Tag:Michael Koenen
Posted on: May 13, 2010 2:59 am

what we learned from minicamp

The first thing that jumps out about the rookies is that 2010 is looking like the deepest draft year we've seen in a long time.  I haven't finalized a list of the top 32 or 35 names for a "mock eighth round" yet, but I do believe that the top undrafted prospects this year will have more NFL success than the sixth or seventh rounders from 2007 or 2005.  Maybe even better than the fifth rounders.

For the Falcons, even the tryout kids looked good in minicamp.  The top two made the grade and got signed.  More might have been signed, but the team only had two available roster spots.

One of those was SW DeKalb / University of Richmond QB Eric Ward.  I posted the NFL Draft Scout dot com blurb on him in the misc notes thread before minicamp.   He needs to work on going through his reads faster, learning the offense, etc, but he has all the attributes you'd want in a QB project -  strong arm, pretty good accuracy, leadership (led Richmond to the FCS national championship in 2008), etc, etc.

The odd thing is that the Falcons now have five QBs on the roster.  It's not surprising for teams to carry four heading into training camp, but five is a little unusual.  If all five are still around at the end of July, it's likely that the team will have two sets of two working drills with the WRs while the fifth works with the RBs or TEs.

The alternative...  this could be the end of the line for D.J. Shockley.  He may once again be competing for his football life during OTAs.

Early call:  Ward makes the practice squad.

Dan Klecko is indeed working with the RBs, at least for now.  If that continues during OTAs, he's a real contender for the #2 FB spot (formerly held by Verron Haynes). 

There are three candidates for that #5 spot in the offensive backfield.  Klecko is a pure fullback (outside of the fact that he also plays on the defensive line).  Antone Smith is a pure running back.  Dimitri Nance is a Jason Snelling-like hybrid.  Smith and Nance are both strong prospects, and Klecko has a few Superbowl rings for his past work at fullback.

Early call:  it's a three way toss-up.  Give the initial edge to Nance for his versatility, but any of the three could take the job.  In training camp, Nance and Smith will have to show they can block.

It's not just Kerry Meier and Ryan WolfeBrandyn Harvey and Tim Buckley (the Alcorn State QB that the Falcons are playing at WR) will also be people to watch in camp.  And the returning Falcons prospects (Eric Weems, Troy Bergeron, Andy Strickland) are stepping up their own game in the face of the added competition. 

Atlanta had a whole bunch of prospects in camp last year to try to replace Laurent Robinson.  It didn't go so well, and the front office was already working out free agents even before Harry Douglas got hurt. 

This year's group may not be speed demons, but they have great hands.  They also have good size:  Harvey is 6-4, 205.  Wolfe is 6-2, 210.  Meier is 6-2, 224.  Added bonus:  Mularkey might be able to work in some trick plays or Wildcat stuff with them, as Meier and Buckley are both former QBs.

Early call:  Weems gets replaced.  Meier makes the roster.  If Harvey, Wolfe and Buckley show something in the preseason games, Brian Finneran gets replaced too. 

Not too much to say about the offensive and defensive lines, as minicamp and OTAs are strictly non-contact.  We won't get a real look at their skills until training camp opens at the end of July.

The one thing I will note about the offensive linemen is that these guys are BIG.  The days of the Alex Gibbs zone-blocking scheme are obviously long gone.  I won't knock it - that system was the ONLY way the team could have gone in 2004 to have a chance of being competitive up front.   It paid off, as that team went 11-5 and made it to the NFC Championship game.  But even Bobby Petrino knew we had to get bigger up front once that system was out the door. 

No more 285 pound tackles or 275 pound centers.  Our starting five:   Sam Baker lists at 6-5, 312.  Justin Blalock = 6-4, 333.  Todd McClure = 6-1, 301.  Harvey Dahl = 6-5, 308.  Tyson Clabo = 6-6, 332.  Backups:  Garrett Reynolds = 6-7, 310.  Mike Johnson = 6-5, 312.  Quinn Ojinnaka = 6-5, 305.  Will Svitek = 6-6, 300.   Jose Valdez (guard prospect) = 6-6, 310.

