NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons plan to be back in Super Bowl contention this season. But it's not just about rebounding from last year's 4-12 campaign. It's about maintaining the success they've had since Mike Smith took over as coach; Smith has posted a 60-36 record since arriving in 2008.

Ryan
Ryan
Over the next three years, maintaining an emphasis on offense will be the biggest key to success. Nothing is more important than keeping franchise quarterback Matt Ryan upright and healthy. The team firmly believes Ryan is an elite quarterback when given ample opportunity to deliver the ball. The hope is a rebuilt offensive line, featuring veteran offensive guard Jon Asamoah and first-round draft pick Jake Matthews, that will be solid for years to come. But the Falcons have to continue to develop depth, particularly at tackle, just in case a player like Sam Baker (knee) doesn't hold up for an entire season.

Of course, giving Ryan all the protection in the world means nothing without playmakers catching the ball. That's why the Falcons have to lock up top receiver Julio Jones with a lucrative, long-term contract. Picking up the fifth-year option on Jones allowed the team to assure he'd be around through at least 2015. Although Jones is coming off a significant foot injury, the Falcons are certain he'll return to his old explosive self. At his best, Jones is probably one of the top two receivers in the league, along with Calvin Johnson. Johnson makes $16 million per year; Jones will make $10,176,000 in 2015 as part of the option year.

The Falcons are built to be an offensive team, and that won't change any time soon. They'll likely have to invest in another receiver unless they can get another solid three years out of Roddy White. They'll have to look into a pass-catching tight end if promising Levine Toilolo doesn't make the necessary strides. And the running game doesn't have to be dynamic, just solid. Devonta Freeman could be the every-down back they count on over the next three years.

Defensively, the Falcons won't be in the top five in the league. They probably won't even be in the top 10. They just need to be good enough to keep opposing teams from scoring in the high 20s and breaking off explosive play after explosive play. The future looks bright with Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford at the corners. The Falcons will have to invest in a pass-rusher at some point while also addressing needs at linebacker. But the defense doesn't have to be great for the team to have success.

The offense, however, certainly needs to be dynamic.
Steve BartkowskiManny Rubio/USA TODAY Sports 
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This is the last of three nominations for the most memorable play in Atlanta Falcons' history. The previous two days featured Morten Anderson's game-winning overtime field goal in the 1998 NFC Championship Game that sent the Falcons to the Super Bowl and Michael Vick's 46-yard touchdown run in overtime against the Vikings in 2002. Please vote for your choice as the Falcons' most memorable play.

Score: Falcons 20, Saints 17
Date: Nov. 12, 1978 Site: Louisiana Superdome

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Which is the most memorable play in Falcons' history?

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They referred to the play as Big Ben Right.

With 19 seconds left in regulation and the Falcons trailing the Saints 17-13, quarterback Steve Bartkowski rallied his troops for the last-ditch effort. It ended up being a Hail Mary with a twist as the Falcons broke the huddle from their own 43-yard line.

Bartkowski sailed a ball deep down the right sideline where receiver Wallace Francis batted it in the air, as planned. The tipped ball was corralled by Alfred Jackson, who sprinted the final 10 yards for the 57-yard score.

"My job was to tip the ball up and keep it alive," Francis told the media afterward. "I was never the intended receiver."

"When he tipped it, I was right behind it," Jackson added. "I followed right behind the crowd to get it when somebody tipped it."

The miraculous 57-yard touchdown play helped Bartkowski best Saints quarterback Archie Manning on that day. The Falcons went on to finish 9-7 and made the playoffs for the first time in team history, defeating Philadelphia (14-13) in the NFC wild-card game before losing to Dallas (27-20) in the divisional playoff.

Not often do you see a game won in such a dramatic fashion. That's why Big Ben Right qualifies as one of the best plays in Falcons history.

The Falcons trailed 17-6 with 2 minutes, 23 seconds left in the game. Big Ben Right was preceded by an 80-yard touchdown drive engineered by Bartkowski, ending in a 1-yard touchdown run by Haskel Stanback.

That long drive was a gem in itself. But the game-winning play left a lasting memory.
Morten AndersenCraig Lassig/AFP/Getty Images 
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Atlanta Falcons' history. On Wednesday, we'll feature the last: Alfred Jackson's tip ball catch of a pass from Steve Bartkowski for a touchdown in November 1978. Please vote for your choice as the Falcons' most memorable play.

Score: Falcons 30, Vikings 27
Date: Jan. 17, 1999 Site: Metrodome

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Which is the most memorable play in Falcons' history?

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It was the kick heard 'round Georgia. And it sucked the wind out of the Metrodome.

The Falcons, despite finishing 14-2 and winning the NFC West, were given little chance to beat the high-powered Vikings in the NFC Championship Game after the Vikings went 15-1 during the regular season. But if it had to come down to a field goal, Morten Andersen was the right man to have on your side.

Minnesota's Gary Anderson, another great kicker, could have sealed it with two minutes remaining in regulation, but he missed his only field goal of the season -- his first in 45 attempts -- to give the Falcons life. It allowed the Falcons to tie the game with a Chris Chandler touchdown toss to Terance Mathis with 49 seconds left in regulation.

