NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

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.

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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.

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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.

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"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.
Another member of the previous Atlanta Falcons coaching staff could remain with incoming head coach Dan Quinn.

Running backs coach Gerald Brown, who interviewed for the same position in Oakland, is not going to join the Raiders' staff, according to sources -- an indication that Brown could be retained by the Falcons.

If that comes to fruition, Brown would join special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, defensive line coach Bryan Cox, wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie and tight ends coach Wade Harman (formerly the assistant offensive line coach) as holdovers from Mike Smith's staff.

Brown just completed his seventh season with the Falcons. Two of his backs have made the Pro Bowl: running back Michael Turner (2008, 2010) and fullback Ovie Mughelli (2010).

The Falcons are likely to upgrade the running back position this offseason. That could mean the release of veteran Steven Jackson, which would create a $3.75 million cap savings for the Falcons. Brown spent plenty of time getting rookie Devonta Freeman up to speed this past season, and Freeman should be a big part of the team's plans moving forward.

Quinn, who is expected to be introduced as the Falcons' 16th head coach next Tuesday, has the bulk of his staff already in place. Besides the aforementioned holdovers, Kyle Shanahan is set to become the offensive coordinator and Richard Smith the defensive coordinator. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris is joining the Falcons as the assistant head coach/defensive backs.
The Atlanta Falcons will name former assistant offensive line coach Wade Harman the team's next tight ends coach, according to multiple league sources.

Harman, who worked alongside offensive line coach Mike Tice last season, came to the Falcons in 2014 following 15 seasons as the Baltimore Ravens' tight ends coach. He is credited with helping the development of former two-time Pro Bowler Todd Heap and working with three-time Super Bowl champ Shannon Sharpe.

Harman will replace Chris Scelfo, who obviously won't be back with the Falcons. As it looks now, the Falcons will retain four assistant coaches from Mike Smith's staff under expected new head coach Dan Quinn: special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie, defensive line coach Bryan Cox and Harman.

Kyle Shanahan will be named the Falcons' new offensive coordinator, while there is a Washington Post report about one-time Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris being Quinn's defensive coordinator.

The Falcons need a makeover at the tight end position, so Harman could help with the process. The team didn't have the luxury of Tony Gonzalez last season, so tight end wasn't a position of strength. Levine Toilolo showed some improvement toward the end of the season, yet his numerous drops early on stunted his growth. Not to mention there wasn't much production from the second tight end, Bear Pascoe.

The Falcons are destined to target a pass-catching tight end either through free agency or the draft. One intriguing name is veteran Owen Daniels, who caught 48 passes for the Ravens this past season. Daniels played under Shanahan with the Houston Texans and caught a career-high 70 passes in Shanahan's offense during the 2008 season.

Toilolo, who caught 31 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns this past season, is signed through 2016. Pascoe is set to become a free agent.

The Falcons are unlikely to announce any coaching moves until Quinn, the Seattle Seahawks' defensive coordinator, is introduced as head coach following the Super Bowl.
Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowl return specialist Devin Hester has the utmost respect for Keith Armstrong, so the last thing Hester wanted to see was his special-teams coordinator end up with another team.

Hester
That won't be the case, as Armstrong is set to return to the Falcons' staff under expected new head coach Dan Quinn, currently the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. The Falcons blocked Armstrong from reuniting with former college teammate Todd Bowles with the New York Jets. If the move frustrated Armstrong, he's likely over it now.

Hester was asked about the significance of having Armstrong back.

"It's very important," Hester told ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss while in Arizona preparing for the Pro Bowl. "I think we finished like No. 2 overall in special teams. At one point, we were No. 1. And that speaks for itself. Coach Keith, he's the type of coach that knows how to get guys rallied up and to not get complacent.

"Guys on special teams, when they have one good game, they tend to relax. But he's the type of coach who is going to keep you going. At the end of the day, he's a players' coach. When things are not going right, he'll come to a veteran player and say, 'Give me your opinion on what we should do.' That speaks volumes. I'm just happy they brought him back. I was hoping they would bring him back."

