NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

When Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn meets the media this morning during the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, he is likely to be asked about the status of contract extension talks with the team's top receiver Julio Jones.

The last time I asked Quinn about this subject on Feb. 27, this was his response on Jones:

"We know moving forward he's going to be a big part of what we're doing. We haven't gotten into the specifics of it. But, yeah, Thomas [Dimitroff] and I will get together on that. Moving forward, Julio is an outstanding guy and somebody we want here for a long time."

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
AP Photo/John BazemoreWill the Falcons focus on giving their star receiver Julio Jones a contract extension any time soon?

Of course, the Falcons had to focus on free agency first to fill holes at positions such as edge-rusher, linebacker and tight end. But now, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Falcons initiated preliminary talks with Jones' agent, Jimmy Sexton, about an extension. Jones is coming off a career season, with a franchise-record 1,593 receiving yards on 104 catches with six touchdowns.

Jones has one year left on his contract and will be paid $10.176 million for the 2015 season. Essentially, the Falcons could wait it out just to make sure Jones remains fully healthy, although there are no indications he has any lingering effects from the second right foot fracture he suffered during the 2013 season.

So how much is Jones' worth? I discussed the topic with former agent Joel Corry, now a contract and salary-cap analyst.

"The Falcons are not going to start at the Calvin Johnson level," said Corry of the Detroit Lions game-changer, who tops all receivers at more than $16 million in salary per year. "The team is going to want to keep it closer to Jeremy Maclin ($11 million per year from Chiefs), which doesn't make sense because Julio is not Jeremy Maclin. I'd be insulted if the team brought that up to me. When Julio is healthy, you can put him in the conversation of being the best receiver in football.

"What the Falcons may want to do is take a wait-and-see approach to see if Dez Bryant [Cowboys] or Demaryius Thomas [Broncos] can get a deal done and let that kind of really define Julio's market. Or maybe if Cincinnati does something with A.J. Green. The Falcons don't have to rush and they don't really need the cap room. If they were in a pinch for cap room, then there would be a lot more urgency to do something."

To Corry's point, the Falcons currently have $17,930,200 in cap room, according to NFLPA records. And an extension for Jones potentially could open up a few more million in cap space.

So what about guaranteed money for Jones in deal?

"He's going to be looking for that Megatron deal because I called Megatron's deal $53.5 million fully guaranteed at signing because I included the $4.5 million roster bonus from his old contract," Corry said.

"One thing you have to keep in mind in terms of guaranteed money [for Jones] is more than $10 million already is his own guaranteed because his base salary for this year is now fully guaranteed. His agent is going to raise the issue that they're looking for guaranteed money on top of what they already have. If the team says they're going to give an offer with, hypothetically speaking, $35 million guaranteed, the agent will say, 'No, that's $25 million guaranteed because that's my own money.' They're looking for guaranteed money above what they already have."

Of course, the other scenario that could play out, but seems unlikely, is the Falcons placing the franchise tag on Jones if no contract extension is reached. The NFL allows a player to be tagged twice.

"But when you start playing that game, the agent is going to look at what that franchise tag number will be -- next year, I calculate against a $150-plus million cap, that would put it over $14 million for receivers," Corry said. "Say it's $14 million next year. Then you're talking $16 the next year (2017). So then that gives the agent ammunition to say, 'You need to pay me the $15 million per range because if you play the franchise-tag game, that's where I'm going to end up by the time this is all said and done."

Arthur BlankKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Majority owner: Arthur Blank, 72

Minority owners: Warrick Dunn, Ronald Canakaris, Douglas Hertz, John Imlay, Edwin Mendel, Derek V. Smith, John A. Williams, Brian J. Barker

Source of wealth: Co-founder of The Home Depot

Net worth: $2.5 billion (Forbes)

Residence: Atlanta

Marital status: Engaged to Angie Macuga

Family: Sons, Kenny, Joshua and Max; daughters, Danielle, Dena and Kylie

Education: Babson College

When purchased team and for how much? 2002 for $545 million (Forbes)

Franchise valuation: $1.125 billion (Forbes)

2014 revenue/rank: $264 million/23rd (Forbes)

Owns stadium: No. He leases the Georgia Dome.

Ownership philosophy: "As the owner, it's my job to listen to our personnel and coaching staffs and to provide the resources and support to help our team return to the national stage.” – Arthur Blank

Defining moment in ownership tenure: NFC Championship Game appearance during the 2012 season.

