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Falcons' rookies learning to fly
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FLOWERY BRANCH — When Todd McClure and Atlanta’s other 30-somethings first saw all those young guys lining up next to them, they were understandably concerned.

“You’d like to have team full of veterans,” the Falcons center said. “Of course, that’s not always possible.”

Certainly not with this team, which had little choice but to start over after star quarterback Mike Vick was sent to prison and former coach Bobby Petrino defected back to the college ranks.

While the top pick, quarterback Matt Ryan, has gotten most of the attention, the Falcons handed starting roles to their first three draft choices — all at key positions.

Sam Baker took over at left tackle, the spot that protects the QB’s blind side, and Curtis Lofton moved in at middle linebacker between veterans Keith Brooking and Michael Boley.

That’s not all. Two mid-round selections, receiver Harry Douglas and nickel back Chevis Jackson, have played key roles off the bench.

“We’ve got a young team,” the 31-year-old McClure said. “But those guys have stepped it up. They’ve been learning in the meeting rooms, then going out there and executing. They’re going to be better players because of playing early and getting that experience.”

The rookies have made their share of mistakes, but they’ve generally held up better than expected. A quarter of the way through the season, the Falcons (2-2) are halfway to their win total for all of 2007.

“It’s going pretty good,” said Lofton, a second-round pick from Oklahoma. “I’m starting to get more confidence out there, and you can see that in my playing. I’m playing a lot faster on the field.”

Some wondered if the Falcons were doing the right thing when they threw Ryan, the No. 3 overall choice, right into the lineup behind a largely inexperienced line. While he’s far from a finished product, the 23-year-old has shown enough flashes so far to justify the decision.

Ryan threw a touchdown on his first NFL pass and has played well in the victories, though it must be noted both were at home and against two of the league’s weaker teams. He was 9-of-13 for 161 yards and one TD against Detroit, and went 12-of-18 for 192 yards and another score against Kansas City.

On the road, a much different story. Ryan was held to 13-of-33, with two interceptions, by Tampa Bay’s fearsome defense. Last Sunday, he completed only 21-of-41 for 158 yards in a loss at Carolina. Most troubling, the Falcons have yet to score a touchdown on the road.

“Obviously, there’s a learning curve when you’re a rookie,” Ryan said. “This is our first year in the league. There’s a lot of things we’ve got to improve on. But the guys are working hard at getting better week to week and making improvements on the practice field. That will eventually translate into improvement on the playing field.”

Baker’s progress has been slowed by a concussion. The first-round pick out of USC was forced to leave two games early and didn’t dress at all against the Panthers. It’s not known if he’ll be able to play Sunday at Green Bay.

But Lofton has been a quick study on the other side of the line, as well as special teams. He was credited with 10 tackles against both Tampa Bay and Carolina, and stuffed Kansas City’s Larry Johnson on a fourth-and-goal play at the 1.

“Me and Matt both have a lot of confidence,” Lofton said. “We knew coming into this situation that we would have a chance to compete for a starting job. We both won ‘em, and that’s something we expected. We set high standards for ourselves.”

There have been some bumps along the way. Douglas, who often lines up in the slot when an extra receiver is on the field, broke off a 33-yard run and caught a 21-yard pass in the loss to Tampa Bay. But he dropped two passes against Carolina, one of them ruining a drive when the Falcons still had a chance to rally.

“Harry obviously had a rough game, but those things are going to happen when you’re a rookie,” ninth-year receiver Brian Finneran said. “My first season I had a couple of bad drops, and it cost me my job. That’s going to happen. You just have to fight through it and get better.”

The Falcons knew it would be like this when they decided to hand key roles to so many young players.

But it could pay big dividends down the road, whether it’s this season or the next.

“They’ve all made contributions,” said coach Mike Smith, a rookie himself. “Now, they’ve made their mistakes. We’re going to make mistakes, because we’re at a different place than a lot of teams in this league right now.”

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