Falcons Expected To Fly High In 2003
Between their off-season moves and playoff win over the Packers last season, the Atlanta Falcons are one team the football world will be watching closely as the 2003 season draws closer.
After advancing past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since their 1998 Cinderella Super Bowl run with a 27-7 win over Green Bay at Lambeau Field last January, the Falcons added several key players this off-season to raise expectations both inside and outside of their locker room.
Two new wide receivers, Peerless Price and MarTay Jenkins, were brought in to give superstar-in-the-making quarterback Michael Vick more speed down the field. Veteran wideout Brian Finneran, who led the squad in 2002 with 56 catches, 838 receiving yards, and six touchdowns, was re-signed as was veteran Trevor Gaylor. "There are plenty of receivers," Vick said after one of the team's Throwing Camp workouts last week. "It's great to have a variety of guys that you can throw to, guys that have different kinds of talents and guys that can make different plays on the field at different spots."
"It's great to have a variety of guys that you can throw to, guys that have different kinds of talents and guys that can make different plays on the field at different spots."
Price, who was acquired in a March trade with Buffalo, established himself as one of the league's most dangerous receivers and hauled in 232 catches for 3,302 yards and 22 touchdowns in four seasons with the Bills. Last season, he posted career-highs with 94 receptions, 1,252 yards and nine scores in earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
Jenkins was signed as an unrestricted free agent from Arizona where he spent the last four seasons. A burner who also returned kickoffs for the Cardinals, Jenkins can outrun most defenders that will line up against him.
But new receivers working with a new quarterback, who happens to throw left-handed, takes some time to come together. That's one of the reasons the Falcons were on the field under a hot Georgia sun last week. "We've been out here running routes and throwing with the quarterbacks trying to get our timing down," Jenkins offered after Friday's workout. "Now, we can come out here and have a defender and get the timing down, it's been working out in our favor."
Jenkins appeared in just eight games last season due to a fractured scapula suffered in an early November game. For the year, he caught 21 passes for 250 yards and one touchdown and returned 20 kicks for 559 yards (28.0-yard average) and one touchdown. He was also named the NFC's Special Teams Player of the Week for his 95-yard kickoff return at Seattle on September 5.
In addition to the newcomers, Finneran was a 16-game starter in 2002 when he established career highs in all major receiving categories. Gaylor also registered career-bests in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns.
Complimenting the passing game and Vick's own rushing attack is the thunder and lightning running back combination of truck-like T.J. Duckett and the elusive Warrick Dunn.
Duckett racked up 507 yards in 12 games (three starts) as a rookie in 2002. His season was hindered by a knee injury but Duckett is confident his off-season training has him healthy again. "It feels good," he said of the injury. "I was working and getting my body together (this off-season). It's going to be a big year, so I'm trying to get my body in the best shape possible."
Dunn, a seven-year NFL veteran, started 14 games in 2002 in his first season with Atlanta. He rushed for 927 yards and seven touchdowns and added 377 yards and two scores out of the backfield.
But not all the Falcons' moves came on the offensive side of the ball. Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Brooking, who has evolved into the heart and soul of the Atlanta defense, was re-signed before he could test the free-agent market. The team also used its second-round draft pick in April's draft on Penn State cornerback Bryan Scott and brought in free agent linebacker Keith Newman, and defensive backs Cory Hall and Tyrone Williams.
Newman, who spent his entire four-year career with the Bills, played in all 16 games and had 10 starts in 2002. He was second among Bills linebackers with 46 tackles and three sacks. He also had two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. "For a big man, he runs around really well," Brooking said of his new position-mate. "And he's been in (defensive coordinator) Wade (Phillips)' defense, so that's a plus."
Hall was signed by Atlanta in early March after playing both free and strong safety during his four-year career with the Cincinnati Bengals. He missed the first games of his career last year due to a shoulder injury but still posted 71 tackles, two sacks and one interception. "I can guarantee speed," Hall said of what he will add to the Falcons secondary. "I can guarantee aggressive play. They're putting me in the position to get interceptions, too."
Williams, a six-year starter in Green Bay, finished the 2002 regular season fifth on team in tackles with 71, including one sack and a career-high three forced fumbles. He also had one interception among 11 passes defensed.
"From a defensive standpoint, the backfield has improved dramatically," Brooking said. "(Bryan) Scott looks really good. He's moving well and he's a physical-type corner that we really need, that's going to play a lot of press and a lot of cover two. He can get in those receivers' faces and jam them and get physical with them. Cory Hall has been very impressive; Tyrone Williams and all our other acquisitions in the defensive backfield have really impressed me."
With major additions on both sides of the ball, an impressive 2002 campaign, and the continuing development of Vick and the offense as a whole, the Falcons will be expected to fly even higher in 2003 than they did last year.