As the curtain on training camps open throughout the National Football League, optimism abounds. Before the first official games go into the books, all 32 teams are equal. That first day when player don the pads is a day where every team is equal on paper and every team has that same “chance” to make it to the postseason.
Friday was one of those days around Flowery Branch.
But the difference between the festivities in Atlanta Falcons training camp as opposed to places like Oakland or Detroit is that Atlanta’s football team should be able to ride that wave of optimism long into the postseason.
“Our expectations are very high,” Falcons coach Mike Smith told a gaggle of reporters on a sun-splashed day in North Georgia. “We keep them internally; we don’t talk about them publicly. I can assure of this, they’re very high.”
Expectations should be high.
Despite the overhyped summer of labor rest, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has been hard at work, tinkering with an Atlanta team that finished with an NFC-best 13-3 record last year, adding pieces to a Falcons team that was embarrassed by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the playoffs.
Dimitroff moved up in the draft to give quarterback Matt Ryan another big target at wide receiver in Alabama standout Julio Jones. He traded up to nab Oregon State rusher Jacquizz Rodgers — an undersized, yet explosive rusher who has been compared to New York Giants RB Dave Meggett – in the fifth round, while showing Michael Jenkins and Jerious Norwood the door.
Falcons version 2011 should be fast. They should be sleek. They should be explosive. And they should be a heck of a lot of fun to watch.
“It’s a Ferrari offense, there’s no doubt about it,” future Hall of Fame lock Tony Gonzalez said. “It’s a high octane. The biggest thing we need to add is explosive plays.
“That’s where Julio’s going to come in and help us out a lot with his big body and his speed. There are a whole lot of weapons on this team. Matt’s the one who is driving the car. I feel comfortable with him driving the Ferrari.”
But Dimitroff’s job didn’t finish with just the offense. He maneuvered his way around the cap, shed a contract or two and left enough money under the cap to add one of the top free agent defensive ends available to revamp Atlanta’s pass rush attack, which finished 20th in the league last season.
The signing of former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards to bookend perennial Pro Bowler John Abraham on the defensive line should go a long way to stabilizing an Atlanta defense that was prone to giving up the big play last season.
The addition also sent a message to veterans in the lockeroom: the Falcons window to bring that first Vince Lombardi Trophy to Atlanta opens now.
“Ray has proved himself in the league,” Abraham said on Friday. “I asked the coaches when we had a chance to talk to them if they were going to bring me help. They did my job and now I have to do mine.”
Abraham wasn’t the only Falcon who asked for a big playmaker on defense. The always entertaining Roddy White made a rather public plea for Atlanta to address it’s defensive inadequacies via the popular social networking site Twitter, suggesting that he’d be ticked off if the Falcons didn’t land a big name to help on D in the free agent period after the club missed out on Carolina Panthers DE Charles Johnson.
With Edwards under the fold, White knows that it’s put up or shut up time for his football team.
“The window is only open but so long,” White told the media scrum surrounding him at the Branch. “I feel like we got a great QB, we got a good running back, we got a great tight end. We have all the pieces in place and we’re able to make a run.
“(By signing Edwards, management showed that) we’re going to do it by any means necessary to get where we get. Our ultimate goal is to get to the Super Bowl and that’s the direction we’re heading.”
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