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Five key stories to follow as Atlanta Falcons approach training camp

Atlanta added depth to offensive line, running back in the draft

POSTED: June 28, 2014 8:39 p.m.

While the Atlanta Falcons have wrapped up mini-camp, training camp in Flowery Branch is just a month away. Hard to believe, right?

It seems like just yesterday Atlanta wrapped up a most forgettable 4-12 season, quite disappointing after nearly making the Super Bowl the year prior.

However, with a steady draft — heavy on the defensive side of the ball — and some key free agent pick-ups, Atlanta might be able to get back on course quickly in a highly-competitive NFC South.

Here’s five things to watch as for fans when training camp opens in four weeks in South Hall.

1. KEEPING RYAN UPRIGHT: Offensive line was a prominent concern for Atlanta in the offseason, especially since quarterback Matt Ryan is about to start a nine-figure contract, presumably to spend the remainder of his career with Atlanta.

The Falcons tackled that problem head on when they drafted Jake Matthews out of Texas A&M with the No. 6 pick in April’s draft.

While Matthews played tackle for the Aggies, protecting the blind side of Johnny Manziel for two seasons, he can move around and will likely start Week 1 of the 2014 season against the division-rival New Orleans Saints Sept. 7 at the Georgia Dome.

Matthews, considered one of the safest possible picks out of the 2014 crop of prospects, will bring stability to an ever-shifting line of scrimmage in front of Ryan.

Atlanta allowed 44 sacks last season, a number that Matthews will be able to help cut down and keep Ryan safe in the pocket.

2. LINEBACKER DEPTH: Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith had no clue that starting linebacker Sean Weatherspoon would go down with a season-ending injury during the offseason, but are sure glad now that they drafted four linebackers in the spring.

With a young group that was thrown into action last season, one (or more) of the rookie class will again likely get thrown into the fire and have to play right away.

Fourth-round pick Prince Shembo, out of Notre Dame, is the most likely to play early, along with fifth-rounder Marquis Spruill out of Syracuse.

Rookie linebackers did adequately last season for Atlanta, including a team-high 127 tackles by Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, who was third for the team with 85 stops.

3. RUNNING WOES: Atlanta’s ground game suffered mightily in 2013.

Marquee free agent Steven Jackson didn’t live up to expectations last season with only 543 yards, almost cut in half from his 2012 production from his final season with the St. Louis Rams.

To address that need, Atlanta went out and picked up Florida State’s Devonta Freeman in the fourth round of the draft to add some punch to the ground game. In 2013, he started every game and rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the national champion Seminoles.

The spark provided by Freeman will hopefully take some of the burden off of the veteran Jackson and both can share carries harmoniously in the backfield this season.

4. GROWTH IN THE SECONDARY: Cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford survived their rookie seasons in the secondary and are poised to have long, bright futures in the league.

The Falcons took a risk going with two defensive backs high in the 2013 draft, and it looks like both players will pan out successfully over the long run.

Trufant and Alford will have to play well in a league that has excellent quarterbacks. Robert McClain is also there in the rotation at corner, while William Moore is the leader at safety.

5. RETURN GAME STRONG: Bringing in Devin Hester from Chicago to handle the punt and kick return duties was a big boost during the offseason.

Hester is one of the game’s all-time great kick returners, a position Atlanta struggled to gain any traction with last season.

Even though Hester is up in years (31), he’s still dangerous on special teams with 18 career touchdowns, combined between punt and kick returns.


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