Editor's Note: I asked Jeanna to write up her observations from training camp. What follows is awesome.
Like so many who waited anxiously for the NFL lockout to end, I find myself overwhelmed with excitement about a) the end of the lockout, b) the advent of training camp, and c) the fact that the actual season is nearly upon us. Following the Falcons exceptional regular season performance, as well as the less than exceptional post-season performance in 2010, I have been anxious and eager to see how our team would gel on the field following a simultaneously maddening and exciting offseason.
I am fortunate to live approximately ten minutes from the Falcons training facility in Flowery Branch, GA, affectionately known as The Branch, and try to spend some time at training camp each year. For a fan, there’s no experience quite like it. It’s a wonderful opportunity to watch the team develop on the field, assess players’ skill levels, and predict potential breakout players for the coming season. Following each practice, a handful of players are selected to sign autographs, so the opportunity exists to interact more closely with individual players (and even Arthur Blank) as they sign merchandise for fans.
Each training camp practice is different, although the general structure is similar from day to day. The coaching staff moves the players through position-specific drills, and "install" drills that the players walk through, in order to become familiar with the plays and how the offense or defense looks from the correct side or the other side of the ball. The offense and defense line up against each other for 9 on 7 drills, and toward the end of practice, they run through full team drills. Photography by fans is permitted, but obviously, any sort of videography is strictly prohibited. Do not even consider trying to pull a Bill Belichick, because you do not want to tangle with the security guys at The Branch.
I’ve noticed no discernible differences in the team performance at training camp this year compared to previous years. The level of football readiness this year appears to be very similar to previous years. There are some exciting competitions for starting spots playing out during camp, and some new additions who are ready to contribute. After the jump, we'll explore position-specific performances in training camp.
Matt Ryan has looked focused, steady and prepared in camp thus far. His passing looks more accurate than it did during last year’s training camp. I believe the player-organized workouts this spring benefited Ryan greatly. Chris Redman continues to look like a solid backup, and it appears that there may be a competition between John Parker Wilson, number three on the depth chart for the past couple of seasons, and undrafted free agent from the University of Louisville, Adam Froman, for that number three spot.
In camp, Roddy White’s performance is consistent with his reputation as one of the best wide receivers in the league. White goes hard on every drill, and in between drills, his personality lights up the field. He looks great so far this training camp. White is clearly holding himself to a high standard of performance, and is focused and serious about being ready for this season.
Julio Jones is impressive. Based on his performance thus far in camp, this guy is worth everything we traded to get him via the draft plus every penny we will pay him. Currently, he is playing with a bone bruise in his foot, and he has not missed a step. He catches every ball that comes even remotely near him, often in amazing and dramatic ways, and he’s showing some great blocking potential, which is not surprising given his size. Jones is a big, physical receiver. This kid is 6’4" with considerable athletic ability and work ethic. He is a phenomenal addition to the Falcons offense.
Harry Douglas appears to be back to full speed following an ACL tear in 2009, and seems to be emerging as a solid number three receiver. His camp performance has been consistently impressive. With White, Jones, a healthy Douglas, and Kerry Meier and Eric Weems providing some depth, I expect that the Falcons offense that will take the field this season will make all of our dreams of an explosive offense come true.
Everyone is aware by now that Michael Turner had super-secret surgery early in the offseason, and he appears to be recovered. He does not seem to be impeded at all.
Antone Smith and Gartrell Johnson have been impressive on the practice field thus far. Smith in particular seems to be having a standout camp experience, and he has really made his presence on the practice field known. Jacquizz Rodgers is proving to be an excellent addition to our roster. He is speedy and agile and will develop into a true change of pace back.
My thirteen-year-old daughter would never forgive me if I didn’t acknowledge my favorite fullback and yours, Ovie Mughelli, who showed up for camp in great shape and ready to go. With Jason Snelling’s currently uncertain future with the franchise, it is encouraging to see that we have depth at the position.
Tony Gonzalez and Justin Peelle both look solid. During practice, Gonzalez moves like he is ten years younger than he is. When he’s on the field, it’s easy to remember that he is the best to ever play this position. Peelle has had some beautiful receptions during camp. The Falcons did release TE Robbie Agnone, but have Michael Palmer, Marquez Branson, and newly acquired undrafted free agent Ryan Winterswyk, who put up decent numbers at Boise State…as a defensive lineman. I am interested to see how he develops as a tight end.
One thing many people don’t realize is that free agents, regardless of restricted or unrestricted status, are not allowed to practice until August 4. With notable FAs Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock re-signing with the Falcons, there will be a battle for Harvey Dahl’s spot following his departure for the Rams. This training camp will feature competition, most likely between Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson, to take over as Dahl’s replacement.
It is difficult to get a feel for our offensive line with Clabo and Blalock not yet practicing, and even the practices in pads not running at full speed, but locking up Clabo and Blalock was a real accomplishment for the Falcons, and I have every expectation that our offensive line will continue to be effective and dependable.
Due to the aforementioned weird free agency rules, Ray Edwards has yet to suit up and take the practice field with the Falcons, but I do expect John Abraham and Edwards to wreak some havoc against opposing offenses this year. Also notable: our 2009 first round draft pick, Peria Jerry, is healthy and ready to go, and Corey Peters, who started for Jerry throughout 2010, is ready to compete with Jerry to start in 2011. Add to the mix a solid (and hopefully not distracted by his reality-star girlfriend) Kroy Biermann, veteran players Lawrence Sidbury, Chauncey Davis, and new kid on the block Cliff Matthews, and you’re looking at a defensive line with a lot of potential.
Our linebackers appear ready to go. In full team drills, these guys are putting in serious work. With veterans Curtis Lofton and Coy Wire, second year guy Sean Weatherspoon, and rookie Akeem Dent all looking ready to go, our linebacker corps will be solid this year. Also, knowing that we’ll have Stephen Nicholas and Mike Peterson both back for the 2011 season gives the Falcons a lot of depth and options at this position.
Let’s start with one of the questions I’ve been asked most consistently about training camp, although admittedly not from readers of The Falcoholic: How does Brent Grimes look?
The answer: Grimes isn’t at camp. Grimes is a restricted free agent, and remember those weird free agency rules? He isn’t allowed to practice until August 4. I fully expect Grimes to report to camp on Thursday, and he has been putting in considerable work this offseason, so it’s reasonable to expect him to be fully prepared.
Dunta Robinson is at camp and working hard each day. Robinson appeared to struggle at times last year, and many believed it was due to a difficulty in mastering Atlanta's defensive scheme. He appears to be very focused and making strides in training camp.
The performances from Dominique Franks and Chris Owens have been exciting and fascinating to watch. Both of these guys are going all out to win a starting nickel position, and both have been impressive. I have been particularly impressed with Franks, who has had a few great interceptions, one of which, during Monday’s practice, would have been returned for a touchdown in a game scenario. Based on what we have seen at camp so far this season, expect our secondary to be much improved.
If you are a Falcons fan who lives reasonably close to the greater Atlanta metro area, I highly recommend that you make some time to visit the Atlanta Falcons training camp. If you cannot make it to camp, Jay Adams and Daniel Cox from the Falcons, and D. Orlando Ledbetter from the Atlanta Journal Constitution are providing in depth updates from camp every day.