Matt Ryan makes some warm-up tosses during a mini-camp session. The Falcons are hoping their franchise quarterback can lead the team back to the playoffs. (Special Photo: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
FLOWERY BRANCH — Erasing the bad taste of a 2013 season will be the main focus as the Atlanta Falcons open training camp on Friday.
It seemed like a longer than normal offseason for the Falcons following the collapse of a 4-12 season that led to many offseason changes. During the offseason, coach Mike Smith proclaimed that the team had to get “bigger and tougher” to regain its elite status.
Falcons went 13-3 in 2012 and reached the NFC title game. With that accomplishment, Atlanta came into the season with high expectations as many insider picked them to reach the Super Bowl last season.
Additionally they signed quarterback Matt Ryan to a $100 million contract. However, key injuries, especially among the receivers and offensive line, were critical.
“We made lots of observations and did some soul-searching throughout the entire organization,” Smith told Rueters. “It started at the Senior Bowl.”
Here are some issues to ponder as the team opens camp:
1. Will Julio Jones be ready? He is among the game’s elite receivers, and the team suffered some without him in the lineup. Ryan missed his top receiver, particularly in the red zone and as a deep threat. Jones was held out of all offseason activity but did extensive weighlifting, which should make him even stronger. A healthy Jones could spell more wins for the Falcons. Gone is legendary tight end Tony Gonzalez, who retired following the season.
2. What will backup quarterback T.J. Yates add to team? Although Ryan’s job is safe, the team needs a reliable backup as insurance. The former Pope High standout seems to be that missing piece. A four-year veteran who was a fifth round pick of the Houston Texans, the 6-foot-4 Yates has played in 13 professional games and passed for 1,100 yards and three touchdowns. He also has six interceptions during his NFL career.
3. Will the offensive line hold up? Toughening this unit will rest on the shoulders of new line coach Mike Tice, a former NFL tight end and head coach with the Minnesota Vikings. Added help is expected from the offseason signing of right guard Jon Asamoah, who was given a five-year deal worth $4.5 million per season and by drafting right tackle Jake Matthews in the first round. Protecting Ryan will be essential to the team’s success.
4. Will the linebacker corps be ready? Besides a poor pass rush, the linebacker spot is also an area where the team must improve. An Achilles tendon injury to Sean Weatherspoon will definitely hurt this unit. The coaching staff is expecting a lot out of rookie Prince Shembo, who has been switched from outside linebacker to the inside spot. If Shembo can live up to expectations, the team could be improved.
5. What’s the skinny on local players? Last year, former Jonesboro High standout Harry Douglas proved to be a go-to receiver during an injury-plagued year. Douglas had a breakout season with 85 catches for 1,067 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Former Mundy’s Mill standout Kimario McFadden is hoping to make the roster as an undrafted free agent at the safety spot.