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Falcons ready for NFL's youngest team
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenders Gaines Adams (90), Jermaine Phillips (23) and Jovan Haye (71) stop Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner (33) during the first half last Sunday in Tampa, Fla. - photo by Chris O'Meara

ATLANTA — The question seemed to stump John Abraham.

What’s that? The Kansas City Chiefs are the youngest team in the NFL?

Abraham just shook his head as he stood at his locker, looking around at all the new kids in the Atlanta Falcons locker room.

“If they’re the youngest, we’re damn near close,” Abraham said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys, too.”

Abraham, the defensive end in his ninth year, is one of the few veterans who was spared as the Falcons’ new leaders, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, overhauled the roster in the offseason.

Many of the team’s most accomplished players were cut or traded: Alge Crumpler, Rod Coleman, Warrick Dunn, DeAngelo Hall, Joe Horn and Joey Harrington.

The Falcons replaced the veterans with an 11-member draft class, topped by two first-round picks, quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive tackle Sam Baker. Ryan, Baker and linebacker Curtis Lofton, a second-round pick, are starters.

Cornerback Chevis Jackson plays in five defensive back sets, and Harry Douglas is the third receiver, so Smith considers five rookies to be starters.

Yet the Falcons (1-1) have more experienced players than the 0-2 Chiefs. Kansas City has 15 rookies and 32 players with no more than three years of experience.

According to the NFL’s survey of opening day rosters, the Chiefs’ average age was 25.57, matching Green Bay for the youngest in the league. Atlanta’s average age was 26.55.

The Chiefs are expected to start three rookies, including left tackle Branden Albert, who will line up against Abraham, the three-time Pro Bowl pick who already has four sacks.

The Chiefs also plan to start two rookie cornerbacks, second-round pick Brandon Flowers and fifth-round choice Brandon Carr, who will replace injured veteran Patrick Surtain.

Flowers, from Virginia Tech, will be a familiar matchup for Ryan, the former Boston College star.

“I played against Brandon Flowers in college a lot,” Ryan said. “He got the best of me in college a couple of times. I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys. They’re talented and they’re going through the same process I’m going through now, but I think they’ve doing a good job, looking at them on tape.”

Albert will try to protect second-year quarterback Tyler Thigpen, who is expected to make his first start. Thigpen played behind Damon Huard in last week’s 23-8 loss to Oakland. The 24-year-old Thigpen was 14-for-33 for 151 yards in the Chiefs’ 11th straight regular-season defeat.

Thigpen threw a touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez, who needs only 85 yards receiving to move past Shannon Sharpe’s record for tight ends.

Gonzalez already owns the records for touchdown catches and receptions for tight ends, but he’s had to spend extra practice time with Thigpen this week.

“Getting that timing down, that’s what we’re going to have to do this week,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve been talking to him between plays. Maybe after practice we’ll get a couple of extra catches in together, just let him know what I’m thinking. He’s letting me know what he’s thinking. We’ve got to get on the same page.”

Will one week be enough time to develop the needed familiarity?

“It’s going to have to be enough,” Gonzalez said. “There’s no other way to do it. I’m not going to sit here and make excuses. I played too long to do that. It’s important that we get on the same page. Putting in a little extra time, I’m all for it. And I’m going to make sure he’s all for it, too.”

Thigpen had thrown only six passes in his career before last week.

Edwards said an 0-2 start won’t cause him to panic and abandon the team’s youth movement.

“We’re trying to build a football team and it’s hard,” Edwards said. “It’s not a lot of fun. It gets ugly sometimes. But you can’t just throw the plan away after two games. And we’re not. We’re going to go all 16 games.

“These guys will get better and eventually they’ll win games. When that is, hopefully it’s this week. That’s all we can do. We’re building. I’m going through it with everybody else, and I don’t like it. But you know what? It’s the best thing for this organization.”

Abraham says he’d normally get excited about lining up against a rookie tackle while chasing a quarterback making his first start. In this case, he says the veteran on the Kansas City sideline who matters the most is Edwards.

“(Albert) is young, so automatically you get kind of happy when you hear stuff like that,” Abraham said. “But Herm is not a spring chicken. He probably will have some help with the tight end. I know he’s not going to let me have just one on one.”

The Chiefs gave up 300 yards rushing in the loss to the Raiders. The Falcons opened their season with new starting running back Michael Turner setting a team record with 220 yards rushing in a 34-21 win over the Lions.

Ryan is 22-for-46 for 319 yards. He threw a 62-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins on his first pass against Detroit, but hasn’t thrown another scoring pass.

Instead, the Falcons have relied on Turner and Jerious Norwood, who already have combined for 373 yards rushing and three touchdowns.

Atlanta safety Lawyer Milloy is expected to start following his DUI arrest early Monday near Atlanta.

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