Monthly Archives: July 2017

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There’s no better cause to support than WSB’s annual Care-a-Thon, benefiting Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. And lending your support could lead to an incredible opportunity to meet two of Atlanta’s most beloved sports heroes.

The 17th annual News 95.5 & AM 750 WSB Care-a-Thon will air Thursday and Friday (July 27-28). Donations made to the WSB Care-a-Thon will help fund family support services, research and the fellowship program at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Supporters at special levels will have some exclusive opportunities.

On Tues., Oct. 17, Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan will host Dinner for Two with No. 2 at Maggiano’s in Buckhead. The first 100 callers to make a donation of $1,500 to the Care-a-Thon will receive two tickets to dinner followed by an intimate Q&A session with Ryan and one of his Falcons teammates. Each pair of guests receives a photo with Ryan and his guest and an autographed football from Matt.

We’ve covered this event in the past and can attest: it’s an incredible night with great food, fun conversation and an incredible opportunity to meet Matt and hear from him and his teammates.

“This effort to find a cure for childhood cancer means so much to Sarah and me,” No. 2 says. “We took a couple of years, before we decided on the Aflac Cancer Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, but we’re so glad we did. This terrible disease kills more of our children than any other and we’re committed to doing whatever we can to help.

“This is our fifth ‘Dinner For Two With #2” and it just keeps getting better and better each year,” Ryan continued. ” The first year we had Tony Gonzalez, then Roddy White, Falcon’s legend Steve Bartkowski, and last year, Mohamed Sanu,” Ryan said. “I’m still working on this year’s guest, but I can promise it will be the best yet. The highlight of the evening for me each year is the intimate Q & A after dinner. It’s a lot of fun and we’ve found that nothing is off limits – it’s better than Hard Knocks.”

Longtime Braves closer John Smoltz is getting into the action as well. On Sunday, Aug. 13, the Hall of Famer hosts his annual Atlanta Braves Celebrity Am Draw Party and Auction at the exclusive City Club of Buckhead. The first 25 callers to make a donation of $1,000 to the Care-a-Thon will receive two tickets to the party, as well as an autographed John Smoltz baseball and jersey signed by Smoltz and his longtime manager Bobby Cox. The evening begins at 6:30 p.m. and includes other sports celebrities, as well as a silent auction and live auction.

As unbelievable as he was on the field all those years, Smoltz might be even more incredible in person. Having had the chance to interview him many times over the years and watch him interacting with fans, we can promise a memorable experience for those who will join him on Aug. 13.

“The Aflac Cancer Center has meant so much to me for so many years now,” Smoltzie says. “We started off with the golf tournament 23 years ago and now, this is the third year we’ve had our ‘Hall of Fame Package’ as part of the WSB Radio Care-A-Thon. I did it by myself the first year and then Tommy Glavine joined me last year. This year, I’ve got the old Skipper, Bobby Cox, on board.”

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The Atlanta Falcons have completely revamped their linebacker corps. They’ve turned it into a respectable unit with fast and physical players galore! Given that the Falcons were struggling to piece together an NFL caliber linebacker corps just a few years ago, it’s actually quite remarkable what Quinn and his staff have accomplished. In April the Falcons added another talented young linebacker: Duke Riley.

Falcoholic alumnus and recent Mothership hire Will McFadden wrote up a detailed piece about Riley. (You should go read it now, if you haven’t already.)

Atlanta found one of the best young linebackers in the game when it drafted LSU’s Deion Jones in the 2016 NFL Draft. With their third-round pick this year, the Falcons snagged another Tigers linebacker and reunited Jones and Riley. Like his new Falcons teammate, Riley did not become a full-time starter at LSU until his senior season.
Jones first arrived at LSU in 2012; he was relegated to reserve duty for three seasons, then broke out as senior. Riley got to LSU one year after Jones in 2013; he too labored as a reserve for three seasons, before breaking out as a senior. They both had to stand out on special teams. They both were criticized because they’re undersized. Last fall Riley was frequently compared to Jones, and it’s easy to see why.

So as training camp gets underway, this is a relationship I’m going to watch closely. Will Jones help in Riley’s development? Absolutely. In fact, I think it’s a huge advantage. A leading member of Riley’s unit went to the same college he went to, basically charted his path, and then immediately earned substantial playing time as a rookie. Jones has a road map Riley can and should exploit, if he’s smart and works hard enough.

Your thoughts?