Armstrong previously worked with Quinn with the Miami Dolphins, so the transition should be a little easier if Quinn gets the Falcons' head-coaching job. At the same time, all indication were Armstrong seriously wanted to join Bowles in New York.

What if Armstrong would have gotten away?

"I think we would have lost the fun, the desire and the emphasis of keeping guys on their toes," Hester said. "There is no relaxing in that special-teams room. If you don't take notes, you're going to get chewed out. He's going to quiz you. He's going to ask you a question out of the blue. And if you mess up, he doesn't care who you are. Me being a veteran guy and all the records that I have and making the Pro Bowl, if I mess up, he's going to get on me just as bad as he's going to get on the rookie. He's just straightforward to everybody."

Armstrong's return should be good news not only for Hester but also for veteran special-teamer Eric Weems, who led the Falcons with 11 special-teams tackles this past season. Weems is set to become a free agent but should be one of the priority players the team tries to re-sign along with kicker Matt Bryant and safety Dwight Lowery.

"I know Coach Keith is going to bring him back," Hester said of Weems. "That's his dirty-worker right there. Weems makes special teams so much easier for Coach Keith. If they don't bring (Weems) back, that's going to be very shocking."
The Atlanta Falcons don't even have their head coach yet, officially. However, the pieces of the coaching staff are starting to fall in place with each passing day.

Once Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is named the Falcons' next coach after the Super Bowl, as expected, he'll have at least three holdovers from the previous coaching staff. Wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie, who was the assistant head coach under Mike Smith, is expected to return next season. Robiskie, 60, has been with the Falcons since 2008 and has coached in the league since 1982, so his experience is invaluable, particularly for a first-time head coach as Quinn is about to become.

Not to mention Robiskie has a close bond with receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas; a father-like presence his players respect.

As reported by Fox Sports Tuesday, the Falcons also plan to bring back special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong as well as defensive line coach Bryan Cox. Both Armstrong and Cox have coached with Quinn in the past.

The Falcons parted ways with both coordinators when offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter asked out of his contract to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan packed his things and drove cross country to his home in Denver. Nolan is talking to the Arizona Cardinals about a position.

Offensive line coach Mike Tice also bolted for the Oakland Raiders after the Falcons attempted to block him from leaving the staff. It will be interesting to see how the team proceeds with assistant offensive line coach Wade Harman, who probably would be a capable replacement for Tice and a guy who has familiarity with the current group of offensive linemen.

The Falcons have a least one new assistant coach set to join Quinn. ESPN Insider Adam Schefter reported Kyle Shanahan will be the team's new offensive coordinator.

It is unclear exactly which coach Quinn has in mind for his defensive coordinator. He could pluck someone from the Seahawks' staff, if Pete Carroll allows it. Linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr.'s only experience as a defensive coordinator was at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. Defensive pass game coordinator Rocky Seto was USC's defensive coordinator/secondary coach in 2009.
Veteran defensive end Darryl Tapp became familiar with the compassionate side of Teryl Austin when Tapp was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in 2006 and Austin was the team’s defensive backs coach.

The two lived in the same neighborhood in suburban Issaquah, Washington, so Tapp grew accustomed to seeing Austin outside of the facility.

"Him and his wife always kept tabs on me," said Tapp, a former second-round pick from Virginia Tech. "Going from Virginia, where I grew up, to Seattle, it was really my first time away from home, so he just always checked to see how I was doing. Things like that make you feel good as a player. Not only was he a coach, but he also was a mentor."

Tapp also experienced the fiery side of Austin as recently as this past season. The two were reunited when Tapp signed with the Lions last March, just a few months after Austin was hired by the Lions as a first-time defensive coordinator.

"I think it was last game against Chicago this year, he ripped into us at halftime because we weren’t playing up to our ability," Tapp recalled. "Don’t mistake his kindness for weakness. That guy, he definitely has it all. And it was a true honor to play for him this year."