Then came the dramatic finish that made this one of the top plays in team history. The Falcons twice kept the Vikings from scoring in overtime, allowing for Andersen's heroics.

With 3:11 left in overtime, Andersen lined up for chance to pull off the stunner. As the ball was snapped, he launched his powerful left leg and almost immediately threw up his hands in celebration while watching the 38-yard kick. The ball sailed right down the middle, and the Falcons soared into their first and only Super Bowl.

Andersen got swarmed by about 10 teammates, and coach Dan Reeves broke out the "Dirty Bird" alongside running back Jamal Anderson and a host of other players.

It was a moment that will never be forgotten in Falcons' history.
Michael VickElsa/Getty Images 
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Atlanta Falcons history. In the next two days, we'll feature Alfred Jackson's tipped-ball catch of a pass from Steve Bartkowski for a touchdown and Morten Anderson's 38-yard field goal to beat the Minnesota Vikings and send the Falcons to Super Bowl XXXIII.

Score: Falcons 30, Vikings 24
Date: Dec. 1, 2002 Site: Metrodome

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Which is the most memorable play in Falcons' history?

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Although Michael Vick's time with Atlanta ended in controversy and a messy divorce, Vick still left behind plenty of lasting memories through six seasons.

One of those most memorable incorporated his most dangerous weapon: his legs. He made a statement with his running through four quarters of this Week 13 matchup in 2002, but Vick had one last point to prove as the Falcons faced second-and-8 from the Vikings' 46-yard line in overtime.

The crafty left-handed quarterback made a play-action fake, then sprinted left with the ball while loosely holding it in his left hand. As he turned the corner and blew by two linebackers, Vick cut back inside, tucked the ball and squeezed through another pair of defenders as they collided. He outraced two defensive backs down the middle for the game-winning score.

As his teammates surrounded him in celebration, Vick fired the ball in the air to punctuate the game-winning moment. He kept running, straight to the locker room. Then-Vikings head coach Mike Tice, now the Falcons offensive line coach, walked to midfield obviously distraught over what just hit him. It was a play Falcons fans won't soon forget, which is why it's on the list of top plays in team history.

Vick finished with 173 rushing yards on just 10 carries. His yardage, at the time, was the most by a quarterback since the 1970 merger. The previous mark was 127 yards by Bobby Douglas of the Chicago Bears. In the overtime win, Vick accounted for 346 of the Falcons' 379 total yards.
The Atlanta Falcons have signed free-agent wide receiver Courtney Roby, the team announced on Friday.

Roby (6-0, 189) did not play last season after being cut by New Orleans in training camp. Prior to that, he did little as a receiver, recording 21 of his 25 career catches in 2005 during his rookie season at Tennessee, where he was a third-round pick out of Indiana.

Roby was most valuable as a kick returner, averaging 24.9 yards on 121 returns during his career. He was a special teams captain each of his past two season with the Saints.
 Matt RyanKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Falcons want to be a balanced offense, but are at their best when Matt Ryan is throwing deep.
There seems to be quite a bit of optimism about the Atlanta Falcons boasting a more balanced offensive attack this season. One skill-position player even told me he expects it to be "50-50" in terms of run and pass plays.

Sounds nice, but I'm not buying it.

Even if the Falcons come out running in the preseason, I won't believe in such balance until I see it during a meaningful game. I won't subscribe to it until I see a conscious effort to run the ball in the first quarter or on first down.

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has acknowledged a renewed emphasis on the run game. But a crafty playcaller such as Koetter knows protecting quarterback Matt Ryan and allowing him to sling the ball to the likes of Julio Jones and Roddy White is what helped the Falcons get one step from the Super Bowl two years ago. It's the same type of aggressive attack I expect will allow the Falcons to rebound from last year's 4-12 implosion and get back into playoff contention -- if the defense can at least contain opposing offenses.

New offensive line coach Mike Tice put it best when I spoke with him during organized team activities.

"We're not going to be a run-first football team, by any means, with those two great receivers and that great quarterback," Tice said bluntly. "But when that man -- my buddy Dirk Koetter -- dials up the run, we better be able to run it for four yards."

I'm by no means suggesting this will be a repeat of last season, when Ryan attempted a career-high 651 passes and the Falcons averaged a mere 3.9 yards per carry on a league-low 321 rushing attempts. The Falcons played their share of games from behind, forcing Ryan into even more throwing situations, and the ground game was barely existent to begin with, particularly after Steven Jackson was slowed by a hamstring injury.

I expect Ryan to be among the top five quarterbacks in passing yards for a third consecutive season. I just think he will put up those numbers under better circumstances. I expect we'll see more of the Ryan we saw in San Francisco last season, when he carved up the 49ers, completing 37 of 48 passes for 348 yards and two scores. I also expect the Falcons to be among the league's top 10 in scoring, like they were in 2010, 2011 and 2012 (fifth, seventh and seventh, respectively). Last season, they dipped to 20th with an average of 22.1 points per game.

Of course, Ryan and the offense have to be smart and take what opposing defenses give them. It's just hard to imagine them running the ball down a team’s throat the entire game.

