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PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 5: Atlanta Falcons

Mike Smith AP

Prior to last year, it was fair to wonder if the Falcons were simply fantasy football Hall of Famers, guys who put up great numbers, but weren’t going to win in January.

But head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan broke through the playoff drought by beating the Seahawks, and were a play or two away from a Super Bowl appearance.

That was enough to talk tight end Tony Gonzalez back for one more shot, and with a few strategic offseason additions (though they weren’t able to make many), the Falcons should be in position to make a similar push.

Whether they can get to a Super Bowl will depend on how their defense holds, though they don’t have the pressure of having to be dominant.

Strengths.

The Falcons had a set of offensive skill position personnel to rival any in the league last season.

Then they got better.

By swapping out the old-and-slowing Michael Turner with the old-but-still-effective Steven Jackson, the Falcons upgraded their running game by a significant amount. Turner was a liability most times, still able to pop a 100-yard game occasionally, but no longer able to carry the burden of an offense. Jackson appears still able to do that, and could be a more versatile back, actually able to catch a pass.

Coupled with a smart quarterback in  Ryan, one of the best tight ends in NFL history in  Gonzalez and wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White (it’s no longer Roddy White and Julio Jones), the Falcons catch create matchup problems for most NFL defenses.

Jones is growing into one of the top downfield threats in the game, with the kind of size and speed to make him hard to cover without drawing a defense specifically geared to him.

Weaknesses.

On the other hand, most NFL offenses can create matchup problems for the Falcons defense.

They simply don’t have enough good players on that side of the ball to prevent other teams from moving the ball up and down the field.

They’re assuming Osi Umenyiora will replace the pass-rush they had in John Abraham. But that might be a dangerous assumption, and there isn’t another immediate provider of pressure among the parts on hand. They’re also breaking in rookies throughout the secondary, having jettisoned Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon can be an impact player, but they don’t have enough of those, and the defensive line is a bunch of guys.

They’re not very good stopping the run either, and considering half their division (and a few potential playoff foes) will make that a priority, it’s hard to feel too good about their chances of improving considering the limited additions this offseason.

Changes.

It’s funny, for a team built around an explosive offense, to blow up 60 percent of its offensive line in one offseason.

But that’s what the Falcons did, with the retirement of center Todd McClure and cutting right tackle Tyson Clabo.

Peter Konz will slide to the middle to replace McClure, which is what he was drafted to do, and then a cast of characters will compete for the starting jobs at right guard and right tackle.

Garrett Reynolds will likely get the first crack at the guard job again, and Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes are competing at tackle.

Plus, this assumes they get the Sam Baker of the first few years and the salary push, and not the left tackle that was benched for ineffectiveness in 2011.

It’s a dicey proposition, but with where they were salary cap wise, they need some young players to make jobs their own.

Camp Battles.

It wasn’t that long ago the Falcons were three-deep with expensive corners, built to match up with the Saints.

Now, Asante Samuel is all have left, and they’re stacking kids up and hoping for the best.

They used their first two draft picks on Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, and both should play in the nickel package, with Trufant expected to start opposite Samuel. Robert McClain has played well at times and can be a good reserve, but they needed to add top-end talent to the position (really, to many positions on defense), and this was the area of urgency this year.

They’re going to give Akeem Dent a chance to play nickel, and he’d likely be an upgrade over the solid but exploited-by-tight ends Stephen Nicholas.

They also need some defensive linemen to emerge. Jonathan Babineaux and Kroy Biermann are solid utility linemen, who have served a lot of roles over the years. They have young players in Malliciah Goodman and Cliff Matthews who could win starting jobs, but that may say more about the guys in those jobs than Goodman and Matthews.

Prospects.

The Falcons are talented, smartly coached and well-quarterbacked.

That’s going to make them contenders automatically, and they broke through the ceiling of a playoff win last year, beating Seattle.

Their biggest problem is that they don’t match up well with the 49ers, and at some point, will have to get through them to reach the Super Bowl.

Otherwise, there aren’t many teams in the league that can slow them down.

Ryan’s about to get a giant contract, and he’ll deserve every nickel of it. He’s a smart, efficient passer and leader, who has brought in a sense of stability which they needed.

But as good as he is, his first task is to overcome his own defense.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is going to have to scheme his way past personnel problems, as they don’t have much up front to create pressure. They’re pushing all their chips to the middle of the table on Osi Umenyiora returning to his old form, because there’s no one else on the roster you could expect double-digit sacks from.

