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With the Atlanta Falcons not making the playoffs last season, it was a longer than normal offseason for head coach Mike Smith, who had guided the Falcons to the playoffs in four of his first six seasons.
The team had to revamp both lines in an effort to get bigger, stronger and tougher over the offseason.
"We made lots of observations and did some soul-searching throughout the entire organization," Smith said. "It started at the Senior Bowl."
The Falcons coached the South squad and got a closer look at more than 100 draft prospects.
"We embraced it," Smith said. "It was a wonderful week."
After the Senior Bowl, Smith switched his focus to free agency with an eye on becoming bigger, stronger and tougher.
"We can do that in the weight room to some extent, but we had to bring in bigger bodies and we did that in free agency," Smith said.
The Falcons signed defensive tackle Paul Soliai, defensive end Tyson Jackson and right guard Jon Asamoah.
The Falcons continued to get bigger in the draft when they selected right tackle Jake Matthews sixth overall and defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman in the second round.
"I was impressed with our rookie class," Smith said. "There are going to be some guys that will help us."
In addition Matthews and Hageman, Smith is high on linebacker Prince Shembo.
"It's going to be a good battle with the young linebackers to see who is going to step up," Smith said. "Prince had a good camp. It's going to be a very good battle for those young guys."
Over the break, the Falcons can't have contact with the players, but Smith is keeping the weight room open every day except for the fourth of July.
"I asked by a show of hands, how many guys are going to be using the weight room," Smith said. "I was very impressed with how many guys are going to be here."
He doesn't want them to lose the gains they've made in the weight room over the bigger, stronger and tougher offseason campaign.
Rookies report: July 22
Veterans report: July 23
First practice: July 25
Friday Night Lights, Archer High School; Lawrenceville, Ga.: Aug. 1
Practice with Tennessee Titans: Aug. 4
Practice with Houston Texans: Aug. 13-14
--Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and his new backup, T.J. Yates, have crossed paths before. The Falcons acquired Yates for linebacker Akeem Dent in a trade with Houston.
We all know about the game on Dec. 4, 2011, when Yates led the Texans to a 17-10 victory over Ryan and the Falcons in his first NFL start.
But their paths crossed before that game.
"He came up here (to Flowery Branch) one time," Ryan said. "He went to school with (former Falcons offensive coordinator) Mike Mularkey's son. I remember him coming up to practice here, probably before his senior year."
Ryan recalled the meeting.
"I met him, I remember that he came out here and that he's from Marietta," Ryan said. "We talked and I followed him when he went down to Houston. I thought he played well and he won a playoff game. I know him a little bit."
Ryan and Yates reunited when he visited the team facilities after the trade to take his physical, meet the coaches and pick up his playbook.
The two will have to build on their relationship when training camp starts after Yates was handed the No. 2 quarterback job with the release of Dominique Davis.
"I haven't had a chance to meet all of the guys really," Yates said. "I saw Matt (Ryan) and one of the other players. I'm ready to come in and do whatever I can to help this team out."
--Falcons coach Mike Smith's disdain for the HBO show Hard Knocks has been well-documented. The stories about him avoiding the cameras when he was an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens are legendary.
He's a football traditionalist and believed that some things that occur in the inner sanctum of a National Football League team are sacred.
But Smith has reversed field.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank said that Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff approved the show after repeatedly turning it down in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013.
Smith, the winningest coach in franchise history, will have to get the team turned around from a 4-12 season while five HBO crews are around and 12 coaches or players are strapped with microphones during training camp, which opens July 23-24 and has the first practice July 25.
Smith, like most old-school football men, cringes at the handling of player transactions on the show. Especially the early morning visits from the Turk, the designated person who delivers the news that player has been cut.
But Smith has reconciled that issue because he believes that the television crew will handle those difficult situations tactfully.
He admitted that he had to deal with several other issues.
"There are a number of factors that come in play (with) how I really came to grips in terms of having a comfort level," Smith said.
He said that all of the games are heavily televised with audio.