Regular/postseason wins-losses during tenure: 110-97-1/3-6

General managers during tenure: Rich McKay (2003-08), Thomas Dimitroff (2008-present)

Coaches during tenure: Dan Reeves (2002-03), Wade Phillips (interim, 2003), Jim Mora (2004-06), Bobby Petrino (2007), Emmitt Thomas (interim, 2007), Mike Smith (2008-14), Dan Quinn (2015-present)

Playoff appearances: 2002, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012

Super Bowl appearances/championships: None

NFL committees: Finance, audit, compensation, legislative, workplace diversity

Free-agency review: Falcons

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17
10:00
AM ET

A look at the first week of free agency for the Atlanta Falcons, how they fared and what's next.

Most significant signing: The Falcons didn't make a big splash but they did address an area of need by signing pass-rushers O'Brien Schofield and Adrian Clayborn to one-year contracts. Although Clayborn is a former first-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I'd call the addition of Schofield more significant. The former Seahawk not only played under new Falcons coach Dan Quinn the past two seasons in Seattle, he also has tremendous speed off the edge. The Falcons sorely need that type of speed-rusher, which is an element they haven't had the past two seasons. In Seattle, Schofield played the "Leo" stand-up pass-rusher, as well as strong-side linebacker in the base package while playing rush end on third down and in the nickel defense. But Schofield, who has had knee issues in the past, has to stay healthy. He epitomizes what Quinn wants from a pass-rusher in regard to playing fast and physical. The Falcons made a push to sign Derrick Morgan away from Tennessee with a contract offer believed to be worth at least $6 million a year but Morgan re-signed with the Titans for $6.75 million per year with the potential to reach a $7.5 million average.

Most significant loss: Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon appeared on the verge of re-signing with the Falcons but instead signed a one-year, $3.85 million deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Last year's season-ending Achilles tear gives pause for Weatherspoon's overall injury health. But both Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff expressed a desire to bring Weatherspoon back knowing what he could add to the defense, if healthy. Oddly enough, the Falcons signed another linebacker with an injury history in Justin Durant. If Durant remains in the lineup, he has the ability to make plays all over the field.

Biggest surprise: Signing outside linebacker Brooks Reed to a five-year, $22.5 million deal with $9 million guaranteed was somewhat of a surprise. He's a good run-stopper with a high motor and has been compared to Kroy Biermann, so that's not exactly something to get excited about. But if Reed comes in and plays his role well, he could be one of those guys who makes a significant contribution to a defensive turnaround. The Falcons might count on him to rush the passer in certain situations, and Reed admitted that's an area he needs to improve.

What's next? The Falcons lost out on two top tight end targets when Niles Paul re-signed with the Redskins and Lance Kendricks re-signed with the Rams. The Falcons brought free-agent tight Rob Housler in for a visit but didn't immediately sign him. They now have a void to fill. Maybe they will consider free-agent Jermaine Gresham, who did not sign with Oakland, as expected. The Falcons also missed out on free safety target Darian Stewart and guard target Shelley Smith as both signed with the Denver Broncos. To address the need at free safety, the Falcons might have to consider bringing back Dwight Lowery, although Lowery told ESPN.com he doesn't feel the interest from the team right now.

Adrian Clayborn knows he has something to prove.

The former first-round pick of Tampa Bay flashed his potential in the past, yet didn't reach his own standards in four seasons with the Buccaneers. The defensive end began his career with 7.5 sacks in 2011, when he started all 16 games. Then, Clayborn tore his ACL in his right knee during Week 3 of the 2012 season. And last season, Clayborn played in just one game after tearing his biceps.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Clayborn
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIFormer Bucs end Adrian Clayborn gets the chance to start fresh with a new team in the Falcons.
Now, Clayborn is fresh off agreeing to a one-year, free-agent deal with Atlanta Falcons, a contract potentially worth $4.5 million. Still, one-year deals for players with injury histories indicate how a team wants a player to show his worth first.

"I've been injured quite a bit in my career and I know that I have to prove myself," Clayborn said. "So I'm fine with the one-year deal. That played a part in me coming to this system. I think it's going to give me the best chance to prove myself and prove the skills that I have. And I'm excited about it."

The Falcons need Clayborn to be a solid contributor to what is expected to be an improved pass rush. He'll join ex-Seattle Seahawks outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield, who also reached a contract with the team on Thursday. The Falcons offered a contract to Derrick Morgan, who opted to re-sign with the Tennessee Titans on a four-year, $30 million deal.

Regardless of not securing Morgan, new Falcons coach Dan Quinn obviously has a plan to stockpile pass-rushers and he got two bargain ones in Clayborn and Schofield. The Falcons also are expected to bring in one of the top pass rushers in this year's draft class with the eighth-overall pick.

