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Breakdown: What jumps out immediately when glancing at the Atlanta Falcons' schedule: a season-opening tilt against their bitter NFC South rival New Orleans Saints on Sept. 7. The two met in last year's season opener in New Orleans, won by the Saints, 23-17. The Falcons actually played their most spirited game of 2013 when the Saints visited the Georgia Dome on Nov. 21 and walked away with a 17-13 victory. For a team that needs to start strong in 2014, the Falcons couldn't have asked for a better matchup in terms of the fans rallying behind them. The Falcons are 3-3 in season openers under Mike Smith.

As for the rest of the schedule, the Falcons have a few tough hurdles. First, they travel to London on Oct. 26 for a "home" game against the Detroit Lions. This is followed by a bye week, then with consecutive road contests against division foes Tampa Bay (Nov. 9) and Carolina (Nov. 16). And at the end of the season, the Falcons have a stretch of five tough games against Arizona, Green Bay (road), Pittsburgh, New Orleans (road), and Carolina.

Complaint department: I can hear Roddy White complaining right now. White was shivering in the cold at Lambeau Field last season when the Falcons made the trip to Green Bay in December. Guess what? The Falcons once again have to travel to Green Bay with a Dec. 8 matchup for ESPN's "Monday Night Football." The Falcons didn't handle the elements too well last year and let the ball slip one too many times in a 22-21 loss. Better pack long underwear and gloves. At least the Falcons get to travel to Minnesota early.

Not ready for prime time? We mentioned the Green Bay game on Monday night. The Falcons also face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night in Week 3. Other than those games, the Falcons are not slated for any other prime-time games after having five on the schedule last season, with one flexed back to the afternoon (Green Bay). The new flex-scheduling rules allows for games to be changed as of Week 5. If the Falcons regain their footing and are back in the playoff hunt, it wouldn't be a surprise to see either of the last two games -- at New Orleans and home against Carolina -- moved to the evening. Facing the Bears at home on Oct. 12 with the possibility of Devin Hester exploding against his old team also sounds appealing as a prime-time matchup.

Strength of schedule: 11th, .512 | Vegas over/under : 8.5

Falcons Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Thursday, Sept. 18, Tampa Bay, 8:25 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Minnesota, 4:25 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at NY Giants, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Detroit, 9:30 a.m. (in London)
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Week 14: Monday, Dec. 8, at Green Bay, 8:30 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Carolina, 1 p.m.
Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon will address the media Wednesday morning, along with teammate William Moore, and questions are sure to be asked about the defensive look for 2014.

In talking to Weatherspoon a few weeks ago, he seemed eager to get the season started, no matter how the Falcons align. He said his knee is fine coming off the injury from last season, which did not require surgery.

Weatherspoon
Weatherspoon
And in terms of the Falcons moving toward more of a 3-4 base, Weatherspoon has no issue with it.

"Ever since [defensive coordinator] Mike Nolan has been here, we've fiddled around with the 3-4 alignments a lot,'' Weatherspoon said. "The thing is, that alignment has helped us a lot. I feel like, in the run game, it really helped us at times. We're becoming accustomed to doing it a little bit more. I think we're going to be a defense that's capable of doing both 3-4 and 4-3. I think that can help you in the long run.

"With my role, they just got the big nose tackle [Paul Soliai] to cover up some gaps, so that's awesome right there. But I still see myself playing inside in the 3-4 system and in the 4-3, being outside. But that's basically what I've been doing anyway, so it's no big deal.''

Weatherspoon raved about Soliai and the other guys up front.

"Bringing in somebody of that caliber, I've seen him over the years and the way he's been playing,'' Weatherspoon said of Soliai. "He's a big guy and real big for run-stopping. He'll whip up on the center, and that's the apex of the offense. So I think that's something that can be great.

"We signed all our defensive tackles back from last year [Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, Peria Jerry]. Bringing those three guys back along with [Soliai] and bringing a big guy on the outside in [defensive end] Tyson Jackson ... they made some moves, man. It's definitely saying that we're active and we want to turn things around.''

NFL Nation Buzz: Atlanta Falcons

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ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure says the progress of Sam Baker and other players who are returning from injuries is worth monitoring during Atlanta's offseason training program.
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When Jadeveon Clowney sits down with a member of the Atlanta Falcons' front office or coaching staff during his Wednesday visit, the question about his desire is bound to come up.

Critics continue to offer harsh assessments of the South Carolina defensive end despite the 6-foot-6, 266-pound Clowney being the most athletically gifted prospect in the draft. Clowney has defended his work ethic, and one of his former coaches spoke up on his behalf.