A lot depends on the new-look offensive line. We should get a better feel for the unit during training camp, particularly when the Falcons have their joint practices with the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans. But the Falcons didn't sign Jon Asamoah and draft Jake Matthews with the intent of becoming a grind-it-out team. It's about protecting Ryan and giving him adequate time to find his receivers and go deep. And his deep ball has been on point this offseason. Just ask undrafted rookie receiver Bernard Reedy, the recipient of many of those sharp throws.

Ryan was pressured on a league-high 204 of his dropbacks last season. That can't happen again. The line has to hold its own, even with the intense pressure it will face in the NFC South from the Saints, Panthers and Buccaneers.

There are other variables to consider. Will Jones return to full form after a second surgery on his right foot? Will White avoid the nagging injuries that plagued him last season? Will tight end Levine Toilolo's contribution in the red zone make Tony Gonzalez a distant memory? Will left tackle Sam Baker's left knee hold up an entire season?

If the answer to at least the first two of those questions is "yes," then I see no reason why the Falcons shouldn't have success through the air.

I'm not disregarding the contribution of the running backs in the grand scheme. Tice brought in some new running concepts from his years of expertise. I believe Jackson has one more solid year left in him. I believe rookie Devonta Freeman can have an immediate impact. And I believe Jacquizz Rodgers has great value in the screen game, which is essentially an extension of the run.

But when it comes to the Falcons' offensive success this season, I'll simply take a pass.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC South

June, 26, 2014
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The NFC South too shall pass.

Three of the division's first-round picks in May were wide receivers: Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at No. 7), Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints (No. 20) and Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers (No. 28). And offensive tackle Jake Matthews, drafted sixth overall by the Atlanta Falcons, should give quarterback Matt Ryan more time to throw to his star wideouts.

 The Bucs had a void opposite Pro Bowl veteran Vincent Jackson and filled it with Evans, giving the team a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers. The Saints parted with Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, two key components in their pass-happy offense. In steps versatile Cooks, who hauled in 128 receptions for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State. The Panthers released their No. 1 receiver -- diminutive, 35-year-old Steve Smith -- and replaced him with 6-5 Benjamin.

First-round picks aren't the only NFC South rookies with a chance to make some noise. Keep an eye on Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman and Saints cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton for Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas for Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the division's rookies, among other topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out whether they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which NFC South rookie will make the biggest impact this season?



Vaughn McClure: Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans should get plenty of chances to show he was worthy of a top-10 selection. His size (6-5, 230 pounds) is enough to give opponents fits. Having a proven big receiver such as Vincent Jackson on the other side should help Evans make a smooth transition. Josh McCown is a smart quarterback who won't put Evans in bad situations. And Lovie Smith is the right head coach in terms of helping a rookie adjust to new surroundings. Evans has to overcome some of the knocks on him, including that he's too stiff and doesn't have great speed. It still will be hard to match up against him one-on-one, though, because the former basketball player will win the jump balls. And he has already impressed coaches with his range.

David Newton: This is a tough one because I really like the first-round picks for all four division teams. Each will make his team significantly better. But for me, it comes down to New Orleans' Brandin Cooks and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin because both receivers will get plenty of opportunities. I'm going with Cooks because he has quarterback Drew Brees and a veteran unit around him. Rookie receivers often struggle. Cooks will break that trend with 60-plus catches.

Mike Triplett: I'll go with Saints receiver Brandin Cooks because I think he'll have the flashiest season. You could make a great case for all four first-round picks, and Jake Matthews will probably play the most vital role because of the Falcons' need at offensive tackle. But I think Cooks will make the biggest splash -- and even be a strong contender for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even though New Orleans spreads the ball around so much, I expect Cooks to catch a high volume of passes and hit some home runs with deep balls and a punt return or two.

Pat Yasinskas: That's an easy one. I'm going with Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. He's going to be an instant starter, and he's going to be active in the passing game. Vincent Jackson remains the top receiver, but Evans will be a nice No. 2 to start his career. Evans someday will be a No. 1 receiver, but for now he'll be a complement to Jackson. Evans and Jackson, both 6-5, will form one of the league's largest starting receiver tandems, and that's going to cause problems for opposing defenses.


Second Down

What is your team's top position battle to monitor in training camp?



McClure: Although there will be plenty of competition among Falcons linebackers, I'm turning my attention to the running backs. Steven Jackson is the starter. He turns 31 next month and probably has one good season left in him -- but if he is slowed by nagging injuries, the Falcons will turn to someone else. They drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round with thoughts of grooming him as the three-down back of the future. If he looks as good in pads as he did in shorts, Jackson might have a battle on his hands. Even the battle for the third running back will be interesting with Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith in the mix. The running backs, as a whole, have an improved offensive line to run behind. Let's see whether that helps them.

Newton: Most might say the left tackle battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. And although finding a replacement for retired Jordan Gross is key, the Carolina competition that intrigues me the most will be between Charles Godfrey and Melvin White at cornerback. Godfrey is making the transition from safety to corner after missing most of last season with an Achilles injury. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Godfrey played cornerback for most of his college career at Iowa before the former Panthers coaching staff moved him to safety in 2008. Although White was adequate last season, Godfrey is a more physical player with the potential to be a shutdown corner. If he can win that battle, it's a huge upgrade for the league's No. 2 defense.

