From Flowery Branch, read about what Dan Quinn brings to Atlanta from his stint in Seattle, why life has just become easier for Kyle Shanahan and what players could fortify the Falcons' defense.
Site: Atlanta Falcons’ Flowery Branch Headquarters, 40 miles northeast of Atlanta.
What I Saw: Morning practice, Sunday, Aug. 2. Blue skies on a sunny morning for the Falcons’ first practice in full pads.
Three things you need to know about the Falcons:
1. Almost nothing is the same in 2015. Atlanta has a new head coach in former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and a new offensive coordinator in Kyle Shanahan. “Half the team probably wasn’t even here last year,” veteran tight end and free agent signee Jacob Tamme says. “I have no idea what happened last year. No one cares really.” That attitude is obvious at Flowery Branch and these 2015 Falcons will be an interesting team to follow. Says linebacker Brooks Reed, another free-agent addition: “We’re all excited that we got all new staff. The staff is excited they are on new teams, there’s a lot of energy out here right now.”
2. Kyle Shanahan’s job got a whole lot easier. Finally, Shanahan has a fully groomed quarterback to work with. After a year in Cleveland, where he had Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel under center, Shanahan comes to the promised land with a chance to work with Matt Ryan, a true franchise QB. Shanahan has a reputation for adjusting well to personnel—Robert Griffin III, Hoyer and Matt Schaub were all at their best under Shanahan’s tutelage. Just imagine what he can do with an established three-time Pro Bowler like Ryan. “Kyle has been a chameleon,” Ryan says. “Everywhere he’s gone he’s had different guys play with him and I think he has shown that he’ll adjust to whatever personnel they add. He’s open to trying to do some things that I like and the combination of the two has been really good.”
3. Running backs will be important again. Atlanta relied heavily on its passing game in previous seasons, but Shanahan will lead a more balanced offensive attack with more emphasis on the ground game. Last season with the Browns, Shanahan had a pair of rookie runners in Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. Atlanta’s ground game could be built around second-year back Devonta Freeman. Third-round pick Tevin Coleman is in the mix in the team’s biggest position battle to watch.
What will determine success or failure for the Falcons:
The pass rush. Quinn brings a simplified playbook from Seattle, which he’ll use to remake the NFL’s worst defense in 2014. The Falcons need to improve a unit that finished last against the pass and tied for 30th in the league with just 22 sacks. To fortify the pass rush, they drafted Vic Beasley in the first round and added a couple veterans: linebacker Brooks Reed and defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn was derailed by injuries in two of his four seasons in Tampa, but had 13 sacks over his two full seasons with the Bucs. Reed was a four-year starter in Houston, with 14.5 career sacks. The Falcons need all three to step up in 2015.
Player I saw and really liked. Justin Hardy, wide receiver. Hardy, a fourth-round pick out of East Carolina, has been hailed as a potential secret weapon. “Justin Hardy has done a great job coming in as a rookie,” Ryan says. “He’s a smart ballplayer. He had a ton of catches in college, so he knows how to get open.” At East Carolina, Hardy broke the FBS record for career receptions (387) and he posted three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons for the Pirates. Hardy’s reliable hands showed during one particularly pretty play during one-on-one drills, smoothly hauling in a Ryan deep ball down the sideline in stride.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about Atlanta. Quinn’s practice was efficient. They began at 10 a.m. and ended promptly at 11:46 a.m. Short and to-the-point, the Falcons wasted no time in the heat.. Desmond Trufant will be soon be among the elite class corners in the NFL. Going against Julio Jones and Roddy White everyday in practice helps… Saw some competitive one-on-one battles between this year’s first-round pick, Vic Beasley, and last year’s first-rounder, Jake Matthews… Disappointed I couldn’t see Justin Durant practice, as he had a scheduled day off Sunday. He was having a career year in Dallas before a season-ending groin injury last year and could end up being a big addition for a defense that needs all the help it can get… The team’s slogan, “Rise Up,” seemed to be everywhere.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about. Jacob Tamme, tight end. The Falcons signed the eight-year veteran away from the Broncos, where he was a Peyton Manning favorite. Tamme will battle last year’s starter, Levine Toilolo, and another free agent, Tony Moeaki, as the Falcons continue to search for a reliable starting tight end post-Tony Gonzalez.
The thing I will remember about Flowery Branch: While writing this, the walls in the media workroom are vibrating with the loud bass beats of the hip hop-heavy playlist that blares outside during practice and inside between meetings. The team hired homegrown DJ Jay Envy to bump some extremely loud music during the entire length of practice. A Pete Carroll tactic that Quinn has brought to Atlanta, the playlist energizes players and creates a game-like environment to facilitate better on-field communication.
Gut feeling as I left camp: It doesn’t take much to win the NFC South, and Quinn’s changes on defense will make for a much improved Falcons team. They have as good a chance as anyone to take the NFC South crown.