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Falcons Team Report/Inside Slant


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Atlanta Falcons
INSIDE SLANT

  Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire

  Top pick McKinley has strong first Falcons practice

The Atlanta Falcons were looking to add a pass rusher opposite for Vic Beasley in the draft.

When they saw the pass rushers flying off the draft board, they made a move to trade up in the draft five spots to land Takkarist McKinley of UCLA.

McKinley missed the offseason while recovering from shoulder surgery. He was cleared before the outset of training camp, but Falcons coach Dan Quinn slowly worked him back into the operation.

On a third-down in 11-on-11 in his first practice on Tuesday, he zoomed past starting left tackle Jake Matthews and sacked quarterback Matt Ryan.

The Falcons are hoping he has plenty more sacks in his 6-2, 250-pound frame.

"I'm back to football, back to what I love doing," McKinley said.

McKinley was selected 26th overall in the 2017 draft. He had surgery to repair a torn labrum and the glenoid socket in his right shoulder on March 6.

McKinley won over the fans with a passionate speech on draft night about how he wanted to honor his grandmother, who raised him. He was so emotional that he let loose with a few expletives.

After his first practice, McKinley had a long session with defensive line coach Bryant Young.

"We are just getting started with him," Quinn said. "We are anxious to put the work in over the next month."

While out and not allowed to attend OTAs or minicamp because of the NFL academic rules for schools on the quarter system, McKinley picked up the defensive scheme during his Facetime session with Young.

"Between him and Bryant Young, they did a good job together," Quinn said. "They had to put the work in. That was his way to show I'm committed and I'm in. ... Although there was some frustration about (not) playing, (he) could still do (his) part from a scheme standpoint. ... I have to commend him for putting in the work over the summer to get ready."

McKinley admitted that he had some butterflies in his stomach.

"I was nervous," McKinley said. "It was my first time in pads since November. To be able to go out there and play football again, felt real good."

McKinley wasn't perfect in his first practice.

"The biggest thing is to play fast," McKinley said. "I know coming out as a rookie that I'll make a few mistakes, but as long as I'm playing fast and hustling to the ball, I'll be good."

McKinley felt well about how he performed.

"Those were my first one-on-ones," McKinley said. "I was just trying to go with a bull rush and try to show of my strength and stuff like that. To be honest that might be my only rush so far, just to kind of help the shoulder feel better."

McKinley's knows there will be some adjustments to the NFL game.

"The tackles are bigger, stronger and more athletic," McKinley said. "They are faster. The game is faster.

"The quarterbacks ... you might have a freshman quarterback who takes his time at the line (in college), but in practice you are going against Matt Ryan and it's quick. In the NFL, you've got Cam (Newton) and (Tom) Brady and whoever else. The games will go by much faster. It's all about knowing your plays, getting lined up and going."

 

Notes, Quotes

Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel believes the team has moved past its collapse in Super Bowl LI.

"We had a team meeting before we came back and (coach Dan Quinn) told anybody has anything on your chest, get it off your chest right now," Gabriel said. "It was a group setting, and after that meeting our focus has been this year. I feel like everybody feels that way. At the end of the day, we have to move on."

Gabriel didn't speak up.

"I felt like there wasn't any need to say anything," Gabriel said. "We all came back. We were upset about the outcome. ... As long as we stay focused, we went to a Super Bowl last year so there was nothing we did wrong.

"If anything, I feel like it makes us hungrier."

Gabriel is limited in practice as he recovers from a leg injury. He's been catching puts and checking with the officials on how high he has to raise his hand on fair catches.

"I'm feeling good," Gabriel said. "As long as I get to 100 percent, I feel like I'll be OK. That's the goal, getting 100 percent before I go out there (full time). I don't want to go out there at 65 percent and hurt myself again.

"The training staff has been great. I'm close, just going out there getting my confidence back getting in and out of my breaks."

Gabriel, who was claimed on waivers from Cleveland at the start of last season, believes the wide receiving corps will be strong again in 2017.

