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Rookie Stone could be center of attention

When the Atlanta Falcons begin their rookie minicamp on Friday afternoon, plenty of eyes will be on offensive tackle Jake Matthews, the sixth-overall pick in this year's NFL draft.

But there's another offensive lineman from the SEC who might be worth a double take: undrafted center James Stone from Tennessee.

Stone, 19 other college free agents, the team's nine draft picks, and 24 tryout players will take the field in Flowery Branch, Georgia, attempting to make a good first impression.

Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney believes the 6-f0ot-3, 306-pound Stone shouldn't have much trouble grabbing the attention of the Falcons' coaching staff.

"In one year's time with him, I was just really impressed with how smart of a player he is," Mahoney said of Stone. "And you have to look at his value to play two positions [center and guard]. I know that's a big deal, with how many players they carry on a roster. And again, because of him mentally being able to be such a smart player, I think there's just a tremendous upside to him.''

For an undrafted player, Stone could be walking into an ideal situation. The Falcons have a starting center they believe in with Joe Hawley, but there could be a spot behind Hawley. Former second-round pick Peter Konz lost his starting job and struggled playing right guard as well. Although Konz has spent extensive time in the weight room this offseason, he has to show he can get it done on the field.

If Konz falters, that could leave an opportunity for Stone to make the roster. The Falcons need to have reliable backups moving into such a critical season.

Stone played in 45 games at Tennessee, with 39 starts. He was projected as a sixth-round draft pick because of his quickness off the snap, athleticism and stout frame. But there were questions about his assertiveness at the point of attack.

Mahoney is confident Stone will overcome any shortcomings in his game. Very rarely, if ever, did Stone have a missed assignment during his senior year with the Vols.

"He's a very diligent worker in the meeting room in terms of take notes," Mahoney said. "He spends time watching film. He understands defenses and alignments. With calls that need to be made by a center, this guy's got it. And I think it's a credit to him, first and foremost. Plus, coaches have done a good job with him in the past.

"He's a sponge. He's willing to take in whatever is taught to him and run with it. He's driven to be as good as can be."