At 10:40 a.m. on Thursday, the Atlanta Falcons begin training camp for their 2012 season and they do so with diminished expectations at least from the outside.
Last year the Falcons were the defending NFC South champions, coming off a 13-3 season, and were a trendy Super Bowl pick for some. This year, coming off a 10-6 season in which they lost in the first round for the third time under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have lost some luster.
Even with the New Orleans Saints losing head coach Sean Payton to a season-long suspension, interim head coach Joe Vitt suspended for the first six games and a few players also having been hit with suspensions over the Bounty-gate scandal, the Saints are earning preseason headlines as the favorite within the division.
Can the Falcons finally get over the hump and finally win a playoff game under Smith? The quest begins on Thursday. Here are the top five storylines going into camp:
1. How much will the defense improve under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan?
Nolan is the former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and a longtime NFL defensive coordinator. During his most recent tenure as defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins, he had a top-10 defense in 2010.
During the leadership of former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who left after last season to take the same job at Auburn University, the Falcons never posted a pass defense that was better than 20th in the NFL. The Falcons Achilles heel has been too many explosive plays and a third-down defense that too often wasnt stout enough.
In his arsenal, Nolan brings a defensive front that will be more multiple than the usual 4-3 the Falcons have employed. Nolan has said he thinks the ends and the linebackers will benefit the most. Keep an eye on Kroy Biermann, an under-sized 4-3 end who could be an ideal 3-4 outside linebacker, Lawrence Sidbury and, of course, John Abraham. Nolan said during mandatory mini-camp that Abraham was slightly behind in learning the defense, as the veteran opted not to attend the voluntary offseason team activity sessions. Abraham ought to be caught up by the start of the season.
Nolan also has another big weapon in his arsenal that VanGorder did not in the form of personnel. In Asante Samuel, the Falcons might finally have enough quality players at the critical cornerback position to help defend the Saints high-powered offense and others they face along the way. (Smith has 2-6 record against New Orleans in his four seasons.)
2. How will Samuel fit?
During minicamp, the media only got small glimpses of seeing how Nolan plans on using Samuel, along with left corner Brent Grimes, a 2010 Pro Bowler, and Dunta Robinson, the right corner whom the team signed to a huge free-agent contract in 10.
For now, the plan seems to be to use Robinson, the most physical of the trio, at the nickelback with Samuel on the right. So far what has been left unsaid is whether Samuel might beat out Robinson to earn the starting spot on the left side the kind of position battle training camp will help to determine. (Samuel has said he traditionally plays the left side.)
Curiously, a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday indicated that former Eagles coach Andy Reid felt that Samuel was in steep decline the reporters words, not Reids and that Samuel no longer suited the scheme. (Samuel responded via Twitter by saying, I just finished reading the story on coach Andy Reid! All I can say is WoW! fueltothefire riseup.) Remember that Reid seemed to be clairvoyant in dumping former quarterback Donovan McNabb on Washington, a team in the same division, when McNabbs time had passed and that the Falcons paid a small price for Samuel with a seventh-round pick.
Smiths coaching style is one that includes input from the players, especially respected veterans like Samuel, but its hard to imagine him tolerating a player who doesnt play the scheme. Samuel appears to have earned himself a reputation as someone who is willing to jump routes to get interceptions but a move that also can result in allowing the big play if he guesses wrong.
Samuels willingness to play the scheme might factor into whether he starts in the base defense, though Nolan promises to play plenty of nickel, as he said he thinks it has become the future of NFL defenses with so many offenses often using three wide receiver sets.
3. Is Sam Baker the answer at left tackle?
After losing the job he had held ever since he entered the league in 2008 midway through last season, Sam Baker is now penciled in again as the starting left tackle.
The Falcons are now saying that Baker lost his job because of his health issues (he had a back procedure during the bye week that the team did not disclose until much later in the season).
The hope is that new offensive line coach Pat Hill, who has promised to work on fundamentals and not to try and reinvent the wheel, and renewed health will provide the elixir for Baker.
The point is especially critical because new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetters mandate is to install a vertical passing game to take full advantage of receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and tight end Tony Gonzalez. If the line cant hold up and everyone knows the left tackle is the most important position for the extra second or two required for deep routes, the Falcons philosophical shift could be undermined.
Preseason games when Baker goes against opponents first-team defenses could bring the insight the coaching staff needs unless the team has to make a move at that spot.
4. Who will play middle linebacker?
In some ways, the linebacking corps will be radically different from as recently as 2010 when the Falcons went 13-3. Gone are middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, the leading tackler for the last few seasons who signed with New Orleans, and veteran Mike Peterson, who had moved into a reserve role last season, owing to age, and is now gone. Stephen Nicholas still appears as if he will be the weakside backer, but he missed all of the offseason workouts with an ankle injury he suffered late last season.
Strongside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is the units ascending star so the position most up for grabs is Loftons old one. Veteran Lofa Tatupu, a former All-Pro with Seattle, did not play at all last season and is vying for that spot along with second-year player Akeem Dent, the former Georgia Bulldog.
If Tatupu, 29, can regain his form, it could provide the defense with a huge boost. If not, is Dent ready? Hell need to be. Otherwise, the Falcons could have a potential weakness.
5. Goodbye to Gonzalez
Football doesnt tend toward sentimentality the way some other sports do with going away tours, but its hard to find a more respected or liked player than Tony Gonzalez, the future Hall of Fame tight end, who would certainly deserve one. It seems appropriate that the Falcons will open in Kansas City, where Gonzalez, who has said this 16th season will be his last, spent the majority of his career.
Like Abraham, Gonzalez also did not participate in voluntary offseason workouts, but he also missed mini-camp when his stepfather passed away. He will need camp to learn Koetters offense, which should not be a huge issue.
Gonzalez has never won a playoff game in his illustrious career. Will this be his first or will he go out without one? For fans, those open sessions during training camp might be the last chance to see some of those amazing grabs that Gonzalez has made his trademark and which he is still capable of pulling off.