FLOWERY BRANCH -- This time a year ago, the Atlanta Falcons were fresh off an 11-5 season that saw them earn a playoff berth and multiple postseason awards and accolades.
Not bad for a first impression, but for general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith, a first-round playoff exit wasn't nearly good enough.
During the offseason, five defensive starters from that playoff team were either released or not retained.
Naturally, the Falcons suffered a slight regression as coaches fought all season to get new players up to speed.
Fast forward a year later and after posting consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, the Falcons return 21-of-22 starters with the lone exception being cornerback Chris Houston, who was replaced by the best free-agent corner on the market in Dunta Robinson.
Quarterback Matt Ryan is reportedly fully recovered from the turf toe that sidelined him for 2 1/2 games and running back Michael Turner has reported to mini-camp and OTAs (Organized Team Activities) in admittedly much better condition than he did a year ago.
The high ankle sprain that limited him to only 11 games last season and a combined 22 carries in his last three appearances is about "90 percent" healthy.
With the expected return of their star power and most players being two and three years into the systems of offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, it's easy to understand the buzz surrounding Flowery Branch as the New Orleans Saints are just now wrapping up their victory tour.
But when you visit Flowery Branch, it isn't the name power that grabs your attention and it isn't the beautiful facility.
What you immediately notice is everyone flying around at 100 mph, including the coaching and field staff members. No one is allowed to walk.
You notice the shouting and grunting and intensity with which every player runs every drill.
You notice the competition.
This is the environment that Dimitroff and Smith envisioned creating; one where every player knows he has a chance to see action and contribute should he put forth the effort, no matter the salary.
With those two at the helm, no player can be afforded a sense of entitlement. No player's job is safe to the point where they don't have to come in and work hard every day.
And the one player that figures to be entitled to the most given his resume, tight end Tony Gonzalez, just happens to be the team's hardest working player.
How's that for player accountability?
Every practice is an audition tape for playing time. Every meeting an entrance exam into the team huddle.
Competition seems to be the heaviest and closest to call on the defensive side of the ball. Filled with talented players, spots are unsettled at every level.
Along the defensive line, left end John Abraham figures to have one spot on lock, but his bookend remains in question.
Third-year defensive end Kroy Biermann, a former fifth-round draft pick from Montana, has been likened by many to former Falcon Patrick Kerney, with his high motor and sound technique. He was the most productive of the defensive ends last season for the Falcons posting 49 tackles to go along with five sacks, giving him a total of seven in his two seasons of work.
By comparison, defensive end Jamaal Anderson, selected eighth overall in the 2007 draft, has only 2.5 sacks in three seasons with the Falcons.
Due to his lack of production at the position, the staff has begun to work Anderson more inside at the tackle position in an effort to salvage something out of the pick.
To Anderson's credit, he has shown up much more on the game film and had a greater impact on the defense since the move was made. He is a big body at 6-6 and roughly 290 pounds. He's got long arms and big hands and although he lacks speed, he moves really well.
The Falcons are determined to find the best use for him.
Another player who figures prominently at defensive end for the Falcons is Lawrence Sidbury, who is entering his second season. Athletic but raw, the staff is anxious to see what Sidbury can do once he adjusts to the learning curve of the NFL.
The Falcons got a glimpse of Sidbury's big-play potential in Week 16 against Buffalo when he was able to recover a fumble and return it 11 yards for a touchdown. If Biermann is inconsistent opposite John Abraham, Sidbury would be next in line to start.
Moving over to the inside tackle positions is where the Falcons either have the most answers or the most questions.
At it's best, the Falcons boast one of the deepest and most talented interior rotations in the league as it includes two first-round draft picks (Jamaal Anderson, Peria Jerry), one second-round pick (Jonathan Babineaux), and a talented third-rounder (Corey Peters).
But at it's worst, the Falcons' rotation includes an under-achieving converted defensive end, a player with a history of medical issues attempting to return from a knee injury, a rookie, and the best of the group may -- or may not -- be facing a league suspension.
Selected 24th overall in last year's draft, tackle Peria Jerry's season came to an abrupt conclusion after suffering an undisclosed knee injury Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers. Prior the injury, Jerry had made great strides learning the nuances of the position beginning in training camp and leading up to the preseason and into the regular season.
The coaches and front office go on and on about how Jerry's absence was felt immediately and having him back healthy should greatly improve the Falcons' anemic pass rush.