The only players under 6-4 or under 300 pounds are the backup centers and center prospects.  And even they are bigger than the centers we had in the past.  Brett Romberg and Joe Hawley are 298 and 297 pounds.  A few years ago, McClure had to bulk up just to get up to 290.

Early call:  we keep nine linemen, just like last season and the start of the 2008 season.  Unless someone gets hurt, the starters will be the same as last year.  Garrett Reynolds, Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley take three of the four backup spots.   I'll give Quinn Ojinnaka the early nod for the last spot, beating out Will Svitek and Brett Romberg.

It was meaningless without contact, but Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann showed some intensity during minicamp.  They know the team is counting on them to join John Abraham as a trio of pass rush DEs.  As had been reported earlier, Jamaal Anderson has bulked up a bit for more duty as a swing DE/DT.  He's still listed at 283, but best guess is that he's now around 290-292.

Early call:  the roster will have the same five DEs as last year.  Jamaal will still be the "official" starter, but don't read too much into that - it only means he'll be out there for the first play at 1st and 10.  Beer Man and El Sid will get the bulk of the pass rush reps.

Not much to say about the DT spots.  Peria Jerry did some rehab work but was limping afterwards.  Jonathan Babineaux was held out with a shoulder problem.  Thomas Johnson got banged up in one session and was held out of two others.  And it's already May and we haven't heard a peep about Babs' case going to trial.  His suspension is a certainty, but it might not come at the start of the year.  That would make things really, really awkward for the coaching staff at the DT spots. 

Early call:  the team will keep telling us Jerry is right on schedule with his rehab work and will be ready for the start of training camp.  But when July 29 comes around, they'll have him take it easy for the first week and may even sit him out the first preseason game. 

If the commish waits until after the trial to suspend Babs, we go with four DTs.  Only one of Trey Lewis, Thomas Johnson, and Vance Walker will make the initial roster.  Lewis would be the most likely if he plays like he's healthy, but he'll have to step it up and prove himself.  So I'll give the early nod to Walker instead.

At linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon worked some at both OLB spots in minicamp and did well for his first time out.  Spencer Adkins and Robert James stepped up strongly too. 

Last year's trio of undrafted LB prospects (Derek Nicholson, Brock Christopher, Rashad Bobino) didn't make the practice squad.  Bear Woods and Weston Johnson hope to do better this year.  Woods may be the most interesting personality of this year's rookie prospects.  He wants to become a minister after his football days are over.

Here's a good look at why he's nicknamed "Bear"...

Early call:  Mike Peterson's roster spot is safe, as he's the best candidate for the #2 MLB spot as well as rotating at either OLB spot.  But 'Spoon likely starts right away.  If Adkins and James keep it up, the coaches may use the last at-large roster spot to keep all seven LBs.

I was very happy that the team re-signed Brian Williams.  I noted at the time that his real value isn't at CB but as extra depth at safety.  (Hmmm... would you rather have Williams or Charlie Peprah as your #4?)  

Later, the Falcons signed Matt Giordano in free agency, drafted Shann Schillinger, and signed prospects Rafael Bush and Gabe Derricks as undrafted free agents.  That fourth safety spot will be a nice battle during training camp.

It's tough to say whether this year's group of contenders for the #4 spot is better than last year's group (which included returning safeties Antoine Harris and Jamaal Fudge, plus prospects Marcus Paschal and Eric Brock).  They're competing for a spot that will hopefully be a fixture on the inactive list.

But there's an odd similarity in that the most experienced contender is a CB who also plays safety and who is attempting to return from injury.  This year it's Williams.  Last year, it was Von Hutchins.

Giordano is the only one of this year's crop after Williams that has any NFL experience at all.  Dimitroff is really stoked about Schillinger, noting he's "a safety slash special teams guy with a lot of speed and a lot of toughness".   D-Led is really big on prospect Rafael Bush.  And D-Led has been right more often than not lately, so I have to take him seriously and keep an eye on his guy.

Early call:  Schillinger beats out Giordano and makes the roster.  Williams won't be ready to go in September and will get the injury waiver just like Hutchins did last season. 

Things only get interesting at CB if someone gets hurt or if Williams shows up healthy for camp and can make all the changes of direction required at cornerback.  Otherwise, there are seven other CBs on the roster to fill five positions.  Two of them are undrafted free agents:  Dominique Daniels and Daylan Walker, the other walk-on from minicamp that got signed.