South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward disputed the "lazy" tag recently placed on Clowney by an anonymous NFL scout.

"It doesn't offend me because I know JD, and I know all this talk about JD being lazy and all this talk about him not playing hard, I know all that is motivating him," Ward told ESPN.com in reference to Clowney. "And I know JD because I coached the kid and I recruited him, and that's not who he is. JD plays hard all the time."

There were some doubts about Clowney's commitment after he pulled himself from a game against Kentucky because of a rib injury. There also were questions about Clowney’s conditioning after he reportedly looked tired in the season opener against North Carolina. Clowney finished the season with just three sacks in 11 games.

"People go back to that North Carolina game and say he wasn’t in shape and was tired. People said that because the other three defensive linemen were down on the ground and had their hands down, and JD was standing up with his hands on hips," Ward explained. "That's what seven guys on defense do: They stand up with their hands on their hips. He's an athlete, so he stood up with his hands on his hips. So that made him tired? Not at all. But that's perception. He was down there ready when the ball was snapped. It's all perception.

"Anytime you're as highly regarded as JD is, most people are going to try to find out something that's wrong with you. And that's what the NFL's job is: They're going to try and bring his grade down because it's about paying him. I understand it. I coached in the league [as an Oakland assistant in 2006]. I know how it works."

Ward pointed to practices as evidence of how hard Clowney worked.

"I never had an issue with him. If anything, you had to slow him down," Ward said. "There were days that Coach [Steve] Spurrier would have to tell us to take him off the field or they weren't going to get anything accomplished on offense. And that's the truth because they couldn’t get a pass off on him."

Even if the work ethic isn't an issue, Ward continues to encourage Clowney to raise his level of play in preparation for the NFL.

"My biggest to thing to JD is he's going into a grown-man league and everybody is big and fast in that league," Ward said. "It's not going to be just his talent that's going to help him become a good player there. He's going to have to spend more time studying his opponent, the guy he's going against in that league, in order to beat him. And he didn’t have to do that a lot in college.

"He's going to have to find out what that guy's weakness is and take advantage of it, if he's going to have success in the NFL. And he'll grow into that. He's very highly motivated. He wants to be the first pick in the draft. He wants to be as good as advertised. And there's no question he'll be a great pro."

Clowney defended himself during the NFL combine when asked about Spurrier's assertion that he didn't work as hard as some of the program's other top players from the past.

"I really don't have anything to say about it. It's just opinion," Clowney said in February. "I believe I did work hard. You can pull out any practice tape from last year and you'll see that. That's what I would tell them. I'll tell anybody that. I'm always going to be working hard. No matter where I end up, I'm going to work hard and give the team everything I've got."

For the Falcons to end up being that team, they likely would have to trade up for Clowney. Atlanta currently holds the sixth overall pick. The teams with the top three picks -- Houston, St. Louis and Jacksonville -- all seem willing to trade down, while Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he is open to trading up.
Seeing new defensive end Tyson Jackson toss 120 dumbbells around like trash bags Tuesday was a positive sign for an Atlanta Falcons team desperately in need of some heavy lifting.

Yet such strength means nothing if the Falcons fail to use it to their advantage on the field. Just ask general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

"It's functional strength," Dimitroff said this offseason. "Our guys were considerably stronger last year than they were the year before, interestingly enough, and we had some challenges with it. What I'm saying it, yes, we're going to continue to focus on strength increase. But it's the functional strength. It's being able to put them in the right spot to utilize their strength."

[+] EnlargePeter Konz
AP Photo/Paul AbellPeter Konz, who was pushed around at times last season, has "been living in the weight room."
That will all come in time. For now, the Falcons are using offseason workouts to get their bodies prepared for what should be a more physical 2014 campaign.

Coach Mike Smith seemed a bit more animated Tuesday as he explained part of the formula would be for winning the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball.

"One of the emphasis points for us as a coaching staff was to evaluate everything that we do," Smith said. "One of the things that became very apparent for us was that we need to get bigger and stronger. I think we've started doing that with our players. ... It's going to be very important for us to be a much bigger and stronger football team."

Smith is counting on AJ Neibel and his strength-and-conditioning staff to produce results as the Falcons go through Phase I of the offseason workout program. Smith and the other coaches are not allowed to oversee activity during the first two weeks, which started Monday.

"The offseason program has changed," Smith said, again emphasizing the bigger-stronger campaign. "If you'll look back and look what I said the very first time I was here in this room -- not in this room but over in that team meeting room -- I talked about what it takes to win in the National Football League. And I believe I said that you have to win the line of scrimmage. You have to have bigger and stronger players than your opponent. I feel like we've lost our way. I've lost my way a little bit.

