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Rookies ready for first preseason game


This year, they made those decisions on Wednesday night before Saturday's first game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.

Such is one measure of how life has changed for the Falcons.

No longer is quarterback Matt Ryan, the third overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, an unknown quantity after the 2008 season in which he was named *Associated Press *Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Head Coach Mike Smith announced Thursday that each of the team's four quarterbacks --- Ryan, Chris Redman, D.J. Shockley and John Parker Wilson -- will play a quarter apiece.

While quarterback play always is of intense interest to fans, the coaching staff will pay close attention to a number of other positions, including punt returner, defensive line and cornerback where starting jobs could potentially be on the line.

"I want to see how our punt returners -- they're going to be auditioning this week in terms of some guys who [are] going to replace Harry Douglas -- that's going to be a key area," Smith said of last year's punt returner who was lost for the season last week to an ACL injury.

Smith also said he'll look at the defensive line rotation to "see how those guys compete" and rookie cornerbacks Christopher Owens and William Middleton.

The most proven quantity among potential punt returners is veteran Brian Finneran, whom the team could use for his sure hands on returns inside the Falcons 20-yard line.

Cornerback Brent Grimes is expected to get a look, as could wide receiver Eric Weems, who had a spectacular practice on Thursday with a slew of acrobatic catches, and second-year man Chandler Williams.

Grimes, who has exhibited brilliant flashes of athleticism during camp, said returning punts at Division II Shippensburg (Pa.) was "one of my favorite things to do."

"I mean, you got the ball in your hands and you got a chance to score and make a big play for your team," Grimes said. "I just think it's fun."

A variety of defensive linemen -- three of the team's draft picks, first-rounder Peria Jerry, fourth-rounder Lawrence Sidbury and seventh-rounder Vance Walker -- are likely to get in the mix. Jerry, a tackle who has spent plenty of time working with the first-team defense, said his first NFL action could create some butterflies in his stomach.

"It's all football; it's fun to me," he said. "I'm not nervous at all, but once you get in the game situation you might get nervous for the first couple of plays but after that everything slows down and you'll be OK."

Sibury, who played in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), said he is realizing how large the chasm is between his collegiate level and the NFL.

He said he wants to play hard, make as many plays as possible and be mentally sharp. He also realizes the importance of using the techniques the coaching staff and his more veteran teammates have taught him over the last two weeks.

"You've got to understand in college you can get away sometimes with being stronger than a lot of guys," Sidbury said. "In my case with being a good athlete, being a lot faster and more agile than guys in college… Here my speed and athleticism helps but you've got to have more than that. You've got to constantly remind yourself to play with a low pad level, you have to use your hands and, more importantly than this, your technique. You've got to be aware of what the offense is doing.

"That's something I didn't worry about in college. I kind of just lined up and played. The adjustment is a little rocky at first but I'm getting better at it. I feel myself improving everyday I come out here and practice so I'm confident about what I can possibly do in this first game."

In the defensive backfield, Owens was the team's third-round pick in this year's draft and Middleton, out of Atlanta's Marist School, was a fifth-rounder. Another high pick, safety William Moore who was taken in the second round, will not play because of a procedure he had on his knee last week.

In terms of the quarterback rotation, Smith suggested the media not to pay too much attention as to which periods are played by which quarterbacks.

Shockley has had an impressive camp thus far, although he did struggle with a few incompletions in the two-minute drill on Thursday.

Shockley had three different head coaches in his first three seasons, which made learning the offense a moving target. For the first time this season, he has played two consecutive years with the same offense.

"I feel a lot more comfortable with the whole offense, everything I'm doing and now I'm able to just go out and play," Shockley said.

Shockley said his goal is simply to move the chains and not turn the ball over. He said he is not concerning himself as to whether he is battling with Redman for the No. 2 job.

"Just manage the game, move the ball and put some points on the board," he said.

Shockley represents one of several connections between the Falcons and Lions. When Shockley left the University of Georgia, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 Draft, succeeded him.

Stafford now has the challenge of leading the Lions, who became the first NFL team to go winless in a 16-game season in 2008, into prosperity.

"I think Stafford's a stand-up guy," Shockley said. "He's been through a lot throughout his life and he knows how to handle extreme situations. Being at Georgia, you're kind of put on a pedestal up there and guys are really thrust into a lot of different situations and I think he handled everything at Georgia pretty well. I think this is going to be the same thing."

Coincidentally, when Shockley was at Georgia he said he hosted the recruiting visit for Lions wide receiver and Georgia native Calvin Johnson, who chose the Bulldogs' archrival Georgia Tech instead.

Johnson was the second overall pick in 2007.

"Obviously it didn't work out," Shockley said of Johnson's recruiting visit. "Maybe we went out too much. I don't know."

Earlier in the week, Walker, the rookie defensive lineman out of Tech, said he was looking forward to seeing Johnson, his former teammate.

Another connection is that the Lions have signed former Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who played parts of three seasons in Atlanta.

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