"We had 13 different guys score (receiving) touchdowns, not just (wide receivers). ... It's all around the board," Gabriel said. "When you sit back and look at our group, I feel like there's really no downfall. Everybody's competing for a spot."

The rookies, including former Georgia wide receiver Reggie Davis, are doing well, too.

"He looks good, and a lot of other younger dudes look good," Gabriel said. "It's very surprising how far along they are."

Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield was at the Falcons' morning practice on Tuesday.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn is a big fight fan and had Holyfield break down the team after practice.

The players got a kick out of meeting Holyfield and took pictures with him.

Normally in training camp, teams might be a little sloppy after a day off.

But the Falcons returned to practice strong on Tuesday after having Monday off.

"For us to have the off day and push each other like we did, I was encouraged by that," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.


 

Strategy & Personnel

Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley, who led the league in sacks last season with 15.5, is excited about the team's defensive prospects.

The defense needs to make a major move under first-year defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel.

The Falcons, playing seven first- or second-year players, last season ranked 26th in rushing yards per play (4.52 yards), 28th in passing yards (266.7), 26th in sacks per pass attempts (5.19), tied for 29th in first downs per game (22.4), 26th in third-down percentage (41.78), 32nd in red-zone percentage (72.73) and 27th in points allowed (25.4).

With the addition of defensive tackle Dontari Poe, defensive ends Jack Crawford and Takkarist McKinley and the return of Derrick Shelby from a rupture Achilles injury, Beasley likes the unit's prospects.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what this team can do," Beasley said.

Beasley, who was taken eighth overall in the 2015 draft, had four sacks as a rookie before busting out last season. He's beaming with more confidence.

"It did a lot," Beasley said when asked if last season boosted his confidence. "I feel like our defense can feed off each other, and we can be the best that we can be."

Beasley likes Manuel's approach to running the defense.

"Oh, he's a great coach," Beasley said. "Having him last year as the defensive backfield coach, I knew that he would be a great defensive coordinator. Having him in that position has been great so far and I know he's going to continue to do great things in the future."

PLAYER NOTES

RB Devonta Freeman, who's hoping to sign a contract extension, reportedly has taken out a $10 million insurance policy. He's set to make $1.8 million in 2017.

WR Julio Jones (foot surgery) remains limited in practice. He was catching passes along the sidelines on Tuesday.

WR Devin Fuller sustained a torn ACL on Friday and is out for the season. He suffered the injury in a non-contact drill. Fuller, who was drafted in the seventh round out of UCLA last year, was placed on injured reserve last year after sustaining a shoulder injury during the exhibition season.

CB Jalen Collins, who started in the Super Bowl, was working with the third-team defense on Tuesday. He was also on the special teams knit-cap/scout team.

WR Mohamed Sanu made a spectacular catch on a deep pass from Matt Ryan on Tuesday.

WR Bra'Lon Cherry was signed on Friday. He played at N.C. State.

WR Reginald Davis III also signed on Friday. State. Davis, who's 6-foot and 185 pounds, played at Texas Tech. Davis signed as an undrafted free agent May 1, and the Falcons waived him May 18.

BATTLE OF THE WEEK

Cornerback Jalen Collins, who started in the Super Bowl, was working with the third-team defense on Tuesday. He was also on the special teams knit-cap/scout team. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are working with the first-team. C.J Goodwin and Deja Olatoye were working with the second team. Collins took over for Alford at right cornerback down the stretch of last season after Trufant went out because of a pectoral injury. Alford moved over to left cornerback.


UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS:



QUARTERBACKS:
Starter - Matt Ryan. Backups - Matt Schaub, Matt Simms, Alek Torgersen.