Early call:  without Williams being 100%, it's a no-brainer.  Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes, Chris Owens, Chevis Jackson, Dominique Franks take the five roster spots.  Daniels and Walker are simply competing to make it to training camp. 

Too early to say anything yet on the specialists.  Michael Koenen has his spot locked up already, but the long snapper and place kicker spots are up for grabs.

Early call:  I'll give the May nod to Justin Drescher at long snapper just to get his name out there.  He really is a contender to make the roster, while incumbent Joe Zelenka was really only our #3 choice last season.  And I'll roll with Steven Hauschka at PK, just to point out to D-Led that Matt Bryant isn't a shoo-in and to note that rookie Garrett Lindholm will have to step up and win the job.  It isn't his for the taking.  But in truth, the jobs could go to any of the three kickers and either of the long snappers. 

There are candidates all over the board for the last roster spot.  It could easily be a seventh LB, tenth DB, sixth WR, tenth offensive lineman, tenth defensive lineman, or sixth RB/FB.  The player will make the roster mainly for his performance on special teams.  It won't get as much attention from the local media as the battle for the 4th safety spot, 4th DT spot, etc, but it may be the most strongly contested spot on the entire roster.

Early call:  I'll make life easier on the coaches and go with Robert James as a seventh linebacker, beating out the extra DT or offensive lineman.   The other likely contenders are Shann Schillinger (if Matt Giordano wins the #4 safety spot) or an extra WR out of Wolfe / Harvey / Buckley / Bergeron.

Bottom line...  the main thing I noted about the roster heading into 2009 was that it was the deepest Falcons roster I could remember.  They needed every bit of that depth.

And since no one left in free agency and only long snapper Mike Schneck retired, this year's roster moves and drafts have all been for upgrades rather than mere replacements.   The 2010 roster will be even deeper than last year's version.  That's just plain scary.

Posted on: January 27, 2010 12:46 pm

Five OTHER offseason Falcons issues...

The short version of the CBA talks =  nothing's happening.  At least nothing good.  We're now 90% likely (and rising) to have 2010 as an uncapped year.  (We're also starting to feel the possibility of a lockout/strike in 2011.   It's getting ugly.)

But...  if we assume that we will actually have NFL Football in 2011, the odds are that the new deal will restore the salary cap system regardless of which side "wins".   This uncapped year is probably a one shot deal.  That's something teams will have to consider when approaching this year's free agency market.

Now that the draft season is underway, the chatter regarding the Falcons usually centers around the cornerback and defensive end positions and the first round draft pick. 

Those are fun discussions, but there are other areas occupying the minds of Atlanta's front office and coaching staff as well.  They've already started on two of them at the staff level by replacing the secondary coach and sacking the head trainer. 

We're now within five weeks of the start of free agency, so the real roster changes around the league will begin soon.  With that in mind, here are five roster issues facing our Falcons that have NOT received much attention yet:

(1)  Backup quarterback.    Other positions are more popular topics of conversation, but for the next five weeks no spot on the roster is more important than the #2 QB. 

Chris Redman is an unrestricted free agent.  He had one rough outing but put in a respectable performance this season.  He demonstrated that he's capable of stepping in at a moment's notice and running the offense effectively. 

To put his 2009 performance in context, he finished the season with a higher QB rating (78.4) than many other better known backup and even starting quarterbacks - including Chad Pennington, Derek Anderson, Daunte Culpepper, Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller, Matt Leinart, Trent Edwards, Jay Cutler, Jake Delhomme, Matt Hasselbeck, JaMarcus Russell, Kerry Collins, Todd Collins, and Charlie Frye.

In other words, he's a legit candidate for ANY team wanting a solid #2 - and he's a better option than many teams have as starters.  If he decides to test the waters to learn his real market value rather than re-sign early, he WILL attract interest from around the league. 

That leaves us with a big, big problem.  John Parker Wilson and D.J. Shockley are our only backups under contract, and neither has played a single NFL game. 