Triplett: The battle at cornerback is by far the most compelling on the Saints' roster. For one thing, it's a vital position in today's NFL. For another thing, the Saints are loaded with fascinating candidates behind No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis. Does surefire Hall of Famer Champ Bailey have enough left in the tank? Can former first-round pick Patrick Robinson bounce back from injury? Can third-year pro Corey White take that next step? Can rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste make an instant impact? Can second-year pro Rod Sweeting or someone else emerge as a dark horse? And did I mention this is an important position?

Yasinskas: The best competition will be at tight end. The fact Austin Seferian-Jenkins was drafted in the second round probably means he'll get the first shot at the starting position, but don't overlook his competition -- theoretically, the Bucs have four guys who could end up as the starter. Free-agent pickup Brandon Myers can catch and block. Tim Wright had 54 catches last season and has worked to improve his blocking. Veteran Luke Stocker is returning from injury; he isn't a huge threat as a receiver, but he could play a big role as a blocker.


Third Down

Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?




McClure: I like safety William Moore taking on more of a leadership role and sparking the Falcons' defense, and I like receiver Roddy White rebounding from last year's injury-plagued campaign. But the guy I'm going to single out is return man Devin Hester. After his role diminished in Chicago, people forgot he was the greatest return man of all time. All Hester needed was a change of scenery: In watching him during organized team activities, it was evident he still has his quickness. With special-teams mastermind Keith Armstrong drawing up the blocking scheme, Hester could be the X factor in the Falcons' quest to return to playoff contention. Whatever Hester accomplishes on offense would be a bonus.

Newton: It feels strange calling wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a veteran since this is his first season with the Panthers, but the sixth-year player out of Rutgers was the first to come to mind with this question. Underwood was brought in to replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the speed receiver. Ginn went from two catches with San Francisco in 2012 to 36 for five touchdowns with the Panthers last season before moving on to Arizona. Underwood had 24 catches for four touchdowns in Tampa Bay last season. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was high on him when they worked together in Jacksonville. Throw in what wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl will teach Underwood, I could see him doubling his production in 2014.

Triplett: I've been touting Saints defensive end/tackle Akiem Hicks all offseason. He's a third-year guy who's big and really powerful at 6-5, 324 pounds, but athletic for his size. A former third-round pick out of the University of Regina in Canada, he had 4.5 sacks last year in his first stint as a full-time starter. I'm not sure Hicks will post 10-plus sacks as an interior guy, which means he might not crack the Pro Bowl. But that's the level of impact he can have as someone who can both push the pocket and stuff the run. Opposing offensive linemen in the NFC South certainly know who he is.

Yasinskas: Middle linebacker Mason Foster is set up for a big season. Foster has had a decent career to this point, but he's about to get a lot better. Hardy Nickerson and Brian Urlacher excelled as middle linebackers in coach Lovie Smith's defense, and now it might be Foster's turn. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David is the star of this unit, but Foster has a chance to be a nice complementary player. Smith likes to have his middle linebackers call the defensive plays, and that means Foster will be putting on the radio helmet this year.


Fourth Down

What is your predicted order of finish in the NFC South standings?



McClure: That's a tough one. I see a lot of parity within the division, and the Buccaneers really have a chance to close the gap based on their offseason moves, including the hiring of Smith as coach. But I'm going to go with New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina. As long as the Saints have Drew Brees in the lineup, they have a chance to be contenders. The Falcons bulked up on both sides of the line, which should bode well for them in terms of putting up points on offense and preventing big plays on defense. The Bucs' defense could be devastating. Carolina will sorely miss Jordan Gross and Steve Smith -- and it will show.

Newton: Since nobody has repeated as NFC South champion since the division was formed in 2002, it would seem a bit crazy to pick the Panthers, who edged New Orleans for the title last season. The Saints are considered the favorites by most, and it's hard to argue otherwise with Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham on offense. But I'm a believer that defense wins, and even with changes to the secondary, there's not a better defense in the division than Carolina's. I like what Atlanta has done in free agency and the draft, so I look for the Falcons to finish second with the Saints third and Tampa Bay fourth. Having said that, I could see the division winner going 9-7 or 10-6. It's going to be tight.

Triplett: I'm confident the Saints will finish first with at least 11 wins. Although their offense lost some key pieces, it's still one of the NFL's elite, and their defense is legit. After that it's a virtual three-way tie. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the others flirt with a playoff run or finish last. I'll go with the Buccaneers second because they're on the rise. They have a great defense and run game and now seem to have a solid coach and quarterback. I'll pick Carolina third because it lost so much in the receiving corps and secondary. As much as I like the Falcons' passing attack, there are questions everywhere else.

Yasinskas: Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers. This was a tough call because all four teams have a chance to be good. I gave the nod to the Saints because they have Brees, the best quarterback in the division. I think Atlanta will have a dramatic turnaround after last season's debacle. Tampa Bay is going to be much more competitive than last year. Carolina might have taken a step back with some of its offseason moves, but I still wouldn't count the Panthers out.

