Falcons' young defense bolstered by improved depth
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Desmond Trufant has returned from a 2016 season-ending pectoral injury to find himself in a new role among Falcons defensive backs.
Only 26 and entering his fifth season as the team's top cornerback, Trufant suddenly is the veteran of the unit. Safety Kemal Ishmael also is entering his fifth year, but hasn't been a full-time starter.
Trufant seemed startled by the realization after Thursday's opening practice of training camp.
''We're young,'' Trufant said. ''I'm 26 and I'm probably the oldest guy in the (defensive backs) room.''
There is similar youth throughout the defense. That's why Trufant and the Falcons believe the defense is still on the rise after its strong late-season performance helped propel the team to the Super Bowl.
Atlanta's top two picks in the last three NFL drafts with coach Dan Quinn have been defensive players, including first-rounders Vic Beasley in 2015, Keanu Neal in 2016 and Takkarist McKinley this year.
Atlanta led the NFL in scoring in 2016 and quarterback Matt Ryan was the league's MVP. The high-scoring offense overshadowed dramatic improvement by the defense. Four rookies and four second-year players started much of the year on defense.
The Falcons held four of the last six regular-season opponents under 20 points. They also were tough on defense against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the NFC championship game. Atlanta led 31-0 before giving up its first points in the second half of the 44-21 win.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, a similarly impressive strong defensive first half against New England in the Super Bowl wasn't enough. Atlanta led 28-3 in the third quarter before a tired defense wilted and the Patriots rallied for a 34-28 overtime win.
Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett's three sacks of Tom Brady were not enough to stop the comeback. Jarrett is entering his third season.
It was clear the young defense needed more depth. That was the focus this offseason.
McKinley, a defensive end from UCLA, and LSU linebacker Duke Riley were the first two draft picks. Safety Damontae Kazee was added in the fifth round. Key free-agent signings included a run-stopping defensive tackle in Dontari Poe, and defensive end Jack Crawford.
Beasley led the NFL with 15 + sacks in 2016, and the Falcons hope Crawford adds more pass-rush help from the other end.
The moves made Trufant, the team's top cover corner, excited to rejoin the defense.
''This is definitely the fastest team I've played for, the deepest team I've played for and the closest team,'' Trufant said. ''I think that's the biggest thing. We're a tight group. ... We know we've got a lot of talent and we know we can go as far as we want.''
Quinn said Trufant, who signed a five-year, $68.75 million contract extension in the offseason, appeared to be fully recovered from the injury suffered in November.
''The fact he got cleared at the end of minicamp was good so we knew we had a really long window over the summer,'' Quinn said. ''... His speed, his strength were good.''
Quinn said defensive end Adrian Clayborn also has made a strong recovery from biceps surgery.
Meanwhile, McKinley was limited in his first practice following surgery in March to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Quinn said McKinley's right arm ''looked very normal'' when punching a blocking pad. ''He didn't look like he was guarding it,'' Quinn said.
Quinn said he hopes McKinley, wide receiver Julio Jones (foot) and wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (strained lower leg) will join full team drills next week.
NOTES: There was no update on efforts to negotiate a contract extension for RB Devonta Freeman, who left practice briefly due to sickness and was not available for interviews. ... Jones showed no indication he was favoring his foot as he soared high for a catch.
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