INDIANAPOLIS — Falcons coach Mike Smith spoke with the national media at the NFL scouting combine on Friday.
Some of the highlights included Smith stating that Matt Ryan is recovered from his turf toe injuryand is running again.
He bid farewell to Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers in the NFC South, but didn’t say if the Falcons would pursue him.
Here’s the full transcript:
OPENING STATEMENT: I’m looking forward to opportunity to evaluate some of the top prospects that are available in this year’s draft. I’d like to say that I was disappointed in our season last year simply because we didn’t have the opportunity to make the playoffs.
I like the way that our team finished. We finished strong. We won our last three football games when we were out of contention. I think that bodes well for the future. With that, I’ll open it up for questions.
Q: Could you talk about Tony Gonzalez and what he brought to the team this last year. His veteran leadership and his interaction with Matt Ryan over the course of the season.
A: I think that Tony not only helped our offense, but he helped our entire football team. Tony is a consummate professional in terms of his work habits and how he works. Here’s a guy who’s going to be a first ballot hall of famer and he comes out to work early catching passes. I think that rubs off, not only on the other receivers, but it rubs off on our defense. I noticed some defensive linemen out there spending extra time. I think it was very good for Matt to have Tony, another weapon in our arsenal. I know that our offensive staff was real pleased with what we are able to do with Tony. I think we went from 19 catches from our tight ends to over 100 in year two. I think it opens up a lot for our offense.
Q: In regards to Matt, how is he coming along? Is he going to be able to do most of the offseason workouts? Or, are you guys just going to rest him?
A: We think that Matt will be ready to go on March 22 when we open up our offseason conditioning program. Matt had a significant toe injury there at the end of the season. They talked to us initially about him missing six weeks. He came back in two weeks. I think that says a lot about the type of man that Matt is. He’s a tough guy. We know that playing quarterback in the NFL is one of the most difficult positions. Matt had a very good second season. It was a learning experience. But we don’t anticipate him having any setbacks between now and when we start on the 22nd of March. He’s actually back to running.
Q: Could you talk about your evaluation of the defense, by front line, linebackers and secondary groups?
A: We’ve spent a major part of our offseason evaluating what we do. Watching the cut ups. I felt that as the season wore on, we got better and better on defense. We finished against the run No. 10 in the league. I felt that was something that we improved on immensely as the season went on. We did not play the pass as well as we’d like. It’s something that we definitely have to address. Statistically we were not close to where we need to be or want to be. I think that’s twofold. One, we address the pass rush and number two, is that we improve our secondary play. Those are areas that we definitely will want to address.
I’m pleased with our young corners. Brent Grimes had six interceptions this season. Christopher Owens had an opportunity to play when our starter went down. I think that we have three young corners that can play and can continue to grow, but they are very, very young.
Q: Is that how you prioritize it, 1. D-line and 2-secondary? We’re having a fight online over what’s the highest priority?
A: We’ve got a number of areas that we have to address. In year one, our draft was more titled toward the offensive side of the ball. In year two, we definitely drafted more defense. I think what you will see in the draft this season is that it will be more balanced. We definitely have to address some areas on both sides of the ball as well as our special teams.
Q: In your division, it looks like Carolina is losing Julius Peppers. Could you talk about how it will be facing Carolina without him? And whether he might be a candidate to help your own pass rush?
A: Well, I can tell you this. Having Julius Peppers out of the NFC South will be a good thing. He’s been an outstanding player for a number of years. He’s a guy that you always have to be aware of and where he’s aligned. You always have to scheme to try to protect your quarterback.
Q: As far as, will you guys look at him?
A: (Smitty can’t answer and risk a tampering fine, but does a nice side-step). As far as this year’s free agent class, it is not as deep as usual.. There are not as many numbers. We’ll do our due diligence on every free agent that is available. We’ve been spending a lot of our offseason, not only on the personnel side but also with the coaching staff watching tape.
Q: How are you expecting free agency to play out? What will the environment be like?
A: We will approach it like any other year. We are going to evaluate the players that are available and then it’s going to be up to Thomas Dimitroff and his staff to make those decisions. Our approach as a coaching staff has not been any different this year than any other.
Q: The sophomore slump tag has been put on Matt Ryan by some people . . . How do you rate his performance? Where did you see growth in his overall effort?
A: I saw growth, and we saw growth in everything that Matt did. Statistically, he had more pass attempts in year two. . . . I think that quarterback in this league has to do two things. They have to be very accurate. I think that Matt has done that. He’s improved his accuracy. He’s got to be a very good decision maker. I think he’s done that as well. That decision making process that a quarterback goes through has to happen in the first two seconds of the play. I’ve said this, many times, playing quarterback in the National Football League is the toughest job there is in all of sports.
Q: What do you make of the record 10 passers, who threw for more than 4,000 yards this season? Is this indeed changing into a passing league?
A: Well, I think it’s becoming a spacing league for sure. You are not seeing a lot of two-back running sets. There are a lot of single-back sets. It is a quarterback driven league. I think that you had more 300 yard passing games as well. Of course that makes sense with the number of 4,000 yard passers. I’ve always said that you’ve got to be able to run the football and stop the run. Even though the Indianapolis Colts played in the Super Bowl and were No. 32 in the league in rushing, I don’t know if that’s an anomaly, but if you look at the playoffs I thought that they ran the ball effectively. I really believe this, that the core of it, you still have to be able to run the football and stop the run. I know this, the formations and what offensive coordinators are doing, they are making it very, very difficult because you have to defend the entire 53 and 1/3 yards when they put their formations together.