 
Most of the folks over at the World Cup probably weren't aware that arguably the top receiver tandem in American football was in their presence this week.

Julio Jones and Roddy White of the Atlanta Falcons bolted to Brazil immediately after minicamp concluded. Before leaving on their trek, the two stated their claim of being the best pair of pass-catchers in the NFL.

Jones
White
White
"When you step on the field, you should feel that you're the best, you and whoever your partner is," Jones said. "I feel like me and Roddy, we're the best when we step on the field. We take it as a challenge every year: We want to go out and show everybody we're the best one-two in the league."

Earlier this summer, Chicago Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery made a case that he and Brandon Marshall were the league's top duo based on the 2,716 combined yards and 19 touchdowns they compiled on 189 catches last year for the 8-8 Bears, who missed the playoffs. The year before, White and Jones combined for 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns on 171 catches for a 13-3 Falcons team that lost in the NFC title game. And retired tight end Tony Gonzalez actually led the team that year with 93 catches.

Of course last season, Jones played in just five games after suffering a season-ending fracture in his right foot while White was hobbled by hamstring and ankle injuries, so there was no true comparison.

"Numbers don't lie: They did a good job last year," White said of Marshall and Jeffery. "We weren't there to play in the party. But this year, we're going to be there to play in the party. So at the end of the season, we'll come together, and then we'll see what happens."

Marshall is a proven veteran with seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to his credit while Jeffery emerged as a second-year player last season.

White had a streak of six-consecutive 1,000-yard seasons snapped last year while Jones has been viewed as the same type of explosive receiver as Calvin Johnson, when healthy.

"I've had respect for Brandon Marshall and what he can do on the field," White said. "We compete every year. I call him before the season starts and we go at it. Him and Alshon right now, they're at the top of the charts because they had an outstanding year last year.

"But this is 2014, and we cannot rest on what we did in 2013. This is a new year, and we're going to be ready to go."
While rookie Devonta Freeman generated a lot of buzz for the Atlanta Falcons this offseason, another running back quietly went about his business in preparation for the 2014 campaign.

Jacquizz Rodgers, entering his fourth season, isn't worried about being overlooked in the backfield equation, with Freeman being touted as a possible every-down back and Steven Jackson already the starter. Fan-favorite Antone Smith also is a part of the group and undrafted rookie Jerome Smith hopes to make an impression.

Rodgers
"There are no concerns," Rodgers said, speaking about the addition of Freeman. "You've got to come and compete every year. It just makes the group better, bringing more guys. It makes everybody work harder at practice. We're going to work collectively. We're going to learn from each other. And we're going to make each other better each and every day."

The Falcons had to think toward the future with Jackson ready to turn 31 next month. That is why they drafted Freeman in the fourth round out of Florida State.

"He's a good running back," Rodgers said of his new teammate. "Comes from a winning program. Fast guy: a guy that's willing to learn, willing to learn from the older guys. He's a good piece to our puzzle in the backfield."

Rodgers has value as an all-purpose back, so he should be part of the rotation entering the regular season. So what happens when Freeman starts taking touches from Rodgers once the season starts?

"It wouldn't bother me because you know I'm going to go out there and work hard, and just continue to do what I've got to do," Rodgers said. "I know when I got my shot, I'm going to go all out."

Rodgers compiled 1,248 all-purpose yards last season, including 575 kickoff return yards. The addition of Devin Hester as a return man will keep Rodgers from being as a effective on special teams, but he will likely stay in the mix as insurance.

Rodgers remains a threat as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and a player capable of creating mismatches. Plus, he brings another aspect that a rookie such as Freeman might have a hard time with initially.

"Blocking, I take very good pride in that," Rodgers said. "As a running back, if you want to be on this field, that's one thing that you've got to be able to do."

Rodgers is capable of a lot. That is why he should have a place on the field this season.
Matt RyanRonald C. Modra/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan says he doesn't feel any added pressure because of his lucrative contract.
Matt Ryan is not one to be consumed by outside opinion.

True to his character, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback brushed off any notion that he feels added pressure since becoming a $100 million quarterback. Ryan signed a five-year extension last July worth a maximum value of $103.50 million, a contract that included a then-record $58 million guaranteed. His salary-cap numbers for the next five seasons: $17,500,000; $19,500,000; $23,750,000; $23,750,000; and $21,650,000.

Critics wonder if Ryan was worth the investment based on his 1-4 postseason record. Then came last year’s 4-12 implosion, a drop-off which, in all fairness, was far beyond Ryan’s control.

Such skepticism about Ryan is often expressed on local talk radio or in the Twitter universe.

"I don’t worry about it too much," Ryan told ESPN.com. "I think it’s one of those things ... you understand playing this position, the stuff that comes with it. And that’s one of those things that comes with it.

"I’m a big believer in if you’re worrying about that stuff, you’re not worrying about the right stuff. I have to be concerned with what I’m doing on the field, what I’m doing in the weight room, and how I’m preparing myself in the meeting rooms. And I feel like if you do that stuff and you’re concentrating on improving in those areas, then all the other stuff ends up taking care of itself. And that’s kind of the way I’ve approached it."

