After a shaky and injury-plagued 2011, the Falcons are counting on left tackle Sam Baker to rebound.
"Unfortunately, he has been challenged with some of the injury situations," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "But Sam is a resilient guy, as per his injuries."
The Falcons hope that a different approach from offensive line coach Pat Hill will help restore Baker's ferociousness.
Hill, who spent the past 15 years as the head coach at Fresno State, has known Baker since his high school days.
"He has great athletic ability," Hill said. "I knew Sam coming out of high school and out of (USC). From playing against him and watching him, I know the athletic ability is there. I'm excited about working with him."
Falcons coach Mike Smith wants to see the old Baker, too.
"Playing left tackle in this league is not an easy job," Smith said. "You are protecting the backside of the quarterback, and for the majority of the time they are facing the top pass rushers."
Baker started the first six games last season but struggled mightily. He had in-season back surgery and was inactive for the next three games.
Upon his return, Will Svitek remained the starter, and Baker shifted to a backup role. He gave up five sacks last season, according to Stats Inc. But the lowest point of the season came against Carolina on Dec. 11.
As a reserve, Baker had to play some guard. He was playing right guard when Carolina defensive lineman Antwan Applewhite beat Baker on a powerful inside move for a sack and a safety.
Baker contends that he has put last season in his rearview mirror.
"Man, it was just tough," Baker said. "Just to come out after the lockout and not knowing where your body was at, and then just kind of getting thrown into it. I had a couple of terrible games early on, and that really didn't help either. Then, having some back issues again, it was really, mentally, it was just a roller coaster."
The jury is still out on Baker, whom the Falcons believe had strong seasons in 2009 (six sacks allowed) and 2010 (11.5 sacks allowed). He is in the last year of his five-year, 13.5 million contract. Baker must return to form to secure his long-term future with the team or be ready to enter free agency.
"This is an important year for Sam, as we all know," Dimitroff said. "I have confidence that Sam is going to come back and be a good left tackle for us."
Despite the contract situation, Baker said he doesn't feel any added pressure.
"There is always that," Baker said. "They are always looking to replace somebody. There is always competition. It's the NFL, and everybody is looking for a job."
The team attributes most of Baker's woes to his injuries.
"Sam is coming back in very good shape," Dimitroff said. "He physically looks good. He's been working hard in the offseason. His focus is to come back and win that left-tackle job and continue to help us win games as he has many times over the last four seasons."
--The Falcons will hold a three-day minicamp next week with afternoon sessions open to the public. The team will hold practices at the team's Flowery Branch headquarters June 19-21.
--The real battle begins in training camp, but Akeem Dent is laying the groundwork for the fight now.
Dent, in his second year out of Douglass High and Georgia, will compete with Lofa Tatupu for the Falcons' starting middle linebacker position. He does so with the benefit of a full offseason routine, unlike last year season when the NFL lockout severely limited his preparation. When the Falcons did not re-sign Curtis Lofton, their leading tackler the past three seasons, Dent knew he had an opportunity.
"There were some rough times," Dent said of his rookie season. "Going into these (organized team activities) is better for me because last year I didn't have an opportunity to go through this phase. It's going to be a real good competition between me and Lofa."
Dent will have to learn a new defense as the Falcons brought in Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator this season. Dating to his days at Georgia, Dent has played for four different defensive coordinators in the past four seasons.
"You always felt like he was behind because he didn't have that foundation of May and June," linebacker coach Glenn Pires said. "He came along as the season was going, and he was catching up. I thought he was getting more comfortable. It's starting to show now."
Dent and Tatupu are spending the offseason watching film and working through the defense together. Dent said he will continue to pick the brain of Tatupu, a three-time Pro Bowler.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"It was cool to have that unit, with Harvey (Dahl) and the guys. We were really close friends. We kind of helped each other when one guy wasn't feeling too great. We were able to support each other back them." - OT Sam Baker on the closeness of the 2010 offensive line that led the Falcons to the NFC South title.