Cover 9@9: Falcons’ T.J. Yates took the ‘great coach one day’ hint

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Atlanta pass specialist T.J. Yates, a onetime Falcons quarterback, discusses his duties with the team and returning to home state.

Credit: AJC

1. The no spin zone. Falcons passing-game specialist T.J. Yates took the hint.

“When you’re kind of at the end of your playing career and all of your coaches start telling you that you’re going to be a great coach one day, that’s usually a sign that it’s about time to hang it up on the playing side,” Yates said Tuesday.

ExploreFalcons open 2021 season at home against Eagles

After playing in the NFL from 2011-18, Yates, a former Pope High and North Carolina standout, spent a year out of football. In 2019, he joined Bill O’Brien’s staff in Houston as an offensive assistant. Last season, he was the assistant quarterbacks coach.

“But being a quarterback, being a backup quarterback especially, you kind of are an extra coach out there on the field,” Yates said. “I’ve always loved this game. Love the ins and outs of it. The X’s and O’s, so it’s always something that I wanted to do.”

Yates, after becoming North Carolina’s career passing-yards leader and setting the single-season mark for passing yards, was drafted in the fifth round by the Texans in 2011.

He was with the Texans from 2011-13 before joining the Falcons in 2014. He went back to the Texans in 2015 before stops in Miami (2016) and Buffalo (2017) before returning for a third-stint with the Texans in 2017.

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Falcons pass specialist T.J. Yates comments on the growth of Matt Ryan as a quarterback and their relationship dating back to his time as his backup.

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Yates played in 22 games and made 10 NFL starts.

After things imploded in Houston last season with O’Brien’s firing, Yates was happy to continue his coaching career in his hometown.

“As a player, everybody’s time comes to an end at some point, and fortunately I had the opportunity to hop right into it,” Yates said. “Bill O’Brien gave me my first job in Houston as a coach. I was happy for my two years there in Houston, but I’m happy to be here in Atlanta.”

Yates and his wife, Amy, are expecting their third child to join boys Carter and Teddy.

“It couldn’t be a more perfect situation for my family and I,” Yates said. “My wife, whose whole side of the family, my whole side of the family, we’re all here still in Atlanta. So, coming from Houston, getting the opportunity to come here and coach, a place where I played, place where I grew up, is kind of like a dream come true. It’s a perfect scenario for my family and I.”

Last season, Yates helped quarterback Deshaun Watson make it to his third Pro Bowl.

So, what does a passing-game specialist do?

“I’m basically going to be working with all of the skill guys: quarterbacks, receivers, running backs and tight ends,” Yates said. " Obviously, specializing in the passing game throughout the season, I’ll be helping with the game-planning in the passing game as well. Not specifically tied to one position, but kind of working with the whole skill set.”

His experience being Matt Ryan’s backup for a season will help.

“I learned so much from Matt when I was a player, being his backup and seeing how he just carries himself on a day-to-day basis,” Yates said. “The type of leader he is. The type of professional that he is. Everything that he just brings to the game is something that you really admire from another quarterback standpoint.”

Yates is hoping they’ll have a good coach-and-player relationship.

“Going into his 14th season, he’s obviously seen it all,” Yates said. “He’s done it all. He’s got so much experience in this game, I hope to continue to learn from him and obviously try to give my perspective as a former player, but now as a coach ... Hopefully, we can continue to grow and help each other out.”

Falcons coach Arthur Smith also played at North Carolina.

“When I was coming in as a freshman he was just starting his first year of coaching there at North Carolina,” Yates said. “We crossed paths for a year. We’ve known each other for a long time and kept up throughout the years. Being in the same division for a long time, the AFC South, we saw each other quite often. We’ve kept up over the years. I’m just grateful for the opportunity that he’s giving me here in Atlanta.”

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

New Falcons running back coach Desmond Kitching comments on the attributes Mike Davis - who was added to roster in offseason - brings to team.

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

2. RB reunion: Falcons running backs coach Desmond Kitchings, a native of Columbia, S.C., averaged 29.3 yards per kickoff return and set a school record with four touchdowns at Furman.

Kitchings was drafted in the seventh round by the Chiefs in 2000. He spent time with the Chiefs, Jets, Colts and Rams before getting into coaching at his alma mater.

He’s made stops at Furman (2004-07), Vanderbilt (2008-10), N.C. State (2012-19) and South Carolina (2020).

He tried to recruit Falcons running back Mike Davis at Vanderbilt when he was coming out of Stephenson High.

“It was good to reconnect with him,” Kitchings said. “I like Mike. I liked him coming out of high school and watching his professional career. I think he can bring something to our team this season.”

3. Hurst has support: While the Falcons elected not to pick up tight end Hayden Hurst’s $5.4 million fifth-year option, tight ends coach Justin Peelle believes there will be plenty of playing time behind prized rookie tight end Kyle Pitts.

Pitts was selected with the fourth overall pick in the NFL draft.

“If you look at coach (Arthur) Smith’s past, he’s a multiple tight end, multiple personnel-grouping (guy),” Peelle said. “Both of those guys, I’m fairly confident, will be on the field at the same time.”

