Welcome to the Cover 9@9 blog — our weekly list of nine things that you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons.
1. The no-spin zone. Falcons assistant head coach/linebackers Jeff Ulbrich has big plans for middle linebacker Deion Jones.
“Deion is a guy that I see has the potential to be the best middle linebacker in the NFL,” Ulbrich said on Tuesday. “ I really do.”
Jones, drafted in the second round in 2016 and started Super Bowl LI as a rookie, made the Pro Bowl in 2017.
He suffered a broken foot and missed most of the 2018 season. Last season, Jones had 110 tackles last season and a walk-off interception in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay.
“In this game that we play today, it’s all about matchups and athleticism, space and a lot of grass,” Ulbrich said. “He’s custom made for that because he’s got so much speed and athleticism.”
Jones is not without flaws.
“At the same time, there are parts of his game that he’d acknowledge that he can take to the next level,” Ulbrich said. “I’m not going to say that he has huge glaring weaknesses, because I don’t think that’s the case, but I think that there is another place he can go in areas of his game that aren’t his strengths.”
Ulbrich, who may have to part ways with strongside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell via free agency, believes Jones has the correct mindset to improve.
“He’s ready to do that,” Ulbrich said. “As a team, if we get that much more out of him and he goes to that space that is really borderline elite now, we are only that much better because of it. It will be exciting to see what he brings to the table this year.”
2. Morris on Lupoi. Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris likes defensive line coach/ends Tosh Lupoi’s presentation skills.
“His presentation is one of his major strengths,” Morris said. “He’s going to be able to present to Takk (McKinley) and those guys, up front and how we want to get after the quarterback and some of the things we want to do.”
3. Morris on Whitt. Morris believes that Whitt will take charge of the secondary.
“You’re talking about detailed, a communicator and a guy with a wealth of experience coming from Green Bay and Cleveland,” Morris said. “He’s been in (the league) for a long time. He actually coached here.
“We’ve coached some common people like DeAngelo Hall. He coached him here and I coached him in Washington. Good guy. Lots of experience”
Morris believes that Whitt could call the defense and may be a head coaching candidate one day.
“I don’t want to put those kind of expectations on anybody,” Morris said.
4. Falcons are in salary-cap hell: The fans have voted and over 60 percent believe the Falcons are in salary-cap hell despite the protests of general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
5. NFLPA vote. The players have until Saturday to vote. The league pushed back the franchise and transition tag dates until Monday.
» STORY: Mack voted NFLPA new treasurer
6. Campbell watch. Ulbrich is coming to grips with the fact that he may have to part ways with Campbell and that his daughter may have to find a new baby sitting job.
“Of course, I’m hoping that we get De’Vondre back,” Ulbrich said. “Here’s a guy … that’s what’s unique about this franchise, you know we build deep connections with our players. To spend four years with De’Vondre and to have him as a rookie, you get to know him at such an intimate level.
“He’s a guy where my daughter watches his kids, babysits his kids and we have a deep connection in that way. To see him grow as a player and as a man, it’s a guy that I would love to continue on with.”
However, the Falcons are going to allow Campbell to become a free agent next week. The team is hoping that they can still somehow retain his services.
“But at the same time, I recognize this business and you can’t pay everybody. … We understand the cap restraints that you can’t sign everybody. So, ultimately at the end of the day, selfishly, I want him here, but the reality is that I want the best for him and his family. It may not be here, and that’s the truth of it.”
7. Trufant, Neal updates. Morris and defensive backs coach Joe Whitt Jr. are hoping to get cornerback Desmond Trufant (broken forearm) and safety Keanu Neal (ruptured Achilles) back from season-ending injuries in the 2020.
“He came on last year and probably had one of his more productive seasons,” Morris said of Trufant. “Grabbing four picks … he had two in one game and two in another. He played well. We look forward to all of those guys coming back.”
Whitt was hired after the season and has studied the film from last season. He’s also high on Trufant.
“I thought he was having a good year, too,” Whitt said. “When I put on the film and started evaluating Game 1, Tru did a good job of getting his hands on people early. Just like I was saying Isaiah (Oliver) wasn’t doing early in the year, but Tru was. Tru, I had him in the Pro Bowl a couple of years ago. He’s a great kid, and I’m excited to work with him because he has a lot of good football in front of him.”
Neal, a year after coming back from a knee surgery, has a longer road to recovery.
“He’s got to come back healthy,” Morris said. “Health is the No. 1 priority for him. We won’t get to see Keke to when we get going in training camp. I don’t know what his timeline is going to be.”
» DRAFT UPDATE: Falcons not awarded any comp picks
8. Roster moves. Defensive end Steven Means, who missed last season with an Achilles injury, agreed to terms on a one-year contract with the Falcons on Monday.
Also, offensive tackle Lukayus McNeil was waived.
Means played in eight games in 2018 and made four starts.
Means and Chicago linebacker Khalil Mack played three collegiate seasons together (2010-12) at Buffalo. Means finished fourth on the school’s all-time sack list and the more celebrated Mack, finished first.
» Story: NFL Career: By any Means necessary
Means, who will turn 30 in September, is 6-foot-3 and 263 pounds. He was drafted by Tampa Bay in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, but has had trouble sticking with a team in the NFL.
With the Falcons down a defensive end, Means, impressed the coaching staff over the final three games of the 2018 season.
He has also spent time with Philadelphia and Baltimore.
The Falcons are thin along the defensive line.
They elected not to re-sign Vic Beasley and defensive end Adrian Clayborn and defensive tackles Tyeler Davison and Jack Crawford are all set to become unrestricted free agents at the start of the new league year on March 18.
McNeil was signed to the Falcons’ practice squad on Oct. 3, 2019, and signed a reserve/future contract on Dec. 30, 2019.
9. Depth chart. Based on who’s headed to free agency and who’s not expected back, here’s our projected post-scouting combine Falcons’ depth chart:
WR 11 Julio Jones, 13 Christian Blake, 19 Devin Gray
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 75 John Wetzel
LG 73 Matt Gono, 77 James Carpenter, 64 Sean Harlow
C 51 Alex Mack
RG 63 Chris Lindstrom, 68 Jamon Brown
RT 76 Kaleb McGary, 74 Ty Sambrailo,
TE 80 Luke Stocker, 87 Jaeden Graham, 85 Carson Meier
WR 18 Calvin Ridley, 83 Russell Gage, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus, 15 Brandon Powell
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 6 Kurt Benkert, 16 Danny Etling
RB 25 Ito Smith, 32 Qadree Ollison, 23 Brian Hill, 42 Craig Reynolds
FB 40 Keith Smith (Team wants to re-sign)
DE 56 Steven Means, 55 Austin Larkin
DT 97 Grady Jarrett,
DT 94 Deadrin Senat
DE 93 Allen Bailey, 50 John Cominsky
DE 99 Takk McKinley 91 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner
LB 54 Foyesade Oluokun
LB 45 Deion Jones, 52 Ahmad Thomas
CB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 43 Jamar Taylor, 39 C.J. Reavis
CB 20 Kendall Sheffield, 28 Jordan Miller
SS 22 Keanu Neal, 32 Johnathan Cyprien, 41 Sharrod Neasman, 29 J.J. Wilcox
FS 27 Damontae Kazee, 37 Ricardo Allen, 35 Jamal Carter
K 7 Younghoe Koo
KO 7 Younghoe Koo
P 9 Ryan Allen, 9 Sam Irwin-Hill
LS 47 Josh Harris
H 9 Ryan Allen
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