Tapp is not surprised Austin has become a popular name for head-coach vacancies across the league. Austin was due to arrive in Atlanta from Arizona Wednesday for a second interview with the Falcons following a first interview with the Chicago Bears on Tuesday. He has a chance to win over Falcons owner Arthur Blank, and the talk around the league is Austin delivers quite an impressive presentation.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenDan Quinn uses boxing as part of his training methods. Here, Quinn jokingly squares off with the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch.
But Tapp is also familiar with another highly regarded head coach candidate. Tapp played under Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn when Quinn was the team’s defensive line coach in 2009. Quinn emerged as the favorite for the Falcons job after he delivered the most impressive first interview of all the candidates.

"Coach Quinn is a fighter," Tapp said. "That’s the first thing I’ll always remember about `DQ.’ He came to Seattle my last year and he was, at that point, the best defensive line coach I ever had.

"Coach Quinn always used to show us film on boxers; Mike Tyson, Sonny Liston and all those guys. In the offseason, we did work on our hands from MMA fighting [drills] to help us with our pass rush. And he always taught us how to be better players, to use our individual talents. A lot of coaches in this league do stuff in a cookie-cutter kind of format. Coach Quinn, like Coach Austin, he looks at what your attributes are and what makes you individually successful."

Tapp pointed to current Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett as an example of Quinn shaping and molding a raw talent into an impact talent.

"Michael Bennett was an undrafted free agent my last year in Seattle, when Coach Quinn got on, and I still remember him working with Michael every day to get this guy’s pass-rush ability up to where he could be a great player," Tapp said. "Bennett was able to make the team, but they had to [waive] him and Tampa Bay snatched him up, where he went and made plays. But fortunately he was able to get back to Seattle and work again with Coach Quinn, and now he’s taken off.

"Just see Coach Quinn work with guys to make them better is probably the thing I appreciate the most about him. I actually still have cut-ups of films that Coach Quinn made for me that year in Seattle. I’ve got them on my iPad and I watched them during the season."

In other words, Tapp believes Quinn has the ability to immediately fix a listless Falcons pass rush and an anemic Falcons defense. His Seahawks finished this season ranked first in yards allowed per game (267.1), first in passing yards allowed per game (185.6) and first in points allowed per game (15.9).

Austin’s defense finished first in rushing yards allowed per game (69.3), second in total yards allowed per game (300.9) and tied for second in points allowed per game (17.6).

"I think the best thing that both of them do is they work and use the talent they have on the team and make the scheme where it’s going to put guys in position to make plays," Tapp said. "Those guys can adapt to any situation.

"The definitely both deserve to be head coaches. It’s kind of surreal, though, to see them both as position coaches. I’ve seen the maturation process. Now they’re legitimate head-coaching candidates."
Bart Scott considers Rex Ryan a friend, although Scott experienced some "tough love" while playing under Ryan with both the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets.

One thing the former Pro Bowl linebacker appreciated about Ryan was how candid his ex-coach was about pretty much everything.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesBart Scott, a former NFL player under Rex Ryan, says the coach would do wonders for the Falcons' defense should he take over as head coach.
"He's brutally honest, but he also lets you know that he has your back," said Scott, now an analyst for CBS. "I mean he was able to come to me and say, 'Hey man, we need you to take a pay cut and you're my guy, so I need to come to you first before I go to L.T. (LaDainian Tomlinson) or Calvin Pace. And if you can't take the cut for me, I'm going to have to make some decisions.' He has the ability to be your friend but also understand that this is a business."

Scott believes Ryan would make a smart business decision by joining the Atlanta Falcons, if team owner Arthur Blank extends an offer. Ryan is believed to be Blank's favorite among a list of head-coaching candidates that also includes Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, former Bills coach Doug Marrone, Falcons special teams coach Keith Armstrong, Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Quinn is thought to be near the top of the list with Ryan. Austin and Bowles are scheduled to meet with the Falcons owner over the next two days after Blank had to postpone interviews following the death of his mother.

