July marks the beginning of the Atlanta Falcons 2008 pre-season as training camp official starts on July 25 and runs until August 15th at the team’s Flowery Branch headquarters. Once again the Falcons must start from scratch on what seems a constant rebuilding process. This year looks to be a better start with the hiring of former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator, Mike Smith and new general manager Thomas Dimitroff who arrives from the New England Patriots organization. On the offensive side of the ball, new offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey looks to install more of a smash mouth style offense centered around the running game while new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder looks to run an attacking 4-3 defensive scheme featuring zone coverages and creative blitz packages.
On the offensive side of the ball newly drafted quarterback Matt Ryan will try to beat out last year holdovers Chris Redman and Joey Harrington for the starting quarterback job. Free agent acquisition running back Michael Turner will finally get his first shot as an NFL starter, and will look to share touches with the ever explosive Jerious Norwood. The offensive line looks to have a completely new look under the tutelage of line coach Paul Boudreau. Last years starting left tackle Wayne Gandy was released in the off-season and Sam Baker was drafted as the heir apparent replacement. The wide receiver group looks to use veteran Joe Horn, Roddy White and Michael Jenkins in a more controlled passing game and the tight ends will be used mostly to provide help in the running game first and foremost. The losses of long time Falcons Warrick Dunn and tight end Alge Crumpler will hamper the team in the early part of the season, but as the new breed of Falcon players are brought along, things should slowly improve.
On the defensive side of the ball, disgruntled cornerback DeAngelo Hall will be missed as he was traded to the Oakland Raiders in the off-season. This leaves the Falcons without a true shutdown corner in the secondary. Safety Chris Crocker is also gone and was replaced by Erik Coleman who should be a slight upgrade at free safety and cornerback Von Hutchins should compete for a starting job. The defensive line looks to be a little deeper in talent with the Falcons signing Rashad Moore and Simon Fraser in the off-season while defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead should contribute as well. Defensive tackle Rod Coleman was sent packing and will be missed after being considered a major health concern by the new brass. The linebacker outfit will miss versatile starter Demorrio Williams as he was lost in free agency and veteran middle linebacker Keith Brooking might be replaced at the starting spot by rookie linebacker Curtis Lofton, who the Falcons drafted in the second round. Lofton was a strong side linebacker for most of his college career at Oklahoma, but was shifted to middle linebacker spot late in his final season with the Sooners. Star linebacker Michael Boley rounds out probably the brightest positional group the Falcons have on defense and the linebacker core will be looked upon to control the defense.
The special teams look to be boosted by place kicker Jason Elam, who looks to finish his fine career closer to home. Punter Michael Koenen, who finished the 2007 season with a net punting average of 38.8 yards per kick returns this season. He punted 80 times in 2007 and placed 30 kicks inside the 20. Koenen continues to add versatility to the special teams group with the ability to handle kickoffs and long field goals if needed. Veteran long snapper Mike Schneck returns to the team as well in 2008. Wide receiver Adam Jennings was the primary punt returner from last season and received work at the position during mini camp along with running back Jerious Norwood and cornerback Brent Grimes. Norwood returns as the team’s leading kickoff return specialists, but new Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff expressed hope that rookie running back Thomas Brown could contribute in that role.
In closing it should be a refreshing rebuild process now that the Michael Vick, DeAngelo Hall and Bobby Petrino drama from last season is behind the Falcons franchise. The Falcons will do great to steal six wins in 2008 with four wins being more of a realistic goal. Head coach Mike Smith will use most of the 2008 season to form a core group of players he can build around and the development of first round pick Matt Ryan out to provide some ups and downs during the season. Ball control on offense and stopping the big play on defense will be the biggest challenges for the 2008 Falcons, but the franchise is definitely moving in the right direction and could compete for a wild card spot in the 2009 season.