Atlanta Falcons training camp
When: Practices run 3:30-5:50 p.m. most days
Where: Falcons Complex, 4400 Falcon Parkway, Flowery Branch
How much: Free to attend
Parking: At the Hog Mountain Sports Complex and Davis Middle School across the street; complimentary shuttle service provided.
James Fox and his family of five were like many others who arrived early Friday for the first day of Atlanta Falcons training camp.
Making the three-hour drive from Birmingham, Ala., to South Hall, Fox and wife Shanon with their three children Jack, Jake and 3-year old Joe got a front-row seat along the yellow rope dividing players and coaches from fans to see up close what the 2014 Falcons had to offer.
“Oh, we’re pumped to be here,” James Fox said.
When the gates opened to the afternoon practice, hundreds of fans steadily trickled in to fill the hillside seating overlooking the two practice fields at Falcons team headquarters. In some cases, entire families came adorned in jerseys of quarterback Matt Ryan. Other fans were sporting uniforms of wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, injured linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and even a throwback jersey of former quarterback Steve Bartkowski.
Kenric Ramsey was also an early arrival, ensuring a front-row viewing area to check out the first day of action.
Players were wearing jerseys and helmets but no shoulder pads on Day 1.
For Ramsey, everything Atlanta does this season hinges on protecting Ryan, who is in the first year of a five-year, $103 million contract, as it tries to rebound from a 4-12 mark in 2012. He said he felt the franchise took many positive steps forward with draft picks, particularly first-round pick Jake Matthews at offensive tackle, defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round and running back Devonta Freeman from national champion Florida State in the fourth round.
Adding Devin Hester from Chicago as a free agent will aid running back Jacquizz Rodgers in the return game.
“Overall, I was very pleased with the draft picks,” said Ramsey, from Woodstock. “And we didn’t try to trade up to make picks, which was good.”
One feature unique to training camp this year is the abundance of camera crews filming for HBO’s series “Hard Knocks,” which begins airing Aug. 5.
“I’m shocked they agreed to do Hard Knocks,” Ramsey said, keenly aware of the track record of organizations previously featured on the documentary that chronicles the experiences of players in training camp.
Fans, young and old, also enjoy the star-gazing aspect that comes with getting near their favorite players. Fox’s two older sons — Jack, 12, and Jake, 9 — brought plenty of souvenirs to try and land autographs from Ryan, along with fellow Alabamians Jones, who played at Alabama, and White, out of Alabama-Birmingham.
Larry Dixon Jr. of Flowery Branch said he believes Atlanta has the talent to be a sleeper in the NFL this season. He said he’s glad everyone is targeting the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers as the teams to beat in a talent-rich NFC South division.
He says with a passing-receiving threat in Atlanta that is one of the best in the NFL, the defensive line will be the biggest question mark for the Falcons, who reached the NFC Championship game just two years ago. With the addition of Hageman up front, along with the selection of four linebackers in this year’s draft, he hopes will ease the transition on defense, with Weatherspoon sidelined for 2014 after rupturing his Achilles tendon last month.
“I’m most interested in seeing how the defensive side of the ball performs,” said Dixon, who has been a season ticket holder since 2008. “I really feel like the sky’s the limit for this team.”
Others showed up interested in seeing players who are not household names. High school senior Zach Strong, who plays football at Mount Paran Christian in Kennesaw, wanted to see rookie free-agent quarterback Jeff Mathews out of Cornell, where he hopes to continue his career as an offensive lineman.
Strong, and his father Robert, both agreed shoring up the offensive line as Atlanta did was an appropriate priority during the offseason.
“We have a lot of rookies on this team,” said Robert Strong. “And with the history of the draft, it’s really a crapshoot to know who is going to work out.”