Falcons' rookie CB has the burners and attitude to be instant success
Posted: Friday August 13, 2004 6:16PM; Updated: Friday August 13, 2004 6:16PM
Here it is, the kickoff to another NFL practice season, late summer when grown men are plopping down in front of the TV set, and the Atlanta Falcons are introducing us to another confident, millionaire rookie off the Virginia Tech campus.
If DeAngelo Hall proves anything like hometown pal Mike Vick, NFL wideouts are in for some long afternoons. Right now, the kid [he's only 20 and doesn't blow out the candles again until late November] is as cocky and brash as cornerbacks come. And that's a darn good thing.
You better have an air if you're going to lineup with receivers and quarterbacks training a laser scope on your back. A healthy dose of moxie goes down well on a proverbial island, where you're forced to press, backpedal and mirror speedy receivers. This can be nightmarish for an untested rookie -- even one like Hall, a first-rounder with $13 million of guaranteed money in the bank.
So how confident is Mr. Hall? Well, after being selected eighth overall in the NFL Draft last spring, he promptly asked the Falcons for the No. 21 jersey last worn by Deion Sanders, arguably the best cover corner and purest self-promoter the league has ever seen.
Before he broke out the jersey, of course, he called Deion to seek his blessing. "He said, 'Go for it. Go out there and make plays,''' Hall says of his post-draft chat.
This is heady stuff for a kid who grew up in Chesapeake, Va., idolizing the swagger of "Prime Time'' and his ability to shut down receivers. Even now, he describes his own game as a mixed bag of styles -- part Deion's cover skills, with a touch of Charles Woodson's physical play and Champ Bailey's flair for big plays.
"It's really just the attitude that I'm trying to bring to the field,'' he says. "The attitude like, 'No one is gonna catch anything. If they do catch something, it was a mistake. Or maybe I slipped in coverage or something like that. Just that it is not gonna happen every play.'''
That's just cornerback speak. When I caught up with Chris Gamble this week at the Carolina Panthers camp, he parroted Hall word for word. Gamble, another first-round pick thrust into a starting job on the corner, suggested that the biggest adjustment from Ohio State has been the speed with which receivers come off the ball.
Left unsaid is that you best come to the job with a short memory or no memory at all. Better to rationalize and explain away. Those that live and die by every play end up basket cases, eventually exposed and looking for a new line of work.
Already, Hall has the makings of one that's going to be around awhile. Word in camp is the 5-foot-10 Hall got taken to school by the taller Tennessee Titan wideouts -- specifically 6-4 Tyrone Calico -- in a recent scrimmage, yet he disputes the one-sided characterization. Hall also lets you know he owns an impressive 41 1/2-inch vertical and can get up with the big boys, if need be.
What really caught the Falcons eye, and a factor in his being the first corner drafted, is something defensive coordinator Ed Donatell refers to as his "suddenness in transition.'' In other words, along with straight-ahead speed that's supposedly been clocked as fast as 4.15 seconds over 40 yards, he has a terrific ability to change direction on the spot and hang with a receiver on his break.
"The key to offense is [receivers] quickly coming out of breaks, and he can stay with them where a lesser athlete might be off a few steps,'' Donatell explains. "He has that burst in transition and then he can make it up.''
Hall put the whole package on display in the exhibition opener Thursday night, playing a near flawless first half in a 24-0 blanking by the Baltimore Ravens. If the Falcons are to make any noise this season, first-year head coach Jim Mora Jr. needs for Hall to evolve into an impact player to go with linebacker Keith Brooking and defensive end Patrick Kerney. Or perhaps even the big-play equivalent of Vick on the defensive side of the ball.
Because he has such natural skills, the club can't afford not to rush his learning curve. Anointing him a starter before the ink dried on his contract appears hasty, but that the Falcon defense proved to be the league's worst last year. Mora is also experienced having started rookie corners Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster [now a Falcon] while serving as the 49ers' defensive coordinator in 2000.
"They struggled early, but we saw them progress to both be very good players in the league,'' Mora recalls. "That said, DeAngelo is going to be a target. They don't care that DeAngelo Hall was the eighth pick in the draft. They see cornerback and then they see R [rookie] and they come after you.''
The irony is Hall grew frustrated with the college game because teams stopped throwing the ball in his direction. Now, he'll be found and tested aplenty. But like a true corner, Hall confidently awaits the challenge -- and abuse.
"They'll come after me until I prove myself,'' Hall knows. "Until I prove I belong out there and I'm not just some overpaid guy who ran fast in college.''
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.