FLOWERY BRANCH, GA —The question posed to rookie offensive guard Mike Johnson as he stood in the heat of Tuesday afternoon after wrapping up two days of practice with the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars was: Is it a requirement for Falcons offensive linemen to have a beard?
Johnson's beard is no match for third-year left tackle Sam Baker or even fellow rookie Joe Hawley's, but is well beyond five o'clock shadow length. He only responded with a laugh and then provided the perfect football answer.
"Honestly, I just haven't even thought about shaving," Johnson said. "I'll probably trim it up sometime in the near future. It's just not something that's on my mind right now."
What is on his mind, and the mind of Hawley, is earning a spot on a veteran-laden offensive line, a unit that returns all its starters for the third consecutive season. The two rookies are trying to gain every advantage they can, even if it means mixing it up with other players, especially the Jaguars.
Hawley has been involved in more than one skirmish in the past two days from his center position, but chalks it up to being nothing more the way things are in the world of professional football.
"It's the competition, I think," he said. "When two guys are trying to win a job, it gets heated, words get exchanged. Coaches tell us not to back down. It's all in good fun though. No one holds grudges. It's nothing personal."
The fourth-round pick listens to what his coaches tell him, as does Johnson, and right now they are preaching leverage.
In the trenches, every one-on-one battle is won with leverage. As the rookies put it: "The low man wins."
They've been working to hone their technique to ensure they're underneath the competition, with their hands on the inside of their opponent's chest.
"(If that happens), you're going to have the leverage, you're going to be able to drive your feet," Johnson said. "If your hands are outside and theirs are in your chest, it's going to go the other way. It's just one of those things that takes a lot of effort and technique and you have to work to perfect that."
Johnson and Hawley, consecutive draft selections for Atlanta, attribute much of their lessons about leverage and the ways of the professional offensive lineman to the veterans on the squad. With so much experience in the huddle and the meeting room, they've been able to take years worth of lessons to apply to their first seasons in the NFL.
"Those guys have a lot of experience," Hawley said. "Me and Mike have really learned a lot from them about practice habits, how to take care of our bodies, learning the playbook and just becoming a pro. Without them we wouldn't be where we're at right now so it really helps out a lot."
Alumni Day:More than 75 former Falcons players joined the current squad at training camp Tuesday in what has become an annual event at Flowery Branch.
Alumni Day 2010 featured the return of legendary Falcons players from William Andrews to Steve Bartkowski. More recent prominent Falcons like Warrick Dunn, Rod Coleman and Allen Rossum came back for the event this year.
Kevin Winston, Senior Director of Player Development, called this year's turnout the biggest so far and was especially pleased to see the players from recent years like Coleman and Rossum return to the franchise's training complex to cross paths with some of the legends and founding Falcons.
"It's good to see different blends of decades of Falcon alumni coming back together," Winston said.
The former players joined the team in the huddle after practice concluded to close the day and mingle with the 2010 Falcons.
Another set of eyes:ESPN.com NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas has been with the Falcons since Monday, observing the four practices, compiling and gathering information for the upcoming season.
Atlanta is the last visit for Yasinskas on his camp rounds this preseason and he's been impressed with what he's seen.
Yasinskas, who covered the Panthers for the Charlotte Observer and the Bucs for the Tampa Tribune before joining ESPN in 2008, said the 2010 draft class is one of the biggest stories in Falcons camp.
Rookie Sean Weatherspoon has garnered much of the rookie headlines for the Falcons and Yasinskas agrees that, in his eyes, the linebacker's as advertised, but also believes defensive tackle Corey Peters could figure to be a significant part of the D-line rotation this season. The third-rounder out of Kentucky, according to sources Yasinskas has spoken to within the franchise, has had a very solid camp.
Yasinskas has also been especially impressed with two later-round players — wide receiver Kerry Meier and safety Shann Schillinger. In those two rookies, he sees players that he believes will make the roster and contribute immediately on special teams.
"Meier also could have some impact as a wide receiver," Yasinskas said. "Schillinger seems to be a guy who is perfect for special teams. He's willing to do anything and I've been pleasantly surprised by how good he's been here."