Falcons' Ryan eyes Gonzalez with zeal

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Matt Ryan isn't trying to hide his excitement about the arrival of Tony Gonzalez.

On the first day of the Atlanta Falcons' minicamp, Ryan took great pleasure in connecting often with his new tight end. Players wore helmets and no pads in their on-field debut for 2009, but having a 10-time Pro Bowl selection as a teammate delighted Ryan.

They worked on a few routes together for the first time last week, but Friday marked Ryan's first time running 11-on-11 drills with Gonzalez.

"Well, yeah, certainly as a quarterback, any time you get a new toy, you want to try it out," Ryan said with a grin. "I threw a couple of balls his way, and he didn't disappoint."

At this point last year, Ryan was a wide-eyed rookie just trying to feel his way in a new environment. After helping Atlanta finish the regular season 11-5 and earn a wild-card berth, Ryan is surrounded by an elite set of skill position players.

But the Falcons' acquisition of Gonzalez, the NFL's career leader in catches, yards receiving and touchdown catches for a tight end, was almost too good for Ryan to believe, particularly considering that general manager Thomas Dimitroff only gave up a second-round draft pick in 2010 to swing the deal with Kansas City.

"It's big for us to pick up Tony," Ryan said. "He's one of the greatest players of all time, so [adding] him to your team helps you improve. He's done a great job since he's been here the last couple of weeks, working hard in the weight room. I've been very impressed."

Gonzalez believes Atlanta has a legitimate chance to become an offensive powerhouse a year after Ryan, running back Michael Turner and receiver Roddy White were first-time Pro Bowl invitees.

Turner rushed for 1,699 yards, second-best in the NFL. Roddy White's 1,382 yards receiving ranked fourth. Michael Jenkins, who signed a four-year contract extension during the season, turned 74 percent of his receptions into first downs, ranking sixth in the league among wideouts with at least 40 catches.

"One thing that really stood out to me was how enthusiastic and how ready everybody was to go," Gonzalez said. "It's contagious, which makes you want to work hard and get better."

Gonzalez, the league's career leading tight end with 916 receptions for 10,940 yards, 76 touchdowns and 26 games with at least 100 yards, is a rarity at his position and one the Falcons coveted a year after letting Alge Crumpler leave as a free agent.

Atlanta's top tight end in '08 was Justin Peele, who caught 15 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns. Peele ranked in a tie for 44th at his position, and the Falcons' tight ends collectively had 19 catches.

Gonzalez, running routes for a Chiefs offense that was 26th in both total yards and scoring, caught 96 passes for 1,058 yards, 10 touchdowns and 67 first downs.

"We were looking for a vertical, pass-catching tight end, [but he was] going to have to be able to block," Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey said. "That's been the history of this offense. You have to be able to block. He can, and that's why he's here and maybe some others aren't. He has that ability to block the point and be effective for us in the run game. Obviously his passing talents speak for themselves as a receiver. We feel he's a complete package."

Though he's having to learn a new offense for the third straight year, Gonzalez already understands many of the principles of Atlanta's formations because Mularkey's former boss in Pittsburgh, Chan Gailey, worked as Kansas City's coordinator last year.

"I can't say I like it because I'm not as comfortable as it could be, but that just comes with experience from coming out here and working it," Gonzalez said. "I have no problem doing that. Yeah, I'm going to mess up some plays. I might be a little hesitant at times, but once it comes together then I'll start getting back to my old form."

And if Ryan can hardly wait to work with him, Gonzalez feels the same way.

"He's very good," Gonzalez said. "That's one that stood out was how accurate he is. How much of a leader he is in the huddle. He commands attention when he gets into the huddle, and that's indicative of a great player and a great leader. It's fun to be playing with a guy like that. I'm looking forward to it."


Coach Mike Smith did not say why DE John Abraham, K Jason Elam, CB Von Hutchins, CB David Irons and C Alex Stepanovich attended practice but did not participate. ... LB Mike Peterson, who played under Smith at Jacksonville and signed as a free agent in March, debuted with the first team defense.