Basketball was supposed to be his sport.
Growing up in northwest London, Jack Crawford figured he would follow his hoop dreams to stardom. He played small forward for the East London Royals Under-18 basketball squad and came to the United States to continue playing basketball at St. Augustine Prep in south New Jersey. He couldn't play immediately as a sophomore due to transfer eligibility rules.
So Crawford discovered football as a junior. Then his career took a different path.
“I had no aspirations to play football,” Crawford said in his catchy British accent. ”I didn't even really want to step on the football field.”
Some 12 years later, the 6-foot-5, 288-pound Crawford finds himself on the move again, this time to Atlanta. The defensive lineman, last with the Dallas Cowboys, will sign a three-year free-agent contract with the Falcons that carries a maximum value of $10.3 million.
“Just watching the Falcons on tape, I think their system and their philosophy on defense is very similar to how we were taught in Dallas,” Crawford said. “I love watching their defense. They like to get up the field, and that's really what suits my style of play and how I like to play.”
The Falcons need help along the defensive line and although Crawford wasn't a big-name free agent, he has value. Folks familiar with him from his days in Dallas say he is a relentless worker and a high-effort tough guy, the type of player that Falcons coach Dan Quinn wants on his defense and in his locker room. Crawford might not even be a starter, but his versatility to play any position on the line gives the Falcons options.
“We like his skill set and the physicality in which he plays the game with,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “And we feel he will add to our defensive line group.”
Crawford, who played in college at Penn State, entered the league as a fifth-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2012. He signed on as a free agent in Dallas before the 2014 season. In three years with the Cowboys, he accumulated all nine of his career sacks along with 54 tackles in 1,104 snaps (38 games).
Crawford credited Cowboys defensive coordinator and defensive line guru Rod Marinelli for elevating his game.
“I can even begin to tell you what I learned from him: everything,” Crawford said of Marinelli. “Working with him over the last three years helped me learn so much about the sport and helped me progress. ... He has helped develop my mindset, my ability to play.
“I pride myself in trying to improve each and every year. Where I am now compared to where I was even last year, I'm a whole new player. I feel confident that I can build on what I've done so far. And I think Coach Marinelli is the best coach I've ever had.”
Crawford joins a Falcons team in need of “rush men,” as Marinelli would put it. Reigning NFL sacks leader Vic Beasley Jr. can't do it alone, although his 15 1/2 sacks and six forced fumbles were a key to the Falcons' success last season.
“Leading the NFL in sacks in your second year, that's elite,” Crawford said of Beasley. “That's a big deal. He put it on tape, so nobody can question him. I'm excited to come assimilate to him and the group.”
There's uncertainty about defensive end Adrian Clayborn coming off a biceps tear, although the relentless Clayborn expects a full recovery. And even with the emergence of nose tackle Grady Jarrett coming off a three-sack showing in the Super Bowl, the Falcons need as many capable rushers as possible.
So how much will Crawford boost the pass rush?
“I hate to say stuff before I even get there,” Crawford said. ”I'm not the kind of person who is going to come in and say I'm going to do this and that. I just know that I'm going to work.
“The fact that this team came to me and was interested in me, that shows that I'm going to go and work hard for this team. For me, the goal is to get to the Super Bowl and to have that feeling again of just being in the playoffs. My goal is to ball out the next two years and re-sign with them the third year. That's my goal.”