Nearly 2 1/2 years after Arthur Blank hired him as president-general manager, Rich McKay has backed up a promise to upgrade the Falcons’ defense.
Keith Brooking and Patrick Kerney are the only starters remaining from the disheveled group he inherited. The Falcons’ last three off-seasons — their combined efforts in free agency, trades and the draft — landed nine starters and eight important backups.
“When you looked at the defense, it did require a little bit more overhaul from a personnel standpoint that fit what we were going to be (in), a 4-3 (scheme),” McKay said Sunday. “I would hope when we get to the season that the rebuilding of that unit will be in place.”
Not including the $13 million that was guaranteed cornerback DeAngelo Hall, Atlanta committed nearly $46 million in bonuses to bring in John Abraham, Rod Coleman, Ed Hartwell, Lawyer Milloy and Jason Webster as starters. A trade with Cleveland landed starting free safety Chris Crocker.
Webster’s starting status probably won’t last long. After trading up 10 picks in Saturday’s second round, the Falcons drafted Virginia Tech cornerback Jimmy Williams to lock down the right side of the field opposite Hall.
Sacks, fumbles and interceptions fell off last year, but the main reason Atlanta fell to 22nd in total defense was its sagging performance against the run. The problems only grew worse after right end Brady Smith injured his foot and played his last game in Week 7.
Abraham, Milloy, Williams, Crocker and a healthy Hartwell should elevate the level of intensity. Now, if the defense can avoid major injuries, the Falcons believe they have identified and hired the people they need to make plays.
“I’m hoping we can put the pieces in place,” McKay said. “I think we’ve done it with a combination of youth and veterans. The point of that is not that the personnel was not good, but it (was) a scheme change. As soon as your scheme changes, you have guys that truly don’t fit. That will show up over time, and it did.”
The Falcons didn’t enter this draft looking for immediate help, but when cornerback Jimmy Williams was still on the board early in the second round, they moved quickly to land him.
To entice Green Bay to swap the 37th overall pick for the 47th, general manager Rich McKay sent the Packers a third-round choice Atlanta had acquired in the three-way trade with Denver and the New York Jets to acquire Abraham.
Doing so left the Falcons with just five picks, but McKay looks at the big picture of the off-season and likes what he sees.
“Any time you are not in the first round, you have the impression from media nationally that you weren’t even in the draft,” McKay said. “We feel good that we had our off-season goal to shore up what we thought were some pretty obvious needs on defense.”
After using nine of 15 picks in 2004-05 on defense, McKay committed just one this time. Williams was an exception for the Falcons in that he can start this season.
The other players — running back Jerious Norwood (third round), tackle Quinn Ojinnaka (fifth), wide receiver Adam Jennings (sixth) and quarterback D.J. Shockley (seventh) — will all be role players at best this year.
A closer look at the Falcons’ picks:
Round 2/37 — Jimmy Williams, CB, 6-2, 213, Virginia Tech
Maybe a penchant for talking pushed Williams out of the first round and made him the fourth player taken at his position. The Falcons don’t care. They’re just glad they could get him. At 6-foot-2, 213 pounds, he remains a cornerback. Mora said the team has no intention of moving Williams to safety, even though he’s excellent in run support.
Round 3/79 — Jerious Norwood, RB, 5-11, 204, Mississippi State
Warrick Dunn’s level of productivity at running back has been impressive enough in Alex Gibbs’ zone-blocking schemes that he could keep his starting job through 2007. So don’t expect Norwood, whose 4.33 speed at the combine blew away Atlanta running backs coach Ollie Wilson, to start any time soon. By next year, at least, Norwood should work as Dunn’s backup because T.J. Duckett’s contract expires after this season, and neither he nor the team believe Duckett will return to the Falcons.
Round 5/139 — Quinn Ojinnaka, T, 6-5, 292, Syracuse
Ojinnaka will work behind right tackle Todd Weiner this year. Weiner also is entering the final season of his contract, and considering that nagging injuries affected him through 2005, he might not have a chance to re-sign. Atlanta has Wayne Gandy under contract for the next three years, but his cap charge is high enough that the Falcons could start Ojinnaka and Frank Omiyale at both tackle spots in 2007. For this year, however, Gandy and Weiner are the starters. McKay insists that Atlanta has no intention of using Ojinnaka at guard.
Round 6/184 — Adam Jennings, WR, 5-9, 181, Fresno State
Jennings will compete for the No. 4 spot behind Roddy White, Michael Jenkins and Brian Finneran. Like Norwood, he has exceptional speed, and the Falcons envision a big role for him on special teams this year. With Jennings a potential punt returner and Norwood likely doing the same on kickoffs, Allen Rossum’s job security might be an issue in training camp.
