Ra'Shede Hageman (in white) is part of a rebuilt defensive line that must generate a pass rush. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
I’m in Flowery Branch, Ga., the permanent training home of the Falcons, for a steamy afternoon practice, the second padded practice of their summer. It’s one of the more anticipated stops of my tour. The Falcons did major surgery on both lines during the off-season—nine of the 13 free agents either re-signed by the Falcons or signed from other organizations are offensive or defensive linemen. That was the major focus, too, in the draft, with starting right tackle Jake Matthews and rotational defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman coming in the first two rounds. So the thing to watch here, both in camp and in preseason games, will be the reconstruction on the lines.
One vivid memory from watching practice
Jake Matthews stoning defensive end Stansly Maponga on seven straight full-contact snaps in the two-minute drill. Good feet, good positioning, strong punch. To me, the Falcons are as high on Matthews as, say, Buffalo was on Sammy Watkins. Which is to say, very high. And in this one test-tube portion of one practice, I saw why.
How this team can go 12–4
Three keys: The left side of the offensive line has to keep Matt Ryan clean so he can achieve his stated goal of 70% completions; guard Justin Blalock and tackle Sam Baker have to play well ... A pass-rusher must be found. Maybe it’s Osi Umenyiora, though he may play but 50% of the snaps. The Falcons couldn’t solve everything that ailed them in 2013, and of their unresolved issues the most glaring is rushing the passer. Without a pass-rush, Drew Brees and Cam Newton will score too much for Matt Ryan to keep up ... A secondary led by two underrated elements—corner Desmond Trufant, a rookie star in 2013, and free safety Dwight Lowery, can unnerve a schedule full of top quarterbacks.
How this team can go 4–12
Simply put: If the grand design of GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith—bigger and more physical lines on both sides of the ball—doesn’t work, I could definitely see another lost season. Particularly in a division with loaded New Orleans and improved Tampa Bay.
Now, from fantasyland …
Breaking Down the Falcons
Andy Benoit's in-depth preview of the 2014 Falcons. FULL STORY
1. Buy Julio Jones. Don’t be worried about his health as he rebounds from foot surgery. He’s looked good in camp and the Falcons aren’t pushing him too fast.
2. Sell the Falcon tight ends, including projected starter Levine Toilolo, former depth-chart-mate of Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz at Stanford. No one tight end has emerged to replace Tony Gonzalez.
3. Steven Jackson just turned 31, is coming off a 157-carry season in which he missed four games due to injury, and averaged a career-low 3.1 yards per carry. Any questions?
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
Paul Soliai/Ra’Shede Hageman
Jonathan Massaquoi/Osi Umenyiora
Robert McClain/Josh Wilson
The offense is a pretty cut-and-dried affair, though Jacquizz Rodgers will push Jackson for playing time and replace him in some packages … The Falcons want to get Hageman in the defensive-line rotation early and often, and there will be games against throwing teams like the Saints where Hageman will play more snaps than the starter … Umenyiora is the logical candidate for pass-rush chances, but he turns 33 this year and the staff may groom one of a couple of promising rushers if he starts cold … Four players, including ex-Chief Javier Arenas, are vying for spots in nickel and dime packages.
Falcons Report: Putting It All on the Lines
Best new player in camp
Jake Matthews, offensive tackle. He has passed every test so far, including singing a catchy number (not the Texas A&M fight song) at the Falcons’ Rookie Show on Monday night. He’s already gotten in one hold-your-ground fight with defensive mainstay Kroy Biermann, and as coach Mike Smith said: “He came to camp ready to be a pro.” I question lots of things about the Falcons’ readiness to resume greatness after a debacle in 2013, but the right tackle spot is not one of them.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Cornerback Desmond Trufant is going to the Pro Bowl. On performance alone, if not by vote, he was close last year.
Something I’ve never seen before
Devin Hester on a team other than Chicago. Very strange look. This was a player I thought would play his entire career with the Bears, maybe one day standing on the stage in Canton with Bear Nation showering him with Monster-of-the-Midway love. But here he is, wearing number 17, fighting for playing time at receiver and charged with rejuvenating the return game. He looked very good this afternoon too, still a dervish when chased. I’ll have some stuff from Hester in my Monday column next week.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
I’ve trusted the football acumen of Dimitroff since before he took this job in 2008 and set the Falcons on the road to the playoffs. Before I left Flowery Branch, during a conversation with him, Dimitroff was just about beaming, feeling this team is light years from the 4-12 debacle of 2013. “Yes, I am beaming,’’ he said. “We will never take this back to where we were last year.” Any number of things could derail them, but it won’t be the size of the lines, or the physicality. I left here thinking this is going to be a good rebound job—maybe not to the playoffs, but somewhere at .500 or north of that.