ALTERNATIVES:   The Falcons would want a veteran presence.  If Wilson or Shockley could somehow emerge and become the #2, that's fine - but the team would still want experience for the #3.  Unfortunately, nothing out there jumps out as a better alternative than re-signing Redman.  He already knows the offensive scheme.  He's familiar with the receivers here.  And he's proven that he CAN step in and run Mularkey's scheme.  That might be an issue with any other potential #2 out there. 

So, let's hope our front office decides to throw enough money at Redman to keep him from testing the open market.

(2)  Punter.   Michael Koenen is a gem.  But he's also the second highest paid punter in the NFL (behind only Shane Lechler, who signed a multi-year deal last season to remain with the Raiders), and the Falcons have already used the franchise tag once to hang on to him.  That's pretty scary when you consider he hasn't even hit true free agency yet.

The guy is fabulous.  But the question is whether we can justify spending $2.7 million or more on a punter. 

If so, now would be a GREAT time to lock him in with a long term deal, since the team could front-load the contract and avoid most of the cap hit in future seasons after the next CBA kicks in.  

And if not, now is an equally good time to start looking at cheaper alternatives, so that the extra money could be used to sign guys at other positions.  There are plenty of adequate punters out there that could be had for $500k or less. 

ALTERNATIVES:  punter is one of the few positions where you really don't mind going with a rookie.  The playbook isn't particularly thick.  There will be several undrafted free agents this April, and there are still plenty of candidates from last year floating around.

But just for giggles, allow me to be the first to tell you about a certain 32-year old rookie free agent who is available right now.  His name is Anthony Rocca. 

Sound familiar?  His brother (Saverio Rocca) is currently the punter for the Eagles.  And like his older brother Sav, Anthony Rocca has made his career up to now playing Aussie Rules.

I've been wondering for years if this guy would hang up the boots and come to the U.S.  He has by far the strongest leg of any of the Australian players that have made the switch.  And when the AFL season wrapped up in September, he finally did announce his retirement - and has reportedly been training in American football since then, intending to follow Sav to the NFL.

He'll make a GREAT punter for somebody.  Sav Rocca and Ben Graham are both doing fairly well, and he's got a much, much better leg than either of them.  

(3)  Offensive line depth.    I have not heard this first-hand from the Nasty Boys themselves, but I'm told that Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl aren't thrilled with this year-by-year tender stuff.  It's not the money that's rubbing them the wrong way.  It's the uncertainty over whether they're really part of the team's plans for 2011 and beyond.  RFA tender offers are only one year contracts. 

And consider the rest of the unit, which featured just nine total players on the main roster.  Key backup Quinn Ojinnaka is another "limbo" restricted free agent likely to be tendered this season.  Justin Blalock, Will Svitek and Brett Romberg all have contracts that expire after 2010.  Todd McClure isn't getting any younger.

So if the Falcons tender the three RFAs now, we could be facing a nearly complete turnover of our line - including the backups - after the end of the 2010 season.  While it's not an immediate crisis, it's a serious issue that the team should start to handle immediately.

Are the Nasty Boys the long term future of our right side?  If so, sign them to long term deals and get it out of the way. 

ALTERNATIVES:   if our coaching staff views The Village Idiots (Boudreau's nickname for Atlanta's line) as merely stop-gap measures until better players can take over, the tender thing really is the way to go for now.  It would work, but the O-line would have to be a serious draft priority, with at least one early round and one late round prospect joining the fold.

I suspect our braintrust is happy with Clabo/Dahl and that at some point this year we'll hear about efforts to lock them in long term.  And personally, I'd still like to see how they'd do if they switched places, using Clabo's size at guard and Dahl's agility at tackle. 

(4)  Life without Babs?    The 2009 Falcons were much improved at DT in spite of losing Peria Jerry after only two weeks.  Thomas Johnson became the team's Out Of Nowhere man, beginning the year as a futures contract prospect and finishing it as a starter.  Vance Walker improved throughout camp, earned a promotion from the practice squad to the regular roster, and ended up performing well with significant playing time.  Trey Lewis wasn't in top form, but he worked his way back into action after a pair of major knee reconstruction surgeries. 

But the clear star of the Falcons defensive line this season was Jonathan Babineaux.  Babs was banged up for much of the season yet started every game, notched 47 total tackles (second among the d-linemen in spite of the bad shoulder), and led the team with 6 sacks.