"They capture everything that is happening on a sideline and they are just there for a two-hour period," Smith said. "It's no different. They are just going to be around when we are on the practice field, when we are in meetings, so it really doesn't change. That's what we do when we are playing on game day."
Smith will also get a chance to preview the week's episode the morning before it airs for "competitive balance" reasons and not content.
Blank is clearly happy that his franchise will be featured coming off its most difficult campaign in the post-Michael Vick federal dog-fighting/Bobby Petrino era.
"We believe that we have a very elite franchise in the NFL," Blank said. "We understand that last year was not the kind of year that anybody related to our organization is happy about. The five preceding years we had the second most wins in the National Football League and the most wins in the National Football Conference.
"The job that these two gentlemen have done over an extended period of time. ... that story should be told. That story with our players, fans and personnel folks should be told. We think it's one that we want to share with as many people as we can subject to (Smith) and Thomas not getting an ulcer over sharing things that would give somebody an edge."
--Team strength: Quarterback Matt Ryan.
Ryan has shown that if protected and surrounded with weapons, the Falcons can win in the NFL regular season. After going 4-12, Ryan believes he can improve in order to help offset the retirement of legendary tight end Tony Gonzalez.
"I've tried to be as detailed as I can possibly be both in the weight room, film room and out on the practice field," Ryan said. "I think it's overall consistency. I think as I mature and I keep playing in this league, it's about tightening things up and becoming more consistent."
Despite moving up in seniority - only running back Steven Jackson (11 years), wide receiver Roddy White (10), wide receiver/kick returner Devin Hester (nine) and guard Justin Blalock (eight) have more experience -- Ryan still feels young.
"I still feel really good," Ryan said. "My body feels great. I feel like I'm in better shape than I've ever been. I still love getting out and practicing. (Six) years went by fast, but I feel really good."
--Breakout player: Running back Devonta Freeman.
At 5-8, 206 pounds, Freeman was selected by the Falcons in the fourth round (103rd overall) of the draft. He became the first Florida State running back since Warrick Dunn to rush for over 1,000 yards when he logged 1,016 yards on 173 carries in 2013. With Steven Jackson showing signs of slowing down, after a strong offseason Freeman appears first in line to take over.
"Devonta has very good quickness," Smith said. "He's got very good strength. He's one of our stronger players, pound for pound. He's a guy that has great vision and great quickness. He's picking up the pass protections and that's probably the biggest transition that a running back has to go through in the NFL. He has to have a good feel for pass protections and it's very complicated with all of the different looks that they are going to be presented in the regular season."
--Fantasy football reality check: Tight end Levine Toilolo.
He won't be counted on to replace the great Tony Gonzalez, but they are expecting him to develop into a red-zone threat. With wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones expected to bounce back from injury-riddled seasons, Toilolo could draw single coverage in the red zone and may be able to rack up some touchdowns. While he can't replace Gonzalez' overall production, he will get the chance to match the touchdown output, which was between six and eight touchdowns over his five years with the Falcons.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Matt Ryan. Backups - T.J. Yates, Sean Renfree, Jeff Mathews.
Ryan took a licking and kept on ticking last season while under relentless pressure. He was under duress on 37.6 percent of his dropbacks as the Falcons played with a patchwork offensive line. He completed 67.4 percent of his passes in the face of a constant pass rush. The Falcons made it an offseason priority to fix the line so that Ryan can operate in a cleaner pocket. He's shown that when he can step up in the pocket, he can be effective. Ryan has completed 2,093 of 3,288 pass attempts (63.7 percent) for 23,472 yards with 153 touchdowns, 77 interceptions and a 90.6 passer rating during his career. Yates takes over as the backup after being acquired in a trade.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Steven Jackson, FB Patrick DiMarco. Backups - Devonta Freeman, Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith, Josh Vaughn, Jerome Smith, FB Maurice Hagens, FB Roosevelt Nix.