Last season with the Titans, Smith had four tight ends play more than 200 snaps. Smith most frequent formation (35%) was to use “12″ personnel (one running back and two tight ends).

Peelle, who been coaching tight ends since he retired in 2013, studied Hurst when was draft-eligible in 2018.

“Hayden has gotten better,” Peelle said. “You can see his growth as well, getting better, constantly getting better. He’s a guy that plays with tremendous effort. It’s important to him, very unselfish. … You can see him just getting better as well.”

Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst caught a career-best 56 passes for 571 yards in 2020. Hurst will be a free agent after 2021 season

Hurst was drafted in the first round by the Ravens. He was traded to the Falcons before last season for a second-round pick. He caught a career-high 56 passes for 571 yards and six touchdowns.

“He’s doing better at the line of scrimmage,” Peelle said. “I think his routes are clear. I know that’s very vague. He’s moving a little more fluid on the football field. Overall, you could see that he’s playing with a little bit more confidence.

“He had only played the position for a couple of years, if I’m not mistaken, coming out of South Carolina. He was a baseball player. Just that natural growth from getting more reps at the position.”

4. Academic passion: Peelle carved out a 10-year NFL career after starring at Oregon with former Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington.

He was on the Pac-12 All-Academic team all four years and was on the Mackey Award watch list as a senior.

He was drafted in the fourth round by the Chargers in 2002. He played four seasons for the Chargers before stops with the Dolphins (2006-07), the Falcons (2008-10) and 49ers (2011).

“I wasn’t good enough to make a Hall of Fame career out of it, but I have a passion for the game,” Peelle said. “I was very fortunate to play with some really good players. I learned a lot from them.”

He started as an assistant coach in 2013 with the Eagles and helped develop Zach Ertz into a Pro Bowler.

“Then when (I) got into (coaching) and you teach somebody something and they do it and have some success, that’s a really good feeling,” Peelle said. “As hard as these guys work, and these guys do work hard, for them to have success, that’s a satisfying feeling.”

5. Blocking and tackling: One local TV director suggested the Falcons gave Pitts a pass on his blocking duties. Peelle would not hear of such a notion.

“As long as I’m coaching, there will be blocking,” Peelle said. “That’s the way I was I raised, and I believe in the position. That’s why I love the position because you are out-gunned in everything you do.

“You’re blocking a 300-pound defensive end or you’re running a route on a safety who in theory is supposed to be a better athlete, so that’s kind of the chip-on-the-shoulder aspect that I enjoy about it. So, as long as I’m coaching tight ends, we will be blocking.”

Peelle will get some help from veteran tight end Lee Smith, who can help Hurst improve and show Pitts the ropes.

“Lee has been phenomenal,” Peelle said. “Veteran presence. Has done it for a long time. The ultimate team player. He’s been fun on the meetings. He’ll crack a joke. Some of the younger guys might be afraid to ask a question, where Lee will just spit it out.”

Smith won’t shy away from mentoring the other tight ends on the finer points of blocking.

“I’m really pleased that he’s here,” Peelle said. “I think he can be a really good mentor to some of these younger players.”

Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver breaks up a pass to Saints running back Alvin Kamara but can’t come down with the interception during the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver breaks up a pass to Saints running back Alvin Kamara but can’t come down with the interception during the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

6. Oliver noticed. New Falcons secondary coach Jon Hoke noticed that cornerback Isaiah Oliver started to play better after he was moved to nickel back last season.

“Isaiah, I really thought when he moved inside you really saw the player that he definitely can be even more,” Hoke said. “With his instincts, he does have length and short-area quickness. He’s also instinctive, and he’s physical in there. I thought when I saw him start playing inside, you could see his confidence grow. I thought he did a nice job.”

The nickel-back role is important in defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ attack.

“He’s asked to do multiple things,” Hoke said. “He’s part-linebacker at times in the run game, he’s got have a skill set to cover.”

Oliver was drafted in the second round of the 2018 draft out of Colorado to replace right cornerback Robert Alford. He started 12 of 16 games last season and struggled outside until the move inside.

Stanford Cardinal center Drew Dalman (51) in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Boulder, Colo. Colorado won 16-13. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Stanford Cardinal center Drew Dalman (51) in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Boulder, Colo. Colorado won 16-13. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

7. Offensive line fixed? Can rookies Jalen Mayfield and Drew Dalman solve the Falcons’ woes at left guard and center, respectively?

Dalman, who was taken in the fourth round, will be in a competition with Matt Hennessy, who was drafted in the third round last season. The Falcons must replace former Pro Bowler Alex Mack, who was not re-signed.

“Just with Drew and what he brings in when you watch his film, how he led that Stanford offense,” new offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford said. “Being a captain and just the things that he showed on film. He’s got some great traits at that center position as well. It’s going to be a fun competition that you’re going to see there.”

Mayfield likely will be in an “all-comers” battle for the left guard spot. Hennessy, Matt Gono, Josh Andrews were all mentioned as possible left guard candidates by Ledford, who’s preaching position “fluidity.”

