ATLANTA -- Filling their need for a No. 3 wide receiver, the Atlanta Falcons on Tuesday night acquired disgruntled Denver Broncos veteran Ashley Lelie in a three-team trade, ESPN.com has learned.
The Falcons sent former first-round tailback T.J. Duckett to Washington. At worst, the Broncos will receive two draft choices from Washington -- third- and fourth-round picks -- and those picks could escalate based on a complicated formula.
The deal sends to new teams two players, Duckett and Lelie, who have been the subject of considerable trade rumors for much of the offseason. Some Atlanta officials conceded on Tuesday night that the trade of Duckett, who enjoyed an excellent training camp and preseason, was a dicey one, because it leaves the club without a proven backup to starting tailback Warrick Dunn, who is 31 and entering his 10th season.
But the Falcons were so desperate for a No. 3 wide receiver, having lost veteran possession pass-catcher Brian Finneran to a season-ending knee injury early in camp, that they were forced to part with Duckett. None of the players in the Atlanta training camp had demonstrated any signs they were capable of seizing the No. 3 wideout job, and coach Jim Mora wanted the spot filled quickly.
Also, the Falcons, who were very thin at the position, wanted an experienced player they knew could step into the lineup if either of their starters was injured during the season.
The play at the No. 3 wide receiver spot was so poor in Atlanta's preseason loss at Green Bay on Saturday that Mora yelled to a team personnel official that the club had better make a move to fill the position. And after the game, Mora acknowledged the team "had no" No. 3 wide receiver.
In Lelie, the Falcons landed a receiver with top-shelf physical skills, but a four-year veteran who has been a bit of a tease throughout his career. It will also be interesting to see how Lelie, who skipped all of Denver's offseason conditioning program and did not report to training camp, reacts to the deal. Lelie was being fined at the rate of $14,000 per day, the maximum permitted, during his camp holdout.
The total fines for his camp absence came to $378,000. Lelie also lost a $100,000 workout bonus because he did not participate in offseason workouts, and one league source suggested late Tuesday that he also had to repay the Broncos a portion of his original rookie signing bonus.
Lelie, 26, had said that he wanted a situation where he could be the No. 1 wideout. But with the Falcons, he clearly is the No. 3 guy behind starters Michael Jenkins and Roddy White, Atlanta's first-round choices in the 2004 and 2005 drafts, respectively. A league source said Falcons officials had a long meeting with Lelie to discuss his role, and were satisfied he was willing to accept the No. 3 spot.
Interesting is that the Falcons did not extend Lelie's contract as part of the trade, meaning he could be a one-year rental, since he is entering the final season of his original rookie deal, and could be eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring. If the Falcons like Lelie and he is productive for them, they could approach him about an extension during the season. For now, though, his contract remains unaffected.
The Broncos' first-round choice in the 2002 draft, Lelie has appeared in 64 games and started in 40 of them. He has 168 receptions for 3,007 yards and 12 touchdowns and his gaudy career average of 17.9 yards per catch is impressive. The former University of Hawaii star, who ironically played for former Falcons head coach June Jones in college, led the NFL in yards per catch in 2004 (20.1) and 2005 (18.3).
His best season was in 2004, when Lelie posted 54 catches for 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns. But the inconsistencies in his game were evident in 2005 and his production slipped, to 42 receptions for 770 yards and just one touchdown. Lelie is a long-strider whose forte is the deep ball up the boundary, and so there are some skeptics who wonder how he will fit into the No. 3 role, which is typically a possession receiver.
The Falcons' first-round pick in the 2002 draft, Duckett, 25, was not a good fit for the one-cut running game the Falcons now emphasize and is viewed around the league more as a "downhill" runner. Like Lelie, he is entering the final season of his original rookie contract and will be eligible for free agency next spring.
Clearly, the Redskins wanted Duckett as insurance against the possibility that star tailback Clinton Portis might not be ready for the start of the season. Portis suffered a shoulder injury last week and, while he is said to be making good progress in his rehabilitation, there is no certainty he will be fully recovered when the Redskins open the season against Minnesota on Sept. 11.
Duckett, 25, gives Washington a proven, starting-quality back and a player whose style is a good fit with the Redskins' offense.
In two preseason outings, Duckett has rushed for 96 yards on 15 carries. The 96 yards are the sixth most in the NFL in the preseason and Duckett's healthy 6.4-yard average is second best among players with at least 15 rushing attempts.
The former Michigan State standout, the 18th player chosen overall in 2002, has carried 552 times for 2,175 yards and 31 touchdowns in 54 appearances, including 14 starts. His best season was in 2002, when he ran for 779 yards and 11 touchdowns. As a backup, Duckett rushed for 500-plus yards in each of his first three seasons in the league, but dropped off to just 380 yards in 2005. He has averaged nine rushing touchdowns over the last three seasons.
But dealing Duckett leaves Atlanta with no proven backup to Dunn, and the team may look to acquire a veteran back before the start of the season. The team chose Jerious Norwood of Mississippi State in the third round of this year's draft. The rookie has been impressive at times, but it is difficult to ascertain at this point of the preseason.
On the defensive side, the Falcons continued efforts on Tuesday to shore up their interior line. ESPN.com has learned that Atlanta swapped contract proposals with free agent defensive tackle Grady Jackson and those talks are expected to continue on Wednesday.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.