We've kept it under our hats for a while, but I'm sure most of you have figured out by now that something has changed with our training camp coverage this year.
For the first time, The Falcoholic will be a fully credentialed member of the Falcons media. What that means is that most of the time, we'll have someone on-hand to watch camp and games, and to deliver you quotes and information directly from the players and coaches. It's an exciting new epoch for our site, and we're very thankful to the Falcons for the opportunity and happy to be able to bring you more news than ever before.
Normally Jeanna Thomas will be our sole correspondent, at least for now, but I took a quick trip to Atlanta over the weekend to catch the first two days of training camp. Because Jeanna has already covered those days in detail and you've no doubt seen The DW's breakdown of the third day, I'm widening my focus a little bit to talk about some trends and features of camp that jumped out at me. Hope you enjoy them.
- The first thing you notice, being in the middle of the practice field, is how impossible it is to take in everything all at once. If you've ever asked one of the team's reporters about a specific player and been told that they didn't see how that player fared, you now know why. Typically the team is split up into at least 2-4 separate drills spread out on either side of the media box, so you have to pick and choose your focus.for each individual drill. I found myself watching the offensive line.
- Bryan Cox and Mike Tice appear to be everything the Falcons could have hoped for. Both are encouraging when they need to be—Tice in particularly had an attaboy whenever it was earned—but they're hard-nosed coaches and you can see how hard linemen are working to impress. Tice's focus on conditioning has paid off in a big way, too, as guys like Terren Jones and Lamar Holmes have gone from winded mountain men to capital-L Linemen. Neither looked great—and we'll get to that—but at least they're in shape.
Cox, meanwhile, continually was yelling 'finish!" at his players. If there's a 2014 mantra for a defense that has always been close to a sack or turnover but rarely producing one, Cox is delivering it.
- Even without pads, the first days of training camp are useful as a barometer of where young players stand before preseason. I was closely watching Tyler Starr because I was eager to see if he'd live up to the hype that has accompanied his arrival in Atlanta, and by and large I came away with the impression that he was fast and surprisingly powerful, yet technically raw. I watched him repeatedly get washed out of plays by the likes of Ryan Schraeder and Lamar Holmes—heck, Schraeder did battle nicely with Jonathan Massaquoi—but he did beat Terren Jones through sheer athleticism and tenacity. He can be a good one, but he'll need time.
Speaking of that trio of tackles, it was easy to see an early pecking order, and in my mind Schraeder is going to be battling Holmes all camp long, with Jones probably winding up on the practice squad or off the roster entirely. Schraeder looks vastly improved from a year ago and was tangling up nearly everyone who crossed his path. Holmes was hit or miss, but he threw a couple of guys to the ground and looked much stronger. That's a battle that will be worth watching keenly.
- I heard a rumor circulating that the fight between Kroy Biermann and Jake Matthews was staged for Hard Knocks, something you'll hear about anything dramatic that happens between now and the end of camp. Standing about 30-40 feet away, I can tell you that Biermann's punches sure as hell looked authentic, and there was enough scuffling between Biermann and Matthews and even Biermann and Schraeder the rest of the way to make me think that Biermman's just a punchy dude.
Oh, and those cameras? Aside from after practice, when a couple of players might mug a little on their way to the locker room or to sign autographs, they're not in the way and don't seem to be affecting the drills in any way, shape or form. Rest easy.
- It's a trite thing to say, but these guys are truly massive up-close. I could only shake my head in wonder every time Ra'Shede Hageman wound up in front of me, in particular. Even Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman, two of the shorter guys on the team, look like they were chiseled out of a particularly large block of granite.
- Oh, and you probably want to know how the rookies fared, right? Jake Matthews looks amazing already, Hageman was not consistent but would occasionally just slice through the line like there were only Pop Warner players in his way. Dezmen Southward didn't stand out and was getting individual coaching and advice from the staff. Marquis Spruill looked fast and comfortable, Ricardo Allen quick, Yawin Smallwood didn't stand out and Starr, as I mentioned above, was a mixed bag.
Prince Shembo and Devonta Freeman both looked great. Shembo was all over the field, batting down a pass and showing much more advanced awareness than I would have thought possible in the first two days of camp. Freeman's true test will come in padded practices, but the man clearly possesses intriguing vision and speed, and it seemed like every time he touched the ball he managed to find a hole. All in all, an encouraging if not extremely meaningful start for the rookie class.
- Speaking of rookies, it's worth noting how involved veterans are. You see Roddy White busting on people, but you also see much-maligned players like Osi Umenyiora actively sharing expertise with young players like Brendan Daley, who took Yawin Smallwood with him after practice to work on what Osi passed on. I didn't get the sense that anyone's bitter over reduced roles, and seeing veterans willing to work with rookies and share encouragement is an awesome thing for any fan.
- Others have noted this, but Mike Smith is a little more forthcoming after that 4-12 season. He talked openly about how the Falcons would use the nickel more often, who was involved in the nickel corner battle (Arenas, McClain and Wilson), how he would divvy up preseason starts for those guys and how good Reedy looked and how he was very much in the mix for a roster spot. I didn't get the sense that this is a new Mike Smith, perhaps, but one who is adjusting to a changed team and a world where the Falcons are no longer a perpetually winning team.
- It's no great secret that I'm a Northerner and I've only passed through Atlanta a couple of times before this, so this was a short but great treat. I got to experience Atlanta traffic, several Atlanta restaurants that shaved at least a decade off the back end of my life and, of course, the mind-baking heat. I loved every second of it, and next time I'm down, I'll make it longer so that I can meet more of you.