He didn’t rule out Dalman, who played at Stanford, starting as a rookie.

“When you look at that center position, that’s somebody that’s used to running the show, used to going out there making the calls, getting everybody on the same page, really taking charge,” Ledford said. “Knowing the offense inside and out and getting everybody on that same page.”

Dalman, whose father, Chris Dalman, played in the NFL and was an assistant coach with the Falcons, made the calls at Stanford.

“He’s coming in (from) running a system that was very similar to a NFL system,” Ledford said. “It’s a lot of similarities there, so they are used to that. Now, obviously everything is going to get sped up. The guys that you are going against are bigger, faster and stronger, and everything happens a lot faster.”

Ledford believes Dalman has the leadership skills to get everyone on the same page.

“I don’t feel, I’m not apprehensive at all in saying that a rookie ... can go in there and play center in the NFL his first year,” Ledford said. “I think that obviously you have to see that once they get here, once you put them in certain situations and see how they kind of progress throughout our offseason and in camp to see how they handle all of that.”

Ledford noted that Mayfield also played in a pro-style offense at Michigan.

8. McGary and Lindstrom: Ledford has met right tackle Kaleb McGary and right guard Chris Lindstrom through virtual meetings.

“Very pleased with it, my interactions that I’ve had with them through this Phase 1 on virtual meetings and stuff like that,” Ledford said. “The guys, all of the guys, have been great with these. They have been very engaging, asking great questions. We’ve kind of just been going through things.”

Ledford knows Lindstrom, who played at Boston College, from his days in the ACC at N.C. State. “I think very highly of both of them,” Ledford said. “I’m excited to get to work with both of them.”

9. Depth chart: The Falcons released kicker Elliott Fry on Tuesday.

Fry, who was on the practice squad for 12 weeks last season, played in one game for the Falcons. He made his lone field-goal attempt and was 1-of-2 on extra-point attempts in a 30-16 loss to Green Bay on Oct. 5.

Fry, who played at South Carolina, signed with the Chicago Bears after the 2019 NFL draft. He also spent time with Baltimore, Carolina and Tampa Bay.

Also, the Falcons moved their former defensive ends to outside linebackers on their official roster as their first acknowledgment that the base defense will be a 3-4. All of the defensive linemen don’t have a designation if they are a tackle, nose tackle or defensive end. They are just random, line-up-anywhere defensive linemen, for now.

Also, Matt Gono is listed as a tackle and not a guard, where he started a game at last season.

Here’s the depth chart heading into next week’s rookie minicamp:

OFFENSE

WR 11 Julio Jones, 13 Christian Blake, 86 Antonio Nunn

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 74 Jake Batho, 75 Kion Smith

LG 77 Jalen Mayfield, 66 Willie Wright, 64 Ryan Neuzil

C 61 Matt Hennessy, 68 Josh Andrews, 67 Drew Dalman

RG 63 Chris Lindstrom, 62 Bryce Hargrove, 65 Joe Sculthorpe

RT 76 Kaleb McGary, 73 Matt Gono, 71 Willie Beavers

TE 81 Hayden Hurst, 8 Kyle Pitts, 85 Lee Smith, 87 Jaeden Graham, 80 Ryan Becker, 89 John Raine

WR 83 Russell Gage, 16 Greg Dortch, 82 Austin Trammel

WR 18 Calvin Ridley, 88 Frank Darby

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 5 AJ McCarron, 15 Feleipe Franks

HB 28 Mike Davis, 84 Cordarrelle Patterson, 30 Qadree Ollison, 36 Tony Brooks-James, 25 Javian Hawkins, 42 Caleb Huntley

FB 40 Keith Smith

DEFENSE

DL 55 Steven Means, 95 Ta’Quon Graham, 79 Chris Slayton, 46 Eli Howard

DL 97 Grady Jarrett, 90 Marlon Davidson, 94 Deadrin Senat, 93 Zac Dawe

DL 96 Tyeler Davison, 99 Jonathan Bullard, 50 John Cominsky

OLB 56 Dante Fowler, 92 Adetokunbo Ogundeji, 59 Alani Pututau

ILB 45 Deion Jones, 51 Brandon Copeland 53 Erroll Thompson

ILB 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 43 Mykal Walker, 48 Dorian Etheridge

OLB 91 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 52 Barkevious Mingo, 49 Kobe Jones

RCB 20 Kendall Sheffield, 22 Fabian Moreau, 29 Chris Williamson

LCB 24 A.J. Terrell, 33 Tyler Hall, 34 Darren Hall, 38 Marcus Murphy, 41 J.R. Pace

NCB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 25 Delrick Abrams, 35 Avery Williams

FS 23 Erik Harris, 27 Richie Grant, 39 T.J. Green, 37 Dwayne Johnson

SS 32 Jaylinn Hawkins

SPECIALISTS

K 7 Younghoe Koo

P 4 Sterling Hofrichter, 9 Dom Maggio

LS 47 Josh Harris

KO 7 Younghoe Koo

KR 84 Cordarrelle Patterson, 14 Chris Rowland, 35 Avery Williams

PR 14 Chris Rowland, 35 Avery Williams

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