Clayborn talked about what he brings as a pass-rusher.

"I think the word to describe my pass rush is just physicality," the 6-foot-3-inch, 280-pound Clayborn said. "I'm not going to be the fastest guy around the edge and I'm not going to bull rush you over, but I've got a good combination of all of that speed and power. I'm just going to try and get to the quarterback."

Clayborn should feel comfortable in his new surroundings. He will reunite with Falcons assistant head coach Raheem Morris, who drafted him while the head coach of the Buccaneers. Clayborn also played under Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox when Cox was an assistant in Tampa.

"His coaching style, he's real," Clayborn said of Morris. "He'll keep it 100 percent with you. He doesn't tell you anything that's flaky stuff. And he rolls with you. He believes in you and he's going to have your back. I learned a lot about Dan Quinn over the last day and I get the same vibe from him.

"Coach Cox, we had a good relationship when he was in Tampa. His coaching is very different than from anybody I've ever had. I'm just excited to be reunited with him and Raheem. Raheem believed in me from the start, so that just gives me a lot more confidence in my situation there."

Clayborn also has some familiarity with his new teammate, Schofield. They share the same agent, Blake Baratz, and have hung out together on occasion. They also squared off against each other in college when Clayborn was at Iowa and Schofield at Wisconsin.

"He's good, man," Clayborn said of Schofield. "He's blazing fast. He's definitely going to help out coming off the edge and really going to help this defense a lot."

As for Clayborn, he said he is fully cleared for offseason work coming off the biceps injury. He has no concern about the injury resurfacing. Plus he's overcome a lot worse in the past.

It's been well-documented how Clayborn has battled Erb's palsy, a condition that caused never damage to his right shoulder and arm when the doctors pulled him too hard through the birth canal.

"I've had it all my life, so it's not something new that I have to deal with," he said. "Overcoming stuff is nothing new. I just deal with it."
New Atlanta Falcons linebacker Justin Durant, who was placed on injured reserve last October while with the Dallas Cowboys, said he was cleared for offseason workouts coming off a biceps injury.

Durant
Durant torn the right biceps in his arm during a Monday night game against the Washington Redskins. He said the doctors in Dallas cleared him for offseason work two weeks ago.

The Falcons, with a new head coach in Dan Quinn, can begin their offseason program on April 6. Quinn's arrival is the primary reason Durant opted to sign with the Falcons. He knew about the reputation Quinn established as the defensive coordinator in Seattle the last two seasons. In fact, Durant talked to Seahawks' Cliff Avril and Tony McDaniel about Quinn and the scheme before signing and received nothing but positive feedback.

Durant talked about his expected role in a 4-3 defense that incorporates some 3-4 personnel tendencies.

"So far, they've been telling that I'm going to play the Will [weakside linebacker] position," Durant said. "It's something that I've been playing basically my whole career. I just love the way that [Quinn] did things out in Seattle. I watched a lot of tape on him. We used to watch tape while we were in Dallas of the things that they did on defense and try to emulate that and bring it into our [plans] as well. So, I've always been a fan of what [Quinn] does.

"Myself as a player, I just think that I'm a run-and-hit kind of linebacker. I like to flow freely, get out there and just try to chase down plays and make some things happen."
The big news this week, of course, was ESPN Insider Adam Schefter's scoop on the Philadelphia Eagles trading running back LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonso.

The move could have a ripple effect for the Atlanta Falcons, with the free-agent negotiating period set to begin Saturday. Linebacker is a priority position for the Falcons going into free agency, along with edge rusher and safety.

The Falcons were expected to at least look into New York Jets linebacker David Harris. However, the void left by Alonso means the Bills and Rex Ryan, the Jets' previous coach, will no doubt make a serious run at Harris. Not to mention the Jets and new coach Todd Bowles want to re-sign Harris, meaning there could be a bidding war.

Don't expect the Falcons to get involved, if such occurs. Yes, Harris is an impact player who would fit nicely in coach Dan Quinn's scheme. Plus Quinn, a former assistant with the Jets, is familiar with Harris' talent. However, the Falcons surely won't overpay for any player -- not a standout linebacker or even an impact pass-rusher.

There will be other linebacker options for the Falcons to pursue. First and foremost, they have to worry about re-signing their own in Sean Weatherspoon. Talks with Weatherspoon are ongoing, and both Quinn and general Thomas Dimitroff expressed a desire to bring him back coming off an Achilles tear.

