Sprain shelves Falcons' 1st-round pick

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons can only hope that first-round pick Peria Jerry stays healthy in his rookie season.

Drafted 24th overall out of Ole Miss, Jerry left the early session of Atlanta's mini-camp Saturday morning with a sprained right knee and didn't return for the late-afternoon practice.

Jerry seemed to have caught his cleats in the grass after banging his knees together during a drill but was able to walk off the field under his own power. The Falcons were not wearing protective pads during the practice; each of the mini-camp workouts is non-contact.

Coach Mike Smith said the defensive tackle consulted a doctor, but the team does not yet know if the injury was serious. Jerry was not available to speak with reporters.

"That's all we know right now," Smith said Saturday night. Smith said the team should have an update Sunday.

Jerry has the potential to excite the Falcons' staff. He has the physical tools Atlanta seeks at defensive tackle, a position the Falcons must retool after 350-pound Grady Jackson left as a free agent two months ago.

He ran the 40-yard dash in 5 seconds, an impressive time for a 296-pound man, at his pro day at Ole Miss and led the Southeastern Conference last season with 18 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Jerry had 32 tackles for minus yardage and 10.5 sacks during his junior and senior years.

Durability, however, is a concern. Before the Rebels' 2008 season opener, Jerry underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in the same knee he sprained Saturday.

He missed the NFL Combine because of a sore groin. An ankle injury sidelined him for four games as a freshman, and he underwent offseason foot surgery after appearing in eight games as a sophomore.

But he returned from the torn meniscus last September and started 11 of 12 games.

Though he's unlikely to practice in the last mini-camp session Sunday morning, Jerry will learn both tackle positions when he returns.

Smith is enamored with Jerry's "explosiveness off the ball." Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder believes Jerry, whom he describes as "a high energy, high effort guy," could help the Falcons move back the line of scrimmage with a hard style of play that could be "contagious and move through our defense."

The Falcons, who finished second in the NFC South last year at 11-5, were 24th in total defense in Smith's first year as coach. They ranked 25th against the run, 11th in scoring and 11th in sacks. Right end John Abraham finished with 16.5, third-most in the league, but VanGorder wants more production from a seven-man front that must replace nose tackle Grady Jackson and linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley.

"The chemistry part is always a challenge each year, but any time you have a lot of new personnel to collectively bring them together with the same standards and expectations, I think that's something you're conscious of every day," VanGorder said. "You want them to be conscious of it."