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WP: With Vick Healthy, Falcons Turn Attention to Defense


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With Vick Healthy, Falcons Turn Attention to Defense

By Mark Maske

Washington Post Staff Writer


New general manager Rich McKay has wasted little time putting his imprint on a team that went 5-11 last year with quarterback Michael Vick sidelined by a broken leg for most of the season. It was a lost year for a team that had gone 9-6-1 and reached the second round of the NFC playoffs in the 2002 season with Vick healthy.

McKay and owner Arthur Blank hired Jim Mora Jr. as coach after Blank informed Dan Reeves with three games remaining that he would not be retained for the 2004 season. Reeves asked to be let go immediately and was replaced by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

The Falcons made some big-splash moves early in free agency, signing defensive tackle Rod Coleman to a six-year, $28.5 million contract that included a $10 million signing bonus, and cornerback Jason Webster to a six-year, $18.05 million deal that included a $7 million signing bonus. McKay's free spending was questioned by some, but he clearly has upgraded a defense that ranked last in the NFL.

The move to improve on that side of the ball continued when McKay used the eighth overall selection in the draft on Virginia Tech's DeAngelo Hall, regarded as the top coverage cornerback available. Hall has the speed to blanket NFL receivers even with the league's pledge to have officials crack down next season on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs. And he certainly has the confidence. He compared himself to Deion Sanders, Charles Woodson and Champ Bailey at the scouting combine, and said he hopes that NFL quarterbacks and wideouts test him early and often in his pro career.

"I'll definitely get the job done, plain and simple," Hall said at a media luncheon in New York for the top prospective draftees. "Treat me like a rookie. Come at me. I can show 'em better than I tell 'em."

Hall probably will be the Falcons' punt returner, and he hopes to eventually play at wide receiver as well. But McKay made certain that position also was well-stocked by obtaining a second selection in the first round with a draft-day trade and using it on Ohio State wideout Michael Jenkins. Jenkins and free-agent addition Dez White provide some receiving complements to Peerless Price, who had only 64 catches for 838 yards last season -- in part because defenses could focus on him so much and in part because of the Falcons' poor quarterbacking.

This is a team that will go as Vick goes, as was demonstrated last season. After getting hurt during a preseason game, Vick didn't start until the 13th regular-season game of the season, at which point the Falcons were 2-10. They went 3-1 thereafter. It seems reasonable that they will be a playoff-caliber club next season if Vick remains in the lineup, particularly given McKay's improvements. Mora is regarded as one of the league's better defensive minds, getting his first head-coaching job at the tender age of 42 after five seasons as San Francisco's defensive coordinator.

Around The League

An NFL source said this morning that the teams showing the most early interest in quarterback Kerry Collins, who was released by the New York Giants on Wednesday, include the Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders, Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals.

Each of the four potentially could offer Collins a chance to compete for a starting job. The Ravens (with Kyle Boller) and the Cardinals (with Josh McCown) have made plans to go with young, unproven quarterbacks. Quincy Carter took the Cowboys to the playoffs last season but might not be the long-term answer for Coach Bill Parcells, and the Raiders continue to have injury concerns about veteran Rich Gannon and don't seem to trust backup Marques Tuiasosopo fully.

Former Giants coach Jim Fassel is a consultant to Ravens Coach Brian Billick, and former Giants offensive coordinator Sean Payton is the Cowboys' assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach.

The source also is familiar with the Giants' quarterback situation and said Neil O'Donnell has told the club officials that he will let them know within the next few days -- today at the soonest and Monday at the latest -- whether he is interested in playing next season. O'Donnell, 37, played in one game for the Tennessee Titans last season and had planned to retire after 14 NFL seasons. He told WTVF-TV in Nashville that the Giants initially contacted him about a front-office job, and the conversations changed when it became clear that the team would need a veteran quarterback to back up and mentor top draft choice Eli Manning.

The Giants worked out Damon Huard on Monday and could consider Vinny Testaverde if they're still looking in June and he's cut by the New York Jets. Agent Ralph Cindrich, who represents Jeff Blake, said on Wednesday that he hadn't been contacted by the Giants at that point but thinks Blake would fit in nicely.

"The Giants have not indicated they're going after him . . . [but] that would be a perfect place for him," Cindrich said. "Jeff understands his role now. He's prepared to be a backup. He's still young, at 33. He knows his role would be to help groom and coach a franchise-type quarterback, and be the guy who comes in like [former Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher] Elroy Face. I think Jeff finally recognizes that." . . .

While the Green Bay Packers were trying to complete a trade for Cleveland Browns quarterback Tim Couch, the Chicago Bears entered the picture Wednesday by contacting the Browns and Couch's representatives to express interest. Agent Tom Condon likely will begin discussions with the Bears today, a source said this morning, and Chicago might be a more attractive destination for Couch because he'd have a better chance to earn playing time. . . .

Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye intends to skip the Miami Dolphins' minicamp this weekend and is threatening to hold out for the first 10 games of next season if the club does not negotiate a new contract with him. Ogunleye does not want to sign the one-year, $1.824 million deal tendered to him by the Dolphins in restricted free agency. The restricted free agent market closed without Ogunleye, the reigning AFC sack champion, signing an offer sheet with another team, and agent Drew Rosenhaus has been unable to engineer a trade to the Bears or Minnesota Vikings. Ogunleye and Rosenhaus say that Ogunleye would report to the Dolphins for the final six games of next season because that would give Ogunleye an accredited season and enable him to be eligible for unrestricted free agency next offseason. Even at that point, though, the Dolphins could use their franchise-player tag to limit his free-agent mobility. . . .

Cincinnati agreed to a three-year, $3.3 million contract with center Larry Moore today, one day after he was released by Washington.

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