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The familiar lyrics from Drake’s hit song might have echoed through the mind of rap icon Lil Wayne while he assessed Duke Riley’s profile.

The rapper was in search of a marketable athlete to jump-start Young Money APAA Sports, which merged with Lil Wayne’s successful Young Money Entertainment record label. According to the company’s website, Young Money APAA Sports’ main areas of expertise and execution are contract negotiations, marketing opportunities and client concierge services.

It helped that Riley, the Atlanta Falcons rookie linebacker and third-round draft pick from LSU, is from the New Orleans area where Lil Wayne — born Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. — grew up and ascended to fame. But the hometown tie wasn’t the only reason the two connected.
Falcons rookie linebacker Duke Riley has joined the first group of athletes to align with rapper Lil Wayne’s sports offshoot Young Money. John Rivera/Icon Sportswire
Lil Wayne, an avid football fan, knows talent when he sees it. He also knows what it’s like to overcome great odds growing up in a rugged environment.

“Duke’s drive to be the best, his work ethic, charisma and personality reminded me of an artist I signed on the music side of Young Money. The world knows that music artist as Drake,” the five-time Grammy winner told ESPN. “Just as I saw a superstar in Drake from the beginning, I see the same for Duke Riley.”

Such a strong statement creates lofty expectations for Riley, a player drafted to bring more speed and playmaking ability to an ascending Falcons defense. But he’s still a rookie who has yet to play in an NFL game or even make it through an entire training camp.

Riley was humbled to be the first player to sign with Young Money, regardless of the pressure it puts on him to produce.

“I know it kind of sounds corny, but Lil Wayne said I’m the Drake of football. … He basically said I’m their first [sports] guy that’s going to go big,” Riley said. “They know what type of person I am. They know I put in the work. They know I came out of nowhere and I came from nothing to be where I’m at right now. And I’m not even close to where I’m going to be. Young Money, they’re bringing me in as family.”

Jacksonville Jaguars rookie wide receiver Dede Westbrook and Dallas Cowboys rookie defensive end Lewis Neal, along with NBA rookie guard Frank Mason III of the Sacramento Kings, were among those to follow Riley and become the first group of athletes to sign deals with Young Money.

Riley’s new teammates were well aware of his unique tie to Lil Wayne even before he officially became a Falcon.

“When I took my [pre-draft] visit, they were like, ‘You’re rolling with Wayne,'” Riley said. “They already knew me because of that. Everyone is a fan of Wayne, especially if you like rap music.”

Falcons coach Dan Quinn, also a rap fan, wasn’t initially aware of the connection. He is now.

“I wish I got to be part of that crew,” Quinn said with a smile. “I do like Lil Wayne.”

A video of Riley’s unusual workout routine earned him his first taste of the national spotlight as a pro. His affiliation with Lil Wayne is sure to garner even more attention, particularly if he performs at a high level on a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance.

Here’s the story behind how the football/hip-hop partnership was formed and what it means for Riley moving forward.

Working with a ‘living legend’

Lil Wayne and manager Cortez Bryant, a marketing guru, attended LSU-Alabama game in Baton Rouge last November. It was a hard-fought effort by Riley and the 13th-ranked Tigers, but the top-ranked Crimson Tide emerged with a 10-0 win.

After the game, Riley received a FaceTime call from Lil Wayne and fellow Young Money rapper Mack Maine.

“They told me they were starting this football agency and they wanted me to be a part of it,” Riley said. “And they wanted to meet with me, but I was meeting with a lot of people at that time.”

Riley eventually agreed to meet with Lil Wayne and his business partners after the college football season concluded. The meeting took place in Miami, home of the $11.6 million mansion Lil Wayne purchased and, reportedly, recently sold that included his recording studio and private skate park.
Duke Riley is intent on making Lil Wayne, upper left, a Falcons fan. Courtesy of Duke Riley
“You see like a living legend standing right in front of you,” Riley said of his face-to-face with Lil Wayne. “It was kind of crazy at first. But like as soon as I walked in, he came up to me and had a full conversation. It’s so crazy to know how much Wayne actually knows about football. He knows more players in the NFL than I do. He knows the routes. He knows the coverages. He knows all that.”

As if teaming up with one of his all-time favorite rappers wasn’t enough, Riley was totally sold when Lil Wayne and the Young Money contingent took an interest in Riley’s 1-year-old son, Elijah.

