Cover 9@9: Falcons will get a boost from this rookie class

8/26/17 – Atlanta, GA – Atlanta Falcons defensive end Takkarist McKinley (98) and Atlanta Falcons defensive end Jack Crawford (95) pressure the Cardinal’s QB. The first game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium was Saturday, as the Atlanta Falcons played Arizona in an exhibition game.. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Good morning! Welcome to The Cover 9@9 blog. It’s our weekly blog of everything you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons, the defending NFC Champions who will play their final exhibition game at 7 p.m. Thursday   against Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars in the posh $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

1. ROOKIE CORNER: The Falcons are set to play their final exhibition game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at 7 p.m. in the new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Falcons received major contributions from the 2016 rookie class on their way to the Super Bowl last season. The draft class had four starters on defense in strong safety Keanu Neal, nickel back Brian Poole, middle linebacker Deion Jones and weakside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and a major contributor on offense in tight end Austin Hooper.

The 2017 class is strong, but doesn’t appear to have as many immediate contributors.

It looks like defensive end Takkarist McKinley, linebacker Duke Riley and free safety Damontae Kazee are keepers. The Falcons’ coaches must keep developing guard Sean Harlow, running back Brian Hill and tight end Eric Saubert.

There doesn’t appear to be a Brian Poole in the class of undrafted rookies, a player who’s going to come in a contribute immediately.  However, there are several intriguing practice squad candidates including former Georgia wide receiver Reggie Davis.

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Here’s how the 2017 rookies are doing:

1st rounder: Meet defensive end Takkarist McKinley

Show flashes of his attacking style in 10 snaps against Pittsburgh and 24 snaps against the Cardinals.

“I thought that one was a more accurate showing of the style and attitude that he plays with,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of the strong showing against the Cardinals. “We were very encouraged by that. We felt the speed. We felt the toughness and the pass rush ability.

“We gave Duke Riley and him a little trouble when he had the fumble recovery. He passed Duke so we let him know that.”

McKinley is earning the respect of his elders.

“As a first-year player, you really want to demonstrate, ‘I want to earn my keep and show you can count on me and trust me,’” Quinn said. “In that game, he showed those kinds of plays to his teammates to say, ‘I will really play physical. I’ll really play it fast.’ You could count on me to get that done.”

3rd rounder: Meet linebacker Duke Riley 

With Falcons linebacker LaRoy Reynolds out with a chest injury, rookie Duke Riley appears to have a clear path to the starting weakside linebacker position.

“We’ve been very encouraged by where he’s at, at this point,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said on Sunday. “We see him taking on a big role for us at this (weakside) linebacker spot.”

4th rounder: Meet offensive guard Sean Harlow

Harlow is coming along in his transition from college tackle to pro guard. More on him below.

5th rounder: Meet defensive back Damontae Kazee

Kazee was playing well before suffering an ankle injury while playing on special teams against the Steelers in the second exhibition game. He’s a keeper at backup free safety. He was working out with the trainers on Monday, trying to get ready for the final exhibition game.

5th rounder: Meet running back Brian Hill

The Falcons still love Hill and believe he can fill the role of the number three running back and possibly help on special teams.

He’s been declared out for the exhibition season finale with an ankle injury.

“Brian, for sure, would have gotten extended carries again (against Jacksonville),” Quinn said. “We tried to feature him in each of the games to see what he can do. Really, in this system, to get more reps.”

That Ward is playing better is no surprise to Quinn.

“It’s Terron Ward’s third year in the system,” Quinn said. “That’s over 30 something games for him watching and practicing and getting the looks at it. Brian is still gaining experience in it. For him to miss a week, this week, all of it counts, especially when you’re first learning.”

5th rounder: Meet tight end Eric Saubert

Saubert played 30 snaps and 14 on special teams against the Cardinals. He caught two passes for 18 yards. The Falcons, who carried four tight ends last season, will take a long look at him in the exhibition finale.

Saubert is trying to make the jump from Drake to the NFL.

2.  RYAN’S NEXT DEAL. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has to appreciate the new market that’s being set for quarterbacks after Detroit gave Matthew Stafford a five-year, $135 million extension on Monday.

Ryan is set to make a base salary of $15.75 million in 2017 and $19.25 million in 2018.

Ryan will like get an extension over the offseason and won’t play the 2018 season on his last deal, which was worth $103.75 million over six years.

“He’s another guy,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “He’s got a couple more years. We are going to settle in after this (Freeman) deal and see how the season goes on everything. Rest assured our time will come with Matt for sure. He knows that and we know that.”