Falcons coach Mike Smith bristled when asked about the increased scrutiny his quarterback faces based on the team’s hefty investment.

"Well, I don’t see added pressure," Smith said. "We’re all compensated. We have a job. Really, it’s nobody’s business, in my opinion, what a person makes. We don’t know what you make. We don’t know what other people make. And it really should be nobody’s business. But unfortunately, that’s not the way it is in the NFL.

"When you’re a starting quarterback in the NFL, it doesn’t really matter what your compensation is. You’re supposed to do the same thing regardless of what team you’re on: win. And the market is the market. I don’t really ever look at it and think about what the guy is being paid. We should focus on what we can control, and that’s doing the best we can to win."

Ryan realizes winning a Super Bowl could solidify his place among the league’s elite quarterbacks. The Falcons believe Ryan can guide them back to playoff contention, provided he remains upright. This is why they invested in the offensive line, bringing in free-agent right guard Jon Asamoah and drafting right tackle Jake Matthews.

Throw in the return of top receiver Julio Jones and an improved running game, and Ryan should have enough around him to get the Falcons back in the playoff conversation -- if the defense holds up.

However the season unfolds, the $100 million quarterback won’t put added pressure on himself.

"I dealt with that with my rookie contract, too," said Ryan, who initially signed a six-year, $72 million rookie deal that included $34.75 million guaranteed. "Coming in, it was the same kind of whatever you want to call it -- pressure. And I’ve been of the belief that if I just try and do my job, do my business the right way, work as hard as I possibly can, all that other stuff takes care of itself."

Smith appreciates Ryan’s approach.

"Matt doesn’t think about that stuff," Smith noted. "Like I’ve said, there are two people that are held responsible for wins and losses, and that’s the quarterback and the head coach.

"It doesn’t really matter what your salary is. That’s the way it is. And you’re held responsible for the outcomes. Unfortunately, you get credit when you win and you get [blamed] when you lose. But it’s all part of being a starting quarterback and head coach in the NFL."
At the conclusion of minicamp last week, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith gushed over the potential of rookie linebacker Prince Shembo, viewing him as player the coaches could shape and mold into a productive inside linebacker.

Shembo, who came from Notre Dame as an outside linebacker, appreciated the high praise.

"It feels good to hear it from the head man," he said. "But I can never be comfortable. I never will be comfortable. I'm going to keep on studying and keep on working. And that's the mentality I've had since I was little: Never feel too comfortable."

[+] EnlargePrince Shembo
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesPrince Shembo has been impressive in the team's offseason workouts.
The Falcons are trying to find their comfort level at inside linebacker following the loss of veteran Sean Weatherspoon to a season-ending Achilles tear. Although veteran Tim Dobbins was signed as added insurance, he is unlikely to be the guy the Falcons lean on. And although Joplo Bartu started 13 games last season and has been working alongside Paul Worrilow with the first team this offseason, the coaches would like to see more improvement from him.

Based on Smith's word, Shembo has a legitimate chance to win a starting job alongside Worrilow in the team's 3-4 base defense.

"We've got Prince Shembo, who we're very excited about," Smith said. "He's picked up the system very well. He doesn't have any experience, but we're going to give him a lot, I assure you that, in the preseason."

Shembo said understanding what everyone is doing around him has been the primary adjustment when it comes to moving from outside to inside. He steadily picked up on details as the offseason progressed. And Shembo constantly picked the brain of veteran Akeem Dent, who was traded to the Houston Texans last week in exchange for quarterback T.J. Yates.

"Akeem helped me out a lot on the field," Shembo said. "He knew the system. If I had any questions, I just went to him. When I first started [inside], I'd go to him and say, 'OK, Akeem, so what am I looking at? What I'm reading?' Then it was like, 'Do I fit out there? What happens if the receiver goes out in motion on this side?' Stuff constantly changes."

Shembo initially expected to come in and develop as one of the team's pass-rushing outside linebackers. He still could get his chance to get after the quarterback -- as a blitzer.

"The thing with me is, I try to blitz where it says on paper, but I'm starting to realize -- the more I saw it in practice -- that I just have to blitz where the hole is," Shembo explained. "On the paper it might say, 'Blitz the A-gap.' Sometimes, the A-gap might be closed. And in the beginning, I was just trying to force my way through there. Now, I just have to find the open window and take my opportunity."

If Shembo takes advantage of his opportunity, he could find himself in the lineup for the season opener against the New Orleans Saints.

"I can't say anything until I earn it," he said. "I need to come back here and get in that film room."
Dominique Davis figured he'd get a chance to compete in training camp to remain Matt Ryan's backup. He never anticipated that opportunity coming to an abrupt end this week.

The Falcons waived Davis on Thursday, one day after acquiring quarterback T.J. Yates from the Houston Texans in exchange for linebacker Akeem Dent.

"I didn't see that one coming," Davis told ESPN.com on Friday. "I mean, I saw the trade and all. I figured they'd bring in [Yates] to compete for the No. 2 during camp. But they went another way. And there's nothing I can do about it."

