FLOWERY BRANCH — As the Atlanta Falcons filed into their dorm rooms Friday, Peria Jerry hardly stood out.
Coach Mike Smith, about to begin his second training camp with the Falcons, believes Jerry’s unassuming personality fits well for a defense that seeks a new identity.
"I think if you look around our locker room and see the guys we have on our team, there might be kind of an unspoken way of doing things," Smith said. "Our guys know it’s about results, and I think Peria’s the same way."
Jerry, a 6-foot-2, 299-pound defensive tackle from Mississippi, signed a five-year contract Thursday night to ensure he will be on the field when Atlanta begins camp at 8:30 this morning.
The Falcons are counting on him to fill the large spot vacated by the free-agent departure of 350-pound nose tackle Grady Jackson. Jerry is expected to start alongside three-technique tackle Jonathan Babineaux.
"I’m excited about the chance to contribute this year," Jerry said. "There’s a lot of work to do, and I’m already picking up on a few things just talking to my coaches, the veterans and watching film. I don’t think it’ll take too long for me to figure out what they want me to do."
Atlanta’s defense isn’t exactly devoid of personality. Right end John Abraham is coming off a career-best 16.5 sacks last year. New linebacker Mike Peterson, who’s had 100 tackles in eight of 10 NFL seasons, signed as a free agent after spending the last six years with Jacksonville.
But since the late-summer retirement of Jessie Tuggle in 2001, five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Brooking was the Falcons’ one constant before the team declined to offer him a new contract last winter. Brooking signed with Dallas.
Four other starters, including Jackson, also left. Linebacker Michael Boley (New York Giants) and cornerback Domonique Foxworth (Baltimore) signed as free agents. Safety Lawyer Milloy’s contract expired.
Smith expects youngsters like Jerry to have some growing pains, but the long-range plans general manager Thomas Dimitroff called for younger and faster players on defense. Of Atlanta’s eight draft picks, three were defensive backs, three were defensive linemen and one was a linebacker.
The Falcons last year ranked 11th in scoring, 24th in total yards, 21st against the pass and 24th against the run. Though Atlanta earned an NFC wild-card spot by winning five of its last seven games, the defense managed just five takeaways after forcing three turnovers in a 34-20 victory over New Orleans in Week 10.
Erik Coleman finished the season with a team-high 80 solo tackles, not exactly the role any coach envisions for his starting free safety.
"I wouldn’t say we faded down the stretch or anything like that," Coleman said. "When you win your last three games and get into the playoffs, obviously the entire team is doing a lot of things the right way. What we want to do this year is get better in every facet of the way we play defense."
If Jerry proves that he’s unfazed by a knee sprain that limited his participation in mini-camp, line coach Ray Hamilton likely will give him the majority of snaps with the first-team unit early in camp.
When healthy, Jerry’s speed is a major asset. During his pro day at Ole Miss, Jerry ran the 40-yard dash in 5 seconds, remarkably fast for a big man. The Falcons made Jerry, the second defensive tackle chosen in the first round of the NFL draft, the 24th overall pick after a senior season that included seven sacks, 18 tackles for lost yardage and two forced fumbles.
"I’m looking forward to the chance to showing what I can do," Jerry said. "We’ve got a long way to go before the season starts, and I know there’s a lot to learn."
By signing Jerry, Dimitroff ensured every draft pick will be in pads for the first day of camp.
William Moore, a second-round pick, is listed behind Coleman, but he could get a chance to take snaps behind Thomas DeCoud, the new starter at strong safety. Chris Owens, a third-rounder, is listed behind starter Chris Houston and nickel specialist Chevis Jackson at right cornerback.