Tampa Bay's Mason Foster will generate interest on the open market. He has a direct tie to the Falcons' staff, having been drafted by assistant head coach Raheem Morris when Morris was the Buccaneers' head coach. Foster, 26, started as a rookie but has had to adjust to three different defensive coordinators in four NFL seasons. Continuity moving forward would no doubt help his cause.

Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith from Seattle played under Quinn the past two seasons when Quinn was the Seahawks defensive coordinator. Smith is an outside linebacker with the versatility to play middle linebacker, and his familiarity with Quinn's scheme makes him a viable option despite Smith not being a regular starter throughout his career.

Word is veteran linebacker Lance Briggs, 34, from the Chicago Bears would be open to moving to Atlanta as he winds down his NFL career. That's not to say the Falcons would be interested in Briggs, but the seven-time Pro Bowler might have a good year left in him, if healthy.

And if free agency doesn't fill the Falcons' linebacker need, there's always the draft.
Pass-rusher Brian Orakpo isn't the only Washington Redskins player the Atlanta Falcons will look into once the free-agent negotiating period begins Saturday.

It's a safe bet the Falcons will express interest in tight end Niles Paul, if Paul is not re-signed before then. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Paul is one of several tight ends headed for free agency who has played in Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme. The others include Jordan Cameron of the Cleveland Browns and Owen Daniels of the Baltimore Ravens. Cameron has had concussion issues, while Daniels will turn 33 during the 2015 season.

Paul
Paul, who turns 26 in August, wouldn't be a flashy pickup, but the Falcons aren't expected to invest heavily in a top tight end, such as Denver's Julius Thomas. However, Paul, a former fifth-round draft pick who just completed his fourth NFL season, would be more than capable of playing his role.

Just ask former Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman, who was teammates with Paul for three seasons.

"He's as tough as s---," Grossman said of Paul. "He's like the one guy in the locker room you do not want to pick a fight with. He's just a tough wide receiver/tight end who shows up on special teams all the time.

"That's kind of how he got his reputation as a rookie, on special teams. Then after a couple of years, they moved him to tight end because he was so strong and could show that, especially in the zone running scheme where basically all you have to do is get your hat in front of the defensive linemen and cut them off. He was strong enough to hold them off in situations where he actually had to do the things normal tight ends do."

Paul, who started his NFL career at wide receiver and then became the starting fullback before transitioning to tight end, obviously can catch the ball. He caught a career-high 39 passes for 507 yards and a touchdown in 2014 while starting seven games.

Paul was a track athlete coming out of high school before attending Nebraska. He posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.51 at the NFL combine.

"Obviously, he's a mismatch for linebackers trying to cover him, with his speed," Grossman said. "I think tight end is a great position for him. A lot of teams have big tight ends that are like extra offensive linemen. I think he's the opposite of that. But he's athletic and really strong. He's perfect for Kyle's system. They don't ask him to block Jason Pierre-Paul one on one."

ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, who played in Washington last season, offered his thoughts on what Paul brings to a team.

"Tough player," Clark said. "He's a grinder. He played really well and produced big as the No. 1 pass-catching tight end when Jordan Reed (hamstring) was out. He's also a really good special-teams guy and a good locker room dude as well."

The Falcons have a tight end with playing experience in Levine Toilolo, yet it remains unclear what role the 6-8 Toilolo will have coming off a season with his share of drops.

Shanahan previously discussed his expectations of a tight end. We will see if Paul reunites with his old coach and ends up in a Falcons uniform.
The Atlanta Falcons won't use the franchise tag on any of their players this season, but they could feel the affect of the tag being used around the league.

With the obvious need to sign a pass-rusher or two, the Falcons could see some of the top available players at the position locked down due to the franchise tag, which has to be executed before 4 p.m. ET Monday. Some of the candidates to be tagged include Kansas City's Justin Houston, Buffalo's Jerry Hughes and Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants.

The Falcons are projected to be armed with more than $30 million in cap space, which gives them room to spend. But that doesn't necessarily mean they would invest top dollar if a guy such as Pierre-Paul or Hughes reaches free agency. Houston will be tagged for sure, so he can't even be in the conversation.

Last year, the Washington Redskins tagged a player the Falcons would have targeted, pass-rusher Brian Orakpo, at a price of $11,455,000. The Falcons proceeded to invest $25 guaranteed to secure big run-stuffers Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, a move that essentially backfired.

New Falcons coach Dan Quinn has a plan, so don't expect the Falcons to be discouraged if the franchise tag keeps them from pursuing one of the top-tier pass-rushers in free agency.

And by the way, the secret is out now on Baltimore Ravens' reserve Pernell McPhee, who might have been a great option for the Falcons as an under-the-radar pass-rusher, but now is being mentioned as a top-dollar player.