[+] EnlargeDominique Davis
AP Photo/John BazemoreDominique Davis joined the Falcons as an undrafted free agent out of East Carolina in 2012.
Davis knew his fate was sealed based on his limited reps during Thursday's final day of minicamp. After practice, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter walked Davis off the field and told him he needed to meet with general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith.

"They pretty much told me they brought [Yates] in to be the No. 2 and they're only going to carry two quarterbacks on the [53-man] roster," Davis said. "So, they just let me go. I guess I'm just the odd man out. ... I left on good terms, though. That's all I can do."

Davis joined the Falcons in 2012 as an undrafted free agent out of East Carolina. He made his NFL debut during last season's blowout loss at Tampa Bay, when he replaced Ryan but had to come out of the game after suffering a knee injury.

Although playing behind one of the league's top quarterbacks was a good spot, Davis said he never got complacent with his approach.

"I came in every day busting my ass," Davis said. "I was doing everything the right way.

"The only thing I thought was I wasn't going to get cut right now. I knew I had to compete for the job, but I thought I would be good through camp. I was no way being arrogant by saying, 'I'm already on the team.' I just had the feeling that, yes, I'm going to be in camp for the Falcons."

Regardless of how things ended, Davis appreciated the Falcons giving him an NFL opportunity in the first place.

"I'm very thankful for these guys putting me on the map," he said.

Davis credited Ryan for helping him grow as a quarterback and setting an example of how to be a true professional. The two were teammates in college as well, when Davis redshirted at Boston College during Ryan's senior campaign.

"Just being an overall leader, being consistent, being a pro on and off the field," Davis said of Ryan's influence. "Just being a blue-collar guy and representing the Falcons, representing your family, and representing yourself. Everything he does, that's what I want to be. That's the platform I'm trying to get on as far as being an NFL quarterback."

Davis now has to await the waiver system before becoming free to sign with any team. He should be in someone's camp in late July.

"For starters, I'm going to compete," Davis said of how he'd sell himself to another team. "That's the only thing I know, is to compete. I'm going to come in and work hard. I'm going to be the first person in the building and the last person to leave.

"I'm a leader by example. I'm not going to say I'm your vocal guy, but I can lead by example. And I'm just going to come and be the best player I can be and try to make the locker room stronger and help the team reach its goals."

The Falcons will enter training camp with four quarterbacks: Ryan, Yates, second-year player Sean Renfree and rookie Jeff Mathews.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Corey Peters could start training on the physically unable to perform list coming off an Achilles tear, while safety Zeke Motta's status for the 2014 season coming off neck surgery will be determined next month.

Both players were on the field working with the training staff during the last day of minicamp on Thursday. Peters did some light running, which appear to be a positive step in his goal to be ready for Week 1 of the regular season. He suffered the Achilles tear last December against the San Francisco 49ers.

"He has been running, but (Thursday) was probably the most extensive," coach Mike Smith said of Peters. "I can't answer if he's going to play in the preseason right now. He's ahead of schedule, but you've got to realize it was the end of December. Traditionally, it's a nine to 12 month recovery."

Asked if Peters could be on PUP for training camp, Smith responded, "Yes, that's a possibility. I'm not going to rule out that he's not going to be ready. And not going to rule out that something else happens. But we are very pleased with his progress. He is ahead of schedule right now and we're about seven months into it."

If Peters starts training camp on the active PUP list, he can be activated at any time. He would be able to dress for training camp practices but not allowed to participate.

If Peters starts the season on the reserve/PUP list, he would have to miss the first six weeks of the regular season. He would then have to start practicing by at least Week 11 in order to return.

The good thing for Peters is he doesn't have to be forced back into action too soon, based on the additions the Falcons made this offseason. The defensive line rotation will be fresher with Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai to count upon to be the run-stuffers and players such as Peters able to sub in to provide a little more push in the pass rush. Peters had five sacks last season, second on the team behind Osi Umenyiora (7.5).

As for Motta, having him back in the safety rotation would be a bonus. Motta underwent surgery Dec. 22 after suffering a cervical fracture against the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 8.

"Zeke has a follow-up appointment in July, and that's going to be the determination of when he'll be able to return to the field, if he'll return to the field this year," Smith said.

Top receiver Julio Jones expects to be a full participant in training camp coming off foot surgery, although he didn't participate in any offseason practices.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan will address the media Thursday, the last day of the team's three-day minicamp.

He'll talk about what the offense accomplished through the week. He'll praise the play of the players around him and probably single out impressive undrafted rookie receiver Bernard Reedy.

And Ryan certainly will have positive things to say about his new teammate, quarterback T.J. Yates, even if he's not too familiar with him. Yates was acquired in a trade with the Houston Texans on Wednesday in exchange for linebacker Akeem Dent.

Ryan
Ryan
Yates
Here's what Ryan should say: "With the revamped offensive line in front of me, I'm confident I'll play in all 16 games and the playoffs because we plan to be back in the postseason picture."

Yes, Yates makes for a cute storyline. He's the local player from Marietta, Georgia, who is coming home to add some stability behind Ryan. He earned a little name recognition as a rookie after helping Houston to a 31-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2011 playoffs -- the Texans' first-ever postseason win.

