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Falcons fill some holes

Petrino expects his picks to contribute early

        FLOWERY BRANCH — Bobby Petrino wants the Atlanta Falcons’ top three draft picks to earn starting jobs long before training camp begins.
        ‘‘Obviously, that’s going to be up to them,’’ Petrino, the Falcons’ first-year coach, said Sunday. ‘‘We brought them here to be starters. There’s no question about that.’’
        First-round selection Jamaal Anderson, a defensive end chosen eighth overall, and Atlanta’s two second-round picks, guard Justin Blalock and cornerback Chris Houston, are the foundations of the Falcons’ first draft with Petrino.
        Atlanta finished the weekend with 11 picks, eight of them taken on the second day. The Falcons used a pair of fourth-round picks on South Florida linebacker Stephen Nicholas and Georgia tight end Martrez Milner.
        General manager Rich McKay swung a trade with Jacksonville, sending a fifth-round spot for three of his four picks in the sixth. Atlanta took defensive tackle Trey Lewis of Washburn University-Ichabod, Auburn cornerback David Irons, Ohio State offensive tackle Doug Datish and Maine safety Daren Stone.
        Jason Snelling, a running back from Virginia, was the final and seventh-round pick.
        Though McKay still has the final call on personnel decisions, Petrino’s arrival has signaled a change from the philosophies of Jim Mora, his predecessor.
        Mora preferred players with speed as a primary asset. Regarding skill positions and defensive backs, Petrino agrees, but he wants linemen with more bulk.
        The size of Blalock, at 6-foot-3, 320 pounds, is a significant departure from the quick, smaller players preferred by former line coach Alex Gibbs. Datish, a leading candidate to back up center Todd McClure and guards Blalock and Kynan Forney, is 6-4, 302.
        With starting nose tackle Grady Jackson embroiled in a contract dispute, McKay and Petrino expect Lewis (6-3, 318) to challenge Darrell Shropshire for a first-team job.
        Anderson, at 6-5, 288, stands as tall as former left end Patrick Kerney, but the rookie tips the scales 15 pounds heavier.
        Petrino wants Anderson, Blalock and Houston to set a leading pace for the entire rookie class.
        ‘‘We’re going to expect them from today until we come back and start on mini-camp, to work, study, understand, get ahead and know our offense and defense before they get here,’’ Petrino said. ‘‘I’m not sure they’ll get it all down, but certainly that’s one of our plans, and how our coaches are going to prepare them prior to getting here for the mini-camp, so they don’t come in here asking where we want them to be.’’
        After McKay revealed that linebacker Demorrio Williams underwent surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, the Falcons want Nicholas to open mini-camp May 11 as the weakside starter.
        Atlanta believes that Irons, whose draft status fell because of a knee injury during his final season at Auburn, will push Jason Webster for the nickel cornerback spot. Stone will play behind starting strong safety Lawyer Milloy, and Milner has a chance to challenge Eric Beverly and Dwayne Blakley for the blocking tight end job behind four-time Pro Bowl selection Alge Crumpler.
        Roles on special teams will carry importance, too.
        ‘‘Once we have mini-camp in two weeks, we’ll have a much better idea where we are,’’ McKay said. ‘‘Let us get through that, and we ought to know a lot more about what kind of team we have.’’
        As far as the top three picks are concerned, the Falcons already knew that Anderson, Blalock and Houston love to compete.
        The rookies showed as much during a formal introduction on Sunday. Blalock wore a knowing grin while Anderson and Houston, a pair of former Arkansas standouts, cited the Southeastern Conference as the nation’s toughest test.
        ‘‘Just talking to current NFL players, they’ll tell you right now the SEC is the closest you can get to the NFL,’’ Anderson said. ‘‘If you look at all the players in the trenches, most of them are coming from the Southeastern Conference, so I feel like this is the closest I can get to this, and I feel like this is going to be a great transition for me at the next level.’’
        Covering SEC receivers also demanded a lot of dedication and athleticism from Houston.
        ‘‘With the speed of the game and the wide receivers, they’re going to be faster than most divisions, but every week you have to be mentally prepared and studying film,’’ Houston said. ‘‘Otherwise, you could be embarrassed.’’
        The playful debate fizzled pretty fast, though, when Blalock reminded Anderson and Houston of a Texas victory that stopped a three-game series losing streak in 2004.
        ‘‘I just want to say we’re not exactly slouches in the Big 12, either, as these guys will recall what happened the last time Arkansas and Texas played,’’ Blalock said. ‘‘But you’re only as good as your last time out.’’

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