“They were the last group I met with, and out of everyone I met they were the first ones to bring up my son throughout the interview,” Riley said. “That was so huge to me because I’m a family guy, and I know they’re all about family. I just wanted to be a part of that.

“A lot of people were like, ‘Man, you don’t want to do that,’ just because they thought [signing with Young Money] was all about the music. There’s so much more. They do so much for me.”

Riley actually signed Vincent Taylor of Elite Loyalty as his contract agent and maintains a close daily bond with Taylor. Young Money helped set up Riley’s pre-draft training in Fort Worth, Texas. The training helped him drop a couple tenths of a second off his 40 time to turn in a 4.58 at the NFL combine, one of the fastest times among linebackers. Then Riley made his NFL dreams reality as the draft’s 75th overall pick.

Once Riley was drafted by the Falcons, the marketing plan started to take shape.

“If he would have been picked in the first round early, I probably could have done more on the marketing side,” said Bryant, who previously secured national commercials for Lil Wayne with Samsung and Nicki Minaj with MAC Cosmetics. “But now, I told Duke it’s going to be an effort where we’re going to work together. I told him the better he does, the easier it will be for me to sell the opportunities.”

Some of the first publicity Riley received with Young Money was a signing party hosted by Lil Wayne in May at an Atlanta nightclub. Riley, who inked a four-year, $3.518 million contract ($889,752 guaranteed) with the Falcons, made money off the appearance as well.

“Basically you’re getting the best of both worlds,” Riley said. “It’s kind of like I get to live a rapper’s lifestyle. If Wayne’s going to perform somewhere and there’s an after party, I can be at the after party. It’s kind of crazy because everyone who is a fan of Wayne, they’re a fan of me, too, because I’m part of Young Money.”

‘Makings of a real leader’

Riley is originally from Buras, Louisiana, some 60 miles south of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina forced his entire family to relocate.

“We had like 17 to 20 feet of water and when I went home, it was just a slab of concrete,” Riley said. “But honestly, Katrina was like the worst and best of things that ever happened to me. I say worst because I lost a lot of friends and I got separated from my family.

“But where I came from, when I was younger, I never saw myself in this position because everyone in my family — I’m from the swamps — so basically they either worked offshore in the oil field [where Riley’s father worked], they’re fishermen or shrimpers, or they sell drugs. It was just those three options, so it was good for me to get away from that area.”
Rookie linebacker Duke Riley brings speed and leadership qualities to the Falcons. David Goldman/AP
Riley and his family finally settled in Belle Chasse, 10 miles south of New Orleans. He went to John Curtis High School and left there as a four-star recruit. He didn’t start at LSU until his senior season while playing behind future Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander and his new Falcons teammate, Deion Jones.

“We saw how Duke’s trajectory came in just a couple of years,” Bryant said. “From high school to LSU, just how he moved up. What better story than to start with someone who is kind of homegrown, and then get behind him and help him fulfill his dream?”

Now Riley has a new home in Atlanta with the Falcons and a new foundation with Young Money. There is a chance Lil Wayne will attend the first regular-season game at the Falcons’ new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s Sept. 17, a Sunday night matchup against Green Bay.
“Yes, Wayne is a huge Packers fan,” Riley said. “Brett Favre is my favorite player because I used to play quarterback, and Wayne once posted a picture of himself performing in a Favre jersey. But Wayne is definitely a Falcons fan now. I already told him, ‘I’m going to get you a jersey.’ I’m pretty sure he might make that game.”

Time will tell if Riley will be in the starting lineup by then. Quinn envisions Riley as part of the base defense alongside Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, a pair of second-year players. Riley also could push to remain on the field with Jones in the nickel package.

“He’s got very good football instincts,” Quinn said of Riley. “The way he’s going for it with the early meetings, he wants to do extra to get [it] right. And I think we’ve seen some real leadership qualities there. I think he’s got the makings to be a real leader.”

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FLOWERY BRANCH — The summer football calendar is ripe with opportunities for teams to get reps for their skill guys with 7-on-7 passing tournaments.

But the opportunities for linemen to get to compete against each other and simulate live reps are few and far between. That’s one of the reasons that Mill Creek assistant head coach and offensive line coach Josh Lovelady helped launch the Elite Linemen camp 12 years ago.

Lovelady and the coaches wrapped up this year’s three-day camp on Monday at Flowery Branch High School. Over the course of the three days, 12 different teams participated with over 300 kids.