Round 7/223 — D.J. Shockley, QB, 6-0, 214, Georgia
Shockley’s career consisted mostly of his senior year, his fifth and final season. The Bulldogs redshirted him as a freshman, and Shockley spent the next three years playing behind David Greene and nursing injuries. When he finally had a chance to run the offense without looking over his shoulder, Shockley went 11-1 and led the Bulldogs to their second Southeastern Conference title under six-year coach Mark Richt.
- Don’t look now, but NFC South opponents have added Reggie Bush and DeAngelo Williams to a group of running backs that already included Carnell Williams, Deuce McAllister and DeShaun Foster.
Granted, McAllister and Foster are rehabbing injuries, but each of Atlanta’s three division rivals has a major threat to consider when game-planning ways to stop the run.
“We added some real good and young defensive talent to our team,” coach Jim Mora said of the Falcons’ moves during the 2005-06 off-seasons. “That is not to discount the talent that those guys have added to their teams because those are some great runners.”
- Jimmy Williams has a message for the teams that passed on him and picked four cornerbacks prior to Atlanta’s move to get him in the second round.
“That was the main thing on my mind,” Williams said. “I think there was about eight defensive backs, and I know all of them personally. I know (those teams will) see me again, and I can’t wait to see them again. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
- Former Virginia Tech standouts DeAngelo Hall and Michael Vick sent regards to Williams, who became the fifth former Hokie to join the Falcons. Starting left guard Matt Lehr and fourth-string quarterback Bryan Randall are the others.
“I talked with DeAngelo last night,” Williams said. “(Atlanta tight end) Alge (Crumpler) sent me a text message. Michael called through (his brother) Marcus (Vick). It’s a pleasure.”
- During his freshman year at Mississippi State, Jerious Norwood roomed with Falcons fullback Justin Griffith, who was a senior at the time.
Mora and McKay were very impressed with how hard Norwood played on a team that lost far more games than it won.
“If you watch the Florida tape, he had a great game and won the game at the end with his last two carries,” McKay said. “It was really impressive. He had 29, 30 carries in the game.”
“His 28th carry was third-and-5, and he gets it,” Mora said. “His 29th is a touchdown.”
“Took it 40, 50 yards,” McKay said. “It was awesome.”
QUOTE TO NOTE: “No, we were waiting for Norwood. If we didn’t get Norwood, we were going to go in a different positional direction. We were glad he was there.” — General manager Rich McKay, asked if the Falcons considered moving up to take Wisconsin running back Brian Calhoun, whom the Detroit Lions took off the board just ahead of Jerious Norwood
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
1. Safety. Though the starters are set, the reserves are not. The plan right now is to move Kevin Mathis, a backup corner who’s coming off major reconstructive knee surgery, behind Milloy. Atlanta also could use Omare Lowe, a decent special teams player and a backup cornerback, to play as the No. 2 free safety behind Chris Crocker. Signing a veteran free agent like Ahmed Plummer, who played under coach Jim Mora and secondary coach Brett Maxie in San Francisco, is a possibility. The same goes for Ronnie Heard, a reserve last year for the Falcons, but, like Plummer, he is currently unsigned. Cam Newton, an undrafted rookie free agent in 2005, is still on the roster and will have a chance to make the team.
2. Defensive end. With Chauncey Davis penciled in as the primary backup to right-side starter John Abraham and left-side starter Patrick Kerney, the Falcons have room for a fourth end who would be inactive on game days, but an important insurance policy nonetheless. Don’t rule out Jonathan Jackson, an undrafted rookie free agent of the Bears whom Atlanta signed in Week 17 last season. He’s made an impression with coaches.
3. Center. Todd McClure, a starter since the second month of 2000, is entering the last year of his contract. Though excellent at recognizing defensive shifts and calling out assignment changes on audibles, McClure will never be an elite player because he’s often overmatched against bigger, stronger defensive tackles. Credit McClure for getting the most from a limited skill set, but it’s hard to see the Falcons willing to commit to anything more than one-year contracts after his current deal expires.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: S Keion Carpenter; QB Ty Detmer; S Antuan Edwards; DE Erik Flowers; S Ronnie Heard; WR Jerome Pathon; PK Todd Peterson; LB Artie Ulmer; WR Dez White.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers): DE Constantin Ritzmann.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: G/C Ben Claxton.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: TE Dwayne Blakley; WR Brian Finneran; C Austin King; DT Antwan Lake; DB Omare Lowe; FB Fred McCrary.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: DE John Abraham; S Chris Crocker; OT Wayne Gandy; S Lawyer Milloy.
PLAYERS LOST: S Kevin McCadam; OT Kevin Shaffer; S Bryan Scott; DE Brady Smith; OT Barry Stokes.