Falcons Face Issues Entering Training Camp
By D. Orlando Ledbetter, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Falcons, like most teams in the NFL, have a major cloud hanging over their heads as they are set to open training camp.
Of the 32 teams in the league, 31 entered the weekend still negotiating with their first-round picks, after Dez Bryant agreed to terms with the Cowboys on Thursday.
After the Falcons moved swiftly to sign their other five picks, negotiations with Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon are moving at a snail's pace.
Last season, the Falcons' talks with veteran wide receiver Roddy White became protracted, and he held out the first six days of training camp.
Weatherspoon, who is expected to contend for playing time, will be hurt much more by missed practice time.
Here's a look at four key issues the Falcons face before players report to training camp Thursday.
1. Getting Weatherspoon signed
He was the 19th player taken in the draft, and during the offseason, the coaches spent a great deal of time teaching him both outside linebacker positions.
Weatherspoon's growth could be stunted if he misses a great deal of practice time.
Veterans know the rhythm of training camp and how to get ready for an NFL season. That is foreign to Weatherspoon, who will be expected to contribute on special teams and will fight for playing time in the base and nickel defenses.
It appears that NFL teams are waiting for players taken at the top of the draft to set the market. (Bryant was the 24th pick.) However, the Falcons could be trailblazers and give Weatherspoon an increase over what the 19th pick --- Philadelphia's Jeremy Maclin --- received last year. Maclin signed a five-year, $15.5 million deal.
2. Who's in the rehab room?
The Falcons have three key players battling back from knee surgeries: defensive tackle Peria Jerry, wide receiver Harry Douglas and cornerback Brian Williams.
Jerry, last season's first-round draft pick, is being heavily counted on to anchor the interior of the defense.
Douglas is expected to win the No. 3 wide-receiver position and possibly compete for the No. 2 spot. He could provide a nice slot option for the passing attack if he can make it back and build off his solid rookie season of 2008.
Williams was the team's starting left cornerback last season before his injury. If healthy, he will compete for the starting spot opposite Dunta Robinson.
3. Is a suspension on the way?
Offensive lineman Quinn Ojinnaka and linebacker Robert James have been suspended by the league for one and four games, respectively.
The team is waiting to hear from the league on how long defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux will be suspended under the player-conduct policy. Babineaux entered a plea of no contest to a misdemeanor drug charge in Gwinnett County. He's on 12 months' probation and paid a fine.
4. How will the secondary adjust to a new coach?
The secondary was the troubled unit on the team last season, as the Falcons finished 28th in the league against the pass. They revamped the personnel and switched coaches from Emmitt Thomas to Tim Lewis. In addition to signing Robinson in free agency, they traded former starter Chris Houston and released reserve Tye Hill.
Lewis came highly recommended by Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis, who's more than a coaching buddy to Falcons coach Mike Smith. Lewis, a former defensive coordinator, will be charged with whipping the secondary, especially the cornerbacks, into shape.