"And the emphasis moving forward is going to be a bigger and stronger football team. And we're going to win the line of scrimmage."

Adding big, physical players such as offensive guard Jon Asamoah, nose tackle Paul Soliai, and Jackson were the first steps toward improvement. New offensive line coach Mike Tice immediately encouraged center/guard Peter Konz to bulk up, and Konz, who was pushed around more often than not last season, responded by "living in the weight room" so far this offseason.

"I think it's more for the younger guys," Tice explained in January, during a break at this year's Senior Bowl practices. "I think the younger guys, as they grow into their bodies and they stop growing and they start maturing, physically, I think that they get stronger and take a big leap and not only take a big leap with strength, but when they gain strength, they gain confidence.

"I see us in a couple different areas needing to gain that confidence. And I think a good offseason in the weight room will help some guys."

The first two players quarterback Matt Ryan mentioned Tuesday in terms of working hard in the weight room were tackle Lamar Holmes and Konz. The Falcons' offensive line obviously failed at the line of scrimmage last season as Ryan was the most pressured quarterback in the league.

"I think everybody takes a good, hard look in the mirror when things go well and then also when things don't go well," Ryan said. "And I know that's one of the most important things for me as a player and as a professional is to take a good, honest evaluation of yourself after a season and try and find areas that you can improve. And so those guys, they've made a conscious effort to get into the weight room and to move weight.

"We're not naive. Those guys (the offensive linemen) have taken some heat. And they've had to answer questions and tough questions all of last season and through the offseason so far. And I think they've taken it as a challenge. And they're in there working as hard they possibly can. I've been really impressed with the way they've handled it professionally and also how they have taking it personally, too, and want to become better and are doing everything that they can in order to improve."

Konz appears to be taking things personal. But again, he understands it's about more than just bulking up.

"You know what? We never talk about strength in the film room because it's all about technique," Konz said near the end of last season. "If you open up any book, it's all about leverage. And strength is important when you know how to use it with your footwork.

"Strength is very important, when used in combination with technique. That's what most important: lowest man wins. If you've got your hands on somebody and you've got them, they're going to have a hell of a time trying to get away from you."

If the Falcons don't improve up front, the season could get away from them again.
As Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan stood in front of the podium for the first time since the end of last season, naturally the question of life without Tony Gonzalez was brought up.

Rather than sulk about the loss of his good friend Gonzalez to retirement, Ryan looked ahead to another year of growth by second-year tight end Levine Toilolo.

"Obviously, you're not going to replace Tony," Ryan said Tuesday. "I mean, it's not going to happen. And that's no slight. It didn't matter who walks in that door. You're just not going to be able to do that. And that's OK.

"We don't need [Toilolo] to be Tony. We need him to be the best Levine Toilolo that he can be."

Toilolo, a former fourth-round pick from Stanford, had just 11 catches for 55 yards with two touchdowns as a rookie in spot duty behind Gonzalez. But Gonzalez's limited practice time during the 2013 campaign -- primarily due to a toe injury -- allowed Toilolo to get plenty of first-team reps in practice.

Ryan discussed continuing to develop a chemistry with the young tight end.

"Just the open dialogue between myself and Levine, talking about certain things," Ryan said. "Talking about my vision for some of the things I think he does well, and some of the things are different from what Tony did. I think that position will probably look a little bit different for us."

Toilolo previously acknowledged how he studied Gonzalez's work habits and had hoped to carry the same approach to the game. At 6-foot-8, there's no disputing his capabilities as a red-zone target. But Toilolo understands he needs to refine some aspects of his game, particularly blocking.

In terms of the tight end position as a whole, the Falcons could move away from making it a focal point of the offense, with more emphasis on the wide receivers, particularly with Julio Jones coming back and Roddy White a lot healthier than he was last season.

The Falcons still have gotten a close look at some tight end prospects, including Texas Tech's Jace Amaro and Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz, and Georgia's Arthur Lynch. But it doesn't appear as if they're approaching the draft with the mindset of securing a starting tight end.

Toilolo should get plenty of opportunity to secure the starting the job. And it wouldn't be a surprise if Mickey Shuler gets a shot to contribute as well.

Ryan noted how Toilolo's physical makeup has changed for the better.

"I think Levine looks as good as he has since he's been here," Ryan said. "I think he's put on a little bit of weight, put some weight in the right spot, which has been good. But there's going to be a lot of work between he and I on the practice field and off the practice field.