There's just one catch... he's now facing a felony possession charge.  Depending on the outcome of his legal case, the team may be without him for at least half the season.   Even if he's acquitted, he's likely to face at least a four game suspension under the league's controlled substance policy. 

If the team is planning on releasing him, they haven't given any indication of yet.  Quite the contrary - Dimitroff's comments in one press session suggest that Babs has a future here in Atlanta.   All the same, the Falcons will have to make preparations now for a potential lengthy suspension.

Everyone else in the DT group has question marks too.  Was Johnson a one-year flash that has already reached his maximum potential?  Will Peria Jerry be able to return to form after his injury?  And after getting hurt three times last summer, can he stay healthy for a season?  Is Walker ready for starting duty?  Will Lewis step up and play like the beast he was before his 2007 injury?

ALTERNATIVES:  the best bet is probably to stand pat and simply rearrange the roles of various players if needed.  The Falcons play a three man rotation at DT.  They have four candidates in hand, not counting the DEs taking reps in the middle on passing downs.  So while Babs would be a noticeable loss, there are at least enough bodies available to continue without him.  They aren't stars, but they're at least competent when healthy.

And the remaining DTs have enough versatility that any two could be paired together.  Peria Jerry was the starting NT, but he really has the build and skill set of a three-technique under tackle.  Trey Lewis clearly has the NT build, but he also filled in at UT when Rod Coleman was out early in the 2007 season.  Thomas Johnson can fill in at either DT position.  Vance Walker hasn't been asked to play NT yet, but he probably could if needed.

Scary thought:  If Trey Lewis steps up this year and Peria Jerry is fully recovered by the start of the season (both Smitty and Dimitroff have said they expect him back), they might play some in tandem -  giving us the Jerry-Lewis DT line.  (Insert rim shot here.)

If so... Lewis would command a double-team.  So would Jerry.  That would make it difficult to contain John Abraham and Kroy Biermann on the ends, and it would make blitzing a lot easier for the linebackers or the nickel corner.

In other words, keep your fingers crossed that they're both at full speed in training camp.  They could make our pass rush surprisingly effective next season.  Lewis really was a monster early in his rookie year, and we saw what a difference having Jerry in the middle made for Abe and Biermann in the season opener.

(5)  WE NEED A KICKER.    We can talk about the inexperienced cornerbacks and the lack of pass rush all day long.  But we all know that the failures in the kicking game cost us a few wins and made the difference in the Falcons not making the playoffs. 

No other single position on the roster needs to be addressed this offseason more than place kicker.  It isn't necessarily hard to address or expensive in terms of contract or draft picks. 

But the Falcons have no area of need that is more important.  They MUST solve this problem.

Smitty noted in the postseason press conference that when the team signed Matt Bryant and Steven Hauschka, both were signed for 2010 as well as the remainder of 2009.  Well gosh, that's great.  Between the two of them we'll certainly have our kicker, right?

Bryant has only made 16 of 26 field goals from 40-49 yards over the last four seasons.  He went 0 for 2 from that range after replacing Jason Elam.  Oh, and he'll turn 35 in May.

The Ravens let Hauschka go in midseason when his accuracy proved to be only marginally better than that of Elam.  With two half-seasons (eight games last year, nine this year) of experience, he's an unproven commodity and is off to a really shaky start. 

He might come through with more experience.  After all, Matt Prater turned out okay - which is why the Broncos let Elam slip away to us in the first place.  Hauschka has a strong leg and would be able to handle kickoff duty as well as field goal attempts.  The question is whether the 2010 Falcons should be the team that serves as his proving grounds.

Since they're both under contract, we might as well give them both a shot at winning the job in camp.  But the Falcons need to bring in someone else as well.

ALTERNATIVES:   While teams carry only one kicker during the season, they typically use two or even three in the offseason.  Until September, that makes it tougher to bring in many of the street free agents on the verge of breaking through and sticking on a roster.   And those Aussie Rules guys are punters, not place kickers.  Can't help you there...

The best bet will probably be to use the seventh round compensatory pick - or even bite the bullet and use the sixth round pick - on one of the top kicking prospects in the draft.  Three of them (Alabama's Leigh Tiffen, Michigan State's Brett Swenson, and Ohio State's Aaron Pettrey) have been invited to the Combine.  A few others (such as Hunter Lawrence from Texas and Joshua Shene from Ole Miss) will get serious attention during their Pro Day workouts.

