Vick's hamstring among many issues facing Falcons

The Falcons are heading into the 2004 season with a number of issues hanging over them.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:51 AM ET
By Matt Winkeljohn | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

When the Falcons began training camp, they were a team -- not unlike several around the NFL every summer p- with heightened expectations boosted by the notion that a new head coach, some new players and a healthy quarterback can make big differences.

As the preseason drew to a close, they were a team with issues, some unforeseen, and some that might be considered predictable.

After finishing dead last in the league in total defense last season, the switch from a 3-4 to the 4-3 looks like a better match for their personnel. But they have age in their defensive line, where injuries have been an issue, and DT Ellis Johnson, who was among the game's top interior pass rushers the past two seasons, never showed up for work.

QB Michael Vick, who broke his right ankle in the preseason last year, only to watch the Falcons go 2-10 in games started by departed backups Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner, had some persnickety injuries slow him in August, too. That muddled the debate over whether the team's new West Coast offense will fit him, or he it.

New head coach Jim Mora has, not surprisingly to those who know him, remained notably upbeat. "We're right on track," he likes to say.

The question is, where will the tracks lead? If this team stays relatively healthy, it figures to have fewer problems scoring points than stopping opponents from doing the same. But since when can NFL teams count on staying healthy?

Quarterbacks: Vick has made it clear that he loathes the preseason, so it's difficult to judge a player's summer performance when he's not laying it on the line. "He's so intent on being 100 percent for (the season opener Sept. 12 at) San Francisco that he's being very, very careful about everything," Mora said. There's not much reason to think Vick won't make plays when games count, but can he complete the high percentage of passes the West Coast offense generally requires? Vick completed exactly 50 percent of his throws last season, and just over 52 percent in his first three pro seasons. New offensive coordinator Greg Knapp is accustomed to a percentage rate of about 61-62 percent. Early returns on rookie Matt Schaub, a third-round choice, were favorable. It helps that he played in a version of the West Coast offense in his first two college seasons. He'd better get ready fast. Thirteen-year veteran Ty Detmer has shown little this summer. Grade: B-minus.

Running backs: Warrick Dunn looks like a much better fit for this offense, both because he's quite accomplished as a receiver and because he's better than he often gets credit for being as a pass protector. OL coach Alex Gibbs' blocking scheme seems to fit his style, too. But coaches remain intrigued by T.J. Duckett, who's in the best shape of his career, and president and general manager Rich McKay continues to marvel that the Falcons were able to find multitalented second-year FB Justin Griffith in the fourth round in 2003. Grade: B-plus.

Receivers: Peerless Price and Atlanta's coaches believe that he will remind fans this year more of the receiver who caught 94 passes for Buffalo in '02 than the one who caught 64 last season. Price was immediately moved from split end to flanker, where he'll frequently be the Falcons' "move" receiver. Former Bear Dez White was installed as the starting split end in the spring, leaving former starter Brian Finneran behind Price. The addition of lanky Michael Jenkins, a first-rounder, offers depth behind White, and it wouldn't be a shock if he becomes a starter at some point. With the 6-foot-5 Finneran and 6-foot-4 Jenkins, Atlanta has size here. TE Alge Crumpler will be used more in space than last year and less as an in-line blocker. He battled a sprained knee early in camp. If he stays healthy, look out. Grade: B.

Offensive linemen: There's nobody on this unit who'll take your breath away; perhaps you've never heard of any of the starters. But Gibbs likes ORG Kynan Forney, even though at 307 pounds, he's bigger than Gibbs generally prefers his guards. Forney moves well, though, and he's feisty. OTs Kevin Shaffer and Todd Weiner are better in pass protection than run blocking, which is the opposite of what Gibbs generally strives for, but they're agile, which he likes. C Todd McClure is heady. The OLG position remains up for grabs, with journeyman Michael Moore holding a slight lead over hard-charging Roberto Garza, who began camp as the backup center. Grade: C-plus.

Defensive linemen: At a minimum, DEs Patrick Kerney and Brady Smith, who both go about 275 pounds, should benefit from playing wider in the 4-3. Smith, though, missed about three weeks of the preseason because of a bone bruise in his right knee, and Kerney missed the first two preseason games because of a groin strain and then a sprained right knee. The only depth of note at end is provided by 32-year-old Travis Hall, who's had injury issues in recent years. NT Ed Jasper is quite the battler, but at 31, he's had injury problems, too. Rookie DT Chad Lavalais, like free-agent signee Rod Coleman, has cut considerable weight in recent months. He'll be needed at both inside spots, although Coleman's been rock-solid to date. Grade: C-plus.

Linebackers: Pro Bowler Keith Brooking, who moved from inside to the weak-side spot, is best in space, which is where he'll be now, unless something happens to starting MLB Chris Draft, who missed significant portions of camp on two occasions with asthma issues. Draft's backup, Jamie Duncan, is out with a torn pectoral muscle; he's waiting to see if it will heal without surgery. Matt Stewart is steady and perhaps underrated on the strong side. Depth is an issue, although fourth-rounder Demorrio Williams has gotten off to a supersonic start - so much so that if Draft goes down, Brooking may go to the middle, and the superspeedy but light (220 pounds) Williams into the starting lineup. There's no shortage of speed in this group. Grade: B-minus.

Defensive backs: Former 49er Jason Webster (5-foot-9) and first-round pick DeAngelo Hall (5-foot-10) sure aren't big. But Mora absolutely raves about the way Webster battles, and Hall is incredibly confident for a rookie. Unfortunately, Hall suffered a fractured hip in the Cincinnati preseason game and is expected to miss six to 10 weeks, leaving the Falcons' secondary thin. Nickel back Kevin Mathis, ninth-year veteran Aaron Beasley and Tod McBride are the contenders to replace Hall. McBride, who started the second half of last season, can't seem to get a balky knee to work right. FS Cory Hall is steady but not spectacular. He may actually play up in the box more than most free safeties. SS Bryan Scott, drafted in the second round last year as a cornerback by former head coach Dan Reeves, has the potential to be memorable. Depth is problematic at safety too, but Mathis and Beasley have both played some at safety, offering versatility. Grade: C.

Special teams: PK Jay Feely is on a mission to improve upon a season that was not so bad last year, but clearly a step below his campaign of 2002, when he set several franchise records. It helps that he's got a strong enough leg to handle kickoffs, too. P Chris Mohr has been in the league forever, but he's still a master at getting great hang time. Special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis is still with the team, and he's got it going on. It's not clear yet how the return game will shake down, but reserve CB Allen Rossum almost certainly will not be the full-time kickoff- and punt-return man, like last year. He was outstanding on punts in '03 but below average on kickoffs. DeAngelo Hall will get some work on punt returns, and Jenkins might factor in the return game. Woody Dantzler has a shot at these spots if he makes the team as the fifth or sixth receiver after being switched from running back. Grade: B-plus.

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