackle. While Bailey and Tuioti-Mariner played both spots a year ago, Cominsky is projected to see more time as a defensive tackle when the defense is in the nickel package. What needs to be addressed: Last year was considered a redshirt year for Cominsky, who saw his limited reps at defensive end. That should change this season as Cominsky adjusts to the role the team envisioned for him when he was selected. Linebacker Deion Jones Foye Oluokun Mykal Walker LaRoy Reynolds Ahmad Thomas Edmond Robinson Jordan Williams What’s good: Jones has amassed a lot of experience as he enters his fifth season with the franchise. Oluokun is entering his third season and could be primed for a starting slot. What needs to be addressed: Depth behind Jones and Oluokun remains a need, with Walker, one of the team’s two fourth-round selections, being a candidate to earn some rotational time. Last year, the Falcons began the season with four linebackers. Reynolds, Thomas, Robinson and Williams could be duking it out for that final spot this preseason. Cornerback Kendall Sheffield A.J. Terrell Isaiah Oliver Blidi Wreh-Wilson Jordan Miller Josh Hawkins Tyler Hall Delrick Abrams Jr. Rojesterman Farris II What’s good: By drafting Terrell in the first round, the Falcons have their top three cornerbacks set. And with Terrell being an outside corner, that allows the team additional flexibility to have Sheffield man the slot when the team is in nickel. What needs to be addressed: Depth behind the top three corners remains a concern. That stated, Wreh-Wilson is a dependable option at corner as he was able to step in and provide some solid play when called upon last season. Safety Ricardo Allen Keanu Neal Damontae Kazee Sharrod Neasman Jamal Carter Jaylinn Hawkins Chris Cooper C.J. Reavis Ray Wilborn What’s good: The Falcons’ top three options at safety return in Allen, Neal and Kazee, and they also have experienced players in Neasman and Carter to battle for backup spots. The Falcons also think highly of Hawkins. What needs to be addressed: Like receiver, this could be a position that is hard to narrow down when it comes to constructing the final roster. But with two practice squad players able to be elevated to the active roster during game weeks, that could create an extra position for one of these safeties. Punter Ryan Allen Sterling Hofrichter What’s good: Allen has plenty of NFL experience, but the Falcons spent a seventh-round draft pick on Hofrichter. This figures to be an intriguing position battle this preseason. What needs to be addressed: Both Allen and Hofrichter have the ability to pin teams inside their own 20-yard line repeatedly. The competition will come down to which punter can limit punt returns from occurring more often than not. Place-kicker Younghoe Koo What’s good: Koo made 23-of-26 field goals in only half of a season. This proved he was worthy of sticking with the team for another season. What needs to be addressed: With 89 players on the roster, the plan remains to add a place-kicker to compete with Koo this preseason. Holding that process up right now has been the inability to work out a place-kicker at Atlanta’s facility. Long-snapper Josh Harris What’s good: Harris will enter his eighth season as Atlanta’s long-snapper, proving his worth at the position along the way. What needs to be addressed: Nothing. Harris is one of the league’s better and more reliable long-snappers.
  15. https://theathletic.com/1788509/2020/05/01/what-charles-harris-addition-means-to-falcons-defensive-line-rotation/ Back in 2016, Charles Harris was a fourth-year junior in college at Missouri. His Tigers were hosting Georgia in an early season showdown between SEC East teams. The two teams played a thrilling game, with UGA quarterback Jacob Eason finding receiver Isaiah McKenzie for a touchdown on a fourth-down play, which ended up being the game-winning score. But that game became a glimpse at what NFL scouts saw as Harris’ potential. Statistically speaking, his game against Georgia was the best of his collegiate career. He racked up seven tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks and a pass breakup in the 28-27 defeat. That game put him on the map as a potential first-round prospect. Ultimately, Harris decided to bypass his final year of eligibility and declared for the 2017 NFL Draft. It was a good decision as the Miami Dolphins selected Harris with the 22nd overall pick. But Harris hasn’t had the kind of pass-rush production he enjoyed in college, including nine sacks during his final season. And after three years with the Dolphins and just 3.5 sacks, Harris will enter the final year of his rookie contract with a new team. On Friday, the Falcons agreed to trade a 2021 seventh-round selection to the Dolphins to acquire Harris. The Falcons certainly hope they can return Harris to the form he displayed back in his college days. Charles Harris stats SEASON GAMES TACKLES SACKS TACKLES FOR LOSS 2017 16 19 2 5 2018 11 19 1 2 2019 14 23 0.5 3 While the Falcons went with a defense-first philosophy in this year’s draft, they didn’t take a defensive end with any of their six selections. Harris’ addition fills that particular need, which has further rounded out the defensive line rotation for the time being. By surrendering a late draft pick, it’s apparent that while the Dolphins were ready to move on from a previous regime’s first-round pick, the Falcons are more than happy to take a flyer on Harris for one season. Harris is expected to play the LEO role, and he could compete for reps alongside fellow 2017 draft pick Takk McKinley, who Atlanta took four picks later at No. 26 in 2017. By adding another player at this particular position, the Falcons now have three defensive ends who primarily will play off the edge. With Dante Fowler Jr. signing a three-year deal worth up to $48 million, he’s going to get the bulk of the reps among the edge rushers. Fowler played 80 percent of the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive snaps in 2019 and is replacing Vic Beasley, who got 73 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps. McKinley played 53 percent of Atlanta’s defensive reps last season, with Harris seeing 39 percent of Miami’s defensive snaps. It remains to be seen how Atlanta will divide those reps up at the position. But with those three players manning the edge, Atlanta now has further flexibility for some of its other defensive linemen. John Cominsky, who was drafted as a projected pass-rushing defensive tackle, can now focus more time along the interior. Allen Bailey may be able to spend additional reps inside, as well. While Harris has a former first-round tag to his name, this was a move made to aid Atlanta’s rotation. If it works, and if Harris displays the flashes that led to Miami selecting him with a first-round pick, Atlanta can look into signing him to another contract. If it doesn’t, all the organization surrendered was a seventh-rounder. The Falcons are likely to keep eight or nine defensive linemen on the roster for the 2020 season. They value depth and the ability to rotate players so they remain fresh in the fourth quarter. The good news for the franchise is it feels, according to a source, it is getting a “very hard worker” who takes to coaching well. After dealing with two down years and a coaching change in Miami, maybe a change of scenery will do Harris well.
  16. https://theathletic.com/1778262/2020/04/27/thirty-thoughts-on-the-falcons-roster-now-that-the-nfl-draft-is-over/ Now that the NFL Draft has come and gone, here are 30 thoughts about the Falcons’ roster: 1. Out are Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn and Jack Crawford. In are Dante Fowler and Marlon Davidson. It will be a slightly new-look defensive front for the Falcons this season, with the hope that Fowler can add a consistent pass-rushing presence. Fowler recorded 11.5 sacks for the Los Angeles Rams in 2019 and previously played for head coach Dan Quinn during his first year at Florida. The two new additions will be critical in trying to add pressure while producing more sacks. In addition, it will be interesting to see how Takk McKinley responds to having Fowler on the opposite side of the formation. 2. Considering that Davidson was a second-round selection at a position of need, he will get every opportunity to start. The plan is for Davidson primarily to play the nickel defensive tackle role to provide a pass rush up the middle. In that situation, Grady Jarrett would play nose tackle. Of course, Tyeler Davison still will be the primary nose tackle when the Falcons are lining up to defend the run. If Atlanta sticks to the original plan, John Cominsky should start to see some defensive tackle reps, too. 3. With the Falcons addressing cornerback and the trenches with the first three picks, it’s clear that Quinn was telling the truth about Foye Oluokun being a starting linebacker during one of his pre-draft conference calls. Last year, the Falcons asked De’Vondre Campbell to do a lot at linebacker — he covered tight ends, rushed the passer and dropped back as a deep safety. Oluokun actually played safety in college at Yale, so now it looks to be his time to shine in this particular position. 4. While Oluokun figures get the first crack at starting, Mykal Walker, one of Atlanta’s two fourth-rounders, will do his best to vie for a rotational role. Atlanta’s selection of Walker is eerily similar to when it took Campbell four years ago. Campbell was taken with the 115th pick of the fourth round. Walker was selected at pick No. 119, and they have similar builds and athleticism. Both were taken when there was an obvious need at the position. Both are versatile linebackers who can play multiple positions. One thing that stands out about Walker is how instinctive he is on the field. He may not be the plug-and-play starter Campbell was, but Walker could earn some playing time earlier than expected. 5. The Falcons entered the offseason with only Oluokun, Deion Jones and Ahmad Thomas at linebacker. Since then, they have added LaRoy Reynolds and Edmond Robinson before drafting Walker. Jones, Oluokun and Walker seemingly are locks to make the 53-man roster. Last year, the Falcons began the season with four linebackers. If the same holds true for 2020, there will be a competition among Reynolds, Robinson and Thomas for the final linebacker spot. 6. First-rounder A.J. Terrell will start at one of the outside cornerback spots. If last season is an indicator, Kendall Sheffield can be expected to start as the other outside cornerback in the base package. In nickel, Isaiah Oliver may continue to play one of the outside corner spots with Sheffield moving inside to nickel. Blidi Wreh-Wilson once again will be the steady reserve he has become known for. 7. With Sheffield ending the 2019 season as a nickel cornerback, Damontae Kazee will stick to being a safety. But if Sheffield is the first option at nickel, and if Keanu Neal is healthy enough to resume his strong safety spot, who will start at free safety? That job seemingly would go to Ricardo Allen, the smartest player and a team leader on defense. Could Kazee then go back to a backup role? Or could the Falcons play more in a dime defense? Or could the nickel defense actually feature Allen as the slot corner with Sheffield playing primarily outside? It’s possible that Atlanta’s nickel defense, or a variation of it, could feature three safeties and two corners instead of two safeties and three corners. 8. Neal and Kazee are free agents after the 2020 season, which made safety a position the Falcons felt the need to target in the draft. Jaylinn Hawkins, the second of two fourth-round picks selected, has a little bit of both Neal and Kazee in his game. He’s big and can play down in the box like Neal. He also had 10 interceptions in his college career at California, with six coming as a junior in 2018. This season figures to be a developmental year for Hawkins, and if Atlanta doesn’t keep Neal and Kazee in 2021, the ensuing offseason could decide whether he’s a starter. 9. Of all the smokescreens involving Atlanta, the one indicating interest in drafting a quarterback was the biggest. 10. Matt Ryan will start at quarterback for the 13th consecutive season. But the preseason will be interesting as it pertains to his backup. Matt Schaub, who played well in his lone 2019 start against the Seattle Seahawks, is set to make $2 million as the No. 2 QB on the roster. But Kurt Benkert and Danny Etling have the tools to push Schaub for the spot. 11. The Falcons decided they were good enough at running back and didn’t feel the need to draft anyone at the position. Todd Gurley will be the team’s starter but probably won’t see the number of touches he saw with the Rams back in 2017 and 2018. One of the best camp competitions will be at No. 2 running back between Brian Hill and Ito Smith, seeing that the second running back will still see plenty of snaps. Qadree Ollison will be looking for a big jump too. 12. Last year, people wondered if the Falcons would even carry a fullback. After signing Keith Smith to a three-year deal, that’s not a question this offseason. 