FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Coming off a disappointing 4-12 season, the Atlanta Falcons embraced the chance to be on HBO's "Hard Knocks."
Organizationally, the Falcons are embracing harder knocks from their players, too. The team's physical changes are a big theme of training camp. The 2014 Falcons are bigger, stronger and nastier. That change was long overdue. Since 2008, the Falcons have had a finesse offense directed by Matt Ryan and a slightly undersized defense featuring smart players with speed.
I remember coming to Falcons camp in 2013 when they worked with the Cincinnati Bengals. Atlanta coach Mike Smith loves dual practices with other teams because they give him an early test of his squad. The Bengals exposed some of Atlanta's problems last year. Cincinnati's defensive linemen dominated the Falcons' offensive line in drills. The Atlanta defensive line couldn't do much with the Bengals' offensive line. The trends carried into the season, when the Falcons lost too many battles at the line of scrimmage. Ryan took a particular pounding.
Things look different for the Falcons at this year's camp. They signed right guard Jon Asamoah from Kansas City because he's a decent athlete who packs a punch with his blocks. He'll get up on a defender and stuff him with his hands. First-round choice Jake Matthews has it all. He's physical. He's athletic. His techniques are superb, but even if they are off, he can recover quickly and make the block. The right side of the Falcons' line has been stabilized.
Left tackle Sam Baker is bigger and stronger. Smith knows if the offensive line can win a majority of its battles and protect Ryan, the Falcons can get back into playoff form.
What's also noticeable is how much bigger the defensive line has become. The Falcons plan to mix defensive formations, using some 3-4 on run downs and some 4-3. In some passing situations, they will use a 5-2.
They hope bigger is better. They have a big sub package in their 4-3 that features Ra'Shede Hageman (318 pounds), Paul Soliai (345), Tyson Jackson (296) and Jonathan Babineaux (300). That defensive line is 156 pounds heavier than the one that started last season, an average of 39 pounds per man. The personnel changes have allowed the linebacking corps to get bigger because 255-pound Kroy Biermann, a career defensive end, will get plenty of snaps at linebacker.
The thing the harder-hitting Falcons have to worry about, though, is injuries. Last season, five starters suffered injuries in the first half of the Falcons' second game. Receiver Roddy White played injured until the final month of the season. Running mate Julio Jones missed 11 games. Losing at the line of scrimmage and the injury losses caused the season to crash.
Atlanta's health took a hit at Sunday's practice, in part because of the team's more rugged personality. Hageman, the Falcons' second-round pick, got into a fight with center Joe Hawley. Smith wasn't pleased, with good reason; Hageman suffered a wrist injury. Another fight broke out later. Early in practice, offensive line coach Mike Tice scolded his blockers to improve their effort. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox lit into a couple of his players for mistakes.
The Falcons can set the tone for their season at home against division rival New Orleans in the opener. The Falcons are 3-9 against the Saints over the past six seasons, but eight of those losses were by eight points or fewer. As long as Atlanta can get to that game healthy, a more physical Falcons team could show that once again it will be a major factor in the NFC South.
From the inbox
Q: It seems like a common theme of the NFL is a player who has had average production for the bulk of his contract has a career year during the final year of that contract. That player is rewarded with a huge contract extension in the offseason, and his production regresses toward the mean in the following season. Is this actually a common occurrence, and if so, why do GMs keep falling for it?
Victor in Missoula, Montana
A: I wouldn't say it's common, but it clearly happens. If a general manager gets to run his operation for a long time, he would love to be able to keep the players he drafted and re-sign them. It's good for his résumé. It's important for keeping his owner happy. Surprisingly, only about 20 percent of the draft choices in any particular year get second contracts with the teams that drafted them. As much as a GM would love to keep a player, the price has to be right. There is a salary cap. You can't keep everyone. So often now, a player may have that great fourth year, making him more marketable to other teams in free agency. Not many players get third contracts with their teams anymore. Looking ahead, your worries have a chance to be fixed. Most of the recent contracts are considered "pay as you go." Most contracts have no skill guarantees after the first year. If a GM regrets giving that big deal, he can cut the player and just take the cap hit.