Otherwise, they’re simply counting on outscoring everyone.

Which remains a reasonable proposition, and the reason they have a chance to get to the Super Bowl.

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Top tight end Maxx Williams won’t attend the draft

maxxwilliams AP

The top two quarterbacks in this year’s draft, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, have both said they don’t plan to attend the festivities in Chicago. Now the top tight end is opting out as well.

Maxx Williams, regarded by many as the best tight end in the 2015 draft class, told KARE 11 that he intends to spend the weekend with his family instead of going to the draft.

Not every top prospect is skipping the event. West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White, a likely Top 10 pick, confirmed that he will be there. But in recent years, all the top picks have been there in person. That won’t be the case this year.

Officially, the NFL says each player can decide for himself whether to attend the draft. But the league might quietly ask players who say they’re not going to reconsider. The draft is the NFL’s biggest offseason event, and the league wants to use it to market its new stars. That’s harder to do when those new stars choose to stay home.

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Steve Bisciotti possibly commits tampering by saying Haloti Ngata could return in 2016

Steve Bisciotti Getty Images

Nose tackle Haloti Ngata spent nine seasons playing for the Baltimore Ravens and owner Steve Bisciotti said Wednesday that he doesn’t rule out the possibility of Ngata returning to Baltimore in 2016.

However, there’s a problem with that statement because Ngata is now a member of the Detroit Lions.

Bisciotti commenting on having interest in another team’s player is the definition of tampering.

The Lions elected not to pursue tampering charges against the Miami Dolphins for their pursuit of Ndamukong Suh at the start of free agency and they may elect not to pursue it again in this instance. It is a difficult matter to police anyway.

But Bisciotti surely appears to have committed tampering in this instance. He can certainly have a desire to reunite with Ngata in the future. He just can’t express that thought publicly with Ngata in a Lions uniform.

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Bisciotti: Ravens working on extension with Marshal Yanda

Marshal Yanda Getty Images

Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said Wednesday the team is currently working on a contract extension for guard Marshal Yanda.

Yanda has been one of the best guards in the leagues over the last few seasons. He was made the Pro Bowl in four straight seasons and was name a first-team All-Pro for the first time in 2014.

Yanda is about to enter the final year of his contract with the Ravens with $5.5 million due in base salary.

Yanda has started 78 of a possible 80 games for the Ravens over the past five seasons. Yanda even started the final three games of the regular season and Baltimore’s playoff victory over Cincinnati at right tackle.

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Fourth defendant pleads guilty in Sean Taylor murder case

seantaylor

The fourth of five defendants charged in the 2007 murder of Sean Taylor has pleaded guilty.

Charles Wardlow entered his guilty plea in a courtroom in Miami today and was immediately sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Four down, one to go,” Taylor’s father, Pedro Taylor, told the Miami Herald after the sentencing.

Eric Rivera, who pulled the trigger on the shot that fatally wounded Taylor, was convicted last year. Rivera, who was 17 at the time he killed Taylor, was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Jason Mitchell, whom prosecutors say organized the planned burglary of Taylor’s home, was also convicted last year and sentenced to life in prison. Venjah Hunte pleaded guilty years ago and agreed to testify against the others. He got 29 years in prison.

The fifth defendant, Timmy Brown, is still awaiting trial.

Taylor was a star player for the Miami Hurricanes and Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2004, becoming a Pro Bowl safety in his third season. Today would have been Taylor’s 32nd birthday.

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Vikings sign Mike Kafka, Caesar Rayford

Mike Kafka Getty Images

The Minnesota Vikings have signed quarterback Mike Kafka and defensive end Caesar Rayford.

Kafka’s agent, Mike McCartney, announced his signing with Minnesota while Rayford made his own announcement via his facebook page.

Both players took part in the NFL veteran combine in Arizona.

Kafka spent the 2014 season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the third-string quarterback behind Josh McCown and Mike Glennon. Kafka has not appeared in a regular season game since 2011 when he played sparingly in four games for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Rayford was traded from Indianapolis to Dallas in 2013 after a standout preseason with the Colts. Rayford appeared in seven games for the Cowboys and recorded five tackles. He spent the 2014 split between playing in the CFL and the Arena League.