It was the third year that the camp has included both offensive and defensive linemen.

“There’s so many things of 7-on-7 going on in June and all this other stuff, (the camp) allows us to kind of come together and polish our skills,’ said Lovelady, whose Hawks were joined at the camp by Archer, Brookwood, Buford and Lanier among the Gwinnett County schools. “We have the linemen get together and say while they’re doing the 7-on-7s you lift and you run in June, but now it’s kind of time for us to put the pads on and no more underwear football.”

The camp is a mix of rotating station to station for individual drills with team-on-team scrimmage periods. Each day also features a speaker during lunch. Monday’s speaker was Atlanta Falcons rookie Sean Harlow.

The team portions of the camp don’t just provide extra reps for the campers, but also give them a chance to bond with their teammates outside of their normal practice routine. Archer senior Jadden Knott attended all three days the last two years and said he’s seen his game grow from the camp.

“It’s really great,” Knott said. “It’s been long hours, but it’s really worth it. It makes you get better. It’s really worth the money to be honest.
With offenses snapping the ball faster and faster during the game, the pace of practice has also increased. That sometimes doesn’t always leave enough time for coaches to fix technique or assignment mistakes.

That’s why Lovelady and the Elite Line Camp coaches focus on technique, while also getting the linemen hundreds of reps each day.

“There’s so much about — all offenses now are real tempo based and it’s kind of like, ‘How fast can you run it?’” he said. “Well when you run something fast you get mistakes and you can’t fix the mistakes like the old school of huddle up, slow it down and you only have so much time in practice. So now, it allows us to get the fundamentals and rills, and drills and drills.

“You’re talking about six hours, at one time it was hundreds of reps of certain fundamentals that now you can sit there and put that in your back pocket and use as you go fast and play fast, and you run and execute plays and you don’t have to slow down the offense just to fix something.”

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FLOWERY BRANCH —
This is the sixth of a 10-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster after their offseason program. Coming Tuesday: Linebackers. When the Falcons report for training camp on July 26, Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer will battle for the vacant starting right guard position.

Improving the defensive line was the Falcons’ highest priority this offseason as they poured $28.5 million into the renovation project.

After saying good-bye to former defensive line coach Bryan Cox and hiring Bryant Young, they signed defensive tackle Dontari Poe (one-year, $8 million) and defensive end Jack Crawford (three years, $10.3 million) in free agency and drafted defensive end Takkarist McKinley (four years, $10.2 million) in the first-round of the NFL draft.
Falcons linebacker DeVondre Campbell, who is moving to strongside linebacker, discusses his offseason Lasix eye surgery. Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter … Read More
The team elected not to re-sign 12-year veteran Jonathan Babineaux and released veteran Tyson Jackson.

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With a stouter interior of Poe and Grady Jarrett, the Falcons are hoping that Vic Beasley can build on his breakthrough season in which he lead the league in sacks with 15.5.

With that success, Beasley knows he’s going to get more attention from opponents in 2017. He started to see extra blockers late last season.

“I’m going to accept the attention,” Beasley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during minicamp. “I know some of the elite pass rushers in the league like Khalil (Mack) and Von (Miller), they get a lot of attention just like that.”

In addition to his sacks, Beasley last season led the team with 16.5 quarterback hits and 33.5 hurries. Totaled with his sacks, he affected the quarterback on 65.5 plays and was named first-team All-Pro.

Beasley, who added some countermoves to his pass rush last season under the guidance of Cox and future Hall of Famer Dwight Freeney, has been working on how best to maneuver through more traffic.

He’s expecting tight ends or running backs to chip on him sometimes. He also expects that some teams may pop him with a tight end and have a running back waiting to block in the backfield. In that case, he’ll have three blockers to beat on his path to the quarterback.

McKinley, a defensive end from UCLA, will join the group in training camp once he’s cleared from shoulder surgery.

Young hopes to have a more balanced pass rush, or at least one that will not allow the opposition to dedicate extra resources to stopping Beasley.

The Falcons have high hopes for Jarrett, who had six sacks last season, including three in the Super Bowl.

“I see him trying to find small ways to find that edge in his game and building on that,” coach Dan Quinn said. “Building on that connection with his new position coach. New techniques. Things to study. Things to look at. He’s going for it in the biggest way.

“He looks healthy. He looks strong. Very fit. I see his arrow really going up.”