Q: Aren't the big three of the '04 draft due to become free agents at the end of the 2015 season? I know it's unlikely, but wouldn't it be incredible if Big Ben, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers all hit the open market at once?
David in Graham, North Carolina
A: David, you are the man. You picked up on the reality that those three first-round quarterbacks from the 2004 draft become free agents after the 2015 season. The Steelers will try to work on a Ben Roethlisberger extension during the offseason. The San Diego Chargers and New York Giants have to think about the same strategy. It's pretty clear all three quarterbacks will get extensions, but what will the price be? You figure that younger successful quarterbacks, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck, could get in the $22-24 million range when they get new deals. With the success the three 2004 quarterbacks have had, you have to think they'll get $24-25 million a year.
Q: As I'm reading about all these huge "megadeal" contracts being given to players, I wonder why most are only for four or five years (with the exception of the new Tyron Smith deal). Take Patrick Peterson's new deal, for example: If he really is one of the best corners in the league, why not lock him up with a deal of six to eight years? Are teams just afraid of committing too long term to players?
Matt in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
A: Most of the deals are going to be four or five years because it is hard to commit to a player longer than that. Here is the rationale: Most of these deals are going to players who are coming off their rookie deals. If you do longer than four or five years, the player will have eight or nine years of experience at end of the second deal. That's an eternity. It's tough to project whether a player will be that good for that long. If you go too long on the contract, you could end up with a 29- or 30-year-old player on the decline. Normally, teams prorate signing bonuses for four or five years. The players tend to like shorter deals because they hope to get a third contract while they still are relatively young.
Q: Regarding Ray Rice, I think the apt comparison is Bountygate. Players accept that football is a physical game and they could get hurt every time they get on the field. Deliberately trying to hurt someone, with a similar level of physical conditioning, in pads, when contact is expected, who accepts the risk of playing football, has been established as precedent as worthy of a season-long ban. In the Rice situation, he's deliberately trying to hurt someone who is considerably smaller, has never "accepted the risk," has no protection and is not expecting to be hit. And that's a two-game ban. Yes, I understand that there's a difference between on-field and off-field behavior. But how can the league say with a straight face that the safety of people on the field (who, again, knowingly accept some risk) is more important than the safety of people off of it? Trying to hurt someone is trying to hurt someone.
Mike in New York City
A: Your point is well stated. There is a problem comparing some of the penalties to the Rice incident, but most of us agree that two games was a light penalty. Many bring up how bad it looks against marijuana penalties, but that's an unfair comparison. Once a player reaches a certain level of positive tests for recreational drug, he gets a four-game suspension. If he gets another positive test on top of that, it's eight games or the season. The PED argument isn't a fair comparison, either. It's mandated that the first positive test of a banned substance is four games. If you compare it to a safety issue for conduct on the field, you have to take into account the history of a player. If he HAs been suspended for illegal hits before, the penalties increase. Roger Goodell can't go into any particular penalty decision and be mandated to do four games. In Rice's case, I still say the fair penalty would have been four games, followed by an appeal that could have lowered it to two.
Q: With the Cowboys passing on Johnny Manziel this year and assuming they have another mediocre season, what do you think the chances are of Dallas going after Marcus Mariota next year? And if not Dallas, where do you think he'd fit best?
Isaac in Laurence Harbor, New Jersey
A: I would say doubtful because Jerry Jones is financially committed to Tony Romo. But you heard his comments. He seriously considered Manziel. If that's the case, he needs to seriously consider Mariota. I look at Mariota as being a top-five pick if he turns pro. Remember that he is saying he might want to stay in school through the 2015 season. If the Dallas defense isn't as bad as everyone projects, the Cowboys will be in a position to consider a top quarterback. If Romo is healthy, they don't need to start looking for a successor. If he's not healthy at the end of the season, then that is a different story.