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Seahawks re-sign Will Tukuafu, Jesse Williams

Will Tukuafu Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks re-signed fullback Will Tukuafu and defensive tackle Jesse Williams on Wednesday.

Tukuafu was an unrestricted free agent following last season while Williams had been released in a salary related move in March.

Tukuafu was signed by Seattle during the season after Derrick Coleman broke a bone in his foot in pre-game warmups in St. Louis in October. He appeared in nine games for Seattle while playing both fullback and some defensive tackle as well.

Williams was a fifth-round pick by the Seahawks in 2013 but has missed the last two seasons due to knee injuries. Williams has only appeared in two preseason games in his two years with the team.

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Bengals unveil April Fool’s gag that takes shot at Browns

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Sam Wyche probably got a kick out of this one.

On April Fool’s Day, the Cincinnati Bengals introduced a new logo and helmet. And the new logo and helmet are no different than the old logo.

Making the non-change change even more brilliant is the strong likelihood that the Bengals were taking a shot at the Browns, who recently pulled the sheet off a new helmet and logo that looked not much different than their prior helmet and logo.

So well played, Bengals. Well played.

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Dwight Lowery visited with Colts

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

The Colts re-signed safety Mike Adams, but they’re still in the market for more help at the position and had a veteran option in for a visit.

Albert Breer of NFL Media reports that veteran safety Dwight Lowery met with the team. Lowery played for the Falcons last year, but should be familiar to several members of the Colts organization after playing for the Jets and Jaguars during the first six years of his career.

Lowery made 15 starts while playing in every game for the Falcons last season and finished the year with 79 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a sack. He was also a starter during his three years with Jacksonville, although injuries limited him to 12 games during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

With Adams back in the fold, Lowery would likely compete to take over next to him with LaRon Landry and Sergio Brown both moving on from Indianapolis.

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Jamari Lattimore signs with Jets

Matthew Stafford, Jamari Lattimore AP

The Jets have added another player to their linebacking corps.

They announced the signing of former Packer Jamari Lattimore on Wednesday. Lattimore visited with the team last month.

Lattimore made the Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and spent the last four years playing mostly on special teams and as a reserve in Green Bay. He did make five starts at inside linebacker last season, although the Jets will likely keep him as a depth option as long as David Harris and Demario Davis, their starters on the inside, are healthy.

Lattimore is the third Packers inside linebacker from last season to wind up with a new team this offseason. A.J. Hawk signed with the Bengals and Brad Jones landed in Philly after getting released by Green Bay.

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Bears re-sign CB Sherrick McManis

Jacksonville Jaguars v Chicago Bears Getty Images

The Bears have retained a backup defensive back and key special-teamer, reaching a one-year deal with cornerback Sherrick McManis, the club announced Wednesday.

The 27-year-old McManis appeared in 12 games as a Bears reserve in 2014, with the club crediting him with 13 special teams tackles. A Northwestern product, McManis has played in 39 games the last three seasons for Chicago after two seasons with Houston (2010-2011).

McManis’ ticket onto the roster figures to be tied to his versatility and experience. He could project as the Bears’ fourth or fifth cornerback and a core kicking game player.

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Stefen Wisniewski’s latest free agent visit with Patriots this week

Stefen Wisniewski Getty Images

The Patriots became leverage for Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain to get a better deal at home, but they won’t have to worry about that with their latest visitor.

According to Albert Breer of the NFL Network, the Patriots hosted Raiders center Stefen Wisniewski on a visit this week.

Wisniewski is coming off shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, but has still drawn considerable interest. He’s had visits with the Seahawks, Buccaneers and Bears already, with others checking in.

The Raiders don’t need him after signing former Chiefs center Rodney Hudson to a big money deal, but plenty of others could use him and realize an upgrade (assuming he’s healthy).

While the number of visits and his injury history indicates he’s not yet ready to sign, the Patriots clearly think he could help.

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Texans sign Nate Washington

Tennessee Titans v Jacksonville Jaguars Getty Images

The Texans have added another veteran wideout to the group of players vying for playing time alongside DeAndre Hopkins in their 2015 lineup.

The team announced Wednesday that they’ve agreed to a deal with former Titans wide receiver Nate Washington. Houston has also signed ex-Jaguar Cecil Shorts this offseason while losing Andre Johnson to the Colts in their game of AFC South receiver roulette.

