JUDGE: Aerial arsenal looks good for Falcons

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Clark Judge

The Atlanta made a bold move in the off-season to improve their wide receivers with the addition of , but I¿m not sure who makes a bigger difference — Price or George Stewart.

Don¿t look for Stewart on the roster. You won¿t find him. He¿s the team¿s new wide receivers coach, and the should thank their lucky stars they have him.

Stewart served the last three years as receivers coach in San Francisco, and it was under his direction that developed into the best pass catcher in the game. OK, so he doesn¿t have a in Atlanta, but he has more — a lot more — than was there a year ago, a group that should provide quarterback the targets he missed in 2002.

¿I don¿t know if the situation is better than it was in San Francisco,¿ said Stewart. ¿We had the best receiver in football in . Do we have him here? No, he¿s still in San Francisco. But there¿s a closeness in talent here that you want. In fact, there¿s so much that when one of them gets released I promise you: He won¿t be on the streets long.¿

That¿s not exactly what you¿d call good news for the NFC South. A lack of depth at wide receiver a year ago handicapped the , who still managed to make the playoffs and hang around until a 20-6 loss to Philadelphia. But, in that game, only one wide receiver, , had more than 31 yards in receptions, and he was held to two catches and 30 yards through three quarters.

Still, that led the team¿s wide receivers ... which tells you something. Now, the have Price, , Finneran and a couple of draft picks who should pitch in on special teams, and, suddenly, wide receiver isn¿t the position of need it was a year ago.

Here¿s why: Price had a career-high 94 catches for 1,252 yards and nine touchdowns for Buffalo last season, while the underrated Jenkins was Arizona¿s second-best receiver until bowing out with a shoulder injury. Price gives the the No. 1 receiver they missed a year ago; Jenkins — a special-teams standout — should battle Finneran, Atlanta¿s leading receiver last year with 56 receptions, for the No. 2 job; and we haven¿t even gotten to and , rookies and and free-agent Jimmy Farris.

All are considerations for jobs.

¿The thing I look for in my receivers is toughness,¿ said Stewart. ¿I remember when I was with the , and (then running backs coach) Tom Rathman made a comment about ¿s blocking, and said he hadn¿t seen him block like that since his fifth year in the league. As a former lineman, I believe you have to have a certain amount of toughness — which is what I told Terrell he¿d have to do if he wanted to be the best. You have to make the catches, but you have to be tough, too, because that¿s what people respect. And he lived up to it.¿

The hold practices twice a week for their quarterbacks, wide receivers and backs, and already Stewart likes what he sees. Price is ¿as advertised,¿ he said, which means Vick has a legitimate deep threat; Jenkins is a ¿gym rat who¿s in my office, on the field, asking for more routes — and that¿s on the off-days;¿ Finneran is the experienced veteran who knows the offense so well that on Thursday he questioned Stewart when he called a particular route.

¿You sure that¿s what you want?¿ he asked.

Stewart thought about it, then reconsidered.

¿He was right,¿ he said. ¿He¿s going to help me more than I help him.¿

I don¿t know about that. When the hired George Stewart they wanted him to improve their special teams. He did. When he moved to coach wide receivers they asked him to squeeze as much as he could from Owens. He did. The star receiver led the team in touchdowns every season, never producing fewer than 13; had at least 1,300 in receptions each year and was named to the Pro Bowl three times.

The resume does not lie. George Stewart will help Atlanta.

¿I guess you could say I¿m in the vortex here,¿ he said. ¿The last year were one of the leading teams in rushing (they were fourth); the quarterback was outstanding; the offensive line was good; is going to be a Pro-Bowl tight end; Wade Phillips did a great job with the defense. But the wide receivers were the one group that people said hadn¿t arrived. That¿s not true anymore. If only their coach doesn¿t screw it up, they should be OK.¿

Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address,

Tagged: Falcons, Raiders, 49ers, Michael Vick, Alge Crumpler, Brian Finneran, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, LaTarence Dunbar

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