Ryan thrived under offensive coordinators Mike Mularkey and Dirk Koetter, when protected, for the first seven seasons of his career. He had a bumpy 2015 season, with a 21-to-16 touchdown-to-interception ratio while adjusting to then-coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme. With a year under his belt in Shanahan's system, Ryan was nearly flawless in 2016 and guided the franchise to its second Super Bowl appearance since starting play in 1966. Ryan was absolutely dynamic as he threw touchdown passes to 13 receivers. With some pinpoint accuracy, Ryan led the league's top-scoring offense, setting franchise records in passing yards (4,944) and touchdowns (38). He started all 16 games and completed 373 of 534 passes (69.9 completion percentage; third in the NFL), with only seven interceptions and a 117.1 passer rating. Schaub returns to serve as his backup.




RUNNING BACKS:
Starters Devonta Freeman. FB Derrick Coleman. Backups Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward, Brian Hill, B.J. Daniels, FB Tyler Renew.

Freeman is set to make $1.838 million in 2017, but would like a contract extension. The team is not expecting any issues despite rumblings from Freeman's representation that surfaced at the Super Bowl. While the Falcons hope to continue the blend of Freeman and Coleman, they drafted Hill in the fifth round. He must beat out Ward while they attempt to replace fullback Patrick DiMarco with Coleman, a former Seattle standout. Freeman and Coleman combined for 1,599 rushing yards, and 85 receptions, 883 receiving yards and 24 combined touchdowns. Hill is the wild card and perhaps insurance if Freeman's negotiations go off the rails. If Hill turns out to be the player that the Falcons scouted in college, he'll be quite the change-of-pace and perhaps a solution for the team's short-yardage woes.




TIGHT ENDS:
Starter - Austin Hooper. Backups - Levine Toilolo, Joshua Perkins, D.J. Tialavea, Eric Saubert, Darion Griswold.

The Falcons are passing the baton at tight end from Jacob Tamme to Hooper, a second-year player. The Falcons elected not to re-sign Tamme, in part because of Hooper's promise. With Toilolo and Perkins, the tight-end group was productive in 2016, catching 10 touchdowns passes: Tamme (three), Hooper (three), Toilolo (two), Perkins one) and Tialavea (one). In the playoffs, Hooper caught six passes for 65 yards and one touchdown. Toilolo caught three passes for 31 yards. Toilolo will remain a key cog in the run game and in pass protection.




WIDE RECEIVERS:
Starters - Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu. Backups - Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, Andre Roberts, Reggie Davis, Marvin Hall, Devin Fuller, Nick Williams, Anthony Dable, Deante Burton, Josh Magee, Bra'lon Cherry, Reginald Davis.

Despite being slowed by injuries, Jones turned in another spectacular season with 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdown catches. In the playoffs, Jones made 19 catches for 334 yards and three touchdowns. Sanu had a career-high 59 catches for 653 yards and four touchdowns last season. Gabriel had the highest passer rating of any receiver on passes thrown to him in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus' unofficial data. The rating of 148.1 on balls thrown to Gabriel last season was significantly better than the second-best rating of 129.8 on passes to Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan. Gabriel finished with 35 catches for 579 yards and six touchdowns, playing as the No. 3 receiver behind Jones and Sanu. Hardy and Roberts provide quality depth.




OFFENSIVE LINEMEN:
Starters - LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Wes Schweitzer, RT Ryan Schraeder. Backups - T Kevin Graf, T Will Freeman, T Daniel Brunskill, T Andreas Knappe, C Ben Garland, C Travis Averill, G Ben Garland, G Marquis Lucas, G Sean Harlow, G Cornelius Edison, T Larson Graham.

In all 19 games last season, the Falcons started the same offensive line. With the retirement of right guard Chris Chester, there will be a new starter in 2017. Mack, who was named second-team All-Pro, helped the Falcons be Pro Football Focus's sixth-ranked overall offensive line in the NFL last season, grading out as the team's best run blocker and overall offensive lineman. Schraeder was rewarded with a five-year, $32 million contract extension last season. Matthews, who was selected sixth overall in 2014, needs to step up to Pro-Bowl level. They must find a backup swing tackle to replace veteran Tom Compton, who signed with the Chicago Bears in free agency.




