FLOWERY BRANCH - The Atlanta Falcons failed to work out a trade Saturday for hometown star Calvin Johnson. Instead, they gladly settled for three players they expect to become instant starters.
The Falcons took Arkansas defensive end Jamaal Anderson at No. 8 overall in NFL draft, having moved up two spots last month in a deal that sent backup quarterback Matt Schaub to the Houston Texans.
Anderson is expected to take over at left end for Patrick Kerney, and the Falcons believe they picked up two other starters early in the second round: Texas offensive guard Justin Blalock and another Arkansas player, cornerback Chris Houston.
There was plenty of speculation that Atlanta would try to move up to grab Johnson, Georgia Tech's all-world receiver and rated by many as the top prospect in the draft. General manager Rich McKay talked with Detroit about the No. 2 pick but nothing came of it.
''I never got the thought they were interested in trading the pick,'' said McKay, who also knew his team had too many needs to give up a bunch of picks for one player - no matter how special he might be.
The Lions selected Johnson after LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell was drafted first overall by the Oakland Raiders.
Anderson addressed one of the Falcons' myriad needs: a replacement for Kerney, who voided his contract and signed a lucrative deal with the Seattle Seahawks.
''We had three players we were ready to take, and Jamaal was certainly one of them,'' McKay said, without revealing the other two. ''Going into the draft, defensive end was the top need on our list.''
The 6-foot-5, 288-pound Anderson ranked third in the nation and led the Southeastern Conference with 13.5 sacks as a junior last season. He also had 19.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
''I'm ready to go to work,'' he said in a telephone interview. ''I'm about to hit the weight room right now.''
Anderson was a standout receiver in high school, and he signed with the Razorbacks not knowing exactly where they intended to play him. Shortly after arriving on campus, ''I went to the defensive meeting room and never looked back.''
He had to bulk up, of course, but the additional weight didn't have much effect on his athleticism. The Falcons also believe there's plenty of room for improvement, even though Anderson will be counted on to start right away.
''I can make plays on the run and on the pass,'' he said. ''I feel like I'm a dual threat.''
The Falcons passed on a player that Petrino was very familiar with: Louisville defensive tackle Amobi Okoye. In a striking twist, he went two picks later to the Texans - the Falcons' original spot in the first round.
''It comes down to two things: need and where we had the players graded,'' Petrino said. ''I think it's the right pick, no question about it.''
While John Abraham will be the main pass-rushing threat at right end, the Falcons are counting on Anderson to provide more pressure than the traditional left end.
''You don't have a lot of guys in the league playing left end who can rush off the edge,'' McKay said. ''We like the fact that against SEC competition, he stepped up and rushed the passer. But he's got a body type that can also play the run. We like that combination.''
It was a crucial draft for Atlanta, which also needed to upgrade safety, receiver and the offensive line. The Falcons took Blalock at No. 39 and Houston just two picks later.
The 6-3, 320-pound Blalock fits with Petrino's plan to get more size up front.
Under the previous staff, the Falcons preferred smaller, quicker linemen who specialized in zone blocking schemes.
''They don't draft guys the first day to sit around the weight room,'' said Blalock, who will move into the left guard spot held last year by Matt Lehr. ''I'm excited to come in and play right away.''
McKay said the Falcons were determined to land Blalock after failing to sign free agent Derrick Dockery, who went to Buffalo for a seven-year, $49 million deal.
''When you go into the offseason trying to make a scheme change as dramatic as we're trying to make, you know it's going to take some time to do,'' McKay said. ''To get a guy that fits the bill like Blalock does make life a little easier.''
Atlanta was set to pick again at No. 44, but McKay worked a deal with Minnesota to move up three spots, sending the Vikings one of his three fourth-round picks (No. 121). The Falcons used it on Houston, a 5-91⁄2, 185-pound defender whose selection signals that Jimmy Williams will be moving from cornerback to safety.
Houston, who generally covered the other team's top receiver at Arkansas, gave up five touchdown passes but also had three interceptions and deflected 13 other throws.
The Falcons were sold on him after a private workout in Texas last weekend. They took along quarterback D.J. Shockley and receiver Adam Jennings to work with Houston, who impressed the team with his speed, strength and man-to-man skills.
''To have them trade up for me is a real blessing,'' Houston said.
''I always loved watching Atlanta in football. That was my favorite team, just watching Michael Vick and DeAngelo Hall.''
Now, Houston will likely be starting at cornerback opposite Hall, a two-time Pro Bowler.
''Oh man, that's crazy,'' Houston said.
''I know DeAngelo Hall is a hard worker. I don't want to let him down. I don't want to be anything less than he is.''