Washington spent six seasons with the Titans, culminating with 40 catches for 647 yards and two touchdowns while making 11 starts for the team in 2014. Those numbers are in line with his usual production in Tennessee, outside of the 74-catch, 1,023-yard season in 2011 that stands as Washington’s most productive NFL season.

John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reports that it is a one-year deal worth $1 million with $30,000 in guaranteed money, which doesn’t leave the Texans with much reason to hold onto Washington should the 31-year-old look unable to help the team once they start on-field preparations for next season.

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Ravens trade Gino Gradkowski to Broncos

Baltimore Ravens v Chicago Bears Getty Images

The Broncos have been looking to add to their options at center this offseason and it looks like they’ve settled on a player who played for head coach Gary Kubiak in Baltimore last season.

The Ravens announced Wednesday that they have traded center Gino Gradkowski and a 2016 draft pick to the Broncos in exchange for a 2016 draft pick. There are no details about which picks will be swapped or if there are any conditions based on Gradkowski’s output in Denver that can change the compensation.

Gradkowski was a fourth-round pick by Baltimore in 2012 and started every game at center for the Ravens during his second NFL season. The results were not all that good, leading Baltimore to trade for Jeremy Zuttah before the 2014 season. Gradkowski saw just a handful of snaps as a reserve in Baltimore and may not have made the team this year with John Urschel and Ryan Jensen on hand as other options in the middle of the line.

The Broncos had Manny Ramirez at center to start last season and moved Will Montgomery into the first team as they looked for a better unit as the year went on. Montgomery is a free agent, leaving Gradkowski without much in the way of experienced competition for the job at the moment.

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Kevin White will attend the draft

White AP

With Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota not attending the 2015 NFL draft, the NFL needs some of the other big-name prospects to show up for the first non-New York draft show since 1965.  In that regard, the NFL can count on former West Virginia receiver Kevin White.

White told PFT this week that he’ll be backstage at the draft when his name is called.  He also may need a tissue.  Or two. Or more.

“I think I’m going to be very emotional, a lot of tears, just because it has been a very long journey for me,” White said.  “A lot of the guys go straight out of high school to Division One. I had to go to junior college and even when I was at junior college, I had to miss a season.  It’s been a long journey.  My junior year wasn’t great.  I had a lot of nicks and bruises and we had a losing season.  It’s been a long journey for me, a lot of pressure on me to kind of do what I have to do to make it.  It’s not very common for a guy like me to make it so come draft day, I’m going to be very emotional.”

While it’s a given White will hear his name early in round one, he hasn’t been hearing from many teams.

“When I was training, a lot of teams would call but after the Combine, not too many teams called me,” White said.  “I haven’t been getting a lot of interest or phone calls or a lot of team meetings or workouts.  I’m not sure what the deal is.  Like I said, I am going to continue to train and do what I have to do and hopefully everything will pay off. . . .

“Maybe they’ve seen it all and heard it all so maybe I’m in the clear,” White added.  “Until they call or I have a set workout schedule, I’m just going to continue to do what I have to do and wherever I do go, if I have a workout or prior workout, I’ll enjoy it and try to make the most out of it.”

The full interview with Kevin White appears below.  Among other things, he identifies a couple of NFL receivers who remind White of himself (one of whom wears No. 11), and he talks about his NFL mentor (a different guy who also wears No. 11).

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Should Cowboys pursue Adrian Peterson?

Adrian Peterson AP

The Cowboys created $12.8 million in cap space by exercising their pre-existing right to restructure quarterback Tony Romo’s contract.  So what should they do with the money?

Well, Adrian Peterson’s base salary of 2015 is a mere $12.75 million.

Previously, the Cowboys weren’t regarded as a favorite to land Peterson, if the Vikings decide to trade him.  And it still may be a long shot.

But that doesn’t stop us from asking whether they should.  It also doesn’t stop you from answering.

We’ll share the results of the poll question on Wednesday’s edition of Pro Football Talk on NBCSN.  Jason Taylor and Jonathan Vilma will report from the University of Miami Pro Day workout, and we’ll take a closer look at the Rams and Giants draft plans with Paul Burmeiser, Ross Tucker, and Kevin Gilbride in Connecticut.

I’ll make my contributions from, as usual, my basement in West Virginia.  Tune in to NBCSN at 5:30 p.m. ET for the one-hour extravaganza.

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