HERE'S ALL you need to know about what kind of year the Falcons' receivers had in 2004.
?The No. 1 wideout, Peerless Price, was tied for 66th in the league in receptions, with 45.
?In 15 games they caught a total of seven touchdown passes from Michael Vick. By contrast, in 10 games Titans wideouts caught 14 TD passes from backup Billy Volek.
So the goal in the off-season was clear: Get some help for Vick so he'll be all that he can be. Following the selection of 6'5" Ohio State wideout Michael Jenkins with the 29th pick in the 2004 draft, Atlanta took a four-year starter from Alabama-Birmingham, Roddy White, with the 27th choice this year. The intent was to put White on a faster learning track than Jenkins was on a year ago, hoping White would be ready to contribute in the opener. However, because of a weeklong holdout at the start of camp and a high ankle sprain suffered in the second preseason game, White will open the season behind six-year veteran Dez White. Meanwhile Jenkins, who caught only seven balls in '04, passed the disappointing Price on the depth chart early in camp and is now the deep threat Vick has lacked. With Dez White and Jenkins starting, Price becomes the slot receiver in three-wide formations. Seven-year veteran Brian Finneran, a 6'5" target, will play in four-wide sets, and Roddy White will start out as the fifth receiver in special packages.
To take advantage of Vick's rocket arm, Atlanta has to have a burner in the lineup. The Falcons thought they had their man in Price, whom they acquired from the Bills in 2003 for a first-round draft pick and promptly signed to a seven-year, $35 million deal. But Price hasn't been able to get separation from defensive backs (in addition to being a poor blocker). Dez White is a possession receiver. Jenkins is a long strider who's still learning how to beat physical corners at the line. Roddy White, a two-time state high school wrestling champ, is physical and fast; he averaged 19.1 yards a catch at UAB. Jenkins and Roddy White are the future.
"Michael [ Vick] is only 25," says receivers coach George Stewart, "and we're trying to build a core of receivers to grow with him. Jenkins is tall and spindly, but he'll fight you for the ball. And Roddy reminds me of a slightly smaller [ Terrell Owens] in how he plays physically while still having the speed to beat you deep. One day in minicamp Vick pulled me aside and said, 'Stew, we gotta get this guy [Roddy] involved. He makes plays.'"
Says offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, who arrived in Atlanta with new coach Jim Mora in 2004, "We were like a start-up company last year, in our first year with the West Coast offense here. We had to hang our hat on one thing, and let's face it, it's easier to teach the run game than the pass game." In fact, the Falcons averaged a league-high 5.1 yards per rush.
Knapp thinks the team's goal this year of a 60% completion rate is realistic for the mobile, lefty Vick. "He went from, what, 50 percent to 56 percent accuracy in one year, in a new offense," Knapp says. "What I like about him this summer is how he's consistently hitting the second and third guys in his progression much more than he did last year. He may not ever be a 70 percent passer, but if he's 60 percent with those feet, he's going to win a lot of games."
Knapp says his ideal game plan would be a 50-50 run-pass split, but that's hard to manage with Vick taking snaps. On three to five plays a game he sprints outside and has the option to throw or take off. In 15 starts last year Vick averaged eight rushes a game--a few more than the Falcons would prefer. But that's where improvement at wide receiver will pay off: If Jenkins and Roddy White are the real deal, Knapp believes they will get open and entice Vick to more often choose to pass rather than scramble.
That could lead to more big plays for the Falcons--and lessen the risk of injury to the Franchise. --P.K.