Most teams prefer not to use draft picks on specialists, but the Falcons otherwise have very few holes to fill on the roster.  With potentially eight picks in hand, the team can afford to use a late pick (the last compensatory pick is likely to be in the #230-240 overall range)on the position that might have put them into the postseason this year.

Posted on: November 30, 2008 11:35 am

looking ahead to 2009

As the 2008 regular season winds down, more and more posts on the Falcons message board are looking ahead to free agency and the draft, sizing up the team's likely targets and areas of need.

One key thing to remember:  this is one of the youngest teams in the NFL this decade, not just this season.  The Falcons have 31 players - including 11 starters - that are age 26 or younger.  This is important for two reasons. First, many of these young guys are still developing and will improve naturally with experience.  A few areas that might be perceived as weak points for the team may not be liabilities next season.  Those positions wouldn't necessarily be targets for the draft, because the newly drafted players would have to go through the same growing pains as our current players did last year and this year.

Second, every player coming in next season will have to replace someone currently on the roster. We don't have a whole lot of guys who are likely to retire, we really don't have that many free agents in key roles, and Dimitroff is working to sign our potential free agents early to avoid having them hit the open market. The team will have quite a few currently injured guys returning, plus we have more solid prospects on our practice squad than most teams. I'm expecting at least 10 players from those lists to be with the Falcons in minicamp next season and competing for roster spots.

So if you'd like to play GM and start designing your 2009 roster, keep those players in mind.

Here's a rundown by unit:

Quarterback:  Ryan, Redman, Shockley.  No issues there at all, and all three are under contract for 2009.  Feels nice, doesn't it?  One catch - both Redman and Shockley are free agents after next season. Expect the team to pick up a fourth guy for camp next year to compete with them and perhaps a developmental project for the practice squad.

Running back / fullback:  Turner, Mughelli, Norwood, Snelling, Brown, Barclay.  The team is likely to carry five players in this unit.  Snelling was a hybrid RB/FB who dropped some weight this season to focus on the RB role - but ended up with the FB#2 duty as well as the RB#3 role.  With Brown returning, he may bulk back up to focus on fullback.

Receiver / tight end:  White, Jenkins, Hartsock, Robinson, Douglas, Peelle, Finneran, Zinger, Rader, Weems, Chandler Williams, Noriaki Kinoshita.  The WR side of this unit is loaded with Jenkins already re-signed.  The only question is whether the team will keep five or six on the roster next season. 

Tight end will be a significant issue.  The team doesn't have a true receiving tight end, and Mularkey will likely want an upgrade for a blocker.  Note that Peelle is a free agent at the end of the season.  Zinger, like all practice squad players, is a free agent even now.  Rader is a stop-gap who is in his third stint with the team this season.  Best guess:  the team will aim for three TEs on the roster next season.  Re-signing Peelle is likely but won't be considered a top priority.  Likely scenario = Hartsock + drafted TE + Peelle.

Offensive line:  Baker, Blalock, McClure, Dahl, Clabo, Ojinnaka, Wilkerson, Stepanovich, Weiner, Batiste, Foster, McCoy. Wilkerson (center/guard) is a free agent, while Dahl and Clabo are restricted free agents. Gandy will also be available if needed but isn't likely to return.

This unit has a lot of what-ifs.  Let's simplify it with a kind of worst-case scenario. Suppose that Clabo, Dahl, and Wilkerson all sign elsewhere. In that case, the Falcons still have Baker, Blalock, and McClure starting on the left side and at center, with Stepanovich holding down the backup center role.

Weiner has played fairly well in spite of being far from 100% back from his rehab. He'll be better next season after another winter of rest and rehab.  Ojinnaka can play either guard spot or either tackle spot and is ready to step up as a starter. Batiste, Foster, and McCoy would all challenge for the first-unit jobs.

That's nine solid prospects already in house.  The team would be in pretty good shape even without anyone else.  If we could hang on to at least one of Clabo or Dahl, it would be a sweet bonus. The coaching staff may elect to bring in someone new via free agency or the draft to add competition, but it certainly shouldn't be considered a weakness or a top priority. 