DEFENSIVE LINEMEN:
Starters - DLE Vic Beasley Jr., DT Grady Jarrett, NT Dontari Poe, DRE Adrian Clayborn. Backups - DE Takkarist McKinley, DE Martin Ifedi, DE Jack Crawford, DE Derrick Shelby, DE Chris Odom, DT Courtney Upshaw, DT Taniela Tupou, DT Ra'Shede Hageman, DT Joe Vellano.

Improving the defensive line was the Falcons' highest priority this offseason as they poured $28.5 million into the renovation project. After saying goodbye to former defensive line coach Bryan Cox and hiring Bryant Young, they signed Poe (one year, $8 million) and Crawford (three years, $10.3 million) in free agency and drafted McKinley (four years, $10.2 million). The team elected not to re-sign 12-year veteran Jonathan Babineaux and released veteran Tyson Jackson. With a stouter interior of Poe and Jarrett, the Falcons are hoping that Beasley can build on his breakthrough season in which he led the league in sacks with 15.5. Clayborn can also be a factor in the pass rush.




LINEBACKERS:
Starters - WLB Kemal Ishmael, MLB Deion Jones, SLB DeVondre Campbell. Backups - Brooks Reed, Jack Lynn, LaRoy Reynolds, Josh Keyes, Duke Riley, Jermaine Grace, J'Terius Jones.

Stardom is predicted for Deion Jones, set to enter his second season in the league. He had a dynamic rookie season and is trying to get more vocal as the team's defensive signal-caller. He also wants to add some weight and play between 230 and 235 this season. Jones led the rookie class with 108 tackles and three interceptions last season. He also had 14 passes defended, which was third-most among rookies. Campbell played 11 games, starting 10. He rang up 48 tackles, seven pass breakups and a pick. Ishamel is making the move from safety and must hold off a challenge from Riley. Reynolds is a quality backup. Grace is another speedy linebacker with a chance to contribute.




DEFENSIVE BACKS:
Starters - LCB Desmond Trufant, RCB Robert Alford, FS Ricardo Allen, SS Keanu Neal. Backups - CB C.J. Goodwin, CB Akeem King, CB Janor Jones, CB Brian Poole, CB Blidi-Wreh-Wilson, CB Damontae Kazee, CB Jalen Collins, CB Deji Olatoye, CB Quincy Mauger, FS Sharrod Neasman, FS Marcelis Branch, SS Kemal Ishmael, SS Jordan Moore, SS Deron Washington.

Collins was forced to start down the stretch last season. With the return of Trufant from pectoral surgery, the Falcons now have some quality depth at the position. Collins slid down the depth chart after he was suspended for the first four games of last season. He started the final six games of the regular season and three playoff games. He played 428 defensive snaps (38.3 percent) during the regular season. He compiled 48 tackles, including 10 in the Super Bowl, 12 pass breakups and two interceptions. With Trufant, Alford, Poole and Collins all seasoned now, the Falcons have some options to mix and match their coverages better. Neal played roughly 83 percent of the team's snaps, third-most on the defense. He played his highest snap percentage (40) at down low at linebacker level, according to Pro Football Focus' unofficial data. Neal is expecting more of the same with some additional middle-of-the-field duties. Allen made the transition from cornerback to free safety. He played 1,101 defensive snaps (99.1 percent), most on the team last season, in just his second year at free safety. Drafted as a cornerback in the fifth round of the 2014 draft out of Purdue, Allen was cut and then made his way back to the roster from the practice squad.




SPECIAL TEAMS:
K Matt Bryant, K Mike Meyer, P Matt Bosher, LS Josh Harris, KOR Andre Roberts, PR Andre Roberts.

When the Falcons elected not to re-sign Eric Weems, that created at least three openings on the special-teams units. Weems, a former Pro Bowler, was a coverage player, and the punt and kickoff returner. Roberts signed in free agency and will get the first shot at kickoff and punt returner jobs. Roberts averaged 22.2 yards on kickoff returns and 11.7 on punt returns with two touchdowns last season for Detroit. Meyer is a player to watch just because Bryant turned 42. Bosher is back as a weapon on kickoffs and with his superior directional punting skills.

 

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