13. In what was considered a historic class at wide receiver, the Falcons elected to pass on the position in the draft. Like running back, they must feel good about who they already have. 14. Atlanta did add Laquon Treadwell, a former first-round pick, to the roster during free agency. But he is not expected to be in the top three of the receiver rotation, at least for now. His addition is more in line with replacing Justin Hardy. Treadwell is expected to be a No. 4 receiver who can add value on special teams coverage. 15. Of the receivers on Atlanta’s roster, the biggest winner is Russell Gage. After how he finished the 2019 season, he’s expected to remain the No. 3 receiver. 16. The Falcons drafted six players but added seven with the draft picks they had prior to the start of free agency. They traded second- and fifth-round picks to the Baltimore Ravens for Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round selection. The second-rounder can be attributed to Hurst while the original fifth-rounder moved up a round. 17. The second-rounder Atlanta traded was the 55th overall pick. With that slot, the Ravens took Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins. Again, Atlanta’s faith in its existing running backs and the need for a tight end won out over adding to the backfield. 18. Behind Hurst, the Falcons will have a competition to monitor closely. Jaeden Graham is the only returning tight end on the roster and figures to be the lead candidate to be Hurst’s backup. Khari Lee and Carson Meier will compete for a blocking tight end spot. And then there’s undrafted free agent tight end Jared Pinkney, who a lot of analysts expected to be selected during the past weekend. Pinkney’s best year at Vanderbilt came in 2018 when he recorded 50 catches for 774 yards and seven touchdowns. 19. Whenever football activities resume, left guard will involve the most crowded competition. Four players — James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Matt Gono and rookie draft pick Matt Hennessy — will all hope to end the preseason as the starter. Quinn said Hennessy will have a good chance of winning the job. 20. Gono’s offseason is an important one. He began his pro career at tackle in 2018 before seeing some practice reps at guard late in the year. He opened the preseason at guard last year before moving back to tackle. Yet by the end of the year, Gono was back at guard again. Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary are entrenched in their positions. Does Gono also compete with John Wetzel as the swing tackle? Or does Gono stay at guard? 21. The Falcons were strategic with the lone offensive player they took in this year’s draft. As expected, they selected a center who has the versatility to play guard immediately. Hennessy’s long-term future is obviously at center. But with Mack under contract for one more season, Hennessy will start out at left guard. Hennessy was the second center selected in this year’s draft, behind only Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz (New Orleans Saints). 22. If Hennessy, 22 years old, wins the starting job at left guard, the Falcons will have an average age of 26.2 on the offensive line. The other projected starters’ are Matthews (28), Mack (33), Lindstrom (23) and McGary (25). This shows the effort Atlanta has made to scale younger up front the past two offseasons. The average age of the offensive line going into the first week of the 2019 season was 27. In 2018, it was 29.8. 23. With Atlanta deciding to not retain Matt Bosher, the Falcons added punter Sterling Hofrichter in the seventh round. While Ryan Allen finished the 2019 season as the team’s punter, he isn’t a long-term option for the franchise. Hofrichter’s hang time is attractive to this coaching staff, which holds a special teams philosophy in limiting the number of overall returns. 24. Right after the 2019 season ended, Quinn said the team would add competition for place-kicker Younghoe Koo. That hasn’t happened yet, although that remains the expectation. 25. Quinn said receiver Brandon Powell is the leading candidate to be the team’s return specialist. Undrafted free agent defensive back Tyler Hall returned kicks at Wyoming, which could create an avenue for him to make the 53-man roster. 26. In addition to Pinkney and Hall, an undrafted free agent signee to keep an eye on is Buffalo offensive tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk. Ksiezarczyk, at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, was the Bulls’ left tackle who helped lead one of college football’s best rushing attacks. Buffalo finished 10th in the nation and first in the MAC in rushing with 250.5 yards on the ground per game. 27. If Atlanta’s offense has a sleeper, it would have to be Gage. Gage will begin the 2020 season as the top slot option, with skill position players Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Hurst and Gurley working around him. Gage, by default, should find himself open or in single coverage more often than most. 28. On defense, Atlanta’s sleeper is Steven Means. It doesn’t appear the public has taken notice of Means, even if he’s someone Quinn and defensive ends coach Tosh Lupoi have recently raved about. Starting the final three games of the 2018 season, Means recorded seven tackles and a sack off the edge. Returning from an Achilles tear he suffered last offseason, Quinn believes Means will be a significant contributor in 2020. 29. Of last year’s rookies, McGary should see the biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2. McGary showed off his strength as a run blocker but obviously underwent a learning curve as a pass protector. His play improved in the final quarter of the season, which should be a trend that continues in 2020. 30. That stated, barring a sudden change in events during the next two months, the NFL is not expected to have any on-site offseason work until training camp. And even then, no one truly knows if or when that will take place. This lack of offseason work figures to put all rookies across the league at a disadvantage.
  17. Marlon Davidson woke up at 4 a.m. on Friday in a bad mood. He didn’t get much sleep following the end of the first round of the NFL Draft, and when his eyes opened in the early hours of the ensuing morning, they couldn’t shut again. Davidson is confident in who he is as a player. Therefore, he felt he should have been a first-rounder. But after 32 selections Thursday, Davidson was still waiting to hear his name. That didn’t sit too well with him. As a hulking defensive lineman who started all four years at Auburn, Davidson feels he is the best player at his position in this year’s draft class. Being snubbed in the first round wasn’t sitting well with him in the pre-dawn hours of Friday morning. Midway through the second round, the Falcons finally selected him. “I woke up at 4 o’clock this morning because I was mad I didn’t go in the first round,” Davidson said. “Waking up at 4 o’clock, I haven’t been asleep all day. I’ve been waiting on this call, I got it, and now I’m going to give everything I can to this organization. I’m going to give everything I possibly can in my bones to leave everything on the field, every game, to show they did not mess up by picking up Marlon Davidson.” Davidson’s wait didn’t last too long on Day 2 of the draft. The Falcons took him with the 47th overall selection in the second round. Atlanta entered this year’s draft with needs in both the secondary and along the defensive line. After taking Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell in the first round Thursday, the Falcons addressed the interior defensive line in the second round. And the player the franchise is getting has been a big believer in his abilities since the day he arrived on earth almost 22 years ago. “They pulled me out of the womb, and I knew I was destined for greatness,” Davidson said. “I’m 100 percent Marlon Davidson. I’m the best. I’m going to continue to be the best. Whenever you see Marlon Davidson come up in the spot, just know he’s one of those kind of guys. I’m coming in to wreak havoc.” Davidson, like his former Auburn teammate Derrick Brown, had a chance to leave college early and head to the NFL after his junior season. But Davidson, just like Brown, decided to return for his senior season. Davidson felt he didn’t do enough as a junior to put himself in as great of a position as he could have been for the draft. As a senior, he had the best season of his collegiate career. As a big defensive end, Davidson tallied 49 total tackles and 7.5 sacks. At 6-foot-3 and 303 pounds, Davidson has the size to play both inside and on the edge in varying situations. Davidson said if Atlanta asks him to shed some weight and play defensive end at 280 or 285 pounds, he’ll do it. If the Falcons want him to be a three-technique, he’ll be fine with that, as well. During a 17-minute conference call following his selection, Davidson expressed nothing but pure joy about playing for the Falcons. He revealed that he plays “Madden” primarily with the Falcons. Asked if he’s looking forward to playing next to Grady Jarrett, he became excited as he reeled off the players he had familiarized himself with from the popular video game series. “I play with Julio Jones, Matt Ryan. I play with these guys. I know this team,” Davidson said. “Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett. Being small in comparison to everyone else but being this great player, he’s showing everyone he’s great. I watch this every day playing the game. Of course, I want to play next to Grady Jarrett.” While Davidson has scheme versatility, head coach Dan Quinn said the plan at the outset will be to play him as a defensive tackle. Specifically, Quinn said he is looking for Davidson to play a role as a third-down nickel defensive tackle who can create a pass rush up the middle. He also could see some reps in the base package as a defensive end. “He’s been a defensive end, he’s been stand-up, he’s been down,” Quinn said. “We’re going to try to feature him at the defensive tackle spot over the guard. But having a guy with that much versatility, you can imagine we’re going to partner him up as often as we can. His intensity, his physicality, that all shines through.” A shot of Hennessy Prior to the draft, it was believed a run on interior linemen could emerge in the second round. As the round unfolded, only Louisiana guard Robert Hunt was selected in that block of 32 picks. With Atlanta taking a defensive lineman in the second round, the team was able to turn its attention to the offensive line in the third round. Needing a long-term center who can play guard in the short term, the Falcons took Temple’s Matt Hennessy with the 78th overall pick. Hennessy was solely a center with the Owls. A right tackle in high school, he moved to center when he got to Temple for the first day of practice. With Alex Mack entering the final year of his contract, Hennessy has a chance to be Atlanta’s long-term center. In 2020, however, he will compete for what is an open left guard position. Leading up to the draft, Hennessy said it was important to show teams he can play both guard and center. He was able to showcase some reps at guard during the week of the Senior Bowl in late January. “That’s one thing that I’ve really focused on improving throughout this draft process,” Hennessy said. “At Temple, I really just played center because that’s where I was placed, and year to year we felt that put us in the best position to succeed. Going forward, I’m looking forward to playing all three interior spots.” Quinn said Hennessy will start out at left guard and went as far as to say that Hennessy has the potential to eventually win the job. Both Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff lauded Hennessy’s toughness and intelligence as a football player. “With his versatility, athleticism and his full package deal, we were really focused on him being the one we thought we were going to have an opportunity to get,” Dimitroff said. “We, and a lot of people, had him ranked in that second-round area. To feel like we were able to pull him off the board in the third round was fortunate for us.”
