Falcons: Five observations from Day 1 of training camp

Dale Zanine

Mini-brawls are common occurrences during training camp, especially when offensive and defensive players are battling in drill work. Of course, it’s rare to see a clean brouhaha on the opening day of camp.

During 11-on-11 drills on Friday, stemming from a standard off-tackle running play, Matthews — the No. 6 overall pick in the May draft — and Biermann got tangled up after the whistle.

After that, some words were exchanged, and that led to Biermann — who missed 14 games last year to a torn Achilles — landing two right crosses to the chest area, before Matthews fought back with with a combination of punches. From that point, the other practice performers subdued the linemen from further boxing action.

A few minutes later, there appeared to be no malice between the two brawling parties … which, in a nutshell, encapsulates why we shouldn’t make too much of fights during camp.

It makes for great video on the 11 p.m. news — and the Hard Knocks cameras — but it’s really not an event of long-lasting significance.

Unless there’s another fight on Saturday.

**Julio Jones (season-ending foot injury last October) went all-out during the receiving stations and one-one-one matchups with cornerbacks. His hands were sound, and he was able to get good separation during press coverage.

(One notable play: QB Matt Ryan hit Jones on a picture-perfect seam-route pass, beating Robert Alford.)

**At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Boise State rookie Geraldo Boldewijn certainly looks the part of an NFL receiver. Long, lanky, explosive and sneaky-good footwork when pressed against defenders.

That said, Boldewijn wasn’t consistently prolific as a senior last season, catching only 39 balls for 528 yards and two TDs. The upside there: His best four outings came against quality competition (Washington, Fresno State, Southern Miss, Colorado State.)

**It was weird to see a Falcons player don the No. 7 jersey (Michael Vick’s former number) for the first time since 2006. That distinction went to second-year wideout Jeremy Ebert.

**Rookie tailback Devonta Freeman displayed great speed and even better stop-to-start explosion when catching balls in the flat.

**Speaking of Devonta … Falcons corner Devonta Glover-Wright might have had the best stop during one-on-one drills. While guarding veteran wideout Courtney Roby, Glover-Wright initially slipped on Roby’s break … but recovered enough to knock the ball away.

**A few things stood out when watching the O-linemen run through a variety of drills:

**The positional battle between backup QBs Sean Renfree and T.J. Yates (trade acquisition during the offseason) should be interesting throughout the preseason. Both players have similar size and arm strength.

**The intensity for Day 1 was stellar all around; but the defensive linemen were the first ones to gain notice during the 3:30 p.m. workout. Every drill had a two-objective component, in terms of getting penetration on the tackling cushions and then being vertical hindrances to the passing game (deflections).

Which brings us to this:

The Falcons’ defensive line, on paper, doesn’t have an elite-level, every-down threat to rush the quarterback — despite finishing 10th in sacks last year (44 — tied with the Raiders, Seahawks, Vikings). Osi Umenyiora led the club with 7 1/2 sacks.

But there are other ways to disturb a passing game than simply downing the quarterback every 15 minutes of game action.

It inolves the relentless process of creating pressure, denying eye-level passing lanes and encouraging general chaos on timing routes. And with D-line additions like Tyson Jackson (a former Round 1 pick with the Chiefs), rookie Ra’Shede Hageman and free-agent defensive tackle Paul Soliai (the very essence of a "mountain man"), the Falcons are seemingly primed to be more stifling in the trenches.

Of course, Atlanta’s defense can only improve off last year’s mediocre output, surrendering at least 24 points 11 times.

The other day, White inked a multi-year extension that reportedly included $18 million of new guarantees. The agreement surprised a few fans, both locally and nationally, particularly those who deemed it a sizable investment for a player on the proverbial decline.

But is re-upping White, heading into his age-33 season, such a bad move in the short term? And is White really on the down slope, production-wise?

Yes, White collected only 63 catches for 711 yards and three TDs last year (13 games), but it also coincided with the first significant injury of his career (ankle); and after six straight seasons of 85 receptions and/or 1,200 yards (2007-12), the UAB product has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt.

(In his final five games last year, White averaged 8.6 catches, 100.4 yards and 0.4 touchdowns.)

