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Brains Behind the Brawn

By John Manasso

For FoxSportsSouth.com

With Bill Belichick at the helm, the New England Patriots have been known as one of the NFL’s smartest teams and for their ability to outscheme almost any opponent.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff came from New England’s front office and he has talked often in the past about bringing lessons learned in New England.

Dimitroff had his crack at his third draft with the Falcons last month and if this one comes off the way the way the other two did – although 2009’s gets something of an incomplete grade, as both top two draft picks missed most of the year with injuries – the Falcons ought to be able to continue their winning ways under in 2010.

This week, the Falcons are conducting a rookie camp at their practice facility in Flowery Branch – their first in head coach Mike Smith’s three seasons – which is a part of coaching up the ‘10 class of draft picks and undrafted free agents in an effort to get them on the field faster and to be more productive.

One factor that could help is that the Falcons appear to be going after players who are more educated and perhaps a bit brainier.

Dimitroff’s first two picks in 2008 were quarterback Matt Ryan and left tackle Sam Baker – whose father was commissioner of the Arena Football League – both players who possess intelligence.

This year, the Falcons’ top three picks all are college graduates and offensive lineman Mike Johnson had a 4.0 grade-point average coming out of high school.

“I think any time you get a four-year guy, he’s usually a mature guy,” Smith said. “… I think you’re going to see more and more players graduating and it’s because of the way they’re doing things in college. It’s not like they don’t go to summer school. They all go to summer school because it’s year-round at the college level, as well. It says a lot when you have a young man who has finished his college degree and has worked hard not only on the football field but in the classroom.”

And when you get a player like that, there are many practical advantages. Johnson played at Alabama under Nick Saban, who, when he was coach of the Miami Dolphins, had Falcons’ offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey on his staff.

That means that Johnson, a third-round pick, benefited from a coach who runs his college team more like an NFL one but also that many of the plays are alike.

“There’s a lot of similarity,” said Johnson, explaining that many of the plays are the same, though Alabama used different terminology. “A lot of similar things we do offensively. Hopefully, that eases the transition a little bit. It has so far.”

And in evaluating defensive lineman Corey Peters, another third rounder (the Falcons had no second), defensive line coach Ray Hamilton – a taskmaster if ever there was one – was mostly interested in how quickly Peters would be able to grasp schemes. Vance Walker, a 2009 Falcons’ rookie defensive lineman out of Georgia Tech, said one of the big transitions for him last year was devoting so much time to what opposing offenses were doing, as opposed to what the Falcons themselves wanted to do as a unit.

“My meeting with coach Ray, that was basically the whole thing,” Peters said of his predraft interview.

On Monday, the first day of the seven-day rookie camp but the only one that will be open to the media, Smith praised Peters’ “FBI” – his football intelligence.

“Corey did a nice job,” Smith said of Peters’ performance. “Corey is a very intelligent football player. We loved his FBI. And he’s got the skillset to come in here and compete.”

And so with high expectations of what players can learn, the coaching staff throws plenty at them. First-round pick Sean Witherspoon, a linebacker out of Missouri, is learning both the weak and strong sides.

“It’s a little bit more complicated,” Witherspoon said. “When I first got to college, I got to focus on one position. I came out here now, they’re throwing everything at me. They’ve got me on both sides. But I’m up for the challenge. I just have to work harder and get into the playbook and get with the rest of the defense and just become a more cohesive rookie class and things will work out better.”

In an ever more complex NFL, Witherspoon will face the challenge – if all goes according to plan – of having to defend one of the league’s most complicated offenses in the New Orleans Saints’ twice a year. With the ability to run and cover the pass, Witherspoon would be a valued weapon against the schemes of Saints coach Sean Payton and his brainy quarterback Drew Brees. On every pass play the Saints run, they seem to get a different receiver – be they back-up tight ends, third-string running backs or No. 4 wide receivers – open in a different way.

“I’m not really sure what I’ll be able to do,” Witherspoon said. “I just want to go out there and help the team in any way possible. One of my best traits is fitting in pass coverage and I hope to bring that to this team. I’m looking forward to doing anything against those teams” like New Orleans.

To make an impact as a rookie, players must do what Peters described: “You’ve really got to commit yourself to [learning the playbook]. You have to take it home and read over it and study it and study it and study it.”

That’s what separates winners from losers in today’s NFL.

“You definitely have to have the physical -- I don’t think it’s possible without the physical,” Peters said. “But you can definitely get by, I think, by having a strong mind. You come from a situation where everybody here was ‘The Man’ at their school.

“It’s still football. At the end of the day, everybody on this field can play. You’ve got to keep the attitude that as long as I keep progressing, that’s where I’ll be. I’ve just got to keep working every day and I’m sure at the end of the day, I’ll be fine.”

And being smarter – especially for the Falcons – won’t hurt either.

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Thnx but why do the call Sean Weatherspoon Sean Witherspoon?

It's an EASY mistake

Brian Witherspoon is a CB for Carolina

Will Witherspoon is a MLB for Tenn. Titans

Derrick Witherspoon played 3 years

Jovan Witherspoon played for 1 year

Terry Witherspoon played for 1 year

Before Sean, 2 Weatherspoons' played for 1 year each

Cephus 1972 and Chuck 1991

Edited by delaigle
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Dude, we're gonna be good. lol- astute, huh?

I'm really excited about this team, and I really am excited to see how our defense develops. If these guys keep studying this way, they're gonna know where the opposing offenses are going before they do, themselves!

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