  18. https://theathletic.com/1773323/2020/04/25/schultz-falcons-dan-quinn-trying-to-fix-defense-without-seahawks-blueprint/ Every draft selection goes something like this: Team drafts player. Player celebrates. Team says it can’t believe the player fell because the team had been targeting him since middle school, and he’s going to be special, and he’s perfect for the system, and he has the perfect attitude, and on the team’s draft board, he was supposed to be taken much, much, earlier, like a week ago Tuesday. Somehow, things still go wrong. Draft bliss has a limited freshness date. So let’s start with this: By all appearances, the Falcons had a really good first two days of the draft. They appeared to fill three important needs in the first three rounds, and even without Thomas “Itchy Triggerfinger” Dimitroff making a trade: They took cornerback A.J. Terrell (Clemson) in the first round, defensive tackle Marlon Davidson (Auburn) in the second and center Matt Hennessy (Temple) in the third. Hennessy is Alex Mack’s heir apparent at center but will start out at left guard. All three draft picks may start next season. It all looks great today. But temper your glee (or outrage). Even game tape, analytics, background checks and Jedi mind tricks in pre-draft interviews can’t elevate most drafts to much more than a refined game of drunk darts. Nobody can predict how players respond to NFL paychecks or pressure. Nobody knows if they peaked in college or if they just won’t care anymore. But Falcons head coach Dan Quinn needs immediate impact from this class, particularly on defense. He needs edge rusher Dante Fowler, a free agent import, to replicate what he did a year ago with the Los Angeles Rams and Terrell and Davidson to have fast learning curves. The Falcons are painfully young and generally unproven at cornerback after the release of Desmond Trufant in a salary-cap move, and their defensive line play last year was uneven. The defense’s entire personality was as split as the season: from 1-7 to 6-2. Quinn believes Terrell and Davidson can have an immediate impact, pointing to the fact both have played in big games at major programs. “Those are usually the guys who transfer well at the NFL level,” he said. With Tom Brady joining Drew Brees in the NFC South, secondary play is crucial. Quinn is largely perceived as a line coach, but he clearly has embraced using early picks on cornerbacks. Why? “It’s really become a passing league first,” he said. “So you better have, on the defensive side, a way to match up.” Here’s the strange part. Remember when Quinn was hired in 2015? He was coming off consecutive Super Bowl appearances as Seattle’s defensive coordinator. The Seahawks’ starting secondary included two players drafted in the fifth round (Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor), one in the sixth (Byron Maxwell) and one not drafted at all (Brandon Browner) to go with first-round pick Earl Thomas at free safety. That might’ve been an aberration, but it didn’t stop the narrative: If the Seahawks can do that, the Falcons can do that. Don’t use early picks on cornerbacks, spend your resources elsewhere. A case could be made it would clash with Dimitroff’s history of drafting a ton of defensive backs, including several in the first two rounds. Terrell is the ninth defensive back the Falcons have drafted since 2015, including four in the first two rounds: cornerback Jalen Collins (second round, 2015, a bust), safety Keanu Neal (first, 2016, solid when healthy), cornerback Isaiah Oliver (second, 2018, struggled until the second half last season) and now Terrell. He’s actually the seventh DB taken by the Falcons in the first two rounds since 2008. There has been no DB drop-off since Quinn replaced Mike Smith. So was the narrative false or did Quinn’s philosophy change? “I don’t think you had it wrong,” Quinn said. “Even now when I think of some of the players in different rounds, there’s names like (Grady) Jarrett and (Ricardo) Allen and (Demontae) Kazee and (Kendall) Sheffield who weren’t always on the first-day picks. It really also involves the rush. So throwing a guy like Marlon into that group, (with an) attacking front, that’s a part of it. Having that connection between the front and the secondary is important.” Was it an overstatement to assume you could build a starting secondary with late-rounders? “That’s fair. The reason (Seattle) played so well is there were good players everywhere — linebacker, in the front and the secondary,” Quinn said. “There was a connection with one another. It wasn’t just one piece.” In 12 drafts from 2008 to 2019, the Falcons drafted 87 players, including 23 defensive backs. So make that 24 defensive backs out of 90 players now (26.7 percent). The Falcons have taken at least one DB in 12 of the 13 drafts and as many as four in 2013 when Trufant and Robert Alford were the first two picks. The draft position breakdown from 2008 through three rounds in 2020: 24 defensive backs, 15 defensive linemen, 14 linebackers, 14 offensive linemen, eight running backs, eight receivers, four tight ends, two quarterbacks and one punter. There’s an argument to support this: Offenses have become increasingly wide open, and the ripple effect is defenses are in nickel a majority of the snaps. But Dimitroff and Quinn valued Terrell so much that they were willing to trade up from 16th in the first round to a pick in the nine to 12 range to ensure they would get him (even apparently ahead of South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and far higher than most mock drafts had Terrell going). Dimitroff maintains he had only “loose” and hypothetical trade discussions, denying he ever made an actual trade offer. A behind-the-scenes story on NFL.com about Jacksonville’s draft painted a more specific picture, saying Dimitroff “proposed a potential trade” that would’ve sent the No. 16 pick, as well as third- and fourth-rounders, to the Jaguars for the No. 9 selection. But Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell, a former Falcons assistant GM, said no, fearing Dimitroff would take one of his preferred players (notably defensive back C.J. Henderson or edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson). That the deal never happened and Dimitroff landed his preferred target regardless doesn’t change how highly the Falcons coveted a cornerback. “Corner was one of the spots that was going to be a big one for us this offseason,” Quinn said. So much for the perceived Seattle blueprint.
  19. Entering the NFL Draft, the Falcons wanted to focus on improving the defense. Needing to fill holes at cornerback and linebacker and on the defensive line, those were positions the team wanted to target in the first four rounds after identifying various targets throughout a yearlong scouting process, which included a hiccup of self-quarantining and social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In the end, the Falcons drafted what appears to be two plug-and-play starters and another player who will be in the conversation for a rotational spot. Cornerback A.J. Terrell and defensive lineman Marlon Davidson will play sizable roles as rookies. Fourth-rounder Mykal Walker, a versatile linebacker who played numerous positions in college, could have a chance to rotate with Foye Oluokun depending on the defensive package. Four of the team’s six draft picks were on defense, with safety Jaylinn Hawkins providing depth and a special-teams role. “We were 100 percent looking to bolster our defense,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It was going to be a defensively dominated draft. We obviously stayed on track.” Of course, everything is rosy right after a draft, with the team excited about the players it scouted and acquired. Time will tell if this class is able to provide the right kind of immediate contributions and long-term success. Before breaking down each of the six picks, here are three things that stood out when looking at this Falcons haul. • Atlanta decided not to take a running back with any of its five picks in the first four rounds. While there was a lot of speculation the Falcons would take a running back, head coach Dan Quinn said he feels good about the players returning behind Todd Gurley. In particular, Quinn said he was feeling great about Ito Smith’s development before his season-ending injury. He said he has been happy with the development of Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison. • The Falcons appear to have three starters, including the aforementioned defensive players, in this year’s class. While the first two picks were expected in terms of what round they went in, the fact that interior offensive lineman Matt Hennessy was available in the middle of the third round was a bit surprising. There were several centers the Falcons felt were considered second-round prospects, with Hennessy being one of them. Zero centers were taken in the second round, however, with the bulk of the players falling to the third through fifth rounds. Hennessy was regarded as a top-three center in this year’s class and was the second one selected behind Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz. • While Ryan Allen ended the 2019 season with the Falcons and is still on the roster, it will be tough for him if he’s to be on the team in 2020. The Falcons decided to draft a player at the position and cut punter Sam Irwin-Hill in the process. Irwin-Hill actually wasn’t a lock to make it to training camp as the team was still dealing with some documentation issues relating to his work visa, which caused him to not stick with the team during the 2019 season. But Dimitroff said the decision to add a punter had nothing to do with Irwin-Hill’s documentation problem and that the Falcons were going to take Syracuse punter Sterling Hofrichter in the seventh round anyway. Also of note is the fact the Falcons didn’t trade any of their picks during the three-day draft. This is the first time Dimitroff has not executed a trade during a draft, which might actually be the most surprising revelation of the past three days. With six players drafted, and at least 18 undrafted free agents to be announced Sunday, the Falcons will have an influx of players to help get them over the 7-9 hump they’ve been stuck at over the past two years. Here’s a look at each of the Falcons’ draft picks. First round, 16th overall: Clemson CB A.J. Terrell The Falcons entered the draft with an emphasis on cornerback