Q: We skipped over the linebacker evals. How did that group play for you and what do you see in reserve?
A: I think it was learning experience for Curtis Lofton. Curtis was our first and second down linebacker as a rookie. He started from day one. In year two, he became a three down linebacker. He was going to go through some growing experiences . . . I thought that Mike Peterson came in and played well for us. Mike is a very experience player. Stephen Nicholas became a full time starter as well. This offseason, we had some youth there in the linebacking corps. I’m very excited about the young guys that we drafted over the last two seasons. Robert James is a second year player that got an opportunity to play on special teams and Spencer Adkins, who was a (rookie from) the University of Miami also played on special teams.
Q: (Inaudible: change in offenses)
A: I really think it affects the way you put your football team together. When you are talking about a spacing offense you . . . . when you have three receivers and running back who can run routes just like a receiver, you’ve got four wide receivers and you have to able to match up. The sub linebacker position is something that I think is evolving and will continue to evolve. Where you normally had linebacker types you are going to see more safeties and possibly even big cornerbacks that will play on those downs. You are going to see much more six and possibly even seven defensive back schemes to match up with the skill players and the level of skill that the offenses are able to put on the field.
Q: When you had a top 5 pick, what were you learning about Matt (Ryan) at the combine? Can you talk about the emotions of debating whether to take a quarterback that high at this stage of the draft process?
A: When you are picking in the first five, you are always going to have some angst. I terms of what direction you are going to go. It become real obvious for us in our experience with Matt Ryan. . . about two weeks before the draft we made the decision that we were going to draft Matt. In terms of what happens at the combine, you get the opportunity to visit with the players. You get the medicals. That’s one of the biggest things that’s overlooked. The medicals and the physical that takes place. They go over the players with a fine tooth comb. We have an idea about their character before coming here to the combine. We’ve spent hours and hours on watching tape. It’s really the interview process and the physicals. Matt did not throw here at the combine. He did have a private workout. At that workout he did show very well.
Q: What made you decide that he was the guy, two weeks before?
A: When you are going through this process, you get input from a number of people. What really sold us was that we went up there as a staff. When I say staff, I’m saying myself, Thomas Dimitroff, our owner Arthur Blank, our offensive coordinator and our quarterback coach. We had dinner with Matt at a restaurant there in Boston. That’s an intimidating thing, to have seven guys and him at the table and Matt handled himself very, very well. Then the next morning we got together and talked football. We put him up on the board and it became real obvious that he had all of the skills that we were looking for to be a successful quarterback in the NFL.
Q: Did he surprise you? You talked about how difficult is to play in the NFL. Was that above and beyond what you were expecting?
A: No. It really wasn’t. Matt’s skill set. Height. Weight. Speed. Arm strength and all of that, I think is the prototypical NFL quarterback. We felt that Matt was going to come in a be a guy that was going to lead our football team. It became real obvious. We had an open competition. Through training camp and after two preseason games I almost felt like the players knew who our best quarterback was. They were like, ‘Coach, that’s our guy. Let’s get him in there and let’s go.’ Sometimes the players know before the coaches.
Q: (Inaudible: Something about the running backs. . .)
A: Michael Turner, I thought had an injury plagued season. He played eight games this year. Jason Snelling came in and did a great job for us. Not only did he play running back, but he played fullback for a couple of games. Jerious Norwood is guy that has given us some good snaps. He’s a guy that, as we were talking about earlier, can create those match up issues. You always want to try to add depth at running back. But that position is a position that takes the most pounding of any position in the league. It’s not a top priority for us right now. But it’s something that we are evaluating.
Q: What’s a big cornerback now days?
A: You would like for them all to be 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. That’s not a possibility. I think that the average cornerback now is around 5-10 ½, 5-11. When you are able to get guys that are over the average, I think you’ve got a big corner. With the size of the wide receivers that they keep presenting to these defensive guys, it very, very difficult for the smaller guys to compete out there.
Q: Are there fewer bigger cornerbacks than years ago? Are they playing different positions?
A: I think they are playing other positions. I’m a defensive guy. . . Back in the day, as long as the ball wasn’t in the air you could have contact. Now, it’s contact in the first five yards. Really, technically, you can only hit them one time. Maybe you can chuck them twice in those first five yards. It takes great man, motor skills to be able to match the moves of the wide receivers.
Q: What are you hopes for (Lawrence) Sidbury?
A: He needs to continue to progress. He was a small college player coming out of Richmond. I think he’s still learning about the competition in the NFL.
Q: Is (Indianapolis Colts defensive end) Robert Mathis a good comparison for Sidbury?
A: I certainly hope he has the same success that Mathis is having. Mathis played at Alabama State. Their numbers are very similar in terms of height, weight and speed. I think it’s just going to be a continuation of the learning process for Lawrence. I think he’s got an opportunity to learn under a good one in John Abraham.
2009: WR, Eagles.
2008: OT, Panthers.
2007: FS Michael Griffin, Titans.
2006: CB Antonio Cromartie, Chargers.
2005: OT Alex Barron, Rams.
2004: OT Vernon Carey, Dolphins.
2003: QB Kyle Boller, Ravens.
2002: WR, Broncos.
2001: NT Casey Hampton, Steelers.
2000: RB Shaun Alexander, Seahawks.
PLUMMER RELEASED: Longtime Falcons scout Bruce Plummer was terminated by the team in what was determined to be a football decision. Plummer, who’d been with the team for 10 years, was the Midwest scout.