Maybe the Falcons will have another shot at Orakpo, if he doesn't get re-signed. But Orakpo could be a concern based on his injury history, including a season-ending pectoral injury last year. Maybe they'll have to turn their attention to guys such as Derrick Morgan from Tennessee or Brandon Graham from Philadelphia.

We should get more clarity on what options are out there for the Falcons by the end of the day today.
He was no doubt the Atlanta Falcons' MVP through the first half of last season. Now, Antone Smith is just waiting to see what his NFL future holds.

The diminutive running back, who has averaged 49 yards per scoring play on seven career touchdowns, continues to patiently wait for news on a new a contract. While nothing has been relayed to Smith personally just yet, word at the NFL combine last week was Smith indeed is one of the players with an expiring contract the Falcons have prioritized to bring back. But there also were whispers in Indianapolis about the New York Giants being interested in Smith. Not to mention former Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is now in Tampa and knows how special a talent Smith is.

Smith
Smith, who turns 30 in September, has low mileage with just 44 touches in five NFL seasons.

New Falcons coach Dan Quinn has emphasized the need for speed, which is Smith's biggest asset when he's healthy. Plus, owner Arthur Blank previously expressed a desire to keep Smith around for years to come.

"Who wouldn't want to be a Falcon?" Smith said. "Heck yeah, I want to be here."

There is one obstacle Smith has to overcome, however. He is still in the process of rehabbing the broken right leg that prematurely ended his 2014 season.

"I can't do too much right now," Smith said. "It's about getting strength back in the leg. It was a broken tibia. I have no idea when I'm going to start running again. But my thought is, I'm always going to be confident in myself. I'll be back to full strength."

With four touchdowns of 40 or more yards last season, Smith ranked third in the league behind Green Bay's Jordy Nelson (seven) and Washington's DeSean Jackson (five), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Smith had five touchdowns overall on 36 touches while playing in 10 games.

"He made us more explosive," former Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice said of Smith. "His percentage of explosive plays were lights out."

Smith's speed and explosion would be ideal in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's outside-zone blocking scheme, which depends on a one-cut-and-go mentality for the running backs. Shanahan, Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have raved about how second-year back Devonta Freeman could thrive in the new system. And the Falcons could add another veteran back such as Justin Forsett, with Steven Jackson expected to be released.

No matter what, there should be a place in Shanahan's offense for a dynamic playmaker such as Smith.

"That system can fit any back," Smith said. "The sky's the limit in that system. If I am a Falcon, that would be my pedigree right there."

Not to be forgotten is Smith's contribution on special teams as a gunner. He led the Falcons with 10 special-teams tackles during the 2013 season.

The humble Smith, as usual, downplayed his significance to the team.

"I feel like I'm just like anybody else," Smith said. "I just like to play football. I never really look at how valuable I am. I just want to play."
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Atlanta Falcons haven't formally started contract-extension talks with top receiver Julio Jones, but general manager Thomas Dimitroff has discussed the topic with new coach Dan Quinn.

"There's no question we've had discussions about Julio and, obviously, everyone else on our roster," Dimitroff said. "And when you're talking about one of the guys that we feel is one of the best talents in the league, that, of course, is going to be a discussion topic.

Jones
"We will continue, again, to look at what we have here when we start putting together the team and thinking about being creative because, as co-team builders, it's important for us to look at the nuances of money and how we're going to put everything together. This is much more difficult than it was many years ago, in my mind, to try and take a quarterback who's going to be very expensive and take a receiver and take a couple other positions and make sure [you're] paying market value and also making sure you have enough space on the team to do the right thing."

All that being said, Dimitroff made clear his intentions in relation to Jones.

"Plain and simple, we want Julio to be here for many years to come," Dimitroff said.

Jones is signed through 2015 after the team exercised its fifth-year option. He will make $10,176,000, which will count against the salary cap. Jones would become a free agent in 2016 unless the Falcons signed him to an extension or used the franchise tag on him.

Health always is a factor when talking about extensions. Although Jones fractured his foot two seasons ago, it's not believed to be a lingering concern. Jones also dealt with ankle and oblique injuries last season.

Dimitroff expressed no concerns about Jones' health.

"I believe his health is fine," Dimitroff said. "I think he's coming off of his most recent challenge from (2013) and he did really well this year. He's done a really nice job in training and he's very mindful of his body. And those are the kind of athletes you want -- they're very mindful about what they put in their body and how they treat their body. And that's a positive for us with him."
Near the conclusion of last season, Joe Hawley was one of the first people to applaud undrafted rookie James Stone for an admirable job filling in as the starting center.

