Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan looks to the sideline during a game last season against the 49ers. Ryan and the Falcons, who are trying to bounce back from last year’s 4-12 record, open training camp practices today. (Reuters)
FLOWERY BRANCH — After missing the playoffs by a lot with an ugly 4-12 record last season, head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan will try to get the Atlanta Falcons back in gear when training camp practice begins today at their Flowery Branch facility.
Ryan is especially vested in the improvement of the offensive line, which was the team’s weakest unit by the end of last year but heads to camp with a new look.
The Falcons revamped the front wall and hope it will improve on last year’s horrid performance — 44 sacks allowed and only 77.9 yards rushing per game, worst in the league.
The new line features 2014 first-round draftee Jake Matthews at right tackle along with free-agent signee Jon Asamoah at right guard, Sam Baker back from knee surgery at left tackle and Justin Blalock at left guard. At center there is a battle between Joe Hawley and Peter Konz.
Matthews already impressed Ryan, who said, “When you watch him, when he knows what he’s doing, he’s incredibly athletic.”
The most interesting battle up front will be at center. Last season, Konz opened as the starter in his bid to replace the retired Todd McClure, but he failed miserably. By season’s end, Hawley was the starting center. The Falcons appear set to give Konz one more chance to see if he can earn the position. During OTAs, Hawley and Konz were splitting time with the first team with Hawley getting the bulk of the action.
But the lineman with the most to prove is probably Baker at left tackle. After six mostly disappointing seasons, Baker is in a familiar position: coming off a major injury and needing to show he can stay healthy.
The Falcons signed him to a contract extension after he was healthy and effective in 2012, but he lasted just four games in 2013 and wasn’t very good when he did play. Baker said he feels healthy thanks in large part to his work with the team’s weight and training staff.
For those looking for a fresh face or a surprise in camp, linebacker Jacques Smith, an undrafted rookie from Tennessee is the man to watch.
With the season-ending Achilles injury to Sean Weatherspoon, the Falcons are thin at inside linebacker. Smith, signed as an undrafted rookie from Tennessee, may have a shot to make the roster. He played defensive end and outside linebacker during his Tennessee career, finishing with 92 total tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks and has been impressive this offseason, showing an excellent burst and ability to diagnosis plays.
NFLDraftScout.com rated Smith as the 55th outside linebacker and projected him as a priority free agent. He is 6-foot-2, 258 and had a 40-yard time of 4.59 seconds.
The Falcons believe they solidified their backup quarterback position by trading for T.J. Yates and releasing Dominique Davis.
The Falcons have been living on the edge at the backup quarterback position, should anything happen to Ryan, since parting ways with Chris Redman.
In 2012, they added Luke McCown as quarterback insurance, but didn’t re-sign him for 2013. Last season, Davis, a former undrafted player from East Carolina, was the backup quarterback, but played in only one game.
So basically, after making it through two seasons without an experienced backup, the Falcons pulled the trigger on a trade to land Yates from the Houston Texans. He has played in 13 NFL games.
The Falcons sent backup linebacker Akeem Dent to the Texans for Yates.
“You always want to have an (experienced) backup quarterback if you can,” Smith said. “That doesn’t always work out, but T.J. has played in games. He’s played in big games. He’s won a playoff game for the Houston Texans.
“So, he is an experienced player. We look forward to getting him here.”
Yates, 27, was forced into action during his rookie season after Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart sustained injuries. He made his first NFL start against the Falcons and led the Texans to a 17-10 victory on Dec. 4, 2011. Yates completed 12-of-25 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown.
In 13 career games with Houston, Yates completed 101-of-166 passes (60.8 percent) for 1,100 yards with three touchdowns, six interceptions, and had a 71.4 passer rating.
Yates played in six games as a rookie in 2011, including five starts, leading the Texans to a 3-3 record by passing for 949 yards on 82-of-134 passing (61.2 percent) with three touchdowns, three interceptions and an 80.7 passer rating.
Davis, 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, was signed by the Falcons as a college free agent following the 2012 NFL draft. After a so-so exhibition season, he served as the team’s backup quarterback last season, making his NFL debut at Tampa Bay on November 11, 2013.
He completed 5-of-7 passes before leaving the game because of a knee injury.
“We are always trying to put the most competitive roster in place to give us the best opportunity to win,” Smith said. “This was an opportunity that came up for us. We felt like it’s going to create a very competitive atmosphere for us where we need to have some competition.”
When the Falcons drafted Dent, they envisioned him taking over for Curtis Lofton. However, Dent was not able to fill Lofton’s shoes after being made the starter during the 2012 season. Last season, he was benched for not making enough plays.
“We appreciate everything that Akeem Dent has done for us over the last three years,” Smith said.
The Falcons signed linebacker Tim Dobbins to a one-year, $855,000 contract. He will serve as a backup and should be a star on special teams.
Here is a snapshot of the Falcons lineup as they head to camp:
— QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Matt Ryan. Backups - T.J. Yates, Sean Renfree, Jeff Mathews.
— RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Steven Jackson, FB Patrick DiMarco. Backups - Devonta Freeman, Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith, Josh Vaughn, Jerome Smith, FB Maurice Hagens, FB Roosevelt Nix.
— TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Levine Toilolo. Backups - Bear Pascoe, Mickey Shuler, Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak.
— WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Roddy White, Julio Jones. Backups - Harry Douglas, Devin Hester, Drew Davis, Darius Johnson, Geraldo Boldewijn, Julian Jones, Freddie Martino, Bernard Reedy, Tramaine Thompson.
— OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Sam Baker, LG Justin Blalock, C Joe Hawley, RG Jon Asamoah, RT Jake Matthews. Backups - TLamar Holmes, T Ryan Schraeder, T Terren Jones, C Peter Konz, C James Stone, G Mike Johnson, G Gabe Carimi, G Adam Replogle, G Harland Gunn.
— DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - RDE Kroy Biermann, DT Tyson Jackson, DT Paul Soliai, LDE Jonathan Babineaux. Backups — E Osi Umenyiora, E Ra’Shede Hagemen, E Jonathan Massaquoi, E Eguae Nosa, E Malliciah Goodman, E Stansly Maponga, T Peria Jerry, T Corey Peters, T Travian Robertson, T Cliff Matthews, T Donte Rumph.
— LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Prince Shembo, MLB Paul Worrilow, WLB Joplo Bartu. Backups - OLB Marquis Spruill, OLB Walker May, OLB Jacques Smith, OLB Tyler Starr, ILB Yawin Smallwood, ILB Brenden Daly.
— DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - RCB Desmond Trufant, FS Dwight Lowery, SS William Moore, LCB Robert Alford. Backups - CB Josh Wilson, CB Javier Arenas, CB Robert McClain, CB Ricardo Allen, CB Devonta Glover-Wright, CB Jordan Mabin, S Dezmen Southward, Sean Baker, Kimario McFadden, Kemal Ishmael, Zeke Motta.
— SPECIAL TEAMS: P Matt Bosher, K Matt Bryant, LS Josh Harris, KOR/PR Devin Hester.