3. SANU FITTING IN: Since wide receiver Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel missed most of the offseason, is seems that it would make sense to have Mohamed Sanu do most of the heavy lifting early in the season.

“We have leaned on him, and it started way back in the spring when he came in,” Quinn said. “He’s thrown just a hell of a camp in terms of intent, speed, aggressiveness that he’s played with. I would say he’s very equipped to handle that.”

4. MARRONE CONNECTION: Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone was the offensive line coach at Georgia (2000) and Georgia Tech (1996-1999).

5. INTERNATIONAL EXEMPTION: One of my followers on twitter wanted to know more about the international player exemption for tight end Alex Gray, who became the first English rugby union professional to leave the sport to attempt to make a NFL team after signing a one-year deal with the Falcons.

Four teams will carry an additional overseas player on their practice squads during the 2017 season as part of a new International Player Pathway program.

Gray, 26, is listed at 6-foot-4 and 231 pounds.

The Falcons and teams in the NFC South were given an exemption for an 11th practice-squad member, who will be ineligible to be activated during the season.

The players include Gray, recent college players Alex Jenkins (New Orleans Saints), Eric Nzeocha (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and defensive end Efe Obada (Carolina Panthers), who originally signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 2015.

Three months before training camp started, the players were training alongside NFL players and draft hopefuls in Florida, under the supervision of two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora, a former Falcon for two seasons, and NFLUK head of football development, Aden Durde.

6. BREACH OF TRUST: After the Falcons play the Jaguars on Thursday night, they can start pointing toward the start of the regular season.

The first order of business will be to cut the roster down from 91 players to the mandated 53-man unit and what to do with cornerback Jalen Collins, who’s been suspended for 10 games.

The Falcons must be down to 53 players by 4 p.m. Saturday. They have an International player exemption for tight end Alex Gray, a developmental player from London.

They can put Collins on the suspended list and he won’t count against the 53-man roster. After his second violation of the league’s performing enhancement drug policy, the team may elect to part ways with the former second-round pick from LSU.

Coach Dan Quinn said no decision has been yet and that the violation of trust, for a second time, has been difficult for the organization to deal with.

Collins will learn his fate on Friday.

Once the roster is down to 53, the Falcons can start to construct their 10-member practice squad after midnight on Sunday.

The Falcons can sign free agents who do not have accrued season of free agency credit or who were on the 46-player active list for less than nine regular-season games during their only accrued season or seasons.

A player can not participate on a practice squad for more than three seasons.

“There is definitely a group already that we’ve identified that we think really has some skill development stuff,” Quinn said. “That’s why this last game, there are a few more that we have (to evaluate)… some need reps and reps and reps to get more comfortable playing ball.”

7. HARLOW UPDATE: It’s been a major transition for fourth-round pick Sean Harlow to make the switch from college tackle to pro guard.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn is seeing some progress.

“I thought there was definite improvement,” Quinn said on Monday. “From the first game in Miami to the second game in Pittsburgh, that’s where the biggest jump took place I thought for him. From that one into the next one, there was less time on the ground.”

In the outside-zone system the linemen don’t want to finish on the ground.

“All of the different looks are good for him because of a new look and new front,” Quinn said. “All of those things are important that happen with offensive line like the smallest of details.”

Harlow is doing well in the run game.

“Quite a few of our blocks in the run game are combination blocks with a center and a guard or a guard and a tackle,” Quinn said. “For him, getting more experience and more play time with those combination blocks has been an important one for him.”

8. WHERE TO WATCH LISTEN TO GAME: The Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2) face the Falcons (0-3) at 7 p.m. Thursday night at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Here’s where you can watch or listen to the game:

TV: Atlanta’s CW69 (WUPA-TV). AT&T U-Verse 1069. Charter 709. Comcast 810. DirecTV 69. Dish Network 6376. Play-by-play: Justin Kutcher. Color: Coy Wire. Sideline: D.J. Shockley.

LOCAL RADIO: 92.9 The Game — Play-by-Play: Wes Durham. Color Analyst: Dave Archer. Sideline: John Michaels. Pre-game starts at 5 p.m. with Randy McMichaels and Mike Conti. Here’s a listing of Falcons Radio Network around the state and in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee.

SATELLITE RADIO: Click here for Sirius and XM listings.

STATEWIDE TV: Albany, Ga. –WALB (NBC-10), Augusta, Ga. – WFXG FOX 54), Columbus, Ga. WXTX (Fox 54), Macon, Ga. – WGXA (Fox 24/16), Savannah, Ga. (CBS 11).

