XFINITY® Atlanta Falcons Training Camp is ever so close, with the first practice set for Friday. When practice does officially start, here's a look at five offensive players to watch, each ready to help return the team to its winning ways in 2014, ideally atop the NFC South at season's end.
1. Julio Jones: I should be fired if Julio Jones doesn't top the list of offensive players to watch in training camp. The All-Pro talent has been kept from doing what he was born to do, play football at the highest level, since suffering a foot injury last season in Week 5. Fast forward through hours of physical rehab and weight-pounding, sweat-drenched workouts, where Jones is ready to produce the Pro Bowl-worthy performances that he delivered in 2012.
"I feel I'm actually stronger now," Jones said in the offseason. "I'm doing back squats, balance strength, quads and hamstrings, glutes, and each takes pressure off of my foot. We're taking every measure, so I can play fast."
2. Jake Matthews: Matthews enters training camp with a litany of reasons to watch him, including being the team's top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Falcons fans will be watching to see how he gels with the offensive line, protecting Matt Ryan from the right tackle position. The four-year star from Texas A&M is ready for his rookie season to continue, following a phenomenal beginning.
"I could just tell, throughout the whole (draft) process, whenever I visited here (in Atlanta), I just felt a really good connection with coach Smith and coach Tice and everyone, here in the organization," Matthews said. "I really felt like I fit in well and also that I could be somebody to contribute from the get-go; so, I'm ready to get in and start contributing."
3. Devonta Freeman: Fresh off of a championship season at Florida State, Freeman enters training camp with high expectations and deservedly so. It's been said that the best ability is availability and Freeman's resume screams it, having not missed a game in three-straight seasons for the Seminoles. Earlier in the offseason, Falcons head coach Mike Smith discussed Freeman's potential.
"To me, if he can step up and be a good pass protector, he's got the chance to be a three-down back," Smith said.
Before the pads have even been strapped on, the team's fourth-round draft choice offered wisdom like that of a ten-year veteran.
"If you can block and protect that million-dollar quarterback, that's the main thing, protecting the guy," Freeman said. "Catching and running, I feel like that's the easy part of it; it comes naturally, but blocking, that's something you've got to take pride in."
4. Levine Toilolo: If you've ever been asked by your boss to fill the vacant position at work, left by one of the company's most high-profiled employees, you have something in common with Toilolo. While not be asked or expected to replace future Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, Toilolo nonetheless is the 'next man up' at the position and many will watch to see how he responds. When his number is called, height matters, and the 6'8'' TE plans to use every inch that he has.
"All throughout my career, I've been blessed with the physical traits I have," Toilolo said. "Throughout high school and college, in the red zone, I've been able to work on trying to use my size, when it comes to that area…every day, it's something that I'm working on to try to improve."
5. Joe Hawley: Hawley enters camp as the frontrunner to start at center in the Week-1 matchup against New Orleans, following his contract extension, signed in the offseason. Similar to the pitcher-catcher relationship in baseball, the football version of a battery is exemplified by Hawley and QB Matt Ryan. Falcons fans hope the trust between the duo is showcased on the field, leading to more yard-consuming, point-scoring drives in 2014.