with the No. 16. Based on his size (6-foot-1 and 195 pounds), length (31 1/4-inch arms) and speed (4.42-second 40-yard dash), Terrell fits the tangible qualities Quinn is looking for in a cornerback. The coaching staff is truly excited about is how coachable Terrell is. Terrell has a reputation of being a hard worker who’s studious about his position. He got experience pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage and in zone coverage at Clemson. His scheme versatility stood out for Quinn and Dimitroff as those traits fit in with what Atlanta wants to do defensively. Terrell acknowledged he wants to get back to the field after a national championship game against LSU that went poorly for him. While that game did raise some questions, Dimitroff is confident that the rest of Terrell’s body of work is the norm for what kind of player he will be at the NFL level. “That performance wouldn’t have dissuaded us at all,” Dimitroff said. “He was in phase quite a bit. (Joe) Burrow obviously had a **** of a game, dropped the ball in a lot. There were a lot of opportunities there that they really capitalized on. We look at the full picture, as you can imagine. He had a great — very substantial game in the national championship the year before, Alabama game. He had a number of other games where he really stood out in our minds. So one game does not dissuade us.” Second round, 47th overall: Auburn DL Marlon Davidson Davidson sure has a lot of confidence about himself as he repeatedly told the Atlanta media he believes he is the best at his position. He was also miffed that he fell to the second round of the draft, believing himself to be a first-round talent. But with a run on interior defensive linemen not emerging until the second round, Atlanta seemingly got a great value with Davidson, who was ranked as The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s third-overall defensive lineman. Quinn said Davidson will be used a lot as a three-technique defensive tackle when the Falcons are in the nickel package, which is used a lot more these days than base anyway. But Davidson will still see some reps as a 4-3 defensive end. Davidson lauded his own versatility, saying he can do whatever the coaching staff asks of him. “Wherever they want me to be, that’s where I’m going to be,” Davidson said. “If they want me to be 285 (pounds), 280, make a big end on the edge, I can do it all. I have that repertoire in me. Whatever they want me to be, that’s what I’m going to be. I’m coming to Atlanta and coming with everything I’ve got in me and I want to give everything I can to that organization.” Third round, 78th overall: Temple G/C Matt Hennessy Hennessy was moved from right tackle to center the moment he got to Temple for his first practice. From there, Hennessy became one of the Owls’ leaders on offense and was awarded a single-digit jersey at practice, which goes to the toughest players on the team. At the Senior Bowl, Hennessy wanted to show he can do more than just play center. His work at guard during that week of practice solidified the Falcons’ interest. Atlanta does need a left guard in the short term and a center for the long haul with Alex Mack entering the final year of his contract. Quinn said Hennessy will begin his pro career at left guard and noted that he will have a shot to win the starting job. “This kind of smarts and this kind of quickness — we’re a wide-zone team, and he’d better have quickness to come off the ball,” Quinn said. And I think that’s one of the things that jumps out in Matt’s game is urgency off the ball. So his ability to sustain at the second level in the running game, that’s a significant factor. The hardest part for him is the sets are different at guard when you align with guys that are much larger. For him we expect that kind of work to be put in for him at guard, knowing that he has the experience at center, but we’ll start him at guard first.” Fourth round, 119th overall: Fresno State LB Mykal Walker Four years ago, the Falcons selected linebacker De’Vondre Campbell with the 115th overall selection of the fourth round. With Campbell joining the Arizona Cardinals in free agency, a need at the position opened up. And in similar fashion, the Falcons used a fourth-rounder on a linebacker who will at least have a shot to fill the role Campbell is leaving behind. Walker’s strength is how instinctive he is in finding the ball. Beginning at Division II Azusa Pacific, Walker transferred to Fresno State for his final two seasons. He had experience playing inside linebacker and outside linebacker and as an edge defender. “We just talked, and they keyed in on my versatility,” Walker said. “That was something I was trying to show teams. My strong suit is my versatility, and it makes me good for the league. That is something that they brought up. That was one of the first things they said, so I knew we were on the same page. I knew it would be a really good fit.” Fourth round, 134th overall: California S Jaylinn Hawkins Hawkins acknowledged he was surprised to find out the Falcons were taking him. While he received some information that had him as high as the fourth round, most projections had him as a late-round selection or an undrafted free agent. Hawkins went to Cal as a receiver but moved to cornerback during his redshirt season. He then spent the next four years at safety and totaled 10 interceptions, with six coming during his junior year. His penchant for creating turnovers had to have been appealing to this coaching staff, considering Atlanta tied for 17th in the NFL with 12 interceptions in 2019. “Man, my ability is there. Everything I want to do is get the ball,” Hawkins said. “That’s just been my game. It can be from a strip or a pick aspect. I grew up playing offense, now I’m playing defense. My biggest thing is, ‘How can I get to the ball?’ Whatever it is. Rob something or go out there and line something up or strip something. I was a big emphasis not only with myself but with my team at Cal. That was a big emphasis. Get the ball back.” Seventh round, 228th overall: Syracuse P Sterling Hofrichter With 25 minutes to go before the start of the third day of the draft, the Falcons announced they released Irwin-Hill. That proved to be some foreshadowing for Atlanta to either draft a punter or sign a priority free agent upon the draft’s end. After sitting the fifth and sixth rounds out, Atlanta took Hofrichter, who will now compete with Ryan Allen for the starting punter job in 2020. Hofrichter had a good feeling the Falcons were looking to draft him, saying Atlanta was the team that showed the most interest throughout the process. The word on Hofrichter, a 2019 Ray Guy Award finalist, is that he has exceptional hang time and has a penchant for being able to pin the ball inside the 20-yard line. “Hang time is something they value a lot at Syracuse,” Hofrichter said. “It’s about limiting the return as much as possible. That’s something I strive to be as good as I can at.” In addition, Hofrichter, a Jacksonville, Fla, native, might have endeared himself to his soon-to-be new city by saying he grew up a big Braves fan. Hofrichter even chose to wear No. 10 at Syracuse in honor of Braves great Chipper Jones.
  20. https://theathletic.com/1758440/2020/04/23/nfl-draft-aj-terrell-clemson-tigers-atlanta-falcons/?source=dailyemail CLEMSON, S.C. — A.J. Terrell is 6-foot-1 with above-average speed and a strong grasp on how he fits into a team’s defense. He was Clemson’s top cornerback in 2019, finished his career as a first-team All-ACC selection and played 785 snaps last season, second only to linebacker Isaiah Simmons on the Tigers defense. That doesn’t erase the obvious: Terrell struggled in Clemson’s 2019 College Football Playoff when the stakes were raised and he faced receivers from Ohio State and LSU. Yet, his stock trended higher in the buildup to Thursday night’s opening round of the NFL Draft, when the Atlanta Falcons selected him with the 16th pick. “He’s 6-1 with 4.42 speed and length. And solid film. … His body of work is above average,” said Dane Brugler, The Athletic’s draft expert. “Cornerback is a stopwatch position, and teams aren’t afraid to gamble on length and speed traits at corner.” The Georgia native, who decided to forgo his senior season, completed his Clemson career as a two-year starter with 107 career tackles (3.5 for loss), 20 pass breakups and six interceptions. The Tigers went 29-1 with him in a starting role, which included a 29-game winning streak from the beginning of the 2018 season through January. Terrell’s most famous play of his college career was in January 2019. In the national championship against Alabama, he picked off former Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa on Alabama’s first drive and returned the interception 44 yards for a touchdown, sending Clemson on its way to another title. It also set Terrell up for what was to come in 2019. “He’s put the work in,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Obviously, he’s got the natural ability, but he’s physically put the work in and he’s mentally put the work in. “If you go back and look at his picture when he first got here and you look at him now, it’s just physically night and day. With that strength comes confidence. With that experience comes knowledge and confidence.” Teams in 2019 tried to throw away from Terrell when possible, instead hoping to pick on Derion Kendrick, Clemson’s other starting cornerback. Part of that strategy was because Kendrick was new to the position as a former wide receiver. But the other part was respect for Terrell’s experience and athleticism. He finished his junior year with 39 tackles (0.5 for loss), seven pass breakups, two picks and half of a sack. The interceptions were against Louisville and Wake Forest. “Overall, Terrell must develop his hip and lower body mechanics to maintain his balance in coverage,” Brugler wrote in his draft guide. “But he is a well-built athlete with the physical and mental toughness to compete for starting reps early in his NFL career.” Before the 2019 season began, Terrell approached what ultimately became his final year with a new sense of purpose. His son, Aundell, was born in June. “It actually motivated me in all types of ways,” Terrell said prior to the season. “I feel like I have a lot of responsibility now. Not saying that I didn’t before, but now it’s just given me an extra boost of energy to go out there and do what I do best.”
