The Atlanta Falcons caught fire down the stretch last season and seemingly had the Super Bowl in hand before a stunning second-half collapse.
But the guy in charge of putting the team together think this year’s squad could be even better.
“We’re really encouraged by this roster,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said Wednesday. “ … I don’t think that I’ve been more comfortable with a total roster, and I’ve said this publicly as well, as I feel we are going into this season.”
That same spirit of optimism pervaded the team’s practice facility in Flowery Branch as players checked in for training camp, which begins at 9:30 a.m. today. Though the end of last season left a bitter taste in their mouths, the Falcons are eager to put that behind them and get this campaign underway.
“This spring I thought we did a good job as a team of discussing what we learned and where we are at,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. “Now that 2017 is here, that’s our focus. As we’re heading into 2017, we think we can get a lot better, and we are going to work like hell to do that.”
While last month’s OTAs and mini-camp stressed individual improvement, Quinn said the two-and-a-half week training camp represents a transition to team-oriented work.
Fortunately for Atlanta, just about every player will be full-go as coaches try to sort out position battles.
Quinn said the team has no players currently on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, and only three players will be “somewhat limited” during the first week of training camp — receivers Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel, along with rookie pass-rusher Takk McKinley.
“All those guys will follow our normal program of individual (drills), group (installation), the night practice, and then we’ll kind of work them back in to half the reps into their full stuff,” Quinn said. “We are encouraged by those guys and the amount of time they put in to get right.”
For those players who are fully healthy, training camp is a chance to improve on a season that would have ended with the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory, had one or two plays gone the other way.
“We’ll be getting back to the basics,” Falcons left guard Andy Levitre said. “We have some good opportunities to build on what we started last year in the spring. Just continue to build on that and go out every day and continue to be the best football players we can be.”
The Falcons return most of their talent from last year’s NFC championship team, though Quinn and Dimitroff insist competition will be open at all positions.
One of the few spots completely up for grabs is at right guard, where Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland are battling to replace retired Chris Chester. As Quinn said during minicamp in June, the introduction of fully padded practices in training camp will help determine who claims job.
Both linemen said their competition will be fierce but friendly, which players have often pointed to as the foundation for the team’s success.
“This is what we’re all about,” said Garland, a converted defensive lineman. “Competition is what the entire team is developed on. We’re going to push as hard as we can. He’s going to make me better player, and hopefully I can make him a better player. And then that will be better for the team.”
Quinn said other position battles to watch will be at receiver, linebacker, running back and fullback.
Perhaps the coaching staff’s biggest responsibility will be getting the new additions to mesh with the returners. After assembling a talented draft class featuring McKinley and linebacker Duke Riley, the team made a big splash in free agency by signing defensive tackle Dontari Poe.
The 27 rookies and first-year Falcons will be helped along by a pair of new coordinators — Steve Sarkisian (offensive) and Marquand Manuel (defensive).
Still, Atlanta has one of the youngest rosters in the NFL. Dimitroff estimated the Falcons boast 32 players with 2-4 years of professional experience.
That’s just the way he likes it.
“I mean that, to me, I’m really encouraged with that,” Dimitroff said. “We’ve kept it youthful enough, and we’ve also sprinkled in the right veterans and the right leadership. Again, I think that’s going to show.”