Hawley also made sure to give his Atlanta Falcons teammate a playful nudge heading into 2015.

“The maturity James showed to be able to lead the offensive line and make the calls, it was very impressive,” Hawley said, “ but I did tell him, 'Enjoy it because as soon as I get back, that’s going to be my job.'"

Hawley
Hawley started the first four games at center last season before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He is scheduled to take the next step in the recovery process in two weeks, when he begins doing drill work on the field. Hawley is confident about being back at full strength by training camp.

And Hawley is confident about excelling in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme to clear paths in the run game.

“I don’t think it will be an adjustment; I’m actually really looking forward to it because I know it fits my strength,” Hawley said. “I’m an undersized lineman for the NFL, so running and my quickness I have to use to my advantage. I think that will play a huge role in it. I don’t think the adjustment is going to be hard. I think it’s going to be a positive.”

Hawley spent a few moments Monday chatting with new offensive line coach Chris Morgan about the scheme. Shanahan spoke at length about it when he addressed the media Tuesday.

“We believe in the outside-zone scheme,” Shanahan said. “It’s something I do believe in very strongly. And the main thing we’re going to get these linemen when they get in here is we just want to get them to run. They’re going to run a lot more than they ever have before. We’re going to try and challenge the defense from sideline to sideline, not just between the tackles.

“And it’s a challenge to get guys to run and yet still be as physical as anybody. So there’s an element there where it’s not just lateral, but it’s getting downhill, too. It takes time to develop. There’s nowhere I’ve been where you get in right away and guys just get it. You’re usually asking them to do stuff that they haven’t done consistently throughout their career. But when you get the commitment from guys to do it, you rep it all the time, guys usually come around.”

Former Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice, who implemented some zone elements, often raved about Hawley’s ability to run. The 6-foot-3 Hawley weighs 290 pounds and entered the NFL with a reputation for his quickness. He even posted the second-fastest three-cone time at the NFL combine back in 2010 when he worked out as a guard.

But will the other linemen be able to run with him?

“I think the big thing in terms of zone-blocking is teamwork and unity as an offensive line,” Hawley said. “You’ve got to work well together. It’s a lot of combination blocks and getting to the second level with those combination blocks. If you can get that and work well with the guy next to you, that’s going to help the zone scheme.”

Health might keep the line from developing unity in the zone-blocking scheme immediately. Besides Hawley, tackles Jake Matthews (foot) and Sam Baker (knee) are recovering from significant injuries. Matthews had surgery for a Lisfranc ligament tear in January and has another three months before he’s back to full strength.

As for Hawley coming off knee surgery, he’s building confidence by the day.

“I think the biggest thing, because this is the first surgery I’ve ever been through, is getting your body stronger and adjusting to it and getting back to normal,” Hawley said. “And it’s also half mental; getting that confidence back in using it. I’m actually just getting to that point now where I’m starting to use it more. I’m doing some leg press and balance work.

“The doctors have told me that once I get to full health, it should be stronger than my left ACL. As I worked toward getting better and getting healthier for training camp, I think confidence is going to play a huge role. And I think that might take a little time once I get the pads back on. But I think I’ll be good once I get rolling.”
New Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was cautious with his words as he addressed the Atlanta media for the first time on Tuesday.

Naturally, Shanahan avoided being critical of any of his new players as he assessed the talent he inherited. He expressed excitement for the opportunity to work with Matt Ryan and praised Julio Jones as the type of explosive receiver he once coached in Houston during Andre Johnson's glory days.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
Jason Getz/USA TODAY SportsSteven Jackson's days running the football for the Falcons could be over after two seasons in Atlanta.
In discussing the running back situation, Shanahan even spoke glowingly about veteran Steven Jackson, although the aging Jackson is expected to be on the way out.

"I've been here a week ... the main things we're doing right now is looking at our own personnel," Shanahan said. "I don't have a set opinion right now because I haven't watched enough tape, but Steven's a guy I've been a huge fan of over his career.

"Devonta (Freeman) was someone I loved coming out of college last year. And then the guy from Oregon State (Jacquizz Rodgers), I loved him coming out of college. So they're guys I remember from their college days, hard. I know Steven because he's played for a long time. But I haven't evaluated any of those backs since college or just Steven over the years. So, they're guys I'm excited and really looking forward to seeing them and getting them here in (organized team activities) and seeing what we can do."

Jackson, who turns 32 in July, is likely to be released with one year left on his contract. The move would save the Falcons $3.75 million against the salary cap. And the Falcons no doubt want younger, fresher legs in Shanahan's offense.