"Some of that started last year. Tony didn't pratice all the time, which he didn't need to. Trust me. But with that said, I got to get a lot of work with Levine in practice situations during training camp last year. And I think that helped him have success in his rookie year. And I think that's going to help us heading into Year 2. We're so much further along then we were at the beginning of training camp last year, so I'm fired up about that."
[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
AP Photo/John BazemoreJulio Jones played in just five games last season due to a foot injury.

Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith said Julio Jones' participation in offseason workouts will be limited as the team continues to monitor the wide receiver's status coming off foot surgery.

"Julio is participating with our athletic performance department,'' Smith said Tuesday. "He will be able to get out on the field and do some walkthrough stuff with us when we start going. Our focus on Julio is one thing, and that's having him prepared for our opener. ... He's progressing well. We're not going to do anything to hinder his timeframe in terms of getting back to work with us."

Jones injured his foot in Week 5 of last season and missed the remainder of the 2013 campaign. Smith previously said Jones was ahead of schedule in his recovery, but the coach never put a timetable on when Jones would start running routes again.

The Falcons began voluntary offseason workouts this week, and quarterback Matt Ryan threw to the rest of his receivers Tuesday morning. Ryan was asked to comment on the status of both Jones and left tackle Sam Baker (who is coming off knee surgery).


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Top cornerback prospect Justin Gilbert from Oklahoma State tweeted that he is scheduled to visit Atlanta this week.

The Falcons currently hold the sixth overall pick and are bringing in top prospects such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Buffalo outside linebacker Kahlil Mack and Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews this week. Gilbert is considered a top-15 pick.

In his latest mock draft, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Gilbert going to the Tennessee Titans with the No. 11 pick.

The Falcons obviously are doing their homework on all scenarios, although securing offensive line help, a pass-rusher and a safety would appear to be the priorities. The team seems set at cornerback with second-year players Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford looking like the starting corners for the future. But head coach Mike Smith has emphasized the need for the extra defensive backs in today's NFL, with so many teams running multiple-receiver sets.

Atlanta has competition at nickelback with Robert McClain, Javier Arenas and Josh Wilson.

The 6-foot, 200-pound Gilbert ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds at the NFL combine and also completed 20 reps in the bench press. He also is an outstanding kick returner, although the Falcons signed Devin Hester to handle those duties.
Most of the attention this week involving the Atlanta Falcons is sure to revolve around the list of pre-draft visitors, which includes defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, outside linebacker Khalil Mack, and offensive tackle Jake Matthews.

But there is another matter to attend to in Flowery Branch, Ga.: The Falcons begin the offseason workout program on Monday.

Head coach Mike Smith recently addressed the start of offseason workouts during a radio interview with 790 the Zone's "Locker Room" hosted by Alge Crumpler and JP Peterson.

"The CBA kind of limits what we can do," Smith said. "We have a nine-week program which we can spend time with the players. And really, the first four weeks, there's not a whole lot of on the field activities going on. So we're getting ready to start our program on the 21st of April, and the first two weeks will be spent in the classroom and in the weight room. And then the next two weeks will be on the field. The offense and defense cannot work against each other. ... There's not a whole lot you're going to be able to get accomplished in those four weeks."

The first phase of the offseason workout program according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement: Phase One shall consist of the first two weeks of the Club's offseason workout program. Subject to the additional rules set forth in Section 5 of this Article, Phase One activities shall be limited to strength and conditioning and physical rehabiliation only. During Phase One, only full-time or part-time strength and conditioning coaches, who have no other coaching responsibilities with the club, shall be allowed on the field; no other coaches shall be allowed on the field or to otherwise participate in or observe activities. No footballs shall be permitted to be used (only ``dead ball activities), except that quarterbacks may elect to throw to receivers provided they are not covered by any other player. Players cannot wear helmets during Phase One.

Here are some things to keep in mind as the Falcons get back to work:

Julio sighting: During Tuesday's workout session, the Falcons will allow media members to take pictures of the players in action. Plenty of attention is sure to be on wide receiver Julio Jones, provided Jones is not kept from the public eye. He's coming off foot surgery and is ahead of schedule in his recovery, according to Smith. Watching Jones simply walking normally would be a positive sign. The real test will be when he starts running and cutting on the field.

Ryan's Hope: Also on Tuesday, the Falcons will make quarterback Matt Ryan available to the media. During a radio interview last week, Ryan talked about the team being open to his input in terms of the draft. Ryan might be smart to beg the bosses to add an offensive tackle in the first round. Ryan can't survive another season like he had last year, and he was more banged up than he let on. Auburn's Greg Robinson, Michigan's Taylor Lewan, or Texas A&M's Matthews would look awfully nice lining up at one of the tackle spots.