  21. https://theathletic.com/1765337/2020/04/22/what-happens-when-an-angry-football-fan-emails-an-nfl-general-manager/ Kai Hall wasn’t happy. An otherwise positive person by nature, Hall, a longtime fan of the Falcons, was angry, in fact. Having rooted for the franchise since childhood, Hall felt he was at a breaking point after Atlanta lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018. Atlanta already had suffered three tough one-score losses with significant injuries to Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal and Deion Jones. As a fan, Hall wanted to see something, such as a free-agent acquisition or two, that signaled Atlanta had a plan to replenish these losses. Instead, the Falcons’ plan was to promote from within. At that precise moment, Hall had enough. Done with venting his frustrations on Twitter, he eventually decided to go directly to the source he thought was the cause of all the problems. He figured out Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s email address and fired off a lengthy message detailing his thoughts. Never in a million years did Hall expect a response. Twenty minutes passed by. “Thanks for the email,” Dimitroff wrote back. “Send me your cell and we can talk.” For more than 20 years, Hall has been a die-hard fan of the Falcons. Born in Hawaii, he moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., when he was 4 years old. A few years later, he and his mother moved across the Georgia-Tennessee border to Chickamauga. As a kid, Hall’s connection to the Falcons bloomed thanks to family friend Rich Miano, an NFL defensive back who happened to play the final season of his 10-year career with the franchise in 1995. That season, Hall’s mother and stepfather took him to a game, which ended with a visit to the postgame locker room to meet some of the Falcons’ players. One of Hall’s childhood keepsakes is a photo his mother took — well two, snapped consecutively — of Hall getting an autograph from linebacker Jessie Tuggle. That season cemented Hall’s Falcons fandom. When his mother could afford it, she would take him to Falcons games, which helped further forge their own relationship. Over time, Hall cheered through plenty of down seasons. He was ecstatic during the 1998 season, which resulted in Atlanta reaching Super Bowl XXXIII. Like most Atlanta fans, he was amazed at what Michael Vick could do and devastated in the aftermath of his dogfighting arrest. Hall continued to cheer for the Falcons as they went from a laughingstock in 2007 to a team that established yearly playoff expectations. And in 2009, after moving to Los Angeles to take a job in the nonprofit sector, Hall continued to cheer for the Falcons from afar. Entering the 2018 season, expectations were high for Atlanta. But after the Steelers loss, which dropped the Falcons to 1-4, Hall decided he was done with the Falcons. It wasn’t the losing that drove him to this point. It was that he felt the team was at a crossroads personnel-wise. The Falcons chose not to sign street free agents or make any trades, opting for the next man up philosophy, and Hall said he felt like the team was acting without a sense of urgency. Hall made the decision to root for another team. Living in Los Angeles, he asked his wife, Naomi, who they should cheer for instead. He wanted to go with the Chargers but she wanted the Rams. Naturally, Naomi won, so the two chose the Rams. But Hall didn’t want to be just any bandwagon fan. In his mind, if he was truly to switch teams, he wanted to receive a formal invitation of some sort. Therefore, he sent an email to Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff a day after Atlanta’s loss to Pittsburgh and explained his situation. Hall didn’t write anything negative about the Falcons. He simply wrote it was time for a change since the Rams were the hometown team. “Would you have us?” Hall wrote. Later the same day, Demoff wrote back with what he considered to be an official invite to become a fan of the Rams. Demoff then offered to send the Halls some “welcome goodies.” Within two days, three boxes of Rams apparel arrived at the Halls’ doorstep. With the Halls leaving the Falcons for the Rams, there was one final piece of business to take care of. On Oct. 9, 2018, a day after corresponding with Demoff, Hall decided he would reach out to Dimitroff, the general manager he blamed for Atlanta’s early season mishaps, to explain why he wanted to change teams. Here’s what Hall wrote: Hi Thomas, My name is Kai and I live in Los Angeles with my wife. In 1995, a family friend (Rich Miano) played for the Falcons. As a result, I became a Falcons fan. I have photos of me as a kid rooting the team on from the stands, meeting players after games, and showing off my Falcons gear. That fandom continued on into my adult years. And over the years, I have spent thousands of dollars and given countless hours in support of the team. Now, I am worn down and feel as though I cannot give anything more as a fan. Falcons football is more than a game for me. Growing up without my dad, Falcons football was a way for my mother and to bond over sports. I’ve traveled the Country to support this team. I was there in-person for Matt Ryan’s first playoff game. I was there on Thanksgiving in the Dome when the Falcons lost to Manning’s Colts. My wife and I were in Chicago last season for the team’s first game after that devastating Super Bowl loss. Point of this email is to say that Kevin Demoff of the Rams has extended an official offer to us to become Rams fans here in Los Angeles. It’s incredibly difficult, but we’d like to accept his offer. My wife and I had bought tickets to Sunday’s game against the Bucs, but we sold them and cancelled our travel reservations. I was able to get past the blow out loss against Denver. I made it through the tough times after Vick. I was able to get past the Super Bowl 51 loss and I held hope despite last season’s loss to the Eagles. But it seems like the current team’s philosophy regarding replacing injured players (i.e. next man up) is not working. And it appears the season is all but over, but it’s only October. My heart can only take so much, because I know this team can become so much more. I’ll always love the Falcons, but as a fan it’s so hard to accept the outcome when you have absolutely no control and are completely dependent on the leadership to make the right choices. I want to leave you with a few photos. One is of me as a kid meeting Jessie Tuggle. Which by the way, nearly 22 years later his son Grady gave me a pair of game worn gloves. The other photo is of me and my wife cheering on the Falcons last season at the playoff game here in Los Angeles. Thank you for all the great memories Atlanta Falcons, Kai Dimitroff doesn’t come across as the type to respond to fan emails. Then again, he couldn’t recall if one ever reached him before during his time as Atlanta’s GM. He joked that once this story is published that it “might open Pandora’s Box.” But something about Hall’s email touched him. Perhaps it was the photo with Tuggle. Maybe it was that he could see there was a deep personal connection with the team that Hall developed from childhood. Whatever the case may be, Dimitroff extended the invitation to talk. And two days later, he called. Prior to the call, Dimitroff admitted he wanted to put Hall in his place. “After reading that and hearing that, I thought, ‘You know what? Screw this,’” Dimitroff said. “I’m going to call this guy, and I’m going to show him that we’re good people here, adept people, and it’s worth the time. So that’s what happened. That was the initial (interaction). I was a little agitated myself. I’m sitting there like, ‘Wait a minute. No, no, no, no. Let me have my chance to voice my own opinion.’” Dimitroff figured the conversation could go three ways. • Hall could answer angrily and tee off on Dimitroff without putting much thought into the conversation. • They could both talk through some points but ultimately hang up upset after only a few minutes. • The conversation could be cordial with the two finding common ground. Lo and behold, option No. 3 turned out to be the outcome. The two talked for roughly 45 minutes, going into Dimitroff’s background and philosophy. Hall learned that two of Dimitroff’s influences, as it pertains to leadership and culture, aren’t from football mentors, but from R.C. Buford, the CEO and former general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, and David Brailsford, the cycling coach of Team Ineos who used to lead Team Sky. Dimitroff also explained his reasoning for not making an in-season move after all the injuries that took place in early 2018. “I was able to address my concerns head-on,” Hall said. “Literally, ‘Thomas, why haven’t you gone out and picked up a free agent?’ I was literally asking these questions. Bit by bit he went through and addressed my concerns. That was the coolest thing in the world for me.” Said Dimitroff: “I basically expounded on elements of what we were doing in our approach (in 2018). It wasn’t as easy as just looking at it in black and white. There were so many layers to putting together a football team and a sports franchise. It’s not just on the surface as you may see. I dug into some things that I probably would never have dug into with a fan before. I was appropriate about it, but I believe that was eye-opening for him.” Toward the end of the conversation, Hall said he was convinced to remain a Falcons fan. He asked Dimitroff if he and Naomi made it out to a Falcons game later in the 2018 season, if they could somehow get on the sideline? Dimitroff said that wouldn’t be a problem. The Halls ended up getting tickets to Atlanta’s 2018 game against the Baltimore Ravens. As the game approached, Hall emailed Dimitroff to let him know he would be attending. A week later, Dimitroff called Hall and set him up with sideline passes. The Halls flew to Atlanta and brought along a Los Angeles cycling jersey, with a design featuring palm trees and a sunset, as a thank you gift, with the hope they would run into Dimitroff on the sideline. Sure enough, as Kai and Naomi stood on the visitors’ sideline near the kicking net, Kai received a call from an unknown number. It turned out to be Dimitroff’s assistant at the time, who told them the Falcons’ GM wanted to meet them. The assistant linked up with the Halls and directed them toward Dimitroff. Dimitroff embraced the couple as if they were long lost pals. “It felt like we’ve known him for a long time,” Naomi said. “He treated us like we were friends and family. He gave us a hug. It didn’t feel like we were meeting him for the first time. It was like we were friends catching up.” When Dimitroff walked away, this easily could have marked the end of any future correspondence. Instead, Hall and Dimitroff continued to email back and forth. Then they started texting. They’ll occasionally chat on the phone. Conversations veer well outside of football. Around May of 2019, the Halls found out Naomi was pregnant, which brought joy to Dimitroff when he heard the news. They started sharing personal stories, such as Hall’s on-and-off relationship with his father. Shortly after Hall got a job at a Fortune 500 company he long wanted to work for, Dimitroff offered advice on how to confront certain on-the-job anxieties that were arising. Hall was hopeful his favorite team would bounce back from the 7-9 season in 2018. Of course, a rough 1-7 start ended Atlanta’s playoff hopes before the Falcons ever got off the ground. But in a year’s worth of time, Hall was no longer active, and angry, on Twitter. Sure, he hated it when the team lost. But there was a newfound perspective learned when it came to watching the game. Regardless of a game’s outcome, Hall would text Dimitroff something positive. Seven of the first eight games were rough. During the final eight, the two could celebrate via text after each of the six wins. But one particular game stands out for Hall, especially because he couldn’t watch it. On Dec. 8, 2019, which happened to be Atlanta’s second game against the Carolina Panthers, Naomi went into labor. After their daughter Emilia’s birth, and after Hall saw that the Falcons won 40-20, he congratulated Dimitroff on the win and shared a photo of his baby daughter. Dimitroff was ecstatic and peppered Hall with questions about how Naomi and Emilia were doing, telling the new father how beautiful his new daughter is. Dimitroff’s friendship was much needed in recent weeks. As the NFL operates its business, many citizens around the country have lost their jobs — temporarily or permanently — during the COVID-19 pandemic that has plagued the world. Hall fell into this category. On April 9, Hall received a call that he was being laid off due to the economic impact of the virus. Later that day, he texted Dimitroff about it. Dimitroff vowed to call when he had a free moment. That came two days later, on April 11, shortly after he recorded a podcast with sports reporter Peter King. Dimitroff FaceTimed Hall, to check in and see how he was doing. Sitting with his wife and daughter at their home, Hall was surprised to see a FaceTime request from Dimitroff pop up on his phone. Even though he was let go from his job, Hall has been in good spirits — saying it has allowed him to spend extra time he otherwise wouldn’t have with Emilia. But he felt even better after Dimitroff spoke to him. Dimitroff brought up the attributes he has learned about Hall since meeting him, painting a vivid picture of what his future will be. “When the opportunity was pulled from him I was thinking how difficult it would be to be without a job and compensation during this very precarious time,” Dimitroff said. “Believe me, my focus has been mainly on the draft and building this team. But every once in a while when I have pockets of time to be contemplative, situations like this enter my mind. I am confident that he will not be without a job for long. He’s too bright and intuitive.” On Thursday, Hall will tune into the NFL Draft and hope the Falcons strike gold with their first-round pick. While Dimitroff hasn’t delved into trade secrets regarding the direction they may take, Hall has told him repeatedly who he wants the team to take in the first round. Asked who that prospect is, Hall declined to say, stating he would rather keep that a secret between them. And as it pertains to draft information, Hall certainly pries. Rarely does he receive. Oh yeah — as for the Rams swag Demoff sent the Halls a year-and-a-half ago? Those items were taken to a Goodwill somewhere in the Los Angeles area. What’s crazy to think about, however, is that if Dimitroff never responded, those items would still be in the Hall household. But as things would unfold, Hall’s direct and honest approach struck a chord with Dimitroff. And that chord produced an unlikely friendship that neither could have ever expected. “Through this experience, I decided to remain a fan of my favorite team since the early ’90s,” Hall said. “Also through this experience, and more importantly to my family and I, we forged a friendship and connection with someone who has added tremendous value to our lives, just through the past year or two. To me, that’s invaluable. For that I’m grateful. I developed a friendship with someone who has opened up about their life, and as a result it’s impacted mine. I’ve developed a friendship with someone who has offered mentorship and guidance as it pertains to my profession. My family has gained a genuine friend. When you have a friend you want them to succeed and you’re going to stand by them no matter what.”
