ATLANTA — The first thing that got the attention of Drew Dalman in training camp was the margin of error allowed.
Mistakes aren’t acceptable when the expectation is perfection, particularly when snapping the ball and protecting a potential future Hall of Fame quarterback in Matt Ryan.
Labeled the steal of the Atlanta Falcons’ draft by one scouting report, Dalman hasn’t been told if he will be starting Sunday at center or guard in the team’s season opener at home against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Yet, the rookie lineman made enough of an impression in the preseason to warrant consideration for playing time going into the regular season.
“Obviously, it’s been challenging,” Dalman said. “You have less room for mistakes. But I feel like I’ve learned a lot and improved. Of course, I’m not satisfied with where I’m at.”
The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Dalman started two preseason games at center for the Falcons and also spent time at guard in all three games.
“I believe I’m headed in the right direction,” the 23-year-old Dalman said. “I got a good amount of reps at both positions in training camp. I feel pretty good about both spots.”
Drafted in the fourth round out of Stanford as a center, Dalman’s versatility and athleticism have given Atlanta the flexibility to move him around on a youthful core.
Having chosen the same No. 67 that his father, Chris Dalman, wore on his jersey when he played for the 49ers, Dalman has demonstrated the same no-nonsense attitude.
“I don’t know if there was anything that was out of left field in terms of surprises,” Dalman said. “It’s kind of what I expected. Plenty of things have been a new learning experience.”
While the game has changed and evolved since his father played in the 1990s, Dalman did bend the ear of his dad, who played eight seasons with the 49ers, winning a Super Bowl ring in 1995.
“As with anything, the league has changed since he played,” Dalman said. “Now he’s learning through the color of my eyes. But it was good to have someone who had some insight.”
And the younger Dalman leaned on his dad for more of a virtual experience when he was home in June, training at Palma prior to the start of training camp.
“So much comes at you as a rookie,” Chris Dalman said. “You’re learning every single day. You don’t know how it feels until you experience it. He’s in the middle of that.”
An All-Pac-12 selection last season at Stanford who was named to the Outland Trophy and Rimington Trophy watch list, Dalman did not allow a sack or a quarterback pressure last fall.
Having inked a four-year contract for nearly $4 million, Dalman hasn’t had a whole lot of time to evaluate himself or the position he’s in as an NFL player.
“Everything has been a bit of a whirlwind,” Dalman said. “In a couple of months, I will think back. Right now I’m just drinking from the firehose and keeping my head straight.”
Dalman’s father, who spent two seasons in Atlanta as an assistant offensive line coach under the late Alex Gibbs, estimated that 20% of rookie linemen play in their first year.
“Most of those that start are first-round picks,” said Chris Dalman, the president at Palma School. “Players are mentally able to concept it. But the talent level is vastly different in the NFL.”
Drew Dalman understands the rigors and punishment of playing a barbaric sport. However, he’s never played more than 13 games in a season. With the preseason and the new 17-game NFL regular season, he could end up playing 20 even if the Falcons miss the postseason.
“I’ve got plenty of veteran guys that help us through, in terms of how to pace yourself,” he said. “Nutrition is important. It’s critical to keep your body and mind in a good spot so in January, you’re not feeling burnt out.”
Because the Falcons are in a rebuilding mood, few projections have them making the playoffs, or overtaking the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the New Orleans Saints, the NFC South division winners in each of the past four seasons.
“I haven’t looked at social media in two months,” Dalman said. “Nobody here worries about what others think. I feel we have a lot of good leaders and good players. You always have a chance.”
Whether or not Dalman is in the starting lineup Sunday, he will be on the field on at least one special teams unit.
His performance in the preseason enhanced the competition for the job at center, vacated when former Pro Bowl center Alex Mack signed with the 49ers in the offseason.
“As long as you have a helmet on game day, you have a chance to get on the field and play,” Dalman said.
His father Chris, who flew to Atlanta to see his son in person and has watched all of his games, feels he’s much further along than he was as a rookie in 1994.
“He’s just a better player than I was,” the elder Dalman said. “Sure he has plays he wishes he could have back. Drew is the hardest person on himself. But I think he’s playing really well.”
While Dalman has avoided looking too far into the Falcons schedule, he does know the team will come out west on Dec. 19 to face his dad’s former team in the 49ers.
“It will be exciting,” Dalman said. “I’m about as far away from home as I can be. It will be nice to have my family drive up for a game. I’m just a rookie trying to prove myself. I’m just trying to get better and contribute any way I can.”
Contributed by local news sources