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Peter King
August 05, 2002
Cold Reception Warrick Dunn may not fit into the Falcons' retooled backfield the way he thinks
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August 05, 2002

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Cold Reception
Warrick Dunn may not fit into the Falcons' retooled backfield the way he thinks

Last April the Falcons made running back Warrick Dunn, their high-priced free-agent acquisition, the star of their draft-day party. He mingled with fans and signed autographs until it was time for the club to make its first pick. "When they announced on TV that we had taken [running back] T.J. Duckett," Dunn said last week, "everyone in the room just stopped and stared at me. I didn't know what to do. I was surprised. Really surprised. I thought, Oh, no, they're gonna trade me."

No trade is in the offing for Atlanta. Change is, though. As the Falcons opened training camp last week in Greenville, S.C., it was clear that they had improved themselves at running back as much as any team has improved itself at any position. Dunn looked as fast and elusive as ever, fully recovered from the nagging turf toe that plagued him in 2001. Duckett, the 254-pound back who steamrolled the Big Ten for 3379 yards in three seasons at Michigan State, was a holdout, but running back is a relatively simple NFL position to learn, and he'll surely be a big factor.

Atlanta needed to bolster its ground attack to take the heat off young quarterback Michael Vick, who is still learning the ropes. But the Falcons paid dearly. They signed Dunn to the kind of contract usually reserved for a dominant back: six years, $28.9 million, with a $6.5 million signing bonus. Dunn is more durable than his 5'9", 180-pound frame would suggest, but in his five seasons with the Bucs he was for the most part a good situational back capable of brilliance. In his last 44 games with Tampa Bay he had only three 100-yard rushing performances. That's pretty paltry production for a back who will make more in average annual salary than six of last season's top 10 rushers. Add Duckett's looming deal in this tight-salary-cap era, and the Falcons will be paying marquee-back money to two runners. There's no question that it makes Atlanta a better team today. No question it will also hamstring the Falcons' efforts to stay under the salary cap in the future.

Coach Dan Reeves said last week that the Falcons never envisioned picking a running back high in the draft after they signed Dunn. But when their turn came up at 18, their best options were Duckett, one of the highest-rated players on their board, and Hawaii wideout Ashley Lelie. Concerned about Lelie's nagging hamstring injury, Atlanta went for Duckett.

Like most coaches, Reeves would prefer to ride one back. "I'd love to say I could get Warrick 20 to 25 touches a game," Reeves says, "but the game will dictate." The Falcons may use both backs together, and they may split Dunn out on occasion.

Dunn says he still believes hell be the Falcons' main rusher, but you can't blame him for feeling as if he's in an NFL version of Groundhog Day. After all, with the Bucs there weren't enough footballs to go around for him and big back Mike Alstott.

The biggest beneficiary of the strengthened running game will be Vick, who in eight games as a rookie last year completed only 44% of his passes. "Those backs will help his development as much as anything," says Falcons senior adviser Bobby Beathard, the former Redskins and Chargers general manager who has resurfaced in Atlanta to help new owner Arthur Blank. Last week, watching Vick throw a soft 12-yard strike to tight end Alge Crumpler in a scrimmage, Beathard said, "That's the kind of touch pass he would have drilled a year ago. That's where he's better."

"The dimension that Warrick brings takes the pressure off me," Vick says. "We had a great off-season. We improved so much, especially in the back-field. I think we're going to be contenders."

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