As the NFL regular season gets closer, the realities of pro football start to become more vivid, tangible and urgent. HBO's Hard Knocks is following the Atlanta Falcons through training camp, and the second episode of this year's annual series captured those themes on camera in commendable fashion.
Roosevelt Nix-Jones, who was making the transition from defensive end to fullback, was released to kick off the show. Teammates expressed some surprise to see his locker cleaned out, but such is part of training camp, and many more cuts are yet to come.
Dan Vasta of CampusInsiders.com pointed out Nix-Jones' strong collegiate pedigree, which goes to show just how competitive it is to make it in the NFL:
Falcons head coach Mike Smith continued to preach an ideology that emphasized being a more physical football team. Safety William Moore remarked on the practice field that this was the hardest training camp he'd been a part of.
The message Smith has been communicating is also with the caveat that his players can't fight each other. The team's official Twitter account caught a key part of what Smith had to say in that vein:
As heated as practices and even games can get, though, it's easier said than done to keep one's cool. Here is a look at the top developments and storylines, along with a look ahead at what's on the horizon for Atlanta.
Ra'Shede Hageman Fights to Live Up to Hype
Defensive line coach Bryan Cox—a smoker of fine cigars, it turns out—criticized Hageman during last week's team scrimmage for not being conditioned well enough, and he made sure to stay on the talented rookie's case.
The second-round pick out of Minnesota talked about channeling his frustration toward his opponent, and it showed up on the practice field. Unfortunately, Hageman got a little bit too heated and threw a punch, causing an injury scare.
Hageman wound up being fine, but it was yet another step in a maturation process that has to have the front office sweating a bit that it invested such a high draft choice on him.
When he is locked in, there is no doubting that Hageman is a disruptive, versatile defensive lineman who can line up anywhere in the trenches and use his size and athleticism to make a big impact. It's a matter of getting him to have the proper mindset.
But Hageman must be careful. This assessment from Lance Zierlein of Rotoworld suggests Hageman could be a bust if he continues to fail to live up to the hype:
Hageman also clashed with Cox. The hope is that those encounters ultimately mold Hageman into a better player. Based on the lack of quality personnel in Atlanta's front seven, he will be pressed into duty and expected to make something happen in his maiden NFL season.
Whether he's ready for it is another matter, but as you'll read later, Hageman did flash nicely in the preseason opener.
Sean Weatherspoon Leading Any Way He Can
Rookie Prince Shembo is seeking to make an impact on Atlanta's thin linebacker core, which is without Weatherspoon because of a season-ending ruptured Achilles injury he suffered in minicamp.
Weatherspoon helped ease Shembo's learning curve. Consulting a veteran is a wise choice by Shembo, but it was impressive that Weatherspoon hung around the facility and was willing to help out.
Falcons football communications manager Brian Cearns praised Weatherspoon and quarterback Matt Ryan for showing the rest of the team the way:
Weatherspoon has to be devastated that he can't be a part of the intended turnaround in Atlanta in 2014.
Nevertheless, he is setting a strong example for the younger members of the Falcons and even the other veterans who need to take charge.
Perhaps rookie fifth-round linebacker Marquis Spruill, who tore his ACL in this episode and is out for the year, can also benefit from Weatherspoon's tutelage. Weatherspoon could help Spruill not only in getting up to speed on defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's complex schemes but also in maintaining an optimistic attitude on a long road to recovery.
Preseason Debut Against Dolphins
Both Hageman and Shembo, who earlier in the episode were in the process of learning in their individual segments, translated their work in the classroom to the field.
Hageman blew up a running play in the backfield against a suspect Miami Dolphins offensive line. His play was significantly improved from when he was sucking wind in the team scrimmage just a week ago.
Even though Shembo was just getting his feet wet in the pros, he was still out there making calls, changing plays and adjusting on the fly. He registered a sack, flashing upside as a pass-rusher.
Former NFL player Wade Davis II praised Shembo's effort:
The aforementioned rookies shined, but first-year running back Devonta Freeman stole the show with his explosiveness. A 57-yard reception ignited the Georgia Dome crowd, and Freeman also carried the rock 10 times for an efficient 50 yards.
Freeman figures to be a big part of Atlanta's offense. His production is critical to taking pressure off Ryan, who was stuck with the league's worst rushing attack in 2013.
Adding Freeman to a mix that will include aging star Steven Jackson and scatback Jacquizz Rodgers provides needed depth, a change of pace and the best combination of size and speed the Falcons backfield has at the moment.
Lighter Moments and Overall Outlook
General manager Thomas Dimitroff is the son of a hard-nosed coach from Miami (Ohio). He's enjoyed plenty of success on an alternative route in football, having been named NFL Executive of the Year twice.
Dimitroff is quite the athlete himself, an avid cyclist who had the chance to ride through Aspen, Colorado, for three days with Lance Armstrong. Some footage of Dimitroff's ride with Armstrong was shown, which was a unique look at a man who's helped build a strong NFL roster.
We already knew about this exotic excursion weeks ago, thanks to ESPN insider Adam Schefter:
A trip to the Georgia Aquarium on an off day offered another glimpse into what players do away from the field. With how much football there is amid the grind of training camp, it's nice to see the Falcons getting some time for rest and recreation.
Cornerback Ricardo Allen could have been embarrassed when he took a shot to the groin in practice. Instead, he embraced the nickname he made and was part of another off-day highlight when he partook of a high-ropes course and zip line with his girlfriend.
Brandon Leak of 73.7 FM Atlanta weighed in on Allen's painful situation:
The relationship between Moore and Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White has been fun to observe over the course of the past two episodes.
They compete hard against each other on the field, and White often harasses Moore from the sidelines in a joking manner during defensive drills. That is the type of veteran leadership the Falcons need to recover from a woeful 2013 season.
While it can be fun and games at times, this is Ryan's time to shine. Ryan has been a strong quarterback since entering the league, yet the Falcons have never quite thrived in the playoffs or gotten to a Super Bowl.
It is important to find the right chemistry in the locker room. To reinforce the toughness Smith is driving home, Ryan must take it upon himself to inspire his teammates and get things turned around.
What we learned from the second episode of Hard Knocks is that the rookie class Dimitroff and Co. assembled is progressing nicely, which will be key for Atlanta to get back into postseason contention. More than anything, though, the proper mix of leadership from the top is vital.
Weatherspoon's contributions will be greatly appreciated, but Ryan must improve his play. It will be interesting to see if the apparent face of the Falcons franchise is featured more moving forward, as the reality of the regular season begins to come to the forefront.