Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it's time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. Over the next month, Around The NFL's Conor Orr will break down all 32 teams and give us something to look for in late July.
Training camp report date: Rookies and veterans, July 27
Offseason in a nutshell: Atlanta started last season in idyllic fashion before crashing back to Earth. Had it not been for a strong win over the Panthers just before the end of the season -- a game that ended Carolina's perfect run just two weeks after the Panthers had thrashed the Falcons 38-0 -- our opinion about 2015 might have been different. But, as we found out last year, this is a good team that was just too weak at certain spots to sustain a winning record. Will 2016 be different? Dan Quinn has another season under his belt and was able to add some complementary pieces -- Courtney Upshaw, Derrick Shelby, Sean Weatherspoon and rookie first-round pick Keanu Neal -- who should better fit the system. Alex Mack joined the team in free agency and will play alongside a pair of Around The NFL Making The Leap candidates: Mohamed Sanu and Jake Matthews.
Player to watch: Safety Keanu Neal. While coaches often try and dissuade players from smashing one another before the games count, we think there will be an exception made for Neal, considering that skill set is exactly why the Falcons drafted him. Quinn developed the NFL's most feared thumper in Kam Chancellor and is undertaking his next big project with the hope that Atlanta can stabilize its run defense and increase its overall toughness. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Neal spent his downtime between minicamp and training camp working out with Chancellor. That doesn't make him an honorary Legion of Boom member just yet, but it does make us more excited for the first tackling drill of camp.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS:
This was a supposedly underwhelming tight end draft class, though Hooper was considered one of the more promising options available. We're interested because offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had his first real crack at drafting a tight end that suits his system after riding with veteran journeyman Jacob Tamme a year ago. Hooper drew comparisons to Coby Fleener, but with a bit more gusto in the blocking department -- and there's nothing wrong with a rookie willing to spring Devonta Freeman free.
King started college as a wide receiver, but was a late-round pick by the Falcons last year. They hope to continue the 6-foot-1, 212-pounder on the path to elite cornerback. Sound familiar? Quinn and the Seahawks have been doing this for years, and while King is raw, he'll have every opportunity to win a starting job this summer. Last year's second-round pick, Jalen Collins, has been suspended for the first four games of the season, and Quinn is looking for someone physical and versatile to sneak onto the field during obvious passing downs. Is there really a secret to developing these types of players, or did Seattle just get extremely lucky?
As we noted in our Jake Matthews "Making the Leap" piece, Mack's leadership could be the vehicle that drives Matthews to the Pro Bowl and provides more consistency up front. The Falcons had some great games offensively a year ago, but they were also pushed around significantly in others. Mack comes from Cleveland and likely still has a copy of Kyle Shanahan's playbook. The Falcons paid him $47.5 million over the next five years to walk in and be the consummate, instant-impact professional and expect nothing less.
Way-too-early season prediction: This team was 5-0 at one point last year, even if that was largely due to the team picking apart a laughable NFC East. Atlanta starts 2016 with three very winnable games against the Bucs, Raiders and Saints, an opening stretch that should give us an idea of how much misery carried over from the year before. These Falcons could easily win 11 games with their talent and a renaissance season from Matt Ryan, but they could also lose six games in a row like they did a year ago.