Originally created 04/12/98

Falcons upgrade player philosophy



SUWANEE, Ga. -- Think things haven't changed much with the Atlanta Falcons' new regime? Listen to player personnel boss Reed Johnson describe the type of player the team hopes to select in next weekend's NFL draft.

"We're looking for the good, all-around guy, the All-American-boy type who wants to pay the price and do the little things," Johnson said.

In the past, the Falcons' main prerequisites for a draft pick were that he wasn't serving jail time and that he ran a quick 40.

Under previous vice president for player personnel Ken Herock, the team took enormous risks on players with dubious backgrounds and often paid a hefty price.

Trading two No. 1s and a No. 3 to Indianapolis in 1994 for quarterback Jeff George wasn't Herock's only egregious error. In 1995, the Falcons spent a No. 2 on Tennessee cornerback Ron Davis knowing that he had been kicked out of school for marijuana use and other major wrongdoings. Davis was a bust as a rookie, and he was waived the following summer after -- surprise -- failing a drug test and receiving a one-year suspension from the NFL.

In '96, the Falcons traded a second-round pick to Oakland for troubled safety Patrick Bates. Bates never performed well and was waived last spring after his arrest for allegedly breaking into his girlfriend's apartment, beating her while she was feeding their 3-week-old son, and then kidnapping them and threatening to kill them.

There also was '94 third-round pick Anthony Phillips, a cornerback who never panned out and had numerous legal and financial problems during his three-year stay.

When the Falcons weren't drafting or trading draft picks for shady characters, they were picking athletes who looked great on a stopwatch or bench press but lacked other essentials. Among the high picks fitting that description who didn't last were running backs Tony Smith and Steve Broussard, cornerback Bruce Pickens, linebacker Darion Conner, and defensive tackle Shannon Brown.

That the Falcons are now emphasizing strong character and proven playmaking abilities in their scouting is a radical departure from the years in which Herock, the coaches and team president Taylor Smith made the team's choices by committee, and then blamed each other when they didn't work out.

"I don't know if its a departure from the past because I wasn't here," general manager Harold Richardson said. "But that's how we're going to do things now."

Coach Dan Reeves has the final say on all draft picks, but he will rely heavily on Johnson, Richardson and the scouts.

Johnson's relationship with Reeves dates to the '70s when the two were together in Dallas. Johnson participated in the drafts that helped Dallas get to the Super Bowl in 1975, '77 and '78 and then Denver in '86, '87 and '89.

Richardson had the title of assistant head coach until he was promoted earlier this year. He was a special teams and tight ends coach under Reeves in Denver, and then managed the Broncos' salary cap after Reeves went to New York.

Reeves didn't have his management in place last April, and that may explain why the Falcons' 1997 had a strong Herock flavor.

The team spent the No. 11 pick on Nebraska cornerback Michael Booker despite his playing in a conference in which he wasn't tested. Booker was disappointing as a rookie.

The Falcons also used a high second-round pick on Indiana defensive tackle Nathan Davis, even though Davis admitted to playing with little desire as a senior. Davis barely saw the field as a rookie and will have to improve dramatically to make the team this summer.

This year, the Falcons appear better prepared and certainly more sure of what they want.

"We're looking for guys (who) want to work hard all the time," Johnson said. "We're looking for guys (who) won't embarrass (strength coach) Al Miller, who want to do whatever he asks them to do in the offseason program and more. We want guys (who) will challenge each other, (who) will push each other to excellence. We want guys (who) are willing to spend the time to learn their assignments. Guys (who) will help us win on Sunday."

Players who work hard and play to win -- novel concepts in Atlanta.

Draft needs

(In order of importance)

1. Offensive line: Coach Dan Reeves wants to pound the ball, and he won't do that very effectively with the personnel on hand. If the season started tomorrow, the starting right tackle would be former Buffalo backup Corey Louchiey. Right tackle is the key position in the running game, and the Falcons would like to upgrade. Player personnel director Reed Johnson loves Florida State's Tra Thomas (6-8, 349) and San Diego State's Kyle Turley (6-5, 309), and there's a chance one could be available when the Falcons chose at the No. 12 spot. Said Johnson of Thomas, "He's athletic in the mold of a Jonathan Ogden or an Orlando Pace -- a tremendous talent. This guy can totally snuff out the competition." Given their desire to improve at the guard position, it will be asurprise if the Falcons don't spend two picks on blockers.

2. Linebacker: Henri Crockett played out of position last year as the starter on the weak side. Jessie Tuggle is entering his 12th season and doesn't play the pass very well anymore, and Cornelius Bennett is a year or two from retirement. The Falcons like Georgia Tech's Keith Brooking, but he figures to go in the top 10. Auburn's Takeo Spikes would generate discussion at No. 12.

3. Receiver: The Falcons are in a fix whether they match Tampa Bay's incredible four-year offer sheet signed by receiver Bert Emanuel. If they matched, they would take a $3.25 million salary-cap hit for 1998. If they don't, they'll be in dire straits at receiver. Emanuel's departure would leave the team with only one quality receiver, Terance Mathis, and his value isn't as a deep threat. Losing Emanuel would crimp both the passing and running attacks. The lack of a big-play receiver would nullify Chandler's No. 1 asset, which is his ability to throw the deep ball, and defenses would be able to sneak their safeties up to stop the run if they didn't have a speedy playmaker to defend. This could force the team to spend a high pick on a receiver. Johnson virtually has ruled out drafting Marshall's Randy Moss because of his well-chronicled troubles, and Utah's Kevin Dyson may not last until the 12th pick.

4. Defensive line: The loss of starting defensive tackle Dan Owens and doubts about 1997 second-round pick Nathan Davis leave the team in need of help. The Falcons like Nebraska's undersized but relentless defensive end Grant Wistrom, but so do a lot of other teams. North Carolina's Vonnie Holliday and Arizona's State's Jeremy Staat are the top two tackles in a down year forlinemen.

5. Quarterback: Finding a quality veteran backup to Chris Chandler was a top off-season priority, and the Falcons ended up with 35-year-old Mark Rypien at the shocking cost of $1.8 million over two years. Rypien hasn't performed particularly well when he has played. Tony Graziani, a 1997 seventh-round pick out of Oregon, isn't ready for the No. 2 job. The Falcons could spend a second-day pick on a quarterback, such as Michigan's Brian Griese.

Other needs: Safety, tight end, fullback.