FLOWERY BRANCH — The wait is nearly over for Michael Turner.
When the Atlanta Falcons wear full pads today for the first time in training camp, Turner plans to show his new teammates that his shoulder is fully recovered from arthroscopic surgery five months ago.
After leaving San Diego to sign a six-year contract with $15 million in guarantees, Turner realizes the Falcons have big expectations for their starting running back.
"I feel good," Turner said Sunday. "I’m comfortable with it. I tested it out a little bit today. Did some popping out there. I don’t think it’ll affect me at all."
Atlanta’s first full-contact work since last season will come in 9-on-7 drills, some of which are planned near the goal line. New coach Mike Smith knows that Turner is eager to prove how hard he runs between the tackles.
Hundreds of NFL players undergo arthroscopic surgery of some kind after a season. Turner’s original injury, which occurred in December last year with the Chargers, wasn’t severe enough to keep him off the field as San Diego won the AFC West and advanced to the conference title game.
"He was cleared long ago and went through the OTAs," Smith said. "But I think it will give him a sense of security when he gets to go out there and really pop for the first time."
Most of the attention in camp, at least from the public, has focused on rookie Matt Ryan, the No. 3 overall draft pick who is trying to beat out Chris Redman and Joey Harrington to become the starting quarterback.
For Smith, though, the issue of Turner’s durability is no less important.
"Our team made a big-time commitment to Michael, and we are very excited to see what he can do," Smith said. "At the same time, you have to be cautious any time a player is returning from an injury. It’s not like it was a serious injury or anything like that, but we have to be careful not to rush him."
Turner averaged a robust 5.5 yards in 228 career attempts with the Chargers, who drafted him out of Northern Illinois in the fifth round of 2004. San Diego, seeking a dependable backup for LaDainian Tomlinson, got exactly what it needed in Turner.
As Tomlinson won two NFL rushing titles and was named league MVP by The Associated Press in ‘06, Turner worked in relative obscurity with just one career start.
But the respect he earned as a powerful, pile-driving runner helped Turner benefit tremendously in a free agent market nearly devoid of quality running backs. The Falcons, moving quickly, offered a huge contract before Turner could visit a second team.
"I’ve got a niche," Turner said of his hard-running style. "Now I’m just continuing to prepare and get ready to play a full season. Not only just play a whole season, but be productive for a full season."
With Atlanta, the 26-year-old Turner has joined an offense seeking identity after it led the league in rushing from 2004-06.
The Falcons were an offensive mess last year, ranking 29th in scoring and 26th in rushing.
Michael Vick, the only NFL quarterback to run for 1,000 in a single season, never took a snap after federal dogfighting charges eventually led to a federal prison sentence.
Quarterbacks Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman combined to lead Atlanta to a 4-12 finish. Bobby Petrino coached just 13 games before resigning suddenly and leaving for Arkansas.
Turner’s predecessor, Warrick Dunn, averaged only 3.2 yards per carry, one year after playing in the Pro Bowl.
Injuries devastated the offensive line, which had 11 lineup changes after a 31-10 loss to the New York Giants in Week 6.
The season bottomed out in Week 15 at Tampa Bay. Only five days after Petrino quit, the Falcons lost by 34 points due in part to an offense that had four turnovers, 27 passing yards, a 0-for-9 performance on third down and a 0.0 passer rating from Redman.
Fullback Ovie Mughelli, who suffered the indignity of last season, believes the addition of Turner will change the complexion of the offense entirely. Not only does Atlanta have speedy Jerious Norwood to complement a bruising ground attack, but Mughelli thinks he and Turner are already learning to read each other’s instincts.
Such was the case in 2005-06, when Mughelli blocked in Baltimore for bruising runner Jamal Lewis.
"Once it gets into sync, I’ll know what Mike’s doing even if I can’t see him, and he’ll know what I’m doing even before I make the block," Mughelli said. "In Baltimore, I knew if Jamal was going to take it outside (the defensive end) or if couldn’t make it, he’d go inside, and I would get on (a defensive lineman’s) shoulder, he could slip through."
For now, though, Turner would be just as content to hit someone as to sneak through a hole cleared by Mughelli. Smith will order defenders not to tackle to the ground, but Turner knows his shoulder is going to slam against the earth eventually.
"We try to stay up, but it’s football," he said. "You’re going to be on the ground a little bit. If you fall in certain ways, it’s no big deal. It’s just practice out here."Notes: Smith said defensive end John Abraham, who practiced Sunday morning, could miss a couple of days to attend his grandfather’s funeral. ... The Falcons still don’t know the extent of cornerback Von Hutchins’ foot injury. According to Smith, Hutchins will undergo a second MRI.