  22. https://theathletic.com/1762718/2020/04/21/schultz-falcons-need-to-reverse-past-flubs-if-they-go-defensive-line-in-draft/ Before understanding where the mindset is of the Falcons’ primary decision-makers during this draft, it’s important to understand their agenda in recent weeks. They continued to restructure and front-load contracts, setting up a likely doomsday scenario in the salary cap down the road, all with the objective of clearing space for this crucial offseason. They committed significant money to a pass rusher (Dante Fowler) who was coming off one good season and is now with his third team in five years, unusual for a player taken third overall. They brought back a former Georgia star (Todd Gurley) with the hope that he can still squeeze something out of an arthritic knee. They traded a second-round pick for a tight end (Hayden Hurst) who was drafted in the first round for his perceived talent but sat third on Baltimore’s depth chart in his second season. All three players come with significant risk but a potentially high payoff. When a coaching staff and front office are desperate for a turnaround, they will attempt a couple of, “Hey, watch this!” moves, because they need a big payoff to save their jobs. Which brings us to this week’s draft. The Falcons will draft 16th in the first round Thursday night unless general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn make a move to sacrifice more of the future for the present and leap into the top 10. Trading up has become a calling card of Dimitroff’s, but it’s not like it always has worked out. The Julio Jones trade in 2011 was a success. But the deals for Sam Baker (2008) and Takk McKinley (2017, to this point) did not work. Desmond Trufant (2013) was solid but not elite and therefore a push. The jury remains out on Kaleb McGary (2019). The Falcons need players on all three layers of their defense. The difficulty in determining which direction they will go partly stems from the uncertainty of who’s making the call. Dimitroff tends to favor defensive backs. Quinn likely leans toward an edge rusher or a player in the front seven, particularly with the Falcons going offensive line early last season and McKinley not panning out to this point. Rich McKay, the team president who stands at a splatter-free distance next to owner Arthur Blank, is the only one with job security. When asked on a media conference call about McKay’s role, Dimitroff said, “The final decision stays in my world.” Truth is, we’ll never know, unless somebody does a tell-all book one day, because the McKay factor makes it’s a confusing mess. In his latest mock draft, The Athletic’s Jason Butt has the Falcons taking LSU edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson if they stay at No. 16 or a difference-maker like Derrick Brown, Isaiah Simmons or Javon Kinlaw if they trade up. If the Falcons go defensive line early, Dimitroff will need to do better than he has in the past. Since 2008, he has drafted six defensive linemen in the first three rounds, and only one has panned out (see chart): Corey Peters, a third-round pick who wound up starting for seven seasons. DL in first 3 rounds of draft since 2008 DL in first 3 rounds of draft since 2008 PLAYER YEAR ROUND (PICK) ALL-PRO PRO BOWL YEARS AS STARTER GAMES SACKS Deadrin Senat 2018 3 (90) 0 0 0 17 0 Takkarist McKinley 2017 1 (26) 0 0 2 45 16.5 Vic Beasley 2015 1 (8) 1 1 5 78 37.5 Ra’Shede Hageman 2015 2 (37) 0 0 1 44 4 Corey Peters 2010 3 (83) 0 0 7 None of the other five met expectations. Chronologically: • Peria Jerry (first round, 2009) suffered a major knee injury in his rookie season and never made an impact. He made only 29 starts (in 64 games) in five seasons. • Ra’shede Hageman (second round, 2014) lived up/down to his reputation for being lazy coming out of college, had significant off-field issues, was released, then re-signed, then failed again. In Dimitroff’s defense, Hageman was drafted largely because coaches Mike Smith, Bryan Cox and Mike Nolan believed they could get the most out of him. • Vic Beasley (first round, 2015) had a glorious season in his second year but otherwise failed, and the Falcons compounded the problem by rewarding mediocrity and picking up his fifth-year option. • McKinley (first round, 2017) struggled to get going his rookie year and has underwhelmed since, to the extent that the Falcons are not likely to exercise his fifth-year option. (Dimitroff and Quinn are still trying to get their public soundbites straight on that one.) The Falcons chose to draft McKinley, despite knowing he was inconsistent and emotionally unstable at times in college. Quinn maintained he is “fully expecting Takk to come back and play at the level we want, and he does, too.” It’s what he would say whether he believes that or not. • Deadrin Senat (third round, 2018) was a fixture on the inactive list for all but two games last year in his second season. That qualifies as an unmitigated failure. Having so many washouts is why the Falcons had to take a risk and dip into the free-agent market for Fowler. Dimitroff has had way too many misses on linemen in what should be the money rounds of the NFL Draft. He has fared better finding quality players with later picks, notably Grady Jarrett in the fifth round in 2015 — he’s by far the team’s best and most consistent defender — and Kroy Biermann in the fifth in 2008 (114 games, 23.5 sacks, for a player picked 154th overall). Vance Walker, drafted in the seventh round in 2009, played seven years in the NFL (four with the Falcons). But late-round finds are nice bonuses. A team should make its bones in the early rounds, especially given the salary commitment. Dimitroff said evaluating defensive linemen has proved to be difficult league-wide but acknowledged mistakes. “I’m not saying it’s more difficult than other positions,” he said. “I am saying we’ve been fortunate to hit on some of the guys in the later rounds, and to your point, some of the earlier picks, we’ve gotten certain production out of them at times, and other times we haven’t. We’re hoping to get that right in the future.” That would be now.
  23. https://theathletic.com/1759921/2020/04/20/falcons-mock-draft-4-0-the-case-for-isaiah-simmons-familiar-face-taken-at-16/?source=dailyemail What do Falcons do? Trade up! OK, they might. They also might not. With the NFL Draft approaching in three days, much of the speculation surrounding the Falcons has been whether this team will rise, I mean, move up. And if the Falcons do move up, would it be for a cornerback? A defensive tackle? Could they gamble aggressively and sell the farm to the Washington Redskins for Chase Young? That’s what makes following the draft process fun. Bits of information break off that can’t be placed together. We hear this; we hear that. But there’s really no sense to make of it until the draft actually happens. Sometimes the pre-draft information turns out correct, like when I heard the Falcons were interested in Kaleb McGary a week before last year’s draft. Sometimes it’s not, such as the entire industry not finding out that Chris Lindstrom was viewed as a mid-first round prospect by multiple teams until after the fact. If the Falcons are to trade up, it should only be for a player who will be viewed as a difference-maker from Day 1. When you’re talking about a disruptive play-making rookie who can start from Day 1 and provide the kind of production needed to move a defense into the top half of the league, there may be a few options at Atlanta’s disposal. The aforementioned Young. Auburn’s Derrick Brown. And Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons. For all three, a move into the top-five would be incredibly expensive. Atlanta would have to give up its first-round pick, either the second- or third-rounder and next year’s first-rounder just to get the ball rolling. From there, the Falcons would need to figure out a deal where it can still have enough picks to fill other holes this year. A move like this would be reminiscent of when Atlanta moved from No. 27 to No. 6 to take Julio Jones. History has been quite fond of that trade. Of those prospects, Young is (obviously) expected to be off the board first at No. 2. It Also would be really tough to pry him from Washington. If Atlanta pulled that off, it would be an absolute grand slam. But let’s assume the Falcons are not able to get it done as it seemingly would be difficult to pull the best non-QB prospect away from Washington. The Falcons do love Brown as a prospect, according to a league source, as do most of the teams in the top 10. Brown also could go as high as No. 3 to the Detroit Lions. Then there’s Simmons, the Swiss army knife of defenders. In terms of fit, Simmons makes the most sense, at least in my humble estimation. Simmons has unbelievable size at safety at 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds. He can play down at linebacker to guard tight ends and running backs. He can blitz the quarterback. He can defend slot receivers. In a pinch, he can man the outside. All three of these prospects could prove costly. Atlanta’s defensive scheme is player-friendly and simple by design. It also relies a lot on masking its coverages. And of these three, Simmons might have the best chance of falling outside of the top five. Here’s how it could happen: • At No. 3, the Detroit Lions could either trade out to a QB-needy team, take Brown, select Jeff Okudah or shock the world by drafting Matthew Stafford’s replacement. • At No. 4, the New York Giants either take an offensive tackle or trade out (which could actually make them ideal partners, if needed, for the Falcons since the Giants could then take a tackle at No. 16). • At No. 5, the Miami Dolphins take a quarterback or trade out. • At No. 6, the Los Angeles Chargers either take a quarterback or trade out. • At No. 7, the Carolina Panthers take Brown or Okudah, if available, or trade out. Although, it sure would seem improbable for the Panthers not to take Simmons if he fell in their lap. The Falcons may feel that difference-maker is Brown. Or even Okudah, who is believed to be the best cornerback in this year’s class. But behind Young, Simmons has the greatest potential to be an exceptional addition to Atlanta’s defense. He would be worth a major jump up in this year’s draft. Of course, it won’t be easy to pull off a trade. And there are likely other teams competing for those coveted spots in the top 10. Therefore, I will sidestep what I just wrote and revert to being boring by keeping Atlanta at 16th overall in my final mock draft. And with my final first-round guess, I have Atlanta taking … First round, 16th overall: LSU Edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson Hello again, K’Lavon. Back in the Falcons mock draft 1.0, I went with Chaisson, the speedy edge rusher from LSU. I veered off, imagining scenarios where the team took a linebacker instead. I was close to having the team pull the trigger on a cornerback with this pick, but I decided against it for three reasons: • I actually would not be surprised to see three top options at cornerback — Okudah, Florida’s C.J. Henderson and Clemson’s A.J. Terrell — gone by the time Atlanta picks at No. 16. Most everyone is in agreement that Okudah will be the first cornerback off the board. This year’s cornerback class at the top is not like last year’s. Perhaps draft writers were showing a bit of recency bias with how last year’s cornerback class fared. If Atlanta does want of those three cornerbacks, it might be forced into a trade-up scenario, but perhaps not as high as the top five. • The depth of the cornerback class is great at the top. It’s also pretty solid across the board, which will give Atlanta options in the middle-round range if it is unable to take one in the first round. If Atlanta does indeed pass on a cornerback in the first round, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this team take two in this class. • The Falcons may not feel immense pressure to draft a cornerback if the top options are no longer available. That would have to do with how they feel about Kendall Sheffield, selected in the fourth round last year. On a conference call Monday, head coach Dan Quinn was asked if Sheffield had the makings of being a No. 1 corner for his team. “Yes, I feel that way,” Quinn said. “We played him a ton in the slot when we were playing in the nickel defense. That wasn’t something he had tons of experience, and I thought he kept growing and he was really up for the challenge. In our league, the division, and certainly in the NFC, there are some guys you want, at times, to match up if you need to, and he’s definitely somebody with the speed and short-space quickness to do that. I definitely think he has a shot to do that based on his speed. He’s just going to continue to grow.” At the same time, the Falcons may prefer Sheffield in the slot when in the nickel defense, especially with Quinn’s revelation that Damontae Kazee will play primarily at free safety this year. And if so, that would be the counter to this particular argument. If Okudah, Henderson and Terrell are all gone by No. 16, and the Falcons still want to take a cornerback, TCU’s Jeff Gladney could be of note for the spot. But back to Chaisson: If Atlanta stays at No. 16 and doesn’t select a cornerback, Chaisson has a great chance to be the pick due to Atlanta’s need to further bolster the pass rush for 2020 and for seasons to come. While Atlanta signed Dante Fowler in free agency, Takk McKinley is entering the final year of his contract while rehabbing a third shoulder surgery. John Cominsky could be in line to play more as a nickel