He's expected to make a full recovery by the start of the regular season and will have limited participation in training camp, but questions linger about his effectiveness as he attempts to battle back.
The Falcons have a stalwart in Jonathan Babineaux, entering his sixth season as a pro, but few certainties after that.
Drafted in the third-round out of Kentucky, at 6-3 (295lbs) Corey Peters is a big, penetrating tackle that will either serve as insurance if Jerry is not a full go to begin the season, or he will provide great depth as a key rotational player.
He has shown steady progression during his career at Kentucky and scouts marvel at his coachability and knack for making plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Moving to the next level of the defense is where you see defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's eyes light up.
That's because the Falcons got him a new weapon to deploy at linebacker with their first selection in this year's draft, Sean Weatherspoon. At 6-1 (239 lbs), Weatherspoon is an excellent combination of size, speed and athleticism at the position. He runs very well and shows good range in coverage.
Coach Smith and VanGorder had Weatherspoon learn both outside-backer positions during rookie and mini-camps, so it will be interesting to see where he finally settles in. Either way, he is sure to push both incumbents, Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas for a starting spot.
After teaming with nickel-back Brian Williams early in the season to form a dynamic big-play duo on the weak side, Peterson's play-making ability and tackling really fell off down the stretch, forcing reserve Coy Wire into probably more action than the coaching staff initially had planned for him.
As the elder-statesman of the unit, Peterson will be forced to show he still has something left in the tank if he is to see significant time this season.
On the strong side, Stephen Nicholas was never spectacular last season, but he was serviceable. The entire defense struggled to keep track of running backs out of the backfield and tight ends across the middle, but Nicholas and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton were often lost in their coverage assignments.
The Falcons are still waiting to see what they have in developmental projects Spencer Adkins, a second-year linebacker from Miami, and Robert James, a third-year linebacker from Arizona State whose rookie season was spent on injured reserve.
Both saw limited action on special teams last season.
Perhaps the most intriguing battle on the team is happening in the secondary. Free-agent newcomer Dunta Robinson is already assured of one spot, but the staff has made it known that there is an open competition for the opposite side of the field and nickel-back spot.
The early front-runners for the position appear to be third-year corner Brent Grimes and second-year corner Chris Owens from San Jose State.
Brent Grimes' athletic stunts and escapades in practice have been well-documented, and with good reason. With tremendous leaping ability and insane body control that allows him to play the ball, no one questions whether or not Grimes possesses the physical traits to start at cornerback in the NFL.
In fact, if he were perhaps two-to-three inches taller, we would arguably be talking about him as one of the top shutdown corners in the league.
But therein lies the problem; he isn't two-to-three inches taller. Perhaps generously listed at 5-10 (185 lbs), Grimes' size has always been the knock on him since going undrafted out of Shippensburg College in Pennsylvania.
But he's stuck around with this staff and team because he fights and he competes and the coaches love it.
Nothing will change for Grimes this year as once again he will have to earn his spot on the field.
Chris Owens really came on in the last three games of the season, as did the rest of the secondary after experiencing struggles early.
He has spent a significant portion of his offseason working on his footwork and technique, and will use training camp to focus on strength and speed.
Chevis Jackson and Brian Williams will certainly do all they can to make a case for themselves, but Williams is coming off knee surgery and after struggling mightily last season when forced into action due to injuries and/or bad play, Jackson seems to have fell out of favor with the staff and may be fighting just to save his roster spot.
What appeared to be the defense's constant problem were the breakdowns in communication that led to missed assignments and as Coach Smith likes to call them, "explosive plays."
Third-year free safety Thomas DeCoud will team up with either strong safety Erik Coleman or William Moore, who spent most of his rookie season battling multiple injuries and was eventually placed on injured reserve when he couldn't overcome his hamstring issues.
The physical specimen that he is, the coaching staff would much more prefer that Moore step up and prove that he's ready to become a top contributor to the team and defense.
Given a full cupboard to choose from, Coach VanGorder must be salivating at the havoc his defenses could create with the freakish athleticism of Moore and Weatherspoon; the range and play-making ability of Thomas DeCoud; the heavy, penetrating middle of Babineaux, Jerry and Peters; a run-stopping thumper in Curtis Lofton; and a number one corner on the outside in Dunta Robinson.
The Atlanta Falcons have spent the past three offseasons adding boatloads of talent, but it has all been fueled by competition.
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