Shanahan will implement a zone-blocking scheme that relies on offensive linemen capable of running and running backs capable of making that quick one cut for explosive runs. Shanahan was asked what type of running back best fits his scheme.

"People asking me that all the time ... I like a good running back," Shanahan said. "There's no absolute. I've had big guys. I've had smaller guys. I'll take any type of guy. I think Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch are pretty good backs that are pretty big. That doesn't mean I don't want LeSean McCoy. So, I think any type of back can succeed in this system.

"But the type of guys you want are guys who can put their foot in the ground, get downhill. You do want guys who can create arm tackles and then run through them. I'm not looking for a guy that you have to give 30 carries to get 100 yards. You want guys who get downhill, who get over 4.0 yards a carry and they move the chains for you."

Last season as the offensive coordinator for the Browns, Shanahan watched rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West rush for a combined 1,280 yards while averaging 4.0 yards per carry. During the 2012 and '13 seasons in Washington, Shanahan watched running back Alfred Morris post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons while averaging better than 4.6 yards per carry.

Even during his first season as a NFL coordinator with the Houston Texans back in 2008, Shanahan saw running back Steve Slaton go for 1,282 yards while averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

The Falcons haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Michael Turner in 2011. And no Falcon has averaged better than 4.0 yards per rush on 25-plus carries since Turner that same season.

It will be interesting to see how the Falcons upgrade the position. One player the team should strongly consider re-signing is Antone Smith, who had his 2014 season end prematurely due to a broken leg. Smith had five touchdowns on just 36 touches last season. His ability to make the one cut and take it to the house would be ideal in Shanahan's system.
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Dan Quinn had an opportunity to be a head coach prior to being introduced by the Atlanta Falcons on Tuesday.

He mentioned how he interviewed with both Minnesota and Cleveland before last season. The Vikings hired Mike Zimmer while the Browns went with Mike Pettine. The latter was probably a blessing in disguise for Quinn, who would have been wrapped up in plenty of drama in Cleveland. Quinn had plans to partner with current Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan with the Browns.

Things worked out for Quinn in the end as he spent another year as the Seattle Seahawks' defensive coordinator. He was able to dissect head coach Pete Carroll's brain a little more extensively.

"I'm much more prepared now than I was last year," Quinn said. "I'd probably say, after going through the experience last year, I thought another year would help me.

"And I had a chance to talk to coach Carroll and evaluate him more. Scenarios that would come up, he involved me in. So I've got a great deal of gratitude for him. As the situations and scenarios came up through the year, he kept me involved with that: through the draft process, looking at other positions. This period, for me, was an important one to go through and follow his lead on a lot of them."

Quinn's first task as head coach is evaluating the current roster, a process he vowed to dive into thoroughly. His first tough decision could be cutting ties with veteran running back Steven Jackson, who is entering the last year of his contract and has a base salary of $3.75 million. Quinn was given final say over the 53-man roster.
The Atlanta Falcons obviously value Julio Jones, probably even more now with Jones coming off a record-breaking, Pro Bowl season.

However, team owner Arthur Blank was a bit apprehensive when discussing a long-term extension for Jones, who is signed through the 2015 season. Blank basically deferred to incoming head coach Dan Quinn, who is set to be introduced Tuesday after he completes his Super Bowl run with the Seattle Seahawks.

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"Well, I think it's a decision that the head coach will look at the talent on the roster," Blank said. "Julio's been a great player for us and a great talent, and he represents us on the field and off the field as well as anybody else.

"As the owner, it's not my decision to make. The new coach will spend a great deal of time assessing the roster and all of our players, and obviously Julio is a critical one."

Blank's words would imply Quinn will have plenty of say regarding the 53-man roster as questions continue to linger about how much control general manager Thomas Dimitroff will have, with the head coach and Dimitroff reporting to Blank separately.

It would seem foolish for the Falcons not to lock up Jones long term, particularly after trading away five draft picks to secure him No. 6 overall in the 2011 NFL draft. Jones, who turns 26 on Tuesday, is coming off a franchise-record-setting 1,593 receiving yards in 2014 despite missing one game due to injury. He was third in the league with 104 receptions and led the league with 31 receptions of 20-plus yards.

Jones is scheduled to make $10,176,000 in 2015 after the Falcons exercised his fifth-year option. That, however, doesn't preclude the team from signing Jones to a long-term deal before the season.

