Hall looking to build on strong '04 finish

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- From the several tattoos that run the length of both arms, to the too-long practice pants, the towel and gloves that dangle loosely from his waistband, and the elastic bracelet around his left wrist, DeAngelo Hall is a human billboard.

Slap four tires on the Atlanta Falcons' second-year cornerback, mount a few roll bars to his shoulder pads, and Hall could probably enter a NASCAR race, given all the commercial signage he sports. If the guy charged standard advertising rates to wear big-name athletic apparel to practice, he might retire early.

His dazzling array of designer paraphernalia aside, there is one brand name that Hall is most interested in pitching this year.

And that would be, of course, the name DeAngelo Hall. Or D-Hall as he prefers to be known. (Please, he admonished, none of that "D-Lo" handle some Atlanta fans have hung on him, which he really doesn't like.)

"You've got to have the swagger and, after what I went through last year, it's definitely good to have it back," said D-Hall, after the Falcons' initial training camp practice Monday afternoon, a torrid 2½-hour session in which he was arguably the best player on the field. "If you play cornerback, you want people to notice you, because teams are coming after you anyway. So, I'm just kind of saying, 'OK, here I am.' I really don't mind sticking out, not at all."

One might suggest that, from both a sartorial and scintillation standpoint, Hall was as prominent as the proverbial sore thumb in Monday's practice. But the young corner was such a handful, making a fashion statement and, more important, making plays, assigning him just the thumb's up status would not sufficiently describe his performance.

Beaten twice to the inside on short slants during a one-on-one drill -- when, in theory, the receiver should win most individual battles -- Hall came back shortly thereafter with the kind of singular play the Atlanta coaches expect from him. He made a terrific read on a skinny post route by wide receiver Michael Jenkins, got underneath the pattern with a warp-speed burst, and plucked an interception.

A few snaps later, Hall skied high to swat away a pass intended for Brian Finneran, who possesses a 7-inch height advantage over the cornerback. Then he knocked down a pass on an out-pattern for Peerless Price, and got his hands on two more attempts during the final team segment.

"At one point," said coach Jim Mora following the practice, "Michael Vick said to me, 'You know, [Hall] might be even faster than me.' Now, believe me, Michael doesn't say that about anybody. But that guy [Hall], he can really scoot … You can tell he's got so much confidence. He really played the part today."

And dressed the part as well.

For openers, there were the requisite tattoos, the most cherished of which is an image of his mother, Joan Hall, on the beefy part of his right upper arm. His late brother, Kevin Smith, is honored on a similar spot on his left arm. Also displayed prominently on his left arm are the words "Big Time."

In what could only be regarded as a football fashion statement, Hall donned the longest pair of mesh practice pants these eyes, or likely any others, have ever seen in the NFL. Mora agreed with our assessment they were "capri" length, certainly not team-issued. Even Hall acknowledged the practice pants, which he asked Reebok to manufacture for him, because, he claimed, they "make me look faster on tape," were a little longer than he had anticipated.

And then there was the white elastic bracelet, a gift from NBA star Allen Iverson, featuring a Reebok logo on one side and, on the other, these words: "I am what I am."

The enormously gifted Hall is, he believes, a Pro Bowl cornerback. Hall will readily concede he is near-obsessed with earning a trip to Honolulu. Toward that end, the Falcons' first choice in the 2004 NFL draft and the eighth prospect selected overall spent considerably more time in the videotape room during the offseason.

"He was here all the time," confirmed team president Rich McKay. "And now, you can see, he's transferring a lot of the things he saw on tape to the field. He looks so good."

Added Mora: "To me, you can't have the swagger without putting in the work. And he has been one of our hardest workers."

In truth, it wasn't always that way. Not that Hall was a malingerer, because that clearly was not the case. Like most young players, though, Hall wasn't tuned in to the reality that it takes more than just skill to play in the NFL. And it took a rookie-year comeuppance for Hall, and some free advice from the guy who first established Falcons uniform No. 21 (which Hall wears) as a must-have jersey, future Hall of Fame member Deion Sanders, for the young cornerback to realize the game is as much about nuance as it is natural instinct.