But if the Falcons have to turn to Yates, Dominique Davis, Sean Renfree, rookie Jeff Mathews or whomever the backup quarterback might be, they'll probably be in trouble.

The Falcons obviously weren't content with the backup situation. It was evident immediately after last season concluded. There were whispers about the need for a veteran quarterback. There was even talk about Luke McCown returning to the Falcons if he didn't re-sign with the Saints, but he stayed in New Orleans.

Head coach Mike Smith made those quarterback-depth concerns clearer this week when he declared the backup job "wide open" after Renfree got some second-team snaps. Davis had the role last season and got injured in the one game he played at Tampa Bay, when the Buccaneers routed the Falcons and the coaches pulled Ryan to keep him from getting killed.

The Falcons also knew they couldn't go through another season watching Ryan getting banged around like a pinball. That's why they spent money in free agency and brought in starting right guard Jon Asamoah. That's why they drafted Jake Matthews out of Texas A&M to start at right tackle.

Those investments, plus the hiring of offensive line coach Mike Tice to bring toughness up front, were all about keeping Ryan upright and healthy during the 2014 season.

Sure, it's great to have solid insurance. Maybe Yates will provide it, although he still has to come in and prove himself after losing out to Ryan Fitzpatrick in Houston. Whatever happens, acquiring an experienced quarterback with a playoff win under his belt in exchange for a linebacker who no longer seemed to be a key member of the defense was a worthwhile tradeoff.

It should be an interesting competition for the backup role, and Davis should come out firing Thursday, if he still has a chance to remain the backup.

But again, the focus for the Falcons should be all about Ryan. Experts such as former NFL executive and ESPN analyst Bill Polian believe Ryan is a Super Bowl away from joining the elite. The Falcons were one step away from the Super Bowl two years ago. If Ryan is healthy and protected and has his full arsenal of receivers, including Julio Jones, then the Falcons have a chance to extinguish last year's dismal 4-12 showing.

They shouldn't be counting on their backup plan.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The second day of the Atlanta Falcons' three-day minicamp got pretty interesting toward the end.

Left tackle Sam Baker, who missed a large part of last season with a knee injury, was red in the face coming off the field after a skirmish toward the end of practice. Apparently, Baker got into it with outside linebacker Jonathan Massaquoi, and a few others jumped in after it started.

When asked what happened, Baker said he didn't know. Baker and Massaquoi engaged in a little shoving match after the first minicamp practice on Tuesday.

The Falcons have preached all offseason about being bigger, tougher, and stronger. Maybe a little tension in practice isn't such a bad thing.

Head coach Mike Smith didn't exactly discourage it.

"Concern me? No," Smith said. "You want your guys to keep their composure, but there are going to be times that tempers flare. We talked about competition. We want it to be competitive. Thought it was a competitive practice."

Here are a few other items from Wednesday's practice plus five players to watch on Thursday's final day of minicamp:
  • William Moore was excused from Wednesday's practice for personal reasons, Smith said.
  • Robert McClain stepped in at right cornerback and made some plays with Desmond Trufant resting on the sideline. Trufant got some treatment on his calf during Tuesday's practice, so it must have lingered.
  • Undrafted receiver Bernard Reedy from Toledo continued to impress with his ability to dart down the field and catch the deep ball. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound speedster wowed some of his defensive teammates with a quick cut after a catch.
  • Tight end Levine Toilolo made a nice leaping grab in the red zone near the end of practice, showing the skills that should make him a legitimate scoring threat come the regular season.
  • Rookie outside linebacker Tyler Starr earned some praise from his veteran teammates for his relentless rush.
  • Nickel back Javier Arenas had an interception. Rookie safety Dez Southward also had one off a tipped pass.
  • Defensive line coach Bryan Cox was hard on outside linebacker Stansly Maponga throughout the day. That tells me Cox sees the potential in Maponga.
  • Roddy White, who is resting during minicamp, said he was barred from throwing passes to his fellow receivers during individual drills, as he did Tuesday. White joked that he would be bored for the rest of camp.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH THURSDAY

1. Josh Wilson, CB: The veteran is getting a chance to compete at the nickel back spot with McClain and Arenas. McClain and Arenas made their presence known the first two days. Now it's Wilson's turn.

2. Prince Shembo, ILB: The Falcons brought Jonathan Vilma in for a workout but didn't sign him or any other veteran. They obviously have faith in their young linebackers following Sean Weatherspoon's season-ending Achilles tear. Shembo might have the biggest upside of them all and needs to show it going into training camp.

3. Ra'Shede Hageman, DE: All the fans have asked about Hageman's progress, but he hasn't been too noticeable just yet. But that could be a good thing, too, because it means he's not making blatant mistakes, either.

4. Darius Johnson, WR: Johnson made a strong impression as an undrafted signee last year. With another undrafted receiver, Reedy, earning recognition, Johnson might want to step up his game so he's not forgotten.

5. Peter Konz, C: Konz was supposed to get a chance to compete for the starting job at center, but Joe Hawley is a lock, barring injury. Now the coaches are starting to give Mike Johnson reps at center. Konz already lost his starting job. Could he lose out as the backup, too?

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