9. DEPTH CHART: Falcons running back Devonta Freeman returned to practice on Monday, but will not play in the final exhibition game against Jacksonville at 7 p.m. Thursday at the new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Freeman went through individual drills and is looking forward to his return to contact before the season starts.

In the final exhibition season depth chart released by the Falcons on Monday,  Ben Garland remains listed with the first-team at right guard.

Wes Schweitzer, who’s started the last two games, is making a big push in a battle that will go down to the wire.

Garland and Wes Schweitzer have been rotating with the first-team offense for the offseason and training camp. The Falcons must replace Chris Chester, who retired over the offseason.

(The team calls its depth chart unofficial, but since they release it, that makes it official.)  

Here’s the depth chart:

OFFENSE

WR 11 Julio Jones 14 Justin Hardy, 19 Andre Roberts, 7 Josh Magee, 87 Deante Burton, 84 Reginald Davis III

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 76 Daniel Brunskill, 79 Will Freeman, 68 Austin Pasztor

LG 67 Andy Levitre, 64 Sean Harlow, 61 Travis Averill

C 51 Alex Mack, 72 Cornelius Edison, 62 Larson Graham

RG 63 Ben Garland, 71 Wes Schweitzer

RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 66 Kevin Graf, 75 Andreas Knappe,74 D.J. Tialavea

TE 81 Austin Hooper, 80 Levine Toilolo, 82 Joshua Perkins, 83 Darion Griswold, 85 Eric Saubert, 89 Alex Gray

WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 18 Taylor Gabriel, 15 Nick Williams, 17 Marvin Hall, 16 Anthony Dable, 1 Reggie Davis, 88 Bra’Lon Cherry

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 4 Matt Simms, 9 Alek Torgersen

RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 28 Terron Ward, 25 Brian Hill, 38 Kelvin Taylor, 35 Jhurrell Pressley

FB 40 Derrick Coleman, 39 Tyler Renew

*Pressley was not listed in the released. He was added.

DEFENSE

DE 50 Brooks Reed, 99 Adrian Clayborn, 98 Takk McKinley, 55 J’Terius Jones

DT 92 Dontari Poe, 95 Jack Crawford, 74 Taniela Tupou

DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 77 Ra’Shede Hageman, 92 Joe Vellano

DE 91 Courtney Upshaw, 90 Derrick Shelby, 93 Chris Odum, 96 Martin Ifedi

LB 44 Vic Beasley Jr., 43 Jack Lynn

LB 45 Deion Jones. 53 LaRoy Reynolds, 56 Jermaine Grace

LB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 42 Duke Riley, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 52 Josh Keyes

RCB 23 Robert Alford, 29 C.J. Goodwin, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 38 Akeem King, 39 Jarnor Jones

LCB 21 Desmond Trufant, 34 Brian Poole, 30 Deji Olatoye, 48 Jordan Moore, 32 Jalen Collins

FS 37 Ricardo Allen, 20 Sharrod Neasman, 27 Damonte Kazee, 41 Quincy Mauger

SS 22 Keanu Neal, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 35 Marcelis Branch, 49 Daron Washington

SPECIALISTS

K 3 Matt Bryant, 6 Mike Meyer

KO 5 Matt Bosher

P 5 Matt Bosher

KR 19 Andre Roberts, 14 Justin Hardy, 1 Reggie Davis

PR 19 Andre Roberts, 14 Justin Hardy, 15 Nick Williams

LS 47 Josh Harris

H 5 Matt Bosher

ATLANTA FALCONS 2017 EXHIBITION SEASON

GAME THREE: CARDINALS 24, FALCONS 14

Report card: Cardinals 24, Falcons 14

What the Falcons had to say after the 24-14 loss

What Dan Quinn had to say after the 24-14 loss

What Matt Ryan had to say after the 24-14 loss

Injury report: Three players declared out for Jacksonville game

GAME TWO: STEELERS 17, FALCONS 13

Report card: Steelers 17, Falcons 13

Mauger makes magical interception

McKinley gives Falcons’ pass rush a boost

What Dan Quinn had to say after the 17-13 loss

What Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had to say

Schweitzer went to battle against Tuitt

GAME ONE: DOLPHINS 23, FALCONS 20

Report card: Dolphins 23, Falcons 20

6 things we learned from the 23-20 loss to the Dolphins

What Devonta Freeman had to say after the 23-20 loss

What Dan Quinn had to say about the loss to the Dolphins


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