Falcons Experience Total Defensive Overhaul

DT Peria Jerry (Getty)

Almost as soon as the gun sounded in the playoff loss to Arizona, the Falcons started rebuilding their defense. Five starters -- linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, safety Lawyer Milloy, cornerback Domonique Foxworth and defensive tackle Grady Jackson -- were not re-signed or were let go.

They appear to have plausible replacements, acquired through the draft or free agency, for four of the positions. Thomas DeCoud and second-round pick William Moore will get a shot at replacing Milloy at strong safety. Also, Jamaal Fudge, who started one game last season at strong safety, is available.

Third-year man Stephen Nicholas will take over for Boley. He hasn't been a full-time starter but excelled on special teams. Former Jacksonville starter Michael Peterson was signed during free agency to take over for Keith Brooking at weak-side linebacker.

Defensive tackle Peria Jerry, the Falcons' first-round pick, will get a shot at Jackson's old nose guard spot. The battle to replace Foxworth at left cornerback will rage deep into training camp.

Biggest move: While defense was the focus, the biggest offseason move was acquiring future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. He was added to help improve the passing game and provide young quarterback Matt Ryan with a proficient safety blanket.

Key loss: The Falcons wanted to keep Foxworth, but found the price to be too steep. He took over the position halfway through last season and arguably was the team's best cornerback. Brent Grimes ran with the first-team defense throughout the offseason, but he'll face stiff competition from Chevis Jackson, Von Hutchins and third-round draft pick Chris Owens. Hutchins could be the X-factor. He was signed last season as a free agent to a four-year, $9 million contract.

But he suffered a Lisfranc fracture when a defensive end stepped on his left foot during a drill. A day later he was put on injured reserve, and his season was over.

"He's still working his way back in slowly," defensive backs coach Alvin Reynolds said. "He's playing at nickel back trying to develop the depth at that position. He's a guy that adds some veteran presence to us and provides some leadership. We need a guy like Von Hutchins, especially with all our young guys."

Needs addressing: If no one steps forward to take control of the left cornerback position, there are still a couple of veterans on the street who could be added into the mix. Also, the Falcons will look at rosters around the league and see if they can't pick off a cornerback late in training camp. They were able to make a move for Foxworth right before the start of the season last year and may have to do the same thing in 2009.

After last season's experience, the Falcons are not afraid to playing young players. General manager Thomas Dimitroff is confident that his coaching staff will get them ready to play.

"I really have felt that it's a settling feeling knowing that we have such experienced football coaches on this team that can help a relatively young football team come together," Dimitroff said. "They did a very nice job with it last year. It puts our mind at ease."

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--Former Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy has maintained a low profile since the Falcons elected not to re-sign him after the 2008 season. Milloy took part in the Walgreens All-Star Football Camp at Holy Innocents' Episcopal School in Buckhead. Milloy, clearly not wanting to burn any bridges, didn't want to discuss his departure from the Falcons or his plans for next season. He has yet to sign with another team.

After the playoff loss in Arizona, Milloy said he wanted to return to Atlanta. Milloy, always a straight shooter over his three seasons with the Falcons, did want to talk about the more than 250 kids, ages 8 to 18, attended the fifth annual camp, which is put on by local super agent Todd France's firm, France's All Pro Athlete Management.

"The camp is good," Milloy said. "We have a good turnout. It was even better yesterday. Anytime that you can have a free camp, that's important, especially in this economy."

Milloy is big on the fitness aspects of the camp. "It helps parents get their kids off the couch and away from their XBox and Wii (computer game) systems and stuff like that," Milloy said. "Just get them out doing some activities. It's important. Health is important. Doing it right with discipline. Those are some of things we are trying to instill in these kids here at the camp."

--The Falcons reached an injury settlement with offensive lineman Alex Stepanovich and released him on Wednesday. Stepanovich, who missed all of the offseason workouts with a back injury, was signed as a free agent in March of 2008. He played in four games last season, mostly on special teams. The Falcons also released wide receiver Khalil Jones, an undrafted rookie free agent.

--The Falcons have announced their training camp schedule, which includes several practices open to the public. The Falcons will hold their training camp scrimmage at Brookwood High School in Snellville on Aug. 7. They will hold a mock game at the Georgia Dome on Aug. 8. The team will hold 28 practices from Aug. 1-14 before facing Detroit in its first preseason game Aug. 15.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We are still in underwear, so we can't hit anybody." -- Falcons offensive line coach Paul Boudreau on how it's hard to evaluate his unit in OTA workouts.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Falcons' quarterback position is stable at the top with the drafting of Matt Ryan last season. At least, the No. 1 spot is locked down. The battle in training camp could for the backup spot between Chris Redman and D.J. Shockley is one to watch. Both are entering the last year of their contracts. It's unlikely that both of them will be retained. Also, undrafted rookie free agent John Parker Wilson could have a clear shot to the No. 3 positions.

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