Sanders introduced Hall to longtime friend and current Falcons cornerback Kevin Mathis, a student of the game and a stickler for detail and technique. The journeyman veteran helped convince the first-rounder that there is a mental side to the sport and certainly to the cornerback position. The upshot of the Sanders and Mathis tutorials: Hall now often hosts gatherings at his posh Chateau Elan home for the other members of the secondary and their wives.

During these gatherings, the guys often adjourn to another room, where social conversation turns professional, as they compare notes on coverages and opponents and all matters germane to their positions as safeties and cornerbacks. Frequently now, the pizza gets cold and the beer grows warm as the Atlanta defensive backs swap ideas on how to play the post pattern and the proper mechanics for bump-and-run coverage.

But perhaps the bigger eye-opener for Hall was a negative event that accelerated his maturity and passion for the game in a positive matter. In 2004, Hall sustained a hip injury in a preseason contest. Hall went up to battle Cincinnati star wideout Chad Johnson for a pass, landed awkwardly, and jammed his left femur into the hip socket. The fluke injury put Hall on crutches, kept him off the field for the first six games of the regular season, out of the starting lineup for the seventh, and limited him to nine starts.

Touted on draft day as a viable candidate for defensive rookie of the year, Hall's debut season wasn't so much lost as it was misplaced, and he is doing plenty to find his way again in his sophomore campaign. Hall said that the Houston Texans' Dunta Robinson, a 2004 first-rounder and the second cornerback to go off the board last year, had a standout initial NFL season, with six interceptions. But after talking to Hall, it's obvious he feels Robinson's year was robbed from him.

And now Hall, who at 21 is the youngest player in the Atlanta starting lineup for a second straight season and the second-youngest player on the entire roster, clearly is motivated to do something about that.

"I'm talented, I'm fast, I'm strong," Hall said. "I've played with a chip on my shoulder and have [a history] of proving people wrong. But I always thought that was enough. I was a guy who thought he could get by just on skills alone, and I found out differently, you know? So now, here I am, becoming a student of the game, too. I mean, you can't beat that [combination], skills and smarts."

Indeed, while his hands might still be a bit inconsistent, Hall brings an impressively full package to the game. When the Falcons snatched him off the draft board last year, they felt he could be the same kind of spark for the Atlanta defense that Vick provides for the offense. Such a lofty expectation was not, in truth, hyperbole.

Both Falcons stars played collegiately at Virginia Tech, were first-round picks, are blessed with mind-boggling athleticism, and possess electrifying playmaking skills. They are difference makers. And the Falcons' management feels, as does Hall, that the strong finish to his rookie season will make a difference as he approaches 2005.

The signature moment of that solid closing stretch for Hall, who actually closed his eyes during a Monday interview and relived the play in his mind and for a reporter, came during the season finale at Seattle. On a third-and-13 at the Seahawks' 42-yard line, Jerry Rice came off the line and Hall jammed the greatest receiver of all time so hard, he knocked him to the ground. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw to where he thought Rice would be, Hall stepped in front of the pass for the interception, and raced 48 yards for the first touchdown of his NFL career.

Hall followed that up with an impressive playoff outing against Rams star wideout Torry Holt and also played well at Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game loss. If the first practice of camp is any indication, Hall, who finished his rookie season (including the playoffs) with 44 tackles, two interceptions and six passes defensed, has returned with a superb foundation.

The best, Hall insisted Monday, is yet to come. He spoke repeatedly about getting a chance to go "over the water," his own terminology for flying over the Pacific Ocean and to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl game. There is little denying that if you give the confident Hall 20 minutes of your time, you can't help but come away convinced that he is Honolulu-bound, for sure.

Assuming, that is, he doesn't trip over those extra-long practice pants.

"Guys like (Detroit Lions Pro Bowl cornerback) Dré Bly have been saying to me there's no reason that I won't be a Pro Bowl player," Hall said. "So now it's on me to do it. I can talk about it all I want, but you have to back it up, and I'm as good at playing as I am talking, I think. So, yeah, I think I'm going over the water this year. I think it's my destiny."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.