Jackson suffered a soft-tissue injury for the third consecutive season in 2013 and may be nearing the end of his illustrious career. This time it was a hamstring injury. He didn't rush for more than 1,000 yards, snapping a streak of eight consecutive seasons reaching that number. The Falcons appear set to see if there's anything left in the tank. They did draft Freeman out of Florida State and made note of his ability to run between the tackles. Rodgers has been just a guy (3.6 yards per carry) in three seasons. Smith flashed in a backup role last season and Vaughan contributed on special teams. DiMarco is functional as a lead blocker.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Levine Toilolo. Backups - Bear Pascoe, Mickey Shuler, Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak.
The Falcons don't plan to use a move tight end with the retirement of Tony Gonzalez and appear content with Pascoe as a blocking tight end. Toilolo is being groomed to be a red-zone threat. Shuler ran some with the first team in the offseason. Gonzalez averaged 81.8 catches over five seasons with the team. Of his 409 catches, 267 went for first downs (65.2 percent). Ryan believes that a committee of wide receivers and running backs will help fill the void in the passing attack created by Gonzalez's retirement.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Roddy White, Julio Jones. Backups - Harry Douglas, Devin Hester, Drew Davis, Darius Johnson, Geraldo Boldewijn, Julian Jones, Freddie Martino, Bernard Reedy, Tramaine Thompson.
Jones, who underwent a complex right foot surgery, has started to run and should be ready for training camp. White suffered a family tragedy, but appears set to carry on. White came on strong down the stretch after he recovered from a high ankle sprain and a hamstring injury. Douglas stepped up and turned in a 1,000-yard season with the top two receivers hobbled. Hester, Johnson and Davis provide some strong depth at the position.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Sam Baker, LG Justin Blalock, C Joe Hawley, RG Jon Asamoah, RT Jake Matthews. Backups - TLamar Holmes, T Ryan Schraeder, T Terren Jones, C Peter Konz, C James Stone, G Mike Johnson, G Gabe Carimi, G Adam Replogle, G Harland Gunn.
The Falcons mis-assessed the readiness of Konz and Holmes to take over for Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo last season. Coupled with weak play by right guard Garrett Reynolds, who was released, and retread tackle Jeremy Trueblood and the Falcons were leaking oil before most games started. The unit gave up 44 sacks and couldn't open up any holes in the run game as the Falcons were last in the league in rushing at 77.9 yards per game. Asamoah was added in free agency and Matthews was selected sixth overall in the draft. The Falcons are hoping that Baker (knee surgery) can return to good health. New position coach Mike Tice will try to whip the unit into shape.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - RDE Kroy Biermann, DT Tyson Jackson, DT Paul Soliai, LDE Jonathan Babineaux. Backups -- E Osi Umenyiora, E Ra'Shede Hagemen, E Jonathan Massaquoi, E Eguae Nosa, E Malliciah Goodman, E Stansly Maponga, T Peria Jerry, T Corey Peters, T Travian Robertson, T Cliff Matthews, T Donte Rumph.
Determined to find a pass rusher, the Falcons have drafted four defensive ends over the past two drafts. They also added ex-Dolphin Soliai and ex-Chief Jackson to help anchor the unit as the team plans to be multiple and flow from 4-3 to 3-4 fronts. The Falcons were 31st against the rush (135.8 yards per game) last season. They did a lot of experimenting in the offseason as they retained 4-3 tackles Babineaux, Jerry and Peters in free agency. They drafted the mammoth Hageman in the second round to play end in the 3-4. They are hoping to get someone -Biermann, Umenyiora, Massaquoi, Maponga or Goodman - to get some heat on opposing quarterbacks.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Prince Shembo, MLB Paul Worrilow, WLB Joplo Bartu. Backups - OLB Marquis Spruill, OLB Walker May, OLB Jacques Smith, OLB Tyler Starr, ILB Yawin Smallwood, ILB Brenden Daly.