defensive tackle, which was the plan for him when Atlanta traded up to take him in the fourth round of last year’s draft. Sometimes it’s more fun to avoid the obvious. But this player and team have been linked for quite some time. If Atlanta is unable to trade up, or ultimately decides not to do so, Chaisson very well could have the best odds of being Atlanta’s first-round pick. What they should do: Do not let Kenneth Murray fall to the New Orleans Saints. You will regret this if it happens, Atlanta. TRADE: Atlanta trades the 47th and 143rd to the Baltimore Ravens for the 60th, 106th and 170th overall selections. Second round, 60th overall pick: Washington C Nick Harris Yes, I’m going back to Harris with this selection as I had two mocks ago. What I know is the Falcons are looking at interior linemen in this range. Harris has been the player most consistently undervalued by draft writers throughout this process. Multiple teams value him as a second-round interior lineman. Now, that doesn’t mean he will go in the second round as there are other talented interior linemen who could push Harris down the draft board. Harris fits Atlanta due to his versatility, seeing as he has played guard and center during his collegiate career. The Falcons would love to add competition at left guard while grooming a center for the future as Alex Mack is entering the final year of his contract. And the interest with Harris has been there for a while. The Falcons spoke with Harris at the Senior Bowl and held a virtual meeting with him during this adjusted offseason draft process. Another option could be Temple’s Matt Hennessy, who is also a highly regarded interior offensive lineman in this year’s class. TRADE: Atlanta trades the 78th overall pick to the Buffalo Bills for the 86th and 167th overall selections. Third round, 86th overall pick: Oklahoma State CB A.J. Green Hey, this name is familiar. But no, the former Georgia star receiver who has spent his entire career with the Cincinnati Bengals did not go back to college to become a cornerback at Oklahoma State. This A.J. Green does have the physical make-up for what the Falcons look for in their corners. He’s 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds with 30 ⅞-inch arms. Adding to this, the Falcons have expressed interest in Green throughout the pre-draft process. If Atlanta doesn’t take a cornerback in the first round, both the second and third rounds will be legitimate possibilities for the position. Third round, 106th overall pick: Arkansas DT McTelvin Agim Two positions that are deep in this year’s class are cornerback and defensive tackle. At least in this surely wrong mock draft, the Falcons are able to turn their attention to defensive tackle late in the third round, thanks to the hypothetical trades I worked out for them. Agim offers the kind of versatility Atlanta covets as he played last season at defensive tackle after previously playing defensive end. He certainly would be a developmental prospect at the position but one who would seemingly fit a 4-3 scheme. Fourth round, 119th overall pick: Maryland RB Anthony McFarland If the Falcons want to add speed in the backfield, they would be able to do so by adding McFarland. Fun fact: McFarland initially wanted to go to Georgia before Mark Richt was fired. In the aftermath, McFarland stayed home and went to Maryland. Unfortunately, the Terrapins were never a good team during his three years with the program. That doesn’t mean McFarland can’t be a good NFL running back, of course. In high school at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., McFarland was a track standout in addition to being a coveted football recruit. He could wind up being one of the biggest sleepers in this year’s draft class at his position. Fifth round, 167th overall pick: Louisiana Tech DB L’Jarius Sneed We all know how much Atlanta loves versatile defenders. Sneed played his senior season at safety after spending his first three at cornerback. Sneed is 6-0 and 192 pounds with 31 ⅜-inch arms, so he passes the Falcons’ eye test at the position. Throw in his 4.37-second 40-yard dash, and you’re talking about a potential find in the later rounds of the draft. Fifth round, 170th overall pick: Portland State TE Charlie Taumoepeau Taumoepeau began catching the eyes of scouts after two games during his junior season in 2018. Against Nevada, he went for three catches, 130 yards and two touchdowns. A week later against Oregon, he caught five passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. He’s also willing to get his nose dirty as a run-blocker. A Senior Bowl participant, Taumoepeau has the chance to be a lot of teams’ mid-to-late-round sleeper. Seventh round, 228th overall pick: Southern Mississippi WR Quez Watkins Watkins’ speed alone might make him worth a late-round flier as he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. He would be a developmental player at receiver who could have the opportunity of contributing on special teams early in his career if he’s able to make a 53-man roster.
  24. https://theathletic.com/1754981/2020/04/17/falcons-mailbag-given-recent-rumors-will-atlanta-really-trade-up-in-nfl-draft/ With less than one week to go until the NFL Draft, here’s a Falcons Mailbag. What’s more likely, the Falcons trade back in the draft or that they admit the new uniforms were an April Fool’s joke that went too far? — Josh R. Haha! Now, this is actually a tough one. While I know the Falcons would never admit such a thing regarding the uniforms — especially with all the time and preparation they took for what they hoped to be a dramatic release (only to be undercut by a leak) — trading back just doesn’t seem to be in Thomas Dimitroff’s DNA. Sure, there is a first time for everything. But based on history, the Falcons just aren’t likely to trade back. The Falcons have never done so in the first round since Dimitroff took the job in 2008, so why should we believe this could happen now? Now, to be frank, I just don’t care about the team’s new uniforms. But I also don’t hold a fan allegiance the way you guys do. So while it’s not a topic where I put much concern, I get why it’s important to the fan base. But to answer the question about what would happen first, I’d have to lean toward trading back. Jason, do you think the Falcons will actually pick at 16? — David A. Three days ago, I would have said yes. Now, I’m not so sure. And this isn’t necessarily because of recent reports and rumors that the Falcons are exploring options to move up in the draft. Given the circumstances of how this year’s draft is going to occur, I have this great feeling that this could be as unpredictable as we’ve seen in quite some time. I also think that positions like cornerback and offensive tackle could see some runs on prospects much earlier than expected. And without a pro day circuit taking place, each team seemingly has been on its own when it comes to evaluating certain players. It would be amazing to see how different each team’s draft board is. There probably isn’t much of a consensus forming since scouts aren’t convening in almost a daily fashion. It’s actually shaking out for the first round to be widely different from what many of the draft writers have mocked up this offseason. NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport even had a general manager tell him this, which he reported earlier Friday. If there is a player Atlanta felt it could get at No. 16 a week ago but the team has since learned that may not be the case, it very well could trade up. If the Falcons feel they’re getting a good deal to move up for someone like Isaiah Simmons or Derrick Brown, that could be something to consider, as well. During the next six days, the Falcons will have to weigh whether it’s better to wait on a player they’re targeting at No. 16 or if trading up makes more sense. Is it possible we may see the Falcons go safety in the first? Get a guy like Grant Delpit. Had an informal with him. — Michael M. I’m sure it’s possible the Falcons could take a safety in the first round. Whether that’s Delpit, I wouldn’t know. Alabama’s Xavier McKinney could be a first-round option, too. With Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee scheduled to be free agents after the 2020 season, there is a need to have a starting-caliber safety for 2021 if the team doesn’t think it will be able to keep those two. I also think there’s a feeling that some talented safeties will still be available in the middle rounds, so it may not feel too pressing for Atlanta to take one that early. Jason, given that the Falcons seem to surprise us in the draft each year, who do you feel like we take in the first round? For some reason, I lean toward Kenneth Murray, but that may just be me. Thanks for all you do. — Ryan M. I really appreciate those words, Ryan. It means a lot for you and everyone else to still be with us during these trying times around the world. To be honest, I don’t think Murray would be a surprise. And if he’s there at No. 16, there’s a great argument that he would be the best available player at that point and make the most sense to select. I’m a big fan of Murray’s, too. While there are things he can work on, specifically when it comes to anticipating and not overrunning plays, he has everything you want in a modern-day linebacker. He’s exceptionally quick and is stout against the run. He has good speed to cover tight ends and running backs. He’s a perfect fit for Atlanta. But it all comes down to the Falcons’ draft philosophy of taking the best player available at a position of need. If Atlanta feels the cornerback class is more talented at the top than at linebacker and on the defensive line, it would fall in line with their particular strategy to take that position early and follow up on the others in subsequent rounds. So if there is going to be a certain surprise, it may involve taking a cornerback NFL teams are higher on than most of the draft analysts. For now, I’m honestly not sure of a particular player Atlanta will pick. If I had to guess, I do think the position — assuming the Falcons don’t trade up — would be cornerback. Do you realistically think we’ll have a season this year? Seems way too far fetched to happen. — Ankeet C. I would be doing everyone a disservice if I proclaimed what I thought one way or the other as to whether the season takes place. I don’t have a background in epidemiology. I have no earthly idea what is happening behind closed doors in the scientific community when it comes to combating COVID-19. In addition, we’re in mid-April, and the season is scheduled to start in September. We just don’t have enough information at our disposal to make a clear determination as to whether sports will be played or not. That stated, if sports are to be played and there is no vaccine available for the public, it would be really tough for fans to be allowed in the stadiums. On that part, I am willing to offer an opinion. Given the timetable for a safe and effective vaccine to hit the public — which is typically 12 to 18 months — fans attending games seems unlikely for the rest of 2020. Even then, you still could be putting at risk a couple of hundred people participating in, officiating and recording sports games inside a stadium. It’s still too early to rule out a season. But that’s only because of the variable unknowns now. If the Falcons miss or disappoint in the playoffs for the next two seasons, do you think Matt Ryan and/or Julio (Jones’) time in ATL has to come to an end? — Tucker H. They don’t have to come to an end. But it’s an interesting thought to ponder. Ryan will be 35 this season. Jones is 31. If the team disappoints and a new regime comes in, you’d have to think some form of rebuilding will take place. In that scenario, I wouldn’t rule out anything, even with Ryan and Jones. With two seasons down the road in mind, Jones’ dead cap would be $15.5 million in 2022 and $7.75 million in 2023. So there are potential outs in those years — 2023 being the main one. As for Ryan, his dead-cap number is $26.525 million in 2022 and $8.612 million in 2023. And that’s if those contracts stay as-is. When it comes to restructuring a deal like Ryan’s, Atlanta may be done unless it adds years to it. Converting base salaries into signing bonuses ultimately catches up, which is something to be concerned about. So with both of these players, there may not be many more opportunities to relieve the salary cap in the short term without doing great harm in the long term. And if Atlanta (1) doesn’t become a championship contender and (2) undergoes a coach/GM change, then yes, I could see such a scenario as you outlined taking place. If Vic Beasley has a strong year in Tennessee, is that an indictment on (Dan) Quinn that also exonerates Dimitroff? — Jeff R. Going back to 2016, it looked like Dimitroff did a great job with this particular evaluation and that Quinn was doing an exceptional job of coaching Beasley. From there, no one could have seen the next two years occurring — with the team then gambling on an increase in production by picking up his fifth-year option, only to not get the double-digit sacks it was hoping for. Given what he did in 2016, the potential will always be there. How much of tapping into that potential involves the coach motivating him? And how much of it falls on the player? Those are the two questions that have to be answered when it comes to Beasley. I don’t believe all of it should fall on Quinn, as Beasley deserves his share of the blame. But if Mike Vrabel and his staff at Tennessee are able to get more out of Beasley than Atlanta did, this argument certainly will be made.
