Purchase a copy of The Times for complete guide to training camp.
Atlanta Falcons defensive captain Curtis Lofton likes what he sees with the start of training camp just a few hours away.
There were times this summer that Lofton wondered if the NFL lockout would ever end, and the fourth-year linebacker is delighted that football has finally returned.
"I believe our guys are ready to get on the field," Lofton said Thursday. "We can't wait, and from what I can see, everyone is in good shape. We're ready to go."
Players checked into their on-site dormitory rooms to prepare for the first practice today at 9:45 a.m. The afternoon session, which begins at 3:25 p.m., is open to the public and free of charge.
The lockout didn't stop Lofton and many Atlanta veterans from meeting several times a week this summer to practice 7-on-7 drills at nearby Buford High and work on conditioning at a nearby fitness center.
A few star veterans such as tight end Tony Gonzalez, defensive end John Abraham and running back Michael Turner stuck to their own regimens with private trainers, but a significant core of the team's roster - including quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White and defensive starters Sean Weatherspoon, Kroy Biermann, Brent Grimes, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore - trained together.
Linebacker Coy Wire, who served as Atlanta's representative to the NFL Players Association, helped design conditioning sessions that built camaraderie and kept players in football-specific shape.
"So far, I don't see any big blimps walking around in there," Wire said. "Guys look like they've been handling their business and taking care of themselves."
There are plenty of holes to fill on the depth chart, however, with the offensive line missing unrestricted free agents Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock.
Linebacker Mike Peterson agreed to contract terms on a one-year deal for his third season in Atlanta and 13th overall. The Falcons hope that rookie receiver Jones, the No. 6 overall draft pick, and linebacker Akeem Dent, a third-round pick, soon follow suit.
Re-signing Clabo, an alternate Pro Bowl selection at right tackle, seems a top priority for general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Falcons coach Mike Smith has always praised the smarts and work ethic of Dahl and Blalock, but if their price is too high, Atlanta has three candidates who will compete at guard - Joe Hawley, Mike Johnson and rookie Andrew Jackson.
Garrett Reynolds is a potential replacement for Clabo.
Agreeing to contract terms with Peterson and linebacker Stephen Nicholas gives the Falcons all 11 starters returning on defense, but cornerback Brent Grimes, a Pro Bowl alternate last season, is a restricted free agent who indicated recently he might skip the start of camp if a long-term deal isn't offered. Grimes signed a contract tender in February.
Pro Bowl return specialist Eric Weems is another restricted free agent.
Kicker Matt Bryant is still unrestricted, but he said last month that he wants to stay with Atlanta and believes the team will make him a fair offer. If Bryant isn't on the field soon, Smith and his staff will take a longer look at rookie Matt Bosher, a sixth-round pick from Miami who kicks and punts and is the lead candidate to replace punter Michael Koenen.
The most notable addition to Smith's staff was Bob Bratkowski, who took over as quarterbacks coach when Bill Musgrave left to become offensive coordinator in Minnesota.
Ryan said he will miss Musgrave, who helped him win 33 of 46 games as starter, but welcomes Bratkowski, Cincinnati's coordinator from 2001-10.
"I think it's going to be a lot of fun working with somebody new and trying to learn from him," Ryan said. "His wealth of experience will definitely help us."