The Falcons have sought to get bigger and stronger up front. It’s been a priority for new offensive line coach Mike Tice and strength coach A.J. Neibel.
Perhaps the centerpiece of that effort is left tackle Sam Baker, who occupies the most critical position on the O-line. The Falcons are taking a bit of a leap of faith by going with Baker at that spot for the seventh consecutive season. Baker, who has been hampered by injuries for most of his career, played in only three games last season.
According to Smith, Baker has benefited from the club’s new emphasis on strength and conditioning.
"I think Sam is moving around extremely well," Smith said. "He’s gotten stronger, he’s gotten bigger. I think it’s very noticeable — if you look at our team from what they’ve done in the offseason in terms of their body weights, their body weights are up, their body fat is down and that’s a positive."
There have been numerous changes, but the personnel has not been completely overhauled. Three of the same starters from last year practiced with the first unit. In addition to Baker, Justin Blalock was at his familiar left guard and Joe Hawley was at center.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter called Hawley "a great communicator."
Hawley and Peter Konz will compete for the starting job at center. Free agent signing Jon Asamoah was plugged in at right guard and first-round pick Jake Matthews at right tackle.
Tice, the former head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and offensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, is an interesting figure. Gone is the grandfatherly, cerebral and technically oriented approach of Pat Hill, the Falcons’ previous O-line coach.
Tice, who looks physically intimidating at 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, still brings nuance.
"You have to figure out as you progress what style of coaching each guy can handle," he said. "Some guys can’t handle — not that I’m a big screamer and yeller — can’t handle being screamed and yelled at. Some guys, it doesn’t really matter."
Koetter is anxious to see how the position battles play out in training camp. So is the fan base.
Among the most interesting changes on defense were those at outside linebacker.
Kroy Biermann, who played some outside linebacker last season after playing his first five seasons at defensive end, was joined at that position on the first unit with Jonathan Massaquoi, the Central Gwinnett product who was drafted as a defensive end two years ago (Troy).
When the Falcons put their 3-4 personnel on the field, they are considerably bigger along the line. That’s 296-pound end Tyson Jackson (who looks bigger than that), 345-pound nose tackle Paul Soliai and 300-pound end Jonathan Babineaux.
Biermann (260) and Massaquoi (264) give the Falcons more beef to stop the run, as well.
Another interesting point on defense was that Desmond Trufant, the Falcons’ first-round pick of last year, practiced at left cornerback with Robert Alford (Round 2 pick in 2013) on the right. Last year, Trufant played almost exclusively on the right side, with some nickel mixed in.
Asante Samuel, whom the team cut after the season, was the incumbent at the left side, where most right-handed quarterbacks naturally look to make the majority of their throws. When Samuel was injured last season, which was often, Alford subbed in on the left.
Smith said having Trufant on the left was somewhat experimental. Generally, in the Falcons’ scheme, when an opposing wide receiver goes in motion, he is picked up by the cornerback on that side. Smith said by having Trufant able to play both left and right, the corner could "travel" with a top receiver whenever he goes in motion.
"Again, Desmond can play left or right," Smith said. "It gives us some flexibility in terms of wanting to match receivers. If we want to match him on a No. 1, No. 2 and the way you prepare for that is you play your corners both left and right. He spent the majority of his time playing one side and now we want to get him on the other side was well. And we’ll see how it all plays out in terms of how we want to put this thing together."
Three players were injured and did not participate Wednesday: Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, defensive tackle Corey Peters and safety Zeke Motta.
Wide receiver Roddy White (whose half-brother was killed 11 days earlier) also was not present. Smith reminded the gathered media in reference to White that the workouts are voluntary. Injured wide receiver Julio Jones, whose brother was shot in the arm on Tuesday, also was not present.
Lastly, rookie running back Devonta Freeman, a fourth-round pick out of Florida State, was not present because he was invited to participate in the NFLPA’s Rookie Premiere event, which educates players about the business of football.
Smith said Freeman did not want to miss OTAs, but collective bargaining agreement rules mandate that if a player is invited, he cannot be at the team’s practice facility at the same time. So, in essence, Freeman had to go.