FLOWERY BRANCH — Matthew Eichenblatt was like many fans who couldn’t wait to see the Atlanta Falcons in person at training camp.
The University of Alabama student traveled to Hall County with his father, David Eichenblatt, to see what the 2008 season may have in store as training camp opened Saturday at the team’s Flowery Branch training complex.
"The team has a lot of new faces and a new mentality around the team that seems to be real positive," said Matthew Eichenblatt, 20, of Atlanta. "I feel like a 7-9 finish this year is realistic because I think we can pull off a couple of surprise wins that could leave us in the playoff hunt at the end of the season. ... I think this team could be very similar to the 1997 team (that also finished 7-9) before they went to the Super Bowl in 1998."
As the Eichenblatts waited for the afternoon practice session to begin, Matthew relaxed in his fold-out chair and looked over the team prospectus in a Falcons media guide. The savvy young Falcons fan said he has a good feel for the new players in Atlanta’s franchise after making the trip to New York in April to attend the NFL Draft with his father.
Like other fans in attendance for the kick off to training camp in South Hall, Matthew Eichenblatt said he feels most position groups on the Falcons are headed in the right direction. Most fans were talking about the quarterback battle between first-round draft pick Matt Ryan, Joey Harrington, Chris Redman and former University of Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley.
The early favorite in the minds of Matthew Eichenblatt and Cedric Minor of Douglasville is to leave the ball in the hands of Redman to start the 2008 season after finishing up last season strong at the signal caller position.
"I saw some really good things from Redman last season," Minor, a 10-year Falcons fan, said Saturday during his first trip to Flowery Branch. "But I also came out here today to see what Ryan is going to be able to do."
Minor is also in agreement with Eichenblatt that Atlanta has the potential to finish around .500 this season.
Other fans weren’t so reserved about making lofty predictions for this year’s Falcons.
Johnathan West, 13, a rising eighth-grader at Chestatee Middle, predicts Atlanta is capable of finishing 11-5 and even winning the NFC South Division title. West, a Georgia football fan, said he was pleased to see the Falcons draft former Bulldog running back Thomas Brown, which added depth to the backfield with Jerious Norwood and the offseason acquisition of former San Diego running back Michael Turner.
"I think we may have the best backfield in the NFL this season," West said.
There was also a lot of talk among fans Saturday about the addition of left tackle Sam Baker in the first round of the draft, who many feel will complement 2007 draft pick Justin Blalock well on the line. Baker signed with the team late Friday night.
Joshua Puckett, also a rising eighth-grader at Chestatee Middle, visited training camp with his friend and their fathers. As a lineman on his football team, he said he’s most interested in seeing how the professional lineman are able to work in sync together.
"I like that the Falcons drafted Baker in the first round," Puckett said. "This is my first trip to see the Falcons practice, and I want to see good blocking on the line."
One thing all the fans could agree on Saturday is that it’s nice for the Falcons to just be focused on playing football again with a fresh coaching staff. There are no criminal investigations lingering over the star players, and no protesters outside of the front gate while players are trying to earn a spot on the roster.
"I think it’s going to be a rebuilding season, but I still feel optimistic," fan Robert Puckett said.