Although Ryan is getting looks from the 49ers and Bills, Scott firmly believes those jobs don't measure up to the Falcons.

"I think the Falcons are the best situation for Rex to go into," Scott said. "Come on, you're talking about fixing the defense. I'm sure people see how Matt Ryan has played. He hasn't had the defense to get him the ball back.

"Rex Ryan is a head coach/defensive coordinator. Let Rex run the show and start dialing up plays to knock Drew Brees out. Look at his history playing against Cam Newton. Rex knows how to keep Cam in the box. And Tampa Bay? Please. That would be like Homecoming."

Scott even has an idea of how Ryan might reshape the roster from a defensive standpoint. The Falcons are in dire need of a facelift after finishing last in the league in yards allowed per game (398.3 ypg) and tied for second-to-last in sacks (22), among other defensive deficiencies.

While in New York, the Jets' defense went from the 16th-ranked group in 2008 to first after Ryan took over in 2009.

"I think a quick fix for that Atlanta defense is [Jets linebacker] David Harris is up for free agency, and Rex has the ability to bring a guy like that over," Scott said. "He has the ability to bring a guy like [Jets linebacker] Calvin Pace over [via trade] who knows the system and lives in Atlanta. He can bring Harris there to run it if [Sean] Weatherspoon can't stay healthy. If Weatherspoon is healthy, you move him to the spot I used to play and David Harris plays his spot.

"[Safety] Dwight Lowery is already there and he was born and raised in the system, so I think you'll get more out of that player. But then Rex probably has the ability as well to bring a guy like [Cardinals cornerback] Antonio Cromartie to come over opposite Desmond Trufant and slide right in and get instant experience within the defense overnight."

Scott even sees a place for Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai in Ryan's multiple scheme with 3-4 and 4-3 concepts. Remember, the Falcons invested $25 million guaranteed to sign Jackson and Soliai as free agents last season.

"Paul Soliai becomes Haloti Ngata or Kris Jenkins and Tyson Jackson becomes Mike DeVito," Scott said. "I can't say Tyson becomes Mo Wilkerson because he doesn't have the pass-rush ability. So you move Tyson over. Rex also has the ability to bring over a guy like [Jets nose tackle] Kenrick Ellis that can come over and slice Tyson Jackson to that stud end, that Mike DeVito-type end, to the formation. Then Rex just has to find a slippery guy like a Wilkerson who he can move inside. The parts that he needs are available and out there."

Of course, the Falcons are expected to target pass-rushers via free agency and the draft. Ryan, who started in the league as a defensive line coach, understands the importance of stockpiling pass-rushers.

Scott would say Ryan also understands the significance of a solid offense despite what critics might think.

"People always say he doesn't pay attention to offense but he just allows his guys to do their jobs," Scott said. "You think John Fox is going over there and saying, 'Hey Peyton [Manning], run this'? He's a defensive guy. But I guarantee he's going into the defensive room saying, 'Hey, you've got to play this technique.

"You think about a team like the Atlanta Falcons and the last time Rex's defensive system was paired with an offense with capabilities was the 2006 season when we had Steve McNair for the first time. That defense put 60 sacks up, struck fear in anybody in the NFL. Rex has never had a quarterback [as a head coach]. He's never had an offense. He's never had a veteran quarterback."

Rex Ryan would inherit a pretty accomplished one in Matt Ryan, who has passed for more than 4,000 yards each of the last four seasons and has completed 66 percent of his passes or better the past three years. In six seasons with the Jets, Ryan never had a quarterback complete better than 56.7 percent of passes in a season.

"Without a great quarterback, Rex was able to go to two AFC championships," Scott said. "So you give him a quarterback and just imagine how perennial a winner the Atlanta Falcons could be. Just imagine if you give the Falcons a couple of drafts and couple free agents what Rex could do with leads as far as terrorizing that division."

Falcons fans C-A-N-T W-A-I-T to see if it comes to fruition.

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