Catching on: Ryan shouldn't waste time taking tight end Levine Toilolo out to the practice field. No one expects Toilolo to be Tony Gonzalez, but the former fourth-round pick from Stanford will get his opportunity to be the primary tight end. Personally, I don't believe the Falcons are going into the draft looking for a starting tight end. There might not be a big emphasis on the tight end in the offense this season, anyhow.

Strength in numbers: In speaking to a number of Falcons' offensive linemen near the end of last season, most of them agreed getting in the weight room needed to be a priority this offseason. Center/guard Peter Konz said he's been living in the weight room since season's end, and that needs to continue if he hopes to work his way back into the lineup this season. But it's not just about bulking up. It's about functional strength. "You know what? We never talk about strength in the film room because it’s all about technique," Konz said. "If you open up any book, it’s all about leverage. And strength is important when you know how to use it with your footwork."

Any volunteers? Remember, offseason workouts are voluntary. But for a team coming off a 4-12 season, it would be wise for the Falcons to have perfect attendance.
The Atlanta Falcons haven't officially exercised the fifth-year option on wide receiver Julio Jones yet, but such a decision could be made soon.

Teams have until May 3 to decide whether or not to follow through on the fifth-year option, which is guaranteed for injury only until the final day of the 2014 league year. It becomes fully guaranteed at the start of the 2015 league year.

Jones was the sixth-overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. In terms of players drafted in the top 10, the value of the fifth-year option is the equivalent to the transition tag for their respective positions. In Jones' case, that means $10.176 million in '15. Only quarterbacks ($14.666 million) and defensive ends ($10.633) have higher figures.

Of course, Jones is coming off a season-ending foot injury that required surgery, and some wonder if he will return to his normal form. But Falcons coach Mike Smith assured Jones was ahead of schedule in his recovery and on pace for training camp.

Immediately after the 2013 season, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said the team was more focused on free agency and the draft than awarding extensions to Jones and fellow receiver Roddy White. The team, however, surely wants to lock up Jones long-term as the cornerstone of the franchise, provided he fully recovers from the injury.

The 25-year-old Jones is scheduled to make $2,581,875 in 2014 with a cap number of $5,149,375. The one-time Pro Bowler was on pace for more than 1,800 receiving yards last season before suffering the foot injury in Week 5.
Add another top name to the list of draft prospects the Atlanta Falcons plan to bring to town.

Outside linebacker Khalil Mack from Buffalo is scheduled to visit the Falcons next week, according to a league source. Mack is considered a top-5 pick, and at least one draft expert touted him as the top player in this year’s draft class -- even ahead of South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney.

Although the Falcons own the sixth overall draft pick, they obviously are doing extensive homework on all the top prospects that could be available to them and fill their biggest needs: offensive tackle and pass-rusher. Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews also is visiting next week, along with Mack and Clowney.

Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson reportedly had a private workout with the Falcons on Thursday and is likely to visit as well. It is unclear whether Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, the other top offensive tackle, has a visit scheduled or already visited the Falcons. Lewan previously worked out for the Falcons, as did Matthews, Mack and UCLA's Anthony Barr.

ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. released his latest mock draft on Thursday and has Mack going to the Oakland Raiders with the fifth overall pick.

The 6-foot-3-inch, 251-pound Mack is touted for his explosive first step and outstanding instincts. He would be hard for the Falcons to pass up if he falls to No. 6, although adding another protector for quarterback Matt Ryan would appear to be more pressing than targeting a pass-rusher with the first-round pick.

The Falcons desperately need to improve their pass rush after finishing tied for 29th in the league last season with just 32 sacks. Mack is another one of those players capable of getting to the quarterback in any defensive alignment.

Mack is confident in his abilities, even coming from a lesser-known school such as Buffalo.

"The toughest transition for me will be getting to know grown men in a professional environment,’’ Mack said at this year’s NFL combine. "I feel like that’s always going to be difficult at first. ... It’s going to be a transition. But I feel like, football-wise, I’m ready to step in and make an impact anywhere I can.’’
The fun behind mock drafts is opinions can change on a daily basis.

Such has been the case this year with mixed opinions about the quarterback class as well as the top pass-rushers.

Everyone, however, seems to agree South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the most physically gifted and dominating player in the draft, which is why he should be the No. 1 overall pick. But until the Houston Texans actually come out and declare Clowney as their guy, the speculation will continue.


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