Young added: “Grady has definitely picked up where he left off. Nothing is different for him in terms of his work ethic. That’s always been there. He’s a young guy who is really growing.”

Jarrett took the most snaps on the defensive line during the 2016 regular season with 630.

Crawford, who was last with Dallas, made a good impression over the offseason.

Falcons roster analysis: Offensive line
“Jack is a relentless in his pursuit,” Young said. “He’s a very hard, tough and competitive individual. I just really love that about him.”

Also, the Falcons welcomed back defensive end/tackle Derrick Shelby, who has a base salary of $4.5 million, from his Achilles surgery that shortened his 2016 season. He returned during minicamp.

“The progress for him has been good,” Young said. “He’s been able to get in to some of our individual stuff and group work as well. His progress has been really good.”

Shelby tore his right Achilles against Seattle on Oct. 16 and later was placed on injure reserve.

With Shelby and Crawford among the defensive ends, the Falcons will have some depth when you count Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed and McKinley. Also, Ra’Shede Hageman and Courtney Upshaw played some end last season, too.

“We have some guys that can play,” Young said.

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After 19 seasons in San Jose, Patrick Marleau has found a new home.

The Sharks’ career leading goal scorer signed an $18.75 million, three-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday in hopes of winning the Stanley Cup that eluded him for so long in San Jose.

“I think I’ve worn out a few carpets pacing around the house trying to make this decision over the last couple of days,” Marleau said. “I’m extremely excited and happy to be a part of the Maple Leafs organization. It’s definitely an honor to be able to call myself a Maple Leaf.”

Marleau will count $6.25 million against the salary cap through the 2019-20 season and was given a full no-movement clause by general manager Lou Lamoriello.

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Marleau, who will be 38 at the start of next season, was still considered one of the top free agents available and had been considering his options.

Marleau, the second overall pick in 1997, has 508 goals and 574 assists for 1,082 points. He had 46 points in playing all 82 games last season as he rebounded from a disappointing 2015-16 season by scoring 27 goals, including the 500th of his career. He ranks first all-time in San Jose in goals, games and points.

PATRICK MARLEAU TOTAL SHARKS RANK
Games 1,493 1st
Goals 508 1st
Assists 574 2nd
Points 1,082 1st
Only six players in NHL history have played more games with one team than Marleau’s 1,493 in San Jose. The Sharks haven’t played a game without him on the ice since April 7, 2009.

“It was extremely difficult,” he said. “The organization has been first class to me over the 19 years I’ve been here. … My wife and four boys, it was extremely tough to finally pull the trigger and have them to move to a new country, one coast to the other, but everybody here in our house is extremely excited to be a part of the Maple Leafs and where they’re going. I’m ecstatic to be a part of that.”

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Despite his advancing age, Marleau remains one of the game’s most durable players with a current consecutive games streak of 622 and also still one of the league’s fastest skaters.

He is a versatile player capable of playing at center or on the wing and has experience playing on the top power-play unit and as a penalty killer. He will bring a veteran presence to a young Maple Leafs squad that lost to top-seeded Washington in a tight, six-game, first-round playoff series last season.

Marleau made his NHL debut two weeks after Toronto star Auston Matthews was born.

“You only have one chance to do something like this and we would not have done it if it was not the right player,” Lamoriello said.
Patrick Marleau has spent his entire 19-year career with San Jose. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Marleau has experience playing for Toronto coach Mike Babcock, winning a pair of Olympic gold medals together in 2010 and 2014.

“The work he’s done over his career speaks for itself,” Marleau said. “Knowing what he’s doing there with the team he has and knowing what I can contribute is extremely exciting for me.”

Marleau’s loss will be felt in San Jose, where he helped a young franchise develop into a consistent winner after he came to the Bay Area from a small town in Saskatchewan as a teenager in 1997.

He helped San Jose make it to the conference final in 2004 before losing to Calgary in six games and then teamed with Thornton on one of the league’s most successful teams for more than a decade.

San Jose went back to the conference finals again in 2010 and ’11, and then lost the Stanley Cup Final to Pittsburgh in six games in 2016. The Sharks were knocked out in the first round by Edmonton this past season and now will have to try for the first championship in franchise history without Marleau.

Despite the many accomplishments, Marleau also came under criticism in San Jose for failing to deliver a title. He was stripped of his captaincy after a first-round playoff loss in 2009 and was often blamed for early postseason exits.