Defensive end:  Abraham, Anderson, Davis, Biermann, Fraser, Evans.  Abraham, Anderson, and Biermann appear to be locks.  Chauncey Davis is a free agent.  He'll get attention from other teams, and keeping him may be difficult if he isn't signed before he hits the open market on March 1. Evans is a practice squad prospect hoping to break through and win a regular roster spot as a backup. 

A late rounder here for competition is a strong possibility, but the spot might also be handled on the cheap in free agency. In particular, if Brandon Miller becomes available again at the end of the season, there's a strong chance Atlanta will bring him back.

Defensive tackle:  Babineaux, Moorehead, Lewis, Jefferson, Parker, Grady Jackson.  The nose tackle will be a high priority position for this offseason.  The team is well stocked at UT with Babineaux and Moorehead.  But with Grady likely to retire (and not capable of playing every down even if he returns), the team needs answers in the form of run-stuffing big men.  Lewis may become the starter, but that still leaves an opening as his backup. 

The only in-house candidate is practice squad signing J'Vonne Parker.  It's possible that they may be the guys for the job, but Vital and Dimitroff are almost certain to bring in some new blood.  I've mentioned it before, but it's worth repeating. For Smitty's defensive scheme to work here, we have to have the big men in place.  We don't necessarily have to have a 350-pound Jabba The Lineman, but a pair of guys in the 320 ballpark would help the entire defense.

At the moment, when Grady is off the field we have nobody on the line that even tops 300.  In run situations, the opposing offense can match up one on one on our linemen, leaving one offensive lineman plus a tight end and a lead blocker free to block the linebackers.  That's a big part of why our safeties lead the team in tackles.  It puts extra pressure on the safeties to make plays against the run, which leaves them vulnerable to play fakes.  That in turn leaves the corners vulnerable.  We've had a lot of big play passes against us where the young corners appeared to have been burned but were actually playing their double coverage assignments - expecting help from safeties who weren't there.  It may seem odd, but a key to getting improved play from Brooking, Boley, Coleman, Grimes, Houston, and Chevis Jackson is to get the nose tackle resolved so that everybody else can focus on their own jobs rather than having to cover for our lack of size in the middle of the front line.

Linebacker:  Boley, Lofton, Brooking, Nicholas, Wire, Gilbert, James. The only four bodies locked in for 2009 are Brooking, Lofton, Nicholas, and James. The team has not kept a linebacker on the practice squad at all this season.  James returns from IR next season, but he's a prospect that hasn't played a single snap.  He'll be the equivalent of a newly drafted player.    

Suffice to say this unit will need extra depth even if Boley re-signs. Wire has played well and can also play safety in an emergency.  Look for the team to try to retain him.

Secondary:  Houston, Foxworth, Hutchins, Jackson, Grimes, Irons, Coleman, Milloy, Decoud, Harris, Fudge, Brock, Sharpe.  This will be an interesting unit to watch.  It is overloaded with bodies already, but there are still depth issues. Milloy and Foxworth are free agents while Fudge is a restricted free agent. Hutchins will return from IR, making the CB side very crowded.  The wild card is Foxworth.  He was acquired mainly as an insurance policy but has quickly developed into our best defender.  If the team can re-sign him, the primary CB spots will be held by Houston, Foxworth, and Hutchins at the start of minicamp, with Jackson, Grimes and Irons competing to take those jobs away and also to hang on to what will probably be two roster spots.  Someone will have to go even if the team doesn't pick up anyone new in free agency.

Safety will be the greater concern.  The team drafted Decoud to groom as the heir apparent to Milloy, and they already released Daren Stone and Deke Cooper to save a roster spot for the third rounder.  The whisper in the wind is that he probably won't be ready to step in as a starter next season. That makes it more likely the team will give Milloy an extension or bring in another safety, probably via free agency rather than the draft. And just like at cornerback, the wild card is Foxworth. The coaches may try to solve several problems at once by moving him to safety. 

Specialists:  Elam, Koenen, Schneck.  Koenen will be a free agent.  He is one of the more precise and reliable punters out there, and since he also kicks off, the team is very likely to re-sign him rather than try to replace him.


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