With the first week of Falcons training camp now in the books, I thought I'd take the opportunity to recap some of the key things I've noticed - both in person and in reading multiple reports. These are just my thoughts, so feel free to chime in with your own thoughts and observations.
1. Our 2014 rookie class is looking good so far
For the first time since 2008, Dimitroff and Smitty were able to draft in the upper portion of each round. Whether or not that is the difference for this class is debatable, but so far, the early returns are positive.
Jake Matthews appears to be everything we could hope for in a rookie tackle. All he's done so far is impress every single person who has watched him. He has regularly won every one-on-one battle he's been in, and on one occasion, stonewalled rushers on seven straight attempts during a two minute drill. If he keeps this up, he may propel himself to being seen as the best lineman on the team.
Rashede Hageman is a monster. And while he is still incredibly raw, he has shown an insatiable desire to get better - displaying passion on nearly every single snap. When he gets his technique right, he's also proven to be nearly unstoppable - with reports coming in of him "throwing" offensive lineman to the ground. While he's not a likely year-one starter, if he continues on this path, he should get some quality reps and he could turn some heads during the season.
Fourth round rookie running back Devonta Freeman may end up being the best value pick in this draft class. With the recent hamstring injury to presumed starter Steven Jackson, Freeman may get some great opportunities to prove he's ready. He's already shown amazing vision and instincts, along with incredible speed. If he can pick up on the pass protection responsibilities, Freeman may just steal some snaps away from the veterans on the team.
Finally, Prince Shembo has had a very strong camp thus far. While many doubted the move to ILB, it looks like it will be a smart one. While his reps have come almost exclusively with the 2nd team, he's made the most of them - displaying quickness and good pass coverage abilities. Additionally, when used as a blitzer, he's shown a great ability to slice through the middle of the offensive line.
Additionally, guys like Marquis Spruill and Tyler Starr are demonstrating that they could be contributors as well, though their spots on the roster are still in flux.
In total, the first week of camp is very encouraging where our rookie class is concerned - something we critically needed after the disaster of 2013.
2. Our offense could be the best it's ever been in 2014
We've all speculated about it, but this could be the fulfillment of our hopes for what our offense could be. We all know the formula: Healthy receivers + Avg or better OL = dynamic offense. Well, the pieces may finally be falling into place.
For starters, Julio looks amazing (knock on wood). He's not only returned to form, the word is that he's also bigger and may even be faster. If he stays healthy, there's no reason to believe he won't return to his 2013 form. Likewise, Roddy looks to be 100% healthy and as good as he's ever been.
What's intriguing is the additional receivers on the roster. First off, Devin Hester has been impressing at camp - and not for his return skills. He's been lining up a good bit as WR4, and has looked very good doing it. There's little doubt that Hester can be a home-run threat when in the open field - and it looks like the Falcons intend on exploiting that.
While it's an uphill battle, UDFA rookie Bernard Reedy has impressed everyone with his "elite" speed and has been blowing the doors off of the secondary. With Drew Davis out indefinitely with a foot injury, it's possible Reedy could earn a spot on the roster. In 5WR sets, he may be a wild-card that could stretch the defense alongside Julio.
As for the offensive line, 2013 was probably as bad as it can get. Thankfully, it looks like we're not only moving away from mediocrity, but maybe even towards competence and good performance. The addition of Asamoah at RG can't be overstated. The man is a mountain and nearly unmovable. Matthews - as stated earlier - looks like the best RT we have had in ages. Baker looks healthy and Blalock is solid as usual. Hawley has come to camp with a fire in his belly and looks to be the presumed starter at this point. If this line can just be average - or slightly better than the 2012 version - Ryan may finally have the kind of protection that a true pocket passer needs. Considering the numbers he was able to put up with the worst OL in the league, one can only salivate at the idea of him having adequate protection.
And all of that doesn't even touch on the potential of guys like Freeman and Quizz behind a revamped line. If these pieces finally fall into place - wow. Watch. Out.
3. Our lines are definitely bigger and stronger
We've all heard the mantras from Smitty and Dimitroff this off-season, but this year the mantra seems to be firmly rooted in reality.
On the offensive line, the addition of Asamoah and Matthews has already made a dramatic improvement. We've already touched on that above.
It's on the defensive side of the ball that the biggest (pun intended) changes have been made. Let's put it this way: guys who were lining up as our Nose or 1-Tech last year are now slated to line up as our Defensive ENDS this year. The addition of Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson has put some new names - and considerable beef - in the middle of our line. Both of these guys demand attention, and the early returns from camp suggest that these guys are capable of giving Centers and Guards nightmares across the league.
But it doesn't stop there. Hageman - at 6'7" and over 315 pounds - can be deployed anywhere from the Nose to the 5-tech. His quickness and strength has already been on display. Additionally, Travian Robertson has surprised many at camp as his weight room strength finally looks to be having an impact on the field. Oh yeah, we haven't even mentioned guys like Babineaux and Peters, who will likely line up as 3-4 DE in this new look front.
Whether this combination of size can help with the pass rush remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: this line is much bigger and stronger already.
4. Smitty has made some big changes
If you've read any of the training camp reports you've probably noticed a change. The somewhat passion-less practices of the past are gone. The practices during the last week have been highly competitive and spirited - with several fights breaking out and Smitty even acknowledging his approval of some of the fracas.
And if you haven't heard, during the first day in pads, the team ran the Oklahoma drill - for the first time in the Mike Smith era. And it was met with approval from not only the fans, but the players as well.
For those who have hammered on Smitty in the past about his business-like approach to football, this season has been in stark contrast to that. While some fans still aren't placated by these changes, it's hard to deny that Smith has been making significant changes to how he does things. At the least, it's an acknowledgement that after a 4-12 season - things have to change. Hopefully, it's a sign that the mindset and philosophy have evolved into one that will produce a more physical and dominating team.
5. The additions of Bryan Cox and Mike Tice could be huge
All fans speculated at what the impact of Cox and Tice could mean for the defensive and offensive lines, respectively. So far, the returns appear to be significant.
For those who have been at practice, one of the things that jumps out is how involved Cox and Tice are with each and every player, with each and every rep. These guys aren't watching silently taking notes. They are in guys faces - correcting them in realtime - and offering encouragement and cursing at every turn. These are two very fiery coaches, and it looks like their impact is already having an effect. Players on both sides seem far more competitive and vocal than in the past. Guys like Hawley and Matthews have shown considerable nastiness already, while younger players like Hageman have been playing their hearts out for the approval of their new coach.
While football ultimately comes down to talent, the ability of coaches to maximize the talent is critical. It's still early, but the addition of these two coaches could be a difference maker this season.
So what say you? What are your impressions so far after the first week of camp?