Finneran makes the most of his chances

Brian Finneran

FLOWERY BRANCH - For all the fuss made over Michael Jenkins' promotion, Peerless Price's demotion and the talent of Roddy White, no one thought to ask Jim Mora about Brian Finneran.

The Atlanta Falcons' head coach insists that Finneran, a seventh-year receiver, stands a good chance to win a starting job. Jenkins and Dez White are currently listed as the No. 1 respective flanker and wideout, but Mora's endorsement of Finneran was surprising to those who considered the former Villanova standout no more than No. 5.

"It makes you feel good and it gives you a good sense of security and belonging when the head coach is talking about you like that," Finneran said Wednesday. "It also makes you keep playing up to that standard, you know?"

Mora praised the work in training camp of Finneran, who caught three passes for 25 yards and a touchdown in the Falcons' preseason victory in Japan last week over Indianapolis.

"I wouldn't put it past Finn to show up as a starter," Mora said. "I don't know. We'll see what happens with he and Dez and Roddy and Mike and Peerless. Those five specifically, in my mind, it's still up in the air. I'd like to see someone else emerge to compete with that group, but I haven't seen it yet."

Given that Jenkins and Roddy White joined the team as first-round draft picks the last two years, it's clear the Falcons envision them as starters of the future. Jenkins already elevated himself past Price on the first day of camp, but the rookie White apparently has no chance to win a job before the Sept. 12 season opener.

"The only way Roddy is going to see the field right now is through special teams," Mora said. "He hasn't earned a position in our offensive system yet. Hopefully he will. Hopefully all those guys will."

Finneran used special teams as his platform to become a starter in 2002. He was a grinder from the day he joined the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1998. It was clear, during a three-game stop in Philadelphia the following year and upon his arrival on the Atlanta practice squad in December 1999, that special teams was his golden ticket.

Falcons special teams coach Joe DeCamillis loved that Finneran was aggressive and willing to do anything. The kid from Mission Viejo, Calif., eventually worked his way onto the field in four- and then three-receiver sets.

When he earned a starting role alongside Shawn Jefferson three years ago, Finneran had two 100-yard games, but more importantly he continued a trend of making big catches. Of his 135 career receptions, 112 have gone for a first down or touchdown.

Finneran owes some of his NFL staying power to the receiver's role in the Atlanta offense. As was the case under former head coach Dan Reeves, Finneran is asked to do a lot of downfield blocking for offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.

Much of the understanding he's gained in taking out linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks goes back to the skills he learned in punt return, punt coverage, kickoff return, kickoff coverage and field-goal defense.

"If I wasn't playing special teams in my first, second or third year out here, I wasn't going to be on the field at all," Finneran said. "It gives you a chance to go against guys you're going to see on defense. You can how you size up and match up against them on cover teams, see if you can be a football player and make tackles downfield."

Jenkins last year caught just seven passes because the coaching staff knew Warrick Dunn, Michael Vick and T.J. Duckett could move the offense on the ground. Equally important was Jenkins' ability to excel on special teams, the message being that you earn your stripes no other way.

"I think when you demand that they play that role, then they understand there's more than just going out there and catching balls," Mora said. "We're very demanding of our receivers, as it is, in the run game. It moves them out of that role where they say, 'I'm here to catch passes.' You're not here to catch passes. You're here to help the team win the game that we're playing. We do that with all our young players."

So it's no surprise to Brian Finneran that Roddy White, despite his ability to separate easily from coverage and make difficult catches, must prove himself first under DeCamillis. Finneran worked last year on punt return, punt coverage and kickoff coverage. He will have at least two of the roles again this season.

"I thought it was really nice to see Jenkins do that last year," Finneran said, "and hopefully Roddy will do the same thing for us this year."

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