  25. https://theathletic.com/1747300/2020/04/14/homecoming-todd-gurley-is-ready-to-wear-red-and-black-for-second-time/ Todd Gurley didn’t grow up in Georgia. Born in Baltimore and having attended high school in Tarboro, N.C., it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think he might have a much greater connection to those places than the city and state where he spent three years of college. But as fate would have it, Gurley’s time at the University of Georgia in Athens meant just as much as either of the places he lived beforehand. As one of the best running backs, if not overall players, to ever suit up for Georgia, Gurley routinely visited Athens during his downtime while a member of the Los Angeles Rams. In news conferences, Gurley often would wear UGA gear. When he officially signed with the Falcons last week, he posted a video to his social media accounts not with his new team’s clothing but with a UGA shirt and hat. Athens grew near and dear to Gurley’s heart. His affinity certainly spread to the entire state, considering the legions of Georgia fans who showed up from all over to watch him play. Now that he’s with the Falcons, Gurley is excited to return to the state that catapulted him into the limelight of being an elite player. “It’s really home for me,” Gurley said. “I’m really excited. I’m pretty sure a bunch of Georgia fans are here. It’s really like a little homecoming. I felt like I should’ve been there forever, but it’s perfect timing for sure.” With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the world, and subsequently the ability to travel, Gurley is still residing in Los Angeles and has been unable to make it back to Georgia. He has made his presence felt to his new team’s community by donating meals to low-income and high-risk residents in the area, along with the Ronald McDonald House, Piedmont Hospital and Northside Hospital. When he does arrive in Atlanta, he will put on the familiar colors of red and black in a home stadium 70 miles from where he ran between the hedges. Considering his standing among the Georgia faithful, Gurley’s sheer presence should put a lot more local eyeballs on the Atlanta franchise — whether it’s from tuning in at home or showing up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. There have been many fans who have long clamored for the Falcons to draft or sign some former Georgia players. For those folks, they got their wish in a big way with Gurley’s acquisition. “It will remind a lot of people of his days in college,” said former Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason, who was Gurley’s teammate from 2012-14. “I know he visits here in the offseason a lot. The other part is you get to see the kid play way more. He was on the West Coast, and you never got to see any of his games. You only got to see the ESPN highlights. The thing that’s cool about that, too, is you get to literally watch every one of his games.” Mason, who now co-hosts “The Cheap Seats” on Atlanta Sports X 106.3 FM, was Georgia’s starting quarterback during Gurley’s junior season. What he remembered about Gurley was the positive and jovial attitude he displayed regularly. As he became a college football star in 2012, Gurley didn’t let his success overwhelm him. He could be a jokester at times, sure, which is something Gurley even referenced during a recent conference call with the local Atlanta media. But Mason said that during the three years he got to know him at Georgia, Gurley remained the same kind of person from the moment he arrived on campus. “Super easy to work with, man. No diva to him,” Mason said. “That’s usually always the case when guys come in as a freshman. Guys are hungry, and they want to prove everything. That work ethic and that desire to be the best tends to dip off as the pats on the back increase. That never was a problem with Todd. You saw a kid who made his way in being one of the best running backs in college football and one of the most prominent Georgia football figures of all time. He still, even into his junior year, had the same work ethic he had as a freshman. That always stuck out to me.” When Mason became Georgia’s starting quarterback in 2014, the offense was heavily reliant on Gurley and the ground game, which also featured freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The Bulldogs were very much committed to the run, with Mason chuckling about “how little we threw the ball.” Gurley’s performance through the first five games had him among the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy as he posted 773 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, which was good for a staggering average of 8.2 yards per carry. What followed was an unfortunate turn of events for Gurley and Georgia. He was caught selling autographs and was handed a four-game suspension by the NCAA, which effectively ended those Heisman hopes. When Gurley returned, he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament late in Georgia’s blowout win over Auburn. That ACL tear, and subsequent surgery, reportedly has turned into arthritis, which has become a storyline often attached to Gurley. For as popular as Gurley was, and is, with Georgia fans, it was a less than ideal way to end a collegiate career. But for those Georgia fans who wished the Falcons would have taken him at eighth overall in the 2015 NFL Draft — he went to the Los Angeles Rams two picks later — it’s now a scenario of better late than never. “It’s where I grew up. It’s where I turned into a man,” Gurley said. “It’s where I learned everything that I’ve been able to do these last couple of years. It’s where I developed my football habits, meeting great people, great relationships. I still have friends who are still in Georgia that I stay in contact with. It just feels like home. It’s a great feeling to be back. I’m super excited.” It’s unknown how the Falcons plan to use Gurley. In today’s NFL, very few running backs are taking upwards of 30 carries per game. Since Falcons head coach Dan Quinn took the job, the running back position has mostly involved a rotation. With Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison on the roster, and with the possibility of Atlanta selecting another running back in the draft, a tandem or committee approach could be in store. Both Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff alluded that Gurley’s addition shouldn’t impact how the team approaches the draft. “I think Todd is explosive. I think Todd can still tote the rock very, very well,” Dimitroff said. “He’s going to be a big-time playmaker, I believe. He has the ability to do that. I think we have a group of running backs that can contribute. I’m a big believer, I mentioned before, that it’s not just about one person running all of the runs, of course. We’re a big mix-up team. We think that’s a very important part of making sure that we rotate our guys through there.” Said Quinn: “As far as one player changing the overall framework of it, that’s not as likely.” If the Falcons use Gurley as the lead back in a committee, perhaps they will be able to effectively manage the wear and tear that inevitably comes with the running back position. While Gurley was a terror in 2017 and 2018, his numbers dipped to 3.8 yards per carry last season. Some of that could have been due to his knee. But before Gurley’s big years in 2017 and 2018, he had a statistically dreadful year in 2016, when he started 16 games and ran for only 885 yards and six touchdowns — and there were no injury issues of note then. While Gurley’s arthritic knee is surely a concern, Pro Football Focus graded the Rams as having the fourth-worst offensive line last season. “(Gurley) really takes care of his body well, and he’ll continue to work on it,” Dimitroff said. “We’ll continue to be very mindful about what we are dealing with, and we feel very comfortable with it. Of course, this is a tough game. It’s a warrior game. We know that. I’m not spinning off on that. He’s a hard-charging runner, and he’s an excellent football player, and we are counting on him to be an excellent football player for us.” Todd Gurley’s rushing stats SEASON CARRIES YARDS PER CARRY PER GAME TOUCHDOWNS 2015 229 1,106 4.8 85.1 10 2016 278 885 3.2 55.3 6 2017 279 1,305 4.7 87.0 13 2018 256 1,251 4.9 89.4 17 2019 223 857 3.8 57.1 12 With Gurley stuck in Los Angeles for the time being, he has maintained a regular routine to stay in shape and remain sane amidst the quarantine. He has a neighbor who has all the necessary equipment at his property, so he has been making use of that when working out. He has been getting plenty of sleep, as well, saying that he isn’t rising until 10 a.m. each day. Gurley’s excitement about returning to Georgia is evident. During his five-year career, he was voted to the Pro Bowl three times and named to the All-Pro team twice. Though 2019 didn’t go his way, Gurley is certain he can still produce like he did when he was considered among the best running backs in the NFL. “I’m still creating my legacy and am trying to be the best player I can be,” Gurley said. “I know what I’m capable of, I’ve done it before. It’s just keep doing it again and be consistent. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”
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