As the 2018 edition of training camp kicks off for the Atlanta Falcons with practices beginning today, here are key items to keep an eye on.
Coming off a successful albeit underwhelming 2017 season, the Falcons enter the 2018 fray with, at the very least, playoff expectations. Look around and you will see that many are viewing the Falcons as reasonable threats also. From USA Today predicting the Falcons as Super Bowl champions to CBS Sports Pete Prisco picking the Falcons as NFC Championship Game participants, 2018 can be a special year for this talented roster. Enough chit chat. Let’s highlight the five key things to watch during training camp this year.
The Julio Jones arrival
It has been an interesting occurrence that is the Julio Jones saga this offseason. The elite receiver sat out minicamp and OTAs because of his desire to increase his yearly earnings, but now he’s in the fold with a re-worked deal. Sweet.
Now we’ll get to see how he looks on the practice field and what kind of year is ahead for him. He’s still immensely important to this offense, and will be worth watching through camp.
The maturation of Steve Sarkisian
Eighth in total offense. Ninth in first downs. Eighth in rushing yards per attempt.
Just a few positives on offense for the Falcons during the 2017 season and yet, the campaign as a whole was a disappointment. A great portion of the blame belongs to second-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. While I feel his seat may not necessarily be “hot” for this upcoming season, there is a little pressure for Sarkisian to improve his play calling. No, you won’t see the entire hand of Sarkisian during training camp but there will be certain intricacies such as his play calling tempo and where certain players are incorporated that will tell if Sarkisian may be making strides as an NFL coordinator. His maturation this offseason is huge and can truly dictate how successful that Falcons can be.
Versatility in the secondary
Quietly, the Atlanta Falcons have made a few moves this offseason in the secondary that has given the defense a very well-rounded unit on the backend. The selection of cornerback Isaiah Oliver in the second round of this year’s draft and the signings of veterans safety Ron Parker and corner Justin Bethel inject youth, size, and flexibility. Now the team has the opportunity to slide one of their top corners (Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford) inside at the slot position as well as experiment with a 3-safety look on certain downs and against certain opponents. Things are looking up for this secondary and training camp is a perfect time for the coaching staff to mix and match and see how many different variables the secondary can provide as a whole.
The development of second-year players
We saw first hand how good a player second-year defensive end Takkarist McKinley can be as he racked up six sacks in the regular season and two more in the postseason while also battling his way back from offseason shoulder surgery. The initial season for linebacker Duke Riley was not an encouraging one overall but the potential is definitely evident. For tight end Eric Saubert, yours truly has compared him to a healthy Tyler Eifert of the Cincinnati Bengals. Notice I said healthy.
Not to mention that second-year defensive back Damontae Kazee also has the ability to see a considerable amount of playing time on defense this season. The Falcons have a few second-year players that can truly transcend the roster if their development is on par.
The overall vibe of the team
If you have seen enough of the Falcons over the past few seasons, you will know that there is a nice mixture of youth and veteran demeanor on the team. With a head coach in Dan Quinn that is a great motivator, it has been a while since this Falcons team has lacked confidence and swagger.
There is plenty of expectations for this talented Falcons team this upcoming season. Everyone who knows football knows that it carries it’s fair share of emotion as well. A Super Bowl title is not out of the question for this team. Let’s see if they display that mental ability, which can very well go a long way to regular and postseason success.