Which brings us to this:

By comparison, White notched the following numbers from his last four healthy seasons — 392 receptions, 5,189 yards and 36 TDs from 2009-12.

Forgive the soapbox rant here, but NFL Films has been a vital part of the NFL for 51 years; and if any motion-picture entity has earned the trust of a sports league’s personnel, it’s the Ed Sabol-founded company that humbly started as Blair Motion Pictures (first venture: the 1963 NFL Championship Game — Packers @ Giants) … before evolving into one of the most consistently wonderful aspects of pro football.

In fact, for ardent football fans, think of how different your life would be today, if the NFL universe had never exposed us to:

**John Facenda’s supreme baritone voice-overs for Super Bowl replays

**Entire games shot with slo-motion cameras

**Tight camera shots of picture-perfect QB spirals in the air

**Images of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana tossing blades of grass during a timeout in the 1981 NFC title game, just seconds before The Catch

**Sounds of Vince Lombardi screaming at his fabled Packers from the sidelines, circa 1967, "Nobody’s tackling out there, just a lot of grabbing. GRAB! GRAB! GRAB!"

In other words, the NFL Films cameras have chronicled everything of NFL relevance over the last 50 years, and the ‘Hard Knocks’ series — an unqualified success with HBO since 2001 (debuting with the world champion Ravens) — is a mere extension of that continued excellence.

As for the 24/7 access, obviously, the comfort level with the coaching staffs varies from year to year. But let’s take the positive side of that:

When viewing HBO’s finished product each week — Episode #1 debuts on Aug. 5, by the way — one garners a greater appreciation for the awesome work ethic (and responsibilities) of the coaches, players, front office people and training staff.

Training camp is a sunup-to-sunrise grind for roughly 21 days, and it’s fun to see how different organizations respond to building up (and breaking down) teams, before heading into battle come September.

And let’s not ignore the ‘timeliness’ element here. For all of June and July, NFL Network has been airing marathon episodes of previous Hard Knocks; and aside from the 2004 Jacksonville Jaguars — who, quite frankly, were devoid of star power back then — the series holds up very well against time.

If you were a New York Jet during the 2010 training camp, tell me you wouldn’t watch the five Hard Knocks shows every time they’re aired on NFL Network? Tell me you’re still not enthralled by head coach Rex Ryan’s expletive-filled motivational speech to his players at camp … just seconds before imploring everyone to get a sandwich?

Tell me you don’t cringe a little whenever seeing former Kansas City head coach Herm Edwards create a makeshift "WELCOME" sign for the players (2007) … only to have the spur-of-the-moment bit die of painful death outside the team’s dormitory?

Tell me you still don’t laugh at how the Dallas Cowboys once had Danny Amendola in training camp (2008) … without ever utilizing his skill set during the regular season? Or marvel at how Adam "Pacman" Jones can simultaneously catch — and hold onto — six punted balls at the same time?

In other words, it’s imperative for the Falcons organization to embrace the Hard Knocks experience. This is a prime opportunity to showcase the "Falcons" brand throughout the world — especially since the club will "host" the Detroit Lions on Oct. 26 in London, England.

**Tailback Steven Jackson (734 total yards, seven TDs) holds the key to the Atlanta rushing attack, after missing the better part of five games in 2013 (hamstring). For Weeks 11-17, Jackson logged at least 16 touches in every game … and collected six touchdowns during that span.

**Of the 13 teams with losing records from last season, only the Lions (six) incurred more defeats of four points or less than the Falcons (five).

*Roddy White (persistent ankle woes) and Julio Jones (season-ending foot injury in Week 5) are seemingly healthy and ready to go. And that shall remain the case, even if the Falcons go ultra-conservative with Jones’ snaps during the preseason slate.

**The Falcons’ starting corners (Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford) are now established NFL veterans … and primed to take big steps forward.

**Mike Smith, who has endured only one losing campaign as an NFL head coach (2013), has developed an interesting minus-plus-minus-plus-minus pattern with the Falcons:

In essence, for odd-numbered years with Atlanta, Smith posted fewer wins than the previous season; and for even-numbered years with the club, Smith would experience an uptick with victories.

That bodes well for 2014, an even-numbered season. It also bodes well for an organization that aggressively addressed its shortcomings from last year.