The Falcons have opened their first NFL free agency period under new general manager Thomas Dimitroff with a flurry of moves. The acquisition of former San Diego running back Michael Turner and subsequent release of Warrick Dunn has grabbed the most headlines, but the departure of another former Pro Bowler — tight end Alge Crumpler — leaves the door wide open for West Hall graduate Martrez Milner.
“It’s definitely exciting,” said Milner who is currently rehabbing an injured left ankle. “I don’t know what they’ve got planned for me, but I do know that I learned a lot playing under Alge for a year. He taught me to come to every meeting, every practice, and prepare like I’m going to be a starter and that’s what I hope to do.”
While playing his rookie season behind Crumpler, Milner, a fourth-round pick out of Georgia in last April’s draft, caught nine passes for 50 yards in eight games in 2007 before being placed on injured reserve on Nov. 13. Now that Crumpler is gone — he signed a two-year deal with Tennessee on Monday — Milner is guardedly optimistic that he’ll see an increased role in 2008.
“I’m just trying to get better,” he said. “Every player in the NFL wants to go to the Pro Bowl. We set goals for ourselves that we want to get this many yards and catch this many touchdowns, but that may not be my job. I just want to do whatever I can to help this team.”
Milner said he has met the new coaching staff, including head coach Mike Smith who replaces Bobby Petrino, but he’s not sure yet of how he’ll fit in to offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey’s schemes.
“I’ve run into the coaches while I’ve been rehabbing at Flowery Branch, but we haven’t really talked about football yet,” Milner said. “(Smith) has just asked how things are going with me and my family.
“I really like him a lot,” Milner said of Smith. “He’s got a good personality and he seems like he really cares about the players and their lives off the field.”
The Falcons signed another tight end, Ben Hartsock, last week. That gives them three on the current roster, but none with the kind of credentials that guarantee a starting spot in September. Barring another free agent signing or addition through the draft, the position battle could come down to Milner, Hartsock and second-year Georgia Tech product George Cooper.
Billed as a blocker more than a receiver, Hartsock caught a career high 12 passes for 138 yards last season for the Titans. In his four-year career he has 24 receptions for 247 yards.
Milner’s athleticism makes him a viable receiving threat, and he led Georgia in 2006 with 30 catches for 425 yards. Catching the ball consistently will be the key to securing more playing time.
Cooper signed with the team in June as an undrafted rookie and didn’t log any regular season game time last season.
Milner also said he has spoken with teammates about the loss of Dunn, one of the team’s most respected veterans.
“It’s a business and we understand that,” Milner said. “We’re losing a great guy in Warrick Dunn, but on the other hand, we’re gaining another great running back in Michael Turner and I’m excited to see what he can do to help us win football games.”