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Notebook: July 31


On Saturday, Falcons head coach Mike Smith said he'd love to get left guard Justin Blalock re-signed and back on the line in front of quarterback Matt Ryan.

On Sunday, Smith's hopes came true with the announcement the five-year veteran was returning to the team. Blalock, along with recently re-signed tackle Tyson Clabo, was among the team's priorities entering free agency this year.

"One of our top priorities has been to protect our quarterback and I think we've been able to do that with the two guys that we were able to sign back," Smith said. "It's a balancing act, of course, when you are trying to do this, but I am really excited about the moves that we've made in this free agency period. Justin Blalock is good news for our football team."

The continuity of the offensive line has been what the offense has revolved around under the Smith regime. Except for injury situations, all five players on the line in the last three seasons were the same. It was evident that same continuity would be difficult to keep in place this season with three of the five being free agents, but bringing back two was a big plus, according to Smith.

"Of all the different groups that we have on the team, the offensive line is the one that has to work together and in tandem with each other. For us the way our free agency opened, it could have turned out much differently. Thomas and his staff have done a great job addressing the areas of concern that we had and the game plan that we put in place to get two of the three free agents. I think it bodes well for us."

The loss of right guard Harvey Dahl to St. Louis signals a training camp battle between Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson, as Smith pointed out Saturday. Those two in particular were brought in in recent years' drafts to prepare for this possibility.

"We had a plan with the young guys that we drafted over the last couple of years," Smith said. "They're going to get an opportunity to fight for a starting position now. That's a healthy thing. Ultimately you'd like to always have the same guys coming back, but in this league the way it's set up it doesn't happen."

On a line that features a Pro Bowler, a franchise-record holder, and a first-round pick, Blalock is perhaps a little unsung for what his contributions have been. The 26-year-old guard has been as consistent as can be asked, drawing a comparison from Smith to Lou Gehrig.

"He's never missed a practice since we've been here," Smith said. "He's never missed a game. He's been very healthy and I think that says a lot about his makeup."


One of the premier position battles in camp is taking place at cornerback.

Third-year corner and last year's frequent nickel back Chris Owens has pressure from second-year corner Dominique Franks, who was only active for two games last season.

The current situation at cornerback is giving both players an opportunity to not just line up in the slot, but also on the outside. It's giving them on-the-field learning opportunities instead of just film-room learnings. Smith described the battle between Owens and Franks as one of two drawing the most scrutiny from the coaching staff.

"I think both of those guys have the skill set that we're looking for," Smith said. "Of course Chris Owens has more experience as far as playing time, but those are the two guys that will get the majority of the reps. It will be a good battle, I think, all through training camp. As we move through this week and change our schedule a little bit, we'll see some guys moving up and down the depth chart."

After his rookie year last season Franks feels more comfortable on the field now and is happy to have an opportunity like the one he's in.

"I feel more comfortable now than I did last year," he said. "I've been asking the guys for whatever I need; Chris Owens, Dunta Robinson and then the linebackers and stuff since I'm playing a lot more nickel. It's just getting comfortable and I'm feeling good out there and it's letting me go out there and play."

The nickelback will be assigned to cover the slot in passing downs and with the increasing focus on passing attacks in the NFL, the nickel position is almost considered a starting job. Franks just wants to play, he's less concerned about where it is.

"Just whatever I can do to help this team win," he said. "At nickel, I'd just love to be out there. Right now it's just learning what I need to learn to prepare myself and come out here and have a great practice to show the coaches I can play on Sundays."

In the heat of August, it will be a hot contest between Owens and Franks. It's one that looks to come down to the final days of camp competition.

"We always want to create competition in the positions we feel that there needs to be competition," Smith said. "That is definitely one of them. That and probably the right guard are the two areas where I think there will be the most scrutiny in terms of competition."


Akeem Dent is in good company.

The rookie linebacker from Georgia is in a room with grizzled veterans that know the business of playing linebacker in the NFL and he's the benefactor of it all.

"Mike Peterson's been in the league a long time," Dent said Sunday. "Curtis Lofton and all those guys who know the system. They know what's going on. It's a good thing to have as a rookie coming in. It's good for me because they know what's going on and I can learn from them."

Like all the rookies, Dent's head is swimming in everything required to make the transition from college to the pros in an especially unusual offseason, but he's making the most of it with the feedback of the coaching staff.

"They told us everything is coming real fast," Dent said. "It's just a learning process for us. Everything we do we have to do it as fast as we can. All the reps we get we have to maximize them. Everything's on film and everything can be corrected. We just have to come out here and correct things if we make a mistake once."

For a guy in college praised as a leader on and off the field, it's been helpful to be around guys believed to be the leaders of the Atlanta Falcons defense. In them he sees a similar mentality and can learn how to apply his own leadership and approach to the game to what the Falcons linebackers want to do each day, especially at a position in the middle linebacker that requires a fearless leader.

"Basically they're just behind me," Dent said. "They've been leaders. That's one thing that stands out to me. They've been real leaders to me, helping me out and it's a great thing. In my position, playing the Mike (middle) linebacker, there's a lot of terms and stuff to know. Right now it's happening real quick. Me being a professional, I've got to get my studying in and learn the playbook. One of the main things for me is to get on the team."

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