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Falcons focus on defense in NFL draft

FLOWERY BRANCH - Position by position, draft pick by draft pick, the Atlanta Falcons kept addressing needs on defense.

The draft which started with two defensive picks on Saturday continued with five more selections on defense on Sunday.

The Falcons selected defensive players with seven of their eight picks. The imbalance was unusual, but so was Atlanta's need - especially after the trade for 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez two days before the draft filled the biggest hole on offense.

The Falcons ranked sixth in total offense and 24th in total defense in 2008.

The bookends for Atlanta's draft were two defensive tackles - the team's first pick, Peria Jerry of Mississippi and its last, Vance Walker of Georgia Tech. General manager Thomas Dimitroff also drafted two cornerbacks, a safety, a linebacker and a defensive end.

Oh, and one offensive tackle.

Jerry is expected to win a starting job for coach Mike Smith.

"Going in this whole process, Mike Smith and I sat down many, many times and talked about how we wanted to build this defense and how we wanted to stop the run," Dimitroff said Sunday. "We wanted a versatile defensive lineman, a guy that could penetrate ... but also have the stoutness to hold the point and play sort of in a nose tackle position."

Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux are the probable starting defensive tackles.

"We want to be able to stop the run and I really believe it starts with the two defensive tackles," Smith said. "With Peria and Jonathan Babineaux, I believe we've got two fine defensive tackles now."

One year ago, in his first draft, Dimitroff scored big by landing two starters in the first round - quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive tackle Sam Baker. Ryan joined free-agent running back Michael Turner and an emerging star at receiver, Roddy White, to help the Falcons finish a surprising 11-5 and earn a playoff spot.

The offense, already strong, gained another important piece with Thursday's trade for Gonzalez for a second-round pick in 2010. Gonzalez predicted "we have a chance to be in the top five in the league in offense."

But no one was ready to make gaudy predictions about an Atlanta defense which had problems even before losing linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, safety Lawyer Milloy cornerback Domonique Foxworth and defensive tackle Grady Jackson.

Hence the strong draft emphasis.

The Falcons opened Sunday by taking cornerback Christopher Owens (5-9, 181) in the third round, serving early notice the team would continue on the path it started Saturday when it picked Jerry in the first round and Missouri safety William Moore in the second round.

Owens had 13 career interceptions as a three-year starter for San Jose State. He said he uses speed and quickness to overcome his lack of size.

Owens said he felt good before the draft about his chances to be picked by the Falcons.

"That's the place that I wanted to go and I was hoping and praying they would draft me," Owens said.

"When I went on a visit to Atlanta, I really felt comfortable being out there. ... I felt good when I met with all the coaches and the GM. When I found out what their scheme is and I like it, I really felt like I was home."

The defensive roll continued in the fourth round with defensive end Lawrence Sidbury (6-2, 266), who had 20.5 career sacks at Richmond.

Furman cornerback William Middleton was the first of two fifth-round picks. Middleton was a three-year starter at Furman and a former high school star at Marist in Atlanta.

Dimitroff traded another fifth-round pick to Dallas for fifth- and seventh-round picks. After taking North Carolina offensive tackle Garrett Reynolds in the fifth round, the focus returned to defense with Miami linebacker Spencer Adkins and Walker.

Reynolds (6-7, 310) made 26 consecutive starts at right tackle for North Carolina. Adkins (5-11, 246) had 20 tackles and four sacks as a senior. Walker had 33 tackles and three sacks for Georgia Tech as a senior.

The draft picks will join free-agent linebacker Mike Peterson, who was signed to replace Brooking.