The unit was decimated by the loss of Sean Weatherspoon, who will be out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Shembo will be placed on the fast track to the starting lineup. Worrilow and Bartu ended last season as starters. Both were productive and flashed some ability. The Falcons are looking for linebackers, who can rush off the edge and drop in coverage.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - RCB Desmond Trufant, FS Dwight Lowery, SS William Moore, LCB Robert Alford. Backups - CB Josh Wilson, CB Javier Arenas, CB Robert McClain, CB Ricardo Allen, CB Devonta Glover-Wright, CB Jordan Mabin, S Dezmen Southward, Sean Baker, Kimario McFadden, Kemal Ishmael, Zeke Motta.
Trufant and Alford were the bright spots of last season as rookies. They should benefit from the addition of a seasoned veteran in Wilson, who was signed in free agency. McClain struggled at the nickel-back spot after having a solid campaign in 2012. He'll have to beat out Wilson and Arenas to retain his roster spot. Southward is slated for free safety, but played some in the slot and outside at Wisconsin. He could be matched up on some of the bigger receivers in the division. Until Southward is ready, the Falcons will likely lean on Lowery, while Moore stays at strong safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: P Matt Bosher, K Matt Bryant, LS Josh Harris, KOR/PR Devin Hester.
Matt Bryant remains clutch. Bosher gets good hang-time on his punts and is a solid kickoff man. Hester should improve the return game as he led the league in kickoff-return yardage last season with the Bears. The Falcons finished 10th in kickoff-return average (24.4 yards) and 20th in punts (8.2 yards) in 2013. The dangerous Hester has returned 13 punts and five kickoffs for touchdowns over his career.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--TE Chase Coffman (not tendered as UFA).
--LB Omar Gaither (not tendered as UFA).
--T Sean Locklear (not tendered as UFA).
--T Jeremy Trueblood (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--WR Drew Davis (tendered $570,000) was a valuable reserve who will compete for a backup spot in training camp.
SIGNED DRAFT CHOICES
--T Jake Matthews (1/6): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--DE Ra'Shede Hageman (2/37): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--S Dezmen Southward (3/68): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--RB Devonta Freeman (4/103): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Prince Shembo (4/137); 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--CB Ricardo Allen (5/147): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Marcus Spruill (5/168): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Yawin Smallwood (7/253): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Tyler Starr (7/255): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--S Jonathan Babineaux: Potential UFA; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--C/G Joe Hawley: Potential UFA; $6.5M/2 yrs, $3M guaranteed.
--LB Justin Hickman: Potential ERFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DT Peria Jerry: UFA; terms unknown.
--T/G Mike Johnson: Potential RFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB Robert McClain: RFA tendered at $1.431M with 7th-round pick as compensation); $1.431M/1 yr.
--DT Corey Peters: Potential UFA; $1M/1 yr.
--CB Javier Arenas: UFA Cardinals; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--G Jon Asamoah: UFA Chiefs; $22.5M/5 yrs, $8M guaranteed.
--OL Gabe Carimi: FA Buccaneers; $850,000/1 yr, $65,000 SB.
--LB Tim Dobbins: FA; $855,000/1 yr.
--WR/KR Devin Hester: UFA Bears; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--DT Tyson Jackson: UFA Chiefs: $25M/5 yrs.
--S Dwight Lowery: FA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--TE Bear Pascoe: UFA Giants; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DT Paul Soliai: UFA Dolphins; $33M/5 yrs, $14M guaranteed.
--CB Josh Wilson: UFA Redskins; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--QB T.J. Yates (trade Texans).
--WR Kevin Cone: Not tendered as ERFA/Dolphins; terms unknown.
--QB Dominique Davis (released).
--S Thomas DeCoud (released/post-June 1 designation).
--LB Akeem Dent (traded Texans).
--FB Bradie Ewing (released).
--CB Dominique Franks: Not tendered as UFA/Ravens; terms unknown.
--TE Tony Gonzalez (retired).
--LB Stephen Nicholas (released).
--G Garrett Reynolds (released).
--CB Asante Samuel (released).
--RB Jason Snelling (retired).