Franchising Jones in 2016 would be an option, but a long-term deal probably makes more sense from a business standpoint. If there are serious concerns about Jones' long-term health, then maybe the Falcons would want to consider the franchise tag after the 2015 season and only a one-year commitment. But Jones has shown no ill effects from the season-ending foot fracture he suffered during the 2013 campaign. And although Jones dealt with an oblique strain and ankle sprain this past season, he still played in 15 games.

If the franchise tag came into play in '16, Jones would be on track to receive no less than 120 percent of his '15 salary -- $12.2 million guaranteed. However, former agent Joel Curry projects the franchise tag number for wide receivers to be no less than $13 million in 2016, and Jones would be eligible to receive the higher of either the 120 percent figure or the wide receiver franchise tag. And the Falcons have the ability to franchise Jones again in 2017 under the same guidelines. But it would be smarter to just lock him up with a long-term deal rather than committing $25-plus million guaranteed for just two seasons.

Jones’ agent, Jimmy Sexton, could seek a long-term deal in the same neighborhood of Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald: $16 million per year with $45 million guaranteed.

Jones' teammates certainly believe he deserves a lucrative, long-term deal.

"I think Julio Jones is the best receiver," safety William Moore said near the end of the season. "The guy is a workhorse. All you have to do is give him the ball. He shows up when you really need it. He doesn't talk much. He just goes out there and puts it on the field, and I love that about Julio.

"I'd keep Julio and give him the max. He's young. He has a lot offer. I don't see any negatives out of Julio. He's everything you want out of a top receiver in the league."
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank took a few moments to address a variety of topics during a phone interview with ESPN.com on Friday.

First and foremost, Blank discussed the process of the coaching search, which is just about complete. The Falcons are expected to introduce Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as the next coach as early as Tuesday, with Quinn set to coach in Sunday's Super Bowl. The Falcons cannot sign Quinn to a contract or introduce him as the new coach until the Seahawks complete their season.

[+] EnlargeArthur Blank
AP Photo/Tim IrelandAtlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank has restructured the team's front-office structure.
"What's different this time around is we ended up with one or more coaching candidates that are going to be playing on Sunday," Blank said. "That by itself and the NFL rules, which I agree with, are very specific. ... Certainly it's a lot more challenging. The patience of our organization was certainly really tested. But we felt we needed to make the right long-term decision, not the right short-term decision."

Blank was asked if he decided at some point during the process that a defensive-minded coach would be the best fit moving forward.

"No," Blank responded. "It's not about offense or defense. You're really hiring a CEO for a football team and a leader who can hire the best coordinators and position coaches. Whatever side of the ball, you expect the head coach to be the head coach of the offense and the defense and the special teams. And that was one of our goals. Whatever history he may have had was interesting, but not something that affected the process."

Blank was asked how much power the new coach would have over the 53-man roster.

"I don't like the word power," he said. "I don't like to use it personally. I don't like to use it professionally. What we want to build is an organization that depends on partnership and collaboration. And I think the head coach candidate that was selected is a firm believer in that and has demonstrated that over a long period of time.

"If you look at the most successful franchises -- these two that are playing Sunday (New England and Seattle) and others in the history of the NFL -- you'll see a tremendous amount of closeness, collaboration and partnership between personnel and coaching. And when the draft pick is made, the team is taking the name off the board. When there's a free-agent signing, then the team is signing that player."

Speaking of power, the Falcons did some front-office restructuring earlier in the month, taking away general manager Thomas Dimitroff's responsibilities related to the draft and free agency and putting the onus on assistant general manager Scott Pioli in those areas. From the outside look in, it looks like Blank lost some confidence in Dimitroff's ability to evaluate talent.

"Absolutely not," Blank said when asked if he lost confidence in Dimitroff. "I think it's an opportunity for Thomas to continue to use his talents, and he will from a talent-evaluation standpoint. He'll be heavily involved. But he'll be more dependent on Scott Pioli and his talents. And their ability to work together is a credit to both of them. Now, they've each worked for each other, which is unique in an organization.

"Again, I think the word power is not appropriate. We have two people with extraordinary backgrounds in personnel. Scott, in my opinion, was underutilized in his first year with us. He's got a rich background from New England. And draft-wise, he got very high grades from Kansas City, although he's obviously not there. And Thomas was named executive of the year twice in the NFL. It's clearly a matter of how do we maximize the talent that we have in the building and take advantage of the best resources that we have to produce the best product we can. I think this alignment allows Thomas to still be heavily involved, where he should be, but it allows Scott to run the draft process or the free-agency process. And obviously, they're both dealing with the new head coach."

Dimitroff and the new coach will report separately to Blank. Pioli will report to Dimitroff.

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